Monday, December 28, 2009

Top 10 Films of 2009

As December draws to a close in the next few days, I wanted to recap my thoughts on the year in cinema that was 2009. Much like the previous years, Hollywood in 2009 was dominated by sequels, vampires, magic, sci-fi and advanced graphics. The year proved to be the most lucrative at the box office ever, despite releasing less films than 2008, while keeping the average ticket price the same. Oh, and there wasn't a giant like The Dark Knight dominating the screens. What 2009 did have was incredible earners on a consistent basis. Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen took in $200 million by the end of its first weekend and stayed in theatres for an incredible 16 weeks (making over $400 domestic and $800 worldwide), despite overwhelmingly negative reviews. The second installment in the Twilight series, New Moon, dominated pre-sales and midnight screenings en route to the third highest opening ever at $142+ million (trailing only TDK and Spiderman 3). Harry Potter continued its successful box office skein, raking in over $301 million, the most of any in the franchise since the first was released back in 2001. Pixar unleashed another masterpiece in Up; JJ Abrams breathed new (and incredibly well-executed) life back into the Star Trek franchise; Todd Phillips took a bunch of B&C-level actors and produced the highest-earning R-rated comedy ever; previous franchises such as X-Men, Fast and the Furious, Night at the Museum, Ice Age, Alvin and the Chipmunks and Terminator all added another chapter, and finally, after 12 years of anticipation, James Cameron returned to the big screen (non-documentary) with his graphics-laden magnum opus, Avatar. Cameron's work, combined with the Chipmunk sequel and the reimagined Sherlock Holmes produced the most lucrative holiday and overall three-day weekend take ever, pulling in an estimated $278 million, shattering the previous record set back in July 2008 of $260 million. The numbers certainly have not lied in the past and 2009 was no different - as bad as the economy continues to prove, audiences continue to flood the theatres in search of escapism and enjoyment and this doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

With all of that said, of the 510+ films released in 2009, I've come up with my choice for the top 10, based upon each film as an overall work, factored in with my enjoyment. My list is as follows:

10. Adventureland

Greg Mottola's quirky comedy manages to do for the 1980's what Dazed and Confused did for the 1970's. The dir
ector pumps the screen so effectively full of nostalgia that audience members are digging through their Best of The Smiths albums later that night. But aside from the well-crafted environment, the story is relatable to almost anyone. Who doesn't remember that first awkward, awful job they were forced to take during a summer? Jesse Eisenberg guides us through his ho-hum summer working at a carnival, which as expected, endures its ups-and-downs, but the journey doesn't complete without self-revelations that propel into the future. Mottola's film gently walks the dramedy line perfectly, never veering in one direction too heavily or for too long, effectively reflecting that psyche of that age where nothing was too serious or binding yet. The mastery though lies in the surroundings as the 80's come back to life around Eisenberg as his story progresses. I definitely recommend rocking your RayBans and Argyle vests while taking in one of this year's best.

9. 9

A post-apocalyptic film starring sock-puppets? Yes, please. Director Shane Acker lengthened his previous award-warning short into 80 minutes of genius. From its not-so-subtle theme of technological dependency and eventual takeover to the creatively unique com-
position of each puppet's looks and traits, 9 is completely captivating. Think of this as Toy Story with a darker mood. The graphics aren't groundbreaking, but the intricacies of the puppets and the world Acker has created overwhelmingly draw the audience in. With each puppet being so unique in personality and look, you forget that many A-list celebrities are lending their voices to bring them to life. Oh, and Tim Burton lends his expertise as a producer as well. 9 is definitely one of this year's best.

8. A Serious Man

Joel and Ethan Coen's 14th film might very well be their most heartfelt. We've grown used to their dark comedies; however, with A Serious Man they diverge from small-tim
e criminals and dive headfirst into religion in creating a modern-era revision of the parable of Job. Gone are the air-pressured guns and wood chippers, here exist huge, seemingly unanswe
rable questions about faith, suffering, spirituality and Rabbinic help. Set in 1960's Jewish-rooted Minneapolis (where the Coens themselves were raised), the story circles what seems to be a doomed civilian, played just right by Michael Stuhlbarg, who must overcome his wavering faith to try to both stay sane and keep his crumbling family together. The Coens' ability to raise and then not answer so many questions regarding what is, by all accounts, a punchless storyline makes the film standout.

7. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino returns to the big screen with his long-awaited WWII epic focusing on several different stories of parties involved with the war, most notably, an American-led
rouge group of soldiers that look to personally settle the score with any German opposition they face. The film is undeniably vintage Tarantino with extravagant shoot-outs, violence and intertwining stories that spiral towards an explosive finale. The film's excellence can be directly attributed to Tarantino's characters and the terrific acting performances submitted bringing them to life. Brad
Pitt and Eli Roth, the leaders of the soldier-hunting "Basterds" are so brutally pro-America and anti-Nazi that there's no problem watching Roth pound away at the enemy with a baseball bat "like Teddy Ballgame." The other supporting cast, especially Christoph Waltz as an SS officer (hello, Best Supporting Actor) and Melanie Laurent as a Jewish survivor, captivate and engross viewers with their portrayals. While the film certainly has its historical inaccuracies, they're looked past, as they fit nicely with the film's directional tone and mood. Inglorious plays a twisted angle on historical events perfectly though, giving its audience a sense of vicarious retribution for the helplessness bestowed upon previous audiences of WWII epics. While I stop short of calling this Tarantino's masterpiece, it's absolutely one of his best.

6. Up in the Air

Jason Reitman's multi-layered, multi-toned film certainly makes it mark in the wave of the recent depression-era our country hasendured. The film follows George Clooney as he consistently travels the world, hired as an outside consult by different companies to efficiently fire its employees. The film is incredibly self-aware of and horribly unapologetic to its viewers. Instead of the focus being on the dozens of employees shown being fired, we follow Clooney's plight and see life on the greener side, the side a great percentage of workers today weren't able to be on. Clooney plays the part perfectly, using his charms, never condescending to those he has fired, but instead offering shallow encouragement or advice. Only a couple times do we actually see him take a firing to heart and show his genuine colors. The rest of the film we focus on his inability to exist or want to exist within normal societal confines. Reitman's film also dwells heavily on sexual quality on both a professional and personal level as Clooney deals with women in both sense during his travels. While the film does little to provide optimism for the country going forward, it at least provides potentially affected viewers with a glimpse of life on the other side and how it's certainly not all that much better.

5. Precious

Precious is a tough movie to take in and an even tougher one to like because of its subject matter. The heroine, portrayed incredibly by first-timer Gabourey Sidibe, is a pregnant teenager with an abusive mother living in the
projects of Harlem, trying to survive the rigors of everyday life. Her seemingly constant stream of horrible events and happenings, a result of her environment and surroundings, mould her into an initially unlikable character. However, once she shifts schools, her character begins to blossom and viewers can't help but feel and root for her against what seem like insurmountable odds. It is this point that makes Lee Daniels' film so beautiful and powerful. We often hear of people that have endured tough upbringings; we seldom actually see the events that shape those individuals. Precious does just this.

4. Avatar

I've been incredibly shocked to read so many top ten lists of this past year that don't have Avatar listed. I understand criticism towards it, but when the overriding theme for critics' distaste for it is the weak story, I have to take offense. What James Cameron has put together here is nothing short of a visual masterpiece, quite Lucas-esque in scope and environment. Cameron doesn't miss a single minute detail in his fictional planet of Pandora (a mining planet where our main characters are sent for military purposes), showcasing the landscape and creatures down to their very seeds and wrinkles, respectively. The 3D effects are utterly captivating and engaging, truly making viewers feel as important in the story as the creatures and heroes themselves. When the hero, played by Sam Worthington, transmits himself into his Avatar, a Na'vi creature, for the first time, viewers feel l
ike they too are transmitting themselves. Sure, the basic elements of the story have been told before, but they aren't to be dismissed within this new context. If critics haven't noticed, Hollywood plot lines are nothing new - but the 160 minute graphical-laden thrill ride of Avatar is.

3. Star Trek

I feel conflicted saying that I was incredibly surprised by how amazing Star Trek is, since I know JJ Abrams' capabilities and how his touch has almost instantly turned projects to gold. He certainly knew his audience when undertaking this film, but also executed a fun, action-ridden sci-fi film that appeals to non-fan boys as well. The casting, in a word, is excellent. Chris Pine shines as the new-age Kirk, taking Shatner's edge-of-the-seat cockiness and bravado and adds terrific humor and believable sincerity.
However, Zachary Quinto steals the show as Spock, delivering lines perfectly and effortlessly while never wavering with emotion, including a scene where he goes head-to-head with the original Spock himself. While the story does dive into some deep sci-fi extremes (hello Black Holes!), it never overwhelms its audience and consistently stays mainstream. Abrams and his crew effectively convey a beautiful picture story that makes the self-involved Star Trek world of old opens its door to a newer age audience.

2. Up

Pixar really just continues to keep it coming. I was expecting a bit of a let down after Wall.E, which felt like their piece-de-resistance, however, from it earliest moments, Up captivated me and stole my undivided attention (tough to do with movies today) for its entire ride. From the deeply emotional, dialogue-free walkthrough of Carl's life at the beginning to the surprisingly hilarious talking dog collar to the subtly powerful boy scout scene at the end, Up never lets down. The compilation of characters on the journey works incredibly well, especially as the dynamic changes after the revelation of Russell's personal life. With the overriding themes of devotion, perseverance and ultimately, mortality, Pixar has again created an adult-themed cartoon that captivates on multiple levels. There's certainly no let down here.

1. District 9

Looking back at all the great films of 2009, District 9 has it all. With help from producer Peter Jackson, first time filmmaker Neill Blomkamp has created a piece that flexes its sci-fi muscle while showcasing effects and relaying strong social commentary. The film absolutely oozes with originality, showing a future Johannesburg that is left to deal with integrating aliens, who have been left behind, into the city's daily life. Of course, after time passes, humanity struggles with the integration and the new race is forced into confinement and effectively segregated. First timer Sharlto Copley shines as the Wikus, the lead, who actually begins to change into an alien and is thus forced to live amongst the condemned after previously working for the government sector that initiated and carried out the condemning.
What makes Copley's performance so outstanding is his ability to capture the audience's rooting interest even after appearing a xenophobic government rat, carrying out their dirty work. Blomkamp's film technique makes this film work so well, splitting time between documentary footage, interviews, live action and security footage. The film feels like lost footage almost spliced together after the fact, revealing a unique narrative of our antihero's plight. It certainly swings at politics too, never hiding from its overall questioning of government companies / corporations. Overall, District 9 ventures into territories certainly never touched before and succeeds in effectively providing a science fiction picture that really means so much more.

My apologies to: The Hurt Locker, Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline

Lastly, I want to spend a quick moment shamelessly plugging the upcoming science fiction / horror film Daybreakers. While it seems to be attempting to capitalize on the recent wave of vampire films, I assure it is anything but ordinary or run-of-the-mill. Incredibly talented directors Michael & Peter Spierig have created a terrificly new and refreshing twist on the horror sub-genre, focusing on the true extinction of human life, as human blood is the only true sustenance in a land run by vampires and the necessary journey ahead to find a solution. The Spierigs are experts with effects and gore, shown by their previous film, Undead, and they are certainly on showcase in this film as well. The film stars Ethan Hawke, Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe. If you happen to see it, look for my name in the credits. Best of luck, boys.

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