I had a real hard time liking a lot of the dreck that came out this year (especially compared to last year…that summer had Dark Knight, Step Brothers, Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, and Hellboy 2), but these are the 10 movies I was most grateful for in 2009.
10. Black Dynamite
With countless spoof movies out there, including several already on the Blaxploitation genre, it took a lot of balls for Michael Jai White to make this his passion project and write and star in it as the titular character; after all, does anyone who doesn’t watch the Disney Channel tell me where Eddie Griffin is right now? But he knew exactly the right tone to keep this modern and fresh, and the utter ludicrousness of the plot is almost as funny as the actors when they try and deliver their dialogue straight. Jai White and his female lead, Salli Richardson, are well versed in straight cinema, and are not Jennifer Coolidge and Tony Cox; they know what they’re doing. The cameos, special effects, costumes, editing, everything contributes to the clear, distinct style of the film, doing what many have tried to do and failed; create a spoof/homage with enough substance to retain replay value.
9. TIE: A Serious Man/Whatever Works
Let’s say, theoretically, you and your brother sweep the Oscars. After years of unjust neglect by Hollywood, the Academy picks up on your brand of genius, and you are catapulted into stardom and universal respect. For your next film, what would you do? You would probably not, for example, make a film with no recognizable actors (save for a prolific character actor) about a nebbish Jewish man in the 60s whose life sucks really fucking hard. And that is why you (and your brother) are not the Coens. This movie was hilarious, unpredictable, and, above all, unexpected; it’s humor and self-containment are shockingly strong, their best universe since The Big Lebowski. The other truly hilarious, low-key comedy of this year was the funnier, if less cohesive Whatever Works. Utilizing his native New York, gratefully, and the comic talents of Larry David, Woody Allen was able to make his funniest, most mature comedy since Deconstructing Harry. Through LD’s Boris Yelnikoff, Woody both mocks and celebrates the bohemian activities that he used to celebrate in his films; Evan Rachel Wood’s Melodie is so dumb, open-minded, and naiive, that she is almost as sad as she is charming and funny. The film, like A Serious Man, shows that without star power, high concepts, and exotic locales, these brilliant filmmakers can still tap into the human spirit, and unravel what makes us all tick. More than anything, these films are a strong reassurance that these genius bastards still have the ability to create amazingly original, strong, and memorable works, if only every few movies or so.
8. TIE: Crank 2/Land of the Lost
Insanity was abundant at the cinemas this year; only in 2009 could movies like Jennifer’s Body, Gamer, or Year One be released. However, the true apex of cinematic madness was contained in these two films. Crank 2 took an idea that couldn’t outlast one film, and stretched it out over another 90 minutes of the most glouriously insane, retarded bullshit that the 2 directors could possibly imagine, knowing they could film it on their pro-sumer cameras and post the rest. This takes every precious piece of logic and legitimacy that the first film contained and throws it out the window, elevating the action to that of a majestic cartoon (the Godzilla fight sequence is up there w/ Inglourious’s basement scene as my favorite of ’09), bringing in Corey Haim and Bai Ling as supporting players, and letting Statham flip the camera the bird while burning alive, among other things. Land of the Lost, on the other hand, is a stoner comedy made for children, and it shows. The characters have no semblance of seriousness, and Will Ferrell’s scientist character knows just enough to keep the film from flying off the rails (which it does, thankfully, by the end). Danny McBride knows exactly how to treat this material, and captures a great duality between a wide-eyed child and a smarmy, hickish bastard. The gags, backed up by production design by the master Bo Welsch, are as high-concept as some of the ridiculous works of the 90s, such as The Flintstones and The Addams Family (similar TV adaptations). And the spirit of the film is so loose, so entertaining, and so undeniably goofy that I find it making my rewatch list much more often than some other films on this list.
7. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Gilliam takes his dick (fully erect for the first time in a decade), plops it in the table, and reminds you how fucking big it really is. Fans of Time Bandits, Brazil, and, especially, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are given another film to treasure and marvel over, and with more mature subject matter. The story and performances here are heartbreaking; Christopher Plummer’s aged mystic is drunk and confused, Heath Ledger’s quick-thinking barker character is running from his past, and Lily Cole is a disillusioned, rebellious child, trapped by forces she doesn’t understand. The whole thing stands up, but when the characters enter the Imaginarium, it is like the Brazil dream sequences in the sense that another world truly opens up. Gilliam uses CGI better than James Cameron (in my opinion) in creating amazingly diverse, stimulating imagery that, shockingly above all else, retains perfect fidelity to the character work elsewhere (fuck yourself Avatar). Wonderful fantasy for grown-ups; thank you Terry, and, once again, god bless you on your travels.
6. The Informant
An extremely clever comedy that exposes the corporate environment, and the feds that monitor it, for the goofy, nerdy farce that it is. Matt Damon, in his phenomenal performance as middle-aged Mark Whitacre, is NOT a slick bitch, at all. He is constantly giving his true intentions, motivations, and ideas hidden away from everyone he knows (save his wife), and, watching it, it is quite obvious to us. The joke of the film is not his performance; it is that, for a long time, no one sees through it. The feds that he is using to gain immunity through information exchange are absolutely in awe of his courage. His bosses admire his work, and promote him. And even his lawyer assumes he has all of his marbles together. But we, the audience, through Soberbergh’s camera and Damon’s career-best sincerity, that he is totally and utterly full of shit and it will take a while, if ever, for everyone else in the film to catch on. That fact creates truly hilarious comedy out of otherwise boring situations and characters, and, with the added pleasure of Marvin Hamlisch’s bouncy score, makes the film an original, striking comedy that deserves mention.
(TRULY BRILLIANT MOVIES)
Chan-Wook Park is one of those guys…those guys who when you hear about his next movie, you just know you’re going to see it. I could hear that his next movie is about Sandra Bullock counting down to her menopause, and I would still be thoroughly fascinated by his handling of the material; if this is his response to Twilight and True Blood, I’m willing to take anything he can dish out. This love story is so tragic, so painfully ugly and messy, that any romanticism inherently contained in vampirism is pretty much thrown out the window; not since Martin (where he has no fangs and extracts blood through razor slices) have I seen vampires this…unfortunate. With enough humor and energy to sustain ones interest more than his lesser works (which are still amazing), this is a true masterpiece from Mr. Park.
I’m a guy, in my 20s, my favorite movie is Reservoir Dogs, and this movie had me, and everyone else in the world, crying within 10 minutes of seeing the Pixar logo…if my date had broken up with me, maybe I’d be less appreciative. But in the words of Forrest Gump, that’s all I got to say about that. Be a fucking man (or woman) and see this movie, because it is smart, exciting, and moving as a sonofabitch.
The American version of Shaun of the Dead reminds me why I like American cinema to begin with. I expected Woody Harrelson to be the Uzi-spraying, banjo-playing, H2 driving ball of irrevrance he is in the film; I didn’t expect the nihilism of Jesse Eisenberg’s neurotic teenager character. His alienation from the rest of the world allowed him to accept the zombie outburst with ease; he survives through a use of carefully formulated rules (i.e. “limber up” as so not to cramp when running away) that imply, inherently, that he only cares about himself…and he’s easily the most heroic of the characters in this film. This, along with elements such as the Metallica-scored title sequence, give the movie a sense of rip-roaring, fuck-it-all energy that makes it a truly modern, American zombie film, the best of its kind in years. There is a reason this was the biggest hit of Woody’s entire career. And man, that sequence that everyone has already ruined for everyone else…wow. That felt…good.
2. Observe And Report
If Taxi Driver were released today, it would be a comedy. That is the conceit which Jody Hill made this brilliant character study about feeling lost and aloof in modern society, and the desperate ways we try and find purpose. Seth Rogen spits in the face of his own self-image (if anyone cared to notice) by making his Ronnie sick, dense, and very, very fragile; his own mother is a miserable, bitter drunk, but Ronnie would rather take care of her and elevate his own ego than pursue his own exploits (which would probably be, admittedly, limited). The way he buys into the sincerity of his character is a marvel, as he could’ve easily been a joke. He, and Hill, want to fuck with your head, and he knows the best way to do that is to play his role completely straight, which, when dealing with subjects like hard drug use, abusing youths, and date-rape, adds miles of subtext and humor. The supporting cast is absolutely perfect, with Anna Faris, Ray Liotta, and Michael Pena representing different aspects of this distant, morally bankrupt, unforgiving world that Ronnie wants to subvert. And the pacing of the film, along with its 2 climactic action sequences, are perfect to a T, keeping a very strong energy throughout to support the dismal revelations Ronnie, and the audience, are making. A new favorite…stronger than any film from the Apatow crew (save for MAYBE 40-Year Old Virgin).
1. Inglourious Basterds
The best film since There Will Be Blood. Tarantino reminds my generation why we considered ourselves reborn after his first 2 masterpieces, and why dozens, if not hundreds of indie directors now find work because of him. The dialogue, pacing, and aesthetic of this film surpasses all of Tarantino’s post-Pulp work within its first scene. The slow realization that the film is not completely about the titular Basterds, and merely uses their prominence to accentuate the mad, comic-book version of WWII that’s presented, is one of the great pleasures of watching the film. But the thing that really differentiates this from his other work is that QT, by his own admission, was not writing for specific actors, and focused on creating clear-cut, unique characters. This allows Christoph Waltz’s Jew Hunter, Til Schweiger’s Hugo Stiglitz, Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, and many others, to attain mythic status solely based on their few appearances in this film. The characters are so rich, layered, and strong that the film, at many points, gets by on their momentum alone. The scene in the French basement (maybe my favorite Tarantino scene since the Reservoir Dogs opening) is about 10 minutes+, and exists almost solely for effect; there is, ostensibly, one possible outcome, but the manner in which the characters get there is so fresh and well-written that the thrill in watching it play out is almost comically tangible. This universe that Tarantino creates is gloriously self-contained while, at the same time, using many real-life elements of World War II to create a tone that teeters dangerously close to schizophrenia, but, by the end, comes off as wonderfully composed madness, the likes of which can only be formed after years of contemplation and work. I was nervous when QT said he’d make the film within a year, disqualifying any actors whose schedules wouldn’t accomodate (among them Adam Sandler, Simon Pegg, and Nastassja Kinski); I should’ve been grateful that he finally elevated his work above the stars he worshipped. I cannot bestow enough love on this fucking masterpiece. Keep ‘em coming, QT; we got a generation of cheap, thrill driven filmmakers to train.