Things Are Looking Up
Top 10 films of 2009
Another year, another Pixar movie. Let’s put aside the technical details—they’re impeccable, we know that by now. Nobody comes near Pixar in terms of computer-animated quality. Instead, let’s examine the story. This is where Pixar truly beats the pants off its competition. Can you imagine going into a Hollywood studio and pitching a film starring an elderly widower and a chubby Asian-American kid? They’d toss you out on your ear. Where’s the romance? Where’s the 18-to-24-year-old demographic appeal? What’s the action figure potential? Despite such traditional obstacles, Pixar plowed confidently ahead, crafting a tear-jerking family adventure that is unabashedly sentimental, wildly original and boisterously funny. (Tell me you didn’t giggle at every word Dug said.) If the silent opening sequence alone wasn’t enough to get you squirting tears like the fountains at Bellagio, then you are a cold, cold person.
Up in the Air
Two films in the Top 10 with the word “Up” in the title? What are the odds? Rapidly up-and-coming director Jason Reitman really emerged from daddy Ivan Reitman’s shadow with this follow-up to 2007’s Juno and 2006’s Thank You for Smoking (both Top 10-ers in their respective years). Few Hollywood films actually treat adults (both on screen and in the audience) as adults. This funny, sincere effort did just that, crafting a mature tale that was both timely and timeless—an existential romantic comedy for recession-addled America. Say what you will about George Clooney, he commands the screen like an old-time Hollywood star. Here, he gets his true Cary Grant moment, emoting alongside such formidable females as Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick.
It’s tempting to label this Quentin Tarantino’s version of some bloody old Sam Peckinpah war flick as directed by Sergio Leone. Except that the writer-director has evolved beyond mere (mere?) fanboy imitation. Borrowing the slightest inspiration from Enzo Castellari’s 1978 exploitation flick of the (almost) same name and mixing in some sly speculation on the power of propaganda films, Inglourious Basterds is Q.T. through and through. Mad, excessive and flagrant in its flaunting of conventional movie wisdom, this near-uncategorizable revenge fantasy nonetheless became Tarantino’s most successful film to date. Honestly, I’m not even sure I comprehend half the decisions Tarantino makes here. The elaborate introduction and quick dispatch of certain characters? The casual disregard for historical accuracy? The spelling? The David Bowie songs? ... But I’m thoroughly fascinated no matter what.
Where the Wild Things Are
Is it a movie for kids or a movie for hipster adults who just want to wallow in their second (third?) childhoods? I don’t care anymore. I’m clearly in the second category and I loved it. This film will end up on some critics’ top 10 lists, just as surely as it will end up on other critics’ bottom 10 lists. It garnered more feedback than any other film review the Alibi has posted online. Half the viewers loved Spike Jonze’s take on Maurice Sendak’s classic bedtime story. Half the viewers hated it. That is the mark of a deeply personal work of art. If nothing else (and there was plenty else), Jonze definitely put his own unique stamp on this fractured fairy tale. Sure, there’s a fair amount of expansion in the script (co-written by Dave Eggers), but it all perfectly dovetails with Sendek’s picture-book rumination on childhood anger and alienation.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Yup, it was a good year for family films. Admittedly, some viewers groused that these weren’t really films aimed at kids, but rather a trend on the part of hip, literate, irony-loving indie filmmakers. You could definitely accuse Fantastic Mr. Fox’s Wes Anderson of being in that category. But the film itself argues otherwise. Filled with late-summer cinematography, dry humor and some enchantingly old-fashioned stop-motion animation, this funny animal yarn is like a miniaturized version of Anderson’s past glories (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums). But it’s also a lovely, loving tribute to Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book.
OK, so it was a very good year for kids’ movies. In a year awash with computer-animated cartoons, this early entry was the most convincing argument for the wonders of 3-D technology. Amazingly, it was animator Henry Selick’s slinky, old-school stop-motion animation that spoke loudest. (You heard me: Screw Disney’s $200 million take on A Christmas Carol.) Selick, who lent his genius to The Nightmare Before Christmas, was the perfect choice to helm this dark-wonder-filled adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s much-loved young adult novel. By deftly mixing fairy tale atmospheres with child psychology, Selick actually improved Gaiman’s phantasmagorical book in some subtle yet significant ways.
The Hurt Locker
The movie industry has tried for years to make a successful Iraq War drama. Despite a few critical successes (In the Valley of Elah), audiences have proved reluctant to patronize them. While it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster, director Kathryn Bigelow’s nonetheless successful indie film found a winning formula. Instead of preachy politics, The Hurt Locker went in for nail-biting suspense, chronicling the chaotic day-to-day lives of on-edge soldiers in an elite Army bomb squad. A “boots on the ground” script by embedded journalist Mark Boal adds mightily to the overall package, but it’s back-in-form Ms. Bigelow (Near Dark, Blue Steel, Point Break) who brings home the brains and the brawn, proving she’s one of the few females in Hollywood capable of beating the big boys at the action game.
In some ways, this is the smallest, slightest film on the list. And yet, it I find it clinging tenaciously to the position. Admittedly, a lot of it has to do with the presence of star-in-the-making Carey Mulligan. She’s a definite Oscar contender for her role in this youthful biography of British journalist Lynn Barber. Director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) have crafted a bright, nostalgic look at a British high schooler’s mildly scandalous affair with an older man in the pre-Swinging ’60s. Cross Lolita with “Mad Men” and you aren’t even halfway there. In the end, it’s just another coming-of-age story, but it introduces us to a smart, ambitious, highly sympathetic heroine sincerely in love with life and all its possibilities—even if she isn’t quite sure of what those possibilities might be.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Like Mother Teresa and Lars von Trier, this movie seems to believe there’s saintly nobility in suffering. Hence, an overly heinous collection of travails are piled up on our poor, illiterate, overweight, knocked-up heroine. Still, there’s no denying the power of young Gabby Sidibe’s heartbreaking central performance. Her co-stars aren’t too shabby, either. Mo'Nique is probably winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Any film that can deglamorize Mariah Carey and make her look like a credible actress is doing something right. Despite its overwhelmingly depressing setting, the film still finds room for some genuine uplift.
OK, bear with me on this contradiction-filled entry. I think Avatar is a truly great movie. I’m just not convinced it’s a particularly good one. Somehow, it sails over the lower levels of quality assessments to which most works of art are subject and crashes headlong into the stratosphere of awesome. Hence, “Not Avatar” makes my Top 10 list. Consider it sort of an honorable mention. Avatar isn’t the finest, most artfully constructed piece of cinema this year, but it’s simply too big to be ignored. James Cameron’s smash hit features simple-minded characters, questionable motivations, a predictable storyline and metaphors so ham-handed both Muslims and Jews are forbidden from touching them. But it is an undeniable game-changer. And not simply from a technical point of view. If Jaws was the first “blockbuster” film, then Avatar is the first “post-blockbuster” film. It is to movies what Disney World is to amusement parks. It is the standard against which all others will now be judged and found wanting. In that context, Cameron’s uncomplicated plot seems like a brilliant way to cut through cultural and linguistic differences and draw audiences not just from America, but from around the globe. Avatar is more than just eye-candy. It’s beyond that: It’s a genuine, “climb on and do it again” thrill ride on celluloid. I’d venture to say that no one else on the planet could conceive of a movie this big, let alone pull it off. James Cameron did, and for that he deserves some form of mad praise. ... A billion dollars in worldwide box office ought to do it.
The Next Best: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Big Fan, (500) Days of Summer, Goodbye Solo, Invictus, The Informant!, Moon, The Princess and the Frog, A Serious Man, Watchmen: The Director’s Cut
The Worst: All About Steve, Bride Wars, Disney’s A Christmas Carol, Miss March, I Hate Valentine’s Day, The Last House on the Left, Old Dogs, The Pink Panther 2, Shorts, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen