Favorite Films of 2009
Here’s a list of my very favorite films* of 2009.
1) ADVENTURELAND. This is an interesting choice, I know. I get shit all the time for liking this movie and now I’ll hear about it even more for placing it atop my list. But, I love it. Adventureland was mis-marketed when it came out. Sure Greg Mottola directed it, but this is no Superbad 2. It’s an honest, slow, and caring look at growing up. A coming of age story that deals with work, family, and love in familiar yet fresh ways. Jesse Eisenberg may play the same character he does in every film, but he plays it brilliantly here. And you almost forget Kristin Stewart is Bella Swan in those other movies, as she pulls off a moving and subtle performance here as Em, Eisenberg’s love interest. Rounding out the cast are favorites like Martin Starr, Bill Hader, and Kristing Wiig each adding another layer to the film.
2) UP IN THE AIR. You know those movies you go into with such high expectations you just can’t help but be let down? Up in the Air was already on a number of top ten lists before I got a chance to see it. I had already heard that George Clooney gave a career-defining performance, and that Anna Kendrick was sure to be a star. My expectations could not have been higher. But, then I saw it. And Up in the Air delivered. Topical in a way Director Jason Reitman never could have anticipated, this film about a corporate downsizer who spends 250 lonely days per year flying, somehow manages to make you care about a man who fires (sometimes dozens of) people every day. The performances are astounding, particularly Clooney and Kendrick, but what’s surprising is the heart.
3) (500) DAYS OF SUMMER. Is there anything more tired and cliche than the Romantic Comedy? I mean, this is the year that gave us The Ugly Truth and Confessions of a Shopaholic. (500) Days of Summer while not completely free of the usual Romantic Comedy trappings (goofy best friend, precocious little sister) rises above the genre with inventive writing and direction, a non-linear plot, and dashes of creativity that in lesser hands would have felt like trite indie-movie tropes. Instead we get an engaging story about love (not a love story), led by my favorite new pair of leading actors: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
4) STAR TREK. I’ve only seen two episodes of the original series, and I have no interest in dressing up and attending a Star Trek convention, but I still loved this movie. And that says a lot about what Director J.J. Abrams accomplished here. A movie for fans and novices alike, what makes Star Trek so successful are the intense action, the seamless effects, and a story we care about. We know who these characters are, and we care what happens, whether or not we’ve already been watching them for 40 years.
5) INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. This is easily my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. For the first time in his career, I feel like style serves the substance instead of the other way around. He’s confident enough to leave scenes at a desperately-long 25 minutes, even when the only thing happening is a conversation. But, it’s in these scenes that the tension rises to levels higher than in any other film this year. Lives are threatened here just as often by the tone of a voice as by the end of a bat. It’s thrilling, unexpected, and altogether original.
6) AVATAR. Talk about a movie with high expectations. James Cameron’s first feature in over a decade was famous well before anyone ever saw a screen shot. Estimates of the film’s enormous budget were circulating before any reviews came in. But now that the film is out and the dust has settled, what remains? A beautiful and groundbreaking film. I won’t argue the merits of the story, as it is indeed a sort of environmentalist Dances with Wolves. But the effects are incredible. It’s the best 3D and motion capture I’ve ever seen. You forget that the Na’vi aren’t a real people Cameron found, that Pandora isn’t a real place. As promised, I think we’ll find that Avatar was the beginning of a new wave of filmmaking.
7) FANTASTIC MR. FOX. If Cameron demonstrated the possibilities of cutting edge technology, Wes Anderson showed just how much could be accomplished with anachronistic stop motion. A project years in the making, Fantastic Mr. Fox looks like a handmade art school project. And I mean that in the best possible way. Every frame is filled with Anderson’s details: Carpet patches as farmland seen from above, a tiny corduroy suit, miniature paintings. The things we came to love about The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore years before somehow feel original again in this context. Here’s proof that Anderson one of the best directors of the 1990’s still has some originality left nearly 20 years later.
8) UP. Pixar has yet to make a bad film, and even with this impressive pedigree, Up is one of their best. Where they’ve dealt with children and families before, Up takes a decidedly different approach, as the main character is an older man whose life has largely already passed. In perhaps the best montage of the year, we see his whole life progress from childhood, up until the death of his long-time love. It’s new ground for Pixar and it works. The story falters only slightly near the end with a villain that’s a little too stilted.
9) WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. There are only two ways to view this film: 1) It’s boring, slow, confusing, and seems to have little to do with the book or anything else -or- 2) It’s brilliant, visually-rich, emotionally complex, and challenging. I’m in the latter camp. Spike Jonze, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Dave Eggers, created the strangest mainstream film of the year. Love it or hate it, it’s absolutely worth viewing.
10) ZOMBIELAND/THE HANGOVER. I guess this is cheating, but I liked these two for the same reason. They’re just fun. They aren’t trying to be anything more than pure, simple entertainment. And sometimes that’s what we really want. They can’t all be Up in the Air.
* I should mention that there are a few movies I haven’t seen yet that probably would have made this list. Among them are: The Hurt Locker, Big Fan, Precious, A serious Man, and A Singe Man.