Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Best Surprises of 2009

2009 has been hailed by many as a historic year for the cinema, and while I'm not quite that enthusiastic, I can still say it was an excellent year. While reflecting back upon the year, one of the things that stuck out the most the most in my mind was the amount of pleasant surprises this year had to offer. There were very good films such as Avatar and Inglourious Basterds that were anticipated for months, but there were even more films that opened up to critical and commercial acclaim amidst quiet anticipation, and here are a few of my favorites from that category -- in alphabetical order.


While this film is most likely to be recognized during the awards season for its original script courtesy of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, it is important to recognize the job that director Marc Webb did in his feature film debut. He blends together quirky originality and genuine emotion in a fresh and satisfying way, and lead actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel make for a memorable screen couple. 500 Days of Summer has smart humor and real drama, and it is sure to be loved by audiences for years to come.


Greg Mottola's follow-up to Superbad is a complete change of direction. Adventureland is truly a sincere, heart-warming drama about young love, rather than the drug, profanity-filled comedy it was marketed as. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are a perfect match to play the young couple conflicted by their surroundings. Ironically, this film about high schoolers working at an amusement park, seems to be primarily targeted towards adults as the 1987 setting and music is sure to bring back some memories of their own. 


I think the only thing that brought people's attention to this film prior to its release was the producing credit of Peter Jackson. However, District 9 managed to blow away critics and audiences alike, and put itself among the cream of the crop in what was a great year for the science-fiction genre. Neill Blomkamp's directorial debut was a striking one, made even more impressive by the modest budget, and the unknown Sharlto Copley gave what I think was one of 2009's best male performances.


Richard Linklater's period piece is an audience pleaser in every sense of the word. Zac Efron stars in a performance that shows off some real acting chops, and Christian McKay's star-turn as Orson Welles himself is wholeheartedly deserving of an Oscar nomination. While Me and Orson Welles is set in the late 1930s, its message about the morality of ambition and competition is one that is entirely relevant today. The film also features some brilliant scenes of a "Julius Caesar" production that theater fans are sure to eat up.


Yet another directorial debut to add to the list, The Messenger is helmed by Oren Moverman. He presents a powerful, if occasionally uneven portrait of war on the home front. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson both turn in striking performances as two members of the Army's Casualty Notification service. This film contains some of 2009's most emotional scenes, and a couple of the delivery scenes will be burned into my memory for quite some time. This is a film I hadn't heard anything about before its release date, but it looks to be gaining enough steam to score some surprise nominations at the 2010 Academy Awards.


Writer/director Oren Peli's debut is a masterpiece of suspense. Sorry to all the Blair Witch fans out there, but this film is superior in every single aspect. On a shoestring budget of around $15,000, Paranormal Activity went on to gross over $100 million at the U.S. box office, and is quite possibly the most profitable film ever made. I can't remember a time at the theater when I jumped so much. This is bloodless, realistic suspense, and it's among the best "mockumentary" films ever made. 


Yes, you guessed it...another first-time director; it's Ruben Fleischer's Zombieland. I actually caught a midnight showing of this film, and I had loads of fun with it. Jesse Eisenberg makes for a funny, likeable lead character and occasional narrator, while Woody Harrelson gives one of the year's funniest performances as Tallahassee. This is a film I consider much more comedy than horror, but I had no problem with that. The laughs come in bunches, not to mention a sequence with the year's best cameo, and the 88 minute running time makes for a perfect Friday night popcorn flick.


Anonymous said...

What do you think about the movie The Orphan? A great title and a great twist.

Daniel Getahun said...

Interesting list here. I've only seen the first three you list here, but unfortunately they surprised me for the wrong reason - as disappointments! But anyway I know what you're getting at and I love coming out of a movie surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I think a big one for me this year was Julie and Julia.

Danny King said...

@ Daniel Getahun: Wow, I'm surprised! Three excellent films there, I thought you would've connected with at least one or two. As far as Julie & Julia goes, I wasn't a fan, but it does fit the category. Looks like we're disagreeing on just about everything right now.

Daniel Getahun said...

Well I wouldn't call any of those three bad - to some extent I liked them all. But the hype had been super high for all of them when I saw them and I kind of left all three thinking, "OK, but that was it?".

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