07 March 2010

The Best Films of 2009

I’ll skip the usual apologies for not updating the blog in so long. I was busy. But now it’s back. At least for this year’s top ten. I can’t say 2009 was a great year for movies. Especially compared with some recent years, like 2007. As usual, except for the number one slot, all the others are ordered in a relatively arbitrary fashion. After the list, my personal picks for some of the awards being given tonight (whether they are nominated or not), and then some notes on the Oscars. I’ll try to update tomorrow after we know who’s gone home with what. But now, without much further ado:

The Ten Best Films of 2009

1. Inglourious Basterds

One of the most cathartic film experiences of the year. Tarantino was firing on all cylinders, and there are few films I have seen in the past few years that utilize all the qualities and potential of the cinema as well as this did. I’m sure this movie isn’t “for everyone” but it has something for everyone. Much has been said about Christoph Waltz, and it’s all true, but let’s not forget the rest of the cast: Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, and Melanie Laurent all turn in wonderful performances. It won best ensemble at the SAG Awards, and it really truly feels like one. It’s visually, audibly, and textually brilliant, and gets better with each viewing.

2. Nine

I seem to be one of the lone defenders of this strange concoction, but I enjoyed it on an emotional level perhaps more than any other film. The critics wanted 8 ½, and when it wasn’t, they panned it. Audiences, I think, were confused as to what they’d find, and so stayed away. But history will vindicate this spectacular movie. The showmanship, from director Rob Marshall, that made Chicago work so well finds a better match here in dealing with issues of cinema, illusion, and performance. It’s an intimate character study with a theatrical twist, and the most underrated movie of the year.

3. A Serious Man

Not many people make movies about religion anymore. Some are set in the world of religion, but few films actually tackle the inner workings of faith and theology, and so it is in that regard that the Coen Brothers’ latest film is a bold one, and one of their best. As a result, it has the freedom to ask some of life’s biggest questions, and doesn’t shortchange its audience in the process.

4. The White Ribbon

I don’t have a lot to say about it at this time, because I’ve only seen it once. It is one I will definitely watch again, and I know there is much more to be had than what I gleaned the first time around. I can with certainty say this: it is a wonderfully-shot, expertly-directed, and, at times, disturbing film. If you have not heard of it, you should see it anyway. It would not help for me to tell you much about it, it’s something you need to encounter for yourself without any preconceptions.

5. Public Enemies

A movie that really didn’t come alive for me until the second viewing (perhaps because I was exhausted the first time). It’s another one of this year’s underrated wonders. An old-fashioned gangster film with a modern sensibility. Every time I want to write off Johnny Depp as a pop-culture fad, he surprises me with a performance like this. And, between this and Nine, Marion Cotillard proves she is one of the world’s best film actresses.

6. Bright Star

Films about Romantic English poets aren’t probably going to attract a ton of attention, but this one deserved it. Great performances all around, and director Jane Campion is able to lead us to an inevitable ending with patience and serenity, where other directors would probably lapse into melodrama. It’s a movie I’ve been eager to watch again since I first saw it back in October, just to make sure it’s as good as I thought it was that time. I’m certain it is.

7. A Single Man

Much has been made of its cinematography and music, both of which are gorgeous. But what makes this film work is the excellent performance at its center: Colin Firth (finally proving what I’ve always suspected about him as an actor) as a broken man stuck in a world that doesn’t allow him the right to grieve.

8. In the Loop

I could go on for ages about the stupidity of the prejudices that many artists have about comedy as opposed to “drama.” Here is a film about the lead-up to a war in the Middle East, but rather than beating you over the head with rhetoric and political commentary, it cracks you up and works better than perhaps any film yet dealing with the war on terror/Iraq. The screenplay is rightly nominated tonight, but Peter Capaldi deserved a nomination, if for nothing else than one particular scene in which his Malcolm Tucker almost breaks down. If you’ve seen any of the BBC show the film is based on, it’s a truly memorable moment.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox

The best animated film of the year (sorry Pixar). I’ll admit that it’s possible I’m just a Wes Anderson junkie, but the general acclaim it got makes me feel my praise is warranted. Appropriate (i.e. non-gimmicky) voice acting and old-fashioned animation make this one of the fullest expressions of Anderson’s style. It ranks right up near The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore.

10. Star Trek

I bet I’ll take some flack for this one. I already wrote a short review of it, so I’ll be brief. It’s fun, excellently-made, and one of the most purely entertaining movies this year. At the end of the day, sometimes you just can’t beat a thrill ride.

The Second Tier

11. (500) Days of Summer
12. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call- New Orleans
13. Un Prophete
14. Il Divo
15. The Road
16. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
17. Up
18. Away We Go
19. The Young Victoria
20. Up in the Air

Honorable Mentions (Five films that don’t belong on any best-of list, but I still really enjoyed)

District 9
Me and Orson Welles
Observe and Report

Best Actor: Colin Firth, A Single Man

Best Actress: Abbie Cornish, Bright Star

Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Supporting Actress: Marion Cotillard, Nine AND Public Enemies

Best Director: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man

Best Adapted Screenplay: Armando Iannucci, In the Loop

And I won’t pretend, like others, to know enough about the craft of any of the technical categories to pick what’s best. I’ll leave that to the Academy.

Quick Oscar Thoughts: You’ll probably notice a glaring omission in this list: The Hurt Locker. Is it a bad movie? No. Good movie? Perhaps. Overrated? Most definitely. While a win for it would not be as infuriating as Slumdog’s triumph last year, it would still be another example of the Academy getting behind what it thinks is an “important” movie and letting that carry it all the way to the finish line. The movie has its virtues, and I do think it’s pretty good, but I just can’t get behind calling it one of the best movies of the year. I believe the fact that it’s probably the best of all the Iraq movies, something that Oscar has felt the desire to comment on in the past few years, has brought it to the podium.

Avatar: I enjoyed it, as I indicated above. Yes, yes, it’s a technological breakthrough that’s probably changed movies forever, etc. But a place in the top twenty? I think not. It is visually dazzling, no doubt about that. It deserves the Visual Effects Oscar it receives tonight. But the melodrama and faux-profundity kept me from truly engaging with it. But as I said, I did (and will continue to) enjoy it.

The Ten: I seem to be one of the few people out there who likes the return to ten best picture nominees. If you look at the best director lineup, you can see what are the five “real nominees,” and the inclusion of The Blind Side gives the sense that the rest of the list is the Academy checking off demographic categories (Fanboys? Check. Middle America? Check.) But I like the chance to include more genre entries like District 9 and Up. Plus, the change in the balloting system has resulted in one of the least-certain best picture races in recent history.

So here’s to you, Academy. Here’s hoping you don’t embarrass yourself like last year. Here’s hoping that, despite the glaring omissions in your list of nominees, you manage to make some decent picks. Here’s hoping you’ve learned your lessons.

Who am I kidding? Bring on the headache.

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