Good evening, readers! This entry has been a month or so in the making; the holidays were busy and I’ve only recently caught up on all of my movie watching, so the delay is over. As the title suggests, I present my pick for the ten best films of 2009– which was a far better year for cinema than you might realize. There were a lot of really great titles that were criminally under-seen this year, so hopefully you pick out a couple of titles from this list that you either missed or didn’t hear of and check them out. Let’s get started:
10. Away We Go: I love films that give me something unexpected, and on that basis Away We Go is probably the most pleasant surprise of 2009, a genuinely sweet and warm comedy devoid of saccharine fakery. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph discover that they have a child on the way, and set forth to locate the perfect place in which to settle their family. The trip is as much about finding home as it is about figuring out what kind of parents they could potentially be. Away We Go captures a much more honest portrait of the American family than director Sam Mendes’ previous films without ever being cloying. John Krasinski is fantastic as the affable father-to-be, but the performance of the film is truly Maya Rudolph’s; she is utterly radiant here, exuding strength and putting on a tough exterior while possessing endless reserves of love and grace.
9. Sin Nombre: After watching this film, I learned that the title is derived from the practice of leaving on the border makeshift gravestones, made from cardboard and scribed with the titular phrase– meaning, literally, “without a name”. They are a tribute to the many who perish or are otherwise lost in the journey to the United States, and so too is Cary Fukunaga’s adeptly made debut picture. Following two plots that eventually intertwine, Sin Nombre depicts separate characters both striving to escape from their impoverished lives in Torreón; through a matter of circumstance, Sayra and her family become entangled in the affairs of gang member El Casper, who joins them in their travels in the hopes of escaping the wrath of the brutal Mara Salvatrucha. Fukunaga’s efforts at bringing the experience of immigrants fleeing their countries in the hopes of making a better life are impressive; he rode on trains himself as preparation for making the film, and he employs numerous real-life immigrants as extras. The effect grants a verisimilitude to the film that only enhances its power and emphasizes its poignancy.
8. Where the Wild Things Are: Behind the scenes conflicts threatened to turn Spike Jonze’s third feature-length effort (the studio, allegedly, gave consideration to reshooting the whole thing), and we should all be thankful that that upheaval never came to pass. Jonze’s screen treatment of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a delightful wonder, simultaneously an ode and a goodbye letter to childhood. Max (Max Records, not so much acting as he is just being a kid) gets sent to his room one night; he escapes, finds a boat, and sails away to the land of the Wild Things. He becomes their king; jubilation and sorrow ensue. As lugubrious as the plot becomes, ultimately the film celebrates growing up rather than treating the process as something negative. Equally impressive to the story are the effects, personified in the furry and feathery bodies of the Wild Things themselves– they’re a mix of CGI tech and practical puppetry, life-like enough to make us forget that they’re just actors in suits.
7. Inglorious Basterds: (Review coming soon!) Those of you who know me well enough probably know that I am not a huge Tarantino fan; I respect him as a filmmaker, and most of all as a voice in cinema, but something about his aesthetic occasionally keeps me from really enjoying his work. With that said, take with a grain of salt my profound admiration for his latest film, Inglorious Basterds— or, if it pleases you, take that as a bit of high praise from a self-professed cineaste who isn’t head over heels for Tarantino’s oeuvre. Imagine an alternate history of the world where, during the second World War, a group of Jewish soldiers drop into France to spread terror throughout the ranks of the occupying Nazis and– wait for it– kill Hitler. Nazis, as I believe I have said before, make great screen villains, and Inglorious Basterds honors that tradition while also taking it up a notch by introducing villain-of-the-year Hans Landa (played with outstanding verve and charisma by Christoph Waltz). It’s great entertainment, but most importantly it’s Tarantino showing restraint– and if this is what his restraint looks like, he should show it more often.
6. The Hurt Locker: A film of the moment, perhaps, but if so, it’s a damn good one that captures its moment with gut-wrenching power and clarity. That said a good war movie resonates practically regardless of its timeliness, and I suspect that I would view The Hurt Locker just as favorably even if it wasn’t relevant. But it is. More than that it’s politics-free, a remarkable quality most films of the genre struggle with ridding themselves of. Instead of examining the behind-the-scenes of warfare, Kathryn Bigelow puts us square in the fray with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team led by Jeremy Renner (running at full capacity and at his very best), commanding Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. The soldiers are the real focus here; it’s not just what they do, but what they feel and what they experience that matters, and in a culture where jingoism composes most of the national dialogue this portrayal of the American troops is absolutely essential and undeniably accomplished.
5. A Serious Man: Possibly the finest Coen brothers film to date– I personally prefer it to No Country For Old Men— A Serious Man is also their least accessible. Larry Gopnik’s existential crisis has him spiritually beaten down; his wife wants to divorce him and marry family friend Sy Ableman (a runner-up to the “best villain of ’09” contest), his brother is living on his couch, his tenure is being threatened by anonymous slanderous letters, and the list goes on. The question isn’t, “what’s eating Larry Gopnik?”, but rather, “what’s behind his landslide of misfortune?” Like most Coen brothers movies, A Serious Man doesn’t satisfy the question with a complete answer, instead impelling viewers to decide for themselves if Larry’s miserable luck is really the meddling of a truly miffed god or the result of existing in a totally amoral universe. Michael Stuhlbarg, an utter revelation, plays our doomed protagonist; he’s sympathetic and hapless without being a complete sad-sack as he faces the injustices levied upon him.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Is it obvious at this point that I love this film? Fantastic Mr. Fox is nothing short of one filmmaker’s mid-career epiphany– Wes Anderson’s stop-motion experiment is a total success and then some, the marriage of his aesthetic to a medium that practically seems tailor-made to suit his proclivities as a director. It’s also the second film of the year to adapt a classic children’s story and breathe new life into it. Here, Anderson takes on Roald Dahl; rather than update the story with a glossy, modern touch, he keeps everything low-tech and retro by rejecting modern conventions of stop-motion animation. The design choice gives Fox a home-made, D.I.Y. atmosphere that brings the entire film to life and makes it stand out; it’s all in the details, down to the last fur on our eponymous hero’s face. The picture follows Mr. Fox’s transition from a life of crime to something more respectable– he writes for a newspaper. As events unfold, he goes back in for one last job, and his actions threaten the security of Fox and all of his woodland critter neighbors. The film looks at what happens when someone is forced to behave against their nature, but the themes are never heavy-handed and Anderson never allows them to overtake the riotously funny and endlessly clever heist story he’s telling.
3. District 9: The birth of an exciting and possibly very important filmmaker, District 9 is the sort of film that you wouldn’t think to call “personal”, but director Neil Blomkamp grew up in apartheid era South Africa and used much of his early experience as a basis for his science fiction mockumentary. Like all great science fiction, District 9 presents us with pieces of scientific and technological claptrap in order to get us to examine ourselves. Subtlety is not the name of the game here, but the allegory is totally organic regardless of its pronounced nature. Aliens, stranded on Earth after their mothership breaks down, have been living in Johannesburg for several years, walled off from human inhabitants by the efforts of the South African government. Seeking to relocate the alien population to another area, further away from the city, the Multinational United (MNU) corporation dispatches a large number of personnel to execute the evictions (backed by security teams and mercenaries who constitute MNU’s own private army). The man heading up the effort, Wikus Van De Merwe, comes into contact with alien technology unknown to him, and after a careless accident, his entire life begins to change. The result feels like a strange marriage of David Cronenberg and Melvin Van Peebles, an examination of race relations replete with energy guns, and it thrills and moves on innumerable levels.
2. Up: Pixar rarely fails to disappoint, and one could in theory argue that they get better with each picture. I don’t necessarily agree with that idea, but it’s hard to deny the effort that goes into writing and animating their films. While last year’s almost unanimously hailed Wall-E appeared to be the pinnacle of Pixar’s mastery, they’ve upstaged themselves again with 2009’s fantasy adventure film, Up. Again, this is a movie I’ve provided plenty of lip-service to already, but it’s all for very good reason: This is a marvelous, perfect piece of animation, maybe the movie that best exemplifies Pixar’s ability to both delight children and engage adults. What better way to do so than pair a cranky, curmudgeonly Ed Asner with young, energetic, hapless and lovable newcomer Jordan Nagai ? Maybe the concept, on paper, sounds suspect– especially when the rest of the film entails them flying to South American in Asner’s grouchy widower’s balloon-powered house– but it works even better than one could imagine. Eye-popping, gorgeous imagery is layered upon a rousing adventure and an emotional, magical piece of filmmaking that adds up to the best Pixar film yet.
1. Moon: 2009 has been a fantastic year for discovering new directors; it’s also been a strong year for science fiction. This list contains the films presented by two of those exciting talents. We’ve already passed over District 9, and that leaves us with Duncan “Son of Bowie” Jones’ breathtaking, thought-provoking sci-fi picture, Moon. It’s one of the years best-kept secrets, the kind of movie that works best when you know the bare minimum about it– go in as blind as possible, and you’re in for a treat. Even with minor details spoiled, it’s still a sucker punch of a story as we follow Sam Rockwell’s astronaut through the last two weeks of manning a lunar mining station by himself. The weight of his isolation is immense and felt in each scene, and despite that sense of loneliness Jones and Rockwell both manage to dredge a resounding and palpable feeling of optimism even as the character makes a shocking discovery about his service to energy giant Lunar Industries. That the film contains so much hope in the face of so much woe is an astounding feat; to say more would be to give too much away, but suffice it to say that the joys of Moon are many and often profound, making it a must-see picture for any lover of cinema.