The Last ‘Most Favorite’ List of 2009 – Part 1

I feel like Facebook owes me an apology. Or I owe you an apology on Facebook’s behalf. Or something in that ballpark.

There’s this site and the RSS feed, but I know that a lot of people who choose to follow this page do so using the Facebook feed. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way this weekend that while Facebook does show the photos I attach to each post, it won’t show embedded video.

My last post began with praise for a great horror spoof film and ended with a gentle reminder of my coming “favorites” list. Unfortunately, without the video, all the Facebook readers saw was:

“Because you just have to see it. Be back on Monday with some of my favorite movies from 2009!”

Yay self-aggrandizing!! I promise, guys, I’m not that much of an asshole.

My favorites list isn’t what I’d call essential reading, although I had fun writing it and I hope you have fun checking it out, or, better yet, checking out these movies that I found so entertaining. Again, this is in no way a “best of.” These just happened to be my favorites. This is the first half of the list, and I’ll post Part 2 on Thursday. You’ll notice that I begin with the number 14. I do that as a statement of free will against the monolithic top ten format by proving that lists don’t have to fit comfortably on a pair of human hands! Or something.

Why 14? The real answer: I didn’t have much to say about number 15.

Allez cine!

14. ) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

Yes, the film has at least one title too many and, yes, it started life as a cynical remake cashing in on the questionable name recognition of Abel Ferrara’s 90s classic, but somewhere in production, this nightmare went hilariously right. Someone had the good sense to hire Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage, two talents who have searched their whole careers for each other. Herzog is one of the planet’s last true renegade filmmakers and Cage made his name, for good or ill, by performing without a net. What they’ve created together is a surreal, twisted movie that shifts between being an unflinching character study about a corrupt cop to an intentionally hilarious spoof of unflinching character studies about corrupt cops. The movie becomes increasingly unhinged as the drugs and abuse slowly morph Cage’s character into a cajun hunchback, spitting out ugliness from behind a clenched jaw. Herzog and Cage tear the whole movie down around the character’s ears leaving… what? A comedy? a tragedy? Whatever it is, it’s not just a remake.

13.) Public Enemies

A lot of people dismissed this movie simply because of what it wasn’t. Michael Mann’s romanticized epic about the last of the rock star bank robbers and the rise of the FBI was unfairly attacked for its slow pace and unfocused narrative, but despite the Johnny Depp-centered ad campaign, this was never a movie just about John Dillinger. This is a movie about a time, the last moment in American history where a person could be both a criminal and a folk legend, the rise of the government superheros (they were even called the G-Men), and the desperate, sometimes wicked measures they took to restore order in the heartland. It was a time of shifting morals and Mann portrays both sides of that battle, refusing to swear allegiance to either, while staging some of the best action scenes of his career (although arguably not enough of them.) The gunfights are full of frantic energy thanks to his raw, unprocessed digital photography, from the opening prison break to the battle through the woods in Wisconsin, and Depp’s performance is strong enough to remind you that he can play normal just as powerfully as he can insane. This one will grow in status over time.

12.) Where the Wild Things Are

Another movie that failed to find its audience, but this one will live on for generations. The film’s burden is that it’s based on a beloved, canonized children’s book and, yes, barely resembles it. Sure, a fan can find the book’s individual pages scattered throughout. They’re all in the movie somewhere, but this isn’t an adaptation of the book so much as it’s an adaptation of childhood. It’s a film that really knows what it’s like to be a child, and it isn’t all wisecracks and poop jokes, no matter what studio kid flicks want to believe. I have two children of the right age and trust me, it can be like talking to an open wound. They’re struggling with emotions they can barely understand and can’t hope to control, and director Spike Jonze channels that into his Wild Things, monsters that mirror Max’s frustrations with his sister, his weakness, and his fear of losing his place in his mother’s world. This movie is one long emotional fit, laid bare and bleeding on the screen, and it’s not a comfortable experience… but it is kind of brilliant. Ticket buyers wanted comfort food, not an essay, and turned away from this one. Today. Look back in a decade and I promise things will be different.

11.) (500) Days of Summer

There have been a zillion movies about the grand romantic conquest, but there have been almost zero about the far more common flip side. You know what I’m talking about. Guy meets girl, guy loves girl, but she’s just not that into him? This movie finally films the void, chronicling the tumultuous 500 days of romance between Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, a relationship that, we know from the beginning, ends in heartbreak.

But really funny. And very honest. But with a musical number.

Actually, it’s very hard to sum up the feel of this movie. This is the one where you start out trying to tell your friend all the best bits and you end by saying “oh, just borrow my copy.” There’s a reason that writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber suddenly have full plates and director Marc Webb was the left field choice for Spider-Man’s new helmer. This movie is a career-maker and an instant underground classic.

10.) Moon

It’s a rare thing today to find a science fiction film that actually resembles, in any way, real science fiction. If things aren’t blowing up or monsters are not involved, the money guys aren’t buying. Period. Thankfully, Duncan Jones made this quirky little indie that’s enough real sci-fi to get me through the next five alien invasions. It’s the future and we’re mining helium-3 off the surface of the moon. It’s a largely automated affair but it needs a single human being present in case the operation shuts down. Sam Rockwell plays one such human contracted to the moon for three long years and his time is almost up…. and that’s about all you need to know. Seriously, it’s not worth even watching the trailer or you’ll spoil half the fun. Sam Rockwell absolutely kills in this and he was tragically overlooked during nomination season. Plus, any fans of practical effects have to appreciate the care and detail that went into the exterior moon scenes, which are more real and arguably better looking than anything I saw on Pandora. Not enough people watched this one.

9.) Avatar

I’ve said enough about this film on the Smash Cut Podcast and I feel like I’ll be writing about it for a long time to come (especially since I have to update the James Cameron Project once the DVD releases.) It’s the new box office champ, a surprising critical darling, the advance soldier in the 3D revolution, and the new king of the high-octane geek cinema universe.

And the script is a little terrible.

If one were inclined to hate a movie for making it to the big time, this is a very easy movie to hate. But, truthfully, I like the hell out of it, ironically for the exact same reasons that I’ve been using to defend Titanic for the last decade. Roger Ebert (I believe) coined a phrase that I find more true every year. “It’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it.” Avatar isn’t about very much. Some pre-packaged environmentalist propoganda blended with an anti-war film that solves its problems with war. Add in a little Joseph Cambell and bam, instant blockbuster.

But what a blockbuster. The images Cameron created are hard to shake even when his words are hard to stomach, and the filmmaking technology he pioneered borders on witchcraft. Avatar is a groaner of a story, but it’s a technical masterpiece (marred only by some questionable use of shallow focus, but that’s for another article.) Sometimes that’s enough.

8.) Observe and Report

Yes, I placed a nearly-forgotten Seth Rogen mall comedy above the biggest movie in history. What can I say? It’s my list, and I liked this movie more.

I think Observe and Report is a movie that everybody – critics, audiences, everybody – just straight up whiffed on. It arrived in the wake of the truly awful Paul Blart: Mall Cop and it just looked like a mean-spirited, sick version of the same basic premise.

Nobody liked this movie. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months.

I can’t believe Jody Hill got away with this film, and some might argue that he didn’t, but it’s Taxi Driver done funny. All the beats are there. Seth Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is a lonely, isolated, and mentally unhinged individual looking to make a connection. He chooses an object to fixate on (a repulsive, plasticine clerk played by Anna Farris instead of Cybill Shepherd’s campaign worker) and the rest of the movie is spent wondering just when his internal timer is going to go off and trigger the boom. He even befriends a wounded innocent and threatens her “pimp,” a fast food manager played by Patton Oswalt. The finale is a geek show of sustained violence, beginning with a direct riff on the best fight in Oldboy and ending with a shock so sudden that you can’t believe it just happened. And maybe it didn’t. We spend the movie looking at Ronnie’s world from his perspective, but why do we choose to trust his perspective? This is a movie I plan to unpack and examine again and again.

On Thursday, my favorite seven from 2009. See ya then.

  1. #1 by Mike on 02/18/2010 - 2:21 AM

    Can Legend of Chun Li make both lists? I think it can.

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