Since the end of the year is upon on us, and the lists are starting to pop up in all sorts of media, here is my list of favorite films of 2009. I have included links to buy on Amazon where appropriate, so you can support this blog in an easy way (Note: some links are pre-orders or pages where you can sign up to be notified when a release date for the item has been announced).
1. (500 Days) of Summer
An omniscient narrator sets the film up early on by noting “this is not a love story,” but few films ever capture the feeling of falling in love as well as this movie. Director Marc Webb proves himself a deft craftsman of the stale genre of romantic comedy, which too easily becomes formulaic. The couple in (500) Days of Summer share some beautiful, subtle moments of tenderness as well as heart-rending moments of disconnectedness that never comes across as heavy-handed. The movie constantly reminds you that these are two different people with different ideas of a relationship, yet they stubbornly continue dating while remaining lovable all the same thanks to the wit of the script and the strong chemistry between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
2. Inglourious Basterds
Inglourious Basterds is a true film lover’s film. Quentin Tarantino has always shown a deft ability to exploit the tools of cinema for maximum effect on the nerves through action and suspense while showing a true affection for movie-making. I’ve come to feel that whenever he is fully involved in a movie (not just writing a script), he can do no wrong. I saw this movie toward the end of its run in theaters, and even in a small movie house with a sparse audience, when the final scene ended the audience broke out in applause. Great writing, performances and pacing throughout Inglourious Basterds shows a movie’s run time matters little when the director can make it entertaining throughout.
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
No one does awkward as artistically as Wes Anderson, and his foray into stop-motion generated story-telling raises his lovable, damaged characters to a new level. In the strange alternate world of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the characters’ self-conscious struggles with their own shortcomings never fit more comfortably into an Anderson-directed flick. The challenge of appreciating Anderson’s work depends on how willing the audience is to acknowledge their own faults in the self-deprecating humor that drives his movies. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, he ingeniously disguises that premise behind fuzzy animals with human qualities. However, the film never sugar coats their animal behavior with innocent cuteness. The sharp delivery of dialogue between the characters sometimes slips toward wild unpredictable primal behavior, which wittily treads the line of silliness and danger. Unlike so many movies for kids, this movie felt organic and authentic, and what do kids need most but true, heart-felt honesty, even if that truth might have its dark places? As Fantastic Mr. Fox continually reminds us, “We’re wild animals.”
4. Syndromes and a Century
My only regret about this film is that I had to catch on DVD to experience it. It must have looked amazing on film. Still, the movie rises above most other films on DVD through its transcendent use of sound and vision. Never have I seen a film capture the sense of observing as strongly as Syndromes and a Century. The film lingers on landscapes, objects and people in a trance-like manner that compels the viewer to activate their internal eyes.
5. Broken Embraces
I really think Pedro Almodovar can do no wrong. His twisting tales wind from comical situations to deep insights into humanity while stopping at interesting and entertaining detours in-between. Broken Embraces, a story about family connections hidden in a near Hitchcockian-mystery is one more in a series of recent masterpieces by Almodovar. It’s hard to say if I think it is better than Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver. He is one of the few directors currently working whose only competition is himself.
George Lucas must be crying. His much-hyped Star Wars prequels fell short of their supposed revolution in digital filmmaking, and now James Cameron’s Avatar comes along to swoop down and take the recognition. Where the new Star Wars films felt like nothing more than live action and animation clashing together, Avatar feels absorbing and nearly organic (still missing in these digital characters is the actual sense of physical weight. Even in this movie, the digital creatures feel as if they are floating in the frame, instead of weighted to the ground by gravity). With Avatar, we again have the recycled hero-myth story, as also seen in the original Star Wars movie from 1977. The difference in the effects utilized to tell the story in Avatar, however, are so absorbing (especially in 3-D) that it’s enough to make anyone who saw the original Star Wars in the theater suffer a heart attack.
7. Star Trek
I had grown tired of the Star Trek films years ago. I think part of the problem of these film adaptations was that they were TV shows given the high gloss of cinematic re-envisioning. They were just fancy TV shows with the same cast members. With a new cast of actors and a springboard originating in the movie house, this movie felt like a true blockbuster worth repeated viewings in the cinema and now on DVD and Blu-Ray. I think credit lies in director JJ Abrams’ lack of preciousness for the TV series. During interviews for the movie he was quick to note he had never been a fan of the TV show, and it shows, as he breaths new life into the stale series with a newfound tension among shopworn characters.
8. District 9
This sci-fi film felt like something done by the matured audience of the E.T. generation. It’s E.T. with a social conscience, not just a romanticized kids’ adventure film. Director Neill Blomkamp asks deep questions through the notion of aliens landing on earth, subsequently adding deeper stakes to the action sequences, which made for one of the more harrowing sci-fi films in the genre’s history.
I think the opening prologue of Up, yet another Pixar success story, was one of the greatest set up pieces in cinema. A marvelous bit of character development unfolds almost wordlessly, and you soon know what is at stake when old Mr. Fredericksen takes flight to South America in a floating house. You can tell the movie has a talented group of animators with true pumping hearts, unlike so many kiddie films cooked up by committees whose low brow attempts to humor their young audiences so often falls flat, cold and dumb. Up is one of those rare cartoons that transcends its digital images to reveal a living, breathing soul.
10. Tokyo Sonata
Kiyoshi Kurosawa took his filmmaking to a higher level with this family drama that unfolds during these economically crippling times that affected all corners of the globe. There are no surreal, supernatural elements to lean back on here (as much as I love his strange, unrealities that speak to the deeper core of our realities), just true family drama and crippling repression (both psychological, not to mention financial) .
Like District 9, Moon feels like a sci-fi film looking for something more than simply flash and entertainment. It fits best among the sci-fi dramas of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a terrific achievement by newbie feature director Duncan Jones (who got his degree in philosophy and then went into advertising). Jones has a lot to offer as a young sci-fi director. He seems much more focused than the much-hyped Richard Kelly, who serendipitously stumbles through his convoluted plots. High hopes abound for this young, new talent who is already at work on his next sci-fi film entitled Escape From the Deep.
The revered Hiyao Miyazaki returns with another animated fable that deals with man’s ecological impact on the planet couched within a love story at its most innocent: a boy fascinated by a weird-looking goldfish that wants to be human. Miyazaki and his team at Ghibli Studios indulge in their talents of hand drawn animation that eschews technology with just as much sincerity and pure love as that between the boy and the fish. The results are amazing and beyond what digital work can capture. In one scene, the waves in the angry sea undulated with incomparable organic rage that most likely would be lost in cold computer algorithms.
13. The Headless Woman
Buy it: DVD
Lucrecia Martel proves herself a master of upper crust alienation with her latest film, the most focused of her career. The extreme situation of a hit and run that may or may not involve a little boy is a catalyst for the title character’s actions or, better put, inaction. Actress Maria Onetto does an amazing job portraying a woman who tries to carry on her routine despite the mystery of her actions gnawing at her psyche. Martel’s distant and purposely unfocused manner of storytelling never found a subject more apt to her style.
I came away from this movie thinking I saw an attempt at something deeply probing into the psychology of marriages. It felt a bit like the same feeling I had when I saw Eyes Wide Shut for the first time (I’ve seen it countless times since and count it among Kubrick’s masterpieces). I’m still figuring out Antichrist. I got stuck with a bad screening plagued by technical difficulties during the film’s digital projection, which did not help matters. But I have a feeling this film could have been a rich experience into the dark well of the unconscious.
If anything, no matter how much director Zach Snyder tried, this movie proves you cannot make a faithful film interpretation of a comic book masterpiece. There are just too many key elements in this story that are so grounded in the comic book medium to effectively translate to a movie audience. Still, there are some excellent characters and ideas in here that came from a genius mind: original comic book writer Alan Moore, who rightfully refuses to attach his name to the cinematic version. Ironically, it is his ideas that give the movie its deeper quality, hence why I am including a link to buy the book, which truly is the best way to experience this story.
16. I Love You, Man
I Love You, Man was a hilariously uncomfortable bromantic comedy out of Hollywood for men who are not afraid of feelings. Yes, these jokes are nothing new or groundbreaking, but they had never been committed to celluloid with such genius comic timing, thanks mostly to the performances by Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, who did none too shabby as the apple of Rudd’s eye. But, make no mistake, this is a true love story among straight men, the only kind of relationship that could come out of a mutual appreciation of Rush’s music, mind you.
Director Erick Zonca and actress Tilda Swinton do a remarkable job at creating a hero out of a self-absorbed, even psychopathic alcoholic. Julia takes the idea of the deluded alcoholic and enhances the mal-perceived invulnerability, not to mention the paranoia and desperation, of the afflicted lush by throwing her into an extreme situation involving a kidnapping. The situation inevitably goes awry, taking her over the border to Juarez, Mexico where things go from bad to worse, forcing her into some kind of redemption. Besides the deftly wound story, the powerful performance at its core by Swinton will undoubtedly and criminally go over-looked during awards season.
18. Where the Wild Things Are
This much-hyped kids movie even went so far as making it to 3-D and IMAX screens and topped the box office during its opening. But, man did it disappoint people, ultimately losing close to $25 million (see box office mojo). When I saw it, I overheard a man sitting behind me, who brought a pack of rowdy kids with him, declare: “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen!” God forbid a kiddie film actually holds up a mirror to the savage nature of children. Director Spike Jonez and writer David Eggers’ take on Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are is a collision of darkness, adventure, wonder, fear, aggression and mystery. With its few famous words (338), the book can only lend itself to interpretation. What you put into it, is what you get out of it. The movie is the product of two clear lovers of the book (a film sanctioned by Sendak), and with its spare story and the raw reactionary behavior of its characters, it continues to ask the audience if they are in touch with the wild thing within them.
19. A Serious Man
Hyped as a personal film by the Cohen brothers, supposedly the closest they have come to producing a movie based on their childhood, this film proves to be one of their more puzzling works of art. I recall being accosted on the way out of the movie by a group of elderly Jewish people who asked me “What does it mean?” Mind you, I am not Jewish, nor do I look it (though when I worked at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, people thought I was an Ashkenazi Jew based on my Latin looks). Two women lead the questioning, looking at me like I was keeping some secret. As they continued to ask “What does it mean?” the older men just stood behind them. All I could think was how this made an even better ending to the great, cryptic ending of the actual movie. I’ll keep my answer to the ladies between them and me.
20. Away We Go
This movie felt larger than the funny notion of putting a pregnant couple into a road movie in search of the ideal place to raise their family while visiting their dysfunctional relatives and friends across North America. Away We Go shows how we live in our own realities and dreams and how uncertainly they fit into the world. The best anyone can do to cope is by finding the true self, in the Jungian sense. The greatest home one can find is within the partner one chooses to share a home with. The final scene is transcendent in the way it captures these characters taking their realities into a dream, as a family unit. It felt surreal and powerful and much deeper than some witty road movie.
21. Up in the Air
This is probably Jason Reitman’s tightest film yet. I think the power of it lies in the humanity of his characters. They are less cartoonish than those of his other acclaimed works, Juno and Thank You For Smoking. Reitman not only handles the cold downsizing of today’s corporate environment with an evenhanded yet emotional quality, he also peers deeply into the soul of a man who can deliver the notices without feeling any guilt about it while continuing to enjoy the hollow experience of travelling between assignments.
22. Paranormal Activity
I have to give Paranormal Activity its due for its technical merit in creating a nerve-wracking horror movie without the cheap, in-your-face gore. It wasn’t only in the bedroom scenes that unfold in the dark, as you see the effects of the things that go bump in the night. The set-ups were brilliant with a so-called expert in the paranormal showing his wariness to enter the house and the simple scan across images from a demonology book, hinting at what this entity might look like. Paranormal Activity was a fun, creepy ride that proves nothing is scarier in the movies than what you cannot see.
23. The Road
An exercise in desolation that puts you in the uncomfortable philosophical and psychological position to consider the question “What would you do?” On what appears to be a dying planet Earth, God has seemingly abandoned man both spiritually and physically. Nothing can thrive on the planet except man. All the vegetation has somehow ceased to grow and the animals have all died off, leaving the few human survivors to cannibalize their fellow man or scavenge for any edible scraps left from the previous society. As a father and son (played with melancholy desperation by Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee) search for some hope at the coast, one cannot help but wonder what lies at the core of human nature: good or evil. Probably the most hopeless movie ever made.
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In many ways, this is not a definitive list for 2009. It’s a personal favorites list. Also, there are so many movies from 2009 that have yet to play in Miami or I missed opportunities to see: Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Lorna’s Silence from the Dardenne brothers, Tulpan, Police Adjective, Black Dynamite, The House of the Devil, An Education and on and on, so this list is bound to change or, better yet, grow.
Everyone will have his or her own list. If you feel passionate about something I have not included or included, do share. Also, share your own lists, while you are at it. They can be mere top 10s, too.