Friday, March 05, 2010

Best of 2009

Mike here with my favorites of 2009. Strange year. Overall, I was well entertained, but a top 10 has not been easy to put together. My top two formed fairly quickly this summer. But after 1-4, 5-7 could almost be interchangeable, and I would have been happier to put together a top twelve or thirteen. And anything 5-13 would have had difficulty getting into any previous year this past decade. Ok, not 2000 or 2006, but every other year. Please, don't get me wrong, this was an entertaining year. Check my previous posts of 09 films, and there were some good pictures.

But I can only have ten, and luckily none of them were Antichrist. Alternating between fascinating and "Give me a break", aided by a great first ten minutes, and a strong lead performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg. But even she and Willem Dafoe can't escape being reduced to living symbols of "unfettered nature" and "blind arrogant logic", respectively. But after the halfway mark, when she jacks off Willem Dafoe and blood shoots out of his penis, I thought "Fuck you, Lars von Triers", and emotionally checked out.

Now this wasn't the worst film I'd seen of 09, that would be Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But that wasn't horrific, just bland with all the funny parts in the trailer. And I only saw that, because we paid to see Slumdog Millionaire with a coupon, tried to sneak into My Bloody Valentine (because sometimes you just want to see teenagers get hit in the head with a pick axe, in 3-D), couldn't sneak in, and settled for the only other film starting at that time, Paul Blart. Oops. But it didn't piss me off, making me imagine my money going up in flames, and into von Triers pocket, like Antichrist did.

Like I said with previous lists, it's subject to change when I get older, but this particular, I don't see much changing here, except for putting The White Ribbon to number 10 or moving White Ribbon and film number ten up a slot, and removing number 9. Maybe, just maybe. Though any film that requires reading about the subtext before going in, doesn't deserve a spot in my top 10. Deserves to be seen, especially for its cinematography. Maybe a repeat viewing will change my view; I'm not opposed to the idea.

Anyway, when the films I missed catching, turned out to be some scattered indies, documentaries, and foreign films, plus Nine, The Messenger, and Julie and Julia, I'm just fine with the list as is. Here we go:

10) AVATAR- Yes, the overall scripts is nothing special. You'd rather wish that James Cameron just conceives the story, and let someone else write the actual dialogue. If he hired ghost writers, wow they suck. I could have lived a long time without Cameron indulging in a little 9/11 imagery with the destruction of the giant tree. Just because Avatar's story is interchangeable with Disney's Pocahontas (don't believe me; see the outline I posted above) and might forever be known as Dances with Smurfs, doesn't make it a bad film. I liked Dances With Wolves, and I liked Star Wars, therefore I liked Avatar. A visual spectacle, though it seems to only work best in 3-D. This may not be much, but for the Star Wars of this current generation, I'm fine with that. The idea of this film representing anti-American rhetoric, a bit much. The republic will survive. If anything, the typical Lars von Triers film is a crueler American depiction.

Yeah, I got nothing else. Maybe if it was a better film. Just speed through as much dialogue as you can when you get the DVD, and enjoy the action.

9) CRAZY HEART- I came into this expecting a slightly upbeat version of The Wrestler, with a Southern drawl, and a lot less New Jersey. But I got an unexpected treat, despite it being a story of an alcoholic country singer/ songwriter, who hasn't quite hit bottom, but who interests a small town journalist on the way down. More than a little reminiscent of Tender Mercies, starring Crazy Heart's Robert Duvall (who has a small role), but that's a plus here.

Good dialogue, with not just credible but good country music performances. And gee, now that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been nominated for her very good performance here, people who hated her in Dark Knight seemed to suddenly shut the fuck up. Probably because they actually haven't seen Crazy Heart, but hopefully that should change. Now her character falling so hard for the drunken singer is some serious bullshit to swallow. Maybe the fact that the singer also cares for her son helps us swallow some of this, but not all, thus the lower ranking on this list.

Fans of acting should study Jeff Bridges' performance like you would examine the Zapruder film. Incredibly naturalistic, just as likely to tip over for a bad gait as he is for a lack of sobriety, determined to live out every cliche of a country song because it's all he can do. Alternately proud, defiant, and slowly waking up to how pathetic his life has become. Bridges is why the film is on this list at all, and why if he wins for Best Actor, it won't come off as career achievement, like Pacino in Scent of a Woman, but as a reward for vibrant work.

8) DEPARTURES- Winner of Best Foreign Film last year. I was stunned that this beat both The Class and Waltz With Bashir, two of my favorites from 2008. While I won't put it above either film, I fell for this subtle Japanese film. A failed musician unexpectedly becomes good at a new job. An encoffiner, who prepares a dead body in robes and ceremony, usually in front of family, before the body is put in a coffin. But in a society where handling dead bodies, and especially making money off of death, is considered taboo, he's treated like if not worse, then a garbage man here in the states. Good acting, subtly funny in the first half, and moving in the second half. Find it on Netflix, or whenever it finally hits Sundance or IFC.

7) THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX- The most fun I had of any film on this list, and my favorite Wes Anderson film, replacing The Royal Tennanbaums. Also the best Roald Dahl adaptation, sorry Willy Wonka fans (both film versions), and an underrated caper film. Not for little kids, but kids at least 8 shouldn't have the adult sensibilities The story of the super suave Mr. Fox, who can't feel complete domestic bliss without going back to dabbling his old job, stealing chickens from three evil foxes. He's not the perfect father (his son feels inadequate on a good day), his wife is mad at being lied to, and he certainly doesn't concern himself with consequences. Until the farmers seek brutal revenge on him and their animal friends. But how can you hate a man, er, fox, who has lines like "Who am I? And how can a fox ever be happy without, you'll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?".

It's as though Anderson's sensibilities match well with animation, though it's probably just my reaction to a film director knowing how to put pictures together. Like George Miller and Happy Feet, with better results. The use of stop motion animation is impressive, the screenplay adaptation is highly underrated, and the voice casting was well done indeed. Yes, Clooney was pitch perfect, though if Jason Schwartzman doesn't pull off the role of the son, the story would have had major problems. My favorite was Willem Dafoe, embodying everything that's stereotypically slimy about rats, and the French. I was stunned how little seen this film was, and can only hope that when the DVD comes out at the end of March, will at least raise its profile to cult status.

6) UP- The best animated film of 2009, but barely. Based on the reaction, you would think this was the greatest animated film ever made. And the first eleven minutes were excellent film making. But because of how sensitive and not-completely kid friendly that segment is, I can almost understand why Disney advertised this as a laugh riot.

But that feels a little like false advertising. Up, I feel, is a fantasy adventure like E.T., and is only a comedy like that Spielberg film. You might not remember that E.T. has quite a number of hilarious sequences, but who thinks of that as a comedy? Up is a wonderful adventure film, with great visuals, and anytime I see Dug the dog, I can't help but laugh. But the best animated film ever? I won't go in that exact direction, but last I heard, Wall-E's perfect 35 minutes, is more than triple Up's 11 minutes. I was reminded by someone who saw last year's Best of list, that I lean heavily toward dystopian fare, so Up number one? Sorry, it have to settle for being in comparable Ratatouille/ The Incredibles territory, which is pretty damned good.

5) INGLORIOUS BASTERDS-Accept the fact that this is essentially an alternate universe that resembles World War 2, and you have a good "movie" movie here. It makes up its own rules, makes Eli Roth human (I'm still waiting for "Thanksgiving" damn it!), and introduces all English language-speaking only Americans to Melanie Laurent and the sure to win an Oscar Christoph Waltz. I'm so glad I caught this in its one week re-release in December, as opposed to its first few weeks; probably full of people, waiting such a long time for action scenes and bloody scalps, they probably would have been highly annoying.

Still, by the time we got to London, featuring Mike Meyers and The Birds' Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill, I was beginning to lose a little interest. Not that I didn't like the sequence. I did, and it was important to set up the extended, tense, bar scene with Diane Kruger (also good). But it was taking me away from Laurent's character, Waltz's character, and a lot more of the Basterds. And they were stronger sections. But the payoffs in the cinema makes everything worth it. Check out Waltz early in that lobby scene (before he has his one on one with Kruger). The way he's absolutely enjoying this cat and mouse with these ridiculous Basterds, it's my favorite scene.

4) BROKEN EMBRACES- Pedro Almodovar returns to Bad Education territory. Constantly shifting in time, with a movie inside a movie aspect. While I can understand why some won't think this is in his top three or four, I liked Bad Education too much not to enjoy Broken Embraces nearly as much. A sad romance, as a former film director, now blind screenwriter, is forced to look back at his doomed romance with an actress (played by Penelope Cruz, who always seems to be good when speaking her native tongue) with a powerful, abusive older husband. The mysteries are fairly easy to figure out, but it's all about execution, and Pedro has that going on in spades. His most self-assured film yet.

3) UP IN THE AIR - Jason Reitman's and George Clooney's best films yet. Actually Reitman doesn't have that many films on his credit, but don't hold that against me for that lame statement. But Clooney has made quite a few, and considering that while I liked Michael Clayton, I wasn't beating the drums saying it was one of the best films of that year or in George's career. But I will here.

The basic story: a man more comfortable living out of hotels and airports, who's hired to go around the country to layoff individuals, must accept less time on the road and do his job via teleconference, or else he might not have a job at all. While showing the ropes to a young arrogant programmer, he falls for another woman, who spends about the same amount of time on the road as he does.

But the first thing it got to me was that the three characters I brought up, all seemed to follow some aspect of Spock. Now, the common misconception of the Spock character is that he is an emotionless man. He's not emotionless; they are there, he just spends his time (varying, depending on the episode or film) suppressing them, keeping them in check. Anna Kendrick's character treats the idea of firing people over a computer as amounts of data, and she starts off sounding the most Vulcan. But when she actually lays off people, both in person and through a monitor, and her personal life falls apart, she falls apart as well. Vera Farmiga's character, ok this Spock character thing doesn't work too well. She just happens to de-compartmentalize her emotions; she might appear to be the most bubbly, but she's probably even colder than Jason Bateman's boss character. And Clooney's character, until he meets Farmiga, only seems to be able to emote, when consoling those he's laying off. In order to survive a rootless life, he's kind of achieved a position of total logic and certainty. But it also cuts him off from any personal connections or passions. While Spock abandoned this pursuit, Clooney's trapped, and self-awareness of his situation only makes worse.

But it does make a compelling story, even for non-Trekkies. It probably wouldn't be ranked as high, if the usage of mostly non-actors getting fired didn't work. Using actual laid off people, to either re-enact how they were fired, or to say what they wish they could have said when they were fired, added an emotional resonance. Not in only their firing scenes, but their eventually depiction of being able to pick up the pieces and move on, contrasting with the inability of Clooney's character to do the same, packs a punch.

A very good dark dramedy, but for a film that ventures further in the comedy without losing any of its darkness, there's . . .

2) IN THE LOOP - Now starts the portion of the list where there's a clear divide in quality from the rest of the list. I brought this film up back in January. The Oscar nominee you probably don't know, unless you've been around me, pounding this film's virtues since it's late July release. The best political comedy since Dr. Strangelove. I'm not the first to say this, but it gives you an idea. If the best political on-screen satire in between these films is Wag The Dog, you get the idea how brutally difficult it is to pull this kind of picture off. The best comedy of 2009, and also the best film made from a TV series with the same or similar number of original cast members from the series. Now granted, that's a small number with the most notable titles being Sex And The City and Star Trek.

But I'm not trying to damn with faint praise. It's also one of the best satires, political or otherwise, in a long while. The film comes from the British series The Thick of It, a descendant of "Yes, Minster" and "Yes, Prime Minister", and written and shot in the same style as both versions of The Office. In this film, Presidents and Prime Ministers seem to set the agenda for their respective governments, but it's up to others lower in the food chain to implement and sometimes, actually decide the policy. Or change the policy to stay in power, by any verbal means necessary. And if you're in the British government, do not piss off the American government.

When a low level Minister accidentally remarks that major power war involvement in the Middle East is "unforeseeable", then accidentally makes a statement advocating war when trying to recant the previous statement, it launches a shit storm between both the American and British governments. Also fighting are 2 factions within the U.S. govt., between a war pushing Rumsfeld-type, and anti-war Hillary and Colin Powell types. All with their own acolytes that might be for or against them. Both sides trying to convince the Brits to get on board. And how does everyone deal with each other? Pretty much like high school. The bigger the insults in a world where words cause harm, the better. And winning is all that matters, damn the opposition, and us.

Now did I mention at any point this film is hysterical? It never sacrifices humor just for a jab. At times, it figures out how to do both, but priority one is humor. On occasion, the characters sound too similar to each other, but will you be laughing too hard to notice? Probably. Scenes are stolen left and right by Peter Capaldi, of who it would be a major disappointment if In The Loop is too small to get him noticed for a Supporting Actor nomination. He plays the British (but don't call him FUCKING ENGLISH!!!!) communications manager who, despite his title, can verbally intimidate and/or crush his subordinates, and other ministers, even those supposedly more powerful than he. The character is modeled after Tony Blair's press secretary, Alistair Campbell after all.

But does he meet his match against the Americans? The film seems partly set up as a Clash of the Titans between Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, and James Gandolfini's Powell-esque general. Maybe it feels that way because of Gandolfini's impact as Tony Soprano. But the scenes between Capaldi and Gandolfini are nothing short of electric and show-stopping.

Now on DVD, so now you have no excuse not to catch it.

1) THE HURT LOCKER- Finally, Kathryn Bigelow fulfills the promise of Near Dark. After stuff like Point Break and Blue Steel, I essentially gave up on her (I'm pretending that K-19 The Widowmaker doesn't exist.). But with The Hurt Locker, not only do we have a good war film and a very good drama, but we have the best action film in a long time. Great tension, following a bomb disposal unit in Iraq, where the second they leave their compound, anyone with a cell phone, or peaking out of a window, may be trying to kill them. And that's not counting the openly armed enemy.

But having a lead character, superbly played by Jeremy Renner (capable of pulling off an Adrian Brody-esque win over Jeff Bridges), treating war like a drug, was fascinating. Ok, it's not war, it's adrenaline. Having an adrenaline junkie, taking over the lead of a team only wanting to get out safely in the last thirty days of their tour, in the environment I just mentioned. The "junkie" will do his duty, because it's not only his job, but it's where he can get his fix. But when the distinctions blur, and his comrades wonder whether they're considered less important than his fix, Then this film begins to rock. Yes, the film offers no explanation for his behavior, but because the character himself refuses to fully explain himself, not even to his wife, I'm fine with that.

I'm disappointed that I wasn't very successful in getting people to see it last summer, or after it received a lot of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. I hope after Sunday night's ceremony; where its clips will be seen by more people than those who actually paid to see it, and where it will hopefully win Best Picture, that The Hurt Locker will finally find an audience. I'm mean, seriously, Summit Distribution knows how to sell a vampire fairy tale in Twilight, but they can't figure out how to sell this? Give me a break.

That's it. Later all.


JC said...

Okay, so we share five films in the top ten. Come to think of it, I think the same thing happened last year. And the year before!

JC said...

Also, I gotta admit, by your description alone, it sounds to me as if you like In the Loop more than Hurt Locker. Maybe that's really your #1, at least according to what you wrote, that's how it comes across.