2009's Top Ten Films

Much of 2009 looked pretty bleak, and I’m not even talking about the economy. Most of the time there seemed to be little reason to go to the movie theater. Occasionally a worthwhile film would pop up, but more often than not the new releases consisted of cheapo horror flicks, mindless action films, or lame-brained comedies aimed at (and seemingly made by) 14 year-olds. When the Academy announced that it would have ten Best Picture nominees, many critics wondered how Oscar voters would find enough films worthy of the honor. I initially didn’t think it would be a problem but secretly wondered if the skeptics were right.

In the last three months of the year everything changed. So many good films hit theaters that the challenge became keeping up with them. Yes, it would have been nice if the stellar movies were more evenly spread out, but I’ll take them whenever they are available. Instead of struggling to find ten worthwhile films, I had to make tough choices in narrowing my list down, as you can tell from my Honorable Mention picks:
    Away We Go
    Broken Embraces
    Crazy Heart
    The Damned United
    An Education
    The Fantastic Mr. Fox
    Inglourious Basterds
    The Road
    A Single Man

As always, the common thread among my top ten is that there is no common thread. The group covers different genres. The filmmakers include established masters, promising newcomers and everything in between. Some on the list wow with spectacle, while others draw you in with inventive storytelling or compelling characters. Together they are a wonderful way to close out the decade in film:

10. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb) – Romantic comedies have so many rules and conventions that producing a unique one must be difficult. But Webb, along with writers Scott Neustader and Michael H. Weber, more than meet this challenge. They go back-and-forth in Tom and Summer’s 500 day relationship showing you how it starts and crumbles simultaneously. Webb tries many things, including a musical number and a split-screen contrasting what Tom hopes for and the reality. It all works, in part because we care about Tom and Summer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has made his bones in indie dramas the past few years. Here he successfully channels his intensity into Tom’s earnestness. Zooey Deschanel is luminous and enthralling, maintaining just enough distance to keep Tom (and us) longing for more. Together, Webb, Neustader, Weber, Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel make (500) Days of Summer the most original and engrossing romantic comedy since Annie Hall.

9. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp) – District 9 is also a different take on an established genre, in this case, science fiction. Aliens have landed on earth but instead of invading they have been segregated into restricted areas and treated as second-class citizens. That this story unfolds in Johannesburg, South Africa, with its history, gives the movie an added resonance. Blomkamp, who also co-wrote the film, shoots the first half as though it were a documentary. He grounds the movie in as much realism as possible, so later, when it takes some fantastic turns, you are willing to go with it. Sharlto Copley, in his first acting role, shines as a sniveling mid-level corporate executive who initially tries to force out the aliens, but later becomes their ally. Ironically, Blomkamp got the go-ahead to make District 9 as a consolation after his adaptation of the “Halo” video game series fell through. I can do just fine without yet another film based on a video game, especially when the result is a gem like District 9.

8. The Messenger (dir. Oren Moverman) – The Messenger examines soldiers that are often overlooked, those that have to inform the families that their loved ones were killed in the line of duty. Moverman, who co-wrote the film, explores the psychological effects of constantly having to deliver the worst news possible. His story teams a young soldier (Ben Foster) just back from Iraq and learning the job with a burnt-out veteran (Woody Harrelson) who has been doing the job far too long. The story is entirely through their point of view as they give this devastating news to a number of different of families. By telling the story this way, Moverman depicts the impact of war from a fascinating angle. Foster and Harrelson work well together, showing the hurt and pain of their characters in entirely different ways. Samantha Morton is also very moving as a new widow trying to keep her life together. Who would ever think that one of the most powerful war films would be one where you never see the battlefield?

7. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow) – Like The Messenger, The Hurt Locker is a gripping war film, but this is one where you see everything. It follows soldiers who have arguably the most dangerous assignment possible, dismantling bombs in Iraq. Bigelow has long been considered an “action director” but unlike many others in that category, she knows how to hold a shot for longer than a split-second. She slowly builds the suspense and tension in the bomb scenes, making them both exciting and terrifying. But Bigelow has just as much interest in the mental makeup of the soldiers, in particular Sgt. James, brilliantly played by Jeremy Renner. Sgt. James is a man who feeds off the adrenaline of his job. His attitude has a disconcerting effect on his colleagues. Thanks to Bigelow, Renner and a terrific script by Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker shows that while many cannot survive war, there are unfortunate souls who cannot survive without it.

6. The Informant! (dir. Steven Soderbergh) – We have seen whistleblower films as dramas or thrillers, but Soderbergh turns this subgenre on its head by making his story a comedy. That’s because The Informant! is less interested in corporate malfeasance than the mind of the whistleblower, Mark Whitacre. The excellent script by Scott Burns, based on Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book, places you in Whitacre’s mind as he discusses the case and also rambles on about many other topics. Slowly you realize that Whitacre is delusional and that he has his own cover-up to go along with the corporate cover-up. Soderbergh uses quirky, 70's music and Whitacre’s stream-of-conscious thoughts to create a funny yet disturbing character study. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale are effective as the audience surrogates, FBI agents working with Whitacre, desperately trying to hold their case together as they slowly realize how unhinged their witness has become. But it’s Matt Damon as Whitacre, who carries the film. He makes you believe that Mark believes what he is saying, no matter how crazy it is. As he did in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Damon is able to slowly externalize his character’s hidden lunacy. He does this in such an engaging way, though, that you almost find yourself pulling for Whitacre despite everything. People may still think of Damon as Jason Bourne, but in The Informant! he again proves that he’s one of Hollywood’s most talented and daring actors.

5. Avatar (dir. James Cameron) – It had been 12 years since Titanic, James Cameron’s last film, a pace that would make Stanley Kurbick look fast. Turns out Avatar was worth the wait. Cameron combines computer graphics and 3-D technology to immerse audiences in a beautiful world. Sometimes you just can’t believe what you are seeing. While the effects are groundbreaking, the story isn’t but it gives you just enough to keep you interested. Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang stand out among a solid ensemble cast. And Cameron, as always, has a flair for directing action scenes. Avatar may not be the best film of the year, but it’s certainly the best cinematic experience. I hope we don’t have to wait another 12 years for Cameron’s next effort.

4. Big Fan (dir. Robert D. Siegel) – With the exception of the original Fever Pitch, few films have truly examined what it means to be a sports fan. Siegel, who also wrote Big Fan, does this by giving us an extreme example. Paul is a shlubby failure of a man who lives and breathes the New York Giants. He literally has nothing else in his life but Giants games and sports radio call-in shows. You pity him, but Siegel presents Paul in a way that anyone who is a sports fan can understand him. When Paul is severely beaten by a Giants player, his loyalties are put to the test. Siegel wrote The Wrestler, and, Paul, in his own way, is just as compelling as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Both films make you understand why these people at the fringes of society do the things they do. Patton Oswalt is simply heartbreaking as Paul. Oswalt’s skills as a comedian help him, but he shows a dramatic range that he’s never displayed before. Big Fan is enough to make any fans question their priorities and hope they don’t take their devotion too far.

3. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (dir. Lee Daniels) – Daniels pulls no punches in putting Sapphire’s novel on screen. What in lesser hands could have been a Lifetime movie is instead a brutal, frank depiction of child abuse and its repercussions. The atmosphere and surroundings lend an air of authenticity. Neither Daniels nor screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher try to get you to like the characters. Precious is not the easiest heroine to identify with. Daniels bravely cast newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Precious and she delivers a natural, internalized performance that never overtly plays to audience sympathies. Because Sidibe shows such restraint, when you do care for Precious it feels earned, not forced. This makes it that much more inspiring when she does share her hopes and dreams and later tries to pull her life together. Another brash casting decision was comedienne Mo’Nique as Precious’s violent, cruel and domineering mother. Mo’Nique delivers, somehow depicting a truly loathsome character without losing the mother’s humanity or becoming cartoonish. Precious has an impact and power that will resonate long after you leave the theater.

2. Up (dir. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson) – It’s become easy to take Pixar for granted, as the studio churns out one excellent film after another. But the Pixar team has never rested on its laurels and has always been willing to take chances. With WALL-E, they had almost no dialogue in the first half of the movie. Now, with Up, they take an animated film and make the hero a 78 year-old curmudgeon, Carl (the voice of Ed Asner). Like the best Pixar films, the story’s appeal comes less from fantasy then from basic core human emotions. In this case it’s a man struggling with the loss of his wife and unfulfilled expectations. The kid Carl reluctantly accepts as his companion is missing his absentee father. Together Carl and the kid fly away and have an exciting, funny adventure. Much of the laughs come from the hilarious dog, Dug. Docter and Peterson spent much time in South America researching the backdrop for Carl’s journey, and that effort pays off with beautiful imagery (enhanced by the 3-D effects). The first five minutes of Up are more moving than most whole movies, and the rest of the film more than lives up to its beginning.

1. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman) – This smart, witty film is a poignant and true reflection of our times. While the title directly refers to the fact that the protagonist Ryan Bingham spends most of his time in airports and airplanes, it also reflects his state of mind. You see, his job is to fire people for different companies, and he has his work down to a science. Bingham keeps his distance from everyone, “flying above” the concerns that most people have. George Clooney was the right choice for Bingham, as his natural charm has an air of detachment underneath. Yet you can’t help but like him as the emotional walls he has created begin to crumble. Vera Farmiga, as Bingham’s love interest and Anna Kendrick, as a rookie Bingham reluctantly tutors, also turn in strong performances. Reitman, who also co-wrote this adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel, supplements his main story with filmed testimonies from real people who had lost their jobs, giving a film an added depth. Without giving anything away, the ending is pitch-perfect. Many years ago Ernst Lubitsch directed urbane, intelligent comedies that wove in dramatic threads and moving characters. Critics and colleagues would refer to “the Lubitsch touch.” Reitman has now directed three fine films in a row, with Up in the Air following Thank You for Smoking and Juno. Someday we may refer to “the Reitman touch.”

Adam Spector
February 1, 2010

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