January 2, 2010

My Favorite Movies of 2009 Part 1: The Back 11 and Cinematic Disappointments.

I have decided to do my top movie list a little differently this year. In the past I have done a straight up top ten, I have done a top ten with a secondary top ten of alternate films, and I have done a top ten and a second top ten of my favorites (as opposed to the best). This year my list is comprised of all the 4 and 5 star rated films in my log. It just so happens there are 22 of them. Now, my top ten is still my top ten, regardless of how the supporting players are chosen. Now, since that is a rather unwieldy number, the list has been broken in two. What follows is 12-22 on the my list, followed by a couple the years disappointments. I figure they belong here more than on a worst of list.

Well, enough stalling, let's get to the movies!

12. Knowing. This movie seemed to create a big division in audiences. There do not seem to be many Nicolas Cage fans left (considering some of his recent work, can you blame them?). Now, this is not exactly great Cage acting, but it is here because of the film and not one man. There is a delicious slow burn quality permeating each frame. You are only given what you need to know, and even then it is barely enough. Knowing forces you to engage, to become involved, but it does so in such a way that you may not even be aware of it at first. The film asks a lot of question and requires you to think about what is going on, and then the end happens. I would like to tell you more, but it is probably best to just watch it.

13. Drag Me to Hell. Sam Raimi made a triumphant return to his roots, following three Spider-Man films he came back to the style that got him attention in the first place. This movie is a downright blast. It will give you chills, make you jump, make you laugh, and just deliver a good time. You will bear witness to a knock-down, drag out fight taking place entirely in a car, as well as another appearance of Raimi's famous 1973 Buick. This is an energetic jolt to the horror genre and I hope to see Raimi continue to employ this style of filmmaking. The story is fun, you may see where it is going to go, but it still holds some surprises. What it comes down to is the style and reckless abandon with which Raimi throws himself into the film. If you like horror and comedy, this is for you.

14. Precious - Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire. You know, I figured this would have been a bit higher on the list. Funny how things work out when stop and look at your choices. It also shows how star ratings do not equate directly with one another. There is no denying this is a great film with some great performances. In any case, this is a movie you will want to see as it is powerfully written and performed, however it is also emotionally draining and you are not likely going to want to watch it over and over. Gabourey Sidibe gives an incredible performance as the title character, matched by a nearly unrecognizable Mo'nique as her abusive mother. All around powerful film. It is a formula we have seen before, but it is imbued with an amazingly gritty reality that feels very true to life.

15. Orphan. Here is a movie that truly caught me off-guard. I went in expecting another evil kid movie and was treated to something else. Orphan takes us inside a family on the brink of implosion. All it needs is a little push from the outside to send the house of cards tumbling. We are given a fresh take on familiar material. It draws you in and makes you wonder just what is going to happen and when it does it completely knocks you for a loop. On top of all that young Isabelle Fuhrman turns in an amazing performance that drips with evil. This is a keeper.

16. The Hangover. Did anyone see this coming? After the Apatow-style of comedy has all but taken over the R-rated comedy I thought it would be awhile before another style had a positive impact on the genre. Well, this past summer brought a mash of the buddy comedy and the mystery genre and completely knocked it out of the park. The cast is funny, the pace never lets up, and it is actually involving. It is also laugh out loud hilarious.

17. Public Enemies. This movie is a cross between a mainstream picture and an arthouse film, John Dillinger - The Man Behind the Myth, if you were. It has the big name stars, it has the big name performances, but it also refuses to follow mainstream movie conventions. Michael Mann tells the story is told on its own terms. The film is meticulously crafted, showing only what needs to be seen. There are no overtones of niceties: John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) is never made out to be a nice guy, or a good guy, and the same goes for Agent Purvis (Christian Bale). It is rather refreshing to see a movie portray characters in a way that seems real rather "movie real."

18. Zombieland. The film comes out firing on all cylinders and does not let up until its all-too-soon conclusion. There is a scant 80 minutes in this movie from opening frame to final credit, a fact that had me a little worried. It's not that a short movie can't be good, but may not have enough time to develop properly. This film is not held back by its run time; it still manages to cram in a ton of laughs and zombie action and still have room for genuine heart and character. Sure, they may be a little ridiculous, but they are real for this world, which is not meant to be ours. Zombieland is a simple movie. It takes over the top personalities, puts them in an over the top situation, and lets the fun ensue. It is not a serious movie, it is not intended to be, but it is not a joke. The movie sets up its universe, makes its rules, and then it plays by them. It is a great union of blood, buddy comedy, and heart. What's not to love?

19. Paranormal Activity. The little movie that could. The movie that shows that the less you show, the more frightening it can be. Yes, it is a love/hate sort of film, but if you love it, you know why. There is a delicious slow burn quality that got me on the edge of my seat. Not much happens, but the things that do will forever change the way you listen to your home settle. It left me shaken and silent. It is that good.

20. Ponyo. Anytime a Hayao Miyazaki film is released, it should be treated like an event. His films are beautiful, original, and always engaging in some manner. When I initially left theaters, I was unsure how I felt, but as I reflected on it, it revealed itself to me for the excellence that it is. It is squarely targeted at the younger set and is told from that perspective. On that level it is an enjoyable magical romp. There are also hints of a larger story around the edges which is also interesting. It is an original film that is very simple, and yet not so at the same time. Beyond the story, the animation is very beautiful. Watch it and be surprised.

21. The Last House on the Left. The new take on The Last House on the Left contains a few changes to help update it while leaving what makes the story so disturbing intact. I fact, I was rather shocked throughout the film seeing that no punches seem to have been pulled. Yes, this is a studio-backed picture with a wide release, but it is also one filled with grit and grime, and is every bit as disturbing as I had hoped it would be. It asks what you would do if you were in a similar situation. Would you be able to go to these lengths? It is successful in execution, and is a strong answer to what constitutes much of mainstream horror over the last few years. It brings genuine disturbance to the screen rather than gratuitous blood and guts. It is a film that will bring disgust to the pit of your stomach and produces protagonists you truly want to cheer for as they exact their revenge.

22. Halloween II. I can all but guarantee this will be one of the few, if not only, "best-of" sort of list you'll find this film. As soon as I saw it and new that I loved it, I also knew I would be in the minority. This a brutal, visceral film, but it is deeper than that. Rob Zombie digs into the characters' psychology, smashing their perceived reality to bits with a healthy dose of gritty, bloody brutality. It is a marriage that works. It may well be an abusive relationship, but this is what helps build a challenging horror film. This movie gets down and dirty and is at direct odds with this era of PG-13 dominated horror. I love how he has crafted this world and the way he plunges us right into the darkness. It is a world from which there is no escape — you can try, but you will not survive.

Movies that proved to be cinematic disappointments. These are films that I had hopes for but failed to live up to the expectations. They are not necessarily bad films, but they are definitely disappointing.

Couples Retreat. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau story? Cast alongside Kristen Bell, Jason Bateman, Kristen Davis, and Faizon Love? Yes please. It is a shame the movie turned out to be more sitcom than anything else. The promise was there, it even had some decent laughs, but it failed to live up to anything worthwhile.

Surrogates. Here is a film that has plenty of promise. The idea of robot bodies is intriguing. Unfortunately, instead of exploring this society in a realistic fashion, it is content to narrow vision and action scenes.

9. A triumph of design wrapped up in an interesting concept let down by weak writing and poor execution. The thought of intelligent sack puppets fighting in an apocalyptic future is a good one. Unfortunately, the movie moves like a video game.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. The first film was a lighthearted surprise. It was funny, silly, and had a genuine sense of magic to it. The sequel throws all that out the window in favor or more effects. Amy Adams is the one bright spot as Amelia Earhart.

Terminator: Salvation. On some levels, I do like this movie. I think the effects, action, and some story elements are quite good. Unfortunately, Christian Bale is terrible, it feels like entire sections are missing, and the story execution falls to the illogical side of the coin.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This should have been a fun movie, the potential was there. Sadly, the film looks cheap, is rather dull, and does not make a whole lot of sense. If I were to review it now, I doubt I'd be as kind as I was.

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