Sunday, December 20, 2009

Film Gauge - Top 10 Movies of 2009

Year-end lists are unreliable, subjective, kind of pointless. They are not an exact science, but are rather governed by the momentary whims and fleeting fancies of their makers. Of course this is true. And it is no more true than in the case of movies. No list could purport to outline the "best" movies of the year, because who could agree on the criteria? Going by the numbers, Transformers 2: The Squeakquel is the best movie of the year. I don't know about you, but that hurts my feelings. Now, I'm not one to bash populist entertainment. The phrase "popcorn movie" is not a pejorative, in my opinion. But who says a movie has to be an artless, brainless mess in order to appeal to a mass audience? Where is this generation's Raiders of the Lost Ark? Is it all up to JJ Abrams now? Star Trek was an incredibly fun, satisfying and guilt-free spectacle. It accomplished the impossible task of making me interested in Star Trek mythology, and it is most likely the consensus favorite here at Lowbrow Media. It is for this reason that I have left it off of my list, so that I could highlight some other, less-heralded movies. Ultimately, I decided to try not to overthink things. This list is made up of the movies that surprised me the most this year, the movies that evoked the strongest emotional reaction. I regret not being able to include Where The Wild Things Are, a highly-anticipated movie that fell just short of the mark for me. I believe Jonze and Eggers were perhaps too committed to getting inside the head of a 7-year-old, at the expense of giving the audience a sufficient emotional foothold. The wordless coda between Catherine Keener and Max Records is admittedly wonderful. I wanted more of that. I also wanted Richard Kelly's The Box to follow through on Southland Tales' promise of utter insanity. It came close, but not close enough. I'm still not sure if he is a genuinely idiosyncratic filmmaker, or if he is just using cult film Mad Libs. Anyway, here's my list. Have fun with it, and please disagree.


Top 10 Movies of 2009

10) Observe and Report (Jody Hill, 2009)

Coming as it did on the heels of Seth Rogen's two-year block of ubiquity, Observe and Report suffered from the public's fatigue for the film's leading man (not to mention its proximity to Paul Blart). Moreover, Rogen's playing against affable-stoner-type as a fascistic, bipolar thug (and implied murderer) didn't score highly with the Knocked Up fans who came expecting the good-natured raunchiness of Judd Apatow. The movie is dark, but not "dark" like the cartoonishly profane Bad Santa. Writer-director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way, HBO's Eastbound and Down) grounds his over-the-top narrative in the realities of our trash culture, giving the comedy weight and avoiding empty provocation. Nodding to the simmering racial tensions and voracious consumerism of modern life, Hill makes the film's gradual validation of Rogen's post-millennial Travis Bickle that much more disturbing. Oh, yeah, the movie is also funny.

09) Big Fan (Robert D. Siegel, 2009)

Filmmaker and former Onion editor Robert D. Siegel is quickly establishing himself as something of a De Sica for our new, crumbling America. In his directorial debut, Big Fan, as well as in his script for Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Siegel nails the stifling drabness of life on a low economic rung. However, where The Wrestler found an oddly life-affirming uplift in the crushing sadness of Randy "The Ram" Robinson's return to the ring, Big Fan sustains a dreadful air of inevitable collapse in its exploration of the deeply disturbed Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt). Oswalt's bravura performance embodies the misplaced priorities of our aggressively self-destructive age, and Siegel's observant, unobtrusive style builds to a stomach-churning intensity as we witness Paul preparing to commit a desperate, horrific act in the name of his team.

08) The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)

Much has been made of The House of the Devil's stylistic homage to late 70s-early 80s horror films, from the foreboding synth score and freeze-frame title card to the grainy cinematography. But Ti West's film is not an ironic, Planet Terror-esque wallow in the surface-level milieu of retro schlock. The House of the Devil is a return to a deliberate, assured method of horror filmmaking that simply no longer exists in the Saw era. Gore aficionados will most likely complain that nothing much happens, but West lulls us into his drowsy rhythms so that the shocks have infinitely more weight than any bullshit millennial slasher movie. He builds unbearable tension just by observing our heroine, Sam (the delightful Jocelin Donahue), as she bops around the house with her walkman. Never has The Fixx's "One Thing Leads To Another" caused so much anxiety.

07) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, 2009)

Wes Anderson's reputation as this decade's king of the auteurists has soured somewhat over his previous two efforts, The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In these movies, his once-lauded wide angle compositions and intricate production design seemed to be threatening to snuff out his considerable heart. So who could have guessed that Anderson would find renewed vitality and surprising emotional depth in a format that would seem only to exacerbate his control-freak tendencies? Despite the odds, the stop-motion animated Fantastic Mr. Fox is a pleasant surprise on many levels, both as a rebirth for Anderson and as an antidote to the pervasive crassness of "family films." Leaving behind his Salinger-esque fascination with the gloomy idle rich, Anderson recaptures the underdog spirit of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore while creating his characteristically beautiful and textured dioramas. As the titular Mr. Fox, George Clooney proves once again that even when speaking through a puppet, he is the last of the great movie stars.

06) Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)

Freed from the 20-ton weight of the Spiderman franchise, Sam Raimi produced hands-down the most purely fun moviegoing experience of 2009 in Drag Me to Hell. Essentially of a piece with the Evil Dead series, Drag Me to Hell continues Raimi's house style of horror with visible quotation marks. It's not scary, nor is it meant to be. It is self-conscious filmmaking at its finest, a celebration of making a movie. Drag Me to Hell achieves a delirious, near-hysterical tone and pace from the first scene and doesn't let up until it reaches the fire and brimstone conclusion the title promises. The highlight is a violent, disgusting, hilarious and seemingly unending fight in a parking garage between the wonderfully game Alison Lohman and Lorna Raver.

05) Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)

As The Velvet Underground's "Here She Comes Now" plays over the opening montage of twinkling amusement park lights, Adventureland quickly establishes a strong sense of time and place. Building on the potent mix of laughs and messy, intruding adulthood present in Superbad (the best of the Apatow bromances), director Greg Mottola nails both the dull pain and instant nostalgia of post-collegiate wheel-spinning. Essentially a feature-length flinch before the plunge into adulthood, Adventureland is steeped in the contradictory feelings of superiority and longing that one feels as they start to outgrow their childhood home. Jesse Eisenberg proved himself maddeningly adept at portraying a shithead in Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, so his sympathetic lead performance here is a pleasant surprise. Outside of a regrettable attempt to catch McLovin in a bottle in the form of dick-ish sidekick Frigo, the casting is uniformly excellent. Ryan Reynolds escapes the nauseating smugness of his Van Wilder persona, Kristen Stewart transcends her Twilight blankness, and Martin Starr does his best work since Freaks and Geeks as a wonderful smart-ass on a heartbreaking trajectory. I saw this movie in the months leading up to my move to New York, as I was preparing to say goodbye to my beloved hometown of Pittsburgh. Kennywood, the Pittsburgh amusement park that served as a set for the Adventureland crew is a vaunted childhood landmark. Timing is everything.

04) A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)

The Coens are often accused of regarding their characters with disdain, of whiling away their career running a procession of pathetic rubes and dimwits dispassionately through the wringer. A Serious Man, the brothers' God's-eye view of a suburban Physics professor's existential unraveling would seem at a glance to affirm these criticisms, but the film is unexpectedly humane and resonant as a result of its grand themes and Michael Stuhlbarg's nuanced performance. A Serious Man is a distinctly Coen brothers film, but one marked by a continuing maturation in their work first seen in No Country For Old Men. Doing away with the usual crime plots that tend to serve as their go-to narrative spine, the Coens filter modern anxieties through the prism of religious allegories and folklore, reducing humankind's fundamental search for meaning into a dead end. Sounds frustrating. It is, but in the best, most devastating way possible.

03) Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)

In the grand triptych of allegorical sci-fi films released this year, with Avatar on the far end of the on-the-nose social message spectrum and District 9 not knowing quite where to go after its stellar first act, Duncan Jones' Moon wins the day. Boasting a remarkable dual performance from Sam Rockwell, the film couches a sly commentary on working class identity and self-worth in the face of corporate indifference into an engrossing Twilight Zone concept. Jones is so assured in his direction that he all but throws away the big twist, which is easily discernible from the trailers. The real power of Moon lies in the nagging ideas that the twist dredges up, and Rockwell's gradual realization of the truth surrounding his three-year mission is utterly absorbing. Like The House of the Devil, Moon harkens back to a golden age of genre filmmaking. Jones' utilization of miniatures and spare, grubby sets creates an evocative, lived-in atmosphere that can't be achieved with CGI. Points also for Clint Mansell's haunting score.

02) Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

Whether writing about botched robberies, philosophical hitmen, drug-running flight attendants or revenging assassins, Quentin Tarantino is always first and foremost writing about movies. His storytelling and filmmaking calls attention to itself, which tends to rankle purists. To some tastes, his referential preoccupation with filmic technique comes at the expense of relatable human characters. But Tarantino deals in archetypes, and with Inglourious Basterds he makes the ultimate case for painting with broad strokes. Using the title card "Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied France" as a mission statement, Tarantino utilizes the iconography of WWII films to make a grand statement about how storytelling helps us to understand and transcend our own ugly natures. I'll throw some more praise at Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent's feet, two standouts in an extremely strong cast. Just try not to get too hung up on Mike Meyers' appearance as an English General.

01) In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)

Profanity connoisseurs, a robust Cabernet of obscenity awaits you in the form of In The Loop, British comedy mainstay Armando Iannucci's big-screen semi-sequel to his BBC series The Thick of It. Elevating the frenzied scrambling of The Thick of It's low-level bureaucrats to the world stage, In The Loop is a lightning-paced meditation on the power of language and the elasticity of truth in global politics. It is also an astonishingly filthy quip machine, and hopefully a star-making vehicle for veteran Scottish character actor Peter Capaldi, who weaves a poetic blue streak as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker. Malcolm is a bully, gleefully stoking the anti-intellectualism of our 24-hour news-cycle culture to suit his own needs, but he manages to emerge as a strangely heroic figure when stacked up against David Rasche's Rumsfeldian psychopath. Easily the funniest and most pleasant surprise at the movies this year.

Honorable mention:

Up In The Air (Jason Reitman, 2009)

Jason Reitman's Up In The Air is many things. It's an of-the-moment snapshot of life in an economic tailspin, a Hal Ashby-esque societal-critique-cum-character-study, a Cary Grant-Rosalind Russell screwball comedy, and a heartfelt paean to human connection in an increasingly technologically-isolated society. George Clooney is top notch, as usual, and Reitman sets you up for the cliched romantic comedy denouement before skillfully pulling the rug out from under you. Ultimately, though, it is probably too slick. Worth watching.

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