Tuesday, January 26, 2010

2009 Year in Review: Runners Up

Honorable Mention
As always, when I went to make up my list of the best films of the year, there were many films that I wanted to include that I didn’t have room for – even when I went overboard and included 25 slots. But I would gladly watch any of the following films again: Away We Go (Sam Mendes), Big Fan (Robert Siegel), Black Dynamite (Scott Sanders), Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar), Bruno (Larry Charles), The Children (Tom Shankman), Collapse (Chris Smith),Coraline (Henry Selick), The Cove (Louis Pishoyoas), Everlasting Moments (Jan Troell), Funny People (Judd Apatow), Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani), The Hangover (Todd Philips), Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (David Yates), The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel), I Love You, Man (James Hamburg), Invictus (Clint Eastwood), Julia (Eric Zonca), The Last House on the Left (Dennis Ilyiads), Lorna’s Silence (Jean Luc & Pierre Dardenne), The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson), Moon (Duncan Jones), Nine (Rob Marshall), Observe and Report (Jody Hill), Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki), Precious (Lee Daniels), The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements & John Musker), Red Cliff (John Woo), Revanche (Gotz Spielman), Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga), A Single Man (Tom Ford), Somers Town (Shane Meadows), Star Trek (JJ Abrams), Sugar (Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden), Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas), The Sun (Aleksandr Sokoruv), Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola), 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis), Thirst (Chan-wook Park), Two Lovers (James Gray), Tyson (James Toback), 12 (Nikita Mikhalkov), Watchmen (Zack Snyder), Whatever Works (Woody Allen).

Runners-Up: 25-11
I considered every one of these films for a spot on my top 10 list, but sadly just did not have the room for them. They all deserve your attention though, so I put them here.

25. Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo is a gangster epic in the vein of The Godfather series. The fact that the main character is not a mob boss, but is 8 time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, brilliantly played by Toni Servillo, makes no difference. The film is overwhelming in its details about the backroom deals, and the trail of dead bodies he leaves behind him. If you are not familiar with Italian politics, the details are probably going to confuse you more than anything, but that really isn’t the point anyway. Sorrentino wants to show the wide ranging, epic scope of corruption that runs deep in Italian politics. Servillo plays Andreotti as a quiet, hunchbacked little man who never raises his voice. It doesn’t matter, though; he is a cold blooded murderer. Everyone knew it, but he kept winning elections anyway. He actually makes Berlusconi look good.

24. Zombieland (Ruben Flesicher)
One of the most out and out entertaining, enjoyable films of the year. Despite the presence of zombies - and all the gore that comes along with them - this really isn’t a horror movie, but rather a comedy. Woody Harrelson and Jessie Eisenberg play a mismatched pair of survivors in an American landscape where almost everyone has become zombies. They eventually team up with two sisters - Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin - to try and ride out the storm. The film starts off on a high comedic note and doesn’t let up for almost its entire running time. But it’s when they enter a certain celebrities house (who shall go nameless if you don’t know who it is), where the film really becomes something brilliant. I will probably watch this film more often than the most of the others on this list.

23. The Informant (Steven Soderbergh)
Matt Damon gives what could be the best performance of his career as Mark Whitacre, an executive for Archer Daniels Midland, who goes to the FBI with the biggest price fixing scheme in history. He turns out to have a lot of secrets of his own, and suffers from massive delusions of grandeur. Soderbergh directs the film as if it were left over from the 1970s - with desaturated colors and a number of great jump cuts. But at its heart is a performance by Damon that is brilliant in its contradictions and humor, as well as its somewhat tragic trajectory. He is one of the most fascinating characters of the year.

22. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)
Sam Raimi’s return to horror was the best film the genre had to offer this year. Anchored by a great performance by Alison Lohman as a junior bank executive who in an effort to prove herself tough enough for a promotion, turns down an old woman’s request for an extension on her mortgage. She places a curse on her, that will result in her literally being dragged to hell in 48 hours. Raimi is a master at this sort of filmmaking, and after the lazy effort he put forth in Spider-Man 3, he seems to be reenergized here. Casting Lohman was brilliant - she is the perfect, blonde perky horror movie heroine - and has the best scream I’ve heard in years. The movie is scary, intense at times funny, but always a joy to watch. Great stuff.

21. Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper)
Jeff Bridges delivers one of the best performances of the year as Bad Blake, a former country music star now coasting on his prior fame, playing small bars and bowling alleys, while planning a comeback that doesn’t look like is going to happen. He is an alcoholic, and more often then not has to leave the stage early in order to puke. Then he meets a young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her son, and decides it might be time to turn his life around. Crazy Heart is a fairly standard story - some critics called it The Wrestler of this year, and ones with longer memories remembered Tender Mercies (in which co-star of this movie Robert Duvall won his Oscar for). But Bridges carries the film with one of the most memorable performances of the year. Bridges, who has delivered many great performances over the past 40 years, does an amazing job, not just acting, but also singing. The music by T-Bone Burnett is memorable (The Weary Kind is easily the best song of the year). A great debut for director Scott Cooper.

20. The Road (John Hillcoat)
John Hillcoat is perhaps the only director in the world who could do justice to Cormac McCarthy’s great novel. No, it does not have the same impact of the book - which is disturbing in its sparse storytelling and dialogue - but it comes as close as any cinematic adaptation could. Viggo Mortenson gives one of his best performances as The Man, who along with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee, great in his first screen role), head out on the road to get to the coast after some kind of cataclysmic event causes American to become a mainly desolate, barren wasteland. The father/son relationship between these two is the heart of the movie, but there are brilliant small roles throughout the film. Charlize Theron fleshes out the small role of The Man’s wife, seen only in flashback. Best of all though is Robert Duvall, who in one scene completely takes over the movie. The direction by Hillcoat, the spare art direction, and dark cinematography are all wonderful. One of the most underrated films of the year.

19. 500 Days of Summer (Marc Webb)
The year’s best romantic comedy, this intelligent, visually inventive film is a blast from beginning to end. Joseph Gordon Levitt gives a wonderful performance as an aspiring architect slumming it by writing greeting cards, when he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a girl he thinks is the one. The movie flashes back and forth in time to show the before, during and after of the relationship. The film is entertaining, endearing and sweet without being overly sappy. A great debut film for director Marc Webb.

18. Police Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)
The Romanian film Police, Adjective is certainly not for everyone. This is a film that literally climaxes with a scene involving a man reading aloud from the dictionary. But for patient viewers, Police Adjective offers a multitude of rewards. This is a quiet film about a cop two decades after the fall of communism, who is still torn between his personal morals and the law. His bosses do not care about his morals, they just want results. But he wonders if it is right to arrest a 16 year old kid for drug distribution for giving his friend a joint - something that will put the kid in jail for seven years. The film, for the most part a neo-realist slice of life, is also strangely hilarious at times. The cop has to go jump through a series of strange hoops to get anything done. The movie reminded of another great Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - where the simplest things are way too complex under Communist rule. Police, Adjective tells a similar story, even though decades have past. The scene involving the dictionary, the cop’s boss (brilliantly played by the great Vlad Ivanov) is the key to the whole movie. Most police movies are action oriented, but this movie is slow, yet steadily brilliant. A huge step forward for director Porumboiu).

17. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
A middle aged man in Tokyo is fired from his job, but can not bear to tell his family about it. Instead, he leaves the house every day under the guise of going to work, but is really spending most of his time in the concrete jungle of Tokyo, hanging out with other unemployed businessmen, and the homeless men, getting in free food lines, and trying to land menial jobs. The other family members are also in denial, and are not being honest either. Kurosawa, best known for horror films, delivers a different kind of film this time - about the horror of an economy in collapse, and how being unemployed doesn’t necessarily ruin a family, but exposes the fault lines already there. The film takes a wild right turn in the final act, but it fits perfectly. A great family drama.

16. Avatar (James Cameron)
James Cameron’s Avatar will undoubtedly go down as the most influential film of the year. Cameron pushes special effects and 3-D filmmaking forward by leaps in bounds with his awe inspiring visual experience. The story is essentially Dances with Wolves in space, but we hardly care because the film is a visual wonder from beginning to end. The alien creatures, known as the Na’vi, are a wonder to behold. The action sequences prove that Cameron is still among the best action directors in the world. The performances are fine, especially Zoe Saldana who somehow creates a full character under all the special effects, and Stephen Lang one of the best villains in recent memory. Here’s hoping that next time Cameron has a story that matches his visual prowess - then we’ll have a masterpiece.

15. An Education (Lone Scherfig)
Carey Mulligan becomes a star right before our eyes with her brilliant performance in this film. As Jenny, a 16 year old school girl in 1960s England, she is tender, sweet and believable. She falls for an older man (Peter Sarsgaard), more because he can provide her with the type of lifestyle she wants then because she really loves him. As her father Alfred Molina is also wonderful, but this is really Mulligan’s film. Her sweet, open face, her natural delivery, her charming smile. She’s a star all right, and this is a great film for her coming out party.

14. The Messenger (Oren Moverman)
This film is about two different men who are assigned to the Causality Notification unit for the army. Ben Foster has just returned to Iraq, with an injured eye and leg, just trying to ride out his contract with the army, when he is told to report to Woody Harrelson. Their job is to go to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and let them know. The families respond in different ways, from anger to disbelief. One war widow, Samantha Morton, gets under Foster’s skin, and he finds himself returning to her again and again. The screenplay, by Oren Moverman, is wonderful - dramatic, moving and intelligent, and is brought to life by a great cast. Foster is brilliant as a man who plays everything close to the vest - never really revealing his true feelings until the films end. Harrelson is the opposite, continually talking trying to keep his demons at bay. And Morton is touching, and turns a difficult role into a great performance. A great, low-key directorial debut by writer Moverman.

13. Public Enemies (Michael Mann)
Michael Mann’s latest crime epic is a visually stunning, involving story about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), who during the great depression captured the imagination of the nation. Depp is as charming as ever as Dillinger. He is a fast talking ladies man, who seduces everyone - from women to the prison guards to the people he robs. Christian Bale is also great as the FBI agent assigned to bring him in. As with most of Mann’s films, this is a movie about men who are defined by their actions and jobs. The film moves at a rapid pace throughout, and the digital photography by Dante Spinotti is brilliant. What elevates the movie though is Marion Cotillard’s great performance as Dillinger’s girl. Normally, Mann has no use for women, but Cotillard breaks through and makes her character a sexy, vulnerable, real woman. Her closing scene in the movie is an emotional powerhouse. One of Mann’s best films.

12. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
If there was an award for best movie of the moment, then Up in the Air would win that award for this year. This is a film about a man, played in a brilliant performance by George Clooney, who travels around the country firing people. His company hires him out to people who are too cowardly to fire their own employees. With the recession hitting hard, Clooney’s business is one of the few that are booming. Because he travels most of the year, he has become completely isolated from the rest of humanity - and that is the way he likes it. He gives “motivational” speeches about how family simply weighs people down. Then two women enter his life, and he changes his outlook. The first is a perky new hire in his firm, Anna Kendrick, who wants to revolutionize the way the do business - firing people via teleconference. He is ordered to take her on the road with him and show her the ropes. The other is a fellow road warrior, Vera Farmiga, who he meets for one of his many “one night stands”, that turns into something more. The two actually seem to start sharing an emotional connection. These two women draw Clooney back into the loop of humanity. Written and directed by Jason Reitman, who has made his third great comedy in recent years (following Thank You for Smoking and Juno), Up in the Air is the kind of comedy that Billy Wilder would be making today. It hides its sentimental heart under a surface of cynicism. Up in the Air is a movie made for our troubled times.

11. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
Our leaders are idiots. That is the basic point of Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political satire. Tom Hollander’s Cabinet Member makes a gaff early in the movie saying that he thinks war is not foreseeable. This was not the company line he was supposed to tow, so the spokesman for the Prime Minister, the brilliantly profane Peter Capaldi, calls him in and screams bloody murder. But no matter what Hollander does to try to fix his mistake, he keeps digging himself in deeper. Obviously the movie is about the lead up to the war in Iraq, where British and American politicians wanted to invade Iraq, and just needed the evidence to make the case for the war. Young political aides write reports that are deliberately misstated by their highers up, military men threaten to resign if war is declared, and then cannot bring themselves to resign when their country is at war. In the Loop spins round and around making one dizzy with all the idiocy of all of on display. The movie is a triumph of writing - Ianucci and his co-writers spinning out their TV series The Thick Of It (sadly, I was unable to find the show on DVD here) - the movie has more swear words than a David Mamet movie, but still remains intelligent throughout. If you paid attention to the Canadian political landscape this year, you know that the leaders of all our political parties have proven themselves to be complete idiots. Yes, In the Loop is a brilliant, hilarious satire, but it is also sadly, all too true.

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