Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Because it’s something of an accomplishment for me to have actually seen more than ten films released in 2009, my top-ten list will include only these such movies (with one exception, and I’ll explain that when I get there).
That said, I finally caught up on a bunch of older movies this year and would recommend, without reservations, The Lives of Others, Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Lookout, Synecdoche, New York, Rachel Getting Married, A History of Violence, and Inside Man.
Additionally, I’m almost positive that some films I missed in the theaters will end up on this list ex post facto; I’m a fan of both Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Soderbergh but missed The Hurt Locker, The Girlfriend Experience, and The Informant!.
Spoiler alerts are in effect.
10. Where The Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)
An adventure story in which no hazard is so treacherous as your own immaturity, Where The Wild Things Are manages to walk that very fine line between condescending to its child audience and talking over their heads by executing a cannonball directly into the heart of its protagonist. I’m left with such tiny details as the lingering shots of Max’s toys, which do much more for illuminating his psyche than more obvious tactics of exposition. Max is disrespectful, needy, destructive; all the more infuriating because he is willfully all of these things. The creatures he encounters at the faraway island are both more and less emotionally developed than he is, but the film refuses to engage in any Freudian nonsense about how they are all aspects of his own personality…indeed, the driving conflict of the story is because some of these creatures are nothing like him and can never be anything like him. Like any child, they are at once predictable and full of surprises. I’m not sure that by the end of the film Max has learned anything beyond a more acute sense of who he is. I don’t know that he will be a better kid tomorrow, and that’s okay. He grows in the film but he doesn’t have to grow up.
MVP: James Gandolfini as Carol, giving voice to Max’s unspoken pains and rage, manages to come across as both terrifying bully and wounded soul, sometimes almost simultaneously.
9. In The Loop (dir. Armando Iannucci)
This wickedly satirical look at the political and media circus surrounding the march to war in 2003 might, at first glance, seem dated, if nonetheless hilarious. Focusing on groups of mid-level and lower operatives in Britain’s Downing Street offices and the American State Department, this spin-off of BBC series The Thick Of It details the strangely dizzying consequences of one ill-considered word from a hapless MP and the sense that none of the people playing the games they play have any idea what they are doing. Relevant if for no other reason than to get a sense of the actual absurdity in play and to see how such absurdity escalates into actions that have dire results for the rest of the world.
MVP: Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, a talented spin-doctor and profanity expert, a character composed of nothing but angles and edges. A performance both uproarious and slightly disturbing.
8. Up (dir. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)
A typically enjoyable and smart Pixar creation, and if I were judging it solely on the emotional devastation of the first 20 minutes I’m not sure any other film on this list could have surpassed it. The relationships that develop between Carl and Russell, and later with Dug and Kevin, are charming and well-drawn, but somehow the conflict that erupts between Carl and Muntz seems clumsily attached to the story. Entertaining, to be sure, but on the spectrum of Pixar films it neither thrilled me quite to the extent that The Incredibles did or moved me as totally as Wall-E. It may not be fair to judge this film against all past Pixar films as well as all other films in 2009, but that’s the burden of being Pixar…when you come to exemplify excellence your efforts that are merely very very good fall short.
MVP: Peterson, less for his contributions as director as his superb characterization and comic timing as Dug and Alpha, two wildly different pack dogs.
7. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)
To be sure, there’s no subtlety–nobody is going to fail to recognize the messages of an apartheid allegory set in South Africa–but the message is less the point of the film than it is a vehicle to show the journey of one man’s literal and figurative transformation. Wikus van de Merwe starts out the film not only a xenophobe, but also a pitiable drone, cowed by his work superiors and his father-in-law, oblivious to the dismissive jeers of his colleagues and his own dreadfully boring personality. He doesn’t necessarily get the opportunity to learn important lessons about the equality of all life, but by the end of the film he’s become a better human being…ironically, by losing his biological humanity altogether.
MVP: Sharlto Copley as Wikus, handling the difficult task of reacting to fantastic elements as if they were routine and then reacting to the further complications of those elements with fear, desperation, and finally courage and conviction.
6. Coraline (dir. Henry Selick)
Imaginative both in visuals and narrative, Coraline is so enjoyable and exciting that you could forget that it’s also a story about child abduction and murder similar to any number of sick and tragic stories we are assailed with on a daily basis. Coraline Jones is entranced by the Other Mother into a “secret” world that is much more exciting than the doldrums and weirdness of her everyday life, and were she not a cannier protagonist (with help from erstwhile friends) she would end up just another victim. Selick’s directorial vision, working from the boundless creative powers of Neil Gaiman, creates a pair of worlds as bizarre and wonderful as the best work of Hayao Miyazaki and then populates it with characters from the fringes of Carroll’s Wonderland. I never got to see it in 3-D but it’s beautiful even without it.
MVP: Keith David’s sly, knowing Black Cat, a character that necessarily lives in both worlds because you can never be quite sure whose side he’s on.
5. The Brothers Bloom (dir. Rian Johnson)
Like Johnson’s first film, the multi-layered and intelligent Brick, Bloom takes place in a world that seems very similar to ours until somebody opens their mouth, or you watch a two-legged cat wheel itself down a small town street from inside a roller skate. Like the best films about con artists, the movie is both showing you the characters involved on either side of the con and doing its best to misdirect the audience as well. Johnson’s film succeeds in keeping the audience in the dark not because it’s building to a single big twist but because it’s created a story and world so twisted already that the smaller twists slowly add up to what we might view as normalcy.
MVP: Rachel Weisz, taking a “cute” female character and giving her depths to match her quirks; she’s more mysterious, in the end, than the titular con men.
4. Sita Sings The Blues (dir. Nina Paley)
Originally produced and released in 2008, this gorgeous and inventive film only became more widely available for viewing after some legal tap-dancing by Paley (regarding the use of several 1920s Annette Hanshaw recordings). As of March of 2009 the entire movie became available online for free, making each viewing a “promotional” and thus unshackled from copyright royalties. Charming and honest, Paley’s film takes elements of the Hindu Ramayana as a means of discussing the brutal dissolution of her own marriage, using Hanshaw’s recordings as an oddly complementary element that transforms the Indian goddess Sita into a sort of tragic Betty Boop. The animation utilizes a number of different styles, each expertly chosen and executed for their parts of the film, often veering off into places you couldn’t expect. The first time I watched this I forced myself to stay up much later than I’d intended and by the following evening I wanted to watch it again.
MVPs: Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya; voicing the Indian shadow puppets that examine and debate the details of the Ramayana, a series of conversations that are so winning because of their nimble blend of irreverence and academia.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
As you may have noticed by now, I thought this was a brilliant year for animation (I also liked Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, just not as much as these ten) and Fantastic Mr. Fox was the best of the bunch. In many ways, this was both the film Wes Anderson has been waiting his whole career to make and the film he’s been making his whole career–filled with off-kilter characters and even more off-kilter relationships between them, but set in a physical reality where Anderson’s sense of detail could be allowed to truly cut loose. Even if the visuals weren’t as striking as they are, the film is a triumph of pacing, tone, and moments that take you by surprise right before they take you by surprise yet again. The script is confident enough to give you random dance sequences, violent death, and line deliveries that make you ache even as you laugh at them. A phenomenal piece of work.
MVP: George Clooney, proving just as rakish in the form of a mercurial chicken thief as he is when he’s onscreen in real life. The film flies on Clooney’s ability to sell us Mr. Fox’s persistently sly world-view, which is the same world-view as Anderson’s.
2. Star Trek (dir. J.J. Abrams)
Efficient and effective, this franchise re-boot does everything you wished most of the original Trek movies had done, and in most cases does it better. Balanced perfectly between homage and reinvention, Abrams’ smart, character-oriented action film was blessed with a cast of charismatic actors and a script willing to give each of them moments all their own (Sulu’s fencing prowess, Chekhov’s exuberance, Spock’s heroic temperament). Even the stranger choices in the film, such as the ubiquitous lens flare or Eric Bana’s unpredictable Romulan all seem to be in service of the new, “alternate” reality, one that the legions of fans can no longer predict. The prospect should excite any longtime Trek fan; I know it does me.
MVP: As great as Zachary Quinto is as Spock, I have to give the distinction here to Christopher Pine’s portrayal of James Kirk, as cocky and bold as the Kirk we’ve long known but with a fierce, brawling intellect clearly acting in concert with his charm. Additionally, it’s nice to know what Kirk could have been like with better line readings than Shatner’s.
1. Up In The Air (dir. Jason Reitman)
A challenging and heartbreaking film. Not merely about loneliness but about the act of conscious isolation, Reitman, through the magnetic-as-ever presence of George Clooney, beguiles you at first by romanticizing Ryan Bingham’s mercenary, sharkskin lifestyle before quietly and definitively turning that over and leaving you, disoriented, in its shadow. The movie utilizes air as a thematic element without ever using it as metaphor; it represents both the environment of flight and the oxygen we breathe, and in Bingham’s case you watch what happens when too much of the former leaves him feeling like he hasn’t had enough of the latter. I walked out of this film and had to keep walking for another hour. I had to reconcile my own feelings of wanderlust with the reality of my feet on the ground and the daily discussions I have with my brain about whether what I think I want is what I think it is in the first place. It’s rare that a film demands I examine my own life; it’s even rarer when that film makes me laugh repeatedly.
MVP: Everybody’s great, but Vera Farmiga is incredible in this film, starting out as merely an equal match for Clooney and revealing herself, bit by bit, as something so much more. Nothing anybody said in film this year was quite as crushing as her delivery of the phrase “Look, I’m a grownup.”
Honorable Mentions (performances): Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Jackie Earle Haley, Watchmen; Carey Mulligan and Alfred Molina, An Education; Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
(Yes. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It’s a much better performance than the film deserves, but it’s nonetheless a great performance.)