My Picks for 2009

Once again the time has come for me to pen down my favorites and not-so-favorites of this past year. Hard to believe a year has already passed. Seems like just yesterday I was heading to see Notorious with a friend back in January. Now that 2009 has come to a close, I’m sad that I wasn’t able to see as many as I would have liked to, and as such my list this year will be lacking some major contenders (The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man spring to mind, and I know I am forgetting others), but that doesn’t mean I didn’t see some truly awesome stuff this year as well as some pure all-out trash. (Although this year was blissfully lacking in another “Meet the Spartans.”) So, without further ado, I give you My Picks for 2009. Enjoy, and please comment! Let me know if there’s anything I desperately need to see. K, bye.

The Moments

3. The Morning After, 500 Days of Summer

In one of the most memorable and hilarious dance sequences of recent years, Joseph Gordon-Levitt struts his stuff through the streets of LA, dancin’ to the tune in his head as he imagines other people around him joining in and celebrating that he’s finally gotten the girl. It’s a pitch-perfect scene that wonderfully illustrates the reverie that love, our or perception of it, can cast us into.
2. Optimus Prime in Forest Brawl, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Even those critics who absolutely despised this movie tend to credit this scene as being the best in the entire flick, and the most visceral and exciting. As Optimus throws Sam to safety, Megatron body-slams into him and two other Decepticons join in the brawl as Optimus whips out his white-hot sword and proceeds to kick some serious Decepticon tail. The scene groaned with the weight of the these impossibly-large battling bots, and Bay’s trademark shaky cam and quick-editing were, for the most part, absent, allowing the beauty of these digital marvels to truly be felt and seen.

1. Face in the Flames, Inglourious Basterds

**SPOILER ALERT** In Tarantino’s ambitious, imaginative, and highly rewarding film, there is one image that that sticks out above all the others – as the Nazis are burning alive in the chaos that is the theatre, the dead heroine’s face is cast from the projector onto the billowing smoke from the flames, giving us a ghostly and truly chilling image of one solitary lady laughing maniacally as her foes burn alive, a picture from beyond the grave.

The Disappointments

3. Terminator Salvation

As it turns out, a director named McG can gives us an okay movie – as long we don’t expect things like continuity and originality to matter. Christian Bale screen-hogging, Sam Worthington constantly looking hurt and confused, and Moon Bloodgood in a gratuitous and predictable romance, combined with Transformer look-a-like Terminators, all combined to give us a big disappointment that was debatably worse than “Rise of the Machines.” That’s a hard thing to do, so I guess McG deserves some sort of applause….? Whatever. Just don’t let him direct the fifth one.

2. Funny People

Judd Apatow has had his fingerprints on so many of some of the best comedies to come out of Hollywood in recent years that it feels like he’s released a lot more than three movies, so maybe that’s why really nothing could have lived up to people’s expectations with “Funny People.” Despite showcasing Adam Sandler’s best role since “Punch-Drunk Love,” the movie disappointed with a useless third act that killed all the momentum built up, stand-up that was less funny than what you’d see on a late night Comedy Central special, and a ho-hum story about living up to your responsibilities and growing up. Isn’t that what all of Apatow’s movies seem to be about? Maybe he should do some growing up.

1. Public Enemies

Oh, Michael Mann. Where did you go wrong? It certainly wasn’t in choosing a story about hard-boiled-but-still-a-good-guy John Dillinger, and the best thing you did was casting Johnny Depp in the role. Maybe it had something to do with the rote way you approached the story, your refusal to delve into the psyche or character of anyone but Dillinger (and barely that), maybe it was the awkward trivial romance, maybe the multiple storylines that never go anywhere, or maybe it was the complete lack of tension in the bank robbery and prison-escaping scenes, scenes that should have felt alive and gripping but instead which just came of as…well, boring. Not really a good thing for a story about one of the most famous bank robbers and jail-escapers in America’s history. You want a great story about the life of a celebrity crook who died tragically and was famous for his robberies? Go rent “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Not this.

The Underdogs

3. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

The phrase “adapted from a children’s book” rarely ever brings up good memories, but this year “Cloudy” (among others) proved to be the exception to the rule. Wacky and creative animation combined with an unapologetically schmaltzy story that worked due to its extreme wittiness and occasionally devilishly clever humor that worked for both adults and children in a subtle and successful way.

2. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs

Though “Cloudy” is a better movie, Ice Age goes higher on the list simply because of how it trumped all of my expectations. I found Ice Age 2 to be a plodding bore to say the least, and didn’t expect this third outing to be much better. And though it’s not rocket science and its pretty predictable, its cast of cartoony characters in a creative world and Simon Pegg as a wacky Indiana Jones-like weasel named Buck all combined to give a pretty thrilling ride with some awesome roller coaster moments.

1. Star Trek

A year ago few would have thought possible that JJ Abrams’ reimagining of “Star Trek” would be this successful, firmly squelching all of the preconceived notions of how “nerdy” and “geeky” it was and shoving its way into the national consciousness, away from the fringes of fandom, while retaining everything that was so geeky and lovable about it. The rare feat that pleased both the fanboys and the skeptics, while being a rollicking good ride to boot. The sequel can’t come out too soon.

The Worst

3. Push

Somebody had to cash in on the Heroes craze, right? Of course, this movie was probably approved back when Heroes was mega-popular, so by the time it hit theatres and the show was in its tumultuous third season, over-all popularity for the concept of superheroes in “the real world” was significantly down, but that wouldn’t have mattered if the movie at least tried to do something new and unique with the concept. Nope. Why bother when you can recycle powers and heroes and feature a blah Dakota Fanning and a one-note Chris Evans in the lead roles? “Push” was the worst possible thing a superhero movie could be: boring.

2. Dance Flick

Call me crazy, but I harbor a sort of affection for the “Scary Movie” movies and was actually looking forward to this movie. I wasn’t expecting anything amazing, just some funny moments and obvious “throw everything at the wall and see if it sticks” brand of comedy the Wayans Brothers are known for. Unfortunately, there’s not much that sticks at all in this film, aside from a couple of “clever” images. Twenty minutes after you’re done watching it it quietly slips away from your memory, leaving you with nothing to remember it by save for the movies it “parodies.” You’d actually e better off watching “You Got Served” instead, and **that’s** saying something.

1. Old Dogs

I’m still scratching my head over what could have possibly possessed John Travolta (Robin Williams I understand) to choose to do such a….thing…as “Old Dogs.” The script is so lifeless….an hour and forty minutes of jokes that have been done a million times, literally not an original one in the bunch. (regrettable tattoo, mismatched medication, spilt water mistaken for soiled pants, kids from your past coming back to haunt you, “marionette” gags, the list goes on and on…) Combined with more than half a dozen crotch shots, and the annoying-as-hell “tried and true” “adults learn life lessons from kids” story, not to mention main characters who are not at all likeable, and stupid beyond belief; placing kids under their care would amount to child abuse, as would putting your kid anywhere within ten miles of this movie. This thing wouldn’t even make a moderately funny sitcom.

The Honorable Mentions

3. Coraline

Henry Selick was the perfect choice to direct this story adapted from Neil Gaiman’s dark children’s book. Though the material is by no means all-age appropriate, older young ones should be able to handle its slightly creepy story of a shrill little girl who finds a parallel world to her own hidden inside the dark depths of her house. The animation was engaging and imaginative and though the story was a little simplistic and straightforward – a cast of three dimensional characters all completely different from each other helped to suck you in and creep you out.

2. District 9

Those who saw “Alive in Joburg” and the few “Halo” shorts directed by Neil Blomkamp knew they were in for something special when this movie was announced, but Blomkamp delivered beyond any expectations in a powerful allegorical tale about apartheid, crustacean-like aliens taking the place of the oppressed Africans. The movie was a little uneven in the end; it seemed Blomkamp wanted to deliver both a powerful allegorical tale and a slam-bang sci-fi epic. He didn’t succeed all the way through, but what he has done is quite a sight to behold, and will certainly stand the test of time as a sci-fi classic.

1. Avatar

Expectations were astronomically high for Cameron’s ambitious tale about a distant world populated by neon-blue cat people, and that was exactly where he wanted them. And I never would have guessed it, but Cameron delivered. Though this movie doesn’t contain the memorable characters of “Aliens” and “Terminator 2”, or the interesting storyline of either of those or “The Abyss”, it does create an entirely new world with an unprecedented successful leap across the Uncanny Valley and into photo-realistic human-like beings. The Na’vi are gorgeous and startlingly life-like, and the world they inhabit pulls you in despite yourself, tossing the waters of Pandora onto and around you, taking you places you’ve never quite been before.

The Best

10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Possibly the best Roald Dahl book adaptation. Wes Anderson proves he has a knack for animation, and it’s a shame this movie didn’t even make as much as “Old Dogs.” It has such a unique and clever story, and dialog so quick and fast it easily contains some of the best lines of the year. The dialog flows organically, naturally, from the story and the characters, and each character feels so more-than-real that you just want to reach out and hug all the little foxes and badgers and things.

9. Brothers

One of the best ensemble pieces of the year, with performances of already great actors upped a notch from each of their previous roles. Tobey Maguire gives a nuanced and almost terrifying performance of two very different sides to the same person, while Gyllenhall and Portman each play loved ones reacting differently to the transformation that’s taken place in someone they care about. The whole story illustrates without ever being overbearing the awful toll that war can take on a person, and each scene is riveting in its own way.

8. The Hangover

Bradley Cooper and Zack Galifianakis have never exactly been A-list stars, and Ed Helms has only played a minor character on “The Office”, so them headlining a comedy didn’t appear to make that much sense. A month after its release and the movie was a box office smash, for good reason. The cast shared excellent chemistry as friends, and Galifianakis’s turn as the “there’s-something-off-about-him” brother-in-law stole the show. A bunch of creative sight gags and the unforgettable roll of photos unleashed before the final credits made this a hangover to remember.

7. Up

The first ten minutes of this movie that follow Carl’s life from boy through old man is more moving and tells a more complete story than most major movies released this day and age by Hollywood. Pixar proves that they’ve still got the magic touch, and the story reaches easily from the youngest kid to the oldest person in the room, crossing age boundaries effortlessly. And who can forget Dug, the talking dog? “Squirrel!”

6. Where the Wild Things Are

On paper, it sounds like a disaster. One of the most beloved children’s books of all time turned into an hour and forty minute movie? Who could possibly make that work, in any way? Spike Jonze is who, and combined with Jim Henson’s creature workshop they bring the wild things to glorious life, giving them each distinct and memorable personalities that vibrate with their own life. They are, thankfully, not CG creations, though some CG was used seamlessly in their facial expressions. Though the movie is definitely more geared toward adults than children, that doesn’t make it any less true, and it ends up working remarkably well.

5. Zombieland

There hasn’t been a good funny zombie movie since “Shaun of the Dead” about five years back, and in a way, “Zombieland” one ups that by not really being a parody at all, and requiring no prior knowledge of zombie movies to fully appreciate it – it’s its own fully realized zombie world, and Jesse Eisenberg is the perfect protagonist for it. Woody Harrelson offers a nice counterbalance to his realistic-but-naïve worldview, and a hilarious celebrity cameo at the end of the movie wraps it all up nicely.

4. Observe & Report

The GOOD mall cop movie of 2009 is how this will be remembered. Rather than go the predictable boring route of Paul Blart, director Jody Hill created a complete anti-hero and used the usual tropes of a comedy to investigate the twisted psyche of men who believe it is their duty to protect the world, and who have no real perception of themselves outside of themselves. The end result is disturbing, dark, hilarious, and truly brilliant.

3. 500 Days of Summer

Romantic comedies essentially lie to their audiences in order to give them easy answers about love and how to find it; the characters speak in predetermined colloquialisms and always read from a script; and it is always, always clear from the very beginning who will end up with who. This movie seeks to root out the consequences of such lies and expose them for the cheap machinations they are while giving us characters we can truly care about and who refuse to behave in the preconceived ways genre has set for them. The storyline bounces around, from Day 488 to Day 1, and dozens of places in between, keeping a perfect rhythm and flatly refusing to be predictable. It may be the best romantic comedy of the decade, and it is genuinely funny, unlike canned notions of funniness that genre seeks to deliver.

2. Watchmen

Though some may argue that Zack Snyder, the director, missed the point of many of Alan Moore’s ideas, on the whole he delivered a thought-provoking and truly moving picture that beautifully crafted images from the comic book onto the big screen. The graphic novel was prohibitively huge, and completely impossible to truly and faithfully adapt, but Snyder came pretty darn close. In fact, his version was almost too faithful – mainstream audiences didn’t quite “get” it, and the movie flopped, not even recouping its full budget. In a sense, this mark of failure, in my mind, is what makes the movie a true triumph: he kept the graphic novel’s true weirdness and epic scope, refusing to compromise for the sake of getting more box office money. It’s doubtful you’ll ever see anything quite like “Watchmen” again.

1. Inglourious Basterds

Haters will boil this movie down to its most basic element of Nazi-scalping. Criticizing it as some simple-minded revenge fantasy doesn’t even begin to scratch its deep surface that includes everything from simple questioning of what makes us bad and good guys to acknowledging the transforming power of movies in our lives. Each frame of the movie is loaded with movie love and lore, courtesy of already legendary filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. There are only about twelve or fifteen scenes in the whole movie, including the famous forty-minute tavern scene, and tension runs perfectly through all of them. And all this doesn’t even touch on the perfect performances of the rest of the cast, including Melanie Laurent, Brad Pitt, and the deviously charming and charismatic Jew-Hunter Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. “Inglourious Basterds” is pure moviemaking magic, the best film that I saw this year, and maybe the best of Tarantino’s career.

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