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Friday, January 01, 2010


ModFabulous: Best Movies of 2009

As I mentioned yesterday, I didn't find 2009 to be an exceptional year in cinema history. Sure, there was some magnificent work in certain genres: a bounty of exceptional animated films (Up, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, 9, The Princess and the Frog, Coraline, and more) and the first great sci-fi efforts in years (Avatar, Moon, Star Trek, District 9). But otherwise...well, let's just say I'm looking forward to 2010.

First, the caveats:

Wish I'd Seen: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, The September Issue, Away We Go, The White Ribbon, The Hangover, The Road, Sin Nombre, Julia, The Damned United, Black Dynamite

Best Guilty Pleasure: Zombieland

Most Disappointed By: Nine, Watchmen, The Invention of Lying, Bruno, A Serious Man, Cheri, Where The Wild Things Are

And now...THE TOP TEN OF 2009:

Tom Ford's debut film reworks a tired, overused premise. (Really, how many films do we need about old lonely depressed gay men finding the will to endure through improbable interactions with young, naive, naked men? Gods and Monsters, Love and Death on Long Island, Boy Culture, Brother to Brother, etc., etc.?) But the point of A Single Man isn't to break new ground, but rather to tell it in a new way...and it mostly succeeds. Chief among the film's pleasures are a superb production design (like you expect anything less from the former head of Gucci!) and a cadre of brilliant, touching performances by Colin Firth, Julianne More, Nicholas Hoult, Matthew Goode and Jon Kortajarena.

The year's oddest, most entrancing independent effort, Bronson is a colorful, hyperkinetic retelling the true-life tale of Britain's infamous serial killer, Michael Gordon Peterson, whose time in and out of prison saw his own personality overtaken by that of his childhood movie hero, the actor Charles Bronson. Gloriously outre, wildly visionary, and at times uncomfortably personal, it's a story (and a film) like no other. Tom Hardy's jaw-dropping lead performance will be, I predict, among the most egregious omissions among this year's Oscar nominations. Ah well, there's always the DVD, which will be available in February.

In a year rife with marvelous, insightful documentaries, Robert Kenner's savage indictment of America's food industry stood heads above the rest. The disturbing images and eye-popping information would be enough to make anyone sit up and take notice, but it's Kenner's deft meld of the political and the personal -- profiling morally conflicted chicken farmers, unlikely activists, and genetic scientists, to mention just a few -- that create the most powerful impact. Well, that and the screw cap placed in the rib cage of a cow. And the genetically-engineered chicken that can't stand up because it's too fat. And...

Whatever one feels about the pedestrian dialogue and the moral cliches of the story, it's undeniable that James Cameron's long-gestating alien epic marks a significant milestone in technology and technique for the cinema. The integration of advanced computer capture techniques imbues each moment with a grace and emotive nuance never been seen in CGI. And don't get me started on the landscapes, each of which had me gasping at their beauty (and the creative inspiration of the animation artists). Breathtaking in scope and effort, if not always so in dramatic effect.

Broadway's most unusual musical of the decade was forever immortalized on celluloid by two of Hollywood's greatest artists -- the savvy director Spike Lee (Four Little Girls) and the astonishing cinematographer Matthew Libatique (The Fountain). The autobiographical tale of L.A.-based songwriter Stew was already an intimate excavation of soul and soul music. But in the hands of Lee and Libatique -- their fourth onscreen collaboration, marking them one of the great duos of this still-new century -- it gained a clarity and transcendence it never had in the theatre.

Why does The Hurt Locker succeed where so many other films about the Iraqi War have failed, both commercially and artistically? I attribute it to the film's unsung hero, screenwriter Mark Boal, whose frames his story not against the epic sprawl of war, but against the anxiety-inducing microcosm of bomb defusal. One gets a sense of the immense larger costs of this imperialist exercise by looking intimately at the specific experience of these unusual, morally complex heroes...and their battle to retain their sanity, their sense of purpose, and their ethical bearings.

It's official: the best actor under 30 in Hollywood is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Period, end of story. Brick, The Lookout, Mysterious Skin, Stop-Loss, and now this minor masterpiece...how can it be argued otherwise? (For you smartasses suggesting G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, I say...nobody's perfect.) Choosing smart projects is part of Gordon-Levitt's brilliance, of course, but his ability to master seismic emotional tones -- like those of the lovelorn office drone Tom Hansen in this year's best romantic comedy -- is unparalleled. And I love that the climax of the film isn't what one expects...a happy ending, but not one Hollywood normally asks us to swallow.

2009's singularly hot-button drama leaves little room for the viewer to maneuver -- it's a love-it or hate-it affair. For its detractors, I'll acknowledge the so-so camera work, the indulgence of stereotype, and the problematic ending. But you'd have to be soulless not to be affected by the struggles of these characters, the damning failure of the welfare system, or the powerful message of the effort. Add in the most terrifying performance of the entire year -- Mo'Nique's brutal, drug-addicted mother, whose struggles could easily merit a film of her own -- and I find it impossible to ignore Precious' cumulative strength and passion.

Confession: I have never liked a Wes Anderson film. Sacrilege, I know, but I'm just bored silly by his upper-class antics, his forced whimsy, and his navel-gazing plots. But all is forgiven, thanks to the ecstatic triumph of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The auteur's intellect have found a pitch-perfect frame in Roald Dahl's childrens' book, and in the medium of animation; never has Anderson seemed so liberated or joyful, or for that matter, so sharply attuned to the audience experience. A nod of the cap as well to the vocal work of the cast and to the animators, who created a visual palette that felt both timeless and extraordinary. Fantastic, indeed.

Confession, Part Two: I have never liked a Jason Reitman film, either. To me, Thank You For Smoking was labored and dreary, Juno distressingly hipsterish and reactionary. I'd have never expected, based on those two efforts, that Reitman would be capable of a masterpiece like Up in the Air, a film that captures the zeitgeist of 2009 in a way no other work of popular art has. Watching the film is like watching a high-wire artist balance an umbrella on his nose, riding the glum, dehumanizing nature of the economic downturn even as it lifts to search for human connection in the modern world. Reitman has always had great success with casting (I credit much of his career success, in fact, to Ellen Page and Aaron Eckhart), and Up in the Air is no different -- George Clooney gives the performance of his career, while his supporting actresses, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, match him note for note. If the global depression (both economic and cultural) defined the last twelve months on Planet Earth, Up in the Air might just be the blueprint for 2010...a way back to what is most important about our collective existence.

Previously on ModFab:
The Best Movies of the Decade
The Best Songs of the Decade

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Blogger Cal said...

Decent list Gabriel, and thanks for reminding me that I really need to see Bronson before I finalise acting lists (and picture lists judging by your #9 placing!).

Gotta say, I saw Precious and was like "eh?". The handling of the Mo'Nique character annoyed me and I found the direction very messy.

1/1/10, 9:50 AM  

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