Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ben's Top 10 Movies of 2009

Heyyy everybody, what's shakin'? Happy New Year and auld lang syne and all that good stuff. Okay, okay, look, I'm not even going to bother making excuses as to why I haven't written a goddamn movie review in however-many months. Let's chalk it up to a stifling combination of laziness and writer's block and Beatles Rock Band and Charlotte Fever and call it a day... or decade, as the case may be. The important thing is that the year of our lord 2009 is in the books, and I have to say, despite a slow start and a remarkably weak summer, the last year of the Aughts turned out to be a damn good one -- one of the better years of the entire decade, in fact, in terms of overall quality. I saw 107 movies on the big screen, and narrowing down my Top 10 was an arduous task indeed... it causes me physical pain to have to leave some titles out... but without further ado, let's take a look at the list....

10. AN EDUCATION -- I had a hard time deciding what movie to put in this spot, because there were several vying to make the cut. But in the end, I decided to go with this excellent story of a girl's coming of age in Britain in the early 1960's -- just before the "swingin' '60s" really took hold. My newest crush, the lovely & talented Carey Mulligan, perfectly embodies Jenny, an ambitious, straight-laced schoolgirl on her way to studying at Oxford and following her pre-set order of life. But then she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard in an equally solid performance), a charming older man who throws her for a loop by introducing her to the finer things in life and opening her up to a new, changing world. Nick Hornby has long been one of my favorite authors, and he gives us one of the year's sharpest screenplays -- a vibrant portrait of a society filled with promise. Carey Mulligan is enchanting and carries the movie with charm and grace -- whether or not she is the next Audrey Hepburn remains to be seen, but I, for one, will be following her career with great interest.

9. PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL "PUSH" BY SAPPHIRE -- I'm not just including this movie because it prominently features my apartment building, lobby and living room window (though that is pretty damn cool). No, this story of an illiterate, pregnant African American teen who tries to escape a life of unspeakable abuse is one of the most potent films I've seen in some time. It's one of those movies that is so unflinching and agonizing to watch that I'm not sure I need to ever watch it again (REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and DANCER IN THE DARK are two other such movies).... but if anything, this is a testament to the movie's power. Plus, it features at least two Oscar-worthy performances -- particularly Gabourey Sidibe, who makes Precious the most tragic character of the year, and, in a performance that must be seen to be believed, Mo'Nique as her massively-screwed-up mother. Tremendous film, but not for the faint of heart.

8. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY -- Anyone who's been following my movie adventures over the past few years should know that it has been my quest to find a scary movie that really, truly scares the bejesus out of me -- and this year, a $15,000 indie film managed to do just that. With its BLAIR WITCH, cinema-verite style, unsettling visuals and escalating sense of forboding, this film taps into the basic human fears of (a) things that go bump in the night and (b) situations over which you have absolutely no control. Katie and Micah are a twentysomething couple who come to believe that their home is being visited by a demonic presence. They decide to use a video camera to capture this supposed paranormal activity on film... a project that ends in unspeakable horror. Director Oren Peli clearly knows his stuff, as he eschews typical gore and scare tactics and takes a more subtle approach -- little bits of creepiness here and there (a rippling bedsheet, a cracked picture frame), punctuated by, say, Katie getting ripped from her bed in the middle of the night and dragged down the hall. The film is well-crafted, perfectly paced and remarkably effective. Katie and Micah are likeable and believable (even Micah's alpha male attempts to goad the demon into revealing itself are understandable, albeit occasionally as infuriating as, say, going skinny dipping in Crystal Lake at night). Sure, it requires some suspension of disbelief, but it all adds up to a legitimately scary experience, which is pretty much the highest praise that I can give to such a film!

7. FANTASTIC MR. FOX -- Now, I've never read the Roald Dahl story, so I cannot comment on whether or not this is a faithful adaptation... but that is neither here nor there, because as a movie, this is Wes Anderson at his absolute best -- clever, funny, wacky, loaded with memorable characters and bursting with imagination. Frankly, Anderson's style had been growing stale and self-indulgent recently, but this is a tremendous return to form. The vibrant stop-motion animation fits the story perfectly, and the script (co-written with Noah Baumbach) is razor-sharp -- it's a kiddie film at heart, but the sophisticated humor is surprisingly adult. George Clooney is perfect as the roguish Mr. Fox, and the supporting cast is equally impressive (Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe... the list goes on). FANTASTIC MR. FOX is more than just fantastic -- it's an absolute joy to watch and a veritable clustercuss of fun that will surely stand the test of time.

6. THE HANGOVER -- The funniest movie of the year, without a doubt. The plot is simple: Four guys go to Vegas to celebrate a bachelor party. They wake up in the morning with their hotel suite in shambles, a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, the groom missing and absolutely no memory as to what the hell happened. Classic. The hijinks are f'ing hilarious, the characters are awesome and impeccably-cast, the dialogue is eminently quotable, and the whole thing is flat-out fun. Sure, the series of events is over the top, but that's the thing: Since it happens in Vegas, it's almost plausible that this shit COULD (and probably does, to some extent) happen on a daily basis! If OCEAN'S 11 is a love letter to the glitz & glamour of Las Vegas, then THE HANGOVER is a drunken text message to Sin City's insanity!

5. UP IN THE AIR -- Man, 2009 was another great year for George Clooney. Two movies in my top 10, and a third (THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS) that is very good in its own right -- he is, simply put, one of the two or three best actors working today, and my pick for this year's Oscar. In this movie, he plays Ryan Bingham, a professional axe man who spends most of his days traveling from city to city, helping companies fire their employees. It's a lonely existence but Bingham seems to make it work for him... or so it seems on the surface... until his encounters with a fellow traveler and a new co-worker cause him to rethink his philosophies. With its themes of isolation and the choices we make in life and relationships, UP IN THE AIR is superbly-written (whip-smart dialogue permeates the film), timely (possibly the quintissential movie about the current economic climate), and manages to be both uplifting and profoundly sad at the same time. It's another tremendous directorial effort by Jason Reitman, who, over the past few years, has become one of the more reliable filmmakers around. As an added bonus, this movie made me finally fall in love with Vera Farmiga, an actress who had been on my radar for some time. Her performance is scintillating, a perfect foil for Clooney, and one of the most smoking-hot onscreen presences of the year.

4. AVATAR -- I admit, I was skeptical of the hype surrounding James Cameron's first movie in 12 years. I found the trailers to be visually incredible, but everything else about it just seemed kind of... blah. But after I saw it in all its IMAX 3D glory, all I wanted to do was meet Mr. Cameron and apologize for ever doubting his genius. What Cameron has done with AVATAR is nothing short of miraculous. He has taken motion-capture animation to new heights, not to mention 3D technology. It's an astonishing triumph of creation and innovation -- there's a level of detail that went into creating this world, its people, creatures, wildlife, ecosystem and history, not to mention this vision of our own future, that would make Tolkien proud. It's a mind-blowing visual orgasm... an epic spectacle that fully engulfs the senses... the very definition of the term EVENT MOVIE. The story is simple but effective -- South Park's "Dances With Smurfs" episode was funny, but misses the point. The only knock against the movie (which, indeed, may have cost it a spot or two on this list) is that the dialogue is very pedestrian and unquotable, which may not bode well for its status in the geek pantheon, since, y'know, we need to be able to quote stuff. But in every other conceivable way, AVATAR is an amazing, wildly entertaining movie-watching experience!

3. DISTRICT 9 -- While AVATAR is the most visually-stunning sci-fi EVENT of the year, the best overall sci-fi picture is a much smaller one that came out of nowhere and completely blew my mind. Twenty years ago, a massive alien spacrcraft appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. After some time of puzzling inactivty, humans decide to cut their way into the ship and discover a race of grotesque aliens (nicknamed "prawns") -- starving, suffering and unable to return home. Our solution: Bring them down and house them in a shanty town, District 9, that quickly devolves into a crime-ridden slum. When the situation begins to spiral out of control and government officials, led by Wikus Van De Merwe (previously-unknown Sharlto Copley in a performance for the ages), decide to relocate the aliens to another, larger camp, things go very awry and all hell breaks loose. Everything about this movie is brilliant -- from the incredible story to complex character development to some truly impressive special effects (especially considering the relatively low budget) to the obvious parallels with South Africa's apartheid. A wildly original creation by Neill Blompkamp, under the tutelage of Peter Jackson, DISTRICT 9 is a remarkable achievement that is sure to go down as a landmark film in the annals of science fiction.

2. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER -- This self-proclaimed story of boy-meets-girl that is NOT a love story is also one the greatest cinematic examples of the mysterious, glorious, fucked-up workings of the "thunderbolt" that I have ever seen. Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon Levitt at his most likeable) has long put the concept of "love" on a pedestal, and when he meets Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel at her most irresistable), he is convinced that she is "the one." However, she is skeptical that love really exists and states right off the bat that she has little interest in anything serious. Nevertheless, they develop a relationship that quickly becomes more and more intimate and emotionally intense... or does it? Tom thinks so; Summer's feelings are another story, and thus, trouble ensues. The film uses several interesting techniques to drive the story and examine the ups and downs of their relationship, including non-linear time structure, quirky (in a good way) visual representations of what's going on in Tom's head, and a brilliant "expectation vs. reality" split-screen comparison of a critical moment (perhaps the best scene in the movie). The script is clever and fun and runs the gamut of emotions, and the acting is superb across the board. It's a smart, honest film that rises high above and beyond the typical romantic comedy. (And as an added bonus, it pretty much nails a relationship I once had that followed a similar -- and equally ill-fated -- emotional rollercoaster and included such eerily specific details as their random excursions through IKEA. Damn you, Summer!)

...and finally....

1. A SERIOUS MAN -- After all these years and countless memorable films, the Coen Brothers never cease to amaze. If anything, they've become even more amazing over the past few years. First they take their filmography in a whole new direction with the Oscar-winning NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN... then they revert back to classic madcap form with BURN AFTER READING... and now, this year, they give us what may be their deepest and finest acheivement yet. It's the story of a man who experiences misfortune upon misfortune, while trying desperately to make some sense of it all and come to terms with his own morality, spirituality and good old fashioned Jewish guilt. It's as devastating as it is gripping, funny, poignant and easily the most entertaining ride through a downward spiral of despair that I've ever had. It's loaded with outstanding performances ranging from tragic (Michael Stuhlberg, previously unknown and now Oscar-worthy) to reviled (Fred Melamed, whose Sy Abelman is up there with the most despicable characters in recent memory), woven by the Coens' most personal and thought-provoking screenplay and capped by a jaw-dropping ending that has been haunting my movie thoughts since day one. A SERIOUS MAN is a riveting, unforgettable movie experience that sticks with you for a long, long time... and my pick for the best movie of 2009. All hail the Coen Brothers!


Other Noteworthy Titles (in no particular order):

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Fanboys. Orphan. The Lovely Bones. Drag Me to Hell. I Love You, Man. The Princess and the Frog. Watchmen. Up. Star Trek. Moon. Ponyo. The Hurt Locker. Inglourious Basterds. Sugar. The Informant! Michael Jackson's This Is It. Julie & Julia. The Blind Side. State of Play. The Girlfriend Experience. Broken Embraces. Crazy Heart. Two Lovers. Coraline. The Men Who Stare At Goats. The Last House on the Left. The Young Victoria. Jennifer's Body. Observe and Report. Taken. The Limits of Control.


And now... The Top 10 WORST Films of 2009:

10. INVICTUS -- The obvious brilliance of casting Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela is overshadowed by the fact that the movie is terrible in pretty much every way -- bad writing, bad acting, a horribly-miscast Matt Damon, and to top it all off, it made rugby even more confusing to me than it already was. That's two terrible movies in a row for Clint Eastwood... could it be time for him to quit while he's ahead and call it a career?
9. OBSESSED -- A ridiculous thriller about a crazy bitch who becomes dangerously obsessed (yeah) with a co-worker. The catfight between Ali Larter and Beyonce is mildly entertaining, but overall this is pretty worthless. (Would have avoided the bottom 10, though, if Ali had worn the whipped cream bikini just once!)
8. THE BOX -- Disfigured Frank Langella goes to Crippled Cameron Diaz's house, gives her a box, and tells her that if she opens it, she gets a million bucks but a random person will die. Naturally, hijinks ensue. Intriguing premise that quickly devolves into ridiculousness -- the end result being that Richard Kelly is now officially dead to me.
7. A PERFECT GETAWAY -- This film left me wondering if it was meant to be a spoof on the whole "tourists fall into peril while on vacation" genre, or if the filmmakers did some serious drugs about 2/3 of the way through production. A bad film with a bizarre (but not in a good way) final act.
6. MY BLOODY VALENTINE -- Another year, another crappy remake of an '80s horror staple... only this time it's in digital 3D, which turns what would've been a forgettable movie into... well, a forgettable movie in digital 3D. Pretty bad stuff.
5. FRIDAY THE 13th -- Another unnecessary and disappointing reboot of one of the most classic slasher films of all time (not to mention one of my personal favs). All I ask from a FRIDAY THE 13th movie is that Jason give us some good, gory kills, and they couldn't even do that right. Now they've f'ed up HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY... this does not bode well for the upcoming NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET reboot... sigh.
4. THE FINAL DESTINATION -- The original FINAL DESTINATION was pretty awesome and refreshingly original, and even the first two sequels had their moments... but now it's like they're not even trying anymore. Even seeing this in 3D couldn't make it remotely entertaining... let's hope it really is THE final installment.
3. THE INFORMERS -- Bret Easton Ellis himself penned this screenplay, based on one of his earlier books, and... well... it's bad. The movie is a failure in pretty much every way; in particular, it features some of the most poorly-written and executed dialogue in recent memory. Not even Mickey Rourke as a creepy child abductor and a frequently-naked Amber Heard could save this one.
2. THE UNBORN -- At first I thought this film, about a girl possessed by a demon spirit of her unborn twin, was yet another remake of a Japanese horror flick. But turns out it's an "original" screenplay that simply rips off aspects of every horror flick ever made, Japanese or otherwise... and does it very, very badly. Features a cameo by Gary Oldman as an exorcist-performing rabbi... which isn't nearly as cool as it sounds.
1. AMELIA -- The story of a fascinating figure, starring Hilary Swank and a solid supporting cast, directed by Mira Nair... by all powers of the universe, this should have been a fine film. Instead, it was a spectacular failure, plagued by awful, laughable writing, forgettable performances, formulaic execution, and worst of all, it was just flat-out BORING. Seriously, Amy Adams's comic portrayal of Amelia Earhart in the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM sequel was better than anything in this stinking turd of a biopic that, mercifully, came and went very quickly. No Oscar for you this year, Hilary... but perhaps a Razzie?

NOTE: I have to include a brief footnote here, because in reality, the worst movie I saw on the big screen in 2009 was a film called WHEN IN ROME, starring Kristen Bell. I saw it at an advance test screening back in, like, February, and it was horrendously bad, unfunny, retarded, you name it. BUT... the movie will not be OFFICIALLY released until later this month... so, technically, it's a 2010 movie, even though I saw it in 2009. Get it? Good. Now let's move on....


And now... Some Random Movie Thoughts!

Biggest Guilty Pleasure: Without a doubt, this title goes to a little film called FANBOYS, the story of a bunch of Star Wars geeks who embark on a quest to break into the Skywalker Ranch and bootleg a copy of EPISODE I - THE PHANTOM MENACE. It's a perfect love letter to that era of Star Wars geekdom when we were so excited for what was, and remains, the most anticipated movie of all time... it's awesome and the most nostalgia-inducing movie of the year. I also have great love for ORPHAN, one of the best and craziest "evil child" movies ever. And then there's TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, which may have sucked, but dammit, anytime I can see Optimus Prime kicking ass in all his IMAX-sized glory, it brings a big goofy smile to my face!

Most Pleasant Surprise: I gotta admit, I may be a battle-hardened Star Wars fan, but I was stunned at just how much I enjoyed the hell out of the new STAR TREK. I won't go as far as to say that it turned me into a Trekkie, but it was an awesome movie -- pretty much the first time anyone has managed to make Trek readily accessible to everyone -- and I am very much looking forward to future installments. Gotta tip my cap to J.J. Abrams... now let's see if he can use this clout to get that rumored DARK TOWER project off the ground!

Biggest Disappointment: I'm sorry to say that this title goes to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, a movie for which I had tremendous expectations, but turned out to be boring, bloated and woefully misguided. Probably my own fault for building my anticipation so much... but dammit, it's Spike Jonze! And that trailer was so freakin' good! Definitely one of the most monumental letdowns, not only of 2009, but of all time. A close second was FUNNY PEOPLE, a steaming turd and gigantic misstep for Judd Apatow, who has apparently gotten too full of himself, thus causing him to lose sight of his genius -- might be time for him to finally take some time off. I was also pretty disappointed with NINE, which managed to be profoundly dull despite the best efforts of Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz and even Fergie. And the less said about TERMINATOR: SALVATION, the better (CGI Arnie circa 1984 notwithstanding)... though I'm not sure you can consider that a "disappointment," because really, did anyone think it would actually be good?

Most Underrated Movie: I haven't seen nearly enough praise for THE LOVELY BONES, which seems to have come and gone very quietly. Granted, it was released during Oscar-bait season, and there were many other superior options out there... and from what I understand, Peter Jackson made some changes to the story that didn't make fans of the book happy... but I haven't read the book, so that is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. As a movie, I found it to be excruciating and hauntingly beautiful, and featuring a stellar performance by Saoirse Ronan. Peter Jackson is one of the true masters of our time and he deserves a little more respect! Meanwhile, MOON was a great little sci-fi film that flew mostly under the radar, and SUGAR was a great little film about baseball and the American Dream, and THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS was pretty hilarious in a way that would make the Coen Bros. say, "Hey, not too shabby." I also really liked WATCHMEN more than most... but then, I had no emotional attachment to the source material. And while we're on the subject over underrated movies....

A Shout-Out to Harry Potter: I am apparently one of the few people to really like HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, which I believe was waaaaaay better than most HP fans seem to think. While it is the first installment since THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS to not make my top 10 of the year (it's actually #11, not to mention the only movie I saw more than once on the big screen in '09), I still think it's fantastic. Yes, yes, they changed a bunch of things from the book, some of which were jarring at first. But remember, we're working with two distinct storylines -- Book and Movie -- and the two have differed more and more as the series has progressed. HP6: The Movie was a direct sequel to HP5: The Movie -- NOT a direct adaptation of HP6: The Book. But as a movie, it was damn good, dark and powerful, and I am deliriously psyched for part one of THE DEATHLY HALLOWS in November!

Most Overrated Movie: I really, really, really don't understand all the praise I've seen heaped upon ZOMBIELAND. This movie was not funny -- it was stupid, poorly acted (Emma Stone... so bad), and if it wasn't for a certain awesome cameo appearance, it would have been almost completely worthless. I know we all love zombie movies, but come on, people... SHAUN OF THE DEAD, this was NOT. I also can't believe there has actually been award buzz for INVICTUS. If it wins any Golden Globes (or, god forbid, Oscars), it will be the first time a movie in my Bottom 10 has achieved such accolades. WTF, world?

Three 2010 Releases That I Saw in 2009 (Because I'm Cool): As you may or may not know, I see lots of advance movie screenings, and last year, I had three opportunities to see early test screenings of movies that won't be officially released until 2010. First was the aforementioned WHEN IN ROME -- a truly awful film, and a tremendous waste of Kristen Bell's talent and cuteness. Next was EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES, a sappy medical drama starring Brendan Fraser and a serviceable, if unremarkable, Harrison Ford. Lastly, I saw NEVER LET ME GO, based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro -- a dystopian sci-fi romance that I will probably see again when it opens in a few months. Excellent, thought-provoking... and it doesn't hurt that it stars my girl Carey Mulligan!

A Quartet of Horror Goodness: Granted, this year was littered with the usual crop of crappy horror remakes and PG-13-rated bullshit. But this year, we were graced with not one, not two, not even three, but FOUR films that finally made sifting through the crap worthwhile. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY scared the pants off me, ORPHAN was campy fun, the disturbing THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was the rare remake that actually lived up to its predecessor, and then there was DRAG ME TO HELL, Sam Raimi's triumphant return to his comedy-horror roots. Four tremendous films that were scary, unsettling, entertaining and gave me hope that the genre is not dead yet!

The Big Three Animation Planets Align: The past year was a particularly prolific one for animated films, with stuff ranging from generic fare like ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS and MONSTERS VS. ALIENS to the dark humor of CORALINE to the sheer brilliance of FANTASTIC MR. FOX. But we were also treated to the rare alignment of the three greatest animation giants: Disney, Pixar and Studio Ghibli. First, Disney made their triumphant return to traditional hand-drawn animation with THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG -- easily the Mouse's best film since THE LION KING and an absolute joy to watch. Pixar followed up their best film (2008's WALL-E) with the flawed but still exceptional UP, whose emotionally-charged opening 12 minutes may be the best individual sequence in any Pixar movie.... and thus, any movie, period. And to top it all off, Hayao Miyzaki graced us with his latest slice of genius, the delightful and ethereal PONYO. Hail Disney, Hail Pixar and Hail Miyazaki -- should be fun to see them all compete for the Best Animated Film Oscar!

...aaaaaaand there you have it. Thoughts? Questions? Concerns? Criticisms? What are YOUR picks for the best and worst movies of 2009? Hey chief, let's talk, why not?


  1. Great list, Ben! I added many of your picks to our Netflix, to hopefully watch on maternity leave and stuff!

    Ps--JUST saw an ad for The Lovely Bones the other night.

  2. This post made me sad at how few movies I've seen this year. However, I DID finally see the original Final Destination on a bus in Panama! That movie is hilarious.