Monday, January 11, 2010

The Best of 2009

2009, was in many respects, a year of disappointment, both personally and globally. Right around the time the post-election hangover kicked you realized that your job was probably no longer secure (assuming you were lucky enough to still have one), our country was still mired in two wars and the only one who seemed to be happy were the CEO's of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns who used your tax dollars to buy another gold toilet for their yachts. It's only appropriate then that film in 2009 reflected that anxiety; it was though even a trip to the movies served as a reminder of just how scary it was outside.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air which featured George Clooney as a corporate axe-man, criss-crossing the country, firing people while offering a pithy pat on the back to those going home to families that depend upon them. Only along the way does he comes to realize his insular, lone wolf existence (dedicated to the asinine, yet strangely relatable, goal of attaining 10 million frequent-flyer miles) is merely a shell game put in place to prevent him from establishing any real emotional attachments. It's a testament to Reitman and Clooney (who's never been better) that not only is the film dazzling, old Hollywood-style entertainment filled with beautiful people being charming, but also one of the great existential crisis movie of our time. How, in a world where it's become easier than ever to stay connected, is it we've become more self-contained and shut-off from our fellow man?

Of course the economic crisis had a funny way of rearing its head in the most unexpected of places. Sam Raimi's low-tech, comedy-horror-extravaganza Drag Me to Hell not only satiated the long held demand for a fourth Evil Dead film but gave audiences the perverse pleasure of watching a pretty, young (but cravenly opportunistic) loan officer (Allison Lohman) spit up gobs of black bile, be tossed around by a decrepit old crone and have large chunks of her hair torn from her head after kicking an old gypsy woman out of her home. The film finds Raimi at his most impish, teasing out scares and playing the audience like a harp; you won't know whether to shriek or giggle but that's pretty much the point. Of course, no film was more terrifying than Chris Smith's Collapse a doomsday documentary that makes an Inconvenient Truth look like a bedtime story. Essentially a ninety minute long sit down interview with former police officer turned reporter, Michael Ruppert, the film explains the concept of "peak oil" and that an economy built upon it (like for example, our own) is doomed to topple much sooner than later. It's the sort of film where you find yourself praying that Ruppert is a crackpot simply because the alternative may cause you to lose sleep. Or buy a gun.

The war in Iraq may have lost space on the front page this year to the economy but it finally became the subject of a great film. Two of them actually. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker has already been feted by most major critics groups so I'll simply add that the film remains one of the most intensely visceral films I've ever seen and features a star making performance from Jeremy Renner. Iraq is never explicitly mentioned in Armando Iannucci's In the Loop (an adaptation of the BBC series "The Thick of It") but that's about the only thing that isn't said in an explicit fashion. Showing the maneuvering and scrambling on both sides of the pond in the days leading up to a US invasion of Iraq, the film wields verbal dexterity and creative profanity like a saber, depicting both sides of the war debate as opportunistic fumblers and slimy schemers. The whole film plays like a 1930's screwball farce, only everyone's talking about cunts, scrotums and lubricated horse cocks.

The two best character studies of the year were both films about immature Jewish men confused by love (and no, I'm not talking about A Serious Man, although I was pretty fond of that film as well). James Gray's Two Lovers starred Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of the year as a thirty-something Brighton Beach man torn between the excitement and passion inspired in him by a beautiful fair-haired temptress (Gwenyth Paltrow, reminding people that, before she was a blogger and Chris Martin's wife, she was a hell of an actress) and the security of a plain-looking (by Hollywood standards anyway) Jewish woman from the neighborhood, achingly played by Vinessa Shaw. Bracingly perceptive in depicting arrested development and the behavior of fickle young men, Two Lovers had the misfortune of being known as the film Phoenix was promoting when he had a public meltdown/decided he wanted to pull a Borat-like media stunt. A box office misfire as a result, time should be much kinder to it. However, the most misunderstood film of the year is Judd Apatow's Funny People which seemed to alienate star Adam Sandler's fan base of frat boys and meatheads as well as most critics who failed to recognize what a revelation the film was from both its star and director. Calling to mind both James L. Brooks and Eric Rohmer (only with dick and fart jokes), the film is a turbulent and overlong yet wonderfully human story of a man who, when faced with death, goes through the motions of change but never actually does becomes a better person.

Speaking of death, how we carry on in the wake of losing a loved one (and what we do with what they leave behind) was a surprising reoccurring motif this year. The French film Summer Hours, from prolific by wildly inconsistent filmmaker Oliver Assayas, shows the way three siblings react to the sale of their family estate after the passing of their mother. Attuned to the way we project memories and sentimental value onto the keepsakes and possessions of our childhood, the film finds deep reservoirs of understated sadness as the liquidation of assets and relocation of heirlooms feels as tragic as the death of a parent. Less understated (at least in my experience) in its sadness is the animated film Up from Pixar and director Peter Doctor.
Ostensibly the story of an old man and a little boy who fly off to South America in a house hoisted by thousands of balloons, the film has the capacity to reduce me to a sobbing mess (several times throughout) every time it addresses the death of square-jawed curmudgeon Carl Fredricksen's wife, Ellie, initially dramatized in a much lauded musical interlude depicting their lives together, from courtship to her death. It's a curious jumping off point for a kid's film about high adventure and talking dogs but it's essential to keep the film emotionally (..erm...) grounded and a reminder that we often can't begin our new lives until we let go of our old ones. But lest all this death stuff get too heavy, we'll always have Bobcat Goldthwait (yes the guy with the dumb voice from the Police Academy movies). Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad was marketed as the latest sickly sweet comedy from Robin Williams, but don't believe it. Working a pitch black comedic vein, World's Greatest Dad explored the way the dead are canonized by those left behind, often rewriting history and riding roughshod over who they really were to bolster the living's own sense of self worth. It's the rare comedy that would have us find humor in suicide notes and tragedy in masturbation mishaps.

Ten Best of '09:(*)
1. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
2. Two Lovers (James Gray)
3. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
4. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
5. Funny People (Judd Apatow)
6. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
7. Collapse (Chris Smith)
8. Up (Peter Doctor)
9. World's Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait)
10. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)

Honorable Mention:
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)
Revanche (Götz Spielmann)
A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
In the Electric Mist (Bertrand Tavernier)
Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

(*) In the two weeks between writing this article and it's eventual posting, I finally saw the documentary The Cove from filmmaker Louie Psihoyos and my mind was suitably blown. If I were less lazy I'd rewrite this whole thing to incorporate the film into my top 10 but in addition to being a pain in the ass that's not in the spirit of reflecting my mindset at the end of 2009. Needless to say, in addition to the films written about at length here, you should definitely check out The Cove as well.

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