Friday, February 12, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009: 5-1

It's been over a week since I vowed to finish my Top 10 Films of 2009 list over the weekend (here are Honorable mentions and Films 10-6). The masses haven't breached riot-level anticipation (yet), but I feel an obligation to round it out as soon as possible. This week found me distracted with Lil Wayne and a Soup-Off, but now that Wayne is presumably resting comfortably after his dental work today, and the Soup Champion has been crowned (don't get me started), I can move on to bigger/better things. Namely, this. Here are my Top 5 films of 2009.

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox - Wes Anderson
(Note: I originally reviewed this back in December, you can read that review here.) Fantastic Mr. Fox feels like such a natural progression in Wes Anderson's catalogue, it's a wonder he didn't dabble in animation before. Since 1996's Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson films have carved out a genre all their own, one that has threatened to become a parody of itself in recent efforts, but still retains a fair amount of charm. Whimsical soundtracks, meticulous sets, cartoonish characters with a deadpan delivery. If you've ever watched a Wes Anderson movie and found yourself turned off by the quirk or the mawkish behavior, you'll be relieved that the same dialogue is exponentially more palpable when delivered by furry puppets in sport coats. Much like Spike Jonze in Where The Wild Things Are, Anderson delicately expands the beloved Roald Dahl story to absorb some wider themes, but still leaves the core and the heart in tact. For my money, this rivals Avatar in terms of eye candy, but with 1/100th the budget.

4. District 9 - Neil Blomkamp

Adapted from Blomkamp's 2005 short film, District 9 brilliantly deconstructs the science fiction genre, and turned a meager 30 million dollar investment into a 200 million dollar blockbuster. Utilizing cinema verite style camerawork and seamlessly meshing live action and CGI, District 9 packages some serious themes here, ranging from Xenophobia and Apartheid. Refreshingly these are never administered in a preachy fashion, and we as viewers are completely duped into engaging in the same though processes as the protagonists when forced to come face to face with an unfamiliar creature. Thematic elements aside, District 9 is first and foremost an effective Science Fiction film that features mutations, mysterious liquids and assorted high-tech weaponry. The action scenes are compelling and engaging, and buck any well-worn cliches whenever it appears they will be tempted to do so. Not since Primer have I seen a Sci-Fi film that is so satisfying in every capacity.

3. Moon - Duncan Jones

Oops, did I say not since Primer? I meant not since Moon. Moon is Duncan Jones' (son of David Bowie) feature film debut, and tells the story of Sam Bell, a lunar contractor wrapping up a three year stint on the Moon, harvesting energy in the form of Helium 3 for those back on earth. Sam is the only 'human' on the lunar base save for his robotic assistant GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey. If you haven't already noticed from the above still, Sam is played by the incredible Sam Rockwell, whom is asked to carry the entire film, and delivers. Sam Rockwell has always had an uneasy, loose-cannon quality about him. He's showed glimpses of it in 2007's TAOJJBTCRF and 2002's Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, and with no costars to keep it in check, he is allowed to soak into it here. It is this quality that makes the paranoia and hostility his character feels after coming into contact with his clone ring true. The plot develops from a chance encounter to outright conspiracy ingeniously and tactfully, but the real sight to behold is Sam Rockwell.

2. Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino
I've been a huge Tarantino fan ever since I first saw Pulp Fiction almost ten years ago. His peerless dialogue, memorable characters and unapologetic love of cinema is infectious, and even in his lesser projects (From Dusk Til Dawn, Four Rooms) he manages to make an impression. I have been hearing about Inglourious Basterds for most of the 21st century, and it wasn't until a script popped up online that I ever considered it would come to fruition. Well here we are, and I'm sorry for ever doubting you Quentin. While Tarantino is often dismissed as stylish or indulgent, he has an incredible talent for dramatic tension, wringing every pause and piece of body language out of a scene until it reaches a boil. Inglourious Basterds has no less than 3 of these scenes, each masterfully executed and each rendering the audience completely rapt. And I haven't even mentioned the stellar performances of Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa and Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark, the roaring soundtrack, and the 'so crazy it's brilliant' plot. Tarantino may seem unfocused to the uninitiated, but as they say, the proof is in the pudding and Inglourious Basterds is delicious.

1. A Serious Man - The Coen Brothers
Before No Country For Old Men, I struggled to understand the unanimous approval of the Coen Brothers. Their lighter fare felt completely forgettable and their serious works felt slight and unsatisfying. It wasn't until they adapted McCarthy's novel that I finally experienced a clicking sensation. So you can imagine how disappointed I was with 2008's Burn After Reading. The credibility that they developed with NCFOM evaporated and I was back to square one. I had heard great thing after great thing about A Serious Man, but it wasn't until a rave review on my beloved Filmspotting that I felt compelled to give it a shot. This movie and the resulting conundrums it has shackled me with make me want to rewatch their entire catalog. I don't believe I missed a layer of nuance in Brad Pitt's Chad Feldheimer in Burn After Reading, but after A Serious Man, who knows.

Opening with an unsettling scene that sets the tone for those to follow, A Serious Man is the story of Larry Gopnik, a Minneapolis physics professor in 1967. He is mild-mannered and unassuming, and despite his efforts to lead a just life, he is a lightning rod for trouble. I've heard that if you put a frog in a pot of water and bring it to a boil, the frog will stay in the water and die, but if you put it directly into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. Such is the case for Larry Gopnik. His troubles begin as annoyances; a pot-head son, a few dollars missing from his wallet, a deadbeat brother sleeping on his couch, and grow into larger and larger problems and he is either too weak or too taken aback to respond with the incredulity you would expect. He is a man that desperately believes in karmic principles, and is simply biding his time until his karma boat comes in. The thing is, how do you know when it does?

Longtime Coen Brother collaborator Roger Deacon does great work here with the camera, and the Coen Brothers do an admirable job in reigning in the quirk that plague some of their other comedies, and ask some uncertain questions that I am still grappling with. I know very little about Jewish culture and religion, but the film remains accessible because of its universal themes. While decidedly bleak, the film ends with typical Coen Brothers ambiguity, but this time it feels completely appropriate. Larry doesn't understand why things happen, why should we?

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