LISTFUL THINKING: The Top 10 Movies of 2009

31 12 2009

As strange as it is to say, 2009 is over.

As the bookend of the first decade of the new millennium, this year has come to represent the changing scope of the 2000s.  Technology, as it always seems to, has reached soaring heights.  But as the man who created the most revolutionary of these advancements this year, James Cameron, said in an interview with Newsweek, “Filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s about storytelling. It’s about humans playing humans. It’s about close-ups of actors. It’s about those actors somehow saying the words and playing the moment in a way that gets in contact with the audience’s hearts. I don’t think that changes.”

With that in mind, I celebrate 2009 for all the incredible stories that enchanted me as only cinema can with my top 10 list.

HONORABLE MENTION

“Julie & Julia”
Directed and Written by Nora Ephron
Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Stanley Tucci

Although it is not one of my ten favorites of the year, “Julie & Julia” deserves to be featured on this list because of how highly influential it has been to me.  Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this post, nor this blog.  Julie Powell’s quest to find fulfillment through blogging about her obsession inspired me to do the same, and look where it has taken me!

But I don’t mean to devalue the movie at all.  Nora Ephron’s tale is a sweet treat, that rare movie which is always dependable to put a smile on your face and provide enjoyable entertainment in any circumstance.  Meryl Streep reminds us why she is the greatest actress of her generation with a savory and delightful turn as Julia Child, never once devolving into an impression or caricature.  And Amy Adams is great as well, blending sweet and nutty into one delicious performance (I could keep this food wordplay going all day).

#10

“The Hangover”
Directed by Todd Phillips
Written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis

“The Hangover” is, without a doubt, the most riotous raunchy romp to hit theaters in 2009, and a strong case could be made to extend that title well beyond this year.  The movie has you in stitches from beginning to end.  Surprisingly, the three buddies piecing together the dirty details of an inebriated evening serves as the year’s most engrossing mystery.  The movie also benefits from having a cast with none of the hackneyed comedy stars of the decade, so it never feels like we are breathing recycled air.  Zach Galifianakis is the real standout, and he infuses his character with such energy that we laugh at every move and line.  In a year that I found to be high in relatable movies, “The Hangover” stands out as the one movie with which I hope I will never be able to identify.

#9

“Star Trek”
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Zoë Saldana

Although its effects may not dazzle on the level of “Avatar,” J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” captivates using the real sorcery of cinema – the story. Cunning scripters Orci and Kurtzman won my instant respect for figuring out how to escape continuity with the TV series. Wielding this power, they could have taken a radically different direction. While a fairly different approach is clearly visible, the movie pays a great deal of respect to the original series. They even figure out a way to give a part to Leonard Nimoy, one of the original cast members (now the onus is on them to work Shatner in). Big themes, such as logic vs. intuition, are explored with great deftness. In the absence of big movie stars, new talent like Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Zoe Saldana get the chance to shine, and some stars are born.

#8

“Precious”
Directed by Lee Daniels
Written by Geoffrey Fletcher
Starring Gabourey Sidibe, MoNique, and Mariah Carey

Harrowing as “Precious” may be, upon further reflection, the movie’s buoyant side is what remains the strongest in my memory. Precious, played with grueling grit by newcomer Sidibe, spends most of the movie sulking around Harlem with a stern scowl. And she has certainly been given little reason to smile, her life unfolding like a hellish worst-case scenari0. But as Precious becomes aware of the goodness people can possess, a smile begins to creep ever so slowly across her face. “Precious” is a hopeful reaffirmation of human compassion. Discussion of the movie wouldn’t be complete without Mo’Nique, who gives the most haunting performance of the year as Precious’ abusive mother. We spend most of the movie loathing her, but in the game-changing final scene, she shocks us with her justification. We can’t vindicate someone who has done such despicable things to an innocent girl, yet Mo’Nique makes sure that we can’t say that we “hate” her character.

#7

“Inglourious Basterds”
Directed and Written by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, and Christoph Waltz

I was a little disapproving of Quentin Tarantino’s latest aestheticizing of violence and revenge, but a repeat viewing has increased my appreciation of “Inglourious Basterds” exponentially. It’s all the idiosyncrasies we love about Tarantino’s previous movies moved back to World War II. Aside narration from Samuel L. Jackson! Close-up shots of cream! Twenty minute build-ups to ten second climaxes! The whole bloody mess is topped off by an extraordinary performance by Christoph Waltz, whose Col. Hans Landa is a fascinating fusion of magnetism and villainy. He owns all of his scenes, slowly building up tension until we are quaking in our seats. Tarantino uses “Inglourious Basterds” to prove that he really won’t ever grow up, and that is fine by me. The precocious Peter Pan continues to churn out enthralling movies, and this one showcases his impeccable knowledge of film. It’s glo(u)rious.

#6

“Duplicity”
Directed and Written by Tony Gilroy
Starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen

“Duplicity” is the most unforgettably vibrant movie of the year, and the spell it put on me back in March has not faded in the slightest.  It has all the class that writer/director Tony Gilroy brought to his Best Picture-nominated “Michael Clayton,” but this is him at his unbridled best, free of all reticence.  With some split-screen and a rocking score, Gilroy’s fast-paced and complex script is an absolute blast.  The movie also features two great performances from its lead actors, Julia Roberts who finally begins to act her age and a very game Clive Owen.  “Duplicity” is the best workout my brain got all year sitting in a theater chair, and it has an allure that few movies possess nowadays.

#5

“(500) Days of Summer”
Directed by Marc Webb
Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel

Are they star-crossed lovers or destined to be together?  We spend most of “(500) Days of Summer” trying to figure this out, and the movie makes it all but impossible for us to take a side until its parting moments.  At times, Tom (Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Deschanel) are a joyous pair, and the movie radiates the brightest of feelings.  But at others, they butt heads with such magnitude that reconciliation just seems pointless.  With a refreshing philosophy, the brilliant writing team flips the romantic comedy on its head and churns out a story of boy meets girl (not a love story, as the movie would have us know).  Gordon-Levitt charms as the idealistic lover, while Deschanel simply beguiles.  She gives her character so many layers that my two viewings are not sufficient to peel them all, yet a part of me thinks that I don’t really want to solve Deschanel’s beautiful enigma.  What’s equally great about the movie is how its scribe Neustadter has managed to spin real-life heartbreak into cinematic gold.  Taylor Swift, take notes – this is how it’s done.

#4

“The Hurt Locker”
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty

“The Hurt Locker” gets your blood pumping like no other movie this year.  As the intrepid Staff Sergeant James, Jeremy Renner is an absolutely commanding.  It’s absolutely astounding to watch his character remain complete control in the face of death, dismantling bombs with a bitterly sardonic sense of humor. Director Kathryn Bigelow ensures that “The Hurt Locker” as a whole matches Renner’s intensity, and the two forces working in harmony create the most riveting movie experience of the year.  It is an ornately crafted tour de force, exceptionally paced to really put us in Iraq with three soldiers trying to hold on to their lives.  You may feel yourself holding on to your own as you watch “The Hurt Locker.”  Don’t fight the sensation; it only adds to the experience.

#3

“An Education”
Directed by Lone Scherfig
Written by Nick Hornby
Starring Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, and Alfred Molina

“An Education” is simultaneously witty, serious, and insightful.  But for me, it is such a special movie because of its incredible resonance for me as a teenager.  Jenny, the film’s protagonist played with sheer brilliance by Carey Mulligan, is caught at the difficult intersection between adolescence and adulthood.  Her parents have constantly pushed her towards the stock path for a woman at the time, college and then some sort of petty career.  However, Jenny yearns for anything but the “hard and boring” life that lays ahead.  Mulligan lets this conflict evolve ever so subtly, and her journey to find the person she wants to become is rousing and exhilarating.  “An Education,” along with Mulligan, possesses a very quaint charm that reminds you of the good old days of cinema, allowing it to enchant at a very unique level.

#2

“Up”
Directed by Pete Docter
Written by Peter Docter and Bob Peterson
Voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, and Jordan Nagai

“Up” is one of those movies that has something for everyone.  I feel like I’m constantly discovering new themes as I watch it.  Fulfillment of old promises, intergenerational understanding, and the meaning of fatherhood have all stuck out to me in this tale about Carl Frederickson, the old widower flying his house to the vista of his dreams with the memory of his late wife still heavy on his heart.  Together with an unforeseen stowaway, the young Wilderness Explorer Russell, Carl doesn’t just change addresses – he changes.

A large part of my heart told me that I should name this my best movie of 2009. “Up” is the most beautifully poignant movie of the year, a heartfelt piece with an insuppressible magic.  Its emotional power is best showcased in the “Married Life” sequence, a moving four minute chronicle of Carl and Ellie’s marriage.  With only Michael Giacchino’s score and the images on the screen, the Pixar animators create narrative magic in its purest form.  We become so emotionally invested in the characters that a grin spreads from ear to ear when times are grand, and the tears fall at an unprecedented level when sad times fall.  I have watched the movie several times now, and I find myself crying earlier and earlier with every viewing.  I don’t expect to ever watch it dry-eyed.  “Up” is another wonderful Pixar splendor that I cannot wait to share with my kids and grandkids because it is the kind of movie that everyone can feel like a child while watching.

#1

“Up in the Air”
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner
Starring George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga

When I look back at 2009 many years from now, I am confident that “Up in the Air” will define the year in moviegoing.  It represents where we are as a nation in this recession, but it doesn’t stop there.  Jason Reitman’s thoughtful film explores isolation as a life choice, the power of human relationships, and how we find fulfillment.

I was fairly certain at first glance that this was my favorite movie of the year, but I had to be certain.  After a second time seeing “Up in the Air,” I became all the more convinced.  What really stood out was the nuanced acting, particularly George Clooney.  It’s the gentle progression in his facial expressions throughout the movie that really captured my attention, and subtleties like this are what make his performance so sharp.  The contrast between Clooney’s Bingham and Anna Kendrick’s Natalie Keener became much more prevalent to me, but the real brilliance lies in seeing the gradual effects they have on each other.

“Up in the Air” is the rare movie that can warm your heart and break it too in the course of two hours.  Reitman gives the brain so much to munch on, but there is plenty of light humor to make this the most gratifying movie experience of the year.  His movie taps into the zeitgeist better than any movie of 2009, and thus deserves to be called the year’s finest.

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5 responses

1 01 2010
Mad Hatter

Pretty good list, a lot of overlap between mine and yours! If you’re interested, I added it to my post collecting the year-end lists of the blogs I follow…

http://mcneilmatinee.blogspot.com/2009/12/everybodys-talkin-12-31-chatter-from.html

1 01 2010
Branden

Duplicity? Really?

2 01 2010
Marshall

Really really, Branden.
It was an irresistibly fun caper of espionage, mixed in with a little bit of sensual tension.

I took a gander at your site and didn’t find anything about “Duplicity” – have you not seen it or did you think it was so bad as not to merit a mention? Don’t knock it until you try it.

Or perhaps it just seems a little random in a list of mostly awards season contenders? If that’s what induced your “really,” I can only say that is the beauty of being a self-employed blogger. I’m not a critic, so no one is holding me to some ridiculously high standard (not that I know of at least). This list is filled with the movies that I enjoyed the most this year – nothing more, nothing less.

1 01 2010
Vanessa

Up is my number one 🙂
I did like Up in the Air but it didn’t quite make my list. It almost did…
I like your list though!

5 02 2010
rtm

Hi Marshall, two of your picks are in my Top 5 (#1 and #5). If I had seen Basterds, An Education and The Hurt Locker last year, I could’ve extend my list to 10. I did see Duplicity and had a pretty high expectation given my affinity for Clive and espionage flix, but alas I found it rather dull. The last part is not too bad, but not enough to ‘save’ the film IMO. But hey, to each their own y’know. Some people find Law Abiding Citizen abhorrent but I didn’t think it was THAT bad. Cool blog btw!

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