Friday, December 18, 2009

Eleven Favorites From 2009

In no particular order, here is a listing of the best movies, released in 2009, that I saw in the theater. As is typical with most years, I missed a lot of potentially great movies in the theater that I intend to catch at home . This list is in no way comprehensive and has not been pared down from dozens/hundreds of movies. I'd love to make another list of the great movies I'd watched at home or in re-release at a few of my favorite arthouse theaters (like Rashomon at Chicago's Music Box Theater), but there just isn't time right now.

For my own edification, and in no particular order:

The Hurt Locker: Expect director Kathryn Bigelow to win Best Director at the Oscars this year. I wouldn't be surprised if Jeremy Renner gets nominated or even wins Best Actor, as well. Taut, suspenseful and powerful. If this film had been in 3-D, it would have given you a stroke.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Finally, a Wes Anderson movie that benefits from his overly fussy attention to details. Thoroughly enjoyable, with incredible animation, plus some career-best work from George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman... hell, every single person brought their "A" game to this. I haven't cackled louder in a theater this year -- and I literally cackled -- then when I was caught off guard by, "You wrote a bad song, Petey!" scene.

Coraline: Just a total head trip (in 3-D, no less). Granted, I was a bit inebriated and couldn't recall for you the plot if you put a gun to my head, but between this and Mr. Fox, a massive case was made this year for the return to stop motion or non-computerized animation. Plus, how can you go wrong with Ian McShane and John Hodgman?

I Love You, Man: They can't all be the Sistine Chapel, and I'm not the kind of dude who is going to pretend that I only admire films as art. I mean, I've watched The North Shore over 15 times, man! I Love You, Man was a sweet, funny and dare I say touching homage to the bromance. This wouldn't have worked without the genius cast, down to even Lou Ferrigno as himself. Ladies, please take note that all you really need to keep a man happy is allow him his own man cave.

Adventureland: I had mixed emotions about this film, and still think it only works on about a 70% success level. For example, I don't buy for a minute Kristen Stewart falling for Jesse "the poor man's Michael Cera" Eisenberg (nor do I buy for a minute the Lisa P. character wanting to go out with him). Part of the roadblock for me was my own hope that the comedy would be a little more zany, a little more funny, and less of a relationship movie. Still, it's a tender, surprising little movie that is much better than its advertising let on. Great soundtrack too, and not the kind of movie that seems like it's trying too hard to be cool (AHEM (500) Days of Summer).

Star Trek: Other than maybe enjoying the camp of the original TV series and the first two movies with the original cast, I have no real love for "Star Trek." I was actually prepared to hate this thing, but instead, the 2009 Trek flick kicked my ass. I have a newfound respect for Zachary Quinto, whom I find annoying on "Heroes," and I have a newfound crush on Zoe Saldana.

The Hangover: Overrated, for sure, it's still probably the one of the funniest movies of the year. Some of it just doesn't work, but the parts that do (like almost anything Ed Helms or Zach Galifinakis says) are insanely funny. Worth the price of admission just for the song Helms sings at the piano as the gang waits for the tiger to pass out.

Inglourious Basterds: Too talky and a bit long (is EVERY scene in this movie an interrogation?), it's still a hell of an engrossing film once you get past the fact that it's actually barely about the titular Basterds and their exploits. The ultimate Jewish revenge fantasy, with an ending that rewrites history with a massive twisted grin on its face. I do have to ask, how big of a pile of cocaine did Tarantino snort to think that the inclusion of David Bowie's "Cat People" made any goddamned sense at all?

BrĂ¼no: Watch it with your mom.

Lovely, Still: This tiny little flick may not actually see a wider release until next year, but I caught a sneak preview in Omaha, where it was made by a young filmmaker named Nik Fackler. There is a somewhat gimmicky twist that I won't spoil here, and the film walks a fine line of good and bad taste because of this twist, but its heart is so obviously in the right place that you can trust Fackler's intentions were not to exploit this character's weakness in making this bittersweet love story. Without the delicate, touching work from Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn (who has a wordless scene in a hospital that is especially powerful and clinches the entire picture), I'm not sure how well things would have worked. Fackler's direction is staggeringly confident, especially for someone not only his age but also making his directorial debut. The most interesting and somewhat daring element of Lovely, Still is the fact that, until you learn the twist, it seems like it's sloppily constructed and amateurish as far as plot is concerned. Once the pieces fit into place, you realize that Fackler was brave enough to make the movie seem this way to help pull off this bit of storytelling. Whether you wind up feeling manipulated or surprised, you really have to ask yourself, "Is this better than MY first movie?" What's that? You didn't make a first movie? Thought so.

Soul Power: I suppose this is listed as a 2008 release in many places, but I saw it in '09 and that's good enough for me. A loose documentary about the Zaire 74 music festival, which was to coincide with the legendary Ali/Foreman fight documented in the incredible film When We Were Kings, Soul Power is a fun, infectious collection of performances from James Brown, B.B. King, The Spinners, Bill Withers, Celia Cruz and more. Featuring an absolutely chilling performance by Withers (that still gives me goosebumps when I think about it), a surprisingly super-funky runthrough of "The Thrill is Gone" by King, and an electric showing of James Brown and one of the all-time best outfits ever worn by the Godfather of Soul, it's like The Last Waltz with afros.