Sunday, January 03, 2010

Best of 2009: Film

Here’s the last of the best of lists. Just a quick note, I haven’t been able to see all the films I’d like to see, here’s some of the key gaps in my viewing: Antichrist, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orelans, A Single Man and a couple that didn’t make it over here, but will likely be part of next year’s list are Enter the Void and Rebuild of Evangelion 2.0.

10. Observe and Report - A dark slacker comedy riff on Taxi Driver, Observe and Report is a great journey into one ordinary man’s mad world. Seth Rogen does his most intense work yet, as a local flasher becomes the bane of his delusional existence. Considering the prominence of Rogen in Apatow’s work, this film is a great subversion of the lifestyle celebrated by countless slacker comedies. Not every slacker has a heart of gold, some are trapped in insanity, and this film conveys that in a really dynamic way. Plus, it’s got a great, fearless supporting performance from Anna Faris. Definitely an underrated film.

9. Up in the Air - Clooney is one of the last movie stars left in Hollywood. Like classic stars, think Gable or Grant, every character he plays exist somewhere within the spectrum of the core George Clooney persona. Up in the Air works as an examination of someone who thinks he has his life totally under control, think he has everything he wants, and realizes that maybe he doesn’t, and has to deal with that revelation. The film has some major flaws for me, notably a slightly off key tone in the Jason Bateman scenes, and overuse of voiceover, particularly at the beginning, but Clooney and Vera Farmiga are incredible together, and everything with them works great. The trip to Miami is one of the most fun sequences in any film this year, and I particularly love the way so much of what we expect is subverted by the film’s ending. This is a smart, satisfying character study, and a great exploration of one particular aspect of the Clooney character.

8. Funny People - This film carried the advance hype of being Apatow’s turn to drama, and in the end, yes, it is dramatic, but I don’t think significantly more so than Knocked Up. And like Knocked Up, this is a great story that’s topped with a lot of really funny jokes. The thing I love about this movie is the way that its lengthy running time means that it doesn’t fit neatly into a three act box. The characters’ lives sprawl across multiple stories, and though that can make the film feel disjointed, it gives it the lived in feel of a real world. It’s hard to predict things because the film doesn’t fit into a 90 minute comedy box, and that’s great. I hope Apatow doesn’t see the lukewarm reaction to this film as an incentive to dumb down. Keep telling emotionally true, funny stories.

7. The Limits of Control - The artiest film on the list, Control is my favorite Jarmusch to date. A total dedramatization of what could have been a traditional action plot, the film is a surreal journey through Spain, that has that distinctly Jarmusch slow paced dreaminess. I love the production design and Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is beautiful throughout. What really makes the film work is the confrontation with Bill Murray, and the haunting finale. The film is a hazy dream, and I think some mistook its stylishness for vapidity. There’s intelligence here, but even if there wasn’t, isn’t it nice to just get lost in this strange world for a bit?

6. Avatar - I could point to a hundred flaws in Avatar, I could point out to serious social and thematic issues, derivative plot points and cardboard characterization, but I choose to focus on what works about that film, on the dazzling visuals, the audacious and important thematic statements and most of all, the emotional rush you feel watching the film. It really does build a world and wrap you up in it in a way that few films before have. Cameron has pushed the boundaries on a technical level, and the dragons vs. helicopters closing fight scene is pure energy to watch. But, I also think there’s a strong philosophical and emotional core at the center of the story that’s impossible to ignore. I love that he has such a distinctive voice and watching a film like this reminds you just how good blockbuster cinema can be. There’s a reason that he’ll soon be the director of the two highest grossing films of all time.

5. Star Trek - While less ambitious than Avatar, Star Trek was equally spectacular and emotionally engaged. By maintaining a tight character focus, Abrams was able to craft a blockbuster that felt like a TV show, and I mean that as a good thing. He never got caught up in just showing random CG beasts, the goal was always to explore the way that events shaped the characters and to keep the crazy goings on anchored in emotional reality. That’s not to say there wasn’t great spectacle, the effects were fantastic, and the action scenes were tense and riveting. I’ll always have a soft spot for space action like this, and Star Trek ensures that the next generation will as well.

4. Where the Wild Things Are - As with many of the films on the list, WTWA has some flaws that prevent it from reaching all time greatness, but the heights that this one reaches are even higher than almost anything else this year. After the first half hour of the film, I was ready to call this Spike Jonze’s career best, the intense subjectivity and raw emotion of the real world segment is harrowing and does an incredible job of totally immersing us in Max’s view of the world. And, the first glimpse of the Wild Things is awe inspiring. The film’s issue is that it doesn’t always know where to go from there, and though the emotional issues raised at the top persist throughout, the film just isn’t as riveting as it was right out of the gate. That said, it’s good throughout, and ends on a really powerful note. It’s still a great film, just not as great as it could be.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox - Another ostensibly kid targeted film from an acclaimed indie director, Mr. Fox feels in many ways like the most adult of any of his movies. It’s also one of the most fun. Visually, it’s like nothing I’ve seen before, with its utterly tactile animation, it’s entertaining just to watch the characters move, particularly during the interludes where they cut loose with dancing. But its not just spectacle, there’s real emotion that runs the gamut from melancholy to joy. And, as with Up in the Air, it’s an interesting exploration of the Clooney persona. His presence comes across in a way no celebrity voice in animation has before, and you get a real sense of performance. This film is a really cool world to visit with its own wacky flourishes, it’s everything I like about Anderson’s films in a snappy, exciting story.

2. Public Enemies - Michael Mann continues his work making esoteric, rambling art films within studio blockbuster structures. Returning to many of his core themes, he uses the visual language of Miami Vice to tell a story that makes the 30s feel real and vibrant, not like something out of a storybook. Depp and Cotillard have fantastic chemistry, and carry a sense of doomed abandon throughout. Dillinger knows he’ll die, but they hold on to the dream that somehow they can escape. The film’s most haunting moments are Dillinger’s death, staged like a film shoot, and ending in a flood of crowd and media, it’s the birth of law enforcement as spectacle. The emotional punch is then driven home in the devastating starkness of the final scene. Mann is turning back the clock, and acting like it’s the 70s, when intelligence and adult themes were mandatory in blockbuster cinema. Hopefully he’ll get to keep experimenting and exploring as a filmmaker. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.

1. Inglorious Basterds - All the preceding films were great, but nothing this year, or in the past five years, can come close to Inglorious Basterds. I’ve written about it extensively already, but I’ll stress just how exciting and suspenseful and virtuostic the film is. I’ve seen it three times and it’s still a rush every time. Tarantino puts on a masterclass in how to produce suspense, and skillfully pulls together several disparate plot strands into a perfect finale. I particularly love the seamless jumps between the goofy over the top violence of the Brad Pitt section and the very real emotion Shosanna experiences, and how the ending is able to meld the two modes so that the Basterds’ violence becomes our catharsis after the emotional climax of Shosanna’s story. No question, this is the best film of the year, and of the second half of the decade as a whole.


Jeremy said...

Yes, no District 9! You're a class act Patrick.

Also, make sure you get around to seeing A Serious Man. Might just be the Coen's greatest work yet.

Patrick said...

Yeah, I didn't think much of District 9. It felt derivative of the documentary approach to genre elements we've seen in Cloverfield and 28 Days Later, but most of all, had no real joy in it.

A Serious Man is on the list to check out too, I wish studios wouldn't stack the end of the year with all the good films, making it near impossible to stay on top of things. I'll see it on blu-ray, but I would have loved to watch it on a weekend in April or sometime like that.

suncore598 said...

I wasn't a big fan of District 9 myself. I thought the story on the aliens, their time on Earth, and some of the consequences of their existence in South Africa was really compelling stuff. But I didn't know how I felt about the main character and I thought the movie didn't have that emotional component that made Children of Men such a great movie.

After watching its trailer, I thought Observe and Report was going to be another of those stupid movies with a bad, over-the-top taste in humor. But after hearing that there was something of Taxi Driver in the movie from another source and reading your thoughts on it, I might go watch it on the Internet to see if it is the movie for me.

And you have seen the movie It's Complicated starring Meryl Streep? It's really good and funny as hell. It's so good I can see it taking a place in your Best of 2009: Film.

Patrick said...

I'd agree about District 9, I think the premise had potential, but the main character was pretty unlikable, and not in a compelling human way, but in a straw man sort of way, and there wasn't enough to emotionally invest in the aliens, so you wind up just adrift watching stuff happen.

I haven't seen It's Complicated yet, but knowing how good Alec Baldwin is on 30 Rock, I'm sure it's worth a look.

malpractice said...

props on mentioning Observe and Report, really underrated film.

I liked District 9 quite a bit but not quite enough to make a top 10 list or anything.

I have a couple more '09 flicks to watch from netflix before i do the MI best of '09 show but this is kind of what i have so far

Inglourious Basterds
Public Enemies
(500) Days Of Summer
Up In The Air
Drag Me To Hell
In The Loop
Crank: High Voltage
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil

honorable mentions
The Taking Of Pelham 123
Observe and Report
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Paper Heart

malpractice said...

i have to say though i don't see what the big deal is with the new Star Trek movie. I've had the movie for a month now from netflix and i have only been able to finish half of it. So boring, and i don't see how it is this great reinvention of the property. It just seems like the same shit just without the science fiction elements and with younger people.

Patrick said...

That's a good list, a lot of the things you have on there that didn't make it mine were pretty close, like Up and (500) Days of Summer.

As for Star Trek, I think it was a really smart character based story that did a good job of using the action sequence to develop character and had a unique visual style. I don't think it's an all time classic, but I think it did exactly what it set out to do, and was thoroughly entertaining in the process.

malpractice said...

just watched Julie & Julia last night. going to have to add that to my list. really didn't expect to like that movie as much as i did.