LISTFUL THINKING: Ten Under – Best of 2009

1 01 2010

It is hard to nail all the great movies of a year in ten slots.  So, in order to fully honor 2009 in movies, I have also concocted a list that would be the equivalent of my #11-20.  I call it “Ten Under.”  When you someone is ten under in golf, it’s a great thing.  So rather than focusing on the fact that these movies are not in the top 10, I want to celebrate their merit in a positive way.

Note that rather than ranking them, I will present them in alphabetical order.

“ADAM”

Tender but never maudlin, “Adam” is unparalleled in the number of “aww”s elicited.  Hugh Dancy’s affectionate performance as the titular character with Asperger’s syndrome is the crucial element to the movie’s success, and you can feel the care put into every twitch and line.  It is sure to warm your heart, if not melt it entirely.

“AVATAR”

James Cameron’s “Avatar” will be remembered not just as a movie but as a watershed in the history of cinema.  The movie’s astounding effects are enough to make you forget some of the flaws in the script, and they really do have the power to create a new world.  Cameron goes all out to make sure Pandora is not just brought to life, but also flourishes.  How quickly can he get to work on the sequel?

“THE COVE”

“The Cove” is a powerful documentary that alerts us to a crisis we need to correct – and it is completely void of Al Gore lecturing.  While systematically running down everything wrong with the slaughter of dolphins in Japan, the filmmakers show us how they verified the massacre.  This never feels like a documentary because they wisely set it up like a crime/heist film, and the excitement builds up until it breaks and we feel nothing but a fervent urge to aid their cause.

“DISTRICT 9”

Thank heavens for viral marketing because without it, I would never have seen “District 9,” which appeals and amazes on all fronts.  Smarts?  An elaborate Apartheid metaphor and undertones of racism, check.  Acting?  An incredibly physically and emotionally committed performance by South African actor Sharlto Copley, check.  Visuals?  Aliens that make James Cameron’s output look like the Smurfs putting on a production of “Cats,” check.  There is no doubt about it, “District 9” has the goods and delivers.

“DRAG ME TO HELL”

For me, “Drag Me to Hell” was the year’s biggest surprise.  I’m not usually the horror movie type, and I generally consider mixing horror and comedy about as toxic as drinking and driving.  But Sam Raimi’s movie made me reexamine my policy.  “Drag Me to Hell” is scary good, frightening and hilarious often at the same time.  Featuring electrifying action scenes and some purposefully atrocious one-liners, it’s a movie that keeps getting better the more I think about it.

“FANTASTIC MR. FOX”

Who would have thought that Wes Anderson’s humor would transfer like carbon paper to animation?  Anyone who instantly recognized that “Fantastic Mr. Fox” contained the same spirit as previous projects surely did.  It’s the same undeniable, albeit a little peculiar, fun that Anderson has sharpened with each movie.  There’s never a dull moment here, and whether it’s filled with clever wordplay or amusing animation tricks, this stop-motion joy delights at soaring levels.

“FUNNY PEOPLE”

I’ll admit to not being entirely won over by Judd Apatow’s “Funny People” at first sight.  But I think “Up in the Air” shed some light on the director’s aim with the movie.  I have concluded that it fell victim to my incredibly high-expectations after “Knocked Up” rocked my world.  “Funny People” tones down the laughs and amps up the deep thoughts.  Adam Sandler’s comedian George Simmons is absolutely miserable in his isolation, and the news that his life will end soon only makes him realize how alone he actually is.  Over the course of the movie, which never feels as long as it actually is, Simmons tries to forge a meaningful relationship with a green comic played by Seth Rogen.  It doesn’t quite have Jason Reitman’s insight, but “Funny People” is an impressive rumination on similar themes.

“I LOVE YOU, MAN”

If a bromantic comedy genre ever catches on, “I Love You, Man” will be its “The Great Train Robbery.”  The movie follows the relationship between Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) and Sidney Fife (Jason Segel) that forms after the former’s wife worries about him not having any guy friends.  Their adventures are dastardly hilarious, but the movie’s unforeseen strength is its brain.  “I Love You, Man” is a brilliant satire of how we see relationships, executed by the juxtaposition of a romantic partnership and a casual friendship.  Slowly but surely, the functions of both of Peter’s relationships begin to switch.  If we weren’t aware of the context of Sidney and Peter’s male camaraderie, would we see them as lovers?  Would the casual observer?  Look deeper into “I Love You, Man” because it is the most understatedly brilliant movie of the year.  Slappin da bass?

“THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG”

The hand-drawn animation glory days are revived with great verve through “The Princess and the Frog.”  There is plenty to evoke these classics of my childhood, but even more is new – and no, I’m not talking about the race of the princess.  The movie is as lively as its New Orleans setting, with some larger-than-life characters that amuse and enchant.  Randy Newman’s jazzy score is a vivacious addition to a vibrant movie, and the songs aren’t too shabby either.  With Anika Noni Rose’s silky smooth voice behind the tunes, “The Princess and the Frog” is a high-spirited time as only Disney can give us.

“WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE”

Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” earned plenty of enemies for its rather despondent outlook while aiming to entertain the youngsters.  It packs plenty of rollicking fun for that demographic, but the movie definitely means more to those who can look back on childhood for what it really is.  While there is plenty of bliss in this time, our youthful years are also filled with questioning and struggles.  Jonze gets the big picture, and his movie provides one of the few honest portrayals of childhood in cinema.  Stark and grim as it may be, we can’t argue with it.





REVIEW: Drag Me to Hell

31 10 2009

I have made it inherently clear that I’m not a big fan of horror movies.  However, “Drag Me to Hell” is surprisingly rip-roaring entertainment, simultaneously fun and spine-chilling.  Co-writer/director Sam Raimi has removed a veil of self-importance that the horror genre has given itself and presents a movie that never takes itself too seriously.  He knows that his movie is packed full of the stereotypical harbingers of doom: flies, shadows, old ladies, worms – you name it, he included it.  He knows that his movie does not offer a plot you haven’t seen or can’t predict.  Yet he infuses “Drag Me to Hell” with a refreshing dark humor, most evident during the action sequences, that makes it a pill you don’t mind swallowing.

Christine (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer who turns down the wrong woman (a gypsy played to eerie perfection by Lorna Raver) while seeking a promotion.  She is haunted by spirits who would make the “Paranormal Activity” demon cower.  They don’t care for a slow build, but rather come soon, quickly, and often.  “Drag Me to Hell” is particularly sharp in capturing the psychological toll the haunting takes on Christine, especially when she is required to make tough moral judgement calls.  Thus, the movie is surprisingly thought-provoking, raising questions such as, “Who deserves to go to hell?”

“Drag Me to Hell” is only PG-13, so there is no excessive gore or nasty torture.  But there is plenty to freak you out and gross you out, the latter being mostly for laughs.  The movie’s brilliant sequences of terror make you uncomfortable in a completely original way by making you unsure of what emotion to feel.  As Christine fends herself from the haggardly gypsy by using a stapler, you can’t help but wonder how to react.  Do I scream?  Do I cringe?  Do I laugh?  I did the latter of the three, but Raimi brilliantly concocts these moments so that the audience can make of it what they want.  “Drag Me to Hell” is what you make it: an action movie, a horror movie, a comedy, or any combination of the three.  The choice is yours.  A- /