Death, taxes, and end-of-year faves lists. Here’s mine.
[Amended Dec. 29 to add DISTRICT 9.]
Is this film perfect? No. Does it have logic gaps? Yes. Does it go off the rails a bit with the snow monster scene? Sure, I’ll give you that one. Did any of these things lessen my enjoyment? Not a bit. In hindsight, I probably should have rated this one four stars, but I didn’t, and here’s why. This is as perfect a summer popcorn flick as we’re ever likely to get. It’s crazy amounts of fun, it’s got some smart elements, it’s got great characters, a little romance, and a solid emotional core behind all the action. It may have made some die-hard Trekkies (or Trekkers) a bit angry because it’s definitely not a traditional prequel (Sorry, Mom!). But for me, as someone who enjoyed but wasn’t fanatical about the Original Series, I thought it was an extremely creative way to be able to rewrite history without erasing it. My mom will probably wring my neck for saying that, and if they ever did something like this with The X-Files, I’d probably be out there with torches and pitchforks, but I have to be honest. I thought this relaunch was great, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.
AWAY WE GO
Some might say this movie is pure indie bait, but I’d say, who cares? For me, this was an amusing and tender look at a couple who doesn’t really fit into any traditional mold trying to find out where they belong in the world. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph turn in wonderful performances, both dramatic and comic.The supporting cast is also full of talented character actors who deliver time and again. It was enlightening to see director Sam Mendes turn in a dramedy rather than an outright drama. As much as I love AMERICAN BEAUTY, this film has a warmth and a hope to it that lifts it just above Mendes’ past darkness.
I’m not generally a huge fan of super-broad, outright comedy, but this movie just blew me away. Absolutely hilarious, completely outrageous, and a sweet buddy comedy underneath all that. It also features The Black Suit. Any woman who’s seen this movie knows what I’m talking about. Any woman who sees this movie will know what I’m talking about. (And if you say you don’t, you’re either blind or lying.) If you need more than that, my friend Matt (check out his Faves of 2009 here) also pointed out that it’s a farce on noir films. As he put it, “Wake up with a ‘blow to the head’ and a gap in the memory and a missing body on a time limit.” That pretty much sums up the plot of the movie, except the body is the groom, and the time limit is his impending wedding. Despite all the hilarity, the film would suffer greatly without the anchor of the developing friendship between the three guys looking for the groom. Luckily, this is never sacrificed, making the film surprisingly well-rounded. It’s also worth noting that this, too, is a very nice film to look at, visually speaking, even beyond The Black Suit. The cinematography here is something that’s usually overlooked in this genre, so it was nice to see some effort put into that area, too.
Ah, Woody Allen, how I have come to love you this past year. This is exactly the film I would expect the creator of such neurotic and obsessive characters such as Harry Block, Joe Berlin, and Alvy Singer, smack dab in the middle of his ’70s. There’s always a little Woody Allen in each of his movies that I’ve seen, even when he’s not on screen. Sometimes you have to look hard for it (It’s Vicky in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, Terry in CASSANDRA’S DREAM, and Nola in MATCH POINT, for instance), but it’s always there. In WHATEVER WORKS, there’s no need to guess. That being said, Boris Yellnikoff, played perfectly by Larry David, is not a role Woody himself could have played. It needed the edge, the biting bitterness, and the eff-all swagger that seems to comprise Larry David. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well: Evan Rachel Wood is hilarious as Southern hick turned belle Melodie St. Ann Celestine, Patricia Clarkson is fabulous as put-upon housewife turned avant garde artist Marietta, and Ed Begley Jr. is great as the traditional Southern Baptist patriarch who gets his world and world-view turned upside down. All in all, this film speaks to a mellowing of sorts, a letting go of expectations, and just taking what life gives you for what it is. In short, whatever works. And this does.
Disney-Pixar delivers again. This movie makes my Faves of ’09 list for the silent montage at the beginning alone. I’ve been known to let the tears flow freely at the theatre anyway (<ahem>Time Traveler’s Wife<ahem>), but this one was so well done, so touching, bittersweet and heartbreaking, that I was done for. The story of a grumpy old man who is befriended against his will by a plucky young boy is lifted into the fantastical as only Disney can do. The story veers into purely kid-pleasing territory at times (the airplane-flying dogs might have been overkill), but it never strays too far from the heart of the story. It’s no surprise that the film is absolutely gorgeous as well. I’m not sure Disney-Pixar is capable of making a film that isn’t. The first time the house takes flight is a magnificent study in color and wonder. Disney-Pixar films are always must-see in my book, and this one is no different.
This film ruined my nice, even Top 10 list by blowing me away after I’d already posted my Top 10. This technically knocks STAR TREK out of the Top 10, which will make my mother happy. I’d not prioritized seeing this because no one told me it was character-driven. There was all this talk about social statements and comparisons to Apartheid, which I found interesting certainly, but not enough so to see it in theatres. If someone had told me what this movie is really about at its core, I would have been there in a heartbeat. Social commentary aside, this film is about a man who is forced by circumstances to find the humanity in a creature he’s always considered sub-human. The irony there is that such prejudice is, in itself, subhuman. [A little spoilerish] By becoming himself biologically subhuman, hunted by his own race, he finds himself becoming more human, able to see the sentience in the alien race. [end spoilerishness] Now that I’ve probably confused you and myself, you’ll just have to take my word for it. This film is about a guy learning what it means to be human. Do see it.
Bleak, trippy, claustrophobic, and completely mesmerizing. I can’t say too much about this film without giving things away, so I’m going to be brief. I’m admittedly not too well-versed in science fiction outside of The X-Files and a few classic Twilight Zone episodes, but this film blew me away. Sam Rockwell’s performance was a revelation for me. Do seek out this film. It’s most definitely worth your time.
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER
(500) DAYS OF SUMMER is one of the most interesting and novel romantic comedies I’ve seen in a number of years. From the nonlinear method of storytelling (which follows an emotional journey rather than a chronological one) to the characters and story, this film is anything but cookie cutter. While indie darling Zooey Deschanel is perfectly charming and incredibly infuriating all at once, it’s really Joseph Gordon-Levitt who turns in a performance that is both full of humor, heartbreak and hope. As for the criticism that the film caters too much to hipsters, I’ll say once again that it is a film about two characters who *are* hipsters. (Also, only hipsters could get their panties in a wad about a film being *too* hipster.) (500) DAYS manages both the wry bitterness of Woody Allen and the sly sweetness of Richard Curtis when he’s on his game. Among all the schmaltzy, seen-’em-a-thousand-times romantic comedies out there, this one is a huge breath of fresh air.
THE BROTHERS BLOOM
This movie seems to have gone through every level of distribution hell that exists short of not getting distribution at all. Usually this signals trouble, but there’s none to be found here. In Rian Johnson’s follow-up to high school noir BRICK, he delivers a fairy tale about con men (in his own words). On the surface, it’s a story about two orphaned brothers, one of whom wants to find love, and the other who loves the art of being a con man — specifically, the storytelling aspect of it. The older brother (played by Mark Ruffalo) is cast as the designer, the weaver of fates, very early on, leaving the younger (Adrien Brody) to feel like nothing more than a pawn in his brother’s games. If that’s not enough, you’ve got Rachel Weisz in her quirkiest and most captivating role to date, playing a reclusive heiress who takes up odd hobbies to keep herself busy. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it’s not revealing too much to say that things get complicated when the younger brother falls for their latest (and potentially last) mark, the heiress. Much like EASY VIRTUE, this film is light and frothy with a sort of dark underbelly to it. Also like EASY VIRTUE, it’s a beautiful movie. Johnson used the same cinematographer (Steve Yedlin) as he did for BRICK, which is also striking in a very different way, and he delivers a unique and gorgeous picture once again. This one’s available to rent but not yet to buy (another level of undeserved distribution hell).
My knowledge of Tarantino’s work currently doesn’t extend beyond KILL BILL. I thought Vol. 1 went a little overboard by the time it got to the Crazy 88s, but was otherwise solid. I adore Vol. 2, though. Hype like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was getting makes me nervous, so I went in almost expecting to be let down. Boy, was I wrong. As I said in my original mini-review, the opening sequence is a master class in building tension. Having an entire theatre on the edge of their seats watching two people sitting at a table and talking? Masterful. There’s really no other word. The rest of the film alternates between comic and dark, much like you’d expect from Tarantino. Of course there are complaints about it not being historically accurate — and it’s most certainly not — but I’d venture to say that anyone lodging that complaint is missing the point. What Tarantino has created here is a fantasy, a story that ties up loose ends that were left undone in reality, and, in some ways, a big middle finger to the Nazis as well as a love letter to cinema in general. As manic and wonderfully ridiculous as the story is at times, the film itself is shot beautifully, too. The use of color, the costumes, the sets — they’re all amazing. If you were skeptical of the hype and are still holding out, you need not worry. Get thee to your Netflix queue right away.
Here we have a film loosely based on a lesser-known Noel Coward play. This is a hard movie to describe. On one hand, it’s a satire of staid British period pieces (helmed by a tricksy Australian, of course). On the other, it’s a light frothy comedy with some hilarious musical twists. On the third hand, it’s a drama dealing with the dark side of family heritage, duty and sacrifice. I most often describe it as a sort of British MEET THE PARENTS set in the 1930s, but it’s really so much more than that. The non-movie geeks I’ve shown it to have said things along the lines of “I’ve never seen anything quite like that before.” I think it’s a strange but entrancing film for a lot of folks because the characters are so complex. You feel for everyone, but you also want to smack everyone. You understand why they’re doing the things they are, but you really wish they’d rather not. You know you’re watching a group of characters go through some dark stuff, but it’s presented in such a light, comic manner for the most part that it’s certainly palatable if not downright delicious. On top of all this, it’s an absolutely gorgeous film — the colors, the use of mirrors, the countryside, the cast… Speaking of the cast, it’s filled with British heavyweights Colin Firth and Kristen Scott-Thomas alongside Ben Barnes, who is delightful, and Jessica Biel, who turns in a career-changing performance. Some critics have said she doesn’t hold her own against Scott-Thomas, but I couldn’t disagree more. There’s a coldness and an awkwardness to their scenes that is perfectly appropriate for the characters and the story. Biel is both devastating and hilarious in turns. While this movie isn’t my critical favorite of the year (that would probably go to MOON or INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), it is my personal favorite.
And that wraps it up. It’s worth nothing that these were simply my favorites out of the approximately 210 movies I saw in 2009. I didn’t get a chance to see some of the films critics are calling “best,” including UP IN THE AIR, PRECIOUS, THE ROAD, A SINGLE MAN, or A SERIOUS MAN, all which would have been potential contenders for my list. They still have the chance to make next year’s, of course. But that’s why this is a “Ditty’s Faves” list and not a “Best of.”
So, what were your favorite films of 2009? What do you think of mine?