1.12.2010

The Top 10 Movies of 2009




2009 Graced us with what I feel was the best crop of movies spanning a single year in quite a while.

Sure there were the typical summer blockbusters that delivered on action and special effects but lacked in story and character development. But in the midst of those there was Star Trek and District 9.


There were your typical chick-flick romantic comedies that were high on cliches and borrowed concepts but low on originality, but then came 500 Days of Summer.

The trend of 'monster' movies continued in the vampire and zombie era, most of them not providing anything new to the genre and some of them were really trying to kill the genre, and somehow Zombieland spoofed it while providing a new take at the same time.

It will be interesting to see, as always, how the expansion of the Best Picture category at the Oscars affects the typical genre tag; last year many felt that The Dark Knight deserve a nomination to the category but its comic book-action tag hurt its chances. With 10 films now receiving the nod we should see more action/sci fi or even comedy nominations than ever before.

Without further adieu, here is my list of the top 10 movies of 2009: (which is not a prediction for what I think the Oscar nominations will be, for that check out
this awesome site)




10. 500 Days of Summer

Even though it is clearly a romantic comedy, which is a genre I typically avoid since they are mostly lacking substance and originality, I felt compelled to see this movie and I cannot quite remember why. Whatever the reason, I'm glad I did. 500 Days of Summer is simply a brilliant lesson in story telling; that is, the manner in which a story is told.

The title 500 Days of Summer refers to the number of days that the lead character, Tom Hansen (
Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spends with Summer Flynn (Zooey Deschanel) who he thinks is the love of his life. The first line of narration in the film is, "This is not a love story".

If told in linear order, this film is nothing special at all; but the story starts at day 375, then back to day 1, then to day 180, then to day 3, and so on (my day #'s may not be exact but you get the idea). This technique is brilliant because each day is chosen to give the audience a specific piece of information to keep the story interesting (provide a piece of information about 'the future') or to create a bit of misdirection to distract our expectations.

Every element of the film is top notch, from the strong performance by Levitt and Deschanel, terrific directing by Marc Webb, and excellent, compelling and believable dialogue in the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber.

And after summer comes...




9. The Hangover

Quintessential comedies of the last decade:
Super Troopers (2001), Team America: World Police (2004), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), but perhaps none moreso than Old School (2003). In so many ways, Old School is the Animal House of my generation. Many cite Vince Vaughn and Will Ferrel as the reason for this, but both have made of number of movies since that haven't nearly lived up.

In my mind there is no question; the reason is Todd Phillips. Granted, he has made a couple of stinkers since then, but if the script sucks then there is not much he can do, the man has to make a living.

Reacquainted with tight writing, terrific new comic actors, and endless hilarious subtleties (which is mainly what makes
Old School so great), it is no surprise that The Hangover
is the funniest movie of 2009.

Even while watching it, I knew that
The Hangover
would provide endless one-liners and phrases that would be quoted for years to come: 'floories', 'not at the table, Carlos', 'classic', 'my wolfpack', 'paging Dr. Faggot', 'he was a bartender', 'Halley's comet'. The list goes on.

More importantly, this film cemented Zach Galifianakis as a movie star. He is perhaps the best stand-up comic working today (alongside Patton Oswalt and Louie C.K.) and I will watch anything featuring him (including the clumsy
Youth in Revolt
I just saw last night).

The most impressive thing about
The Hangover
to me is that no film has successfully pulled off this concept before- so many of us have had nights that we can't remember in Las Vegas or anywhere, and tried to put the pieces back together, meanwhile laughing at the ludicrousness of it all. Due to the 'flying colors' measure of the success of the attempt, No film ever will again, at least not unless it remakes the original.




8. Star Trek

Star Trek was everything we could want from a summer blockbuster: action, drama, sexiness (albeit a strange hue) suspense, special effects, and even a little J.J. Abrams quantum physics exploration- OK that's not what we traditionally expect but it fit here.

Though
Star Trek
was a well-made and entertaining film, which is usually enough to get mentioned positively by most critics, there are two individual and simple facts that are most significant about it.

1. The
Star Trek
franchise has a fan base that is as loyal as it is vast; thus, the pressure to stay true to that base was immense. Abrams did not disappoint; meanwhile he opened the franchise to those that were not as loyal or even as knowledgeable about it. Case in point, my mom loved the movie.
2. Abrams proves that an action film can be enjoyed by the masses without compromising storytelling, dialogue, or character development, something that James Cameron did not prove this year.

With
Star Trek
, J.J. Abrams shows Hollywood that he is the new king of Hollywood action movies, though he has not been bequeathed the box office crown from Cameron just yet.




7. Zombieland

Zombieland is the first studio backed feature film by Ruben Fleischer, and it will not be the last.

It is incredibly difficult to go back to one of the many wells that are so frequently tapped in Hollywood. The zombie movie is one such well, as there is usually a following and because of this, it has been used a few too many times. The fact that Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick came up with an original take on this genre is nothing short astounding.

Zombieland
is more of a survival guide on the zombie apocalypse, and thus is more of a spoof on the genre but does so with care and respect.

What is more astounding to me was the fact that I liked this movie so much despite the fact that the lead, Jessie Eisbenberg is nothing more than a charisma-less Michael Cera to me, and he completely ruined
Adventureland
, in my opinion.

The rest of the cast, on the other hand, was fantastic. This film succeed in spawning the resurgence of Woody Harrelson where
Semi-Pro
failed. The only word I can think of to describe Harrelson in this movie is awesome. Juvenile I know.

The dialogue, suspense, and editing in this film are all terrific. The most memorable scenes are perhaps those in which the traveling survivors take great pleasure in smashing up retail outlets that are vacant but left in tact. These slow-motion sequences are as enjoyable for the audience as it appears they were for the characters.

But nothing in this movie tops the scene with the celebrity cameo. THIS PARAGRAPH IS A SPOILER: IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE, SKIP TO THE NEXT FILM.


While exploring Hollywood, the survivors stumble across Bill Murray's house. They plan to use it as a temporary safe house, not realizing that the real Bill Murray is still alive and well, though he has made himself up to look like a zombie, as a survival tactic. He plays himself in the film, and the other characters are nothing short of star struck, in particular, Tallahassee, Harrelson's character. This discussion spirals into a nostalgic discussion/montage of Bill Murray's movie roles, which to me is hilarious within the context of another film, and leads to my favorite film moment of 2009: Woody Harrelson outfitted with the exact Halloween costume I wore in 2008- a
Ghostbusters
jumpsuit and proton pack strapped to his back, alongside Bill Murray equipped with a portable vacuum cleaner. It's the first time I almost stood up and clapped in a movie theater.


Awesome.




6. Invictus

Invictus is the story of the re-instating of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa, preceding the World Cup of rugby which was to be held in the country soon after. Mandela realized that the sport could be one of the most important tools which could help to reunite the divide in the country after
Apartheid, and paid special attention to the national team which, during the selection process for the tournament, was not regarded as one of the favorites to win it.

The story of Mandela's involvement, as well as the dedication of the athletes and the country that followed them was truly heart warming, and emotionally spell-binding.

But the main story of this film was Mandela's character and demeanor. Because of the events that led up to where this story picked up, namely his 27 years spent in prison for being the leading political activist against the apartheid rule.

The characters in the film that have any preconceived notions about the character of Mandela are consistently surprised by how personable, respectful, and friendly the man is, without exception. The story of Mandela as he never loses sight of the big picture and what is most important is nothing short of enthralling.

The fact that it is all true is mind blowing.




5. Inglourious Basterds

Regarded by many as Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece, Inglourious Basterds is basically an alternate ending to World War II as Tarantino would envision it.

It's a touchy subject, with the Holocaust and all, and Tarantino uses this fact to his advantage. The first scene involves a farmer in France who is harboring Jewish refugees and the man who Hitler has appointed to seek them out, Col. Hans Landa, played magnificently by Christoff Waltz. This film is a shoe-in for at least one Academy Award, and that is Landa for best supporting actor. He steals the film, and in a Tarantino film with Brad Pitt and many other excellent actors, this is not something that should be taken lightly.

The story is told in vintage Taratino style, with 5 different chapters, each telling a seemingly individual story, until as usual, they are tied together in the final chapter. This is a technique that Tarantino has perfected (see Pulp Fiction).

But the real strength of the film is the suspense created in each scene; in the first with the family being hidden under the very floorboards that the 'Jew Hunter' (as he is known) is standing on; in another with one of the Jewish 'Basterds' (posing as a German soldier) having a drink with a Nazi officer, and best yet- the lone family member left from the massacre in the first scene sitting down to eat at the same table as Col. Landa himself. (His beverage order is a particularly gut wrenching choice)

Among current filmmakers, Tarantino is the undisputed master of making audiences clench their arm rests, and Inglourious Basterds is simply exhibit F.




4. Up in the Air

I just read an interview with Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park, in which he discussed writing material that can both comment on pop culture as well as be funny in ten years. This is no easy task.

Up in the Air is about a man who gets hired by companies to fire their employees. But moreso it is about a man who's home is seat 2A, or whatever it may be; he spends most of his life either flying or in hotel rooms.

What is most impressive, to me, about Up in the Air is that it is both timely and timeless. The commentary about unemployment and lack of human touch in society couldn't be more poignant in 2009. But the theme of George Clooney's character Ryan Bingham and his complacent loneliness and fear of uncertainty is appropriate for any decade.

With superior performances top to bottom, stellar directing and writing, Up in the Air is sure to make all audiences both laugh and cry, but more importantly, think.




3. Up

Speaking of both laughing and crying, perhaps was no film more true of this than Pixar's
Up.

Many claim that it is not possible to make a family friendly film that is also critically acclaimed, but more importantly, loved by parents as much or more than their children.

Pixar consistently disproves this claim.

As I am a 27 year old male, most of my friends and peers do not yet have children, but I don't know anyone who both didn't see Up and didn't love it. It's astounding that a film can cross over into multiple demographics and be so well received by them all.

How do they do it?

If I knew, I'd be in the film business. But I have some theories:

Tightly written plotlines; believable and sympathetic characters; explicit attention to detail; groundbreaking animation; traditionally flawless storytelling techniques.

What techniques combine to do is tell family friendly stories without talking down to either the children or adults watching the films. They provide appropriate amount of information without taking too much time or unnecessary dialogue, an art that is lost on so many current filmmakers. They allow us to sympathize with characters and root for them to succeed, which in turn, causes us to be emotionally invested in the story.

Up is simply another work of art that cements Pixar as one of the most important production companies in modern cinema.




2. District 9

So many people have such frustratingly accurate cynicisms about movies today: there are no more original stories, no good up and coming actors or directors, and certainly no one can come up with interesting new extra-terrestrial creatures.

It seems as though every movie coming out is a sequel or a remake or an adaptation from a best-selling book. (The Lovely Bones, Twilight)

Actors and directors are continually recycled into familiar projects. (Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in How to Lose My Forbidden Treasure Hunt).

I know this isn't as common a sentiment but it really seems that since Aliens and Predator, nobody has spent time on re-inventing what an alien could look like, they have simply retooled what others have created. It's utterly tired disappointing.

Then comes District 9 to destroy all these notions with the same fury that Wickes Van De Merwe (played by Sharto Copley, an unknown South African 'actor') unwilling unleashes upon the test subjects at MNU headquarters.

Director Neill Blomkamp not only created innovative extra-terrestrial creatures utilizing unknown actors, but he came up with an original way of telling a story about an alien race coming to Earth.

District 9 takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 years after the aliens have arrived. Most if not all stories about aliens involve their arrival; not years into their inhabitance on Earth.
This is because most everybody only thinks about the basics when it comes to aliens: what will they look like, and will they be peaceful? Nobody thinks about: let's say aliens do come, and they're peaceful but they need a place to live-- what then? Johannesburg provides the perfect setting for this story, both for its large scale and aesthetics, as well as the fact that so many of its inhabitants are already in poverty, adding a million or so extra-terrestrials can only hurt the situation.

What is most impressive about District 9 isn't even how truly remarkable the film looks for the ultra-low price tag of $30 million for something this high-concept; it's how believable the events are as the unfold, within the realm of the world we are presented, obviously, given the absurdity of it all.

District 9 is nothing short of an inspiration for all filmmakers, aspiring or established.




1. The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker works strictly as a suspenseful action movie, but it is so much more. I have created a concise review of the film to mirror the effectiveness of its own writing. I realize that it does not do it justice but I'm not sure than any words can. Here is a feeble attempt:

It is a modern war movie, without politics.

It is about modern warfare, but also about one soldier.


The two other soldiers in the story are interesting on their own while providing a terrific contrast to the protagonist.

It is a real look into the charcater of modern soldiers, but is still a tribute to them with throwing it in our faces or being cheesy.

It is filled with bombs, guns, and tanks but is also utterly heartbreaking and unequivocally compelling.

It has a traditional tragic hero with the most untraditional persona.

It has the saddest ending that has ever made me want to cheer.

It is the best movie of 2009, and the defining war movie of our generation.



Honorable mentions (in no particular order):

Sunshine Cleaning
Big Fan
Where the Wild Things Are
The Soloist
Fantastic Mr. Fox

To be fair, I haven't seen:
A Single Man
Precious
Crazy Heart

1.06.2010

Avatar: A Debate




Resolved: Avatar is the best movie of the year, and the best film to hit theaters in years.

Affirmative: James Cameron’s technical work on Avatar is that which only comes around but maybe once every generation: revolutionary. His use of motion capture and 3D camera work will change the way movies are made for years to come. The use of 3D as enhanced ‘depth of field’ techniques can really help call attention to certain elements on screen to enhance the suspense or drama.

Pandora is a creative wonder; from the floating mountains, to the lush luminous plant life, and the wild and scary creatures that roam the landscape. Not to mention the Na’vi, the 10 feet tall humanoids, are as intriguing as they are intimidating. Cameron has created a truly lasting world that everyone can enjoy.

Negative: The first issue at hand is the writing. The characters are clich├ęs, the concept is nothing short of stolen, and the terminology is insultingly lazy.


Characters:

Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) – the money hungry executive who only cares about the bottom line regardless of what or who is in his way. (And how creative is ‘SELFridge’?)

Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) – the plays-by-her-own-rules female helicopter pilot that “didn’t sign up for” shooting natives down with gunfire. (TRUdy?)

Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) – the ultimate tough guy / badass marine, I can’t find the words to explain how cheesy his opening dialogue is so I’ll just include an example, "As head of security it is my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed." There was another one about eating your eyes for Jujubes that was so outlandish I really don’t know how Lang kept a straight face while delivering it.

Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) – the veteran botanical scientist/sociologist who doesn’t agree with what the company she works for is trying to do, so she wants to stop them any way she can. While she’s dying and being carried through the ‘Tree of Souls’ area, she utters the line, “I’d love to get a sample of this.”


Concept:

I’ll let other sources argue this one:

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(Source: avatarsucks.com )

And I would be misleading if I didn’t say this all started because of a South Park episode:

Which points out that the story is a total rip off of Dances With Wolves which came out in 1990. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the plot as it is summed up on imdb: Lt. John Dunbar, exiled to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Indians, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.


Terminology:

All I have to say is ‘Unobtanium’.


Affirmative: OK, I’ll admit that some of the writing is a little shaky, but you can’t expect Charlie Kaufman from James Cameron. It’s never about the amazing story or plot twists or anything fancy like that. It’s about the action, the cinematography, and the world of Pandora. Cameron tried to make a movie to appeal to all audiences. You have to give him credit for that. When a movie is given that type of budget, they have to try not to exclude any demographic.

Negative: I understand that it is the job of the studios to try to make the film appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This is a technique that is referred to by most filmmakers as ‘ruining’ a film. But my assumption is that Cameron had complete control – he is given this because he has proven, as the director of the top grossing movie of all time, that he can do this without studio intervention.

My problem with this is that appealing to the masses has another name: Pandering. Pandering is what studios do, it’s what networks do, and the ultimate result of pandering is bacterial phenomenon of reality television, such as ‘The Hills’ and ‘Jersey Shore’.

Furthermore, it is possible to not exclude the masses and tell a cohesive story with interesting characters and well written dialogue. Ask J.J. Abrams, director of Star Trek, the summer blockbuster from 2009. He had immense pressure from ‘trekkies’ on how he would expand the franchise, meanwhile attempting to not lose the attention of those who have never even experienced the ‘Star Trek’ world in any way. It seems as though the common agreement is that he succeeded and this achievement is very impressive to me.

Affirmative: Why do you hate? Can’t you just go to the theaters and have a good time?

Negative: I wanted to love Avatar badly. Before seeing it, I did want to write a review and I wanted to shower it with praise, but I cannot. My biggest problem with the whole thing is that while Cameron used innovative tangible materials (cameras, computers, software, and other technology) he lacked ANY innovation in the intangibles (story, characters, message).

My overall feeling is – what is the point of using groundbreaking filmmaking techniques that, according to the hype, has been a work in progress for 10 YEARS until the production of Avatar, and not put the same kind of effort in the story which these techniques are exhibiting. Personally, I think it is an insult.