Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Best Films of 2009

With 2009 in the bag, it's time for me to reveal my favorite films from what was a very interesting year for the movies. I saw many very good films this past year, but only a few great ones. Although I have been a frequent movie watcher for the past several years, I started this website in 2009, and this was the first year I started writing my full-length reviews. Going back from early August until now, I'm sure you'll see that my writing has improved, and I'd like to think it will continue to improve.

Here are the films I will remember most from 2009 (after the jump):

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

500 DAYS OF SUMMER: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are absolutely irresistible in this debut from director Marc Webb. This is an offbeat, but entirely refreshing romantic dramedy that tells us right up front, "This is not a love story," and it's one of the things I liked best about 500 Days of Summer. It is an audience pleaser, but not in the generic sense of the word; it is a rewarding, challenging film.

ADVENTURELAND: Writer/director Greg Mottola makes an immense improvement from his debut Superbad. This mature, poignant film is a teenage romance that everyone can connect with. Jesse Eisenberg makes for a wholly likeable lead character, but it is Kristen Stewart's performance as the conflicted Em Lewin that I will remember most. Adventureland also features a brilliant soundtrack from its 1980s setting.

AVATAR: James Cameron's monstrously-successful blockbuster was the most hyped film of the year, and it delivered on almost every level. As an exhilarating work of visceral mastery, I have seen few films accomplish more. If I would have seen this film another time, it could have easily moved up or down on the list, but it richly deserves to be remembered as the year's most innovative work. The only shame in Avatar is that the performances of Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana will be overlooked for years to come.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS: This Werner Herzog film is much more of a Nicolas Cage vehicle than an actual crime movie, but I'm thankful the director decided to go in that direction. One of the most memorable director/actor collaborations of the past decade, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans features a deliciously freakish Nicolas Cage in the title role, as well as some of the year's most outrageous scenes.

THE COVE: Louis Psihoyos' film about the mistreatment of dolphins in Japan is an awakening jolt for anyone who has ever sat and cheered through a live show at SeaWorld. Some will argue that it's preachy, but after being presented with the facts, I say that this team of experts has every darn right to be preachy. The Cove is a documentary, but it's also a rattling piece of suspense about a covert operation run by a group of people who are wanted dead. The heartfelt confessions of Ric O'Barry is reason enough to see this piece of activist filmmaking.

DISTRICT 9: Sharlto Copley stars in this mesmerizing debut from writer/director Neill Blomkamp. With a budget in the range of $30 million, Blomkamp and his crew create a gritty visceral experience that a big-budget blockbuster could never repeat. While the last third of District 9 gets a tad out of hand, the striking first hour is as good as anything I saw all year. Copley deserves to be remembered among the year's best.   

DRAG ME TO HELL: Sam Raimi's return to form is one of the best films he's ever made. Darkly hysterical throughout, and featuring moments of outrageous terror, Drag Me to Hell is one of the best horror flicks in years. Lorna Raver's turn as the ghoulishly creepy Sylvia Ganush is one of the most memorable horror characters of the decade.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX: Wes Anderson's attempt at stop-motion animation is a quick-paced joyride that is sure to delight any type of viewer. George Clooney voices the Fantastic Mr. Fox, one of the most fascinating animated protagonists of the past few years. Featuring imaginative action sequences, Tarantino-like title cards, and subtle emotionality, Anderson creates the most unique animated experience of the year.  

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE: This 77-minute picture is short, but very provoking. Steven Soderbergh directs lead actress Sasha Grey in this engrossing look at the life of a high-end Manhattan call girl. Grey's intricate portrayal is a terribly overlooked performance that is the foundation of this film. Soderbergh masterfully chooses to tell this character study from the outside in, and the results are an elaborate mix of economic crisis and emotional conflict. 

THE INFORMANT!: Steven Soderbergh's corporate satire relies heavily on the lead performance of Matt Damon, and I'm glad it did. He gives one of the year's best male performances as Mark Whitacre, a clueless individual who finds himself working as a federal spy. Hilarious at times, but also eye-popping with its realism, The Informant! is an entertaining and unpredictable look at one of the country's most famous whistle-blowers. 

ME AND ORSON WELLES: Richard Linklater's period piece about a kid's chance relationship with Orson Welles is a first-class charmer. Zac Efron, Christian McKay, and Claire Danes grace the screen with fantastic chemistry and confidence. It is McKay's work as Orson Welles that undoubtedly steals the show, but Me and Orson Welles is much more than just a theater film. It is a film about ambition and morality, and an effective one at that.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: Oren Peli's debut is one of the best works of suspense to come along in quite some time. Paranormal Activity is a film that uses its "mockumentary" setup to chilling effect, making for an undeniably realistic and believable thriller. Katie Featherston turns in a remarkable performance as the haunted and disturbed Katie.

A SERIOUS MAN: This mind-bending comedy from the Coen brothers is one of their best dark comedies ever. The ending, and for that matter, the entire implications throughout will continue to puzzle me, but I think that's the point. These brilliant filmmakers play with us for a mesmerizing 105 minutes, and I would gladly sit through A Serious Man again any day of the week. Michael Stuhlbarg is a revelation as the title character.

UP: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's Up features without a doubt the most mature sequence Pixar has made to date. The opening montage of this film is absolutely breathtaking. It is sure to upset and depress younger viewers, but the lighter, funnier second half of the film will certainly win them over. Ed Asner stars as the grumpy Carl Fredricksen, a 78-year-old widower who decides to take one last shot at his dreams.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: Spike Jonze took on the unfeasible task of adapting Maurice Sendak's classic short story, and the results are mesmerizing. I can't say everything in Where the Wild Things Are worked, but as a piece of emotional analyzation, it is incredibly original and moving. Max Records gives a heartbreaking performance as the sad, lonely little boy who creates his own atmosphere when the real world isn't so kind to him. The film's narrative can be told in less than a minute, but it would take me far longer to describe just how powerful my emotional response to this film was.

The Top Ten:


James Toback's documentary, as it stands on paper, is nothing more than an overview of Iron Mike's troubled life experiences, but Toback's ruthless direction makes this film something special. Equally showcasing both the good side and bad side of the titular figure, Tyson is a documentary that pulls no punches. In his interviews, Tyson, with that notorious lisp of his, shows us just what goes on inside that head of his. While watching this film, I witnessed a disturbed man; a man who needs help. But I also saw a man who seems to have his heart in the right places.


Pedro Almodovar's film noir is a masterful piece of storytelling, played out to perfection by the terrific ensemble cast. Penelope Cruz receives top billing as the beautiful Lena, but Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, and Tamar Novas are just as good in their supporting roles. Almodovar's subtle, but signature use of bright, expressive colors and tones makes for a breezy 127 minutes. Any and every film lover is sure to be enamored by the beauty of Broken Embraces.


John Hillcoat's adaptation of the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel is the pure essence of hopelessness. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee star as the father and son traveling towards the south because they have no other place to go. In their current state, it is constant winter, and everything -- even the trees and the snow -- is gray. They are living in a world where cannibalism is the growing trend, and McPhee's character is one of the most attractive options. The Road is Hillcoat's ambitious exercise in despair, and it is bleak beyond belief. It is a project that is entirely one-note, but that's the point. Hillcoat and his fearless performers force use to ask ourselves a powerful question: Is a world of suffocating desperation really worth living in?


James Gray's Two Lovers is the most challenging romantic drama of the year. It goes places that few films in the genre even attempt to confront. Lead by stellar performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Vinessa Shaw, this film accomplishes two difficult things that most love triangles never even come close to: believability and unpredictability. Phoenix's turn as the lonely Leonard is without a doubt the best work of his career. His layered performance is the center of the film, and everything around him builds off of it beautifully. It is certainly a darker film than most might think, but then again, Leonard is a dark and mysterious man.


Zack Snyder's adaptation of the legendary graphic novel is a relentlessly violent motion picture, both in the physical content of the film, and in the philosophical implications that are conveyed. I can honestly say that Watchmen is the best IMAX experience I had all year. This is one of the darkest pictures I have ever seen. The desperation and corruption of this alternate America is painted on the ever-changing mask worn by Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach. As The Comedian, Jeffrey Dean Morgan defines cynicism. One of the year's most complex, misunderstood films, Watchmen is a supremely powerful motion picture, one that -- very appropriately after The Dark Knight --  continues to symbolize the possibilities of the comic book adaptation when it is taken to dark and dismal places.


Lee Daniels' gritty adaptation of Sapphire's classic novel features what could be the best female ensemble of the decade. In the year's best female lead performance, newcomer Gabourey Sidibe embodies her character in remarkable fashion. As the abusive mother with problems of her own, Mo'Nique illustrates intensity to the utmost degree. Her work -- which will culminate in an Oscar win -- is sure to live on as one of the best supporting female performances of our time. The stunning Paula Patton matches her counterparts note-for-note as the inner-city teacher who actually gives a damn. Daniels is an unflinching filmmaker. He'd rather polarize us then send us home smiling, and that is exactly what Precious does.


Tom Ford's staggering debut might be even more beautiful than Avatar. He commands every frame in this film with an astounding level of perfection and vision. Colin Firth's tour de force performance deserves an Oscar which he will surely not receive. He shows sadness without crying, and he shows anger without screaming. In a single day in Los Angeles, Firth creates a character that will define his career. Abel Korzeniowski's breathtaking score contributes to both the beauty and the emotion of A Single Man. The film's opening sequence is responsible for a Colin Firth line that will be engraved into my mind forever: "Just get through the goddamn day." Not ten minutes into the film, Firth's delivery of that line made me realize I was in store for something special.


Jason Reitman's dramedy is classical Hollywood filmmaking at its best. Reitman's script, which he wrote along with Sheldon Turner, brings to mind timeless classics such as Billy Wilder's The Apartment. He knows how to write his scripts so that his actors' best qualities pour out in waves. George Clooney's charm is on full display, but his reserved, isolated nature is reflective of his character's precious hub-to-hub lifestyle. Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga will both get well-deserved Oscar nominations for playing the woman that forever change Clooney's character. Reitman's film works both as a study of our current economic times and also as a meticulously-defined character study. When people talk about movies they have seen dozens of times, they're talking about films like Up in the Air.


Kathryn Bigelow's examination of battle is the best film ever made about the Iraq War. It is an intense, action-driven thriller that will have you sweating bullets from start to finish. Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty star as the three-headed monster of a bomb disposal unit. Renner's freewheeling methods knock heads with Mackie's by-the-book ideals, creating one of the most interesting battlefield relationships I can remember. The film's opening frame shares a quote from Chris Hedges that states, "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug," and The Hurt Locker goes to stunning depths to prove that statement.


This examination of Nazi-occupied France is the most fun I've ever had with a Quentin Tarantino film. I can't even imagine what kind of genius it takes to tell a story like this. From Col. Hans Landa to Lt. Aldo Raine to Lt. Archie Hicox, the master writer/director has created some of his most memorable characters to date. Inglourious Basterds works in pretty much every aspect of storytelling. It is quite funny at times, constantly thrilling and suspenseful, and it is all performed by an extraordinary group of actors. Brad Pitt closes the film with the following: "I think this might just be my masterpiece." Few people in the industry would have the nerve to write something like that, but we should all be thankful that Tarantino does.

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