Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mike's Top Ten Movies of 2009

Welcome to my recap of the ten best films I saw over the last 365 days. In my book 2009 was a fairly decent year for cinema. It didn't quite reach the heights of the much-vaunted 2007, which had a veritable grab bag of cinematic splendor at its disposal, but it was a far better year than 2008 wherein only two of the nine movies I had seen by year's end were worthy of my unequivocal endorsement. This year I managed to see twice as many films and I can safely say that the odds are significantly stronger.

What you will not see on the following list are the big disappointments (Public Enemies, Where the Wild Things Are), the fun but forgettable (Bruno, Coraline) or the super-awesome-yet-regrettably-disqualified-due-to-the-fact-that-they-were-actually-released-somewhere-in-the-world-last-year (Ponyo, Anvil: the Story of Anvil).

With that in mind, read on and get indignant!

#10: Star Trek-

J.J. Abrams' refreshing reboot of the venerable sci-fi franchise was one hell of a fun summer blockbuster. The casting was first-rate, the action scenes bold and distinctive, and the plot, introducing a blackhole-induced alternate timeline, ingenious as a means to allow a new, concurrent storyline to emerge. I didn't love everything about the film, I actually missed the heavy-handed moralizing that permeated the original series as well as the attempts at explaining the outlandish phenomena with cold, hard science. Plus, I wanted more Scotty. But all in all this colorful, optimistic and intelligent approach was exactly what the 40-year-old universe needed.

#9: Whatever Works-

Woody Allen's Whatever Works falls squarely in the middle of the masterpiece I wanted it to be and the trainwreck it most certainly should have been. Casting Larry David as the lead was both a stroke of a genius on Allen's part and a most severe handicap for the film. David is one of the finest comic minds ever (as evidenced by the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm) but he's definitely not an actor (also evidenced by the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm). All in all Larry does a fairly solid job standing in for Zero Mostel for whom the script was originally conceived in the 1970s. The story of a misanthropic scientist who slowly learns to open up and embrace life after taking in a simple Southern runaway is a fine plot for Woody to plaster his jokes onto and for the most part well, it works. I laughed. As usual Allen casts a fantastic group of supporting actors, this time featuring Evan Rachel Wood, Michael McKean and the fabulous Patricia Clarkson.

#8: Adventureland-

Sloppy but sweet. Greg Mottola's coming-of-age tale marks a huge improvement over his last film, the unfunny, incredibly overlong Superbad. Adventureland is the name of a cheap amusement park where James, an intelligent but adrift college graduate played by Jesse Eisenberg, finds employment in the summer of 1987. There he bonds with Joel, an even more overeducated slacker (played perfectly by Freaks and Geeks' Martin Starr) and falls for wild child Em (Kristen Stewart). Most every note rings true in this wistful look back to finding one's footing in an uncertain world.

#7: The Princess and the Frog-

What can I say? Despite the heavy corporate hand guiding its every move, The Princess and the Frog won me over. Filled with a strong shot of skepticism during the overly broad first act, I finally succumbed to the film's charms around the time the two nouns in the title became one. A fair share of the credit goes to Randy Newman and his abundance of genre pastiches that pleasantly punctuate the soundtrack. But in all honesty the film cracks my top ten for the jaw-droppingly gorgeous animation alone. One beautiful set piece after another comes hurtling at you, a wash of rich colors and perfect lines. It may not be a perfect film, a masterpiece that ushers in a new renaissance in Disney animation, but The Princess and the Frog is most definitely something to proud of.

#6: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans-

Forget Judd Apatow and Sacha Baron Cohen, for my money the funniest cinematic comedian at present is Werner "Sourpuss" Herzog. His last film, the Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, was far and away the funniest film I saw last year, what with its suicidal penguins and goat-riding monkeys. This year Werner significantly upped the ante with a very loose remake of Abel Ferrara's 1992 Bad Lieutenant, swapping out Harvey Keitel for Nicolas Cage, and adding a whole lot of hallucinating iguanas. In most every respect the film shouldn't work but time and again Herzog subverts our expectations and takes another left-turn into the increasing madness. The film at times feels like both a mockery of by-the-book crime movies and Herzog's own oeuvre, ominous shots of snakes swimming through rising flood waters are juxtaposed with rants about Swiss cotton underpants. Cage deserves a large share of the credit for committing himself fully to the material as does the supporting cast, particularly Val Kilmer and Brad Dourif. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a gloriously unhinged film, crossing the heretofore uncharted territory between the Wire and Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing Las Vegas.

#5: Up-

After two consecutive years topping my year-end lists, Pixar falls a few notches with their latest, Pete Docter's Up. It is a thankless task following up such contemporary masterpieces as Ratatouille and WALL*E and Up unfortunately cannot escape comparisons to those films. It's not to say that the film is wholly inferior to those works, in fact I think the five-minute wordless "life" sequence at the beginning of the film is the greatest sustained segment in any of Pixar's ten features. Months after seeing the film I catch myself thinking of that section, Michael Giacchino's devastating theme playing in my head, as I see that image of Carl consoling Ellie at the doctor's office and I just start bawling. I'm crying right now as I type this. It is a work of art of the highest order and I enthusiastically applaud Mr. Docter and the folks at Pixar for pulling it off. Unfortunately, like WALL*E did to a lesser degree when the action shifted to the Axiom, the final hour of Up fails to sustain the lofty heights of its first third. I find the journey to South America over too soon, Muntz's reversal unearned, his petty villainy too thin, and the finale of the film to be rushed in its pacing. They're all minor quibbles and in many respects I analyze Pixar films far more than I should, but it's not my fault. They are the ones who raised the bar so incredibly high. Regardless, Up is still the most gorgeous, heartfelt film I saw this year.

#4: Moon-

I can think of very few actors working today who could hold my attention for an hour-and-a-half as they do little more than talk to a themselves and interact with the occasional robot. The great Sam Rockwell is definitely on my shortlist. In Duncan Jones's directorial debut Moon, Mr. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut stranded on our satellite, harvesting energy to be sent back to Earth. Just as his three-year mission is drawing to a close, when he can finally head home to his family and civilization, a whole bunch of crazy shit starts happening. He starts bleeding for no reason, having the occasional blackout, and thinks he sees himself wandering the space station corridors. The film's initial head trip slowly gives way to a moving, thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human. It's a poignant little film with one phenomenal performance at its heart.

#3: A Serious Man-

What do you get when you mix a Yiddish prologue, car crashes, marijuana, death, tornados and the Jefferson Airplane? The answer is A Serious Man, easily the Coen brothers' densest, most idiosyncratic work since 2001's the Man Who Wasn't There. The story of a Jewish physics professor having a crisis of faith in the 1960s manages to be both a bleak, depressing inquiry into the futility of existence and a damn funny film to boot. Michael Stuhlbarg gives one of the year's best performances as Larry Gopnik, a man increasingly aware of the indifference of the world. As usual with Coens, the attention to period detail is flawless, summoning up a Jewish Midwestern home life I swear I had. It is the brothers' most intriguing, beguiling and rewarding film in a decade.

#2: Inglourious Basterds-

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is the cinematic equivalent to Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. Both were long-gestating, much-ballyhooed projects that over their years of speculation and anticipation grew in our collective mind to become almost mythical works. That they both finally saw the light of day in 2009 and succeeded in fulfilling our every expectation is a wonder. Every beat in Basterds is pitch perfect, Tarantino's sense of rhythm has never been sharper. From the taut opening half-hour conversation, to the Mexican stand-off to end all Mexican stand-offs, all the way through to the heartbreaking climax, where three disparate stories come crashing together in a most magnificent fashion, Tarantino is shall I say, on fire here. The game international cast is spectacular, headed by the great Christoph Waltz, whose Hanz Landa is simply one of the most fascinating villains in movie history. I feel sorry for anyone who missed out on seeing this film in the theatre. Home viewing will not suffice for this violent and beautiful beast. Tarantino's love of cinema is far too grand.

#1: The Limits of Control-

Jim Jarmusch's the Limits of Control is ostensibly the story of a reserved hitman on a mission who has a series of conversations over espresso with enigmatic characters. In this regard the film appears to be a reflection on Jarmusch's work over the past decade (hitman = Ghost Dog; mission = Broken Flowers; conversations = Coffee and Cigarettes) but the Limits of Control manages to both delve deeper and go much farther than any of these films. It is less a story of a quiet professional than a chance for Jarmusch to lay his artistic heart bare before us. The film becomes a muted manifesto for the transcendence of art and its uncorrupted, intangible power to move us. Coming from a man most often described as cool and removed, I find the Limits of Control to have a surprising amount of warmth. It feels like a very personal film for the often detached director. Best of all, the disparate pieces at work here all fit together seamlessly. The gentle rhythm of the elliptical vignettes is both hypnotic and stimulating, drawing us into a world of discipline and beauty. Christopher Doyle's sumptuous cinematography is certainly the best of the year and the drone metal score by Japanese band Boris (named after a Melvins song) is gorgeous. And finally, at the center of this wonderful, intelligent film is Isaach De Bankole who cedes most of the dialogue to a stellar supporting cast but never once loses his place at the film's center. His inscrutable face hides a complexity that is teased out ever so slowly to the final frame. No film this year managed to spin so many plates to such an amazing effect. It is a film whose charms one cannot control.

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