At one of many weddings I attended last year, a fellow guest confided in me: "2009 has been a great year for movies." My first thought was that he was drunk on conjugal wine or just putting a positive spin on a sour situation (the year in film, not the aforementioned nuptials). After all, it was the beginning of Fall, and the industry had just emerged from the Summer Blockbuster Bailout with very little integrity left in tact (Transformers, Terminator Salvation, some Sandra Bullock movies). But in the process of compiling my yearly Best/Worst list, I began to see he may have had a point.
Sure, the economy's in the shitter and Hollywood's even more risk-averse, churning out more tired sequels, re-boots, re-do's than ever before. But if you're willing to look hard enough, venture beyond your local multiplex and dig down deep into your Netflix queue, there are still some diamonds in the rough to be found.
That's right, the times (and my viewing habits) are a'changin'. Of the 76 movies I saw released in 2009, only 25 did I view in an actual movie theatre. The remaining 51 were either experienced by way of Blu-ray, streaming Netflix feed, HDNet Movies or a tiny Delta Airlines screen.
Truth be told, these 25 actual movie theatre experiences were some of the most trying too, be it the douchebag on a cell phone in The Road, the fidgety blonde in The White Ribbon giving herself countless French braids in my periphery, or the a-wad in A Serious Man kibbutzing loudly and kicking the backs of our seats, an experience that led my normally even-tempered, peace-loving girlfriend to curse him like a sailor at credits' end and very nearly led to physical blows.
The sad thing is, these were all in arthouse theatres. It's getting so a man can't even take in a Truffaut Retro without threat of smackdown.
Anyway, onto the list...
10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans
Last year, I christened this my Most Anticipated Movie of 2009, and I may have deadened some of the film's narcotic effects by re-watching the insanely inspired trailer one too many times. But there were still a number of surprises in this intriguingly oddball police procedural -- one, that Nic Cage can still act his ass off when given a good director and a back pain medicine/crack addiction, and, two, that Herzog has a wicked sense of humor. If you're going to sink into the lower depths of a post-Katrina New Orleans hell rampant with drugs, prostitutes, iguanas and breakdancing souls, these are the two tour guides you want along for the ride.
9. Two Lovers
A very small New York movie about very big everyday decisions. Do you go with the sweet but uninspiring family-approved girl-next-door or the nothing-but-trouble dream girl who's leaving for the Coast next week? This is Joaquin Phoenix's Coney Island schlub dilemma, one that feels so lived-in you're sure you've seen it a million times before but rarely with such artistry and honesty.
8. The Informant!
Steven Soderbergh takes a rote legal thriller and flips it into a wicked satirical vivisection of the modern corporate mind, a mind that is at once bi-polar, deeply pathological and overflowing with haphazard inner monologue. Look past the chubbed-up Matt Damon performance (great, by the way), the spy-next-door hi-jinks and retro Marvin Hamlisch score and you'll find a very angry condemnation of Wall Street's modern day economic rape and pillage underneath.
7. Red Cliff
I've never been much of a John Woo fan, but I've got to give the dude credit...he knows how to stage an epic battle scene. This may be the best film about the ins and outs of military strategy ever made. Perhaps the U.S. Army should watch this instead of Patton or 300 before heading into The Next Great Occupation, though I'm guessing "The Tortoise Formation" wouldn't work so well in the desert hills and caves of Afghanistan.
6. Observe and Report
On paper, retooling Taxi Driver into a big studio comedy set in a suburban shopping mall with Seth Rogen as a security guard version of Travis Bickle sounds like a recipe for disaster...or worse, Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But, in practice, it proved the funniest, most risk-taking comedy of the year, stretching the post-Curb "discomfort zone" brand of humor to a whole new level. The comedy targets are all over the place in this one -- date rape, prescription drug abuse, Christian chastity vows -- but nearly every joke is a direct hit.
Forget all the Twilight teenybopper meshugas. Forget all that True Blood bloodsucker hokum. The only vampire story worth seeing this year was Chan-wook Park's deliriously inventive spin on the tired genre, Thirst. Every frame is bursting with fresh, gruesome images you haven't seen before. This movie proves there is definitely more than one way to skin a cinematic cat...or suck its blood.
4. A Serious Man
Speaking of meshugas, the Coen Brothers would apparently have us believe we're up to our metaphysical ears in it. When trying to live a moral life in an unjust world starts to seem so ridiculous even your rabbi can't make heads or tails of it, what is a newly divorced Jewish college physics professor to do? Give that weird Korean student who's bribing him a passing grade, for one. This is probably the most personal movie we're likely to get from the Brothers Coen and, at the same time, maybe their most cruelly existential. Unlike Burn After Reading which was just plain cruel. L'Chaim!
3. The Messenger
One of two movies this year that proved you can tackle the Iraq War and its ripple effect on the homefront intelligently, with dignity and without a partisan agenda. This movie feels like the 70's Hal Ashby classics The Last Detail and Coming Home but rawer, more emotional, less cynical. Woody Harrelson is at the top of his game, and Ben Foster (who I've never really cared much for before) is a revelation in the lead role. Not to mention Samantha Morton, who's perfectly cast. It's more than just an actor's movie though -- it's one everyone should see.
Talk about acting with a capital A -- Tilda Swinton not only OWNS this little-seen kidnapping-gone-wrong movie, she runs it up and down the block on her freckled back. A wild spin on John Cassavettes' 1970's maternal thriller Gloria, Swinton plays a twelve-step floosie who will hop into the sack (or a random kidnapping scheme) with just about anyone she meets. Where the plot goes from there is at times both hilarious and harrowing, Erick Zonca's direction and Swinton's performance always teetering on the razor's edge of hysteria. Julia's maternal instincts may be slow to kick in (she treats the kid like crap most of the movie), but when they do Tilda makes them utterly believable, truly transforming and completely hard-won.
1. The Hurt Locker
Anyone who's chatted with me about movies in the last six months should not be surprised that The Hurt Locker is my number one. Whenever anyone asked "What have you seen good in 2009?", it's the only film that readily came to mind. A brilliant blend of pure action/suspense filmmaking and political urgency without being didactic, heavy-handed or overly derivative. Director Kathryn Bigelow engages you on every level in the story of a worn-thin Iraq bomb disposal unit and its wild-card top gun (Jeremy Renner) with a mastery of filmmaking craft. To be honest, I never expected this from the director of Point Break or Strange Days or, better yet, Blue Steel. If all is right with the world, expect Bigelow to be the first female director to pick up the naked golden man for directing come Oscar Night.
If The King of Comedy and Buffalo 66 were to get it on in the back of a Staten Island Burger King bathroom, this is the movie they would spawn. Director/writer Robert Siegel (screenwriter of last year's The Wrestler) proves once again he has an eye and an ear for lower class sports-related humiliation and the tiny moments of dignity it can sometimes bring.
Crank: High Voltage
I shit you not. One of the best times I had at the movies (ahem, Blu-ray player) all year. This movie is mindless fun done with a complete and manic disregard for taste, plot or motivation. It simply races from one "shocking" set-up to the next, each one trumping the last in f-you audacity. I didn't even see the first Crank and honestly don't want to. There's no way it can be as much dumb-fun as this.
Question: How many Sam Rockwells does it take to escape a lunar asylum? Answer: More than one. Actually, maybe more than two...it's all so very confusing. Director Duncan Jones refashions 2001: A Space Odyssey into a diverting psychological thriller about loss using some nifty old-fashioned space movie model and matte effects.
"Not nearly as depressing as the book." Ordinarily, that might not sound like a slam, but when your subject matter is an apocalypse with absolute zero hope in sight and your source material the perennially dour Cormac McCarthy, then it's a little bit of cheat to throw in one too many Charlize Theron flashbacks. Still, a very fine Viggo, beautiful wasteland cinematography and Omar from The Wire is in it!
Up in the Air
You would think this one would place higher on my Best list. Excellent performances across the board from Clooney, Farmiga, et al. Compelling novelistic source material. A topic that couldn't be more timely (corporate layoffs, rampant unemployment, etc.). But the direction seemed a little too mild and -- to coin a new adjective here -- Starbucks-y. Maybe that's the right fit for a film about airport culture. Or maybe not. What do I know? I take MegaBus mostly.
10. My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done
Also known as "the other movie that Werner Herzog did this year." This David Lynch produced pic had all the trappings of a great cult movie -- Herzog directing, Michael Shannon doing his bug-eyed Michael Shannon thing, Willem Defoe, Grace Zabriskie, Brad Dourif, pink flamingos and the little dude from the Austin Powers movies. But Herzog's deadpan take on a soup-to-nuts insane actor who gets too into character and kills his mother with a saber just left me limp, like a canister of dry oatmeal. The oatmeal reference might mean something to you if you see the movie...not that I'm suggesting you do.
9. Away We Go
Cue self-involved conversation about the rigors of adulthood and marriage. Cut to LIGHT INDIE ROCK SONG MONTAGE. Cue naval-gazing musings about pregnancy and the tyranny of baby strollers. Cut to LIGHT INDIE ROCK SONG MONTAGE. Cue more yammering and driving in an old beat up Volvo. Cut to LIGHT INDIE ROCK SONG MONTAGE. Yawn, yawn, yawn. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
8. Year One
There's a funny movie somewhere in here. Oh yeah, it's called Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part One. And that was 29 years ago.
7. Fast and Furious
I knew our border with Mexico was porous, but really? Porous enough to drive 20 souped-up, tricked-out Subarus through without a blink from Border Patrol? This is the same movie over and over again minus two extra "The's" in the title. But, still, some nice editing in the opening oil tanker chase scene.
6. Crossing Over
Speaking of La Linea, how about Paul Haggis' Crash but set on the U.S./Mexico border? A series of interwoven, manipulative stories about guilty white people and the immigrants they screw over. They might as well have called this one "Crashing Over."
5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Adamantium bath or semen vat? You be the judge.
4. Sunshine Cleaning
The picture says it all. Whatever viscera they were cleaning up in these cutesy-CSI crime scenes couldn't have smelled worse than this pre-packaged indie turd-bomb itself.
3. He's Just Not That Into You
An insult to the intelligence of men and women alike, maybe even the transgender community. This is what happens when it's Valentine's Day, your lady wants to see a rom-com and you're living in the suburbs at the time. It sure ain't pretty.
2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
I saw this movie under adverse conditions...on a tiny airplane seat-back monitor. I didn't really get to soak in the grandeur that is Michael Bay's astounding ochre-hued images or earthquaking sound design. It doesn't matter. The movie itself is one big adverse condition, like being hit with a screaming bag of flaming monkey shit for two and a half hours (though I checked out at hour one). Even on a tiny 9 inch by 9 inch screen it's apparent Bay's cinematic stupidity knows no bounds.
1. Whatever Works
An open letter to Woody Allen...Wood-man, you cannot just dredge up any old script in your drawer from 1967, add a few Internet jokes and expect the thing to fly. You cannot keep casting 10 top-drawer actors per film and expect them to liven up your tired Borscht Belt groaners. Dammit, man, you must write something new! Or at the very least...improv it! Why the hell else do you have Larry David there?! Please, Woody, you're one of the finest directors of all time! Something good, quick! Not Annie Hall-caliber perhaps but at least as good as Alice.
UFC pay-per-view or just gay-for-pay? Hard to tell from the picture above. Don't waste your time/money on this one either way.
Other than a mildly diverting Guggenheim gun battle, yawn-inducing.
Weird for weird's sake courtesy of David Lynch's daughter. The only real reason to stick around till the end credits is a nifty end song called Speed Roadster sung by Mr. Lynch himself. Better yet, you could just YouTube that shit.
Liam Neeson to Kidnapper Dude: "I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you." Uh, yep, and that's exactly what Liam does. Surprise! You're out 12 bucks.
Consider this franchise...terminated. Until the eventual remake of the re-boot, that is.
BEST OPENING SCENE IN AN OTHERWISE OVERWROUGHT, OVERLY-PRAISED REVISIONIST HISTORY TUG JOB
Inglorious Basterds - Don't get me wrong. Far better than Death Proof and at least one of the Kill Bills. And kudos to QT for forcing the average moviegoer to sit through subtitles, something they'd never otherwise do.
THE BLAIR WITCH AWARD FOR AUDIENCE GULLIBILITY
BEST $237 MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE THAT COST ME $22 TO SEE
Avatar in IMAX 3D
BEST GATEWAY DRUG DOCUMENTARY
Not Quite Hollywood - I'm still adding Aussie exploitation flicks to my Netflix queue as we speak.
BEST GENITAL MUTILATION
Two way tie - Charlotte Gainsbourg's rock to Willem Dafoe's goods in Antichrist
Michael Bay's to mine in every frame of Transformers
LEAST TITILLATING MOVIE ABOUT THE SEX TRADE EVER
The Girlfriend Experience
MOST NASAL/ESOPHAGEAL FLUID EXPELLED IN A MOVIE EVER
Drag Me to Hell
BEST GIDDY NAZI
Christoph Waltz - Inglorious Basterds
BEST KIDDIE NAZIS
The creepy automaton kids in The White Ribbon
BEST MOVIE ABOUT THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE (i.e., NOT "CROSSING OVER")
Three way tie - Sugar, Sin Nombre, Goodbye Solo
MOST ANTICIPATED MOVIE OF 2010
I don't know. What's Dwight Yoakam up to these days?