TOP 10 OF 2009
1.) Where The Wild Things Are—Few filmmakers are as deeply in touch with their inner child as Spike Jonze. His adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic may be the most audacious “family film” ever made in America. Instead of pandering to a young audience, Jonze’s film inhabits the mind of a child grappling with loneliness, confusion and anger–feelings that may have been partly caused by his parents’ divorce. From its brilliant performances and astonishing creature effects to its poetic insight and mind-boggling symbolism, this is the most magical moviegoing experience since Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
2.) Two Lovers—Joaquin Phoenix’s silly stunt on Letterman detracted people from seeing his finest performance to date in James Gray’s magnificent drama. It’s the kind of film that’s so fresh and unpredictable that the viewer ends up hanging on every frame, and there isn’t a wasted one in the bunch. Loosely based on Dostoevsky’s “White Nights,” Gray’s portrait of a deeply unstable man searching for love is utterly spellbinding. It would make an ideal double feature with P.T. Anderson’s great Punch-Drunk Love.
3.) (500) Days of Summer—Along with Two Lovers, first-time director Marc Webb’s exhilarating anti-romantic comedy offered more truth about relationships than any given episode of “Sex and the City.” It’s a resoundingly hopeful and cathartic picture for anyone who’s ever had their heart broken and is still in need of mending it. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again proves that he’s one of the most appealing and compelling stars in America.
4.) Food Inc. & The Cove—Both of these vital and engrossing documentaries reveal the unappetizing truth about the food we eat, from the supposed produce at the local supermarket, to the falsely labeled “sea food” in Japan. While Food, Inc. illuminates the inherent corruption of industrial food production, The Cove investigates the secret slaughter of dolphins at a national park (their mercury-laced meat is then sold to unassuming consumers). These “mad as hell” muckraking opuses offer methods to ensure that the s–t hits the fan before it lands on your plate.
5.) The Hurt Locker—Here’s the film on my top ten most likely to win the Best Picture Oscar (and I sure hope it does). Director Kathryn Bigelow is unyielding in her focus on the psychological toll of war, digging deep in to the psyche of the American soldier. The film isn’t about politics, but about the visceral experience of facing death on a daily basis, and becoming addicted to the pure thrill of it. The three central performances by Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are pitch perfect.
6.) The White Ribbon—Michael Haneke deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for this deeply haunting picture that works as both a worthy companion piece to Cache (the director’s other recent masterpiece) and an astoundingly crafted period piece, populated by a magnificent cast of fresh faces and goregously lensed in immersive black and white by cinematographer Christian Berger. Like much of Haneke’s work, the story is more of a symbolic allegory, yet unlike in Funny Games, the characters here resonate on a human level. Christian Friedel and Leonie Benesch (as two young would-be lovers) share the tenderest moments Haneke has ever committed to film.
7.) Silent Light—Another filmmaker clearly inspired by Tarkovsky is Carlos Reygadas, whose third feature is his most powerful and provocative to date. In a society fraught with ADD, this film is like therapy, the kind that clears your head and opens your mind to the quiet details it was too deaf to comprehend. The ambiguously spiritual story is evocative of Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, and Reygadas’ hypnotic attention to detail keeps the audience mesmerized. His opening depiction of a sunrise is the most singularly beautiful image captured on a film screen this year.
8.) The Girlfriend Experience—Steven Soderbergh reached a career high with his profoundly poignant portrait of our current alienated times. Structured as a series of intimate moments between a Manhattan call girl (porn star Sasha Grey) and her various clients, this film has as much to say about our troubled economic climate and our inability to connect as Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air.
9.) Anvil!: The Story of Anvil—This year’s King of Kong. Director Sacha Gervasi takes a deeply moving and hilarious look at washed-up Canadian metal band “Anvil” (whose story often resembles that of a real-life “Spinal Tap”). This bittersweet celebration of artistic obsession and enduring friendship is both hugely funny and oddly inspiring.
10.) Sugar—While The Blind Side is bathed in the self-congratulatory glow of condescending cliches, this sports film is grounded in an unsentimental reality that is truly inspiring. Half Nelson’s filmmaking team (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden) isn’t illustrated in telling a story about winners and losers. Their film centers on a young Dominican man (Algenis Perez Soto, in a smashing debut), who’s one of countless fresh faces recruited to prove their potential on baseball fields across the US. His story is one of personal triumph, and the film’s final scenes are far more satisfying than any Natural-style climax.
A Single Man—My vote for the year’s Best Actor honor goes to Colin Firth. His portrayal of a closeted professor mourning the death of his lover (Matthew Goode) is richly layered and utterly heartbreaking. A remarkable debut for fashion designer Tom Ford.
Antichrist—Lars Von Trier marries the deliberately heightened surrealism of Tarkovsky with the caustic drama of Strindberg, in this uncompromising descent into guilt and insanity. Too many labeled this film “a joke.” It deserves to be taken seriously.
Everlasting Moments—Jan Troell’s glorious love letter to the power of cinema, and how it allows viewers to observe the world with newfound clarity.
An Education—24-year-old Carey Mulligan delivers this year’s breakout performance in Lone Scherfig’s delightful human comedy.
Gommorah—Matteo Garrone’s revelatory study of Italy’s most powerful crime syndicate, the Comorra, and the effects it has on the citizens of Naples.
Hunger—One of the most striking debut films of the year. Visual artist Steve McQueen stages a brutally powerful, fact-based tale of sacrifice, while Michael Fassbender delivers a brave, tour de force performance as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands.
Up In The Air—George Clooney’s best film to date.
A Serious Man—I’m still thinking about the Coen Brothers’ beguiling black comedy, and will continue to argue with myself about it until I see it again…
Inglourious Basterds—Quentin Tarantino’s ghoulishly entertaining commentary on war pictures, bolstered by a marvelous international cast.
In The Loop—Forget The Hangover. This pointed satire about miscommunication between the British and American governments is by far the funniest comedy of the year.
BIGGEST LETDOWNS OF 2009
Goodbye Solo—The most overrated film of the year. After his wonderful neorealistic character studies Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani treads through more conventional waters in this tale about an upbeat Senegalese cab driver who decides to force his way into the life of a depressed old Southerner. I didn’t buy their friendship for an instant. An uneasy melding of elements that worked much better last year in The Visitor and Happy-Go Lucky.
Whatever Works—Woody Allen should’ve taken this year off, and enjoyed his success with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Instead, he slapped together this painfully forced comedy, wasting the talent of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”’s Larry David.
Avatar—James Cameron labored over his impressive cutting-edge visuals, but he clearly didn’t put much thought into his script, which is broad and hokey beyond belief. For a thrilling adventure about alien-human relations with a political subtext, I prefer District 9.
Jennifer’s Body—Everything that was fresh and charming about Juno feels stale and irritating in screenwriter Diablo Cody’s botched sophomore effort.
The Road—John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece is disappointingly derivative and sentimental, undermining the power of Viggo Mortensen’s fearless performance.
Watchmen—After the year’s best opening credit sequence, director Zack Snyder’s nearly frame-by-frame recreation the landmark graphic novel quickly derails. It’s a reverent recitation like Sin City, and every bit as soulless.
Taking Woodstock—Ang Lee dilutes the generation-defining concert of all complexity, energy, meaning and music. Nice cast, though.
Cold Souls—Paul Giamatti’s splendid performance is cast adrift in Sophie Barthes’s cluttered, unfocused mind-bender that falls short of Charlie Kaufman-style brilliance.
Julie and Julia—Another great performance marred by inferior filmmaking is Meryl Streep’s jubilant channeling of Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s chick flick, saddled with an entirely unnecessary parallel story line about an annoying blogger.
Nine—Rob Marshall has yet to learn how to utilize cinema as a language for dreams rather than a platform for music videos. A gargantuan waste of talent and time.
TOP 10 OF 2009