People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Friday, January 8, 2010
  My Top 10 of 2009
A quick note before I begin. I decided against doing a “worst” list this year, as, quite frankly, I didn’t see enough truly awful movies to put one together (I’m pretty good at avoiding movies I’m pretty sure I’ll hate). Sure, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was pretty terrible, but at this point ripping that film is like shooting fish in a barrel. I’m going for positivity in 2010. We’ll see how that works out.

Anyway, on with the list. Here are the 10 best movies I saw in 2009.

10. Away We Go
A good friend of mine told me his reaction to this movie was something to the effect of “Oh wow, I didn’t realize they still made comedies for actual adults anymore,” and that’s about the best way I can put it. Director Sam Mendes, screenwriters Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida and stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph all deserve incredible praise for this incredibly warm – and incredibly funny – comedy about a couple expecting their first child. I totally expected to hate this movie going in, and I’m still blown away by how much I enjoyed it. Just great stuff.

9. Up
I actually sought this movie out on Blu-ray specifically for this list; it’s been on just about every other “Best of 2009” list I’ve seen, and, to me, and no Pixar movie since The Incredibles has looked this interesting. Within 10 minutes of pressing play, I knew I wasn’t going to have to sit through a movie meant for kids with maybe a couple of references aimed at the over-15 set; Up is a simply a great movie, filled with warmth, great characters, genuinely exciting adventure and brilliant storytelling. Usually when I keep hearing a movie is great I become skeptical, and I was a little skeptical about this one, but Up really is an excellent little movie, even for a hard-hearted curmudgeon like me.

8. The Informant!
I love me some Steven Soderbergh, I’ve made no secret of that, and this movie manages to be funny as hell (like Brad Pitt, I happen to think Matt Damon is an incredibly talented comic actor trapped in a movie star’s body) as well as dramatic and oddly affecting. There’s a moment late in the film where Damon’s character, a too-enthusiastic whistleblower at a massive food conglomerate, goes from absurdly funny to just sort of weird and sad, and almost nothing about Damon’s performance actually changes. Soderbergh also fills the “straight” roles with comedians (including Joel McHale, star of the very good new sitcom, Community), but it’s Scott Bakula as the Damon’s FBI handler who steals the movie. And Marvin Hamlisch’s incredible score perfectly highlights the offbeat humor without overwhelming it. Even though The Informant! (man, even the title makes me laugh, but I have a soft spot for grammar-based humor) is set in the early 1990s, its themes of personal and corporate greed and malfeasance couldn’t be more relevant to our times.

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox
I’m a pretty big fan of Wes Anderson (a filmmaker as beloved in some quarters as he is loathed in others) though I felt his last live-action film, 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, was his weakest effort yet. He won me back with his stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, fusing the author’s story with his own decidedly quirky sensibilities. I went in expecting a charming enough little oddity in Anderson’s filmography (he basically directed the film via e-mails to the animators in Britain, but never visited the “set” himself), but ended up laughing harder than I did at most comedies I saw this year, and both the story and performances from the all-star cast (including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman) were delightful. A really pleasant surprise, and a rare family film that actually appeals to the entire family.

6. Where the Wild Things Are
Acclaimed novelist Dave Eggers made his debut as a screenwriter in 2009 with two films, Where the Wild Things Are and Away We Go, and both were among the best movies I saw all year. In both cases – well, definitely more with this adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book – the director deserves tons of credit too. Spike Jonze makes pretty great movies that are nothing what I expect going in, and Where the Wild Things Are was no different. A kid’s movie that isn’t really for kids but is rather more about being a kid (a concept that you sort of have to have progressed beyond childhood to fully appreciate), no other movie this got to me the way this one did. A beautiful, heartbreaking film by one of the most talented filmmakers working today.

5. Black Dynamite
Screw The Hangover; this was easily the funniest movie I saw all year. This low-budget indie comedy from director Scott Sanders and co-writer/star Michael Jai White (you probably remember him as the angry, hulking crime boss the Joker knocks off early The Dark Knight, right before holding “tryouts”), this movie came out of nowhere and blew me away. A hilarious and affectionate spoof of ‘70s blaxploitation films, Black Dynamite follows a guy called Black Dynamite (even his family calls him that), a former CIA operative called out of retirement when his kid brother is killed by drug dealers, but uncovers a plot involving heroin, malt liquor and kung fu that reaches into the highest levels of government. No other movie in 2009 made me laugh this hard. I can’t wait for the DVD release on Feb. 2 so I can revisit Black Dynamite over and over again. An instant cult classic.

4. Watchmen
As much as this choice is based largely in my personal affection for this property (regular readers know I’ve been a fan of the book since I was in high school), I really do believe this is a movie people will still be watching and talking about a decade from now, and it’s as important, if not more so, to the development of the superhero genre of movies as The Dark Knight. It’s almost as dense and layered as the book it’s based on, which, if you’ve ever read Watchmen, you know is a helluva staItement. Zack Snyder’s film is certainly not without its flaws – Matthew Goode, Malin Ackerman and Carla Gugino run the gamut from “pretty bad” to “laughably awful,” and Goode, in particular, is cast in a role that really needs to be done perfectly – but this remains one of the most incredible experiences I had in a movie theater all year, and I’ve watched the Blu-ray more times since picking it up than I have just about anything else on this list (save No. 1). Personally, this is a movie I’ll be living with and revisiting for years to come.

3. Inglourious Basterds
I’ve already written two reviews for Quentin Tarantino’s nutty World War II masterpiece, so I’ll keep it short. The best movie yet from one of the most important filmmakers to emerge in the last 25 years is pretty much a lock on any list. Movies don’t get much better.

2. The Hurt Locker
I’ve gone on and on in this space before about how much I dig Kathryn Bigelow’s movies, particularly Near Dark and Point Break, so I was stoked about this movie the second I learned of its existence. The fact that several months after its release, this Iraq bomb squad thriller is maintaining this kind of buzz going into awards season (the film and Bigelow are picking up critics’ awards left right and center) makes me think that, despite my usual cynicism, there may actually be some justice in the world. It’s not too often that an action-thriller is anchored by such incredible performances (and I should know, I watch a lot of action movies), but Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie combine with Bigelow’s brilliant direction and Mark Boal’s sharp, economical script to make something truly special. Not to be missed.

1. District 9
When I’m excited about a movie, I get very excited, and occasionally (okay, usually) my expectations get ratcheted up to unreasonable levels. From the first teaser, I was absolutely dying to see this movie, and as the months went by and the release date neared, I started to worry that maybe I’d done it again. But when the closing credits rolled on the opening-day screening I attended, I knew my mind had been truly blown. The story, the craftsmanship on display, the effects (which put Avatar to shame, frankly), everything about this movie works perfectly. For me, nothing else in 2009 came close to director Neill Blomkamp’s debut, about the tensions in Johannesburg 20-some years after a spaceship full of dying aliens settled over the city, and with the exception of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Sharlto Copley’s incredible work as the unlikely hero Wikus Van De Merwe was the breakout performance of the year. I’ve watched District 9 several times since picking up the DVD (and Blu-ray! I am such a nerd), and I don’t think I’ll be stopping any time soon. Just an amazing piece of cinema.

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Justin! No Zombieland?! you gave it an 'A'. What gives?!... ;)

this list is spot on, except I've yet to see Back Dyno and informant. Damn 09 had some killer flicks!
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