Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of 2009, The Top 10 (err, 11)

This has been a phenomenal year for film, especially films in what are thought to be the "lesser" genres. As always, this is a somewhat personal list, made up of films that I enjoy, not films that I think fit in with other people's lists or films I think will be Best Picture nominees. Some are fun escapist films, others are more emotional or cerebral. I think most of you know by now how eclectic my tastes run. :)

Anyway, enough blathering. Here is zee list.

Special Mention (i.e., I saw this very recently and need to ruminate on it some more before I can figure out where it ranks against the rest)

The White Ribbon - This could very well move up into the top 10 over time, as Michael Hanake's films tend to grow on me the more I watch them, but even after just one viewing, this is an incredibly powerful and painful film. Shot in color, but washed out so that it appears to be in black and white, this is possibly Haneke's greatest film to date. Horrible and disturbing things happen in a small German village in the months leading up to WW1. The children responsible will grow up and become elites in the Nazi party, and the way the village covers up and even denies their treachery speaks volumes about the evils that would later be perpetrated. The last scene of this film is understated and absolutely bone-chilling, without anything really having to happen. This one will be with me for a while.

And, if Draco should fail, will you yourself carry out the deed the Dark Lord has ordered Draco to perform?

10. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - The first Potter film since Chamber of Secrets to give me much the same sensation that I feel reading the book, and this one is a much better film. I don't want to think about how many ways they've shot themselves in the foot for Deathly Hallows, but this movie balances fan service and filmmaking better than any previous installment. Yes, even the critical darling Prisoner of Azkaban. Exceptional performances this time around - most notably Tom Felton, Rupert Grint, Michael Gambon, and Jim Broadbent - and if I wasn't already a Steve Kloves fangirl, the fish story would have made me so. I always cringe when people who aren't J.K. Rowling try to invent magic in her world, but the lily!fish sounds just like something she would write (so much so that I still wonder if she, in fact, did write it). And despite my concerns about how much catching up they'll have to do with the next film, this is an excellent penultimate chapter in the film series.

If people die the moment that they graduate, then surely it's the things we do beforehand that count.

9. An Education - An excellent portrait of a young woman seduced by her own lust for experience and sophistication, at the potential cost of her future. Carey Mulligan walks a very fine line between schoolgirl and woman of the world as our heroine, Jenny, and Peter Sarsgaard (sporting an impressive English accent) is impossibly charming as the charlatan who "educates" her. This movie is a real actors' playhouse, and Alfred Molina, Olivia Williams, and Emma Thompson give some of my favorite supporting performances of the year.

Let me ask you something - how much did they get paid to storm Normandy, how much did King Arthur get paid to kill Merlin, how much did they get paid to invent Television? Nothing. They did it because they knew it was right.

8. Observe and Report - This movie is everything Paul Blart: Mall Cop is not, and I mean that with the highest esteem imaginable. A real comedy, not just dark but pitch-black, that kind of hurts to watch, but that you'll be thinking about long after you've left the theater - whether you like it or not. Seth Rogen is thoroughly unlikable in a role not too dissimilar from famous movie misanthrope Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. No, really. He's full of rage and violence (the scene where he fights his way out of the 'hood is the stuff of legend) and the hope of catching a flasher who's been harassing the people at the mall is the only thing he has going in his life. This may not be a movie many people like right now, but it's definitely going to go into the books as one of the great modern comedies.

When the truth is found ... to be lies ... and all the joy ... within you dies.

7. A Serious Man - Even when the Coen brothers are not at the top of their game, they're miles ahead of most other filmmakers, but this is one of the best films they've made, period. Starting with a short vignette that I think sets up how people of faith, particularly Jews, see the issue of fortune and fate, this is a Job story, heaping disaster after disaster onto our poor protagonist (played by the wonderful Michael Stuhlbarg), until in the end, when a real natural disaster looms, it's almost a relief. If there's a message in this film, I think it's that stuff happens, and there's nothing you can do about it, no matter how scrupulously you live your life. Good things don't happen because you're nice, and bad things don't happen because you're a jerk. The world has never been and never will be that simple.

Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.

6. Avatar - I know the hype beforehand and the geek-gasms afterward are annoying to people who just don't respond to this film, but this really, truly has changed filmmaking. To think that Cameron (and the amazing technical geniuses at WETA) created this entire amazingly detailed world out of Cameron's head and a bunch of computers is really phenomenal. And despite what detractors, and even some supporters, are saying, the script is not that bad. No, it isn't - you go watch Titanic again and see if you still think so. It's a solid, if basic, story. And there's nothing wrong with basic, especially when you're reinventing the wheel in such a jaw-dropping manner in other aspects. These are characters you care about, not because they say cool things but because they feel absolutely real - even when they CAN'T be, because they're freakin' ten foot tall blue cat-monkey-people.

Could you go a bit slower with the clicks there, it sounded like you said three years.

5. District 9 - In a year chock full of breathtaking sci-fi, this was the most original bit of storytelling and one of the most moving human (and non-human) dramas of this or any other year. The documentary style adds a significant amount of authenticity, and the bookend commentary from the other characters really sets up how you see the main character in the beginning versus how you see him in the end. Neill Blomkamp made real magic with a budget 1/10 the size of Transformers 2 and made a much better movie with it. It consistently confounds your expectations and, thanks in no small part to the brilliant work of first-time actor Sharlto Copley, it gives you a hero who defies expectations as well, in both good ways and bad ways. Definitely one of the high points of the year and the sci-fi genre as a whole.

Within your 'purview'? Where do you think you are, some f***ing regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some f***ing Jane f***ing Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your s***ter with a lubricated horse c***!

4. In the Loop - This is the Bizarro version of The West Wing. Here, idealism is only to be found among the useless failures who don't know the relative whereabouts of their anus and a hole in the ground. Many have said this film is what politics is really like, and I desperately want to believe that's not true, but I fear it is. The story begins with an ill-conceived comment to a reporter by a nobody of an MP, which is used by various British and American political insiders to wage literal war. As funny as this is, it's quite frightening to think how accurate it might be. A gloriously profane script, based on the television series The Thick of It, and a phenomenal British and American cast, led by Peter Capaldi as my fake government crush Malcolm Tucker.

This is the face of Jewish vengeance!

3. Inglourious Basterds - I've said far too much about this film already. I still don't think it topples Kill Bill in my affections, but this is possibly Tarantino's greatest cinematic achievement to date. A film with much more scope than he's ever attempted before and probably his most accessible film. It takes cojones to rewrite World War 2, and this is one "remake" I wholeheartedly endorse.

You sit there and you judge me, and you write them notes on your notepad, about who you think I am!

2. Precious - Again, I've said a whole lot about this movie elsewhere. It's one of an endless string of stories about troubled children, but this time it's told not from the point of view of the hero who swoops in and saves the day but the child herself. We see firsthand what she goes through each day of her life and we root like hell for her to get out of it somehow. A bold vision of a film with two of the best performances of the year.

Adventure is out there!

1. Up - No contest, and I knew it would be in my top spot as soon as I saw it. This film is, I feel, timeless in a way that no previous Pixar endeavor has been. The film begins with a friendship struck between two children and follows with five minutes of wordless images that many would argue are the best part of the film. What I think it does, though, is set up a lens through which you see the rest of the film. Carl is not your average hero; he's not someone you would even notice. But the opening of the film makes you care about him in a way you wouldn't have before. Carl and Russell and (despite the collar which enables him to talk) Dug are ordinary shlubs like most of us are, which is a huge part of what makes their adventure so exciting for us to watch. But the ultimate point is that you don't have to go to an exotic unchartered wilderness to have an adventure. Life is an adventure in and of itself. What a beautiful and vibrant film. Very possibly my favorite of the last few years together.

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