Saturday, February 20, 2010

Top 10: 2009

I saw fewer films in 2009 than usual, which made me more appreciative of the good ones and more resentful of the bad ones. If there are more big-budget genre movies on my list than usual, it's more reflective of a shift in film distribution than in a newfound aversion to art films - as the studio indie divisions continued to fold and niche distributors relied more on Netflix and On Demand services, films like The Road and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans never made it to my neck of the woods (although the latter is playing at Images this week - thanks, guys!). It was also an unusually strong year for comedy, horror and children's movies, and even big-budget studio tentpoles - for every Trannys 2, there was a genuinely offbeat or superior crowd pleaser. While there are definitely some bleak films on my top 10, 2009 was possibly the most fun moviegoing year of the decade - the best movies of the year (it was practically a coin toss between the top two) inspired the kind of excitement I always felt as a movie-loving kid but is all too rare these days.

1. Where the Wild Things Are One of my favorite memories from working at Images is the letters we received from the local elementary school thanking us for showing Spike Jonze's brilliant adaptation of the classic Maurice Sendak book. Where the Wild Things Are is not an easy film for kids to digest, and thank God for that - when most "family entertainment" is designed to pacify kids, a film that speaks to a child's understanding of the world is something of a revalation. Surpassing even his collaborations with Charlie Kaufman, Where the Wild Things Are is the grandest expression yet of Jonze's playful, endlessly imaginative approach to filmmaking. At once wondrous and haunting, Where the Wild Things Are is the most fully realized vision of the world through a child's eyes since E.T. I can't wait to watch it with my kids.

2. Inglourious Basterds By now, the experience of having a new Quentin Tarantino movie kick my ass is so routine that I feel spoiled. I must admit that it's a bit mystifying to me why Inglourious Basterds brought Tarantino the critical and commercial acclaim that has eluded him since Pulp Fiction, especially since his latest is very much a continuation of the cinematic ideas explored in Kill Bill and the much-maligned Death Proof. If anything, I would have guessed that a nearly three-hour WWII movie with no battles, lots of subtitles and a star that is offscreen for half the running time would have appealed mostly to cinephiles. Its popularity is attributable, I think, to two things - the joy of watching Nazis get brutally killed (something Tarantino subtly comments on throughout the movie) and the enduring power of well-done classical filmmaking. The film is a masterpiece of sustained tension - the audience I saw it with was dead silent during the opening chapter and the brilliant tavern scene, which almost drove me to frustration before delivering brilliantly. A cinematic orgy of great performances and already-classic images, Inglourious Basterds is going to be discussed and celebrated for many years to come.

3. Antichrist John Waters described Lars Von Trier's movie best, writing in Artforum that "If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made." Equal parts Evil Dead and Hour of the Wolf, the film's mixture of psychosexual allegory and X-rated splatter was met with derision by many at its Cannes premiere, where the closing dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky was met with laughter. Yet Von Trier, who made the film while struggling with severe depression, shares with Tarkovsky a preoccupation with the struggle between the spirit and the flesh. Though Antichrist is employs many of the same Brechtian devices as the director's recent work, it's his most emotionally direct film since Breaking the Waves. As the conflict between the unnamed couple played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (frighteningly great here) turns shockingly visceral, Von Trier demonstrates a seriousness about the consequences of violence rarely seen in contemporary movies. Always the provocateur, Von Trier baits his critics' charges of misogyny with the ultimate example of the monstrous feminine, but the film is perhaps his attempt to either exorcise or (as the final scene suggests) make peace with his own chaos. Beautifully photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, Antichrist is a difficult but important film that, love it or hate it, is bound to get under your skin.

4. Observe and Report Jody Hill is what Martin Scorsese calls a "cinematic smuggler." In his debut film The Foot Fist Way, the amazing TV series Eastbound and Down and this, his criminally underrated second movie, Hill uses the cover of deadpan slacker irony to deliver a pitch-black critique of the spiritually empty existence of his characters. For mall cop Ronnie (Seth Rogen, also underestimated here), a paranoid, reactionary ethos cobbled together from action movies and reruns of COPS is his only escape from his hellish life. If that sounds about as funny as Antichrist, the miracle is that Hill, like Todd Solondz before him, gives his protagonist a weird integrity; in his own misguided way, Ronnie is trying to make the world a better place. Hill and Rogen have both described Observe and Report as "Taxi Driver as a comedy," and like De Niro and Scorsese's own comic version of Taxi Driver (The King of Comedy), the movie is a barrel of nervous laughs.

5. A Serious Man A movie that gets funnier and more threatening the more I think about it. The way the film's impending sense of doom creeps up on you is astonishing; there's not a wasted moment in the film, every scene quietly building to the ending's final gut punch. The Coens have become possibly our greatest absurdists; while I admit I'm still working through the film's meaning, it seems to posit the idea that there is something governing our lives, but that something's nature is so unknowable to us that perhaps it's best too, as character suggests, "Accept the mystery." The Coens have never been more merciless, but any charges of misanthropy fall apart in the face of their obvious affection for their characters and the actors playing them; in its obvious sympathy for the little guy, A Serious Man gives me that Barton Fink feeling.

6. Watchmen I like this movie for all the reasons it was never going to connect with a mainstream audience. I like that it's cold and precise in its stubborn adherence to the source novel; I like that it's longer, more violent and nerdier than it needs to be, that its makers cared more about giving the fans the movie they wanted then in appealing to the widest possible audience. Of course, everyone who fell in love with the book can't help comparing Zack Snyder's movie against the one they'd imagined, so there's something noble in Snyder's swinging for the fences. The film isn't perfect - after Revenge of the Sith, no movie should feature a costumed character howling "Nooooo!" - but Watchmen stands next to Hulk and Superman Returns as a cerebral take on the comic book movie that I'll gladly defend in vain anytime. If he sees it, Alan Moore may lift his curse on Snyder; I know I did.

7. Adventureland Greg Mottola's coming-of-age tale is the warmest movie I saw this year. Mottola demonstrates real affection for his characters as they try to navigate their first adult relationships. Jesse Eisenberg (also good this year in Zombieland) and Kristen Stewart are endearingly awkward as co-workers at the titular amusement park struggling to say what they mean. Adventureland is bound to inspire laughs of recognition from anyone who remembers what it was like to be 20 and completely unprepared for the real world. Plus, the soundtrack kicks ass.

8. Public Enemies With each film, Michael Mann is driven more and more by an obsessive attention to the nuts-and-bolts minutia of his characters' lives that is frustrating to some audience members and mesmerizing to others. As with Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the contrast between the striking cinematography and the muddy sound design emphasizes the disconnect between historical mythmaking and verisimilitude. We're drawn to the seductive cool of John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, willing as ever to subvert his iconic screen presence) even as the movie constantly paints towards his inevitable downfall. It's the most subversive gangster movie since Bonnie and Clyde, and while it never quite touches the greatness of that film (it's surprising how bad Christian Bale is here), it's nevertheless a fascinating film, particularly in its stunning final scenes.

9. Star Trek A movie that shouldn't work but does. A year ago, I was mocking Star Trek's trailer, which threatened what Paul Clark dubbed "Star Trek Babies." But while I remain opposed to building starships on earth, I was otherwise surprised by how director J.J. Abrams manages the balancing act of honoring fans' memories of these characters while also, impossibly, making Star Trek cool. The time-travel plot is completely ridiculous, but no matter; Abrams' understands that the key to Star Trek's success is the interplay between the characters, particularly the coolly logical Spock and cocky man of action Kirk (they, and the rest of the characters, are perfectly cast). With the Abrams-created Lost (series co-runner Damon Lindelof is one of Star Trek's producers) taking sci-fi to new levels on the small screen, the same love of genre storytelling has breathed new life into a dying franchise; it's sort of astonishing, after slogging through the last few Next Generation movies, to be genuinely excited for the next Star Trek.

10. Drag Me to Hell
Quentin Tarantino pointed out in an interview that Sam Raimi's latest horror comedy shares with A Serious Man a gleeful willingness to torture its protagonist (Raimi and the Coens have collaborated in the past). Made in the macabre tradition of EC Comics, Drag Me to Hell is Raimi returning to his splatstick roots - this movie may be the closest thing we ever get to a big-budget Evil Dead 4. The film's laughs and screams are held together by its central sick joke - that its tormented protagonist Christine (Allison Lohman) deserves what's coming to her. It's a blast to witness Raimi get back in touch with the demented Looney Tunes style of filmmaking only seen in moments of the Spider-Man movies, while also revealing a near-Hitchcockian sense of timing. It's the rare mainstream horror movie that pulls no punches, and would be a much more bitter pill to swallow were Raimi not clearly having a fiendishly fun time making us jump out of our seats.

Speaking of top 10s, it's also time for the 2009 Muriel Awards; as always, the results promise to be better than the Oscars. This year has seen some best-of-the-decade awards as well as the usual anniversary awards - I never realized 1984 was such a great year for movies, but I couldn't even find room for much-deserved winner This is Spinal Tap in my top 5. The awards once again feature commentary by the eclectic group of film bloggers and writers who participated, including my notes on Best Screenplay winner Inglourious Basterds (so far, it's looking like an Inglourious sweep at the Muriels this year). To see the winners posted every day through February 28, head over to Steve Carlson's blog Down Inside You're Dirty.