It’s been an interesting year for movies. There has been no shortage of good movies, but there have not been many great movies. To find the year’s best required some thinking outside the box. Included in my top ten this year are two science-fiction films, two horror films, and a fantasy picture. It’s not the usual prestige fair, but I think it speaks well for the filmmakers who rise above the confines of genre and still produce transcendent works of art.
The top ten films of 2009:
In a few weeks’ time, James Cameron’s Avatar could become the second highest grossing movie of all time. It will sit just behind James Cameron’s Titanic. It’s not a coincidence that Cameron is on his way to having the two biggest movies of all time. He makes the kind of pictures that reminds audiences why they go to movies in the first place.
Avatar is just such a film. The visuals speak for themselves and must be allowed to because I was speechless after seeing the movie. On an IMAX screen and in 3D, the images are enough to make your jaw drop. Mine did, literally. The words do not exist to adequately express the grandeur and majesty of Cameron’s film.
There have been complaints about the script, and if you have seen Aliens or Titanic, then you know the type of complaints. Such arguments hold no water when held against the technical achievements of this film. So the story is well worn territory-- what in Hollywood isn’t? So the dialogue is on the nose-- try creating an entire alternate universe without exposition. So the political parable is only vaguely hidden-- Crash won best picture.
But, it doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. If you want well written drama, then I’m sure you know where to find it, but don’t go into Avatar looking for the next Chinatown. As they say, this is not that. This is this. This is an unabashed epic that is like a locomotive at full steam. As an audience member, you can choose to get on or stay off, but there is no in between.
9. A Single Man
This is the first of two directorial debuts to appear on this year’s top ten list, but it feels nothing like a debut. On the contrary, fashion designer Tom Ford’s first feature feels as sure handed as if it were directed by a forty-year veteran. Like a great designer, Ford labors over every detail of this film, and the final result reflects that care and love.
There is a sequence in A Single Man that is full of so much beauty and irony that the audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Colin Firth plays George Falconer, a university English teacher. In the scene, Falconer sits on the toilet and reads, preparing for that day’s lesson on Aldous Huxley. As he sits, he looks out the window and across the street to his neighbors. The children play in the yard. The mother watches over them. The husband heads to work. It is painfully normal, and Ford lets the action play out in gorgeous slow motion.
It is the life that Falconer could have had, or so it is believed. If he hadn’t been such a “puff,” he could have had a family with Charley, his best friend, played by Julianne Moore. At least, that’s what Charley thinks, but nothing is ever that simple. They slept together in the past, but as George says, it meant more to her than to him.
But, as sorrowful as this film is, there are moments of pure joy, like when George and Charley reminisce about the old times back in London. She wants to go back. He knows that he can not. Firth is pitch-perfect in this role and lives in the skin of this character, a gay man who is neither closeted nor out. The film is not about homosexuality. Ford’s film speaks to the loss and regret and anguish that all people experience. It knows of what it speaks.
8. The Girlfriend Experience
A cold splash of water in the face, The Girlfriend Experience is a short but not-so-sweet movie about the economy. It is about facets of the economy the average person does not understand and facets of the economy the average person does not even consider. Sasha Grey plays Chelsea, a high-priced call girl ($2000 an hour is the going rate), and the story picks up just as the economic downfall begins taking its toll on the nation.
Much has been made of the fact that when she is not appearing in incisive little indies Grey is performing in hardcore pornography. Never mind any of it. Grey is the perfect actress for this part. The point of this movie is not the sex. There is less sex here than in the average episode of “Desperate Housewives.” The point of the movie is commoditization.
Everybody wants to get ahead. Everybody wants the next big score. Success is everything. In the worlds of high finance and high-end prostitution, if you don’t have a product anyone wants, then you are nothing. Chelsea understands this, and much of the plot revolves around her struggle to remain relevant in a world where depersonalization has even crept into the world of pay-to-play sex.
She offers a service that is beyond prostitution. The titular girlfriend experience is exactly what it sounds like-- she will listen to you, care about you, and laugh at your jokes, all for a set price. The men in the movie are successes. They have the jobs, they have the money, and they have the toys. All they need is the woman. Luckily, they can buy her. Everything needed to make them whole is just a fistful of cash away. This is the movie for our time.
The other science-fiction film on my list, Duncan Jones’ debut feature is 180 degrees from Avatar, and that is its charm. It is a throwback to the classic space-travel movies of the 50s and 60s. Scale models and practical effects are the draw. The set design on this movie is a wonder to behold. As director, Jones does his audience the favor of establishing the world of the story before diving straight away into it.
A never-better Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut stationed on the moon. His contract is for three lonely years with only his ship’s HAL 9000-like computer for company. His mission is to extract a precious mineral from the Earth satellite. Supposedly, the mineral provides a clean fuel with an almost limitless supply. Though, for reasons discovered through the course of the film, I’m not sure I would trust the company making the claims.
As the story moves along, it is impossible to tell where it is going to go next. Jones does not rely on twists and gimmicks, though. It is an honestly engrossing, unpredictable story in which each plot point follows logically from the next. It is refreshing to see a film where the ending isn’t written on the walls from the beginning.
The film is built on the mood established by Jones from the beginning and maintained throughout. It is not, however, the mood you might expect. At its core, deep behind the melancholy, confusion, and despair, Moon is darkly comic. At first, the story may seem absurd; it is science-fiction, after all. But, the tale Jones tells is not that far fetched, and that is what makes this film so affecting and scary.
6. The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker is a war thriller directed by a woman. However, more than a woman, Kathryn Bigelow is a first-rate director. The gender of the director is of no import once the cameras start rolling. What is important is that she delivered the definitive film about the Iraq war. All of the politicking has been thrown out the window. This is not about right and wrong. It is about war and warriors.
We are told at the outset that war is a drug. Screenwriter Mark Boal’s story is about an addict. Jeremy Renner plays William James, a sergeant in an elite bomb disposal unit. He is the kind of guy who is a hero precisely because he does not want to be. He’s good at his job, and he likes his work. The problem is that his gung-ho attitude endangers the lives of those around him.
Among those is Sgt. JT Sanborn, a seasoned veteran whose rule is caution always. James’ recklessness gets under his skin. However, it is just as likely that James’ lack of fear is what bothers Sanborn as opposed to the danger. Most soldiers live with fear in the backs of their minds. Sgt. James is the definition of a cowboy. He undermines the reality of what the rank-and-file soldiers do to get by, but that is how James gets by.
The fact that James thrives on war is scary because the rest of the soldiers we see just want to go home. Sgt. James is evidence that there is no telling what is waiting for them apart from the war. The trick that Boal and Bigelow play is showing the story of this inner conflict in the fighters while still telling the heart-pounding story of the fight.
5. Drag Me to Hell
If you’ve followed my blog over the years, then you know my affinity for B-movie horror. Well, Sam Raimi elevates the B movie to an art form. Raimi, made famous by his Evil Dead series, achieved A-list success with the Spiderman franchise. This was billed as the master’s return to horror. What a return.
Years from now, critics will remember Paranormal Activity as the 2009 movie about a girl possessed by a demon. Something about that movie tapped into the zeitgeist. It was a little movie that you could root for-- a $20,000 picture that made $100 million. And, that’s fine. It’s good to know that a low budget movie, which by all rights should be a midnight feature, can still succeed.
But, there is something to be said for production value, and make no mistake-- Drag Me to Hell feels like a real film. Raimi successfully melds big-budget panache and low-budget instinct and gives audiences the kind of horror film they deserve. It is well written (co-written by Raimi with his brother Ivan Raimi), well acted (led by Allison Lohman in a career-best performance), and just plain well made.
If you’ll indulge me for a second, I’d like to talk about the sound mix in this movie. The success of this film rests on the tension created by what we hear but can not see. The scratching, the pounding, the hissing-- none of it is extraneous or gratuitous. This movie is built on sound, and I wanted to mention it here because it will probably not get mentioned elsewhere.
4. Inglourious Basterds
Speaking of films that feel like films, no one delivers a big, brash, Hollywood-style, movie spectacle like Quentin Tarantino, and this is his biggest and brashest film yet. Much has been made of Tarantino’s pop culture sensibility and his penchant for homage, but these are just the tools Tarantino uses to execute his wholly original vision.
A war movie in the least traditional sense, Inglourious Basterds amounts to a highly stylized revenge fantasy, but oh, my, what style. Give Tarantino credit. He has steadfastly and militantly refused to make the switch to digital like so many of his contemporaries. The beautiful, classical look of this film is a direct result of the 24-frames-per-second film stock on which Tarantino shoots.
But, enough about the director. If you’ve followed the film industry for the last 20 years, you know Tarantino knows what he’s doing. The real story here is the acting, particularly the performances of the two leads: Mélanie Laurent as a Nazi killer and Christoph Waltz as the Nazi who killed her family. The scene where these two meet is the definition of suspense, what Hitchcock would call the bomb under the table that does not explode.
Waltz, the Jew Hunter, plays his cards close to his chest, but Laurent, as Shosanna, plays hers even closer, which is why she will win in the end. But, the tête-à-tête on display is the crux of this film, and both actors rise to the occasion. As for Brad Pitt and the Basterds, they are what you would expect, and this film is you would expect from a master filmmaker at the height of his powers.
Lars Von Trier has called himself the greatest filmmaker in the world. Maybe he is. If he is not, then he certainly poured every ounce of that self-assurance into Antichrist, a gothic horror film about the inadequacy of love in a world born of evil. If it sounds pretentious, just see Von Trier’s boast about his filmmaking prowess. He is all pretentiousness. But, damned if he doesn’t earn it.
Antichrist may be the darkest, most incisive, most horrifying film ever made-- hands down. The jumping off point-- the death of a child-- is an over-tread path in film. At first, Von Trier appears content to lead his audience down that same path. But, he is too smart for that, and Antichrist veers off into the deepest, blackest woods, literally and figuratively.
Rather than exploring the grief of two parents, Von Trier explores the hatred welling deep within two people. Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play He and She, a couple whose son dies while they make love. She can not forgive herself, and he buries his grief within the need to help her recover from hers. But, to say more about plot would be a disservice to the deliberately paced story. Von Trier revels in revealing only what an audience needs to know and only when they need to know it.
The execution is flawless. The prologue of this film is one of the most artful pieces of cinema ever rendered. Shot in black and white and in super-slow motion, the beauty of the sequence belies the pain it will incite. It is the happiest any of the characters will ever be, and the slow motion only delays the inevitable downfall because, in a world of evil, happiness can not last and pain can not be avoided.
2. Where the Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze’s third feature is the most simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking film-going experience I have ever had. When I saw it, I thought there was no way I would see a better film this year, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The fact remains that Where the Wild Things Are is the most accurate rendering of childhood ever put to celluloid.
Hollywood likes to produce films about children who act like Hollywood children but are not reminiscent of real children. From a business standpoint, this is fine. Children, like adults, want to see people on screen who are like them but who are not them. Where the Wild Things Are does not give kids, or adults for that matter, such a luxury. Such luxuries do not exist in the real world, and as fantastical as this film is, it portrays the real world with more honesty than a thousand hours of reality television.
This movie exists in two realities: the real world and the land of the wild things. The real world is presented as harsh and unfeeling, at least from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. But, his fantasy world is not much better. It is a world of fighting and hurt feelings, anger and resentment. Somehow, though, out of all of this, Jonze squeezes every available ounce of joy out of the story. “Let the wild rumpus start!”
The most beautiful scene of the year is the artful imagining a traumatic childhood moment. Max is running from a wild thing who wants to eat him and hides in the stomach of another wild thing. While he is inside, the two monsters argue over Max, as two parents arguing over a child in the womb. It is sad and tender and heartfelt when these creatures of his fantasy life reenact something very close to his childhood reality.
The performances of all of the wild things are amazing. A lot has been made of the motion capture in James Cameron’s Avatar getting the full performances out of the actors. This is better. Spike Jonze and his special effects crew get the wild things to emote better than could have been hoped for or expected.
I would like to take this opportunity to point out the performances of James Ganolfini and Lauren Ambrose, the primary wild things featured in the film. With almost just their voices, they create fully realized characters who are just as real as anything in Max’s real life. They are Max’s substitute parents in his fantasy. As much as he loves them both, they are flawed and just as real as his mother (Catherine Keener). Ambrose and Gandolfini bring this reality to life.
This is a beautiful and perfect film. It is Spike Jonze’s masterpiece. It’s just a masterpiece.
1. A Serious Man
A week ago, I called A Serious Man the third-best film of the decade. I explained some of what I think of the film then (you can read it here). It belongs nowhere if not at the top of my list of the best films of 2009. I felt at the end of A Serious Man the way I felt at the end of Taxi Driver and Annie Hall. I knew I had seen a great film, but more than that, I knew that my life had changed.
This is latest film from the Coen brothers. It is about the trials of Larry Gopnik, a modern-day Job. He suffers all of the pain and indignity that the universe can dole out. He questions why. He gets his answer over and over. There is no reason. Life is a series of experiences over which we have no control and for which there is no cause. Gopnik, a pious Jew, can not accept this. His life is built on faith, and the fact that God does not have the answers (as represented by the three rabbis who know less than Gopnik himself) is devastating to him.
After I walked out of A Serious Man the first time, I was speechless. Those with whom I went can attest to that. I did not know what I was experiencing or what to make of it, but I knew I could not see the world in the same way. The feeling has dulled a bit since then, but no great feeling lasts forever (see Antichrist). But, that I felt something in me change speaks volumes about the effectiveness of this film.
I could spend all day discussing the writing, the cinematography, the art direction, the score (Carter Burwell), and everything in this film is dead on, but that’s not what is important. This is one of those times when the visceral experience of seeing a great film triumphs over any technical or cerebral interpretation. This is the one. See this movie. Experience this movie. I’m serious.
9. A Single Man
8. The Girlfriend Experience
6. The Hurt Locker
5. Drag Me to Hell
4. Inglourious Basterds
2. Where the Wild Things Are
1. A Serious Man