Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Weekly Top Ten: The Ten Best Films of 2009 So Far

It’s the half way point of the year, so I figured I’d put together a list of the ten best films of 2009 so far. I must say, that so far it’s been a disappointing year. Aside for the top 2 films on this list, I would be disappointed if any of the other films here ended up on my top ten list at the end of the year. Not only that, but after seeing 77 films so far this year, I am still in a situation where I would not recommend more films than I would – something that I’m not sure has ever been the case at this point in the year before. Not only that, but because I have been busier than normal, I have skipped a lot of the films I knew I would hate! So while 2009 has not got off to a great start, here are the 10 films this year that I would recommend over everything else.

10. Star Trek (JJ Abrams)
Beyond the most rudimentary knowledge of the show and the characters, I know very little about Star Trek. I haven’t watched an episode of any of the shows in years. To be honest, Star Trek, and Trekkies, always seemed kind of pathetic to me. But I do love a good space opera, and that is precisely what JJ Abrahms new version delivers. The writing, the performances, the special effects are all top notch, and I found myself drawn into the movie in spite of myself. Yes, you can still tell that Abrams is more of a TV guy than a movie guy – the film does have a certain look and feel of a TV pilot blown up on the big screen, but with a movie this entertaining, it hardly matters. This one is just pure fun.

9. I Love You, Man (James Hamburg)
This spot on my list came down between this film, and The Hangover, two similar films in a lot of ways, about men who kind of refuse to grow up. While I think The Hangover is more laugh out loud funny, I Love You, Man is a better, deeper film than that one – and it also touched me much more personally. Anchored by two great performances from Paul Rudd, as a guy with no guy friends who is getting married, and Jason Segal, the irresponsible guy he finally befriends, the movie is about how that friendship grows, and fulfills a need for both of them. My only complaint is that Rudd’s fiancée is not as well fleshed out as the male characters, but that’s a small complaint about a wonderful comedy.

8. Whatever Works (Woody Allen)
While this is not one of Woody’s masterpieces, it is probably his out and out funniest film is more than a decade. Larry David makes a perfect Woody surrogate as an aging intellectual who throws away his upper class life, to become a lonely misanthrope – and that’s just what he wants. Into his life comes Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood) a young, poor, dimwitted Southern Belle, who for some reason is smitten with him. The performances are great – not just by the two leads but also by Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. as Melodie’s parents, who are corrupted by the big city and love it – and Allen’s message is quite good – forget whatever anyone else tells you is normal – just try to be happy on your own terms.

7. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell is a pretty much perfect little horror movie. Alison Lohman plays a lone officier who has a curse put on her, and is tormented by a demon who will literally drag her to hell in three days. Not a film that concentrates on blood and gore, but one that concentrates on building suspense slowly, to an almost unbearable degree, Raimi’s filmmaking is impeccable, and in Lohman he found the perfect horror movie heroine. She seems so bright and innocent, and she screams with the best of them. A must for horror fans.

6. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
Perhaps the best film yet by Ramin Bahrani, this film concentrates on the strange relationship between a taxi driver original from Senegal who dreams of being a flight attendant, and an aging man whose life is full of regret. They meet because the old man calls to go to the movies all the time, and slowly a friendship between these two develops. This is not a film that follows a screenwriters formula, but rather it grows organically out of the characters and their lives together. Nothing is really solved in the movie, and yet, in its own way, the film is quietly inspiring.

5. Observe and Report (Jody Hill)
Overshadowed at the box office by the vastly inferior Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Jody Hill’s Observe and Report is about Ronnie (Seth Rogen), a mall security guard with delusions of grandeur, who is in fact, a psychopath. He has mental issues, and doesn’t seem to get that everyone else in the movie is mocking him constantly, and thinks of him as a loser. He is in love with Anna Farris, who reluctantly goes on a date with him, and gets so drunk that she allows him to have sex with her, with just fuels his delusions even more. Eventually, when the truth occurs to Ronnie, he snaps. Although I have probably made this film sound like a dark drama, it is actually a pitch black comedy in the vein of Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy. Rogen shows he can do more than his usual comic persona, and Farris is brilliant playing a certain kind of woman. The most underrated film of the year so far.

4. Away We Go (Sam Mendes)
After making four dark films in a row – including last year’s great Revolutionary Road which was the darkest yet – director Sam Mendes made this light comedy, about a couple (John Krasinki and Maya Rudolph) who go on a cross country odyessy to try and find where they should live and raise their first child. They meet one dysfunctional family after another – one set of parents doing damage to their kids in one way or another – until they start to feel a little helpless. But Krasinki and Rudolph aren’t like the rest of the people in the movie. While some have complained that their characters feel too superior to the rest of the people in the movie, I say that even if that is true, then they have a reason to feel that way. This is delightful little comedy/drama that is quietly moving. I hope this finds a wider audience when it expands this summer.

3. Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is without a doubt the year’s most ambitious film so far. It attempts to put Alan Moore’s large, epic graphic novel on the screen in a faithful rendition, and mainly succeeds. For two and half hours, Snyder weaves the elaborate storyline, twisiting and turning itself through its alternative history. Filled with great performances – by Jackie Earle Haley as the insane Rorstach, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the demented Comedian, Patrick Wilson as the upstanding, but impotent, Nite Owl and especially Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, a human God, this movie comes about as close as you can get to the source material. Perhaps it was just too dark, too weird for mainstream audiences, but I loved it.

2. Up (Pete Doctor)
Pixar can do no wrong in my book, and their latest film, Up, is an emotionally wrenching comic fantasy about an aging widow (with the voice of Ed Asner) and a little boy who take a journey in the old man’s house held aloft by balloons to a paradise where he always wanted to go and take his wife. This is the second Pixar film in a row, following last year’s Wall-E, where I am not ashamed to admit that I cried like a baby while watching the film. The film is intelligent, amazingly well animated and quietly insightful. Pixar trusts that kids will be able to follow their stories, and don’t dumb them down. This is another great film from them – the most consistent studio in Hollywood.

1. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Perhaps I am cheating a little bit, because this film has not actually opened in Canada yet, but I saw at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and it’s better than anything else I have seen this year, so I decided to include it anyway. Bigelow’s film is far and away the best film made about the Iraq war so far – and is because it almost completely takes politics out of the equation. To the grunts over there, it doesn’t matter WHY they are fighting, they are just trying to make it through their tours and go home. The film concentrates on a three man unit, whose job it is to defuse bombs found along the roadside. They get a new leader in with just 39 days to go, because their previous one is killed in the films opening scene. Jeremy Renner gives the year’s best performance so far as the new guy – an unhinged young man who gets off on putting himself in danger when defusing the bombs. As the days tick down, he takes more and more chances, and we realize two things. The first is that he probably shouldn’t be in the army. And the second is that the army needs him whether or not he should be there. The film is almost unbearably intense in moments, and Bigelow, continues her study of wounded masculinity that she has explored her whole career. This is her best film to date, and the best film of 2009 so far.

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