Thursday, January 7, 2010

Top 11 of 2009

(Because 10 just isn't enough)

11.
Zombieland

An unlikely group of zombie holocaust survivors

In a time when zombies are pretty much anywhere in film, videogames, or in media in general and most people (myself included) are getting a little tired of the whole zombie fad, it is surprising to still find some life in a genre about no life. First time feature film director Reuben Fleischer nails it right out of the park with Zombieland, a sort of road movie meets apocalypse movie. The movie isn’t the first to poke a little fun at the ineptitude of zombies and their traits (see Shaun of the Dead), but it is the first to make a zombie movie where the zombies are more or less background fodder and don’t really impact the story too much.

We follow four people who meet up with each other along the way by coincidence and end up on a road trip to California to…well, that really isn’t the point of the film. The point of the film is to provide a sort of tour of Zombieland and have a few laughs and icky moments along the way. This success lies in a tight script, a knowledgeable director, and some very good casting. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin all hit it spot on and look out for that cameo later in the film which serves no real purpose other than being totally awesome.

10.
Coraline

Coraline being entranced by a world that is a little too perfect

Stop motion animation is an art form that is time consuming, beautiful, and something that only film can pull off. The fact that we are lucky enough to have a man such as Henry Selick that isn’t just a fan of this way of film making, but also a master at it is truly a blessing. Coraline is based off a children’s book that I am unfamiliar with so this is based solely on the merits of the film itself. The story of a young child, a girl in this case, being somewhat ignored by her parents and going on adventures isn’t exactly groundbreaking. It is the world itself and the adventures had in it that what makes this film truly unique and breathtaking.

Coraline’s journey to another dimension of sorts where she meets physically identical versions of people she knew from her real world (except for their button eyes of course) is a real treat to experience. The little nuances in animation and the design of these worlds truly come alive with the tactile feel that only stop animation can provide. I can only hope that we see more films of this caliber in this medium sooner rather than later because as much as I like “Nightmare before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” (Selick’s last two features), I don’t want to wait another 10 to 15 years for it.

9.
Drag Me to Hell

Alison Lohman getting dirty on the job

I hated, really despised that piece of cinematic trash known as Spider-man 3. That was not the Sam Raimi I loved for decades that gave me my Evil Dead trilogy, A Simple Plan, and Spider-man 2. Thankfully Drag Me to Hell was proof positive that Sam was not the man responsible for that turd. This film did two things for me this year, one of which was the redemption of a truly talented man, but also it showed me that PG-13 horror movies don’t have to suck. Drag Me to Hell is a pure horror film that is about the torture of a woman banker that is just trying to get by in life who has the unfortunate luck of picking the wrong person to turn away to get that big promotion.

After the curse is put upon her the film turns into pure Raimi bliss. His well known affection for putting his lead actors through hell is on full display here. I was sort of ambivalent towards Alison Lohman before seeing this, but any woman who can go through what she did (Sam poured real worms on to her face!) made me want to see her working again real soon. All the usual Raimi tricks are at play here…tilted camera zooms? Check. Random loud noises? Check. Talking goats? Check. Killer scarf? Check. Being dragged to hell and loving every minute of it? Check.

8.
Avatar

"Go ahead, tell me you don't like blue cat people, I dare you"

Other than stealing the title of the film adaptation for “Avatar: The Last Airbender” I held no animosity towards this film prior to its release. I had no problem with blue cat people or how it was being held up on a pedestal for being a game-changer in the world of film making. What I was interested in was the long awaited return of a man that seemed to change how film making is done with each new film he made, Mr. James Cameron. This film is not an amazing movie, nor is it an amazing story, but it is an amazing experience to behold. After nearly 12 years of waiting, James Cameron is back and not showing one ounce of the Lucas effect (which is a bad thing by the way).

The world of Pandora in Avatar is the true spectacle going on in the film. The level of detail that is there on screen for every shot is amazing. There were a few moments when watching this in glorious IMAX 3D where I actually felt like I was in the world on screen and I don’t think that will be happening again with any other movie for a very long time. When Jake Sully climbs towards the cliffs where he must meet and tame his dragon…well it just sort of made me feel like a kid again where I once thought anything was possible. The only thing that worries me is how this will all transfer over to the home experience…

7.
Star Trek

To boldly go where no reboot has gone before

Yeah, this movie kind of takes a giant poop on everything that Trek creator Gene Roddenberry tried to instill in every episode and film of Star Trek, but unfortunately that Trek died a long time ago and I for one am glad it is back regardless. Star Trek was THE event movie of last summer that actually delivered what nobody thought was possible…a space adventure full of action and peril. Director J.J. Abrahams took a hyper spray with a cocktail of his own design and gave Trek the booster shot it needed a long time ago. With a new look, a new crew filling in for familiar characters, and most importantly a new audience of fans, this movie was set for success.

And success is what it had. The casting was spot on, but that was something to appease the many long time Trek fans, what really nailed this version of Trek’s success was that for the first time ever Star Trek was…exciting. No longer was it like a version of Battleship in space, but it was more like, dare I say it…Star Wars. I am not sure how well this film will hold up over time (some recent viewings have already started to make it lose its luster a little bit for me) but for this year at least it was Star Trek at the top of its game and for once, it was cool to like Star Trek.

6.
The Hurt Locker

A lot of explosions in this movie

I am not really big on war movies, especially Iraq war movies. This is one of those rare films that really transcends its setting and becomes something else entirely. Does it take place during the Iraq war? Yes. Does it focus on the soldiers fighting in the war? Yes. Does it feel like a war movie? No. And that is important to its success since the film really does just focus in on one small unit of soldiers whose job it is to find and deactivate wired explosives of all kinds around Iraq. You are watching and becoming invested in their lives, not the political war being fought there.

The film moves with the demolition team all over Iraq and you see them put into some really horrific situations that regardless of how you feel about the war, you will sympathize with them. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, knows how to film action and she does a superb job of building up the tension, releasing it and then building it back up again. Great film that was mostly overlooked by audiences due to the Iraq war tag on it, but I urge you to not do the same. Once you witness one of the most accurate sniper battles ever committed to film you will thank me for it.

5.
Inglorious Basterds

"So you didn't like Death Proof eh?"

Quentin Tarantino has become predictable to me anymore and I am a little saddened by that. It doesn’t make me dislike his work at all, but when I can sense a cluster**** about to happen 10 minutes before it does…well that kind of takes a little enjoyment out of it for me. However, it should be noted then that even with that this film made my number 5 spot fairly easily. Why? Well because this is probably his best work to date. Even with the misleading advertising campaign the film captured me with its stereotypical Tarantino dialogue and set up (chapters anyone?). Tarantino truly has made the last WW2 film we ever need to see.

Brad Pitt is the only truly recognizable face amongst the impressive ensemble cast here, but that is what I love about Tarantino, he casts his parts with people who fit them best. The film isn’t entirely along the same lines as history and I was happy with that, especially with the outcome he has devised, but I still would have liked to have seen more of the Basterds though in the end. It felt like a cheat to make them so appealing and only give us little nuggets. Still, you can’t argue with a director that tricks his audience into watching a film that is about 80% in subtitles and no one ever notices it until it is over. Bravo Mr. Tarantino, bravo.

4.
Watchmen

It was hard finding an image of Dr. Manhattan without the blue dong in all it's glory

I am not seeing this on many top lists for the year which is sad but understandable. It is a very difficult film to digest and without watching it a few times the viewer can get lost very easily. This, like Coraline, I am unfamiliar with the source material, so this is based solely on the merits of the film. I thought it was unfair but understandable that this film was advertised as an action film considering there is maybe a total of 20 minutes of action during the entire three hour runtime. But even with that obstacle, Director Zach Snyder managed to juggle a very complex story and many complex characters and somehow made the definitive super hero film out of what was called by its creator, an un-filmable graphic novel.

This film unlike any before it truly dissects its protagonists and we see them as actual people with problems. Some come from a troubled childhood, some were chosen by fate and others took it upon themselves to try and do the right thing, but all of them in the end still come out as true super heroes. This year was truly a highlight for ensemble casts from Star Trek, to Inglorious Basterds and Watchmen of which all actors shined in each of their roles. Watchmen may not be held as one the best super hero action movies, but it will be seen as the best super hero character piece of its time.

3.
Moon

Without a doubt the best performance of the year

First time director Duncan Jones is the first man to make a modern day equivalent to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is no small feat considering how many films have tried and failed with the closet one being Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine”. Moon is about a man (Sam Rockwell) being posted up on the big grey ball for three years of service mining precious materials for some large company back on Earth. Sam Rockwell is THE only actor in the film for all intensive purposes. The fact that he was able to carry an entire film (with the help of Kevin Spacey as the voice to his robot butler, Gerty) is a true testament to this man’s acting chops. So what is it that puts this film in the league of greatness lead by Kubrick’s masterpiece?

It is minimalist science being presented here, nothing with fancy computer screens or space ships zipping around. Even the special effects are done with miniatures and not CG which was more of a breath of fresh air than I was expecting. It is all working together to present to the viewer a truly possible future which makes the mystery even scarier. There is a mystery to the film which I would not dare even elaborate on since it is core to what makes this film so special. If you are looking for a science fiction film that makes you think instead of blink then this is it my friend.

2.
District 9

Illegal aliens being evicted from their homes

There have always been two different types of movies dealing with Aliens visiting our planet. They are nice, sweet and cuddly or here to abduct us and then kill us…well, Director Neil Blomkamp has given us a third possibility finally. The aliens in District 9 are benign, not too easy on the eyes, and to a larger degree they are hapless and incapable of taking very good care of themselves. They are for lack of a better term, the trailer trash of visiting beings from another planet. The mere fact that nobody has tried to portray aliens in this fashion is pretty eye opening and now that I have seen it I can’t believe I never thought of that as a possibility.

Nobody is happy to have these aliens called Prawns (just wait till you see them) on our planet. The entire planet (save some scientists and greedy business men) feels this way and that is how we meet our “hero” played by a remarkable actor, Sharlto Copely. He is tasked with moving them out of the city and that is where the mockumentary footage comes into play as we the audience watch him do his work. He is not a likable man and is very difficult to identify with, but dam it if I didn’t love where his story goes and how it affects him.

I would be remised not to mention the outstanding effects throughout the film. This is one of the best fusions of CG and live action effects I have seen in a long time. At no point is something CG just because it can be, only if there were no other way to get across to the viewer what needed to be said. A lot has been made of how this film cost a scant 35 million (compare that to the 300+ million of Avatar) and yet looks like it cost double that and I must say I agree. It is remarkable what the film makers were able to pull off with that budget and I hope when they make the inevitable sequel they do it with the same care and planning they did with this.

1.
(500) Days of Summer

sigh

When you connect with a movie in a way that no one else does it can skew your viewpoint of it. You have to be careful when recommending it to someone with too much glee or you risk over hyping it. It is also somewhat impossible to explain why the film is as good as you say it is when so much of what makes it work for you cannot be explained properly in the first place. Well, (500) Days of Summer is such a film and I am going to try my hardest to get across to you why this movie is so near and dear to me.

“This is not a love story”, the narrator tells us at the beginning, but it is however the story of a young man who so desperately wants to be in love that he tricks himself into thinking he is. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the lead role as a man who is somewhat gliding through life not really trying to achieve anything beyond finding that perfect someone. He works at a greeting card company where he comes up with many catchy sayings to put on their cards and he has been doing it for a while now despite having a degree in architecture. This is where he meets Summer, played by the ever so adorably quirky Zooey Deschanel.

They meet, she finds him interesting, he loves her instantly and despite her attitude towards relationships they end up becoming a couple. The 500 days chronicles the first moment they became aware of each other up to the point where they part ways. This is a sort of bitter sweet romance and more to the point a truthful look at how most romances work out. The film bounces around those 500 days showing the good times and the bad times, in a lot of ways I was reminded of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” with how the flashbacks worked out, but this is much easier to consume than that film.

I found myself nodding in agreement with Levitt’s character almost all the time when he would speak his mind. Also, the little ways he would try to attract Summer’s attention in the beginning were a little to spot on for me but were wonderful to behold just the same. There is one moment (of many) that hits me in the gut each time I see it and that is when the director, Marc Webb, goes into a split screen format to show at the same time what actually happens at a party Levitt visits and what his expectations were before getting there. I challenge any man that has wished something had happened the way they had envisioned it only to be woken up by harsh reality to not get choked up by how that plays out.

I initially went into this film just wanting to see some more of one of my favorite actresses but was overcome with joy to find it to be much more than I had ever hoped. This is the first romance to ever come highly recommended for both single people and couples alike because both kinds will get something out of it and maybe even learn a little something as well. These were the best 500 days I had at the movies all year and I plan on revisiting them as often as I can.

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