The Best Film of 2009
I don’t read a lot of blogs, but there is one that I love to visit called “Three Hands in the Popcorn Bag,” created by a friend of mine and two of his friends, dedicated to reviewing movies of all shapes and sizes, beautiful and absurd. One week will provide captivating reflections on theologically/sociologically rich films like Babette’s Feast and City of God, while other weeks you can read the most insightful review ever attributed to Saw IV or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus 3D. These guys maintain a great site, and I recommend it.
One of the things this blog provides, each year, is a Top Five list of films from each of the three contributors. Their latest ones, recently posted, reminded me that I used to do the same, though last year I did not provide a list mainly because I had moved out of the States before I was able to see several movies on which I had waited. Living in Germany makes it difficult to catch new releases, especially if you are on a missionary budget. I have to drive into Switzerland to catch movies in English, and there is no affordable English-dubbed Netflix or Redbox in Deutschland. It costs around $14 to see a movie in the theater, so I have only been to two since moving to Germany eighteen months ago. And as for independent films, like the kind my Waco friends and I used to drive up to Dallas to see on Saturdays, I have had to bid a sad farewell to almost all of them. The only blessing has been the occasional opportunity to download a new or recent release from some ethically-gray movie website. I promise, as soon as Germany installs a Blockbuster in the village of Kandern, or allows me an overseas Netflix membership, I’ll fork over the dough.
And yet, despite only being able to see a fraction of 2009 films this past year, I have nevertheless compiled my own list. In the past, this has been a Top Ten list, but I’m reducing it to a few different Top Five groupings because of a lack of material. So, without further adieu…
TOP FIVE FILMS OF 2009
1) The Hurt Locker
Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie
I was lucky enough to find this one online last summer, but had I gotten the opportunity to travel to Switzerland, I would have considered the exorbitant cost worth it for. There are two kinds of war films – ones that focus on the overall glory/brutality of war, and ones that focus not on the war itself, but on the soldiers who struggle through it. Both can achieve greatness, but, by and large, I have always found the character-driven war films superior. The Hurt Locker is an extraordinary, character-driven war film. The Iraq War, with all its chaos and controversy, takes a back seat to three specific soldiers of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), perhaps the most dangerous job in the war. It is as tense a thriller as they come, but also as moving and thought-provoking as any film I have seen in recent history. If you missed it in the theaters, add it to the Netflix queue or snag it from the Red Box. It should win the Best Picture Oscar, but even though it probably won’t, I don’t expect to see a better film come out of 2009.
2) The Road
Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Yes, it is depressing. Yes, it is bleak. Yes, the small strand of hope woven through the story is almost imperceptible at times. But just as this was perhaps the most moving novel of 2006, the film is a spot-on adaptation. The cinematography triumphs in an unrelenting display of a desolate, post-apocalyptic world. If the film could not properly capture this critical element, it simply would not work. But director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) succeeds with this and much more. I would go so far as to insist that the world he creates is more emotionally mesmerizing than James Cameron’s planet of Pandora. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee are wonderful as the Man and the Boy, and brief appearances by Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Michael K. Williams and Guy Pearce are perfect in their tragic simplicity. The film only serves to remind me why I have fought to teach Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to my American Literature Honors class this year.
Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrellson
Those who know me and my affinity for moviegoing might be surprised that such a ridiculous film made it on my Top Five list. However, chalking its presence up to the fact that I haven’t seen that many films this year would not be correct. While there are several highly-regarded 2009 films that I still have yet to see, it is safe to assume that Zombieland would still fall ahead of many of them. The beauty of this horror-comedy is its intelligibility and its absence of adornment. It does not try to do or be too much. It is simply a road movie about four survivors of a zombie apocalypse seeking safety and togetherness. It contains a wonderful mix of pop-culture jokes, visual gags and chuckle-filled violence, not to mention the best star-cameo I’ve ever seen on film. And what other film would have its hero’s archetypical “Ultimate Boon” be as seemingly insignificant as a Twinkie? I have not wanted to see a sequel this much in a long, long time.
4) The Hangover
Bradley Cooper, Zack Galafanakis
The greatness of this comedy lies in its non-stop outlandishness. One cannot help but respect the wide inventiveness of the writers’ imaginations. From a mystery baby, to Mike Tyson’s bengal tiger, to the naked Asian in the trunk, I felt as amnesic as the three buffoons running all over Las Vegas trying to retrace their drunken, meandering steps from the night before. Is the film crude at times? Yes. Is it uncomfortable? Yes. Is it believable? Absolutely not. But this is exactly the point. Like Wedding Crashers before it, this film deserves the laughs it yanks out of you, even if you can’t help but cover your mouth with your hand from the shock of it. This film surpasses so many mediocre screwball comedies of recent years. It is nice to know Hollywood can still do funny right.
5) Inglourious Basterds
Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz
I’m still chewing on this one, to be honest. I only watched it a week ago. However, in the middle of my viewing, around the time Standartenführer Landa is sharing dessert with Shosanna, I was reminded of why this film should be considered great: it is a return to true Tarantino form – pitch-perfect dialogue. At one point, my wife asked, “Why is each scene so long?” I explained that Tarantino’s talent is finding a way to keep extended on-screen conversations riveting, and this is certainly true in Basterds. Kill Bill was good, but fell short of films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction because it traded away some of its dialogue for extensive scenes of gore and violence. But, with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has returned to the balance that works best. Nevermind that the entire second half of the film is an absurd reimagining of the end of WWII. The tagline on the poster – “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France” – reminds the viewer of the fantastical proposition of this story. The tightness of the storytelling, along with impressive acting all around, convinces me I will be hard-pressed to find a better film from 2009.
HONORABLE MENTIONS - Films Definitely Worth Seeing
500 Days of Summer – Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great, as is Zooey Deschanel. The freshness of the story, and its refusal to be a same-old, same-old romantic comedy, captivated me throughout.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – One of the two films I have seen in the theater in Switzerland (hey, I’m a Potter fan). This film was well done. I include it as an honorable mention even though, for some odd reason, the filmmakers played down the climactic final confrontation from the book, and instead included a whole new scene in the middle that finds the Weasley’s house on fire. Still, though, this is a vast improvement from Order of the Phoenix, and the presence of Jim Broadbent (as Professor Slughorn) was the best casting of a new character so far. Thankfully, the kids are continuing to hone their acting skills, even Ginny (Bonnie Wright), which is nice to see.
Avatar – Yes, the story is lacking in places (pretty much a Dances With Wolves rip-off just like The Last Samurai), but it is not nearly as painful to sit through as Titanic‘s preposterous love story. Visually, it is an amazing cinematic achievement. Even for Switzlerland’s 3D screen costs, it is worth the price just to see Pandora.
Fanboys – Okay, it was a silly movie about a bunch of twenty-something nerds road tripping to Lucas Ranch to steal a copy of Star Wars: Episode One. But, on the other hand, it was about a bunch of twenty-something nerds road tripping to Lucas Ranch to steal a copy of Star Wars: Episode One. Full of Star Wars/ Star Trek humor, improbably road trip gags, and Seth Rogan’s best comedic role to date, this is worth watching if you have any appreciation for the original Star Wars trilogy.
District 9 – The jury is still out, as I just watched this last night. However, I have to give credit to the originality of both the story and the filmmaking. While I had trouble watching half the scenes in documentary-style when no cameras were supposed to be around the characters, I was drawn in quickly by this odd, politically-charged science fiction film. I cannot say I regret seeing it, especially when movies are harder to come by where I live.
TOP FIVE WORST FILMS OF 2009
Speaking of regretting films, here are five that either royally disappointed me, or went so far as to cause me to lament that story-quality in Hollywood has been thrown out with the craft services trash from the Avatar set.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - To be honest, I don’t know why I watched it at all. Maybe because I have little to choose from here in Germany. But just like its 2007 predecessor, this film royally sucked. Who needs coherent story and logic in Hollywood when I gots me a bunch a guys who can generate a mess o’ loud noises and blow crap up for two and a half hours?
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – Watched it with the wife. Aside from the fact that the screenwriters basically pissed all over Dickens, it only served to remind me that Matthew McConaughey is the go-to guy to play chauvinistic pricks, and that is not a good thing. If it weren’t for Tropic Thunder, I don’t think I could look at the guy anymore.
Pandorum - I wanted to like this film. I like Ben Foster. I think that he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are the two best young male actors working today. And the problem with this film was not its look or even its pacing. Rather, it was the balance. I knew what was going on not because the film clearly communicated this to me, but because I worked my way through this movie based on thinking like the writer and director. Insert crazy psychological twist here, add improbable situation here, apply creepy character here. All in all, it was too concerned with keeping me guessing to keep me interested.
Knowing – Actually started with promise, even if it felt like the filmmakers were beating me over the head to communicate Nicolas Cage’s spiritual crisis. However, the ridiculous spiritual allusions within this film left me shaking my head in annoyance. And then there was the lame Deus Ex Machina ending so far out of left field that its in the parking lot of another town’s stadium. I like a disaster film as much as the next guy, but I rolled my eyes so much during this film that I went to bed with a pulsating headache.
Funny People – I was excited about this film. I am a fan of Judd Apatow – well, the films he writes, not the pieces of crap he produces. I was interested to see his new dramedy. When it comes to Adam Sandler in a serious role, I’m on board. I think he’s got some chops. However, this film was a mess. A complete mess. It wanted to be too many things, a drama, a buddy-comedy, a romance, a coming-of-age tale… In the end, all I could think about was how many things I would change about the story. Too bad.
TOP TEN 2009 MOVIES I STILL WANT TO SEE
1 - A Serious Man – I heart the Cohen brothers.
2 – Invictus – I also heart Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon and Clint Eastwood.
3 – Up in the Air – I actually downloaded this but haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. I liked director Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking and Juno, but only somewhat. However, from what I’ve heard about this one, I’m more eager to see it than I ever was the other two.
4 – The Fantastic Mr. Fox – Wes Anderson could direct a pro-Hitler movie and I’d watch it.
5 – Star Trek – I am still very eager to see this remake. I never saw the highly-praised reboot of James Bond (Casino Royale) either, and it’s ticking me off.
6 – The White Ribbon – I’ve heard this film is extraordinary, and living in Germany, I truly hope I can see it soon.
7 – The Men Who Stare at Goats – Still hoping I can locate a copy of this online. Looks like a great cast and an interesting story. One of our friends, Kristen, recently reminded me that I like Ewen McGregor.
8 – The Lovely Bones – Peter Jackson is a great director, plain and simple. I haven’t read this book, but I am definitely up for the film adaptation.
9 – Where the Wild Things Are – I’m wary of children’s books being turned into films, but this one looked intriguing.
10 – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – Not only because it was Heath Ledger’s last film, and I think he was really starting to find his acting chops since Brokeback Mountain, I am also a fan of Terry Gilliam. I don’t know if it will be any good, but I definitely think it is worth checking out.
And that’s all there is, friends. Please let me know if you have seen any of the above listed films, and your thoughts on them.