Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Movies of 2009... That I Actually Managed to See

Not looking to do much analysis, just wanted to note that I saw a rather large number of good 2009 releases, and wanted to list the films that I would legitimately consider great. Of course, this is about a month and a half too late to mean anything, and there's still a shitload of movies that sound good that I haven't caught up with. So this is hardly a definitive or meaningful list. More of a diary entry that can hopefully offer up a few recommendations to people who read this.

I honestly don't have a clear favorite from last year and don't feel the need to rank these, so it will be in alphabetical order:

Adoration

After seeing Exotica early last year, I got a full-on evil robot chubby for the films of Atom Egoyan. I've read critics who don't like the fractured-timeline method of storytelling that he often employs, saying that it makes his stories unnecessarily convoluted. I feel that his style is to restructure his narrative in such a way to make it more compelling than it would have been if told chronologically, plus it encourages the viewer to actively participate in his films and not simply passively accept them. Adoration ranks with his best work, foregoing some of the movie sensational aspects of some of his other movies for a more down to earth, moving story exploring different aspects of identity: personal, familial, racial.

Adventureland

It's too bad that Greg Mottola's sweet, perceptive coming-of-age-for-grad-students comedic drama was sold in trailers as a laugh a minute, spiritual sequel to his Superbad. I don't think people knew what to expect, and probably felt let down when the movie amused them but didn't make them bust a gut. Adventureland perfectly captures that feeling of post-collegiate ennui, when the once seemingly infinite possibilities the world offered you shrink considerably, and you find yourself living at home once again because you can't afford to pay rent. Don't get me wrong, I love Superbad to death, but not being a cog in the Apatow machine has freed Mottola to put a little more visual craft into his filmmaking, and to make something that feels more personal. Good use of pop music to establish an era and a tone. Also, I knew I liked Jesse Eisenberg, Kristin Thomas and Martin Starr, but who knew Ryan Reynolds could drop the sarcasm and deliver a performance this good?

Antichrist

I've mentioned this one enough already, so no need to regurgitate here. Did you hear that some Danish video game company is planning on making a video game spin-off/sequel? How the fuck does that even make sense? Where is there left to go with these characters or with this story?

Avatar

I almost feel like a dick for heaping praise on the highest grossing movie of all time, you know? It's been rewarded enough, so I won't ramble. I really did love the movie. Yes, I agree with everyone that it does not have a great screenplay (although, you know, I do think it's efficient and reasonably well structured). But the filmmaking brought the spectacle and the movie magic in spades, two things I am very fond of. Case in point: the wonderful moment during the finale when big blue Zoe Saldana sees Sam Worthington's human body for the first time and cradles him in her arms is a potent combination of romance, excitement, strangeness, and mindbogglingly perfect special effects. Moments like that only come along so often.

Coraline

As the one person on the planet who doesn't much like A Nightmare Before Christmas, no one was more surprised than me that Henry Selick would make a movie I'd connect so strongly with. Besides the obvious visual pleasures, and the fact that Coraline is shockingly dark and unsettling for a children's film, I like the fact Coraline the character is something of a weirdo and bitch (though still likable), in stark contrast the insufferably cute protagonists we typically get in movies like this.

The Girlfriend Experience

I dig that Steven Soderbergh tires something new with each movie, but it means his output is hit or miss. Last year's The Informant! had a great performance by Matt Damon and some weird twists on the corporate thriller genre, but seemed a times slackly structured and was surprisingly ugly looking. The Girlfriend Experience was more of a risk but I thought produced a greater reward. Starring a porn star and a cast of unknowns, with a fractured timeline and a slightly lethargic pace, it's not exactly his most accessible work, but it's a thoughtful and moving examination of the intersection of sexual, social and economic attitudes in post-Bush America.

The House of the Devil

Take a look here for my thoughts and jump in on the discussion below.

The Hurt Locker

I did a long post back in the summer outlining what I loved about this movie; I haven't seen it since and it really begs for a repeat viewing. I wouldn't say it was my favorite of the year, but I am kinda hoping that Kathryn Bigelow gets the Oscar for her work, if only because I'd like to think it would mean some sort of retroactive recognition for Point Break.

Inglourious Basterds

So, Quentin Tarantino has apparently climbed entirely up his own ass at this point and into a fanciful land of make believe, making movies whose context only involves other movies, with no relation to real life. Still, as much as I'd like to see him crawl out of himself and make a movie with more of a basis in reality, I thought that Inglourious Basterds has been the best of his movies-about-movies period. Although the film clearly has several themes it returns to (interrogation, psychological warfare, deception/performance, revenge/poetic justice), I don't believe Tarantino was trying to make any sort of statement about war, or about revenge turning the Jews into Nazis themselves. I just think the film, like his others, is essentially amoral and is more about Tarantino trying to entertaining, amuse, and enthrall his audience by flexing his cinematic muscles. Scenes exists to be great scenes, not to carry a coherent statement or worldview. And on those terms, the film is glouriously successful (forgive the pun). The drawn-out, nearly half hour suspense sequence in the basement bar is up there with the sniper scene in The Hurt Locker for the best crafted piece of cinema in '09.

The Limits of Control

Although I recognize that this is not a film for all tastes, I'm still a little surprised at just how negative its reception was. Were people seriously expecting Jim Jarmusch to deliver a traditional crime thriller and not, you know, a Jim Jarmusch movie? The Limits of Control is a further distillation of the sparse, meditative style Jarmusch has explored in movies like Dead Man; its use of crime/gangster movie iconography makes it something of a spiritual sequel to his Ghost Dog. I think its the best movie he's made since that one, and probably the best looking film he's ever made (thanks to cinematographer Christopher Doyle). Other attributes include Jarmusch's typical offbeat humor, a deconstruction/stripping down of crime movie tropes, something of a self-reflexive commentary on art and on Jarmusch's style, and heap loads of mysteriousness and mind-over-matter mysticism. Check out Jonathan Rosenbaum's brief appreciation of the film here, where he aptly compares it to Le Samourai and Point Blank.

Ponyo

No, I guess its not Miyazaki's best film, but that doesn't make it any less of a great film, feel me? He's back in little kid, My Neighbor Totoro mode here, and this tale of childhood friendship as eye-poppingly beautiful, narratively engaging and emotionally reassuring as his best work. We've come a long way with computer animation, but I treasure the fact that Miyazaki has been a holdout for hand-drawn animation. There is something of a tangible, sensuous quality to his work that is maybe lacking in modern animation.

A Serious Man

Right up there with their best work, the Coen Bros' latest marries the oddball, precisely scripted humor of comedies like The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona with the melancholy, existentialist inquiries of their more "serious" films such as No Country For Old Men or Miller's Crossing. The result is a film that feels the most heartfelt of their filmography, and provides the most elegant expression of their worldview. For filmmakers often accused of condescending to their characters, the movie creates a lot of empathy for its protagonist, a Jewish science professor in the 1960's who finds himself questioning the meaning of existence, while his life slowly falls apart around him. The result is both hilarious and depressing. The Coens may be cynical atheists, but I think A Serious Man also confirms that they are humanists as well.

A Single Man

I've never been a big Colin Firth fan, but left the theater very impressed with his work after seeing this one. His role, as a closeted homosexual in the 1960's mourning the death of his long-term lover, seems like the kind of role where he'd get a bunch of big "Oscar" moments; impassioned speeches and crying and the like. But one of the things that was so great about this film and Firth's performance is how his depression is internalized; his carefully honed exterior only gives the briefest glimpses of the interior turmoil. First time director Tom Ford (best known as a fashion designer) makes this into a powerful sensory experience... perhaps its gimmicky, but I like the way he films Firth in muted tones, except on rare moments when Firth finds himself reconnecting with other people in his life, and brighter colors suddenly find their way into the palette.

Still Walking

I don't really follow the Oscars, but if I were to personally hand out the award for best director, I would be inclined to give it to, or at least have nominated, Hirokazu Koreeda. The material he works with in this film is dark and depressing in places, involving a family observing the anniversary of the accidental death of the oldest son. Yet Koreeda's complex, deep focus staging, and precise, controlled (almost disciplined) framing add a life and beauty that might not have been there otherwise. For a movie about loss, regret, and the ways family members inflict emotional violence on each other, it's surprisingly lively and enjoyable.

Two Lovers

Everyone was so busy focusing on Joaquin Phoenix's (probably fake) meltdown last year that no one noticed that he gave one of the best performances of his career. I had seen one other film by James Gray before this (We Own the Night), a beautifully crafted cop thriller with a silly, stupid storyline. This one marries Gray's obvious technical abilities with a more down to earth, heartfelt story about a depressed young man who finds himself torn between his affections for a sweet girl-next door-type and a bad case of l'amour fou with a high strung nutcase who actually does live next door (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, also great here). Like some of the other films on my list this year, Two Lovers seems like it could be a slog, but instead is often funny and lively, almost effortlessly straddling humor and heartache the whole way through.

Up

It was a great year for animation, wasn't it? The latest in a long line of great Pixar flicks, Up continues the Ratatouille trend of being a secret action movie on top of being a delightful comedy, a touching character drama, and a magical visual experience. It was also the only movie I've ever seen that had the entire theater crying within the first 15 minutes. That's got to be some sort of record, or something.

You, the Living

Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson's precisely shot, kinda surreal, cynical satire of modern society suggests some sort of unholy alliance between Jacques Tati and Luis Bunuel, although that description doesn't quite do it justice. Suffice it to say that I've never seen another movie quite like this one, and I'd call it hilarious if it wasn't so fucking bleak.

20 comments:

Patrick said...

I'll leave a real comment later but first in regards to the antichrist game.
It should be a streets of rage style beat-em-up where you play as he fighting your way home through the faceless women at the end of the film. The boss fights are of course the three beggars.

Shenan said...

Hold up, first of all- are the movies listed in alphabetical order? Nice! I think I've lost the ability to alphabetize without Excel. Now then, on to:

Adventurland- was I the only person who was happily surprised that it wasn't Superbad 2? I went into it thinking it'd be stupid and pointless and just trying to ride Superbad's high-grossing wake, but you convinced me to go because you'd read otherwise, and I was delighted that what you'd read was indeed true.

Coraline- the dark and fantastical atmosphere reminded me of a Roal Dahl story. And a lot of children (as well as adults) love Roal Dahl. I think maybe we're attracted to a little darkness in children's movies (especially as we get older) because childhood is really a kind of dark and scary time in a lot of ways. the world is really big and there's a lot that we don't understand about it- and when we're kids, you know, our imagination doesn't translate all that unknown into sunshine and rainbows. it creates scary, dark things!

My favorite line from A Single Man- "Was it a message from God? Eh, I don't know. Helping people? Couldn't hurt."

Dan said...

I believe you meant A Serious Man.

Shenan said...

...yes.

Joseph said...

I also really liked ADVENTURELAND. It struck me as a sincere, thoughtful coming-of-age tale which isn't afraid to let its characters break out of the stock archetypes so common in that kind of fare. It's earnest, melancholy, nonjudgemental, and it even has some good roles for girls, rather than the usual attractive mcguffin role (I really apprecicate that the standard-issue "popular girl" gets some depth. It would have been so easy not to). Really one of the best of it's ilk I'd seen in a long time.

Weirdly enough, I was working at my job one day when Bill Hader and his brother came through the door (it should be noted that I have a low-level-government-beauracracy job, that has nothing to do with entertainment or famous people). I told them how much I loved "Freaks and Geeks" but they talked mostly about how much they liked making ADVENTURELAND and how bummed they were that people didn't seem to get it. They also spoke very highly of Kristn Stewart, so hopefully she can be forgiven for foisting the TWILIGHTS on us. Also they're way into Buddhist meditation, so that was interesting. Hey, in DC we don't see too many movie stars, so you gotta take em where you can.

Dan said...

It's a crime that ADVENTURELAND didn't get more of an audience. I'm convinced that it's going to pull a DAZED AND CONFUSED and amass a large following over time. D&C did for high school, ADVENTURELAND does for college graduation.

Joseph said...

fuck I meant Martin Starr. Posting fail.

Dan said...

Patrick:

If you come back here to post again, you should check out my 2 year old DARJEELING LIMITED post:

http://danandthemovies.blogspot.com/2007/12/darjeeling-limited.html

We had a good debate going on over there about LIFE AQUATIC that I think you can add to.

Joseph said...

You know, I have to confess that I hadn't seen A SERIOUS MAN yet. I know the Coens are always worth seeing, but man, that's a tough plot summary to try to sell me on. But it was playing last night for two bucks at the Arlington Cinema Drafthouse, and so I figured if it was good enough to make the ol' Best Of list I'd be a fool not to see it in theaters, especially with such an economical opportunity handed to me.

Well, you were right, it's pretty great. Perhaps the most of out their whole filmography, I think its a film only the Coens could have made. It's completely merciless, but the more serious eveything gets, the funnier it somehow is. It ends so perfectly, yet so mysteriously. It's the story of Job, as written by Samuel Beckett.

The one thing which I can't quite wrap my head around is the prologue with the Dybbuk(?). Is it just playing with the idea of the mysteriousness of existence? Or the randomness of punishment? Or the ambiguity of moral outrage? Or something else? I've got no real concrete idea. Maybe with the Coens, its not meant to be interpreted as some concrete thing but rather as an experience to ponder. But I'm still not quite sure why it's in there. I wondered about the tornado too for awhile, and was rather pleased with myself (even more so than usual) for figuring that one out.

Anyway, great movie, thanks for putting me past the tipping point of going to see it.

Dan said...

Joseph,

I took the dybbuk as sort of a microcosm for the existential musings that happen throughout the film... namely, there's some sort of mystery that seems ambiguous, and we never find out the answer. Is it a dybbuk, or did the wife just murder an innocent man? Are Larry's trials a sign from god, or is it all just random? Is Schrodinger's cat dead or alive inside the box? Did the Asian student leave the money or not?

And I think the Coen's come down on the side of the Asian student's father: "Please. Accept the mystery."

Patrick said...

Real Comment Time.
Our lists are basically the same but that's not interesting so I'll talk about where mine would differ.
I actually liked "The Informant" better than "The Girlfriend Experience" which never really grabbed my attention. It wouldn't be on my best of list for this year but I kind of liked its aesthetic and the eventual breakdown of the internal monologue.
My year end list would also include "An Education" and "Where the Wild Things Are". "An Education" mostly because of the performances by Carey Mulligan and Alfred Molina as well as the way it revealed little bits of each character until they were all pretty well rounded. I liked
"Where the Wild Things Are" for most of the same reasons I liked "Coraline", a realistic child protagonist and a unique visual style. It makes me look forward to whatever else Spike Jonze does without Charlie Kaufman, who if "Synechdoche NY" is any indication only wants to make films that are only about Charlie Kaufman.
I was dissapointed with the comedies that came out this year after the last two years had some great ones so should mention "Drag Me to Hell", "Black Dynamite" and "A Serious Man" as comedies that not only gave me good laughs but also made me want to see them again. Of those three only "Black Dynamite" and "A Serious Man" would make my year end list.
I never saw "Adoration", "Two Lovers" or "Still Walking" so I can't comment on those but I will add them to my queue.

As for the discussion about "A Serious Man" I found it to be a gleefully nihilistic as "Burn after Reading" and interpreted the film that way. The Coens love shaggy dog stories and somehow managed to fit three into one movie(The dybbuk, the message from the teeth, and the main plot). I like the ambiguity but I come down on the side of all these trials were random and in the face of that it's ridiculaous that anyone could call themselves serious man. Not Sy Ableman who was a condescending prick, not the rabbis who give awful advice to someone who desperately needs guidance and certainly not Larry who only describes himself that way after hearing it at the funeral.

Joseph said...

Yeah, that's sort of the best I cold come up with, but its the details of it which kind of tug at my brain, asking to be explained. The fact that it's set in the past (but, unless I missed it, with no clear ties to the story) and suggests the somewhat disturbing possibility that this guy is a zombie possessed by an evil spirit. It ends with a possible murder, the consequences of which are never revealed to us (Larry Gopnik: Actions have consequences.
Clive Park: Yes. Often. Larry Gopnik: Always! Actions always have consequences! In this office, actions have consequences!).

That one sequence is so full of odd details I just feel like there's slightly more to it than just to act as an abstract for the film (which I think you're right that it is). I do love that the end credits coyly list the role as "Dybbuk?"

As you know, I'm usually full of (over?)analysis for movies; I have to say that the Coens are one of the few filmmakers working today whose films I love but I actually get a little intimidated trying to interpret. They're so clearly unique visions of the world from these guys' weird heads that it's easy to get lost between the things which they just love to put in movies and the things from which we're intended to draw some specific or symbolic meaning. Does their pornographic fixation of the faces of really old men mean anything, or is it just something they find fucking hilarious? Is BURN AFTER READING a searing indiction of Bush-era pigheaded imperialism, or is it just a bunch of outrageous shit that makes Joel and Ethan laugh their asses off? I almost think you'd have to be one of them to really know for sure...

Dan said...

Joseph,

My best guess for the setting of the Dubbyk story is that it frames the movie from a particularly Jewish perspective. From what I can tell, Jews like religious fables, and the opening is sort of the Coen take on such a fable. But you're right that that still leaves a lot left unexplained. Which may be the point.

Patrick,

I totally meant to mention the Goy's Teeth in my earlier comment... it's yet another riddle without an answer.

I'm pretty much in total agreement with your assessment, except that I would take away "gleefully" from nihilistic. I think the big difference between this and BURN AFTER READING is that the Coens build some sense of empathy for Larry (and his son), and while Larry is still something of a target for their satire, he's also relateable and his existential crisis is very real and not superficial. Whereas the entire cast of BURN is subject to the Coen's scorn and contempt.

Patrick said...

I definitely felt empathy for the guy but he's one of the most docile characters I've seen in a film. At times unrealistically so, he even pays for the funeral of Sy Ableman with little real protest. He's not a bad man like the people in "Burn" but he is comical in his inactivity, he might as well not be in his own story.
I think that quotation is key ,Joseph, in that he says that actions have consequences yet he keeps suffering consequences even though as he says " I didn't do anything."

Dan said...

Hey Patrick, if you check back in here, I'd also be curious to hear your thoughts on LIMITS OF CONTROL. I know you're a big Jarmusch fan, so I'd like to hear how you thought it stacked up against the rest of his filmography. I thought it was one of his best (2nd only to GHOST DOG), but it seems to have received the most negative critical response of any of his films.

Thomas said...

There are so many of the films you recommend here that I still haven´t seen but thought that ADVENTURELAND and TWO LOVERS were two of the best films of last year, as well.
If you haven´t seen James Gray´s debut film LITTLE ODESSA, I really recommend it along with THE YARDS, which marked the first time he collaborated with Phoenix. It´s a great film!
Same thing goes for Mottola´s THE DAYTRIPPERS, which is hilarious. Liev Schreiber delivers a great perfomance in that one.

Shenan said...

Thanks Thomas. I think THE YARDS might be on my netflix queue, but I'll add DAYTRIPPERS at your suggestion.

Shenan said...

(That last comment was from Dan, but it was accidentally logged in as me)

Joseph said...

oh man, the spambots from Vern's site followed you home!

Dan said...

I debated deleting it, but it amuses me too much.

Also, who knows, maybe I'll need cheap Viagra some time soon.