12 March 2010

Better Late than Never: Best Film of 2009

So, in my valiant efforts to complete my best of the decade lists, I fell behind in doing my best of the year lists. So here's what I found to be the best in film of the last year, condensed and revised a bit from years past.

Top 10 films of 2009:

1. Up (dir. Pete Docter)
No other film this year left me in as much awe as Pixar's latest masterpiece. Emotionally and cinematically, I was left breathless. So rare is the film that has a script that explores to match the action on-screen. But Up has it all. And, as I've mentioned every time I talk about this movie, if you don't well up in the first 10 minutes, there's something wrong with you.

2. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)
Though shamefully snubbed at the Oscars, Jason Reitman's best film yet couldn't be more timely. In this era of massive layoffs and delayed intimacy, this film deftly balances comedy and drama and ends on an ambiguous note. Clooney is at the top of his game, and Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are rising stars for a reason. The added reality of interviews with real jobless folks only gives this movie that much more of an impact.

3. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
Y'know, after you see a movie six times in as many months, you start notice things. Like how much attention to detail is paid in every scene, how this is a movie that's entertaining for the casual moviegoer yet especially enthralling for the film geek, and how Christoph Waltz gives one of the most perfect performances in the history of cinema. Tarantino's best.

4. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Not quite the year's best picture, but the best movie ever made about Iraq. Bigelow's powder-keg of a movie pulls this off by remaining mostly apolitical and focusing on the soldier's themselves and how, even after witnessing the horrors of war firsthand, they can do nothing but run right back to it. Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner is racing to save others' lives, but he's really in a countdown with his own grip on reality.

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
Every single thing about this adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel works, unless you're a kid. Anderson's vision of a fox (Clooney, effortless as usual) dying to return to his life of thievery is an excellent parallel to the millions of men looking to re-claim their youth after years stuck in a desk job--and the repercussions of that quest. It's also a surprisingly well-done endorsement for close-knit families. In a day and age where we're more fragmented than ever, this is the rare example of having a movie as an ideal.

6. Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)
Speaking of movies that aren't for kids, Spike Jonze's years-in-the-making take on Maurice Sendak's seminal children's book is painted in just the right shades. Every shot of the camera, every line, every musical cue, is a reminder of the utter confusion of being 10 years old. These Wild Things are more than outlandish characters; they're parts of young Max's psyche. But if you think for a second there's no fun to be had along the way, watch and re-gain your sense of adventure.

7. 500 Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)
Finally, a romantic comedy with some honesty. There's not a single unauthentic moment in Marc Webb's directorial debut. Two of our generation's brightest actors: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel star as the star-crossed lovers, and each brings just the right touches to the roles of the Smiths-obsessed sad-sack and the bright, worldly dream girl. The shuffling scenes don't feel like a gimmick, but like reality.

8. Departures (dir. Yōjirō Takita)
Though it probably shouldn't have won Best Foreign Language Film over Waltz with Bashir, I'm glad it did because otherwise I'd never have seen it. Another timely movie about how closely related jobs and dignity are. This Japanese import runs a little long but every scene rewards the viewer. Especially touching is the marriage between the main characters. While lots of Oscar bait focuses on relationships deteriorating, here's one that has its problems but truly believes love conquers all.

9. Away We Go (dir. Sam Mendes)
And while we're on the subject of inspiring movie relationships, John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph couldn't be better as the common-law spouses who criss-cross the country looking for guidance as they're about to have their first child. While many critics dismissed it as smug, I couldn't be more compelled by these two rebels, who aren't impressed with any of the methods of parenting they've seen thus far. But the scene that sticks with me is Krasinski's conversation with Chris Messina, who seems to have a perfect life but is harboring an unbelievable weight of sadness. Mendes shows surprising restraint and the result is a little knock-out of a movie.

10. Tyson (dir. James Toback)
Don't call it a comeback. Between this and his head-scratching cameo in The Hangover, the most interesting man in movies today is the former Heavyweight Champion of the World. It may be a little too broad to call itself a documentary, this is a riveting portrait of a shattered man. That face tattoo is a mask, and here we get glimpses behind it.

Runners-up (in alphabetical order): Adventureland, Crazy Heart, District 9, The Hangover, I Love You Man, The Informant!, The Invention of Lying, Observe and Report, Precious, Zombieland

Best Movies You Didn't See:

Assassination of a High School President (dir. Brett Simon)
Unfortunately relegated to DVD after its distributor went bankrupt, this little gem that premiered at Sundance in 2008 is a quirky masterpiece. Like Brick but with a snarky sense of humor, Reese Thompson is dead-on as the goofy gumshoe who falls hard for femme fatale Mischa Barton. It's somewhere between Encyclopedia Brown and Chinatown, but first-time director Simon pulls it off masterfully.

Black Dynamite (dir. Scott Sanders)
A funkadelic homage/parody of '70s blaxploitation flicks. With deliberately shoddy camerawork and gratuitous nudity, this is a brilliant send-up of an era that never knew when to say when. There's also a cavalcade of black character actors it was great to see again, and the best climax ever: Richard Nixon. With nunchucks. As Dynamite's harem would say: satisfying, very satisfying.

The Brothers Bloom (dir. Rian Johnson)
The only thing hiding up the sleeve of Johnson's follow-up to Brick is its tremendous heart. There's as much about brotherly love as their is for the love of conning. Rachel Weisz shines as the peppy love interest of Bloom (Adrien Brody), and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi is as vibrant as ever, though I'd wish she'd finally pick a role where she actually talks. It's a deft little picture and one you should definitely seek out.

Fifty Dead Men Walking (dir. Kari Skogland)
Based on Martin McGartland's 1997 autobiography, this is a gripping Irish thriller that hearkens back to they heyday of '70s paranoia thrillers. At times unbearably tense, the movie isn't relentless but it creates such an uneasy atmosphere that it seems as if someone could disappear at any moment, just like Northern Ireland in the early '90s. Ben Kingsley is great–as if anything else would even be a possibility–and Jim Sturgess has never, ever been this good.

Moon (dir. Duncan Jones)
What an amazing year for sci-fi. Between this, District 9 and Star Trek, Wells and Lovecraft would be thrilled. In Jones' first feature: Sam Rockwell plays a lunar miner, with only a few days left before he returns to Earth. But as the hours grow longer, his world starts unraveling. What he reveals is human nature at its darkest. Simply brilliant.

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