Best Movies Seen on Screen or Via GreenCine in 2009
by Dylan de Thomas
As I wrote the last time I did one of these, I don't get to see all the hotly anticipated year-end flicks up here in rainy Portland, Oregon. That said, there were less glaring absences this year, with a bunch of excellent movies coming out earlier in 2009. And so here are my own favorites, unnumbered and split into arbitrary categories for nugget-sized consuming pleasure.
Best of the Ones Most People Saw
Inglourious Basterds: Though this list is not numbered, this is my clear number one for the year, providing, as it did, easily the most shocking, exhilarating film experience in a long while. A fantasia on WWII genre flicks, with a gleeful sense of anarchic ahistoricality carrying it through, this is Tarantino's masterpiece. Oscar will likely shun it, but history will be kinder to it than the film is to history. As the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle put it well recently, "Fifty years from now, if someone does a book about the films of this century's first decade, Inglorious Basterds will be on the front cover."
In The Loop: Another bracing film about history, Armando Iannucci's feature debut couldn't be more assured or more profane. Or as funny. This fictionalized account of the lead-up to the (never-named-in-the-film) Iraq War, it gives the viewer a fly's-wall view of the bumbling, self-deluding egomaniacs behind the scenes planning the impending battle, preparing to "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." The funniest movie of the year about one of the saddest events of the last two decades.
The Hurt Locker: Speaking of the war everyone loves to hate, Kathryn Bigelow came out of nowhere this year and made arguably the first great film about the Second Gulf War. A taut thriller about a bomb squad working in Baghdad, this movie got to some kind of emotional and psychological truth that seemingly countless other mawkish dramas about the war (I'm looking at you, Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah, etc.) have failed to do.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea: This year was kind enough to give me my new favorite Tarantino film, and it was also able to knock off my favorite Hayao Miyazaki film (My Neighbor Totoro) with this amazing rhapsody to childhood, aging and love. Light years more interesting than Up - itself a fine film - Miyazaki finds a way of portraying his characters as real people, which is no mean feat in this psychedelic eco-parable about a sea deity that wants to live on land. Treating imagination with the reverence of a religion this movie, as the cliché goes, should be seen by young and old alike.
Two Lovers: After three interesting, though middling, "gritty" New York pictures, James Gray made an amazing - and amazingly underseen - film about a troubled young man trying to choose between two unlikely love interests. Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of his career in what, he says, is his last film, which, if it is, should be much-lamented. Gray has ostensibly been trying to make a movie that is worthy of his 70's-era heroes since his career began, and now he has.
Just Missed: Up, District 9, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Up in the Air, Drag Me to Hell, Knowing.
Best in Show: Popcorn Category
While neither film deserves a place of its own on any list of the best of the year, both provided terrific entertainment value for this consumer's dollar. With Trek, J.J. Abrams did the heretofore unthinkable - a reboot of the beloved, deeply silly, original series, keeping the essence of said show while updating it and not losing either the hardcore or the new fan. It was quite the needle to thread, and Abrams did it with charm and chutzpah to spare.
James Cameron, of course, did no such needle-threading with his recent gargantuan blockbuster Avatar - hard to believe now that people were rooting for it like an underdog when it first came out - but you don't need subtlety when you're trying to redefine moviegoing, I guess. I already can't recall the finer points of this incredible, ridiculous film, but the experience of seeing it in 3D at the theater is one I won't soon forget.
The Shaggy Dogs
[Imperfect films I liked anyway.]
The first 7/8ths of State of Play: While I can't think of another good movie with a worse ending, I still have to say Kevin MacDonald's adaptation of the BBC miniseries (even more first-rate) was the best mainstream Hollywood thriller to come down the pike since, well, Zodiac. While not Fincher's film's equal, State of Play is still a smart, grown-up thriller, whose poor box office showing is unfairly being used as example that these types of movies shouldn't be made anymore.
The credit sequence for Duplicity: An interesting film marred by a disastrous, physically uncomfortable performance - shockingly, entirely without charm - by Julia Roberts, but the hilarious slow-motion credit sequence is still worth the price of admission. And, while you're there, stick around and revel in two crackerjack performances by Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti.
Foreign Films From Last Year I Finally Got to See
A Christmas Tale: [I reviewed it here.] Arnaud Desplechin's follow-up to the terrific Kings & Queen, and suffice to say, easily the best dysfunctional family reunion movie ever. Also a great double feature with the aforementioned Two Lovers.
Let the Right One In: Fun to recommend - "You should really see this Swedish coming-of-age vampire flick" - this Scandinavian adolescent movie about the nocturnal bloodsuckers is the perfect antidote to the delightfully silly "True Blood" HBO series. And a wonderfully satisfying and well-drawn picture of a young man falling in love. With a vampire.
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