by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN Contributing Writer
I've been hearing a lot lately about how 2009, much like 2008, was a down year at the cinema - while there have been plenty of good movies, there have been but a scant few great ones. While I agree this is more or less true from a major studio standpoint, I cannot help but feel the opposite in regards to foreign and independent releases. On that front, this year has been outstanding - there are so many exemplary titles to choose from that trying to decide which one is best is a virtual impossibility.
This is not to say that Hollywood's mainstream didn't deliver solid pieces of entertainment. The Hangover emerged as the most successful R-rated comedy in movie history, providing more than enough laughs to warrant at least the majority of its fuss. Director J.J. Abrams successfully rebooted Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek, and even if I wasn't completely satisfied, the potential for future greatness is certainly there. Taken, Duplicity, State of Play, Monsters vs. Aliens, Fast & Furious, Drag Me to Hell, The Princess and the Frog, Zombieland, Law Abiding Citizen, District 9, Sherlock Holmes and Invictus while all different still hit the spot, each offering up varying degrees of enjoyment as long as the viewer allowed themselves an open mind.
The year's biggest movie was also its most reviled; Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen may be the first $400-million smash that almost nobody admits to liking. Paramount also had their hand in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and while that film was a major box office success as well, viewing it in a theater was akin to watching CGI paint dry. The studio did have Paranormal Activity to crow about, as their viral word-of-mouth marketing of that low budget horror masterpiece was a template other Hollywood majors are sure to follow in the future.
Women showed up at the box office this year in force. Both Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock were the primary beneficiaries of their largess, even if the pair's four respective films - Julie & Julia, It's Complicated, The Proposal and The Blind Side (the best of the bunch) - were strictly mezzo-mezzo as far as quality. Stephenie Meyer also owes a debt of gratitude to the ladies of America, as Team Edward and Team Jacob went all out to transform The Twilight Saga: New Moon into a $200-plus million phenomenon.
On the local front, the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival offered up their most diverse, interesting and entertaining slate yet, and the level of quality in this year's lineup was hugely impressive. The Seattle International Film Festival scored the debuts of some of 2009's best, including The Hurt Locker, In the Loop, Moon, The Cove and (500) Days of Summer, while local filmmaker Jason Reid revisited our own personal NBA freak show with his searing and emotionally honest documentary Sonicsgate.
The multiplex was also the home of serious risk-taking by some high-profile directors like Judd Apatow (Funny People), Zack Snyder (Watchmen), Jody Hill (Observe and Report), Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are), Frances Ford Coppola (Tetro), John Hillcoat (The Road) and Lars von Trier (Antichrist), but while that sounds good in theory, for most of them those risks didn't always pay off. Only James Cameron saw his risky 3-D gamble Avatar completely rise to the occasion as naysayers who felt the Titanic Oscar-winner had been out of the game for too long were forced to eat their words in lieu of the film's incredible December box office windfall.
There's plenty more I could talk about, including how Emily Blunt deserves to be involved in Academy Award talk for both her performances in Sunshine Cleaning and The Young Victoria, or how the brilliant coming-of-age sagas An Education and Bright Star deserved wider audiences than they sadly achieved. But that's a road better left un-traveled for now, and I should probably just get on with my picks for the year's 10 best and 10 worst films. In fact, without further ado, that's exactly what I'm going to do.
2009'S TOP 10
1) In the Loop
The funniest movie of the year, this profanely hilarious satire is also one of its smartest. Director Armando Iannucci's bracing comedy of political incompetence and error is a biting look at the Middle East quagmire that had me rolling in the aisles, and like Network, M*A*S*H and Dr. Strangelove, I can see this one being talked about for decades to come.
2) The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is everything you've heard and more. This powder keg of a thriller is fueled with adrenaline, the pre-season award's favorite (10 Best Picture wins from a variety of critics groups) powered by a volcanic sense of pace and dripping in raw fury and sweat-stained terror. To quote my own review, this film "is the real deal in action theatrics, Bigelow delivering a pulse-pounding dynamo that puts all of Hollywood's meager summer 2009 offerings to shame."
3) A Serious Man
Joel and Ethan Coen's brutally dark comedy of religion and personal responsibility is one of their most complex and daring to date. It's also one of the pair's most innately personal. This 1960's saga of a man dealing with a crisis of faith as his life crumbles around him is one of the most profound - and profoundly hilarious - films of the year.
4) TIE The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up
In a year of fine animated features Wes Anderson's stop-motion creature fable and Pixar's sweetly enchanting tale of an old man, a young fatherless boy and a talking dog easily topped them all. These two movies, both as outlandish and as fantastical as any I could imagine, were grounded in a humanity that is compelling and heartfelt. Both transported me well beyond the boundaries of the theatre and into the realm of the timeless, and each climbed to an emotional plateau that I almost wish I could take up residence in permanently.
5) Everlasting Moments
Swedish director Jan Troell is no stranger to perfection; his 1971 classic The Emigrants proof enough there. This time out, the two-time Academy Award-nominee crafts a heartbreaking and reflective polemic on family and friendship that stopped me in my tracks. Ultimately this is a movie that refuses to fade to black, as the photographs taken by its heroine are nearly as indelible as a person's own memories.
6) An Education
Nick Hornby's literate adaptation of Lynn Barber's coming-of-age story might be the year's most satisfying screenplay. Add that to Lone Scherfig's immaculate direction and sensational work by the film's superb all-star supporting cast, and I couldn't ask for anything more. But what really puts An Education over the top is the spellbinding performance of newcomer Carey Mulligan, comparisons to a Roman Holiday-era Audrey Hepburn not too far off the mark.
To say I adored filmmaker Cédric Klapisch's stirring love letter to the City of Light would be an understatement. Love, laughter, tragedy and tears - this multi-story epic has it all, and by the time it was over my heart was so filled with emotion I was almost afraid it would burst. Its French all-star cast reeks of a certain je ne sais quoi, and to say the overall product is anything less than c'est magnifique is a decided understatement.
8) TIE Bright Star and
The Time Traveler's Wife
For those who think romance can't be found at the movies, here's the pair of heartrending winners I chose as examples to prove them wrong. From the profound beauty of Jane Campion's poetic stunner to Robert Schwentke's time-bending parable, these two dive straight to the heart, and each delivers on their promise to craft tales of love bordering on the divine.
9) Broken Embraces
The run of success that Pedro Almodóvar has been on this decade is something else. His movies run the gamut of genres and push boundaries that dare an audience to keep up with their fervent pace and bold switches in tone. His latest is no exception as the talented Spaniard turning once more to muse Penélope Cruz and crafts a melodrama about love, death, and making movies that's as joyous as it is tragic.
10) Sunshine Cleaning
Director Christine Jeffs' Sunshine Cleaning deserved better. This poignant and jubilant family drama bristled with life and laughter. Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Clifton Collins Jr. and Mary Lynn Rajskub all turned in superlative performances. Lazily compared by many to Little Miss Sunshine, this inspired feature was both sinisterly macabre and emotionally sincere, and discovering it back in March was about as pure a pleasure as any I've had all year.
A SECOND 16
Avatar - James Cameron's massive 3-D opus may be short on plot, but that doesn't make it any less entertaining. It's pure cinematic spectacle of the first degree.
The Cove - Insanely intense documentary that plays more like an Ocean's 11-style thriller than it does an environmental expose of Japan's brutal dolphin fishing industry. The final 15 minutes are unlike anything else I've seen, and my heart still leaps to my throat as I recollect the bloody carnage.
(500) Days of Summer - Marvelous anti-romantic comedy that hits all the right notes as Joseph Gordon-Levitt recounts his up and down affair with the whimsically bubbly Zooey Deschanel.
Paranormal Activity - Superb low budget shocker that scared me senseless in the movie theater. The year's biggest and best audience participation extravaganza and experience.
A Single Man - Beautiful and poetic adaptation of author Christopher Isherwood's novel is a treat for the eyes, ears and the heart. Colin Firth and Julianne Moore give two of the year's best performances.
Away We Go - Sam Mendes' deft comedic travelogue comes packed with the American Beauty director's trademark cynicism while also displaying a romantic hopefulness that's wholly sublime.
Paris 36 - Musically delicious drama full of laughter, heartbreak and song set inside a Parisian theatre struggling to fill empty seats while laying the groundwork for resistance in case war with Germany breaks out. A mixture of François Truffaut's The Last Metro and Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, Christophe Barratier's latest is a vivacious joy.
Up in the Air - Timely dramatic comedy from Juno director Jason Reitman that looks at our current economic crisis through the eyes of a man (George Clooney) who fires people for a living which somehow makes him sympathetic and endearing in the process.
District 9 - Creative and original science fiction spectacle of racism and inhumanity told with visual ingenuity and flair.
The Princess and the Frog - Disney's wonderful return to hand-drawn animation is as magical as the fantastical story of love, music and amphibian tomfoolery it merrily tells.
Tetro - Frances Ford Coppola's captivating and superbly shot ode to Italian cinema and brotherly love, featuring performances by Vincent Gallo and Maribel Verdú which deserve to be talked about as two of the year's best.
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire - Not for the faint of heart, Lee Daniel's bracing yet hopeful chronicle of a teenage girl's eventual empowerment over a hatefully domineering and abusive mother is a superlative achievement which is difficult to forget.
The Damned United - Magnetic chronicle of failure and perseverance set in the world of English football (i.e. soccer), anchored by performances by Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall that are absolutely goal-worthy.
Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino takes the WWII thriller and spins it on its head, crafting freewheeling and original entertainment that's as shocking as it is hilarious.
Funny People - Judd Apatow's uncompromising and intensely philosophical drama of comedians trying to work their magic while their personal lives suffer gets better with every viewing.
Food, Inc. - A person will never look at their dinner table in the same way after watching this ghastly yet mesmerizing documentary, which chronicles the daily meal as it is delivered to the supermarket.
Afghan Star, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Battle for Terra, The Box, Capitalism: A Love Story, Cold Souls, Crazy Heart, Deadgirl, Drag Me to Hell, Duplicity, Easy Virtue, Every Little Step, Everybody's Fine, Grace, The Hangover, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Horse Boy, Humpday, The Informant!, It Might Get Loud, Julia, Knowing, Me and Orson Welles, Moon, Nine, Paper Heart, A Perfect Getaway, Pirate Radio, Ponyo, Public Enemies, Sherlock Holmes, Skin, The Soloist, Sonicsgate, State of Play, Summer Hours, Taking Woodstock, That Evening Sun, Treeless Mountain, Tyson, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Whip It, The Young Victoria, Zombieland.
2009'S BOTTOM 10
1) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - Rancid sci-fi sequel showcased Michael Bay at his worst. Misogynistic, racist, jingoistic, lazily written and edited with the subtlety of a jackhammer, this movie is the nadir of what summertime entertainment used to be.
2) Land of the Lost - Will Ferrell's hugely unfunny misfire takes a charming Saturday morning favorite and transforms it into a sex-obsessed freak show devoid of laughter.
3) G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra - No film looked more like a video game that no one in their right mind would ever want to play than this one did - and this is coming from a girl who likes to play video games.
4) Love Happens - Disastrous Aaron Eckhart/Jennifer Aniston romantic weeper that's so dishonest and emotionally bankrupt I imagine having my throat slit by a homicidal killer would be a more enjoyable way to spend an evening than watching this stinker again.
5) Miss March - Imbecilic sex comedy from IFC's "The Whitest Kids U'Know" that's so lame, even an appearance by Hugh Hefner can't save it from unforgivable oblivion.
6) Downloading Nancy - Virtually unwatchable melodrama about a woman who hires a man over the internet to kill her during a sex act just so she can leave her humdrum married life behind.
7) Bride Wars - Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson scrape the bottom of the barrel with a marriage comedy that's as lame as it is offensive.
8) The Final Destination - Sub par 3-D splatter effects add nothing as this tired franchise sputters along on empty, looking for a reason to still exist.
9) Year One - You'd think combining the talents of director Harold Ramis and stars Jack Black and Michael Cera would be a good thing. You'd think so, but then you'd be wrong - very, very, very wrong.
10) I Love You, Beth Cooper - Chris Columbus' first comedy in over a decade is a labored, unfunny, painful and obnoxious coming-of-age misfire that's so poorly constructed it's hard to believe this is the same guy who made Adventures in Babysitting, Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire.
Alien Trespass, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Amelia, Angels and Demons, The Answer Man, Astro Boy, Brüno, A Christmas Carol, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, Dragonball: Evolution, Fame, Fighting, Friday the 13th, G-Force, The Haunting in Connecticut, Hotel for Dogs, Inkheart, Jennifer's Body, The Last House on the Left, New in Town, Next Day Air, Not Easily Broken, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Post Grad, Push, Race to Witch Mountain, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Surrogates, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, The Ugly Truth, The Unborn, The Uninvited, Watchmen, Whiteout, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
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