Friday, January 8, 2010

Best Films of 2009

Since we're already a week into 2010 I guess it's time I list my top ten films of the year. Most of the time I suck at these type of lists because I keep changing my mind on the order. While it will never be set in stone, this is the best order I could come up with. In my opinion, if you're in the top ten you're good to go regardless of placement. I have yet to see some films I have heard tons of good things about (Moon, Fantastic Mr. Fox, (500) Days of Summer, etc...) so I don't know if anything will be bumped off by those, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

10> Where the Wild Things Are
Dir: Spike Jonze

This book was one of my favorites as a kid. I don't know many people who would say different, except for my brother-in-law who had never read it until this year. When first hearing there was a film adaptation coming I was excited but scared. How would they turn a book with so little text into a feature? As the first images hit the internet I was ecstatic with joy. Not only did they creatures look great but they were practical FX and not CG! They turned out to be a combo of the FX and it worked well (usually the best way it works), but there was still the matter of the story. Max's journey to the land of the Wild Things took him away from the home which left him unhappy and acted out in horrible ways. Each creature in this new land was a part of him and he worked out his own feelings through interactions with them.

A bunch of people complained before the release that this might be too scary for kids. It dealt with real emotion and the animal side in all of us and that could be frightening to a child. I agree with the source material's author, Maurice Sendak, when he responded to all that whining with "go to hell." [Newsweek] No, this isn't a happy, bubbly film about the land of make believe. It's how we escape, and as a film lover, or anyone who enjoys film at all, you should understand it's very important.

9> Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)
Dir: Pedro Almodóvar

Anyone who hasn't seen anything by Almodóvar should remedy this right away. I haven't seen everything the man has done, but I've loved all that I've seen. In this film he ventures into the tales of a blind screenwriter (Lluis Homar) who has a mysterious new client with a father who dredges up some old memories. These are from a time before he lost his sight and when he had a romance with his leading lady, Lena (Penelope Cruz). The story is full of rich characters who suck you into their lives and you find yourself not wanting to let go when the credits role. I love films like this and his actors deliver enchanting performances. Cruz is an absolute thrill and dream, as usual. When I first read the plot I was wondering if this was a sort of autobiographical work, since this is not Cruz's first time working with Almodóvar, and second in a row. A director in love with his starlet? But it proved to be a different animal entirely. Homar plays the lead to perfection and I've loved him in the few films I've seen, but he kind of reminds me of the Spanish Kelsey Grammar (see for yourself). Almodóvar has a wonderful way with color in his films and it really shines through in Broken Embraces. The bright palate plays as its own character and charms your eyes in each scene. This Spanish director is a true artist and you should seek out his films right away. Broken Embraces is currently in some art theaters around the country.

8> TIE: Anvil! The Story of Anvil/Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
Dir: Sacha Gervasi/Mark Hartley

Yes, these are both documentaries. Yes, they both have exclamation points in the title. This is not why I put them together. I really couldn't decide which one I liked better. They cover such different topics, both of which interest me.

Anvil! is the story of the heavy metal band from Canada with the same name. They have been around for around thirty years but managed to not garner any wide success. For a time in the 80s they hit all the festivals and mingled with some big names, but it never went anywhere. Some of the people interviewed about Anvil, including members of Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer, admit they were the band at the time, then people basically ripped them off and left them in their dust as they went on to worldwide fame. During the doc you follow the group as they go on a European tour, go back to their everyday jobs in Canada, make their thirteenth album and try to score a major record deal. There are laughs and some good tunes, but at the same time you get let in on the heartbreak that comes along with spending the majority of your life doing what you love but never getting anywhere. It's frustrating and triumphant. Get the DVD here.

Not Quite Hollywood deals with a much lighter subject without all of the heartbreak - the weird world of Australian cinema. Pretty much every subgenre of cult films is covered from the sexy/sleazy (Felicity), to the frightening (Long Weekend) and the completely nuts (Howling III: The Marsupials). Different directors and stars are interviewed about their involvement in making this cinematic nuggets of gold, as are film experts and critics. Highlights include the section with Aussie filmmaker extraordinaire Brian Trenchard-Smith. His films are in a class all their own, take Stunt Rock for example. It's a movie full of outrageous stunts by Grant Page, and the rocking sounds of the band Sorcery. What's not to love about that description? Watch the doc for more information on some truly insane films you will be desperately seeking out. Grab the DVD here.

7> Zombieland
Dir: Ruben Fleischer

Was this the type of film I had been desperately seeking for so long, or what? Not only does it have zombies, my favorite of all the living impaired, but it has plenty of laughs Woody Harrelson and a bitchin' cameo about halfway through. Don't worry, I'm not going to ruin the cameo for anyone. This film succeeds in a similar manner to Shaun of the Dead. I'm not saying this is better than Edgar Wright's film, but it manages to mix the great zombies, gruesome FX and constant laughs that its British cousin did. Harrelson is absolutely hysterical as Tallahassee. It's like the role was meant for him. The opening credit sequence also features the best use of a Metallica song, from the good era, I have ever seen. I couldn't have been the only one in the theater craving a Twinkie during this one. Pre-order the Blu-Ray here or the DVD here. Release date is February 2nd.

6> District 9
Dir: Neill Blomkamp

This is the film to rock the world into loving some hardcore sci-fi. Yeah, Star Trek was out and everyone loved it, but when you went to this film you saw a bit of the old ultraviolence and that's not all. It's not just a story about people from another planet but a look into the injustice that took place in South Africa (where the film is set) with apartheid. These galactic visitors were rounded up, put in refugee camps and treated with so much disrespect that it's shocking to think this is what happened to humans. The FX work is so seamless here you forget these hulking aliens are not real and you fall in love with the character of Christopher. He, along with Winkus (played by newcomer Sharlto Copley), create a dynamic duo who are worth rooting for the whole way through. Get the Blu-Ray here or the standard DVD here.

5> Inglourious Basterds
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

I don't really even know where to begin with this. All I should have to say are two words - Christoph Waltz. He is the actor behind Col. Hans Landa a very bad ass Nazi who oozes some sort of chemical through the screen to make you both love and loathe him at the same time. If he doesn't get awards (currently up for Best Supporting Actor in Golden Globes) or get an Oscar nod I'm going to stab someone. Roughly the first twenty minutes of the film show him interrogating someone about the whereabouts of Jews and the tension is unbelievable. The film could have ended directly after that scene and it would probably still be on this list. Luckily it does not. For over two more hours the story evolves around the Nazis, a group of hard ass American soldiers out to do nothing but kill them and the struggle to stay hidden. I am someone who hates period films where everyone speaks English with the accent of whatever country the story takes place. When I realized much of this film has subtitles I wanted to kiss Tarantino on the mouth. This was a risky move, but one I'm very glad he made. So much of this film is amazing, and I love Shosanna. What are you waiting for? Buy the Blu-Ray or DVD. NOW!

4> Trick 'r Treat
Dir: Michael Dougherty

This film had been in a state of limbo for such a long time I almost forgot about it completely. This would have been such a good film to put out around Halloween, but I guess the execs just didn't believe. Such a shame, because watching this with a packed audience could be a great time. Anthology films like this can be a ton of fun. Creepshow is a great example of the magic they can have. Take Creepshow's EC Comic-like charm and mix it with the seasonal association of John Carpenter's Halloween and you will have Trick 'r Treat. There are scares, gore, laughs and an all around good time. Certain scenes are the absolute essence of fall, or what I dream fall would be like if I lived somewhere that actually had a proper fall. This will be one I will watch each October from now on, hopefully with others in my house to enjoy with me. See for yourself on Blu or on standard def DVD.

3> Up in the Air
Dir: Jason Reitman

When you leave a theater and a film stays with you long after you've gotten home, that's a good sign. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a guy who is hired by companies to come to their office and fire/lay off people so they don't have to do it. As a result he spends most of his year in and out of airports and in hotels around the country. But that's the way he likes it. Ryan is a guy who doesn't like to be tied down to anyone or anything and loves the freedom and lack of stress that it includes. Along the way he meets a very similar girl, played by the amazing Vera Farmiga, and has to train a new girl who is threatening to do away with the in-person approach for a telecommuting version. If this film had come out at any other time it might not be as wonderful as it is, but considering the current economic climate it speaks to everyone. The constant fear of the axe swinging down in most any company is commonplace. Parts of this film will depress the hell out of you, make you laugh and even inspire you. It is both uplifting and devastating, but that is the charm.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention my thoughts on Clooney. There is something about him that makes me not want to like him. Maybe it's because so many people label him as the "sexiest man," or because they rush to anything he's in because he's pretty. But each time I put my guard up he knocks it right back down. He's just so damn smooth. Even with his pseudo mullet as Booker on Roseanne he had that same charm. His deliver is just so cool and natural that he may not be acting at all in any movie. Maybe that's just him.

2> Antichrist
Dir: Lars von Trier

This is probably a bit of a controversial choice for my number two spot. Not a lot of people have seen this film, and those who have are widely divided. The notorious Cannes screening had many walkout before it was over and those left were either standing cheering or booing and screaming obscenities. It's the kind of film that will illicit a very real and strong emotion deep inside you. The film stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (credited simply as He and She) as a couple who had their young son fall to his death out of a window while they were having sex. She takes it very hard and He, being a psychiatrist, tries to help her without medication as they retreat to a cabin in the woods where she feels very uncomfortable. He feels they need to be there to confront her demons. There dark things are uncovered and transpire. I can completely understand why people don't like this film. The subject matter is very misogynistic and very graphic (both sexually and in gut-wrenching violence), but that is all important to the story. I could go on and on about this at length with anyone, but you have to see it or you just don't understand.

I was deeply affected by this film and it stuck with me long after I left the theater. A couple of nights I had dreams directly related to the themes explored and even found my mind drifting towards them throughout the day. It really leaves you a different person, much like the horrors witnessed in Salo. Still I can picture myself in the center of that theater, only I'm alone and my eyes are transfixed on the screen before me. In the blank, glassy stare I can see the film's true effect. Chaos reigns, indeed.

1> Up
Dir: Pete Docter

You would think that my number one and two choices couldn't be more different, but they do have something in common. Up is the latest effort from Pixar and, by now, you should know they are geniuses. Not only is the animation top notch and beautiful but there is a story backing it up all along the way. From the first trailers I had no clue what the film was about. It seemed like an old man flying around in a house, but as anyone who has seen this knows it's much more than that. Pixar truly makes family films. They are not just G rated happy stories kids can watch without picking up a new swear word, they have raised the bar. Kids will enjoy the jokes, the funny characters, talking dogs and animation. Adults will enjoy those as well, but the writers have added a very meaningful story behind all of that to pull at your heartstrings. The fact that this film has a four minute sequence, without dialog, that can make most every adult in the theater cry within the first fifteen minutes of the film is amazing. Talk about storytellers that really get it. I never thought I could be affected so drastically by this, and then throughout the rest of the film you are reminded of it over and over again. To have an emotional connection to fake characters on a screen played by actors is one thing, but to have that same, if not stronger, connection to animated characters is even more amazing. I was affected by this film both times I've watched it, and feel it will continue with each viewing, of which I hope there are many. Buy the Blu-Ray or or the DVD now!


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