2009 was a mixed year for movies. A lot of terrible movies made obscene amounts of money (Alvin and the Chipmunks, Transformers 2, TWILIGHT), several small budget films made a killing (Paranormal Activity, The Hangover, District 9), and Hollywood pulled out all the stops in a desperate attempt to stay relevant in an era where HDTVs and instant streaming threaten to turn the theater experience into a niche. The solution to this conundrum? 3-D of course. Nearly 20 films got the 3-D treatment this year, with even more slated for 2010, forcing old theaters to scramble and update their projection technology (even my beloved Capitol Theatre). I saw 3 of them, (Avatar, Coraline, Christmas Carol), and with the exception of Avatar, the gimmick was clear. Pay $12, wear goofy glasses, get disoriented, steal glasses and tell usher you need them for real-life. 3D is not new, and while the technology has improved, it will remain a novelty. Avatar may have changed the game and broadened its appeal, but the fact remains; story comes first. But what do I know, Avatar just made 2 billion dollars. Here's my favorite films of 2009.
10. The Hurt Locker - Kathryn Bigelow
The directorial debut from Kathryn Bigelow masterfully portrays the paranoia and suspense associated with fighting a modern war in hostile territory. Roadside bombs and suicide bombers kill with alarmingly simple efficiency and further rattle already shell-shocked soldiers. Any unattended vehicle or suspicious glance elicits a rush of adrenaline and a wave of panic, making diplomacy almost impossible. Bigelow does a fantastic job of putting us into the middle of this war and is still able to give the film a heart in the form of lead Jeremy Renner. The intensity that Bigelow and Renner are able to create in the scenes here is never wasted, and is almost matched by those outside the combat zone.
9. Two Lovers - James Gray
I reviewed this film about a month ago, but I keep coming back to Joaquin Phoenix's performance here. The desperate longing, naivete and vulnerability that he brings to the role really impressed me. I loved how Gray was able to make such deeply flawed characters so likable and sympathetic, despite the cruel things they do to one another. Each thinks they know what they want and are blind to everything else. Such are the ways love can ensnare the soul.
8. Where The Wild Things Are - Spike Jonze
I reviewed WTWTA in detail a few months ago, but I am still in awe of how effortlessly Jonze was able to expand the story and retain original dialogue and themes. I don't envy the pressure and sense of obligation he surely felt, but I certainly can appreciate the care and attention in the finished product.
7. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: Werner Herzog
I also reviewed Bad Lieutenant in my Movie Round Up pt. 1 about a month ago, and time has been kind to this film and Cage's performance. I still think Cage should have been nominated for his performance, and I hope he tackles more roles like these, even though he's $14 million in debt. While the plot itself is about as straightforward as they come, Cage's Terrence more than makes up for it. His despicable, drug-inspired actions are sprinkled with heroic behavior, but he is so messed up it's hard to tell whether his motivation is fueled by his drug-habit or his devotion to the case. I'm still not sure.
6. An Education - Lone Sherfig
An Education is a challenging film. It challenges you to watch a high school senior throw away years of study and hard work and say that you wouldn't be seduced by the charms of an older, worldly lover. The fact is you can't. No one is immune to the allure of a shortcut to their dreams, regardless of the repercussions and unanswered questions that may remain. Carey Mulligan and Peter Saarsgard are both fantastic here, hitting all the right notes. Their relationship never appears illicit, and you can't help but feel a paternal attachment to Mulligan's Jenny, hoping that she is making the right choice despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The film is operating on well-worn territory, but it never comes across as stale or familiar, due in large part to the performances.