Dave on film: the best of 2009

It’s pretty easy to come up with a worst films list (as you’ll see next week when I publish my worst films of 2009 column) but the flip side is a better, more positive place to start. What films did I think exemplified the best of cinema, either as pure entertainment, as thought-provoking narrative, or simply as something that captured my imagination or piqued my curiosity?

Coraline — This is the only animated film on my list, in a year that saw a lot of animation, from the critically acclaimed Up (though I didn’t think it was that great) to the cyberpunk film 9 to Astro Boy, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Monsters vs. Aliens and Ponyo, to the novel Fantastic Mr. Fox. What makes Coraline stand alone is the edge, the darkness that slowly expands to encompass the story. Starting with a workaholic parents and an isolated, abandoned girl in a new town, the film travels in entirely unexpected directions with an extraordinary sense of visual style. Watch it, no question, but no question, it’s not for kids.

Watchmen — So many of my friends recommended the graphic novel to me but when I bought it and read the first 20-30 pages, I didn’t really get it, wasn’t impressed, and almost put it down. Then I continued reading and was blown away by the deep, epic story. Director Zack Snyder did a terrific job of bringing the story to the big screen in a sci-fi epic that is a worthy addition to the genre. From its glossy visual style to the inner challenges of its characters, to the visual inventiveness of the sets and exterior shots, it’s a perfect demonstration of why Blu-Ray and an HDTV can truly help you enjoy a fine film again and again.

Star Trek — I’ve never been a hardcore Trekkie but certainly enjoyed the TV series when I was younger and yes, I have seen all the Star Trek films. None of them left me grinning from ear to ear, thrilled at the action and story presented, enthused about the sheer audacity and verve of the reinvention of a well-loved media franchise, though. But that’s exactly what J.J.Abrams did with his 2009 release of Star Trek: reinvent the story and even make the goofy Captain Kirk (originally played by William Shatner) into a tough punk with a major attitude (Chris Pine). Backstory films can be tedious (see Batman) but when done right, it’s terrific, and action sci-fi doesn’t get much better than this fine film!

The Brothers Bloom — I’m a sucker for caper films, crime movies where the stories are intricately plotted and where we, as the audience, are just as suckered as the characters in the movie. Think Oceans Eleven, or, better,The Italian Job. The very best of the genre are when the criminals themselves aren’t sure what’s happening either, and that’s what Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo bring us as The Brothers Bloom: two con-men who from their earliest years are hustling people and running from con to con. But what happens when con-men get older and decide that maybe they’re done with the game?

Moon — There are different types of sci-fi films, ranging from the fun, whimsical to complex science movies that emphasize the technology, often at the cost of characterizations. Moon falls into the “hard sci-fi” category, but it’s almost all character development, and as the film unspools you get to see astronaut Sam Bell (a solid performance by Sam Rockwell) slowly go crazy as he’s manning a lunar mining station solo. But things aren’t quite as they appear and while the big twist isn’t a complete shocker, it was sufficiently novel that Moon made my list of best films. It’s well worth a watch.

(500) Days of Summer — I’m not a huge fan of romances, as is probably obvious by this list of action and sci-fi films with precious little “chick cinema” present, but this film was a delightful exception. Employing a unique and somewhat complex narrative technique, director Marc Webb made a romance for our modern times, where it wasn’t about seeking a happy ending as much as seeking to simply continue our optimistic travels through life, looking for love and not always finding it where we expect. A delightful film and Zooey Deschanel is just splendid. The best “date film” of my list, no question!

Inglorious Basterds — Take the tension of Jews versus Nazis, add the sweeping canvas of World War II and glue it together with the aggressive and visually striking style of Quentin Tarantino, then sprinkle in an extraordinary performance by Christoph Waltz as the terrifying and urbane Col. Hans Landa and you have one hell of a great movie. Tarantino still has some of his signature touches — including a few cringeworthy, violent scenes — but Inglorious Basterds really demonstrates his growing mastery of his craft as he becomes one of the best filmmakers of our times. If you think you’ve seen all that can be shown on screen in the WWII genre, you’re wrong. This film is suffused with a raw energy and features a nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse game. And who knew Brad Pitt had such acting abilities?

District 9 — Science fiction films have always offered a way to address deep philosophical topics indirectly. Think commie anxiety as portrayed in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example. What District 9 brings to the screen is the abhorrent practice of apartheid, as exemplified in the ghetto (really more of a concentration camp) in which the aliens in the film are forced to reside, right in the middle of Johannesburg, South Africa. With a cast of complete unknowns and a documentary-style narrative story, District 9 is a breath of fresh air in an oft-tired genre that forces you to ask uncomfortable questions about how we treat each other on a day to day basis.

Zombieland — A comedy about zombies? Perhaps amazingly, that’s exactly what first-time director Ruben Fleischer pulls off in this incredibly funny and entertaining film that has way more than its fair share of gross splatter moments. As I learned years ago while laughing through Dawn of the Dead with some friends, gross can be disgusting in one setting and quite amusing in another, odd as that may sound. Zombieland is definitely quite violent, but it works and add in the wonderful cameo from Bill Murray and you’ve got all the ingredients of a classic.

The Men Who Stare at Goats — Based on the critical and box office reception of this film, which wasn’t too strong, I surmise that we as a culture have lost the ability to understand and appreciate subtle satire. Go watch Catch-22 or Dr. Strangelove and you’ll see superb films that highlight the idiocy and futility of warfare. In a very similar manner, George Clooney and Kevin Spacey force us to look at the impact of the “free love” era on the military. Did the Army really spend money on psychic warriors? Does it matter? The crux of the movie is that it’s about the very fact that it’s even marginally plausible, not whether or not it really happened, or happened in exactly that manner.

Up In the Air — George Clooney again, this time in another story of our times, a modern romance of a middle aged man who has spent his entire life trying to run away from his family, his personal history and any sort of attachments whatsoever. They’re the “backpack” of life that just weigh you down. But what happens when someone like that meets a kindred traveler and is forced to examine his life, the choices he’s made and the future? A very good, touching film with a satisfying, non-Hollywood ending.

Avatar — Finally, after years of anticipation, James Cameron finally finished years of invention, production, filming and ground-breaking special effects, folding them all together into the not-quite-epic sci-fi “going native” film Avatar. It’s not a great story, honestly, but the completely immersive world of Pandora and the highly believable 10-foot tall Na’vi make for an astonishing cinematic experience, and a film that really must be seen in a theater (ideally in 3D) to fully appreciate. Like Titanic, don’t expect a deep, thoughtful story, just enjoy…

Well, that’s my list of best films for 2009. There are a few others that I thought were really good, but, frankly, I’m tired of typing, and it’s quite likely that you’re tired of reading. So let’s call it a wrap and look forward together to the best — and, inevitably, worst — of 2010.

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