Normally, I compile a list of my favorite movies of each year. Nothing formal, usually scribbled on a piece of paper during the last week or two of the year and done only for my own amusement because I'm not a professional movie critic (although I'm available if anyone's hiring!). Now I’ve got a blog, someplace to put that list. But I never got around to it because the day after Christmas, I was hit by a hellacious flu bug that I’m convinced was whipped up in a secret subterranean government lab to be used against terrorists. It knocked me on my ass so hard it loosened my teeth and I was useless for nearly three weeks. But I’m recovering, and I’ve made that list of movies.
Most of these lists –- and they are ubiquitous at the end of each year –- are made up of ten titles. I don’t follow that rule because sometimes my favorites of the year include more than ten movies –- like this year. This is not a comprehensive list because I didn’t see everything that was released in 2009. I still haven’t seen some of its biggest movies –- like Avatar, for example, which I’m eager to see, and G.I. Joe, which I won’t see because I’d rather stick my face in a wood chipper. This is just my personal list, the movies I enjoyed most of those I saw, and it is in no particular order.
This is the kind of movie the great Don Siegel used to make –- simple, lean, focused and intense. Directed by newcomer Pierre Morel and written by Luc Besson (who also produced but was not credited) and Robert Mark Kamen, Taken fits that description. At first, I couldn't quite imagine Liam Neeson being the right choice as a former spy who races to save his kidnapped daughter from human traffickers. Had I been in the position to make that choice, I would have been wrong. This was a brilliant casting move. Neeson is quiet, mean and scary as hell. The movie does not flinch from his rage, which gets pretty bloody and painful.
When it comes to Star Trek, I’m a geekboy. One of my favorite movies of 1999 was Free Enterprise; while I’ve never reached the same geekboy heights (or depths, depending on your perspective) as the two guys in that movie, I can see a lot of myself in both of them. I approached the reboot of the Star Trek franchise with trepidation. The original series features one of the most iconic casts ever assembled in a television show, and the idea of seeing those characters played by new actors was a little worrying. Even more worrisome was the fact that J.J. Abrams was at the helm. I think Abrams has a lot of talent, but I wasn’t sure he was right for this movie, especially when I heard him say –- so many times! –- that he just didn’t care for the TV series and was more of a Star Wars guy. Isn’t that a little like hiring a Muslim to direct a remake of The Greatest Story Ever Told? So I was concerned and cautious.
I admit that I had some fanboy quibbles. For one thing, the more thoughtful –- cerebralish? –- science fiction that made the series stand out has largely been replaced by swashbuckling action. For another, I have a problem with the way Abrams directs fight scenes. It’s like he’s just not sure how to shoot them, so he hangs the camera from a bungee cord and knocks it around like a pinata and calls it good. But these are minor gripes. The fact is, it’s virtually impossible not to get swept up in this big, grand, old-fashioned adventure. I couldn’t quite warm up to Zachary Quinto as Spock, but I think he’ll grow on me. Giving the role of Scotty to Simon Pegg was a stroke of genius –- he and the brilliant Karl Urban as Leonard “Bones” McCoy steal the show. And damn, Zoe Saldana is a luscious Uhura. But I’d sure like to see more of her green roommate.
The Men Who Stare at Goats
Director Grant Heslov delivered the quirkiest movie of the year. Ewan McGregor is reporter Bob Wilton, who is determined to prove to his ex-wife that he’s not a weakling. Bob suspects he’s stumbled onto a big story when he learns of the New Earth Army, a unit that employs paranormal tactics –- and pretty damned goofy ones at that – and he tracks down anyone he can find who was involved. This leads him to Lyn Casaday, played by George Clooney, and into a rabbit warren of weirdness funded by our tax dollars.
The script by Peter Straughan (from Jon Ronson’s book) has a couple of minor stumbles, but it is witty, weird, makes its points without being preachy, and it has plenty of quotable lines to take home with you. Kevin Spacey provides some villainy in a role that, although smaller than usual, is the best one he’s had in awhile. McGregor is typically charming and bright. But let’s face it –- George Clooney is the closest thing we’ve got to an old-fashioned movie star. His performances have come a long way from the vague awkardness of his early work and he now moves through films with a sparkling effortlessness. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a movie in a class by itself, and not only is it an entertaining piece of work, it's based on some actual events.
Has Pixar made a bad movie yet? Have they even made a mediocre movie yet? When I learned the premise of Cars, I was certain it would be their first misfire. The idea of a movie about ... well, talking cars just sounded too silly to work. But Pixar hit the bullseye again, and they just keep getting better. WALL-E was one of the best movies of 2008, and I think Up might be my favorite Pixar movie so far. The thing I like most about their movies is that even if you think you know what one of them is about –- even if you do know –- it never fails to surprise in big ways, and Up is no exception. But this time, I didn’t know anything about the movie except that it involved an old man in a house that flies with help from a whole lot of balloons. That’s my favorite way to see a movie –- cold, with little or no knowledge of what’s in store for me. That’s how I saw Up, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend that you do the same. I’m not going to tell you what it’s about, only that you must see it. Like all of Pixar’s efforts, it is moving without being maudlin –- the first twenty minutes or so had me getting misty-eyed –- as well as suspenseful, exciting, and knee-slappingly funny. I think if Walt Disney were still alive, he’d turn his nose up at most of the work his own company is doing, but lovingly embrace the films of Pixar. They adhere to Disney’s storytelling principles, always have a strong emotional anchor, never condescend to their audience, and manage to be great entertainment no matter what you’re age.
Just about everything you know about the food you eat and where it comes from is wrong, and if you don’t believe me, watch this infuriating documentary by Robert Kenner. It will change the way you look at and think about the stuff you put in your mouth. Having watched it, I now get pissed off every time I see a commercial for food that shows images of sunny orchards or vineyards or idyllic shots of American farms. Lies, all lies. This movie does what American journalism used to do before it became obsessed with celebutards and their drug overdoses and box office grosses. The simple message is this: Something is very, very wrong in America, and we can’t do anything about it until we’re aware of it. And speaking of American journalism ...
State of Play
With newspapers dropping dead all over the place and TV news now bearing a closer resemblance to Entertainment Tonight than anything that can be called “journalism” without breaking into a fit of guffaws, this movie almost feels like a period piece. When a congressman’s aide is killed in what appears to be an accident, reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) smells a conspiracy. Using his old school connections and with the help of new media-savvy Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), he starts digging through the layers of cover-up to get to the truth. I didn’t even know they still made movies like this anymore! Russell Crowe is at the top of the list of great screen actors currently working (right up there with Billy Bob Thornton). He knows how to milk a lot of effect out of the smallest facial twitches and verbal pauses. As Representative Stephen Collins, Ben Affleck is slick and ingratiating. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy (who wrote and directed 2007's Michael Clayton, which achieved similar levels of greatness) and Billy Ray, the script makes what amounts to a bold and daring assumption these days: That the audience is intelligent and well-informed. With State of Play, director Kevin Macdonald reminds me why I used to go to the movies two or three times a week ... and why I seldom go anymore –- because this is what’s missing from the screen.
I Love You, Man
It’s not easy to capture an authentic, deep friendship between two men. We live in a culture that clings to machismo and also has a filthy mind (not that there’s anything wrong with having a filthy mind). When trying to create –- whether in a novel or a script –- a friendship between two men, you risk offending one with male behavior that (however ridiculously) might be considered inappropriate and triggering the other by suggesting (however inadvertently) a sexual relationship. I think the best example of success at this is the touching and funny relationship between Denny Crane and Alan Shore in David E. Kelley’s astonishingly brilliant TV series Boston Legal. Director John Hamburg’s movie I Love You, Man takes great relish in poking fun at all of this. I expected this to be another juvenile male comedy with lots of jokes about farts, tits and penises –- which is fine with me if it’s done well. But I was pleased to find a comedy that is smart and surprisingly sweet. If Paul Rudd and Jason Segal aren’t paired in more movies, then somebody’s not paying attention to how well these two guys work together. And why isn’t Rashida Jones being prominently cast in more movies? She is a walking, talking cure for the blues who I suspect has more range than she’s been allowed to demonstrate. Male friendship has never been this funny.
Monsters vs. Aliens
Something about the advertising campaign for this movie led me to believe it was going to be aimed directly at young children, but that's not the case at all. If you’re like me and you grew up watching science fiction and monster movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, then you’ll find a lot to love about Monsters vs. Aliens. It’s a charming romp that will appeal to both kids and adults, who will be laughing at different times and at different things. It’s bursting with references big and small to movies famous and obscure –- the kind of movies that used to show up a lot on Creature Features back when I was a boy hungry for sci-fi, horror, and most of all, monsters. For my money, the green, globulous character B.O.B. steals the show, voiced by Seth Rogen (and it almost makes up for Rogen’s other two movies in 2009, the misguided Funny People and the shockingly bad, confused and brain-damaging Observe and Report). This has been a great year for animation, and Monsters vs. Aliens is one of the reasons. Another reason is ...
If I had seen this movie when I was a little kid, I wouldn’t have slept for weeks –- and I would have loved it. As an adult, I still loved it. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is creepier and more disturbing than any dozen recent American horror films, but at the same time it’s funny, charming and visually stunning. It's packed with imagination, wit, and more than a dash of insight into human nature and child psychology. It seems we’ve become so overly cautious and protective of children that we’ve forgotten how strong and resilient they are, and how much they truly enjoy being scared by an imaginative story that speaks to the way they think and live. Neil Gaiman knows this, and so does writer-director Henry Selick. It almost made me wish I had kids with whom I could sit down and watch this wonderful movie. Almost.
In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman surprised everyone by proving that a comic book hero could be portrayed in a big-budget movie for grown-ups that was dark, brooding and even –- gasp! –- serious. Now that’s the standard and movies adapted from comic books are among Hollywood’s biggest money-makers. Whenever I hear someone mocking the idea of adults reading comic books –- and there are still plenty of those people out there, believe me –- Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is the graphic novel I use to point out why they’re wrong. Zack Snyder’s movie brings it to life and puts it on the screen in a dark, visually rich fever dream of America’s recent history if it involved costumed heroes.
It’s not without a couple of flaws. I found myself wondering if I would enjoy the movie quite as much had I not read the book, which might be a handicap for some viewers. A bigger handicap for me was the flat, emotionless performance by Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II. But the movie manages to succeed in spite of that, and for me, it succeeded in a big way. These are not your father’s superheroes –- they are deeply flawed and in some cases unstable people. When you think about, what mentally sound person would don a flashy costume and roam the streets fighting crime?
This is a movie set in South Africa that features no stars and is written and directed by an unknown. And it’s a dazzling piece of work. I’ve been rather surprised by the number of people I’ve encountered who didn’t like it. With the involvement of Peter Jackson, I expected it to be good, but it was more than that. It blew my brains out of the back of my head and splattered them all over the back wall of the theater. Under the surface, there’s nothing here that’s terribly original, but originality is pretty damned hard to come by these days. What District 9 offers is a strong, deeply engrossing and relevant story, a gritty, documentary-like look that’s all its own, seamless special effects, and on top of all that, it has something on its mind. It’s a great reminder that, when it’s done right, science fiction is a lot more than aliens, spaceships and stuff that blows up real good. The best science fiction is about something –- and I think District 9 is among the best.
In 2009, my number one favorite was a tie between two movies. Here they are:
World’s Greatest Dad
I was not impressed with Bobcat Goldthwaite’s directorial debut, 1991's Shakes the Clown. In fact, after watching it, I was pretty convinced that Goldthwaite would be prohibited –- perhaps even by federal legislation –- from directing anything ever again. But World’s Greatest Dad makes me glad I was wrong. Whatever preconceptions you may have about this movie, I’m willing to bet you’re wrong about it. It’s dark, funny, melancholy, squirm-inducing, and even shocking. Most of all, it’s thoroughly surprising. Robin Williams is a wonderful actor, but the movies he chooses to work in are hit-and-miss, and the misses are often among the most abysmal crap to come out of Hollywood. But the hits are worth the wait because seeing Williams at work with good material is always rewarding. World’s Greatest Dad is among his best movies, and it includes one of his most affecting performances. Trying to summarize the movie for you would either spoil it or make you unlikely to see it, because any attempt to explain it probably would make it sound offensive to many. But it’s not. World’s Greatest Dad is a joyous account of the messy, painful, funny and sometimes horrifying business of being a human being.
There was a time when a Woody Allen movie was a sure thing. He was turning out one great movie after another. Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose –- the list is breathtaking. His body of work is enormous, with his 45th movie (You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger) to be released this year. Any body of work that large has to include some clunkers, and Woody’s is no exception, especially in the latter half. Now going to the latest Woody Allen movie is kind of a coin toss, but I really don’t mind because it means he’s still making movies, and even a weak entry by Woody is better than the strongest work by a significant portion of the filmmakers working today. Whatever Works is his best movie in a long, long time.
Larry David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a morose and curmudgeonly genius whose attempts to convince everyone within earshot that relationships, religion, politics and life in general are all empty and meaningless does not exactly make him a popular dinner guest. Neither does his conviction that only he sees the big picture while all those around him are blind, unthinking, moronic cretins. Despite all of this, we actually like Boris, because there’s probably a piece of him in all of us, and although he may be a downer as a dinner guest, it's pretty hard not to agree with much of what he says. The movie opens with a monologue that Boris delivers to us, the viewers, and that alone is worth the price of admission. We follow him through a wildly unlikely relationship with a rather dim young waif named Melodie St. Ann Celestine, who has left her church-going life of beauty pageants and catfishing in a small southern town to come to the Big Apple and find herself. Instead, she finds Boris –- or, rather, he finds her –- and eventually, they both find themselves. Like life itself, the joy is in the journey. Written by Woody in the 1970s, then dusted off and updated thirty years later, Whatever Works is a delight of memorable characters, hilarious and quotable dialogue, great performances by a talented cast, and some entertaining insight from a filmmaker who seems to have relaxed in his senior years and come to realize that if you’re going to make this one-and-only life worthwhile, you have to find whatever works.