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What's Hot at the Movies This Week
I did things a little differently this year. When I came up with my shortlist for the top 20 movies of 2009, I came up with a little over 30. Oops! However, I also noticed that they sort of fit into genre categories so that I could instead do 5 movies per genre. This, obviously, was very exciting. So here they are, folks, my Top Fives for 2009, which roughly translate to my Top 30 for the year. As usual, click the film title to see its page on Metacritic (where available). Enjoy!
Top 5 Comedy:
1. A Serious Man (dir. Ethan and Joel Coen)
It’s extremely tempting to think of A Serious Man as the first Coen Brothers film that’s directly autobiographical: the film is the story of two tumultuous weeks in the life of an upper middle-class Jewish family living in Minnesota in the late 1960s. While we’ll likely never know how much of the film is based on their lives, there’s no question that A Serious Man is their best “comedy” since The Big Lebowski and easily one of their best films period. Hilarious and bleak.
2. Black Dynamite (dir. Scott Sanders)
This year’s other astonishing replication of film history (along with The House of the Devil) was Black Dynamite, basically the Wet Hot American Summer of blaxploitation cinema: it is simultaneously a ridiculous parody of and a lovingly detailed tribute to the genre. Michael Jai White’s badass hero would fit right in with Fred Williamson (who has inexplicably publicly denounced the film) and Jim Kelly. In fact, White looks like he could hand Black Belt Jones a pretty severe beating at a moment’s notice. It gets a little too goofy toward the end, but for most of its length it’s both ridiculously funny and legitimately awesome. Black Dynamite pulls off a genre-straddling tightrope act and makes it look easy.
3. Big Fan (dir. Robert D. Siegel)
Big Fan isn’t quite as dark as its trailer might lead you to believe. Oh, it’s dark, to be sure— Patton Oswalt’s performance as “Paul from Staten Island,” possibly dangerously obsessed football fan is both unsettling and hilarious. What the trailer doesn’t really get across is the simple fact that Big Fan is pretty damned funny, too. Oswalt is amazing, and the supporting cast is uniformly great, especially Kevin Corrigan as Paul’s sidekick Sal and Marcia Jean Kurtz as Paul’s Mom. Big Fan is funny and uncomfortable, often at the same time.
4. The Brothers Bloom (dir. Rian Johnson)
Rian Johnson followed up his high school noir Brick with this whimsical, hugely entertaining film that could not have been more different if it had been shot on the Moon. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo play Bloom and Stephen— the brothers of the title— a pair of con men known for their elaborate schemes. Stephen is the mastermind and Bloom is his star, but when Bloom decides he wants to get out of the con game Stephen convinces him to do the legendary One Last Job. In this case, the Last Job involves convincing a crazy, isolated heiress (Rachel Weisz) to part with some of her considerable fortune. Rounding out the leads is Rinko Kikuchi as Bang Bang, Stephen’s girlfriend and the Brothers’ explosives expert. There’s probably nothing here you haven’t seen before, but the film explodes with the sheer joy of filmmaking. Everyone looks like they’re having the time of their lives, and it’s infectious. There’s a lot going on under the surface of The Brothers Bloom than a single viewing is likely to uncover, but it can just as easily be enjoyed as a fun take on classic con games.
5. World’s Greatest Dad (dir. Bobcat Goldthwait)
Even darker than Big Fan is World’s Greatest Dad, the latest film written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait. There’s basically no way to actually advertise World’s Greatest Dad: the film’s trailer is nearly as misleading as the DVD artwork, which basically makes it look like just another wacky Robin Williams vehicle. Nothing could be further from the truth— Williams gives his best performance since One Hour Photo as a poetry teacher and failed novelist who has to deal with a truly horrible son (Daryl Sabara from the Spy Kids films!) on top of personal and professional difficulties. The film takes a hard turn at the end of the first act, and Goldthwait carefully tempers scenes of jet-black humor with surprising warmth. Totally unique.
Top 5 Documentaries:
1. Blood, Boobs and Beast (dir. John Paul Kinhart)
Blood, Boobs and Beast is a documentary about Don Dohler, legendary low-budget sci-fi/horror filmmaker. After finding himself on the business end of a shotgun during a robbery of his workplace on his 30th birthday, Dohler decided to live his dream of making a movie. His little film, The Alien Factor, ended up riding the post-Star Wars wave of sci-fi enthusiasm and creating a new career for Dohler. After a fateful meeting with Lloyd Kaufman convinced Dohler that he needed “The Three B’s” (of the film’s title) to be a successful filmmaker, Don launched a career churning out low-budget pictures that audiences ate up but that he never seemed all that satisified with. Equal parts inspiring “you can do it” story and “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, Blood, Boobs and Beast is one of the best documentaries about filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
2. The Rock-Afire Explosion (dir. Brett Whitcomb)
If you went to Showbiz Pizza when you were a kid, you saw The Rock-Afire Explosion: an animatronic band led by Fats, a keyboard-playing gorilla. The Explosion disappeared when Showbiz merged with Chuck E. Cheese, and until now had largely been consigned to obscurity. This documentary explains the rise and fall of Showbiz and the Explosion’s creator Aaron Fechter, as well as their biggest fan Chris Thrash, whose Youtube videos brought The Explosion back into the spotlight. Sweet, funny and a little melancholy, The Rock-Afire Explosion’s biggest problem is its length— it’s too short! Still, the film was clearly a labor of love for all involved. Fascinating.
3. Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (dir. Mark Hartley)
This might be the most exciting documentary I watched all year. It definitely earns that exclamation point at the end of the title. Basically, by the time it was over, I had decided that I needed to see every single film ever made in Australia. A dense, fast-paced portrait of the glory days of “Ozploitation,” Not Quite Hollywood is packed with tons of interviews with fans (Quentin Tarantino is NOT the craziest person here!) as well as the filmmakers, critics and stars. And, of course, clips from dozens of films, many of which you’ve probably never heard of but now can’t possibly live with yourself for not seeing.
4. Anvil!: The Story of Anvil (dir. Sacha Gervasi)
Lazy writers the world over called Anvil! the “real Spinal Tap.” The fact is that Anvil! is a hell of a lot more than that— it’s often really funny, sure, but it’s also a genuinely moving portrayal of two life-long best friends who have stuck out more than their fair share of troubles. You can’t help but love these guys by the time the movie’s over, and their subsequent success is made all the sweeter for knowing the story behind the band. The feel-good metal documentary of the year!
5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father (dir. Kurt Kuenne)
OK, a couple of things: first, I believe this film actually had a short theatrical run in 2008, so technically I suppose it’s not a 2009 release. Second, there’s no way I would ever watch this again. The simple fact is that Dear Zachary is one of the most devastating and upsetting films I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember the last time I had trouble sleeping after watching a film because I was still reeling— Dear Zachary is an amazing example of the power documentary film can wield. The less you know about it going in the better. I’ll never watch it again, but I can’t recommend it enough. Anything that hit me this hard deserves a spotlight, release dates be damned.
Top 5 Horror Films:
1. Pontypool (dir. Bruce McDonald)
While Antichrist was busy digging into the deep structures of your lizard brain, Pontypool was trying to instill terror in your language centers. Based on an impenetrable novel by Anthony Burgess (who wrote the film’s fantastic screenplay), Pontypool gives us a claustrophobic look at the apocalypse, peeking out at the world through phone calls coming in to an AM radio station in a church basement in a small town in Canada. Truly absorbing performances by Stephen McHattie as a grizzled, burnout shock radio host and Lisa Houle as his morning-show producer carry the film along and put the viewer right in the middle of the action, such as it is. A funny, inventive take on the tired “zombie apocalypse” subgenre. Make sure to stick around after the credits!
2. The House of the Devil (dir. Ti West)
Ti West’s homage to early-80s horror is a letter-perfect re-creation of one of those movies I always browsed through at the local video store while plowing my way through the horror section in high school. It’s also a grower: I wasn’t that into it the first time I watched it, but the more I thought about it the more I loved it, and repeat viewings have sealed the deal. This is not just a deft replica of a period in horror film history, it’s a damned great horror movie in its own right. Special kudos to Dark Sky Films for releasing this on VHS in February!
3. The Children (dir. Tom Shankland)
Sadly, more and more great international films are getting the straight-to-DVD treatment in the US. One of the best horror films of the year was quietly released on DVD in October on Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Underground DVD label. Tom Shankland’s amazing take on the “killer kid” subgenre may well be the best of its kind ever made. The tension ratchets up inexorably as two families gathered for the holidays in a remote cabin notice that weird things are happening and the children are acting strangely. Shankland plays brilliantly on the fact that kids naturally do weird stuff, avoiding (or smartly twisting) the tired cliches that make these kinds of films so samey. Looks especially great when compared to the overly-serious Orphan.
4. Deadgirl (dir. Marcel Sarmiento & Gadi Harel)
Holy shit, you guys. Deadgirl comes on like a punch in the face, dazing and flooring you before you even have a chance to think about what just happened. How the hell did this movie get made? What was that pitch meeting like? “See, it’s about two teenage boys who find a naked zombie lady chained to a table, and one of them decides to keep her as a sex slave and it’s an allegory….” Severely divisive, Deadgirl is a film that leaves no middle ground for audiences. Everyone I know who has seen it either absolutely detests it or thinks it’s one of the best horror films of the last decade. I’m in the latter camp, obviously. Unrelentingly bleak and genuinely disturbing, Deadgirl could be the most violently feminist film ever made. Plan to watch it at least twice if you’re going to see it— that first viewing is going to be rough.
5. Jennifer’s Body (dir. Karyn Kusama)
While everyone was busy trying to prove they hated Diablo Cody and/or Megan Fox more than everybody else, a few of us actually went to see the movie everyone was bitching about. And guess what? It’s pretty great. While lazy critics compared it to Heathers (dark comedy + high school = Heathers, and only Heathers, apparently), Jennifer’s Body is much more closely related to Ginger Snaps in the way it uses supernatural story elements to examine the way close female friends grow apart as teenagers. Megan Fox tears into the part of Jennifer admirably, creating one of the most memorable and effective villainesses in recent memory. I guarantee this one will have a cult following once people shut the hell up and actually start watching the movie.
Top 5 Movies You Can Watch with Your Mom:
1. Up (dir. Pete Doctor & Bob Peterson)
Pixar continues their post-Cars streak with one of the most emotionally affecting animated films ever made. Seriously, both times I watched this movie I probably missed a good 15 minutes of it trying to keep my shit together. Up is on less sure footing when it falls into the standard action-adventure storyline, but even those scenes feature more inventiveness and garner more audience goodwill than the entire Shrek series has ever managed. Sweet, heartbreaking, and very, very funny.
2. Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze said that his intent with Where the Wild Things Are was to capture the feeling of being 9 years old. I think he might have overshot the mark a little bit— this is maybe a little closer to 11— but regardless, the film is a rousing success. From a technical standpoint, the Wild Things themselves are among the most astonishing creatures to grace the screen in a year of impressive imaginary things brought to life. From a story standpoint, what kid didn’t want to run wild and escape from the uncertainties of home life and the looming spectre of adolescence? The playful undercurrent of Jonze’s previous features is brought literally to the surface here, and it seems like the rumpus is what he’s been working toward his entire career.
3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
Also, strangely, seeming like the natural evolution of his career trajectory is Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated feature The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Weirdly class-conscious (Fox wants to move into a house because the foxhole makes him “feel poor”), some of the storyline may be lost on younger viewers but they’ll still be delighted by the animation. The character design and low-fi look seemed strange in the trailers, but they’re positively charming in the feature. A great voice cast and smart writing (especially funny when the characters actually act like the animals they are) keep things interesting, and this feels like Anderson’s first film since Rushmore to be so excited about being a movie. I dare you not to grin when the animals do their celebratory dances!
4. Coraline (dir. Henry Selick)
Coraline is a direct descendant of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it’s obvious: dark and surreal, some of the film’s imagery is undeniably going to appeal to the Hot Topic crowd. However, there’s a reason both films appeal to young goths-in-training beyond the skeletons in suits and pesky neighbors with buttons sewn over their eyes: being a kid can be legitimately scary sometimes, and Coraline (like Where the Wild Things Are) doesn’t shy away from that fact. Surprisingly, the film is in some ways even darker than Neil Gaiman’s novel, and that creepiness means Coraline is going to be a good gateway movie for kids interested in monsters. For the rest of us, it’s a reminder of what fascinated us about weird stuff in the first place.
5. Sita Sings the Blues (dir. Nina Paley)
It’s animated but it’s definitely not a kid’s film, but Sita Sings the Blues isn’t a South Park-style barrage of gleeful offense, either. Nina Paley famously created this animated feature as basically a one-woman show, bringing in others for voiceover but otherwise creating everything herself. It’s a stunning achievement that points toward exciting things in the future for micro-budget/one-person filmmaking. It’s also the only movie on my list that I’m aware of that you can go download for free (legally!) right this minute— check the web site for more information!
1. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
The simple fact is that no one else makes films that leave me buzzing with the sheer dizzy joy of movies like Quentin Tarantino, and Inglourious Basterds may well be his best film yet. Tarantino wrings more tension out of pure dialogue scenes than anyone, while the sparse action both entertains and slyly comments on the kind of filmgoer who is entertained by violence. It’s epic, insanely entertaining filmmaking on a grand scale, and it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a few sentences here to unpack! Just go see for yourselves, dammit!
2. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Hopefully The Hurt Locker will get Jeremy Renner the status he deserves— he’s flat-out amazing in this film. Incredibly tense and claustrophobic, The Hurt Locker follows Renner as Sgt. William James, an explosives expert stationed in Iraq who specializes in disarming improvised bombs. The scenes in which he does his work are almost unbearably intense, and the grimy look of the film makes you feel like you’re sweating along with him. Renner is backed up by an excellent supporting cast as well, most notably Anthony Mackie as his partner. Somewhat uncomfortably ambiguous in its dealings with the war itself, The Hurt Locker can be read as either a damning indictment of war’s dehumanizing effects on people or a celebration of committed patriotism. In any case, you’ll have plenty to think about after the credits roll.
3. Import/Export (dir. Ulrich Seidl)
John Waters perfectly summed up Import/Export when he named it his favorite film of 2009: “The most sorrowful movie of the year…. The miserable lives of Ukrainian immigrants in Vienna make this agonizing but brilliantly directed opus the cinematic equivalent of slitting your wrists. A new genre? Depression porn? Hey, I got off.” The film follows parallel storylines— in one, a Ukrainian nurse named Olga (Ekateryna Rak) takes up an internet porn job to support her family, but eventually has to leave for Austria to find work (in a hospice) that pays the bills. In the other story, a none-too-bright former mall security guard named Pauli (Paul Hofmann) travels from Austria to the Ukraine to install vending and arcade machines with his lecherous stepfather. Gorgeously shot and truly depressing, yet lightened by occasional flashes of unexpected humor, Import/Export will stick with you for a long time.
4. After Last Season (dir. Mark Region)
After Last Season has proven itself to be a bottomless well of weirdness. First there was watching the internet go into the stages of grieving over its existence (have we made it to Acceptance yet?), and then there are the updates to the film’s website, which offer more mind-blowing insanity on a regular basis. All those walls made of cardboard painted white? Apparently some of those were special effects added in post-production. A complete deconstruction of film, watching After Last Season is like watching an alien intelligence attempt to approximate a “moving picture entertainment with sound.” Totallly bizarre and truly in a class by itself.
5. Antichrist (dir. Lars von Trier)
Lars von Trier is a total bastard. He’s never really made any bones about it, but the fact is his work backs up his enormous ego, and Antichrist is no exception. In fact, this is not only the most genuinely scary film of the year, it’s one of the most unsettling “horror” films ever made. von Trier takes the horror genre back to its caveman roots, terrifyingly using the darkness and mystery of nature and the effect its seeming chaos can have on our supposedly rational minds. And this horrific tapping of the fears of your deep lizard brain comes after a harrowing portrayal of a woman who has lost her child and is in the throes of a disturbingly realized nervous breakdown (Charlotte Gainsbourg is terrifying). Not one I’m going to watch again any time soon, but unquestionably one of the most effectively unsettling films you’re ever likely to see.
Top 5 Science Fiction:
1. Watchmen (dir. Zack Snyder)
My favorite derogatory review of Watchmen criticized the film for being utterly faithful to its source, as if to say “We made a movie of Watchmen, isn’t that awesome?” Well, actually, yeah. It is. Zack Snyder performed the miraculous act of transporting a huge percentage of Alan Moore’s game-changing graphic novel to the screen intact. And it is a wonder to behold. After this, The Dark Knight and Iron Man, the bar for comic book adaptations has been set ridiculously high.
2. Moon (dir. Duncan Jones)
Moon feels a bit like the belated completion of a loose trilogy of recent thoughtful, serious science fiction films started with Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain and continued with Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. The scope of Moon is considerably more narrow— Sam Rockwell plays the only crewman on a moon base, and is almost the only human seen in the entire film. Saying much else would be saying too much, as much of Moon’s charms lie in both the audience’s uncertainty and the film’s refusal to insult the viewer by spelling out everything. Beautiful and thought-provoking.
3. The Box (dir. Richard Kelly)
Richard Kelly’s The Box is another film (like Jennifer’s Body) that is destined to gather a dedicated cult— not unlike his previous films, Donnie Darko and the seriously underrated Southland Tales. This time out Kelly assured everyone he was going to make an accessible film that still dealt with the themes that his other films have been preoccupied with, and he partially succeeded. There’s no question that The Box is Kelly’s most accessible film yet, but that’s really not saying much. Packed with crazy imagery and big ideas, the film is anchored by surprisingly solid performances from its leads (particularly Cameron Diaz— I know, right?) even as it leaves you with a hell of a lot more questions than answers. There’s been talk that this film’s box office crash-and-burn may signal the end of Kelly’s career. Let’s hope that’s not the case. We need somebody making insane, thoughtful science fiction like this.
4. Star Trek (dir. JJ Abrams)
Turns out the way to make Star Trek fun and cool was simple: take all the original characters, amp up their defining characteristics to cartoonish proportions, and put them in the middle of a whole bunch of awesome stuff blowing up. JJ Abrams manages to do in one film what the series has been trying to do for decades, finally creating a Trek that can go toe-to-toe with any Star Wars film for sheer top-shelf entertainment value. Without a doubt, Star Trek was head and shoulders the best big-budget Summer event movie of the year, giving audiences the spectacle and action they wanted without insulting their intelligence (or, you know, alienating entire races like Transformers tried to do). Totally awesome.
5. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)
District 9 basically beat Avatar to the punch on several different levels. The “prawns,” as the aliens are referred to, are absolutely convincing as physical presences interacting with each other and with the humans in the film. For all its shininess, Avatar’s aliens still look embarrassingly cartoonish in comparison. And as far as leaving the audience with things to think about… well, District 9 does. Avatar doesn’t. In a lot of ways, the films are similar: they both concern people who work with aliens and come to have a new understanding of the alien culture. The major difference is that District 9 is concerned more with its characters than its technology, and that makes all the difference. The best big-studio sci-fi action film in ages.
Jason Coffman is a film critic living in Chicago.
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