As the lights were going down, the high school doofus leaned over to his girlfriend and whispered: “I hope this doesn’t suck.” I would have mocked his childish ennui but I had to admit he was right. This year, instead of entering movies hoping for a little greatness, a masterpiece even, the best we could do was think: “I hope this doesn’t suck.” I’ve been waking up early on weekend mornings and heading hungover to various midtown Manhattan cinemas to steal double- and triple-features for the last decade and this is the first year I can remember where it felt like a chore. I used to relish my 9:30 AM hoofs to the AMC 25 or the Lowes Lincoln Square 13 to sit alone in the dark all morning, but not this year. There were no masterpieces this year–probably–and even the good films from 2009 had at least one flaw, but here are a few movies that didn’t suck.*
TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR
1. CRAZY HEART
Admittedly, this movie doesn’t reinvent cinema. It has no directorial bells and whistles, a simplistic plot, nothing on screen we’ve never seen before, and you could even call it this year’s “Wrestler.” But damn if it didn’t resonate with me more than anything else this year. “Crazy Heart” may be your standard down-on-his-luck-old-dude-perseveres story but first time writer/director Scott Cooper’s tale is pitch perfect without even one false note. The script is taut, never superfluous, no bathos whatsoever (something tougher to achieve than you’d think in this kind of picture), and, most importantly, the vastly underrated Jeff Bridges gives his best performance ever (yes, even considering The Dude). The crucial T. Bone Burnett soundtrack is also a standout and “The Weary Kind” is my favorite movie song since “Once”‘s “Falling Slowly.” I’m usually a “brain” movie guy over a “heart” movie guy–a Kubrick fan over, say, a Capra fan–which would lead you to believe I’d pick #2 over #1 on my list, but in this year, heart won over brain for me. For once.
We’ve taken Jason Reitman lightly for too long. At first we assumed he only had a career due to nepotism. Then, we discredited “Thank You For Smoking.” Of course it was good, but it was adapted from a new classic of fiction. And yeah “Juno” was cute but we based that on Diablo Cody’s iconoclastic script. But now, with “Up in the Air,” we have to admit that Reitman is one of the better directors working today. Able to work within the studio system while making uncompromising “indie”-feeling movies, no small feat at all. One of my movie critique pet peeves is when an actor is criticized for “just playing himself.” Yeah, and you know how George Clooney is when he’s “just” being himself? It’s always the effortlessly cool guys–Bogie, Cary Grant, McQueen, and now Clooney–that get criticized for just “playing themselves,” but if it was so easy to be so effortlessly cool onscreen, then more actors would surely excel at it. This role is right in Clooney’s wheelhouse and he completely delivers. A paradigmic movie for the times and–this probably sounds ludicrous to you–I think it could define the end of the the first decade of the 2000s in the same way “Fight Club” defined the end of the final decade of the 1900s.
I’m a shameless sucker for Pixar films but they never fail to delight (assuming they don’t involve cars.) The first act of “Up” is an absolute clinic in storytelling, something that should be studied in film schools for years to come, and it features a montage (in telling the heart-wrenching backstory of Carl Fredericksen’s life) which would stand as my favorite singular “moment” on screen in 2009. I was lucky I had 3-D glasses on to hide any possible tears. True, the movie drags a bit during the tad lengthy second act, but it gets back on track to finish strong with Carl and his clan’s arrival at what would be one of the best sets–an eccentric thought-dead hermit billionaire explorer’s zeppelin–in movie history if it were live action. Ed Asner as the star of a major, major hit in the year 2009? Wow.
Like all Tarantino releases I was amped for this one. And, after seeing it, a friend asked if it was what I expected. Well of course not, are Tarantino movies EVER what you expect?! That’s why he’s THE master. He’s one of the few filmmakers alive–I’ll include Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, and Paul Thomas Anderson–that can still surprise and shock you. “Basterds” is a display in scene craftsmanship. The opening farmhouse scene and the second act basement bar scene are instant classics and could act as short film standalones. The writing, pacing, the characterizations, and the tension in both these scenes is remarkable. But the movie is also funny. Hysterically funny. All Tarantino movies are funny in that “Am I supposed to be laughing?” kinda way, but this one takes the cake. Pitt slays as the hillbilly/Apache lieutenant, but Christoph Waltz as the seductively evil Jew Hunter steals the show. One of the best on-screen villains in quite awhile, he should without question get a Best Supporting Actor win. Minor quibbles would be that the plot moves at a bit of a slapdash pace, there’s not quite enough of the Basterds–go figure, we’ll have to await a hopeful prequel–and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the 2.5 hour movie is too short. I actually wanted more. I’m not sure if this movie completely lives up to the final meta-prophetic line uttered by Pitt before the credits, but goddamn is it good. I think it will only gain esteem with future viewings.
I’ll admit, I didn’t want to like this flick. It’s why I intentionally skipped it during its theatrical run despite the early acclaim. (Another war movie?!) But after a certain point, whether you “want” to watch a movie or not, when it completely enters the zeitgeist you have to see it lest you be excluded from the cultural conversation. And, luckily, I found a theater still showing it just last night. Good thing I did. From its shocking opening salvo of a scene, “The Hurt Locker” is the most unflinching look at war ever, save maybe “Generation Kill” and that David Simon miniseries was just a little too erudite and arcane for my pea brain to enjoy. Even the best war movies–my two favorites are “Apocalypse Now” and the “Band of Brothers” miniseries–are romanticized. Full of charismatic characters that always have a funny aside to say during the heat of battle, photography meant to beautify the grisly subject matter, and a soundtrack enjoyable enough to download to your iPod. But not “Hurt Locker.” This is a side of war we’ve never see. I have no idea if it’s an accurate portrayal of these men of brass balls–an explosives disposal team–but I don’t care, I loved every minute of it. This is a very tough to digest movie and completely inaccessible to the movie-going public at large. It may be the Best Picture favorite right now, but I see absolutely no way it will win for those reasons alone. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I honestly hadn’t even heard of this 2009 release until just a few days ago when a friend implored me to watch it. Thank god for Netflix Instant. No stranger to great performances, Tilda Swinton manages to give her best one ever here in this tale of an alcoholic slut who gets involved in a kidnapping ransom plot which ultimately finds her on the loose in Tijuana. Yeah, the movie’s about as over-the-top as a movie can be yet the scenarios somehow never seem implausible and Swinton’s performance never seems hammy for even a second. Swinton is sexy, scary, manic, crazy, annoying, lovable, and heartbreaking at various times throughout, and you can’t take your eyes off her. I’ll be honest, I kinda think I loved this movie because Swinton’s character reminded me of a girl I dated earlier this year. And that shouldn’t be a good thing, though I’ll never forget that sexy lunatic and I’ll never forget Swinton’s Julia.
7. DISTRICT 9
I thought the days of a new and interesting alien movie being released were long past. Shit, I’m not sure if I’d even enjoyed an alien movie since all the way back to The Fresh Prince one-two punch of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black” and even those two weren’t that good. But damn if Canado-African director Neill Blomkamp doesn’t make one helluva film in “District 9.” The first act of the movie is one part Ricky Gervais’s “The Office” and one part “Blair Witch” in its mockumentary/cinema verite format. It has the amazing ability to go from hysterical to revolting back to hysterically funny in a matter of seconds. And, Blomkamp even has the ability to make you care for some of these disgusting prawn-like aliens in a way we haven’t cared for an alien since that crossdressing alien buddy of little Drew Barrymore’s. Amazing effects throughout and a real nice message about, uh, not hating black people? (If only the Springboks from “Invictus” had gotten to play the “District 9″ aliens in rugby while Mandela cheered them on.) Unfortunately, the great themes and intrigue of the movie fall apart in the third act which just becomes a standard shoot-‘em-up, but nevertheless, the other 75% of the movie is so damn good I have to give “District 9″ high praise.
People keep comparing this movie to “This is Spinal Tap,” but for me it more evoked memories of “American Movie.” I understand the comparisons to “Tap.” For the first thirty minutes of the movie I really could not figure out if this was a documentary or mockumentary. What with icons like Slash and Lars Ulrich hailing the greatness and genius of Anvil, I found myself thinking, “I was alive in the 80s and I sure as fuck do not remember this band!” Sure enough, though, Anvil was, apparently, one of the big metal bands of the early 1980s. This hilarious and pathotic story tells of their huge fall from the top and their countless derailed attempts to get back to the hair mountain through incredible perseverance, tenacity, and, perhaps a delusional belief in themselves. Anvil lead singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow is one of the great screen philosophers of all-time, a balding mulleted Canadian Marcus Aurelius–I will never forget him. I would have never guessed that a documentary about guys that play songs with such titles as “666,” “Hair Pie,” and “Thumb Hang” would provide for me some of the greatest life lessons I would see on screen in 2009.
Wes Anderson was neck-and-neck with Paul Thomas Anderson and Tarantino in the best filmmaker alive standings at the start of this decade but unlike those other two, Wes seemed to lack an ability to mature in his work (I know what you’re saying: “Tarantino has matured in his work?!?!”). After the apex of his young career with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Wes unfortunately lost a bit of his touch and continued to make visually ornate pictures completely devoid of human relatability that “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums” had. Sure, “Life Aquatic” and “The Darjeeling Limited” looked swell, but they just fell flat in emotional resonance. Was this due to his swapping of writing partner Owen Wilson with Noah Baumbach? I’m not sure, but that was the one constant that changed. I’d written him off for good but he got back on track strongly with “Mr. Fox.” It’s no surprise that it looks marvelous–it will give “Up” a run for its money in the Best Animated Picture category at the Oscars–but this is also his first film since “Tenenbaums” with characters you actually like and relate too. And they’re fucking stop-motion anthropomorphized furry creatures! Clooney is terrific voicing the titular Mr. Fox, perhaps even better than his “Up in the Air” performance, and this quick taut movie flies by from the great opening scene (set to the music of my favorite Beach Boys’ obscurity “Heroes & Villains”) all the way to the end. Hopefully Wes Anderson has triumphantly returned, or maybe his whimsy and childlike wonderment just lends itself better to stop-motion anthropomorphized shit. Whatever the case, glad to have him back.
10. FUNNY PEOPLE (first half)
I’ve been a Judd Apatow fan since his “Larry Sanders Show” and “Freaks and Geeks”/”Undeclared Days” but I’d grown tired of him lately. The teasers for “Funny People” were so lame that it would be the first of his films I didn’t see in theaters. You can imagine my surprise when after begrudgingly deciding to watch it on DVD, I actually paused the disc an hour into the feature to send a lengthy text to another movie buff friend about how fucking awesome this picture was. Seth Rogen is terrifically nervous and dopey in this tale of a young comedian trying to make it on the stand-up circuit and Sandler gives a performance even better than his one in “Punch Drunk Love” as a hedonistic, depressed, and dying version of…well, himself. Unfortunately, what could have been the best film of the year absolutely gets derailed with some terribly hubristic directorial decisions. Enjoy the first half of this movie deeply, but once you see Leslie Mann appear on screen, eject the DVD from your player, put it back in the Netflix envelope and pretend the movie ended. If you do, and imagine that lame-o second half is actually part two of a sequel you never watched, you will easily be able to call this one of the best films of the year.
Special mention: THE CLASS
A French film released there in May of 2008, never fully released in America, but released briefly and limited in NYC on December 18th, 2008, under my own rules this film would have and should have been considered for last year’s list. Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen it by then. Hadn’t even heard of it by then. That’s not strange, it usually takes me til the middle of the next year to see every single release from the previous year, especially foreign films, but since I rarely miss anything big before one calender year is up, I rarely have to revise my previous year’s list. Not in this case. “The Class” was a huge, huge surprise in spinning the plotless tale of a French high school classroom. Heartwarming and life-affirming, as realistic in feel as a documentary, it’s hard for me to fully elucidate why this is such a masterpiece. This isn’t one of those Hillary-Swank-teaches-troubled-minority-youths-how-to-turn-their-enthusiasm-for-hip-hop-into-a-love-of-literature high school movies. No, this is just a “year in the life” featuring the typical ups and downs of probably 99% of classrooms in the western world. Plus, the kid actors in this movie are just fantastic. I can’t implore you to see this enough. It would have been my #1 movie of 2008 or 2009, whichever year I considered it for.
Special justification: AVATAR
It’s not typical for critics to justify why they didn’t put a particular movie on their “best of” list, but “Avatar” is clearly not a typical movie. Universally beloved almost instantaneously, one of five movies ever to make a billion dollars (it will probably finish #2 all-time to that other James Cameron movie), and the most publicly-discussed movie I can recall in years; I thought I might as well justify why it didn’t make my top ten list just to stave off the nerds from yelling at me (they still will). The world created in “Avatar” is remarkable, yes. The 3-D effects are mind-blowing, yes (they are also retina blowing–Christ my eyes were sore for a few hours afterward.) But the movie is not without some major, major flaws. Everyone knows the story is pretty weak, but it didn’t have to be. The idea of using a surrogate avatar body is a pretty cool one and I wish that had been explored more than on just a cursory level. But what made me most uneasy about the movie was how the Na’vi were depicted as the classic noble savages. Look, I have no problem with “white people suck” movies, nor do I have much issue with over-the-top “white capitalistic bad guy” archetypes, but I did have a problem with the Na’vi society being depicted as flawless. I can attest that no matter the town, city, group, community, tribe, flock, or pack there are always gonna be some assholes amongst it. Except amongst the Na’vi I guess. Yeah, Tsu’Tey was a tad truculent before he got to know Sully a little better, but he wasn’t an asshole. If Cameron had just given me a few Na’vi assholes–you know, some blue guy that preferred smoking weed in his tree hammock to doing chores around Pandora–then I would have liked “Avatar” a whole lot more and it would have been a much better movie. If you don’t believe me, just compare “Avatar” to the vastly superior sci-fi epic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Now that was a movie full of assholes. Asshole apes, asshole astronauts, even an asshole robot. Kubrick understood.
Notables (alphabetical order):
1. Tilda Swinton (“Julia”)
2. Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”)
3. Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”)
4. Mo’Nique (“Precious”)
5. George Clooney (“Up in the Air” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”)
6. Carey Mulligan (“An Education”)
7. Sharlto Copley (“District 9″)
8. Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”)
9. Viggo Mortensen (“The Road”)
10. Adam Sandler (“Funny People”)
WORST FILMS OF THE YEAR
I’m not one of those MST3K-esque people that actually gets a charge out of watching terrible movies. No, to me terrible movies are just terrible movies that are wasting my time I could be watching good movies. So, suffice to say, I see as few terrible movies as possible and if I’m watching a terrible movie at home I have no compunction with having a little cinema interruptus and stopping it halfway (I curiously never walk out of theaters though–ah, the cheap Jew in me.) These are the worst things I accidentally saw in 2009:
Dishonorable mention: THE HANGOVER
Look, this was in no way one of the worst films of the year and I’d even give it a marginal thumbs up, but the rapidity with which it has entered the classic comedy canon is just stupefying to me. This simply isn’t that great of comedy and, after three total viewings, I’m still really flummoxed why people love it so. People in my theater were laughing their asses off, rolling in the aisles, and they even applauded when it was over. I’m not saying it’s terrible or anything, it’s just not funny. I didn’t LOL even once. (Which, I guess if it’s a comedy and it’s not funny then that means it IS “terrible,” but I digress). If you saw the trailer, you literally know everything about the movie. Good comedy should be shocking and surprising and there’s not a single surprise in this entire movie. Compare that to the great “Up” which surprised me every few minutes with its wonderful ideas and hilarious scenes. I think the concept of three dudes trying to piece together a crazy hungover night is a pretty good one. But their lost night–and the movie doesn’t even have the balls to allow them to attain that lost night through actual legitimate means, ya know, hardcore drinking (they’re unwittingly roofied instead)–is nothing but a lame, paint-by-numbers pastiche of non sequitor shit that uber-hack Todd Phillips must have thought would play well in trailers. Ohmigod, badass Mike Tyson singing a lame Phil Collins song! A tiger in the bathroom! How’d a chicken get in the room?! (Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure we ever learned that. We never learned why the room was trashed either for that matter.) Seriously, what is funny about any of those things? And I’m not exactly Mr. PC Morality but mining a lost and neglected baby for comedy? Perhaps I wouldn’t be offended if that was actually a funny gag. But of course it isn’t. Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms and even Bradley Cooper are winning and likable and I hope those three continue to headline movies, but there’s not much they can accomplish when they’re reading words written by the authors of “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “Four Christmases” and stuck in Phillips’s lame plot. As I was watching the movie it wasn’t like it was cringeworthy or anything, nor was I begging for it to be over, and it’s not a deplorable “dumb” pratfalls comedy or anything either, it’s just boring and predictable. Flat. I would have much rather watched Galifianakis, et al actually get wasted and then actually go do things in Vegas. Actually, I’d rather hear any of my besotted friends tell me about what kinds of decadence and depravity they got into just last night. Yet another squandered good idea turned into triteness by Phillips. It still haunts me to this very day that countless millions consider this to now be a classic.
5. FUNNY PEOPLE (second half)
I’m sure Judd Apatow is one of the great family men in Hollywood, but could the motherfucker please stop shoe-horning his fucking wife and kids into his pictures? Not since David Mamet and Rebecca Pidgeon has a filmmaker so insisted on unnecessarily inflicting the women he fucks on us. Now don’t get me wrong, Leslie Mann is both prettier and far more talented than Pidgeon, but she ruins Apatow’s movies just the same. Whereas in Mamet’s case the fault lies with Pidgeon, in Apatow’s case the fault lies with him. There’s absolutely no reason for Leslie Mann’s character–and her and Apatow’s kids no less!–to play such a major part in this movie, but there they are, absolutely torpedoing what could have easily been a dark comedy classic. Look Judd, you inspire all us fat, hirsute, neurotic Jews to dream that if one day we just make comedy classic after comedy classic after comedy classic then we too will get to marry a blond bombshell, but now that we all know who you have intercourse with, could you please leave it at that? I’ve never so wished for a filmmaker to get a divorce.
4. JULIE & JULIA (Julie parts)
Based on Nora Ephron’s rendering and Amy Adam’s portrayal, Julie Powell must truly be one of the most annoying cunts on planet earth. And that would be fine if only her friends, family, and the fat lonely chicks that read her poorly-written book had to deal with her, but when she ruins what could have been a pretty bang-up biopic about Julia Child, that’s when I have to take umbrage. Personally, I hate biopics unless they involve George C. Scott playing George S. Patton, but if anyone deserved one, the force of nature Child is a gal that did. Even in this stinker of a movie, the Julia parts are still quite good and Meryl Streep knocks another role out of the park (is there anything she can’t do?!). You spend 50% of the movie wishing you were watching the other 50% of the movie. Heck, even Julia supposedly hated Julie before she died. It’s no wonder Julie’s second book is about how her husband left her. Save your time and instead spend it on hilarious clips of Child available on YouTube.
3. THE INFORMERS
While working on my own novel this year I decided to reread all of Bret Easton Ellis’s works for inspiration. For all the acclaim he gets, Ellis is amazingly still a much underrated novelist and “American Psycho” is much better than it even gets credit for. “The Informers” is probably Ellis’s worst work though still worth reading I suppose. Of course, while dicking around on Netflix, I was pleased to notice an adaptation of “The Informers” and as a huge fan, a mild fan, and a so-so fan of Ellis’s other three books-to-film (“Rules of Attraction,” “American Psycho,” and “Less Than Zero” respectively) I summarily rented it. I mean, with a script by Ellis and performances by a motley crew of acting notables spanning from Billy Bob Thorton to Mickey Rourke to even Brad Renfro’s final performance, how could it not be great?! Well, after only ten minutes of viewing this, I realized it was a truly awful film and after twenty minutes I realized, “Holy shit! I’ve seen this film before!” Yes, “The Informers” was so goddamn awful that I rented it twice in 2009, obviously repressing the painful memory of the first time I saw it. Though I will say that this movie has probably the best onscreen nudity of the year. But please take my word for it and please don’t rent this dreck just to see some titties.
2. OBSERVE & REPORT
Just a despicable picture, and not in a good either. You will meet people that tell you this movie is hilarious, that you don’t “get it,” and maybe they’re right–there were plenty of now legendary comedies it took me a while to “get” (most notably “Office Space” and “The Big Lebowski”)–but I just don’t believe this is one of those, and I was so disgusted by the movie that I really don’t want to give it another go. How did Jody Hill, the co-genius behind “Eastbound & Down,” a true comedy masterpiece–think this was a funny idea for a movie? Seth Rogen as a fat slob mall cop goes Travis Bickle on everyone? Paul Blart was the funnier mall cop this year and that’s just fucking sad.
1. THE SOLOIST
Easily the most excruciatingly boring movie ever made about a mentally ill musical genius starring two of the best actors alive. Joe Wright made one of my most beloved films of the decade in the absolutely beautiful “Atonement” but here he’s totally out of his comfort zone. Just a panderingly awful movie–movies featuring mentally ill people or bums usually are, and this features both!–even the great Robert Downey, Jr.’s roguish charm can’t rescue this major misfire. Stick to corsetted costume dramas based on classic novels and starring that skinny British chick, Joey.
So what were your picks for the best and the worst in cinema 2009?
*Notable 2009 films as yet unseen: The 35 Rums, The Beaches of Agnes, Big Fan, Brothers, The Damned United, Food, Inc., Good Hair, Moon, The Messenger, Paranormal Activity, Ponyo, The September Issue, Sugar, We Live in Public, Where the Wild Things Are, The White Ribbon, You, the Living.