Because the 1,500+ words written below make an introductory paragraph an absolute waste of time, I simply present my top ten movies of 2009 (in alphabetical order):
Adventureland - For some reason, this was marketed as a straight-up comedy. "From the director of Superbad," all the advertisements said. Well, it is from the director of Superbad, but it's not an Apatow-esque comedy. Yes, it does have the kid from Zombieland (Jesse Eisenberg, who is very good in The Hunting Party and unbelievably good in one of my favorite movies, The Squid and the Whale) and superhunk Ryan Reynolds, but it's actually a really good coming-of-age story with a lot of heart and a very realistic romance between Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Plus, as he often does, Bill Hader absolutely steals a few key scenes.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil - This is the second year in a row that a musically themed documentary made my top ten list (last year's was Young@Heart), and although this year's entry isn't as emotionally powerful, it's a great up close look at what happens to those bands that just don't make it. Or, to clarify, those bands that just don't make it...and yet continue to struggle for thirty years until the writer of The Terminal makes an intimate documentary about their lives and finally catapults them to minor fame. If that sounds interesting to you (and if you read my blog, it probably is), you should probably throw this on your Netflix queue.
Avatar - A very, very, very mediocre plot. Dialogue that at times borders on laughable. And the most wooden, inexplicable "action star" in recent memory, Sam Worthington. But those effects. My God, those effects. When we saw it, my friends and I spent the entire ride to the theater joking about "visionary director" James Cameron and his magical movie that required, nay, demanded 3D glasses for the proper viewing experience. And we walked out flabbergasted that someone made a movie that looked like that. Does it deserve all this Oscar buzz, this billion dollar gross? Probably not, but it comes as close to living up to the hype as humanly possible.
District 9 - Kind of the opposite of Avatar, in that it was a relatively low-budget sci-fi movie from a no-name director that ended up displaying a surprising amount of plot, strong dialogue and some very memorable characters. This movie was marketed perfectly -- I remember seeing the teaser trailer before some winter movie in 2008 and being blown away by both the trailer's content and the fact that I'd never heard of it before. The fact that Sharlto Copley had never acted in a feature film before this is amazing; the fact that it was director Neill Blomkamp's first feature film, as well, is even more so. Although he WAS "lead 3D animator" on 3000 Miles to Graceland...so we clearly should have seen this coming.
Fantastic Mr. Fox - After the universally ho-hummed The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson has won back the hearts of his fans. Gathering the usual crew (Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzmann, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe) and introducing George Clooney and Meryl Streep to the party, Anderson makes the Roald Dahl novel feel like it was written just to be stop-motion animated by he and his crew. With the witty dialogue we've come to expect from his movies and a bunch of great visual touches, the only reason Mr. Fox is considered a children's movie is because a) it's animated and b) it's an adapted children's novel. That designation is unfortunate, as scores of people won't see it as a result. But that's their loss, because it's considerably more than that and, yet, still just as fun.
The Hurt Locker - They're calling this the "first good Iraq war movie." Well, it's the first Iraq war movie I've seen, or even considered seeing, so they're probably right. For me, it was the redemption of Jeremy Renner, a man best known thus far as the bad guy from S.W.A.T. He perfectly captures the cocky swagger of a guy born for a war, a man who's confident only when he's out disarming bombs. Brief cameos by Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes are disappointing, in that you can sense right away that they won't be around too long, but in the end they'd probably distract from the movie's true intentions anyway. It's by far the most tense film of the year, maybe the most tense in years. If this is what war is like, God bless everyone who's fighting it.
Inglourious Basterds - Saw it in theaters, loved Christoph Waltz, loved Michael Fassbender, but I will admit that I was a little caught offguard by the direction it ended up taking. It was long, it too prominently featured the "suddenly empowered girl rises against her oppressors" scenes that Tarantino seems to love and no one else really cares about, and it bounces around too often from jokes, drama and action. Or so I thought. But then I saw it on DVD about a week ago, and I realized that it was just too much to take in at the time. The opening scene and the scene in the underground bar are as tense as anything in The Hurt Locker, and although it does bounce around often, Tarantino mishmashes styles as well as any director out there. But the girl scenes still do kinda suck. Enough with the Girl Power boner, dude.
Up - Pixar's done it again. You'd think it would get a little old to keep saying, "And the best animation studio in the history of movies has made yet another masterpiece," but it doesn't. And yes, I've seen all the old Disney movies, and Pixar's are better. They look better, they sound better and they contain just as much emotion. Comparing the two is like saying the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970's would beat the the New England Patriots of the 2000's. Maybe the Steelers were dominating and terrifying 35 years ago, but some of the quarterbacks nowadays are as big as the defensive tackles back then. It wouldn't even be close. And although a lot of present-day movies are admittedly garbage compared to the classics, Pixar's movies, often the best of the best, are exempt.
One of the company's genius moves does, however, stem from the old-fashioned Disney mindset -- refusing to cast big name stars for their voices only. Do people really care if Brad Pitt is the voice of Sinbad? Or if Freddie Prinze Jr. is the voice of Delgo? (Look it up.) People forget that Steve from "Full House" was perfect as the voice of Aladdin. And Ed Asner was equally perfect as Carl Frederickson.
Up in the Air - Jason Reitman makes good, solid movies. He doesn't make Best Picture nominees, even though he's about to be awarded his second. This makes me sad, because the inevitable backlash that started with Juno will just gain steam from here on out. And this time, it won't be focused on his movie, as Up in the Air has a lot to like about it. George Clooney is as handsome and charming as ever, and Vera Farmiga is perfect as his female foil. Plus, any movie featuring Danny McBride in a rare serious role gets points from me. But is a movie to remember? Is it "important" because it "shines a spotlight on our times" and all that crap? No. It's got some funny moments, and some emotion, and great performances from all its leads. It's one of the best movies I've seen all year, but then again, I loved Thank You for Smoking a ton as well, and that didn't win shit. By the way, Clooney's Ryan Bingham isn't Punch Drunk Love's Barry Egan, no matter how much Will Leitch says he is.
Where the Wild Things Are - This one was tough. I know a lot of people didn't love this movie, but I did. I thought Max Records was amazing not only as a twelve-year-old actor but as a twelve-year-old actor surrouded only by men in giant monster costumes. And I thought the Wild Things were hysterical. The matter-of-fact way they said everything, the way they looked when smashing through things, James Gandolfini voicing a male character named Carol. Much like Mr. Fox, Spike Jonze made a children's movie in name only, and although there are certainly aspects kids will appreciate, the true depth of the film is there for anyone that wants to look for it.
Honorable Mention - I love the Coen brothers, but A Serious Man didn't really wow me on first viewing. Then again, neither did Burn After Reading, and I love that now. So, we'll see. Moon seems like it's getting a bit too much praise after the fact, but it's a strong debut from director Duncan Jones and a great chance for Sam Rockwell to flex his leading man chops. The Road had unbelievable source material, and although everyone that read it knew it would look great on screen, we didn't think about how it would go about keeping us interested for two hours. And it didn't. Star Trek was a great blockbuster movie, but I couldn't say with a straight face that it was better than District 9. Sugar was another modest and realistic film from the writer-directors of Half Nelson, The Informant! seems like it'll get funnier and funnier every time I see it, and World's Greatest Dad was the best Robin Williams vehicle about auto-erotic asyphyxiation I saw all year.
As for Precious, Invictus, A Single Man and The Cove, well, I didn't get the chance to see any of them. I wanted to, and I bet at least a few of them would have made my top ten list. C'est la vie. Although this wasn't a top-heavy year for films, much like the Atlanta Hawks of the 2000's at the small forward position, it was deep. And sometimes, that's just as good.