There was an interesting thing that happened as I was watching movies in 2009. Overall, I feel like there were a lot of good movies. Very few times did I leave a theater disappointed or let down. But there were even fewer times when I walked out truly wowed. Last year, I was blown away by instant classics like WALL-E and Rachel Getting Married. The year before, there were two masterpieces with No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. I don't think I saw any films last year on par with those four. This, more than anything, is what caused me to take such a long time working on my ten best list. How do you quantify a bunch of films that you essentially like about the same? I worked unreasonably hard on this (really, why is this even an issue in my life?), and think I came up with a satisfactory list that could probably be rearranged at some point in the future. Here's the list:
1. The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Point Break filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow created the best film of her career in this taught Iraq drama. Hurt Locker follows three soldiers in the Army's bomb squad unit. It's the epitome of a high stress workplace, and can only be lead by the most skilled and most emotionally stable technicians. Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is the perfect man for the job; he is able to walk into the most dangerous situations and perform with stunning efficiency. Better yet, he has an addiction to the adrenaline, and its this seeming death wish that causes his partner Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) to label him as "reckless". Lead by two spectacular performances from Renner and Mackie, Bigelow's film deals with tension better than any non-horror film I've ever seen. Every bomb disablement, every situation, continues to add to the stomach-turning anxiety. It's an anti-war film unlike any I've ever seen, and it's the closest any 2009 film came to that "great" category.
2. 500 Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb
Kind of a hipster Annie Hall or a level-headed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 500 Days is such a self-referential delight that it seems to take these kinds of comparisons with a wry smile. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hopeless romantic, and when he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), he's convinced that she is the one. Only problem, Summer refuses to believe in love and is only interested taking Tom along for a good time. Tom plays along with the charade as long as he gets to spend time with Summer, but as time moves along, and he and Summer get closer, he expects her to return the same romantic feeling. Summer responds with disastrous indifference. This is a decade filled with interesting spins on the romantic comedy, and 500 Days is one of the most original voices within this sub-genre. The film has everything: comedy, tragedy, animation, and even a musical number set to Hall & Oats' "You Make My Dreams Come True". With a brilliant performance from Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer is a bittersweet, handsomely told tale about contemporary love that actually feels real. Few movie love stories do.
Directed by Erick Zonca
Much like The Wrestler last year, Julia is a film that's brilliance stems from one sole source: it's lead performance. In The Wrestler, it was Mickey Rourke, and in Julia, we are greeted with a career-best performance from Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays the title character, Julia, an alcoholic whose debts run deep and friends run thin. When she meets Elena (Kate del Castillo) at one of her AA meetings, she agrees to help the woman kidnap her son back from a meddling grandfather. Julia takes matters into her own hands when she kidnaps Elena's son herself and holds him for her own ransom. The already scatter-brained plan falls off the deep end as Julia continues to make the worst possible decisions in high-stress situations. Sure, the probability of some of the moments in the script can be questioned, but Swinton walks into the role with total sincerity, and created one of the most interesting film characters that I've ever seen.
Directed by James Cameron
I find myself in an interesting position lately, where I find myself having to defend my positive feelings toward what is--box office wise--the most popular film of all time. No doubt, a film as large as Avatar is bound to get a thunderous backlash, but I've held firm: when I walked out of Avatar, I knew I had just watched something that I'd never seen before. So, is it just a special effects fireworks show with a simple screenplay? I give it a little more credit. The film, about a handicapped marine (Sam Worthington) who becomes involved within a primitive culture named Na'vi, has been said to rip off several films including Dances With Wolves and Fern Gully. But here's my personal feelings: how can you judge a film like Avatar by focusing on the film's single weakest point? It's screenplay. People forget that Avatar is probably the single greatest technical achievement in movie history, and while the story is near forgettable, the film isn't.
5. Inglourious Basterds
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
I had been waiting to see Tarantino's Basterds for close to seven years. It was a project that had been on-and-off since BEFORE the Kill Bill films. That said, I feel Inglourious Basterds came as close to meeting expectations as it could (nothing could've been the masterpiece I wanted when I walked into that theater). A spaghetti western/revenge film set in Nazi-occupied France, Basterds plays fast and loose with the facts of the time, and is probably the most fun I've ever had urinating on history. Tarantino's screenplay holds some of the best dialogue that he has ever written (which is saying something), which includes two scenes of twenty-plus minutes of people just talking--where the tension is thick enough to cut with a knife. The film also has stunning performances, including Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna, a young, Jewish Frenchwoman who seeks revenge on the Nazi who massacred her family. That Nazi is "Jew hunter" Hans Landa, played in a virtuoso performance by Christoph Waltz. In work that will certainly win Waltz an Oscar, he displays a smorgasbord of nuance and subtle menace.
6. The Messenger
Directed by Oren Moverman
There are war films about the battlefield, and then there are war films about the mental battle back home. The Messenger is one of the latter. After becoming an Army hero, Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is sent home and told to finish his tour as a Casualty Notification officer--basically, he notifies the next-of-kin when their loved ones have died overseas. He is coached by the veteran CNO Ct. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), but is never prepared to face the immense grief with each notification he gives. Lead by the two stunning performances from Foster and Harrelson, The Messenger is a stunning debut from filmmaker Oren Moverman. It displays the unmitigated destruction war can bring on the home soil better than any film since Coming Home. There is a weariness in the way the story is told, but the film itself never becomes dreary. The slow mental crumbling of Stone and Montgomery are showed with brash realism, allowing the two actors to take full advantage of some very chewy scenes.
7. A Serious Man
Written and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Oh, those pesky little Coen Brothers. Burn After Reading was considered to be a sign that they may be taking it easy after the masterpiece No Country For Old Men, but then they came out with this stunning film. A Serious Man is about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a college professor who has a litany of troubles throughout his life, including: a student trying to bribe him for a better grade, a son who acts up in school and smokes marijuana, a troubled brother who won't move off of his couch, and a wife who is leaving him for a close family friend. The world is falling in on Larry, and he does his best to seek philosophical help for everything that's troubling him. He can't find solace in anything; not in his family, not in his synagogue, and not in his attractive next door neighbor. A Single Man is said to be more personal then most of the Coens' films, and it is certainly their most existential. Searching through themes like the meaning of life and the power of spirituality and chance, A Serious Man is a stunning portrait of a spiritual crisis and a dastardly condemnation of trying to find meaning in mundane events.
8. Bright Star
Written and Directed by Jane Campion
In a true return to form, Jane Campion's Bright Star is her best film since 1993's The Piano. In the stuffy genre of Victorian-period drama, Campion crafted a story bursting with passion while still keeping hold of its chastity. It is the story of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), a seamstress who is excellent at keeping hold of her emotions. When she is introduced to the young poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw), their love grows quickly. Obstacles disrupt their relationship, including John's poverty, Fanny's career options, and John's friend Charles (Paul Schneider) who insists that a successful poet cannot be distracted by anything as fleeting as love. We all know the tragedy of John Keats, which makes Bright Star that much more melancholy. It's a pretty unique experience: a tragic love story that never manages to feel tragic. Campion's beautiful direction allows the film to be awash in color and vibrancy. With stunning performances from Cornish, Whishaw, and Schneider, Bright Star is one of the great unsung films of 2009 and one of the best.
9. An Education
Directed by Lone Scherfig
In a fair world, Carey Mulligan's performance in An Education would make her one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Time may show whether that happens or not, but what we do know now is this: her performance in this film is something beyond special. Watching her wonderful work as the dangerously naive teenager Jenny, I discovered what it must have felt like to see Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire or Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. It obviously helps that the performance is the centerpiece of a terrifically crafted film. When Jenny meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a charming playboy who's twice her age, she allows him to take her out of her isolated world of studying and prudence. As the truth about David slowly reveals itself, Jenny learns about growing up the hard way. There is nothing original or surprising in this screenplay, but that is not the point. It's a wonderful study of maturation at various ages and told with delicacy and grace.
10. Where The Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
Time will tell whether or not it was a good idea to give Spike Jonze a hundred million dollars to make Wild Things, but early figures show that it probably wasn't the most prudent choice. It's difficult to really form an opinion on a film like this, except to be specific and clear: this is something special and something that will stick with you long after you've finished it. Based on the classic children's book by Maurice Sendak, we are introduced to Max (Max Records), an unruly child who throws a tantrum and escapes to a fantastical world filled emotionally conflicted creatures. Sure, this is probably not the standard plot for a film aimed at children, but it does make for a very effective movie experience. The voice talents of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O'Hara, and Chris Cooper are used to flesh out the wild things, and spectacular face capture special effects add to their liveliness. With the addition of a music score by Carter Burwell and Karen O., Where The Wild Things Are is a fascinating piece of audacious filmmaking and something that should be remembered for years to come.
TIED FOR 11TH PLACE
Up In The Air was a very timely, effective film about personal connection; Anvil! The Story of Anvil was a surprisingly heartbreaking documentary on lifetime rockers; Precious was the film of the moment (three months ago) and holds some of the most powerful filmmaking of the year--as well as some stunning work from Mo'Nique; Up continued the excellent tradition of the Pixar studios; Whip It! was a super-fun, girl-oriented roller derby film that was not afraid to embrace its own estrogen; Moon was one of the best science fiction of the decades, with career work from Sam Rockwell; and Fantastic Mr. Fox was a great middle-finger toward animation and narrative purists, and a return to form for Wes Anderson.