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Top 10 Films of 2009

December 30, 2009 2 comments

2009 was a very good year for film. I’ve seen over 60 films released this year, so you can trust me when I say that this year has been very good. I did find it somewhat difficult to narrow my list down to just the top ten. This list could have easily turned into a top 20 list. My 1 through 4 picks I had no trouble deciding. My 5 through 10 picks could almost be interchangeable. Here is the list of the top 10 films of 2009 counting down from number 10 to number 1.

10. Sugar

This is a small independent film from directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the paired who directed “Half Nelson.” The two have crafted a great immigrant story with this film. The story centers on a young Dominican baseball player, Miguel Santos, aka Sugar, who makes it to the Minor Leagues in America. Baseball is everything for Sugar, if he makes it big he can support his family back home. We see what the pressure to succeed does to the man. The story is simple and does not go for over the top melodramatic moments. The filmmakers do a great job of showing us the despair, loneliness that a new immigrant in this country goes through. By the end we are left with a level of sadness and hopefulness for this character’s future.

9. Avatar

One of the best cinematic experiences I had at the movies this year. After seeing the film in IMAX 3D you are left with the feeling that you have experienced a truly special cinematic moment. I like what Roger Ebert said about the film’s director James Cameron, “there is still at least one man in Hollywood who knows how to spend $250 million, or was it 300 million, wisely.” Using today’s modern technology, Cameron is able to fully engulf the audience into the beautiful, realistic alien world of Pandora. Cameron has returned amazement to the movies.

8. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

I was surprised at how much humor, warmth and hopefulness I found in this picture about a young African-American teenage girl, who is illiterate, pregnant, and abused emotionally and sexually by her mother. The film features a great performance from the title character Precious played by Gabourey Sidibe. Mo’Nique is also terrific as the worst mother ever put on-screen. The film never ventures into the over the top melodrama. It’s able to properly balance the despair and hopefulness that Precious experiences throughout the picture. The scenes involving Precious and her fellow students in a classroom are some of the film’s standout moments. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher do a remarkable job of putting us into the reality of the story.

7. Up in the Air

The impressive third feature film from director Jason Reitman stars George Clooney as a termination specialist who lives off not having any deep human connections. Things change when he meets two women, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. Both deliver strong performances that are up to par with Clooney’s. Clooney and Farmiga have great chemistry together. Their dialogue scenes remind you of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell going at it in “His Girl Friday.” Clooney is delivering some of his best work here. He shows you that firing people is a art. Reitman has a real handle on how to balance drama and comedy. It’s not easy to pigeon hole this film into a specific genre. I would recommend this film to anybody, film fan or not.

6. Fantastic Mr. Fox

One of my flat-out favorite films of the year. The film is tremendous fun to watch from beginning to end. This is defiantly Wes Anderon’s best picture since “The Royal Tenenbaums.” The voice cast is one of the best ever assembled for an animated film. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, George Clooney voices Mr. Fox, a chicken raider whose antics gets his entire animal community in a war with up tight British farmers. The stop-motion animation is a great fit for Anderson’s style. I found it really beautiful to look at. The stop-motion animation brings these characters to life better than CG ever could. This is a funny, charming film that can appeal to both kids and adults.

5. Goodbye Solo

A beautiful, truly moving picture from director Ramin Bahrani. The film tells the story of a friendship developed between a African cab driver named Solo and one his clients, an old white guy named William. William pays Solo 1,000 dollars to drive him to the top of mountain in 10 days. The film does not follow the plot of a typical Hollywood movie. This is a character piece where we get to learn and care about these characters. It never betrays its story by going for over the top melodramatic moments. There is a moment that these two characters share that is one of the great moments in film I saw this year. The moment consists of just Solo and William staring at each other, no words are spoken. This moment of silence is able to convey their feelings better than any dialogue could . This is a small independent film that people should rush out to see.

4. A Serious Man

The Coen Brother’s return to their home of Minnesota for this film. Set in the late 1960’s, the film follows the worst couple of weeks that Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has ever experienced. Stuhlbarg gives one of the best performances of the year as the family man who is just trying to live an ordinary life. The key to Stuhlbarg’s performance is that he doesn’t play Larry as a loser, he plays him as a decent man who is going through the worst events in his life. This is a very, very black comedy. The film confirms that the Coen’s are master storytellers. It’s amazing what reactions they are able to convey with just one single shot. Fine supporting work from Fred Melamed as Sy Albeman, the man who is seeing Larry’s wife. He’s not what the audience or Larry expects. The Goy’s teeth sequence is one the funniest sequences I saw at the movies this year.

3. Where the Wild Things Are

A beautiful look at childhood from director Spike Jonze. Based on the children’s book by Maurice Sendak, the story centers on a young child named Max (Max Records) who after running away from home arrives on an island full of creatures called the Wild Things. Max is not a pleasant child protagonist but I found myself relating to him. There is one scene in the beginning of the film where Max, in a rage, destroys something and then immediately regrets it. I’ve done exactly the same thing as a child. When the story arrives on the island there really is no plot. What Jonze is able to do is create a mood. He shows us that childhood is fun, but also scary. Great use of practical effects and CG to create the Wild Things. The voice talent of the Wild Things, led by James Gandolfini, is terrific because each actor is able to make each creature a unique personality. The first twenty minutes and the last five minutes of the film are just plain perfect.

2. The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow has directed the best action film of the year. This is also the best film about the Iraq War because it puts us on the ground with the soldiers who are fighting the war. The film is a series of expertly crafted set pieces about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is terrific as the lead bomb defusal expert. Watching him dismantle a bomb is like watching a great artist create a painting. There is also strong work from the two other members of Renner’s team, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. Excellent camerawork from the cinematographer Barry Ackroy. The film uses the handheld camera technique in a way that never makes the audience feel dizzy or nauseating. What Bigelow is able to do with handheld camera is put the viewer on the ground with the dangerous situations that these soldiers are going through. We always know where the soldiers are, where the potential threats are. The film has you on the edge of your seat.

1. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s World War Two epic is the best film of 2009. It’s also the most joyous time I had at the movies. I saw this film 3 times in the theatre and I grew to love the film each time I saw it. I admire the sheer audacity of Tarantino to open the film with a twenty-minute dialogue sequence. What Tarantino does with these long dialogue scenes is build suspense. The film is divided into five chapters and each chapter in the film is like a mini movie. All five of the chapters build up and combine into one spectacular final sequence. Christoph Waltz as the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa delivers one of the best performances of the year. Waltz is smart and charming, which makes him even more terrifying. Tarantino has assembled a great ensemble cast. Standouts for me include Michael Fassbender as a British Lieutenant and Melanie Laurent as a Jewish survivor out for revenge. Leave it to Tarantino to make a World War Two movie without a single battle sequence and a climax in a movie theatre. In the end cinema saves the world, as it should be.

Rounding out my list to the top 25: 11) Public Enemies 12) An Education 13) Up  14) In The Loop 15) Moon 16) The Cove 17) Humpday 18)District 9 19)Adventureland 20) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince 21)Capitalism: A Love Story 22) Duplicity 23) The Hangover 24) A Single Man 25) Anvil! The Story of Anvil

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The Lovely Bones Ain’t Lovely

December 27, 2009 1 comment

I can at least call this film an interesting failure. Based on the novel “The Lovely Bones,” by Alice Sebold, the film is about the murder of a young teenage girl Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) and how her murder impacts those close to her. Set in the 1970’s Susie narrates the story from a heavenly purgatory. She witnesses her father (Mark Wahlberg) not being able to cope with her death and watches his ongoing obsession into finding her killer. Her father ends up neglecting his wife (Rachel Weisz) who can’t accept that Susie is gone. Susie also keeps watch over her killer, George Harvey (Stanley Tucci), who on the outside appears to be the Salmon’s harmless next door neighbor.

I read the book over a year ago and remember liking it a lot. I’m not a die-hard fan who demands that director Peter Jackson absolutely stay faithful to the novel. I was curious to see what he would do with the film, especially the heaven sequences. While Jackson creates some really intriguing visuals when the film shows us Susie in heaven, the film is empty emotionally. The book left me feeling very emotionally affected. The film has none of that. Jackson has a hard time balancing the visuals of Susie’s heaven with the drama occurring on earth.

I found the emotional drama between the Salmon family seriously lacking. The loss of the daughter and each member of the family’s reaction to it comes across as just barely hitting the surface. I wanted to see more of the family dynamic and see how it destroys their lives. Seeing the two parents just crying wasn’t satisfying enough to represent their pain. Rachel Weisz’s character gets shafted in the film. Her character in the novel has a much more absorbing character arc. Her actions in the film and it’s impact on the family is totally ignored in the film. Mark Whalberg almost borders on “The Happening” type acting here. The only two very good performances in the film are Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci as the killer. Tucci is appropriately disturbing as the child killer.

The visuals that Jackson uses to represent heaven are the film’s most fascinating moments. I remember in the book the heaven was very vaguely described. Jackson gives us a heaven that is full of big colors and images that are metaphors for what her family is going through back home. Some of imagery in alluring, but at times it comes across as distracting and at time ridiculous. One sequence has Susie being the star of her own fashion show. This comes across as very silly. But I guess a dream of a young teenage girl is to be in a fashion show. Jackson does an interesting thing where he will intercut major scenes taking place on earth with Susie experiencing the same thing in heaven. He lets the visuals speak for themselves. This is an intriguing way to let important scenes play out but it’s not always successful in getting his point across.

Jackson and his screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, needed to omit some of the novel’s storylines from film. Trying to cram in all these different plots robs them of any poignant impact they might have had. Characters, like Susie’s sisters, are not properly developed. I found Susie’s voice over in the film to be very annoying. The information that she tells the audience is redundant and at times unnecessary. Some of the film’s suspenseful moments are handled effectively well. I only wish the emotional scenes were handled with the same care. In the end, the film’s two narratives never come together in a satisfying way.

2 Stars

An Incredible Cinematic Experience

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

James Cameron has crafted an epic film the kind which Hollywood doesn’t make anymore. “Avatar” is in the same vein of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I’m not saying “Avatar” is a classic like those two films, but what they all share in common is that each film is a great cinematic experience. You must watch these films on the big screen to really appreciate the grandeur of what is being put on the screen. Simply just experiencing these films only on a television screen would be criminal.

The story takes place on the planet of Pandora in the year 2154. A greedy corporation has set up shop hoping to mine the planet for a valuable mineral. In order to learn about the native species, ten feet tall, blue creatures known as the Na’vi, scientists, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) have developed an Avatar program. The program allows humans to mentally link up and physical control a genetically altered Na’vi. Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic marine who is recruited for the Avatar program and finds himself being taken in by the Na’vi. He is trained in their culture by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and soon Jake develops an affection for Neytiri and the Na’vi way of life. Jake’s love for Pandora can’t go on uninterrupted. The corporation’s head of military operations, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is hell-bent on destroying the planet for his corporate masters.

The first twenty minutes or so, I was not really into the film. I was bogged down by Cameron’s bad one lines and the actor’s execution of the dialogue. Even when we first see Worthington enter his Avatar body and interact with humans, I was not blown away. Where things picked up for me was when we see Worthington interact with the world of Pandora. There is a great scene of him being chased by a giant creature. The use of the 3D fully threw me into that scene. It was a hell of a lot of fun.

It’s ironic that James Cameron has used today’s modern technology to create a truly beautiful, realistic world. The 3D technology is used to fully immerse the audience into the world of Pandora. There are no cheap 3D tricks here. We feel like we are on the planet. A shot of a waterfall, or grass looks gorgeous and tremendously realistic. You get use to wearing the 3D glasses and just fall into the wonder of the planet.

The motion capture technology Cameron uses is ground breaking because when we are watching the Na’vi, we forget we are watching a CGI character. A close up of the Na’vi has the same emotional impact as the close up of regular human face. The technology does not hinder the performances of the actors. This especially applies to Zoe Saldana, as Neytiri. She is really engaging in her role. Sam Worthington is also good, though it did take me a while to warm up to his performance. Weaver and Lang also deliver some solid work as well.

Much has been made about the screenplay and I agree it’s not the strongest part of the picture. The last half hour of the film does dive into large action sequences like a typical action film. But what action it is! There is riveting imagery in this part of the film. Cameron proves he knows how to shoot great action. I did find myself getting carried away in the story. I cared for the Na’vi and even the romantic subplot involving Worthington and Saldana. The picture has allegories ranging from wars past and present. The story of native people fighting an outside force to protect their land is not a new story angle. I even found imagery that I think invokes 9/11. You will know it when you see it. This image is at the same time strangely beautiful but frightening. The seats of the theatre literally shook when this event occurs.

I saw this film on a IMAX screen in 3D and I one hundred percent recommend you see it this way. It’s a great film going experience that will carry you away with the images and story. Many critics have compared seeing this film to seeing “Star Wars” for the first time. I agree with this. Seeing “Star Wars” on the big screen for the first time at age 10 drove me into the world of film. If I saw “Avatar” at the same age today, I think it would have the same effect. Cameron has returned amazement to the movies.

4 Stars

Tarantino’s Top Films of 2009

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Not a top 10 list, more of a top 8.

Half the films on his list wouldn’t make my top 10 or even top 25. Star Trek was fun, but overrated in my view. Funny People and Drag Me to Hell were okay but very flawed. Observe and Report was just plain bad.

Precious and Up in the Air are solid picks. Those films look like they would appear on my list of the top 10 films of 2009.

Clooney, Reitman & Crew Deliver an Outstanding Film with Up in the Air

December 15, 2009 Leave a comment

Up in the Air

With this film director Jason Reitman I think cements his status as possibly one of our great future directors. With each successive film Reitman has grown as a filmmaker. I didn’t care for his debut, “Thank You For Smoking,” but I really enjoyed his follow-up “Juno.” I think “Up in the Air” is without a doubt his best film. The writing, direction, and the cast, is a step above the rest.

Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, is a man whose job is to fire people. Companies from around the country hire him to come to their company and fire their employees. He is an expert at it. Watching him fire people is like watching a fine artist at work. All this traveling requires that Bingham essentially live in the air. On the rare occasion when he returns to his apartment we see it is lonely and empty. Traveling is his life and he loves it. He has no use for an ordinary life. Along his travels he encounters two women who challenge his life. One of them is a female version of himself, Alex, played by Vera Farmiga. The other is a young employee at his company, Natalie, played by Anna Kendrick, who Bingham takes on the road to show her the ropes.

2009 has been a standout year for Clooney. He was the best thing in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” and his voice work was fantastic in “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” With this film Clooney ends the year with another strong performance. He is completely charming, but doesn’t rely on it to carry the role. We get to see a real vulnerability behind all his charm and good looks. There is one great scene where we see Clooney at work. He fires J.K. Simmons with such sincerity that it had me thinking that I wouldn’t mind being fired by Clooney.

The two female leads are also strong. Vera Farmiga finally gets a chance to shine. I love the scenes between her and Clooney. When the two of them go at with the dialogue it reminded me a bit of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell going at it in “His Girl Friday.” Anna Kendrick is completely engaging as the hot-shot newcomer who threatens Clooney’s way of life. There is a great scene where the two go at it for the first time and the cutting back and forth between the two reminds you of two boxers going at it. Kendrick puts up a tough persona, but we are able to see cracks in her hard armor.

The screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kerns, is terrific. There are a number of great one liners. The dialogue and the way the actors deliver the lines is delightful to hear.

The film mirrors the real life economic downturn that is facing the country today. Reitman uses real life out of work employees in the film. When I first heard of this, I wasn’t sure how this element would be incorporated into the picture. But Reitman blends the unemployed into the film in a nice, non intrusive way.

Just when the film reaches a level of sentimentality, the film pulls the rug out of the audience and Clooney. I kind of did see this event coming just when it was about to happen. A lesser filmmaker would have possibly went for the easy way out. I really liked the ambiguity of the ending. Where does the man in the air go now? The more I thought about the film afterwards, the more in stature the film grew.

I think Roger Ebert sums it up best about Reitman during his review of this film. He “makes smart, edgy mainstream films. That’s harder than making smart, edgy indies.” Reitman is a real talent, who has a knack for balancing humor and drama to produce a fully satisfying picture.

4 Stars

Mixing Zac Efron & Orson Welles Gets You a Good Movie

December 14, 2009 Leave a comment

What drove me to this film was not man boy superstar Zac Efron, but Orson Welles. Like every young cinephile there was a period when I was obsessed with Welles. I sought out every one of his film I could get my hands on. Welles remains an inspiration for all young wannabe filmmakers. Here is a man who at the age of 25 made the world’s greatest film, Citizen Kane. He remains a once in a life time iconic figure.

Director Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” stars Zac Efron as a young high school student living in 1937 New York City. One day he encounters a young Orson Welles, played by newcomer Christian McKay, and is able to get cast in a small supporting part in the real life Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. During the production of the play Efron falls for Claire Danes, who plays a career driven production assistant for the Mercury Theatre.

Christian McKay is terrific as Orson Welles. His Welles towers over the film. His dead on impression of Welles is able to capture the ego and brilliance of Welles. If you close your eyes you could swear that you are actually listening to the real life Orson Welles up on the screen. This performance deserves some serious awards consideration. McKay, in his first screen role, will forever be associated with the great director. He is able to fully bring to life this larger than life icon.

In comparison to Christian McKay, Zac Efron is really no match. This is not to say that Efron is bad in the film. He’s fine in his role. He seems very suited to the 1930’s type nostalgia that the film captures. Danes is also very good in her role as the aide who has no qualms with sleeping to the top.

Other than the great performance of McKay as Welles, the film itself is nothing special. However, the picture is quite entertaining and fun. It’s intriguing to see all the backstage politics and drama that goes into the production of the play. One great shot in the film is a long tracking shot of Welles walking into a radio station to record a radio play. That long take is able to capture the arrogance, trickery, charm and genius of Orson Welles.

3 Stars

Invictus: or How Nelson Mandela and Rugby Saved South Africa

December 13, 2009 Leave a comment

I guess rugby can solve an entire nation’s problems.

This film is not a hard-hitting look at the issues facing South Africa after the election of the country’s first black President, Nelson Mandela. On some level I thought the film kind of trivialized the real social and economic problems facing the country. But in defense of Clint Eastwood’s film, I don’t think he trivialized these issues because his film isn’t trying to tell the entire history of problems facing South Africa. The film is simply telling one important event in the country’s history.

Set in 1995, Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, is South Africa’s first black elected president. The country is divided among black and whites after the end of apartheid and his election as president. Realizing that he has to unite the country, Mandela realizes the importance of symbolism to help his country heal. The symbolic measure that will help bring his country together is if the South African rugby team is able to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela enlists the help of the captain of the rugby team, played by Matt Damon, to help make this happen.

Morgan Freeman is the logical choice to play Mandela, who comes across as more saint than man. He is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his performance. At times Freeman does slip in and out of his accent. Matt Damon is also very good as the rugby team captain, Francois Pienaar. Damon is able to disappear into his role. I do wish his character could have gotten fleshed out more.

I do admire that Eastwood didn’t decide to direct a straight biopic about the life of Mandela. That would be boring. The film does have a couple of cheap scare moments involving Mandela’s safety. I felt these scenes were handled very poorly. We already get a believable sense of the threats facing Mandela through the sub plot involving his security personal. It seems like Mandela only has 8 security officers, half white and half black. Of course during the course of the film the two sides, like the country, eventually come together.

The Rugby World Cup game at the end does rile you up with excitement. The game does go on a bit long, but you do get a real important sense of the game’s meaning. There is a nice visual moment that is intercut with the game involving a small black boy and two white cops who grow closer as the game reaches its climax.

The film is one of Eastwood’s good pictures that somewhat succeeds on the level of being an inspirational sports picture. Invictus does gets my vote for best film title of the year. I love saying Invictus, which is latin for unconquered.

3 Stars