The Last ‘Most Favorite’ List of 2009 – Part 2

Holy crap, it’s been two weeks since my last confession substantial post. I’ve been royally snowed under with work lately. I’ve got new projects at my day job, no less than three personal writing projects at home, *cough*MassEffect2*cough*, and a huge horror movie festival in downtown Durham. Bonnie & Clyde vs. Dracula. For reals.

That’s the past. Now, it’s time to finish this thing, and by that, I mean my top seven favorite movies of 2009. I have to clear this piece out to make room for Hollywood Project #4, starting next Monday. Yep, I’ve picked the director, lined up the films, and sketched out the rough draft of my rankings. I’m ridiculously excited to talk about this guy, because he’s obviously one of the all-time gotta-see filmmakers. I’m also changing up my usual presentation, starting with the introduction. It always interests me to see how artists that should have nothing to do with one another can share common ground, so from now on I’m going to find a link between my previous Project and the new one, and I’ll do that in Monday’s post. This new Project should be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll take the trip with me.

Officially closing out 2009, here are my favorite movies. There are some crowd-pleasers on this list and a couple that I’d call sRiUs @rt. All are worth checking out, for sometimes wildly different reasons.

7.) Up in the Air

More than any other movie on this list, Up in the Air is a picture of its time. The film couldn’t be more 2009 if it had a date stamp in the bottom corner. George Clooney plays a professional downsizer, a man whose only job is to tell you that yours is over. But even as his industry enjoys a boon in These Tough Economic Times, the high costs of air travel and doing business in person threatens to take Clooney off the road he loves so much.

The poster is half-right. The movie is about connections, but it’s also about disconnections and the frustration, uncertainty, and terror that come with feeling like you might be all alone out there. Clooney’s character prides himself on dishing out pleasing bits of emotional comfort food while breaking the bad news, but he keeps his distance from the rest of the world partly because he’s afraid that someday he’ll be on the other end, hear the same kinds of lines, and find out just how full of shit he really is. It’s a classic, and classy, character study that I’m still unpacking months after my first viewing.

The film’s misleading ambivalence about Clooney’s job and the economic climate irritated some, but I think the movie draws a solid mark on the young career of director Jason Reitman. He brought us Thank You for Smoking and Juno, but this is the first movie where I felt like his voice was the star of the show and the film is even better for it.

6.) Up

Pixar has slowly cornered the market in mastering stories that should be impossible to tell. I think we can all get behind the idea of toys coming to life when the humans leave the room. We can clearly see the movie in a father fish swimming across the ocean to rescue his lost son. But how about a rat with a dream of opening a Parisian restaurant? Or a Buster Keaton romance about a junk robot left behind when the Earth is destroyed? These ideas are still high concept, but not nearly as accessible to an audience. The movie doesn’t play out in your head when you hear the pitch. In other words, if Pixar didn’t have the power to make it happen, these movies would never have been made.

Up is the latest in Pixar’s string of perfect, impossible stories. An elderly man uses a million balloons to fly his house to South America. In any other hands, it should have been a disaster, but Pixar delivered a movie absolutely stuffed with comedy, heartbreak, and an opening sequence so touchingly tragic that people will talk about it for years. That sequence alone will likely win the studio another Oscar for Animated Feature and helped to lift Up to only the second ever Best Picture nomination for an animated film. Not too shabby for a movie featuring a hundred talking dogs.

5.) The Hurt Locker

Nobody saw The Hurt Locker in theatres, which is a tragedy because the film begs so obviously for a huge screen and booming speakers. This isn’t your typical indie tearjerker that plays to golf-clapping crowds. The movie is a big bag of raw, jangled nerves in which every scene sets out with the goal of topping the last one. The film wants you to chew your fingers down to the knuckle. It wants to kick your ass.

Jeremy Renner breaks out as a US bomb disposal specialist stationed in Iraq, but the real star of the show is director Kathryn Bigelow, who finally received the notice with this film that she has long deserved. She gave the world Near Dark, Strange Days, and Point Break, and she’ll probably win an Oscar for this one. If she does, she’ll be the first female director to do so. It’s a well-deserved honor.

I love this movie, even if I feel a step behind the rest of the internet for having a few reservations. Call it my No Country of Old Men for 2009. There are scenes in the middle that I can’t quite get behind, and the script gets a little unfocused. It doesn’t really matter, trust me. This is truly one of the best films of the year and one that will live forever on DVD.

4.) The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Or “how I learned to get over myself and embrace Terry Gilliam.”

I’ve struggled for years to seriously get behind Gilliam’s work. I love a few of his films, of course. Brazil is an unquestioned classic and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favorite films of the 90s. He’s made some great films, but the rest of them often leave me scratching my head, wondering why he would make some of these unusual, offputting choices. I’m one of the dwindling minority who thinks that the last 30 seconds of Time Bandits, yes, derails that film, or that The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is kind of a mess, and believe me, these are unpopular stances for a serious film nerd to take. The critical community reveres Gilliam like a wise and mad prophet, and whenever the director gets a bum deal from a studio or, well, life, it only serves to energize and unite his fan base around him, even in the wake of his 2005 one-two sucker punch of The Brothers Grimm and Tideland.

Now comes this movie, an incredibly personal essay about the burden of imagination in a world that only looks anymore for the junk behind the curtain. I’ve been stirred. The brilliant Christopher Plummer stars as a traveling showman with a mystical past, scouring the world to tell his stories and save some souls as his audience grows smaller and less interested by the minute. If you’re looking for similarities between Plummer’s forgotten storyteller and the director himself, don’t be afraid. You’re meant to find them. Gilliam has pulled the heart right from his chest and thrown it onto the screen, and I found myself completely taken in by what he has to say. This isn’t a perfect film. It’s messy and the seams are showing, most obviously in the cobbled together performances of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell stepping in for the late Heath Ledger, but the film glorifies those seams and revels in its mess. The point isn’t to create a slick entertainment, but to create something real from something patently false, to find a true emotion and then draw it from whatever audience he can cobble together. I loved the seams in this movie, and its message has me looking back at Gilliam’s previous work and giving it a second glance. Check this one out as soon as you can.

3.) A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the movie on my list most likely to start an argument between viewers, because it will mean many different things to many different people, and possibly to no end (spoiler alert?). This movie will infuriate as much as it uplifts, which is sometimes how you tell the great movies from the curiosities.

Joel and Ethan Coen have a lot on their mind as they tell the story of Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota math professor who suddenly finds the world quite literally turned against him. The story, whatever there is of it, chronicles his search for answers, but not necessarily his discovery of them. Many critics saw A Serious Man as a tale about the meaning of life and the lack thereof. I saw it as a biblical game of chicken between God’s wrath and poor, poor Larry Gopnik, a game that rarely works out for the everyman.

I’m really not sure what else I can say about the film. People will like it, or they won’t. The filmmaking is careful and clean, but every frame is packed with meaning and red herrings. It’s like watching a great book. By the way, my money is on the dybbuk in the first reel. The farmer’s wife had it right.

2.) Fantastic Mr. Fox

I knew two things for certain at the beginning of 2009. One, Wes Anderson’s schtick had worn out its welcome in my movie universe, and two, Pixar owned animation. Nothing on this earth could have swayed me from those two absolute, irrefutable facts. Nothing. At. All.

Who knew? Seriously, who knew? Who knew that Anderson’s vintage kitsch visuals would translate so perfectly into the homemade, Rankin/Bass world of Mr. Fox? More to the point, who knew that it would come together with so much life, more than I remember finding in Anderson’s last two live-action films. Combined.

Before the release, the only buzz to be found on Fantastic Mr. Fox was a provocative piece in the LA Times that painted Wes Anderson as kind of a weird duck of a director who couldn’t even be bothered to show up to his own film shoot. There was no hype, no interest. It was a quiet autumn release for what seemed to be an unremarkable film, an animation also-ran, and then suddenly everything changed. Critics jumped over each other to praise the film, and commenters all over the map began to declare Fox as, really?, one of the best pictures of 2009. And they were right.

There’s so much heart and creativity on display here that it revitalized my passion for Wes Anderson’s films. I intend to pair this one with The Royal Tenenbaums as soon as it hits DVD, but don’t worry, it’s good for families, too. Hotbox!

1.) Inglourious Basterds

Haters love to burn on Quentin Tarantino, which is completely beyond my understanding. He takes knocks for his dominating dialogue and his fetish for other movies, but he always creates a finished product that’s completely unique and unlike any of the trash bin classics that he’s pulling from. Every filmmaker borrows. Martin Scorsese liberally lifted from Hitchcock and the Archers for his new flick, Shutter Island. It’s called homage, but when Tarantino borrows, it somehow graduates to larceny.

Inglourious Basterds is a my open and shut case. Supposedly remaking Enzo Castellari’s 1978 WWII heist movie, The Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino dumped the original entirely and spun his own tale about vengeance, Nazi scalpers, and a wicked villain called the Jew Hunter. What started as a remake turned into no remake at all. If Tarantino wanted to plagiarize, this was his chance. Nobody would have questioned him. You might even argue that stealing was his task, his actual job on this film, and he couldn’t do it. Instead, not only did he make his own story, but he actually set it in his own private World War II, and boy did that send his critics to the next level, shifting through contradictory complaints so fast that they could have burned out their clutch. Tarantino is derivitive! Why does he have to be so damn different?

Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, straight up, and it may be even better. It’s a love letter to all of Tarantino’s usual suspects, but it’s also the first of his films to so nakedly embrace his favorite subject – his affair with the movies. He made a film in which every character is a performer, all the world is truly a stage, and the right film at the right time can save the globe. And it’s still got some kick-ass dialogue and bad guys getting shot in the face.

I like his war better, anyway.

There’s one last piece I hope to have posted before I start the new Project on Monday, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll find time to post it in the middle. See you next on Monday for the Project launch!

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