Friday, December 25, 2009

Top 10 Films of 2009

Top 10 films of 2009

This is probably wildly narcissistic (so what else is new?) but I have had a few people ask for recommendations for things to see over the holidays (either in theatres or on DVD – noted where appropriate). I still have some to see that are just coming out (Avatar, A Single Man, The White Ribbon) and there are some I missed (Bronson, Flame & Citron, Adventureland), but given those limitations, here’s my top 10 list for the year.

[God – I still can’t believe I missed Bronson. D’oh!]

First - special mentions;

The Escapist. I know. It’s wildly snobby to include this one, as it has never (and will never) be released in the U.S., but it is hands down my favorite film I’ve seen this year. It’s a prison break film, shot in Kilmainham gaol in Dublin. It stars Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper, Seu Jorge, Liam Cunningham, and Damian Lewis. Can we pause for a moment and appreciate that cast? It’s wildly original and Brian Cox gives an astounding career-high performance. You can buy a region 2 dvd from if so inclined, but if you ever see it playing at a fest near you, definitely check it out!

[Ed note: per comment, it will soon be on Region 1 DVD! YAY! GO SEE IT!!]

Trick ‘r treat. This never got a proper release, but it’s available on DVD. A Halloween anthology, it captures the traditions and mythology surrounding the holiday perfectly. Starring Anna Paquin as Red Riding Hood, Brian Cox as a grumpy scrooge, and Dylan Baker as the scariest high school principal ever. Rent it if Nightmare before Christmas puts you in the mood for something fun and creepy.

Top 10:

1. The Hurt Locker (DVD). The best word I can think of to describe this film is immersive. Tense, surprisingly funny, with incredible acting from every person who shows up on screen (hey, was that Guy Pearce? And Ralph Fiennes? And Evangeline Lily?) At heart though, it is an incredible portrait of a soldier who thrives in the dangers of war. Completely brilliant.

2. Moon (DVD). I love, love, love this film. It’s best to go into this film knowing little of the plot. Basically, it concerns astronaut Sam Bell, who has 2 weeks to go on his 3-year solitary mining shift on the moon. It has the year’s most incredible performance by Sam Rockwell, who is pretty much the only one on screen (Kevin Spacey voices the computer on the moon station).

3. Bright Star (not yet on DVD). Jane Campion returns to film with this gorgeous, lush presentation of the love story between Fanny Brawne and her neighbor John Keats, who died at the age of 25. Moody and dreamy, it unfolds like a Keats poem.

4. Watchmen (DVD). Step off, haters. I think in time this will be recognized for how brilliant it is. No – it isn’t perfect, but it encompasses the sprawling complexity of the original novel while capturing the gritty feel perfectly. “Superheroes” debating morality doesn’t have the black and white simplicity of your Spider-Man 2, but it leaves far more to contemplate and discuss long after the movie has finished. Also has one of the year’s best performances in Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach.

5. The Brothers Bloom (DVD – rental only, to buy in 2010). This one got lost in the shuffle, which was such a shame. A globe-trotting, one-last-con flick, featuring a pair of con men brothers (Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo), a longing-for-adventure heiress (Rachel Weisz), and an explosives expert (Rinko Kikuchi). Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi would both be up for Oscars, were there any justice in the world.

6. District 9 (DVD). A cheeky political commentary on marginalized peoples (or aliens) that turns into an amazing action piece. Wildly ambitious, a sci-fi epic shot on an (unnoticeable) shoestring budget, a drama crossed with a stylized thriller, it is impressively original.

7. Inglourious Basterds (DVD). Each of the chapters could be an award-winning short film. So many films today take quick edits to the extreme of also having quick scenes. While Tarantino doesn’t employ particularly long takes, he does allow long scenes to play out, slowly building the tension of each interrogation. Yes, it is also a satisfying revenge fantasy and an ode to the power of cinema, but it is the drama of these small contests of will that remain freshest months later.

8. The Damned United (not yet on DVD). Less a sports movie than a biopic, the film follows Brian Clough, the football coach who led Derby to a League championship and later took the job as head coach of Leeds, which lasted only 44 days. Michael Sheen may be the most chameleonic actor around, and his scenes with Timothy Spall (as his assistant coach) are a joy to watch.

9. Brothers (in theaters). I’m not sure why critics are divided on this one. I think it’s an incredibly well acted character piece that examines the affects of war at home. Tobey Maguire may be getting a few accolades due to the showier role (and Leo’s campaigning), but Jake Gyllenhaal has a more impressive character arc as the black sheep in a military family.

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (in theaters). Wes Anderson stylization comes to animation, which recalls Wallace and Gromit crossed with Gumby. The story, based on a Roald Dahl tale, follows a fox family and their woodland neighbors as they fight off the local farmers. A whimsical action caper that is completely endearing.

Ten more:

11. A Serious Man (in theaters). The biblical tale of Job retold in the Midwestern 60s suburbs. A really dark and really funny look and faith and suffering.

12. In the Loop (DVD). I was almost afraid to laugh during this one for fear of missing the next line. A blazingly quick-witted, completely vicious satire of UK and US politicians going to war. Peter Capaldi revels in one of the best characters of the year; a nasty, bullying, Alastair Campbell-esque press chief whose expletive-laden tirades are things of… well, if not beauty, then wonderment.

13. Zombieland (not yet on DVD). The most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. Completely hilarious.

14. Me and Orson Welles (leaving theaters). Centered during the week before the opening of Caesar in 1937, this film is a charming ode to the theater and the characters that inhabit it. Mostly fluffy, it is largely a vehicle for Christian McKay’s brilliant portrayal of Orson Welles.

15. Pirate Radio (leaving theaters). The second most fun I’ve had this year. Fun and charming look at rock radio stations operated at sea in Britain in the 60s. Best Little Richard reference in a film this year.

16. Coraline (DVD). After seeing this one, I felt that Avatar was allowed to be a dud, since I had already seen something visually astounding on the big screen this year. Not only is the fairytale (written by Neil Gaiman) a wonderful and eerie story, but the use of 3-D cleverly creates a fantasy other-world that seduces our young heroine.

17. An Education (in theaters). The story of a British schoolgirl who takes up with an older man. Carey Mulligan gives a breakout performance as the rapidly maturing Jenny. A poignant period piece that deals with the options of well-educated women at a time when few career possibilities were available.

18. Whip It (not yet on DVD). Another one that got lost in the shuffle. I’m going to try not to be cynical and say that it had anything to do with the fact that is had one of the better female casts around. I went in thinking it was going to be your typical underdog sport film, albeit with roller derby, and it turned out to be a sweet coming of age/first romance/fun punk rock empowerment flick. Really enjoyable.

19. 500 Days of Summer (DVD). Toes the line of almost too precious, but it’s a cute, shuffled up look back on a romance. Elaborate, amazing dance sequence aside, the trips to IKEA keep the film grounded in something like reality (well, despite some Garden State stylization). It’s also a nice nod to the city of LA, which hardly ever gets any cinematic love.

20. Ponyo (not yet on DVD). I think of this as the companion piece to Totoro. Ponyo and Mei are spiritual sisters, with their boundless enthusiasm and winningly extreme emotions. Also, Tina Fey outrunning the tsunami is hilarious.

Other good ones to check out:

Half Blood Prince (DVD). I had a couple of script problems with this one, but this scene ( totally made up for it.

Star Trek (DVD). Yup, Zachary Quinto makes a great Spock. I feel that this one was slightly over-praised, coming on the heels of several blockbuster disappointments, but it is a very good reboot and action-adventure film.

La Mission (not yet on DVD). The story of a MUNI driver coming to grips with his son coming out and the gentrification of the Mission district. Really good performances all around.

Where the wild things are (leaving theaters). One of the best movies about childhood ever made. It’s dark and beautiful and painful and magical and imaginative altogether.

Mary & Max (not yet on DVD). The first animated film to ever open Sundance, this is about the penpal relationship between a lonely girl in Australia and a man with Asperger’s in New York.

Jennifer’s Body (DVD). The most poorly marketed film of the year. It’s not a horror movie and it’s not all about Megan Fox. It uses horror tropes, including the focus on female sexuality, to create a wickedly funny allegory of adolescence and female rivalry. Also – Adam Brody does a dead-on Brandon Flowers.

Kisses (not yet on DVD). Two Irish children run away from home and spend a night on the streets of Dublin. A minor fairytale set against a bleak urban backdrop.

The International (DVD). I liked this one, though I know I’m in the minority. I think making the bad guy a bank may have hit a little too close to home when people wanted more escapism from their action films. But I’d recommend this one.

I Sell the Dead (not yet on DVD). A fun, shlocky ode to the Hammer horror films, this film tells the story of two grave robbers on the eve of their execution. It has one of the best moments of slapstick in a film this year, involving a particularly animated corpse.

Public Enemies (DVD). This one was really interesting, because one of the largest complaints was the disconnect between the ultra-modern cinematography and the setting of the film. But I think that adds to the realism of the film, because it emphasizes that these characters were once living, breathing people. Great acting by all involved. I think it could have been tightened up a bit, which is why it misses the top 20.

Young Victoria (in theaters). Emily Blunt comes off a little too modern in sections, but it’s otherwise a good period romance. The court intrigue sections are never quite as well developed, though, which is surprising, considering it’s written by Julian Fellowes (who penned one of my all-time favorites, Gosford Park).

Men who stare at goats (leaving theaters). Mis-marketed as a an out-and-out comedy, when it is really more of a dramedy. I liked it though. It has an engaging cast, and certainly several laugh out loud moments. It’s amusing, if not hysterical.

A few others also seen this year:

Everybody’s Fine (in theaters) To be fair, not as trite as I expected. Robert DeNiro does a good job of acting older and frailer than he is. And I was happy that all the reviews pointed out that Sam Rockwell was the high point of the film. (Kate Beckinsale, meanwhile, is wretched.)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (not yet on dvd). A noble effort, but read the book instead.

Breaking Upwards (not yet on dvd). Hipsters talking about their feelings. Makes me glad I don’t live in Brooklyn.

It Might Get Loud (DVD). Wildly disappointing. First off, they should have included Matthew Bellamy. But that omission aside, this is terribly interviewed and edited, resulting in a film that bounces around with no clear thematic direction and too little from the people it is featuring. You get neither enough history of the guitarists, or enough information on their instruments. You get a lot of vague statements about “that guitar defined the sound of the band.” Okay – how? How was it different than another guitar? What was best about that model for those songs? The only time you actually feel that you’ve learned something satisfactory is when the Edge plays Elevation both with and without the effects of his soundboard. The best parts of the film are watching them each play, but a concert documentary would have worked better in that respect.

My One and Only (not yet on DVD). Considering how much I dislike Renee Zellweger, I enjoyed this more than I expected. This is mainly due to a winning supporting cast (including Robin Wiegart as an uptight and rigid relation and an all-too brief turn by Nick Stahl as a quiet mechanic). The film is based on the life of George Hamilton, and it really sticks too closely to the truth. Had they only used the plot as a springboard, fiction might have improved upon fact. But it is an interesting examination of a woman on her own at a time when a woman could be detained for prostitution just for ordering a drink on her own. (God forbid.)

9 (DVD). The plot is a little formulaic, but I really liked the visuals. Some of the scariest animated creatures ever.

Gentleman Broncos (not yet on DVD). Jermaine Clement and Sam Rockwell are funny. The rest is nearly unwatchable. I would’ve rather had Sam guest star on Flight of the Conchords.

Happy Holidays!!


Anonymous said...

The Escapist had a limited theatrical release in the US and it will be released in the US and Canada on region 1 DVD on January 26th:

Excellent film!

Jessica said...

Huh - it must never have come to Boston. Lucky NY/LA types!

But that is fantastic about the DVD! I really hope more people get a chance to see it.