Wednesday, March 10, 2010

10 out of '09

Well, the Oscars had their ten, now it's time for mine. Every year around this time, I like to announce what my favorite films of the previous year were (just in case anybody out there was actually interested in what I thought). But, before we begin, a few disclaimers:

First, this list is comprised of my "favorites", not the "best". So, these movies are ranked almost entirely by how much I enjoyed them and not the necessarily by the quality of the films themselves.
Second, this top ten list (like every one before and after it) is in a constant state of flux. Since I don't do film reviews for a living (yet), that means several of worthy movies remain unseen. I can tell you already that I can think of several potential contenders on my "watch" list that came out this year, but since I haven't gotten to them yet, the list now stands as it is.
Third, I usually arrange these lists by order of preference, but I thought for fun I'd do an official countdown this time. So, despite my failed attempt at not having a long-winded introduction, let's get on with it.

#10: Moon - Hard Sci-Fi needs to make a comeback. Unfortunately, I don't think audiences are intellectual enough anymore to make it economically feasible. There was some talk of David Fincher directing an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's novel "Rendezvous with Rama" starring Morgan Freeman, which I was stoked about. Unfortunately, it would seem that project got shelved 'cuz there's not a trace of it on IMDb anymore. For some reason, it seems Fincher is more interested in making a movie about freakin' facebook.
Anyway, "Moon" probably didn't do so hot because, at first glance, it looks like it borrows from too many other Sci-Fi films. It does, but it does so without coming across as stealing their ideas. And all of the cliches are pretty much superficial anyway. Unfortunately, I can't tell you too much about this movie without ruining its surprises, but I will say this: It's one of those rare films that starts out confusing and slowly, as layers are peeled away and revelations are revealed, everything starts to fall into place and you're taken aback by its unexpected, but sensible, brilliance. It's fantastical without being implausible and complex without being exhausting.
Most importantly, though, I don't have much respect for films that reveal their surprises by pulling the rug out from underneath you. I can appreciate the amusing "gotcha" sense of that gimmick, but I much more prefer a mystery that's been laid out ahead of time that you have clues to dismantle if you pay close enough attention rather than being tricked by something I had no possibility of suspecting. Any writer can tack on the "it was all a dream" or "the hero and the villain are the same person" at the end of their script, but it takes a real clever mind to put together a puzzle like "Moon". You'll recognize the difference when you see the movie for yourself.

#9: Zombieland - Funny to go from a movie like "Moon" to a movie like this and, furthermore, it's slightly embarrassing to rate it higher, but the truth is, "Zombieland" is just so much damn fun. Most zombie movies are fun - even the dead serious ones (no pun intended), but this one has so much fun with itself that it almost ceases to be a horror film. In a nutshell, this is a zombie movie for people who don't like (or, more commonly, can't stomach) zombie movies. A good introduction to the genre, in other words.
There's really nothing new about the whole zombie formula because they've been making zombie movies for over forty years and there's only so much you can do. This film does a good job of poking fun at the cliches and managing to still breathe some fresh air into it, though. In addition to its eclectic cast, it also contains one of the best celebrity cameos that I've seen in years. It's a shame so many people have revealed who it is and how it works into the movie, but I won't reveal it here. That scene alone makes the movie and is a big part of why this film made it into my top ten.

#8: The Road - And even funnier to follow "Zombieland" with "The Road" - except funnier in the opposite direction. Both are post-apocalyptic films about survivors making their way through the American wastelands, but they couldn't be further apart on the spectrum.
Despite being suspenseful and gripping - particularly because, early on in the movie, they establish the rules by demonstrating that anything can happen (and it just might) - what makes this movie truly horrifying is how plausible it is. I really believe that if the world found itself in these circumstances, this is exactly what would happen and that thought alone is more disturbing than anything the movie can offer up. In that sense, it's very similar to "Deliverance" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (and even "Schindler's List", actually) in exploring the lowest depths of human depravity and still remaining terrifyingly believable. When watching even the most unbearable horror film, one can usually at least cling to the notion of "Well, at least it could never happen." But if a movie can deprive you of that comfort, you're on your own - much like the protagonists of "The Road".
I suppose it's kinda ironic to have this film on the list since I went out of my way to announce ahead of time how these movies are based on my enjoyment (and I did not "enjoy" this movie), but it got under my skin too effectively for me to not give it its due.

#7: World's Greatest Dad - Much like "Moon", I think this was a movie that audiences were quick to dismiss because, on the surface, it looks all too familiar. Robin Williams playing a school teacher/father. Oh, and it's directed by Bobcat Goldthwait - that guy who played Zed in the Police Academy movies and set fire to the set of "The Tonight Show". Unfortunately (again, like "Moon"), you can't tell people how unique it is without spoiling the fun.
Of course, on the other hand, maybe the reason filmgoers didn't embrace this movie is because it's really offensive. One thing I can tell you about it is that, usually when you see an uruly teenage character in the movies, they're covering up some kind of vulnerability or they're weak and wounded in some way that you might feel sorry for them or, at least, find some humor in how disrespectful and audacious they are. However, the title character's son in this movie is so nasty and horrible that it is not only incomprehensible, but almost unwatchable. That's all I can really say about it.
Bottom line: If you're feeling brave and want to challenge your threshold for bad taste, this is a movie for you. Like "The Road", I hafta salute how much I liked it despite how much I hated it.

#6: Dead Snow - Don't know if I've ever had two zombie movies make my top ten list before, but they sure did this year. Interestingly enough, this one is different enough from "Zombieland" to not feel redundant. Chances are you've heard of "Zombieland" but not this one. Probably just because it's Norwegian and didn't have as big a budget or as wide a distribution. A shame. It's way better. But - fair warning - unlike "Zombieland" this one is for seasoned viewers and true zombie fans like myself.
Earlier I had pointed out how difficult it is to do anything truly original with zombie movies, but this one really impressed me. Not only with its innovation and originality, but how it still managed to remain loyal to its roots and inspiration. Also, like a true gourmet zombie flick, it is effectively funny and genuinely scary without either detracting from the other. The characters are likable enough to where you root for them, but not likable enough that you hate to see them devoured or disemboweled. The last movie I can think of that achieved these accomplishments as well as "Dead Snow" was "Tremors". And "Tremors" is on my top ten list of all-time favorites, so there you have it.
I'm reluctant to recommend this movie to just anyone, but if you're looking for a good zombie movie that achieves everything a zombie movie aspires for and succeeds (exceeds, actually), then you're not going to do much better than "Dead Snow". I mean, c'mon... Zombie Nazis, dude!

#5: (500) Days of Summer - Okay, I'm gonna go out on a limb here and just come out and say it: This is probably the best romantic comedy since "When Harry Met Sally". Seriously, give it time to settle in. If there's any justice in the movie world, this film will be listed among the best of the rom-coms.
I remember once having a debate with a girl about chick flicks versus guy movies. I won the argument by saying something like "A bad chick flick is way worse than a bad guy movie." I said that probably 15 years ago, but it's especially true today. I believe that if a chick flick is truly great, it ceases to be a chick flick and is meant for everyone. Same can be said for a kids' film.
Anyway, this is one of the best films about relationships I've ever seen. It's so honest and so real without being dull or overly sentimental. It's also quirky and cute without being sappy or trendy. Most importantly, I think it's a great case study to observe for anybody in a young relationship. This may not be how relationships are, but it's certainly how they feel. Like many of the aforementioned movies, it's so refreshing to see a movie that has originality and familiarity working hand-in-hand so effectively.

#4: The Hangover - Hands down the funniest movie of the year. Most impressively, though, is the fact that they could've been lazy in putting this movie together by just making it a series of silly, gross-out, slapstick vignettes and gotten away with it. Like "Dude, Where's My Car", for example.
Instead, they actually put together a linear sequence of events that had a logical progression and even a plausible chain reaction for the characters (and the audience) to retroactively work their way through. In that sense, the movie's not terribly different from "Memento". I mean, things that at first seemed way over the top are reasonably and thoroughly explained. Well, everything except the chicken. I'm hoping for a director's cut or deleted scene that sheds some light on that.
Some of the smartest comedies appear very stupid on the surface. People are all too often willing to write them off as fluff, but the truth is this must have been a hard movie to make and it's amazing how easy they made it look.
On a side note, another trend they need to bring back is honoring actors for out-and-out comedic performances (like Kevin Kline in "A Fish Called Wanda") because Zach Galifianakis' performance in this film is nothing short of perfectly executed brilliance.

#3: Star Trek - I'm not sure I'm liking this new trend in the movies to do reboots of everything. I can understand its justification, though. They've successfully rebooted James Bond and Batman and now Star Trek and all of them have been done exceptionally well and made millions of dollars. But, it's only a matter of time before all the go-alongs and wanna-bees wanting to milk that gravy train for all its monetary worth bring the whole gimmick crashing down onto itself. I'm just glad they haven't tainted anything really sacred yet. Not that "Star Trek" is sacred, but it has quite a legacy and I was very skeptical going into this movie. I thought it would be a bastardization of the original series by just taking the characters and doing their own thing however they see fit.
In a way, that's what it was, but given the alternate-reality explanation they carved out for themselves, they allowed themselves the luxury of keeping what worked and changing what didn't. That made everything they did, not only perfectly acceptable, but really damn fun. Plus, there were enough references and inside jokes for the sake of Trekkies that they still managed to make entertaining enough at face-value for everyone else.
Lastly (and probably best of all), it's been a long time since I sat through a movie that was good old-fashioned great adventure. I was blown away. After it was over, all I could think about was how I wish that J.J. Abrams had made the Star Wars prequels as well.

#2: Up - I think the main reason this one ranks so high on my list is because about 15-20 minutes into the movie, when the first section of the story concluded, I thought "I could walk out of this theater right now and have totally gotten my money's worth already." When you think about it, the bulk of the movie is the story's epilogue. You'll hafta see the movie to know what I'm referring to, but in any case, what a beautiful movie.
And so full of imagination! I mean, when I saw the trailers, I thought this film would be a fantasy: Floating houses, giant birds, talking dogs, etc. But the truth is, fantastical as it may be, it's still grounded in the real world. That makes the content all the more impressive. When you allow yourself the luxury of a fantasy, you can pretty much do anything. Here's a movie that pretty much did anything regardless of the fact it took place in the world we know in what seemed to be present day. Wow. Leave it to PIXAR to one-up themselves yet again.
It occurred to me the other day that "Up" (like pretty much every other PIXAR movie) is a movie for adults disguised as a movie for kids. Whereas "Avatar" is a movie for kids disguised as a movie for adults.

#1: Inglourious Basterds - For the record, "Reservoir Dogs" is my favorite movie of all time. And "Pulp Fiction" is one of the most influential and widely-beloved films of all time. I enjoyed "Jackie Brown" a great deal and respected Tarantino for backing off the accelerator a bit and doing a more subtle film from the genre he loves so much. Since then, though, he's kinda left me cold. I mean, "Kill Bill" and "Death Proof" were undeniably well-made films by an undeniably talented director, but I was growing tired of Tarantino doing movies that seemed to mostly be homages to other movies. It was almost to the point where, if you hadn't seen the films he was paying tribute to, you weren't in on it. For such an original director, I was hoping for more originality.
At last, Tarantino comes back swinging with "Inglourious Basterds". This reminded me of everything that made me fall in love with Tarantino to begin with. True, there were a lot of tributes and references to other movies in this one as well, but they didn't weigh the film down and draw attention to themselves as if the actors were winking at the camera. Just a brilliantly written and impeccably executed film that, not only didn't disappoint, but outright refused to.
To bring the subject back to the Academy Awards, though, I was really hoping this would be the film to steal the glory from "Avatar" at the Oscars. While Christoph Waltz was a shoo-in for winning Best Supporting Actor, I had hoped this film woulda at least won Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing if not Best Picture and Best Director. Oh well, it's not like Tarantino won't have another chance to blow everybody away.

So, there's my ten. I feel a bit ashamed that my top five are all big blockbusters because I always prefer to turn people onto little-known and lesser-seen masterpieces, but I guess Hollywood really delivered this year. Of course, that's not to say you shouldn't see the movies in my bottom five, because you most definitely should. And who knows? Last time, I was kicking myself for having seen "Let the Right One In" almost immediately after posting my top ten list, so there could be all kindsa obscure beauties out there just waiting to tap me on the shoulder. Until I find them, though, I hope you enjoy these ten aforementioned beauties as much as I did.

1 comment:

  1. Love the list John! Gotta check a few more of those out!