January 3, 2010

My Favorite Movies of 2009 Part 2: The Top 11 and Notable Near Misses

Welcome to the final part of my favorite movies of 2009. This will cover the top eleven films as well as a few highly regarded films that failed to make the list. Now, it is key to point out this is not so much a "best-of" list as it is a "favorites" list. I have not seen all the potential films, and there are a few that I have not seen. Still, I think I have seen a pretty good sample of the the year's offerings. Now, below are my favorite films of the year past.

There is one other thing to note as you look at this list and the prior one (any list of this sort for that matter). The order of this list can change at any time without notice. Since these movies do not always equate with each other, ranking them can often be a fruitless exercise. Still, I do enjoy putting them together.

To quote Roger Ebert: "No lists have deep significance, but even less lists composed to satisfy an imaginary jury of fellow critics. My jury resides within. I know how I feel."

1. District 9. It was everything I had hoped for and nothing like what I expected. This is a movie that delivers on every level — from fantastic writing, to seamless special effects, to good acting performances, it is one of those rare movies that fails to disappoint. It reminds me of Children of Men, another film that combined great visual style with effects and story. It is rare to find a movie that hits so perfectly on so many levels. It is a story of aliens unlike any I have seen before. The story has weight, making it a believable alternate world. The story digs into what makes us human and examines our ability to commit atrocities on others which is equalled by our ability to ultimately understand and respect. It is all told within a world where not all of the questions are answered. You are given just enough information for the main story to be told, but the background holds so many details and hints that speak to a larger world condition, just waiting to be pieced together, interpreted, and expanded upon by the viewer.

2. The Road. It was a struggle choosing between this and District 9 for the top film. Another day may have brought about a different result. The Road is a powerful and moving film. It speaks to our humanity and how we must struggle to retain it. This is the most realistic vision of a post-apocalyptic world. The film does not rely on any gimmicks to get its point across, rather it focuses on the travels and relationship of father and son as they attempt to survive on the road. The outlook is bleak, I will not sugarcoat it, this is a depressing film. Still, it is a fascinating one that has the barest glimmer of hope while also portraying a complete vision that allows the viewer to interpret what he sees and to fill in the blanks of the surrounding world. I was completely engrossed with this tale.

3. (500) Days of Summer. This is an alluring movie. It effortlessly draws you into the tale as it unfolds in non-linear fashion, pieced together from Tom's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) memories as he relates them. It is fascinating to watch our couple dance around each other. Both are lost and vulnerable in different ways as they are attempt to find their way in the world together.I am in love with this movie. It works so well in telling its story of delivering the ideas it wants to impart on the viewer, the thought process behind the relationships, the chemistry of the couple, there is so much to like (love?).

4. Up. The first fifteen minutes had me near tears. In the couple of times I have seen it since the big screen it has never failed to have a similar reaction on me. Up is tremendously affecting, it treats its characters as real people, allowing the story to develop in a secondary state to the characters. These people have likes and dislikes, they have their routines, and their arguments. It is a genuine joy to watch, a glimpse inside these people's lives. It is a journey where our heroes think they know what they are looking for, yet slowly realize there is a bigger picture. It is a fantastic film, no doubt.

5. Moon. This is the sort of film that sneaks up on you, draws you in, makes you interested, and then is over. It is not an action film, it is not a fast-paced film, it is one that allows the story to slowly unfold over the course of its run time, seeping into your brain, all the while making you curious as to where it is going or what the meaning of it all is. Sam Rockwell gives an incredible performance as a man who may be cracking up during a long term mission on the moon. He is forced to confront the idea of his own identity and piece together the mystery that is himself. It is a fantastic film that too few people have been able to see. This is also Duncan Jones feature debut and he has fast established himself as a director with vision. If you are a fan of intelligent science fiction, this will fit the bill.

6. Inglourious Basterds. There are not many men who can make a WWII film and turn it into a lovesong for cinema and a revenge fantasy and make it work. There are even fewer who can get Brad Pitt to be in it for less than half the film when more than half the film is subtitled. There are few film makers like Quentin Tarantino. He is a unique voice in the cinematic landscape, borrowing from whatever he can get his hands on and remaking it, molding, combining it, boiling it down to its essence, rebuilding it, and expanding it into something fresh. This may be his most cinematic and straightforward films yet, but it still retains that unique Tarantino flavor. It also needs to be mentioned that Christoph Waltz, as the film's villain, delivers an incredible performance. He is articulate, cold, calm, calculated, and oh so evil.

7. Watchmen. The unfilmable graphic novel has been turned into a film. Zack Snyder has crafted an amazing adaptation of a fascinating world where heroes exist, but with moral complexities, corruption, and a desire to fight evil no matter the cost. This is not an easy movie to watch, it requires the viewer be an active participant to put all he pieces together. The alternate world created is a dangerous one. Spotlighted by a series of good performances highlighted by Jackie Earle Haley's masked vigilante Rorshach. Not for everyone, this visually impressive, narratively ambitious film should be given a hot.

8. Coraline. Wow, what else is there to say? This is a film that is firing on all artistic cylinders. It is a movie that tells a great story, is executed in grand fashion, and pulls no punches. Family and kids' movies need not always be comedic fare with talking animals; they can be something more. Director Henry Selick goes a long way to proving just what a family movie can be. This is a film that transcends what might traditionally be called a kids' film. It is a movie that offers up a dark fantasy nightmare for children that tempers its threat with an empowering heroine. It is a story that anyone who was ever a child can identify with, and is dealt with using an intelligence that does not pander to children nor does it talk down to them. It deals with the material with a maturity that belies the mainstream view of it as a kids' film.

9. Star Trek. This is an action-filled romp that is filled with comedy and adventure, not to mention all manner of nods to the original series (including prior Trek films). There is a little something for everybody. Technically, the movie is a marvel. It is filled with great effects and a visual style that evokes memories of the original series while looking to the future. The cinematography takes dynamic form, the camera is always moving, swooping, and shaking. I enjoyed the look, it was dynamic, visual, and completely opposite what we usually see in a Trek film. What it comes down to is that I loved his film. I hesitate to call it perfect, but it got as close to the term as any Trek film can. It is a satisfying adventure that is also a creative triumph. Best of all, it is just as entertaining upon multiple viewings. I saw it three times on the big screen plus a few more on Blu-ray.

10. The Brothers Bloom. At its basest, The Brothers Bloom is a con-man movie. It is about playing the con and taking it all the way, selling it on your way to the "perfect" con. What makes this con-man movie stand out is the unique vision that Rian Johnson brings to the tale. It has a very realistic feel to it, although it also exists in a distinctly fantasy-flavored world. The movie is bubbling with a bouncy kinetic energy that is hard not to get into. It transcends the con-man tale to tell a story about the people involved. It really is a lot of fun.

11. The Hurt Locker. This film does not so much have a plot as it does a group of characters that we follow. Do not look at this film as a narrative; it is more like an audience being embedded with a squad as they go about their work, sort of like a reporter going out in the field. It is exciting, thrilling, frightening, and strips everything down to the essence. This is not about the dialogue, it is about people, their hopes, desires, fears, and their ability to act in the face of great stress. The characters are written in a very internalized fashion. You need to pay attention to really get the full effect of these characters as they do not verbalize everything. They are written as people, not plot points, and it works out beautifully.

Here are a few films that did not make my 2009 favorites list, but are still films that I greatly enjoyed

Up in the Air. This is a fascinating character piece that has a nice steady pace and brings up a number interesting questions about the way we choose to live our lives.

Crank: High Voltage. This here, this here is a movie that survives on sheer insanity. Nothing is taboo, nothing too far over the top. It is not for everyones taste, but you have to give them credit for putting something like this out.

Where the Wild Things Are. I really wanted to love this. It just falters through the middle as it slows down a bit. Still, the imagination is in full effect, the effects are strong, and the entire project is unlike anything I have seen.

Avatar. This movie is rather fascinating. It is hampered by a story that is a bit on the lackluster side. On the other side of the coin, the effects integration and world creation are absolutely phenomenal. This may not be the best of the year, but it is not one to be missed.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans. Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Sounds like trouble. This is a bizarre film that rest on the shoulders of an insane performance by Cage.

Fantastic Mr. Fox. Wes Anderson's best since Bottle Rocket. This Roald Dahl adaptation is a surreal journey into a different world. It really is something special. I love the look of the stop motion animation.

A Christmas Carol. I expected this to be bad. I was so surprised to find that not to be the case. It has visual flair and follows the source rather closely in tone and in dialogue.

That wraps up another year! Here's hoping for a great 2010!

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