Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Top Ten Movies of 2009

It was a fairly mediocre year in movies, particularly at the multi-plex -- we lacked any really thought-provoking mass entertainments like last year's The Dark Knight or Wall-E. Still, there were a number of small movies that attempted to pick up the slack. Below are my top ten films of the year:

10) Up in the Air

I'm frankly a little surprised at how much swooning the critics are doing over this very enjoyable but fairly lightweight film. I suppose its recession-era themes -- George Clooney plays an HR consultant who travels the country firing people for a living -- adds some resonance, but in general Up in the Air is a conventional crowd pleaser. Still, it should be appreciated for its clever script, fluid direction, and stellar cast, led by Clooney giving a nuanced performance as a man who claims to be most at home when he doesn't have one.

9) The Informant!
Steven Soderbergh took the bizarre tale of Mark Whitacre, an Archer Daniels Midland executive who helped uncover price-fixing in the company but turned out to have his own secrets, into a sly, off-kilter comedy. Told from Whitacre's skewed point of view, The Informant! is both mordantly funny and very sad, as we start to discover that the biggest victim of Whitacre's deceptions is himself. The film is an acting showcase for Matt Damon, who proves to be a very able comedic performer.

8) Precious
I agree with the detractors that Precious can be ham-handed at times -- director Lee Daniels does spend a bit too much time rubbing our faces in the miserable life of his main character. But the constant moments of melodrama make Precious' eventual escape from the misery all that more cathartic, and Gabourey Sidibe (as the title character) and Mo'Nique (as her mother) give performances of such ferocity that it's impossible not to be moved by this story.

7) Fantastic Mr. FoxTurns out that Wes Anderson is an ideal director for animated films, as his delicate stagings and precious characters find their most natural home in a setting that is altogether unreal. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, he finds a kindred spirit in Roald Dahl, whose children's books feature the kinds of precocious protagonists and humorously adult themes that Anderson imbued in his previous films. The pairing results in the best children's film of the year, an impressive feat given the number of standout children's films in 2009.

6) District 9A strikingly original science fiction film from debut director Neill Blomkamp, District 9 fits well within the tradition of Sci-Fi that blends wild imagination with political allegory. Set in a Johannesburg where aliens have landed on earth but live as second class citizens, District 9 is bracingly unconventional thriller, at least until the last third of the movie when it becomes a more standard action film. Like Avatar, it's a case of an outsider who goes native, except this time the conversion is hardly welcome. Blomkamp is a real talent -- how he produced such impressive effects on a supposedly modest budget is beyond me. Here's hoping Hollywood gives him a chance to work his magic on an even bigger scale.

5) Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasy has proven to be very polarizing, though I think people who either love or hate the film are taking it too seriously. As a whole, I don't think the movie is exploitative trash or a daring masterpiece -- it's too uneven to be either. It works best in scenes that feature Tarantino's typically exquisite dialogue and sense of pacing, such as the anxiety-inducing tavern scene or the opening moments on the French countryside. As SS officer Hans Landa, Christoph Waltz gives one of the best performances of the year, turning his menacing and opportunistic Nazi into a completely magnetic figure.

4) In the LoopThe most fun I had in a theater all year. Armando Iannucci's wickedly funny satire of the run-up to the Iraq War took shots at everyone -- the feckless British diplomats who were too scared to stand up to the bull-dozing Americans, the careerist generals and state department officials who went along with a war they never really believed in, and the PR handlers and communications officials who played the press like a fiddle. The most expert player is Peter Capaldi's staggeringly profane, uproarious Malcolm Tucker, a man with so much verbal dexterity his words seem more explosive than any number of IEDs.

3) A Serious Man
The Coen brothers look back on their childhood and find plenty of humor in their Jewish traditions and more than a little angst. As a man struggling to understand the big questions about God and existence, Michael Stuhlbarg is the walking embodiment of tsuris -- he's so wound up and so desperate for answers we know his search can't end well. If you expect the Coens to offer up one of their patently glib punchlines, you'll be surprised -- A Serious Man, like No Country for Old Men before it, suggests the maturing Coens are actually interested in the deep questions, even if they think searching for the answers may be a waste of time.

2) Summer Hours
A beautiful film about globalization and our profound generational differences, told through the story of a family that must distribute their inheritance after the death of a beloved matriarch. Director Olivier Assayas' very French film recognizes that the global changes around us are having a major impact on our day to day lives and quietly suggests that some seemingly outdated values may be worth remembering.

1) The Hurt Locker
The Iraq War has proven a difficult subject for filmmakers -- from In the Valley of Elah to Redacted, political messages tend to get in the way of good storytelling. Katheryn Bigelow's exceptionally well-made film eschews politics and is better for it, for she knows we don't need moral hectoring to realize the extremely dangerous position we placed our troops. Focused on an elite squad of bomb detonation experts, The Hurt Locker is both a riveting action film and a powerful demonstration of the drug-like effects war has on the men who fight it. The Hurt Locker is an immersive war movie -- you feel like you're right on the front lines, sharing in the stress, anxiety, and relief that abound there -- and an unforgettable experience.

Runners Up: Where the Wild Things Are, Drag Me to Hell, Adventureland, Up

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