Around February last year, I posted a 2009 Movie Preview, which took 10 upcoming films that looked the most promising for the upcoming year. I wrote a short review on each one, and except for Shutter Island, all were released to a wide range of expectations. Some were extremely impressive, some were terribly mediocre, and others were downright terrible (I’m looking at you Peter Jackson).
As the Academy Awards approach, I’ve been watching as many of the nominees as I can. Some were pretty great, others didn’t impress me very much. Though I did not get to see all of the movies I previewed last year (The Road, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Nine, Taking Woodstock), there were a lot of surprises this year. Also, I wasn’t so much a fan of Avatar as everyone else on the planet. It was entertaining to watch in 3-D, but I felt like the story lacked something. It gets an honorable mention here.
Here are my favorite ten films from 2009. Many of these won’t even get recognized at the Oscars, but I think they are all worth watching for one reason or another.
10. A Serious Man
The latest Coen Brothers film, loosely based on the Biblical story of Job, follows Jewish professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) through a particularly horrible streak of bad luck. He fails to achieve tenure he’s been seeking, while dealing with a rocky divorce, and an unemployed brother who is under investigation for gambling fraud. Simultaneously, his son is approaching his bar mitzvah while habitually smoking weed, and his daughter complains constantly about her looks. As Larry seeks advice from three rabbis, he is frustrated that there is no meaning behind his run of bad luck. The film leaves off in pure Coen Brothers fashion, abruptly and with no resolve. It’s not my favorite Coen Brothers film, but it was better than a lot of the other films from this year.
One of the biggest tragedies in recent years is the downfall of the vampire film. Twilight has turned the entire genre into a teenage soap opera, and films like Underworld have done nothing but keep the goth subculture from dying. In 2009, Korean director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance) brings us a twisted vampire saga worthy of revitalizing the genre. Thirst follows an infected doctor who deals with his “disease” by drinking the blood every night from one of his comatose patients. When his girlfriend learns of his plight, she sees an opportunity for revenge, and things start to spiral out of control.
8. Star Trek
Wow, I never saw this coming. I avidly avoided Star Trek as a kid, disinterested in the campy costumes and any association with Vulcan language or gestures. I even put off watching the 2009 film for the same reasons, until we were left with no other options. I’ve now seen the film 3 times and it is one of my favorite action films of the year. J.J. Abrams reinvents the series, with a reckless Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, and a respectable Zachary Quinto as Spock. The special effects aren’t distracting, and the plot is engaging. Who knew? Maybe I’m a Star Trek fan after all.
Steven Soderbergh latest film, based on the true story of ADM and the lysine price-fixing scandal of 1992, couldn’t have been a bigger surprise. Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a pathological liar acting in his own delusional self-interests while working with the FBI and bringing down the heads of his own company. Whitacre’s fantasy is his downfall, as more and more scandals are revealed during his stint with the FBI. The audience benefits from his short attention span, and many times throughout the movie, a serious business meeting will switch to a Whitacre voiceover about polar bears or avocados. This was one of the funniest movies of the year, and Damon is brilliant in his fat, mustachioed role.
6. District 9
Half mockumentary, half sci-fi action movie, District 9 has a relatively unknown South African cast, led by Sharlto Copley as the bumbling alien correspondent for the local government. As he tries to relocate over a million alien “prawns,” he finds himself exposed to a strange fluid that begins to transform his body. While not a groundbreaking film, it’s a novel concept and an accurate parallel to the way our own government treats immigration today in some places. It also splices some entertaining action scenes between formal interviews of government officials and family members of the protagonist.
A little-known release by Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, Moon starts as a 2001-esque story set in the future, where Sam Rockwell is a lone astronaut mining an important resource. His computer is voiced by Kevin Spacey, and he is approaching the end of his 3-year expedition. Before he can go home, he learns about a dark secret surrounding his mission, and not even his lighthearted robotic companion will tell him the truth.
4. The Cove
My documentary choice of the year, The Cove tracks Ric O’Barry, former dolphin trainer on the set of Flipper and subsequent activist against the methods used to capture dolphins, due to the popularity of his own show, as he works to shut down a dolphin slaughterhouse in Taiji, Japan. Working undercover, against the local law enforcement, and using cameras hidden in rocks, he is able to show the graphic deaths of over 2,000 dolphins. Two months after the film was released, Taiji was actually shut down.
Pixar’s latest film has one of the most depressing moments in any animated film since Mufasa died in The Lion King.
Our abandoned protagonist Carl Frederickson departs all alone in his floating balloon house for South America. Or so he thinks. Annoying boy scouts, talking dogs, and exotic birds seem to be holding him back (in some cases literally) from reaching his destination. It’s such a feel-good film, and I said this after Wall-E, that I trust Pixar to tug at my heartstrings and make a damn good family film every year.
I know what you’re thinking. Number 2? The premise was a pretty basic archetype and the characters weren’t that deep, but damn this movie was fun to watch! Zombie movies get points for creativity, and Zombieland had some of the most creative kills I’ve ever seen: Banjo, hedge clippers, hammer, not to mention a variety of amusement park rides. It’s like someone proposed the idea of zombies in an amusement park, and they wrote a movie around that concept. The addition of Woody Harrelson as a disgruntled twinkie addict helps the plot, as well as a timid Jesse Eisenberg for Woody to rip into the whole time. Oh yeah, and there’s that cameo too.
Ah, refreshing Tarantino. After the pile of garbage called Grindhouse, he comes back and hits us with a witty rendition of the German occupancy of France. And who needs accuracy? Tarantino writes his own ending, the way everyone wants to see it. Brad Pitt plays another stellar role with Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a Tennessean with a drawl looking for one thing: Nazi scalps. He’s known as “Aldo the Apache” to the Germans. On the other side, Christoph Waltz plays an Oscar-caliber Hans Landa, the general of the Nazi regime. They call him the “Jew Hunter.” Simultaneously, Melanie Laurent is a fugitive Jew working in a movie theatre that plans to show a German propaganda film. As the stories converge in a mix of violence, witty dialogue, and a self-indulgent tribute to cinephilia (did you know that old nitrate film reels can be used to ignite a building?), the explosive ending is a triumphant end to the war – Tarantino style.