2009 was actually a rather solid year for film. It was harder to pick favourites than last year. I have to admit, though, that I haven’t been keeping up with some of the Oscar contenders — I’ve yet to watch Up in the Air, A Single Man, etc., so this list is kind of a work-in-progress. Anyway, where to start? In no particular order:
1) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
This should not have been a very good film. It shouldn’t have even been a remotely good one. But it is. Nicolas Cage chews his way through Werner Herzog’s mindfuck of a movie with the giddy delight of a narcoleptic pill-popping bastard. It’s a strong performance, Cage’s best in ages, even though it’s crazily inconsistent (try not to notice the abrupt accent shift midway through the film). At once a great character study and absurd dark comedy, this was one of the most unique – and unexpectedly enjoyable – films I saw all year. And Val Kilmer, please keep taking roles like this instead of doing movies with 50 Cent.
2) The Hurt Locker
The first great Iraq War film, let alone good Iraq War film. Why? Because at its heart, it isn’t really a “war film,” but a character study that happens to take place during a war. It focuses on a small group of men driven to the brink of their sanity, heroes amongst themselves. But then they go home and suddenly everything is different. You can buy cereal in a grocery store and do yard work around the house and you’re just another schmuck. It’s a bit like the end of GoodFellas, actually. The final scene of the film is haunting, poetic and poignant – a masterpiece of a movie.
It’s true, as some critics have noted, that the strength of the film’s first 15 minutes makes it hard for the rest of the picture to match up. But it’s still an utterly delightful film – Pixar’s best work since Wall-E, but then again, that movie just came out last year. I don’t know how they keep setting such standards for animation – compare this to anything DreamWorks has shat out lately. Pixar’s in a whole other league.
So it’s a bit talky and self-indulgent, but hey, that’s basically Tarantino’s oeuvre. Strong performances, witty banter, exceptional finale. Kind of like Miller’s Crossing meets Reservoir Dogs meets Schindler’s List. And some unexpected laughs along the way, too. Tarantino’s best since Jackie Brown.
5) In the Loop
Read my review here.
A real-life Spinal Tap. Funny, ridiculous, but ultimately poignant — the movie was directed by a childhood fan of the two Canadian rockers, and it shows in every frame. It’s never insensitive or cruel or mocking — we laugh with them more than at them.
Marketed as a Superbad follow-up, but it’s far more dramatic and I found myself relating to much of the Jesse Eisenberg character’s moral dilemmas, as I’m sure most viewers would. Also: a great soundtrack. And a wonderful Lou Reed joke at Ryan Reynolds’ character’s expense.
8 ) Moon
Sam Rockwell is absolutely brilliant here in a one-man show. Bowie’s son does his own Space Oddity and it succeeds on most levels, even though the whole Solaris thing might be just a tad familiar to sci-fi fans. The twists almost seem secondary to the essence of the picture’s core, which is the character’s journey and self-exploration in the most unlikely of places.
9) District 9
I really enjoyed this film, even though some of the hype might have ruined parts of it for me. The ending, despite all its flash-bang action and fairly predictable outcome, was surprisingly touching — maybe because by that point we actually care about the characters.
Same as above: by the time the big, long, predictable action sequence arrives at the end, we care about the characters, so it has emotional weight. A lot of critics have written off the storyline altogether, calling the roles cliched and deriding the dialogue as corny. Um, that’s kinda the point, innit. It was never about originality — it’s the ol’ familiar Pocahontas story, something that’s been reworked countless times. The irony of the tired Dances with Smurfs pun seems to be lost on people: Dances with Wolves was nothing original, either. And while we’re at it — neither was Aliens, Cameron’s supposed masterpiece. Sometimes it’s about the delivery, not the content. Cameron packages cliches and predictable storylines in reassuringly familiar films, but he does it well, and Avatar is no exception. The visuals, of course, are stunning — but Cameron knows better than most how to frame an action sequence, and the last hour of this film really swept by.
11) (500) Days of Summer
So, it tries a bit too hard to be that next smug indie film. The soundtrack is a bit obvious and the movie is sometimes a bit too whimsical for its own good. In spite of these flaws, I really liked it, and I found myself relating to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character. The man is a brilliant, underrated actor and I hope this film earns him some award nominations. The look he shoots Zooey Deschanel at the end, after she places her hand against his on that park bench? It broke my heart a little bit.
12) The Hangover
Read my review here.
13) Food, Inc.
An alarming documentary about where what we’re eating comes from. I mean, it’s all kinda obvious on a basic level (does anyone not know by now that a lot of what Americans consume is vastly unhealthy?), but still: when you actually put images and statistics to it, you might lose an appetite.
Unflinchingly, brutally honest dark comedy about bad people doing bad things, undermined by a poor ending. Yeah, Robin Williams hasn’t been this good (or daring) in years — but it’s Daryl Sabara, as his rotten, hateful teen, who has the thankless task of making us loathe him. He’s so good that you forget he’s acting — his performance is, no joke, Oscar-worthy in its own bizarre way.
15) Where the Wild Things Are
Not an altogether successful adaptation, but an undeniably ambitious one. Spike Jonze takes a children’s film and kinda twists it into a flick for hipsters — no wonder Warner Bros. shelved it for two years and decided to market it towards adults at the last second. Karen O.’s soundtrack is pretty nice, too.