Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Wayne's Top 10 Movies of 2009

That I've seen, of course!

2009 was a great year for movies. I don't think there was anything that will crack my top 50 all time, but there might be some intruders into the 100.

1) Inglourious Basterds

Are you a film fanatic? Guess what? I am. Same with Tarantino. It shows in his devotion to the B Movie genre, and his love for film referencing in just about everything he writes, directs and acts. Nothing he has made shows more fondness for the cinema than "Basterds". It is a love letter to the medium, a phenomenal pastiche of different influences combining to make an entirely new sub-genre. Riffing on Films, I think I'll call it. It's like listening to Bud Powell, and hearing touches of Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Chopin and Duke Ellington all blending to make a new style of bop piano. You've got; classic WWII melodrama, Hitchcock-ian suspense and bad guys, blaxploitation narration, a revenge plot as over-the-top as "Old Boy". All the performances are brilliant, and the cutting and pacing are expertly handled. Even the presence of Brad Pitt as a comic book platoon leader lends some real toughness and comedy to the proceedings. He does not bring the film down as he did in "Benjamin Button". Melanie Laurent is a find, she is both beautiful and very moving. However, the real star of the film is Christoph Walz, His name seems to be missing some letters, but never mind. His portrayal of the "Jew Hunter" Col. Landa is probably the most complex and interesting evil-doer you will ever see on screen. Hitchcock's bad guys from "Saboteur" and "The 39 Steps" come to mind, but neither are played to the extent that they overtake the good guys in audience fascination. This can only be said for maybe Walz's Landa, and Heath Ledger's Joker from "The Dark Knight".

2) Up In The Air

The parts may be slightly greater than the sum in this very courant movie. There are some scenes that are bound to become classics, and nothing falls short, except that there really is no message. Well, yes, there is that little thing about how easy the modern world has made it to be happily disconnected from everything, including your loved ones. We are all quite aware of this point, but like global warming, we probably need to be reminded of it from time to time, and to realize just how damaging it has become. Like global warming, this film doesn't offer a solution that is realistic, but that in itself is realism. One of the scenes destined for immortality is the Bogey/Bacall homage in the hotel bar, where the two corporate travelers compare their mileage status with less than subtle sexual overtones. The referenced scene is from Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep", wherein the metaphorical matter is horse-racing. As for the cast, Anna Kendrick is pitch perfect, and was probably cast due to her tour-de-force role in the vastly underrated and under-viewed "Rocket Science". But truly the performance of Vera Farmiga is the central stunner in this movie. She more than GETS the character; she creates a deep, subtle and credible presence in a part that could have been something far less. George Clooney is perfectly cast. His chops are improving, and his looks don't get in the way as they did in "Michael Clayton". Jason Reitman is developing into a first-rate actor's director, and his subject matter is beginning to show the signs of an auteur.

3) A Serious Man

AKA "No Country for Jews". Huh? Besides the minds behind them, what possibly can these two films have in common? How about the central message of the random cruelty and the meaninglessness of existence? Obviously the Coens have developed a true auteur's (that word again) visual and editing style. Their films all contain similar acting and dialogue. Yet now the message is becoming part of the ouvre. With their last 4 pictures, the Coens are hitting us hard with 2 central topics;
1) Life sucks, and
2) People are incompetent.
There is a 3rd message emerging; God is not going to help you out. In fact, he might be out to get you, too. That message is pounded home in "A Serious Man", and quite effectively. The movie is very personal for me; I was bar-mitzvahed the same year as Danny Gopnik, 1968. He is listening to the same music I listened to, is obsessed with the show "F Troop" as was I, and his friends remind me of mine. His locale is quite different than mine, I was raised in New York City. My parents had long broken up, whereas his are fragmenting while the story develops. Those differences being noted, he seems blithely indifferent to the central issues, as I am sure was I. In a way, I am both Danny, and his father Larry, in that now, I fully identify with Larry's sense of hopless abandonment, and with the Coen's 2, no 3 major messages. You can't count on people, you can't count on God, you can't really count on anything. So stop counting on stuff. What good is it doing you? I couldn't stop thinking about this movie for a week after seeing it. When the police come for Larry's brother, he yells "But I didn't DO anything!" Ohhhhh, how I identify, Uncle Arthur.
Did I mention how hysterically funny it was? I feel that this is one of those Coen films like "The Big Lebowski", that will go from well-liked up to cult status, and eventually become a classic of modern cinema.
One word about the performances; stellar, from the top down, and Michael Stuhlbarg absolutely nails his role.

4) The Brothers Bloom

I seem to be alone in my reverence for this film, but at least I know my daughter Dana, with whom I saw Bloom, agrees that Rian Johnson has continued with as strong a film as his debut, "Brick". Johnson is a genre deconstruction artist it seems. "Brick" was '40's Film Noir stuck in a contemporary High School, with all the usual characters and dialogue much more at home in the genre than the locus or period. "Bloom" is a con-artist story, but re-imagined and placed inside a contemporary indie/quirky shell. Usually, that shell is many film's undoing. Progenitors of the style, like Wes Anderson, have seen efforts fall flat, "The Royal Tennenbaums" coming to mind. There's got to be laughs and true unpredictability for it to work. Johnson accomplishes both with "Bloom", plus he manages to add suspense and romance to the package. Performances by Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo are fine, but wholly overshadowed by the two main women, Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi. Weisz fully masters a very difficult part; she must be innocent, brainy, sexy, plucky and comic all at the same time. It is, I feel, Oscar-worthy. Kikuchi is given an impish Harpo Marx-like character, challenging enough, but she plays it for laughs perfectly. The cons themselves are well thought out, but if the film has a flaw, it is in the rather soupy ending.

5) The Hurt Locker

Director Kathryn Bigelow seems to understand men on a level that no other female director has. She gets men the way John Sayles gets women, with truth, reverence and perspective. This is her finest film by far. Not only are the pacing and suspense on the very highest level, but also the hand-held camera is used to it's utmost. When the soldiers are looking around to see if there are insurgents lurking, you (the camera, I mean) are also swinging around quickly to scan. It is immensely effective, and makes you feel like you are as much in danger as the soldiers themselves. She doesn't get bogged down in the details of bomb-defusing, in the politics of the war, or even in the inherent goodness or badness of the characters. It's all about courageous men in dangerous situations, the adrenaline rush of it, the pain of loss, the immediate gratification, the competitive urge. Jeremy Renner is amazing in the lead role of bomb-defuser. His performance could have been one-dimensional, and the film would still have been very good. Instead, he is remarkably nuanced, and it elevates the movie to brilliance.

6) Goodbye Solo

I have a friend who found the relationships and motivations in this film unbelievable. The truth is, if you don't buy into the characters, then this is a waste of time. I, on the other hand, found the two lead roles and the performers wholly realistic. Ramin Bahrani is truly an auteur ala the great Rohmer. His subject matter and style are very uniform. The subject matter is the lives of recent American immigrants, the style is hyper-realism. In "Solo", you've got a man nearing the end of his life, filled with hopelessness, and another man at the crucial juncture of his life, still hopeful and trying not to give in to the crush of reality. Solo feels that if he can give this old man a reason to continue on, then he himself will be bolstered in his fight to make it. His motivation is to save his own dreams, which are slowly being eroded. Both lead actors, Souleymane Sy Savane and Red West do a convincing job of turning a unique situation into something that seems very probable. Basically, my friend is an idiot.

7) Moon

I miss this kind of sci-fi. Films and books like "Moon" are what got me interested in the genre. What had recently killed it for me are the huge blockbusters and comic book movies that seem to permeate the medium nowadays. Even when a sci-fi doesn't lean heavily on effects, it feels like there has to be some kind of extra nonsense, like Danny Boyle's "Sunshine", with it's monster movie climax. Suspense, apparently, is not enough to carry a modern space flick. I beg to differ. "Moon" is an example of how to beautifully control pace and tension without bombarding the viewer with big time and big money effects. It works the way Tarkovsky's "Solaris" worked, the way "Alien" worked, the way the original "Day The Earth Stood Still" worked.
Tour de Force acting by Sam Rockwell and a very simple but original plot give a huge boost to this taut effort.Duncan Jones is a major new talent, I am looking forward to future works by him.

8 ) 500 Days of Summer

Here’s the pitch; It’s a romantic comedy, a chick flick, but from the guy’s point of view. He’s got quirky friends, she’s beautiful with a fun sense of humor and style. He’s kind of goofy, but has his good points. Oh yeah, it’s told all out of order, so that things they did that were fun at the beginning of the affair are juxtaposed with the same moments falling flat as the relationship deteriorates. Yes, I am talking about “500 Days of Summer”, but I could also be pitching “Annie Hall”. There are so many similarities between the two films that I stopped counting. I found it curious that neither host Jeff Goldsmith nor Screenwriter Scott Neustatder mentioned the Woody Allen masterwork when discussing “500 Days” on the Creative Screenwriting podcast. There are some great original moments; springing to mind are the Hall and Oates musical scene, and the fantasy vs. reality party scene. It’s stylish, touching, funny and altogether a charming bit of filmmaking. Just like "Annie Hall".

9) Sugar

Here's the pitch....knuckle curveball and a beauty. This may be the finest baseball movie since Bull Durham. It certainly gets so many things right that most baseball flicks miss. It's almost as if Ron Shelton and Ramin Bahrani co-directed. Shelton understood the Minors and the combination of desire and talent that a player needs to make the Bigs. Bahrani understands the lure of capitalism- the promise of success and it's appeal to the 3rd world. There is no get rich quick scheme more appealing than pro sports, and no poorer place that develops pros better than the DR. Sugar (the character) is the embodiment of so many young players in Latin America and the Caribbean. He has talent, but his desire is not tantamount. He bails on his career at the first obstacle, and with good reason. He is not driven, not compelled. Sugar (the film) is at it's best in the camps of the Dominican Republic. The language classes and the scouting combines have an honesty you'd never find on the MLB Network. Can I also mention the fact that these guys really look like they are playing ball. Is that too much to ask? Written and Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the same team that brought us "Half Nelson", "Sugar" is sure to join "Half Nelson" in gaining popularity as it gets showings on cable.

10) Up

For me, it's absolutely the best Pixar. The first 20 minutes are beautifully constructed and told, and the action sequences aren't as stupid and slapsticky as the worst parts of "Wall-E" and "Ratatouille" (both of which I loved, incidentally). The plot of hero worship, and what it means, and how it really isn't that big a deal if you find out that your heroes are actually less than you thought they were, is very appropriate for today's times. As long as there is inspiration, a hero's job is worthwhile. It's only important what YOU do with YOUR life. So if worshipping Tiger Woods makes you a better golfer, then does it really matter if he's got a problem keeping it in his pants? This is by no means a kid's movie, especially considering that last sentence I just wrote. However, what nobody told me is that it IS a dog-lover's movie. The talking dog comedy bits are laugh out loud funny, and the dinner sequence had my sides hurting.

Honorable Mentions;
"In The Loop"
"Paper Heart"
"Anvil: The Story of Anvil"

2009 Disappointments;
"Taking Woodstock"
"Star Trek"

I still have yet to see: "Avatar", "Nine" and "Antichrist", all possibilities to crack the Top 10.

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