So, I recently contributed my picks for the best movies of the decade to a list on Nerve.com, and it was fun to reflect on the 21st century’s impressive cinematic yield to date, from Almost Famous (2000) to Young@Heart (2008), and especially the bumper crop years like 2001 (The Royal Tennenbaums, Ghost World, Mulholland Drive, etc.) and 2007 (There Will Be Blood, Juno, No Country For Old Men, etc.).
the 2010 listing...begin!
Tellingly, no films from the past year scored Best of Decade honors on the aforementioned list...which is not to say 2009 was a bad movie year, exactly. In fact, picking the following Top Ten was difficult because many of the films I saw in the last 365 days were pretty damn good (if not great) works of high-level craftsmanship from old reliables and talented newcomers.
Up’s worldless, instant classic three-hanky opening is certainly one for the ages (even if the rest of the movie is "merely" top-notch family entertainment). A Serious Man, The Informant! and Fantastic Mr. Fox were all smart, stylish offerings by some of my favorite modern auteurs, even if their charms were more studied than passionate and more enjoyable moment to moment than especially memorable afterwards. (And, though I haven’t yet seen Jim Jarmusch’s existential spy caper The Limits of Control, reviews I read seemed to place it in the same category...)
And so the films on the following list represent the gold and silver medal winners of my filmgoing year (along with, essentially, an eight-way tie for bronze) thanks to stories, images and characters that I’m still thinking about weeks or months later, not counting the following...
WILDCARDS (potentially list-worthy movies unseen by moi in 2009): Crazy Heart, The Princess and the Frog, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, A Single Man
And now the Top Ten Movies I did see...
1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
I heard some critic mention this was Quentin Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction, which criminally short-changes the great, underloved Jackie Brown, but I get the sentiment: after all the flash and dazzle of QT’s 21st century Bill Killing (and the phoned-in, cut-rate slacker pulp of Death Proof), it was great to see the video store auteur back doing what he does best: writing and directing textured, meandering dialogue scenes that slowly evolve into drum-tight suspense, operatic melodrama, shocking black comedy (and, sometimes, all three at once). My wife originally didn’t want to see this World War II fantasia because she thought it was going to be an ironic “funny violence” splatterfest, but instead (despite moments of gore and humor), the film’s central emotions were anger, dread and -- capping a decade of impotent rage against terrorists abroad and relentless mendacity at home -- an all-too relatable (and surprisingly cathartic) desire for righteous vengeance against the world’s seemingly endless supply of real-life bastards.
Meanwhile, in the same way my lovely Polish bride had reflexively negative pre-conceived notions about Tarantino’s latest, I assumed Precious would be a predictably “uplifting” chunk of soapy cinematic broccoli designed to make well-off whites and buppies feel simultaneously guilty and superior -- and yet, despite the tragic circumstances of the film’s mentally, physically and sexually abused protagonist, Gabby Sidibe’s tough, righteous title character is more angry bear than quivering victim, an indomitable survivor on par with Mélanie Laurent’s orphaned Jewish warrior in Basterds, with a foe as monstrous as any Nazi: a grotesquely selfish welfare mother from hell portrayed in a justly acclaimed (and jaw-droppingly fearless) Oscar-bait performance by the comedian Mo’Nique, of all people. (And bonus points for the rest of the vivid supporting cast, including Mariah Carey in a role that put me in the weird and completely unexpected position of suddenly being a Mariah Carey fan...)
3. STAR TREK
Given the dispiriting box office dominance of brainless big screen video games like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I’m happy for any big studio blockbuster that still bothers to include distinctive characters, coherent storytelling and clever dialogue along with all the compulsory CGI. But, as one of those old-timey Star Trek fans who never really warmed to the humorless self-importance of the post-Shatner era, I was full-geek-boogie thrilled by the bantering camaraderie of the reboot’s surprisingly spot-on Kirk-Spock-Bones triumvirate (embodied by Chris Pine, Jeremy Quinto and Karl Urban, respectively) and the way the screenwriters and director J.J. Abrams cleverly incorporated insider jokes and touchstones (the beloved Kobiyashi Maru, sexy green alien chicks, craggy old Leonard Nimoy) while messing with alternate realities (and franchise dogma) in a way that hopefully would have made the Great Bird of the Galaxy smile. Plus, how cool was it when John Cho’s Sulu went all “The Naked Time” with his sword-fighting chops on the big space drill? Answer: nearly as cool as when Scotty beamed those whales aboard the Enterprise in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home...which, coming from this particular geek, is very high praise indeed.
4. AFGHAN STAR
Here in the U.S., where reality T.V. is frequently vilified as a symptom (or cause) of the downfall of Western civilization, it may be hard to imagine a society where cheesy pop songs and game show theatrics can actually be inspiring catalysts for change. During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, music, television, cinema, zoos and even kite flying were all banned (along with the 21st century in general and, of course, basic rights for women). After the U.S. invasion of 2001, things improved somewhat, thus setting the stage for Afghan Star, the embattled nation’s answer to American Idol, as well as an eponymous documentary by Havana Marking about the program’s scrappy, heroic producers and performers, who (to various degrees) literally risk their lives for pop culture. Viewers disappointed by Obama’s decision to continue our seemingly endless, hopeless war in the “graveyard of empires” may come away with a somewhat different opinion after watching this movie’s subjects fighting the Taliban’s devotion to life as living hell with little more than their own defiant humanity.
5. FUNNY PEOPLE
The cycle is familiar. First, a comedian (or a comedy auteur) is completely ignored and disrespected. Then, finally, they have some kind of professional breakthrough, and for a while everyone loves them. And then comes the inevitable, often unjustified backlash. In the real world, that’s the story of Judd Apatow, who (like his frequent, sardonic muse, Seth Rogen) shot from relative obscurity to obnoxious ubiquity in the aughts, thus all but ensuring the predictable box office implosion and critical drubbing when the duo had the temerity to add a little dramatic ambition to the mix with this reflective tale of backlash and implosion starring Adam Sandler (in his best role since the equally -- and unfairly -- reviled Spanglish). One part romantic comedy (featuring the undervalued Leslie Mann as Sandler’s ex-wife and a surprisingly loveable Eric Bana as her new husband), one part romantic drama, two parts Sunset Boulevard-esque show biz psychodrama and one part...well, boner jokes...the film works best (and earns its spot on this list) as an insider’s poison pen valentine to the sad clowns of modern Hollywood’s comedy-industrial complex.
6. PAPER HEART
On the other hand, the critical reaction to Funny People was nothing compared to the inexplicable loathing some critics had for Paper Heart, a sweet, peculiar romantic mockumentary starring Rogen’s goofy Knocked Up co-star Charlyne Yi as a goofy actress named Charlyne Yi making a documentary about the impossibility of finding love, even as the process of making the documentary ruins her potential love affair with fellow twee-core heartthrob Michael Cera, Yi’s real-life ex-boyfriend...or is he? Add cameos by Apatow all-stars like Rogen and Martin Starr, true (?) documentary footage of various oddball couples discussing their relationships and some funny, surrealistic puppet interludes and the end result is the sort of idiosyncratic “kitchen sink” charmer typically relegated to film festival obscurity in a landscape where all the limited “art house” screens are taken up with studio “indie” fare starring more conventionally unconventional actresses.
And speaking of under-the-radar indies, Lynn Shelton’s lo-fi bromance was the single funniest movie I saw all year, with a standard yuppie-meets-bohemia premise that eventually shot off in a completely unexpected direction...at least for audience members like me who didn’t know anything about the story going in. But even if you discover Humpday’s central plot twist in advance (by, for example, watching the trailer above), it’s still a hoot: the only thing funnier than the dialogue is what’s left unsaid in double-takes and reaction shots between Mark Duplass’ suburban married guy, his common-sense wife (Alycia Delmore) and an unexpected visitor (Joshua Leonard, finally reemerging from the oblivion of the Blair Witch woods). These are characters who actually think before they speak, refusing to flatten into predictable stereotypes, and the actors work together with the chemistry of a virtuoso jazz combo...especially Leonard and Duplass, a writer/director in his own right who’s developed into the mumblecore movement’s answer to Paul Rudd (or possibly Ron Livingston).
8. UP IN THE AIR
While deadly terrorists, incompetent shoe bombers and greedy stockholders have all done their damndest to ruin air travel in the past few decades, it still astonishes me to stare down at clouds and flyover states from a perspective untold generations could barely imagine. That peacefully detached, God’s eye view is the comfort zone for George Clooney’s soulful corporate hit man until his modern day Icarus character is yanked down to Earth by the irresistible gravity of personal and professional regret in this timely recession dramedy from Jason Reitman. Like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, Clooney’s character is fine without solid ground beneath his feet until a pair of fellow travelers (Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga, both great) and a mournful Greek chorus of recently downsized employees (played by real world non-actors) all force him to look down...thus raising the uncomfortable and unusual question of whether connecting with our fellow humans is redemptive, inevitable or a one-way ticket to grief?
9. IN THE LOOP
There are movies that I enjoyed a lot more than Armando Iannucci’s cinematic adaptation of his own satirical BBC series (The Thick of It) about the gamesmanship of modern politics, and plenty that filled me with much warmer feelings about Western civilization. But In The Loop earns its spot for two diametrically opposed reasons. On one hand, the lightning fast repartee (and especially the volcanic torrents of profanity spewing from the gob of Peter Capaldi’s ruthless political fixer) is some of the sharpest, funniest dialogue since the golden age of screwball comedies. On the other hand, the relentless cynicism, craven opportunism and feckless impotence of British and American politicians and journalists of all political stripes in the run-up to an Iraq-type war eventually curdles the humor into a stark depiction of our hideously dysfunctional society which haunts me whenever I watch the news...and that kind of staying power is rare enough to celebrate these days, even when the aftertaste is bitter.
10. GOOD HAIR
All the films in the Honorable Mention section below, from Winnebago Man to Every Little Step are essentially tied for tenth place with Good Hair. From effective, intelligent genre flicks like Sherlock Holmes and District 9 to offbeat comedies like The Slammin’ Salmon and The Hangover, and from the gripping suspense of The Hurt Locker to the feel-good vibrations of Taking Woodstock, they were all well-made, enjoyable movies with memorable moments...but Chris Rock’s documentary about the peculiar economics and tangled social complexities surrounding perceptions of beauty in the black community squeaks onto my list for illuminating a world I was only vaguely aware of before, addressing multiple sides of a little-discussed contemporary issue and finally showing me just what in the hell a weave actually is.
HONORABLE MENTION: Coraline, Me & Orson Welles, The Slammin’ Salmon, Winnebago Man, Every Little Step, Up, The Hangover, (500) Days of Summer, The Hurt Locker, District 9, Taking Woodstock, The September Issue, Best Worst Movie, Sherlock Holmes, A Serious Man, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Whip It!, The Informant!
OTHER NOTABLE MOMENTS/PERFORMANCES: The groovy cat in Coraline, the world’s most loveable dentist in Best Worst Movie, the lyrical opening credits (and their wise-ass payoff) in The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, the perfect casting of Seth Rogen as a stoned blue blob in Monsters vs. Aliens, Dr. Manhattan’s own blue stone and blobs (and Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach) in the quixotically fascinating Watchmen, the lovely and talented Heather Graham finally landing another notable role (and Zach Galifianakas going Hollywood) in The Hangover, Maya Rudolph’s acting chops and On_Line alum Josh Hamilton’s cameo in Away We Go, that weirdly affecting scene with Dumbledore forcing himself to drink some kind of magic yuck in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the big “I just had sex with Zooey Deschanel” production number in (500) Days of Summer, Jeremy Renner (and every white-knuckle bomb defusion attempt) in The Hurt Locker, the LSD trip in Taking Woodstock, Grace Coddington in The September Issue, that gut punch death scene in The Invention of Lying, the last 90 seconds of Paranormal Activity, London in Sherlock Holmes and Juliette Lewis in Whip It!
Quote of the year (from Fantastic Mr. Fox): “Here’s to our survival.”
WORST MOVIE I SAW: ANGELS & DEMONS
To be honest, the vapid, painfully self-absorbed My Suicide was technically the worst movie I saw in 2009, but the well-intentioned indie never really broke free of the festival ghetto and I’ve kicked it around enough online this year, so instead I nominate Ron Howard’s big budget Da Vinci Code sequel as my official worst movie of the year for insulting my intelligence with the stupidest, most illogically tortured “twist” ending since The Village.
WORST MOVIE I DIDN’T SEE: BRIDE WARS
Even Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel looked more plausibly grounded in reality and less vomit-inducing than Hacky McHackstein’s tale of two odious “BFFs” refusing to share the same wedding day. Kate Hudson was apparently born to wallow in this kind of shrill, big-screen pigshit, but what's your excuse, Anne Hathaway?
MOST OVERRATED: DRAG ME TO HELL
No, not Paranormal Activity, though I can see why people might wonder what all the fuss is about...but then again, people said the same thing about The Blair Witch Project, which creeped me right the fuck out, so I get where the Paranormal fans are coming from (and I’m always happy to see any horror movie succeed without an over-reliance on CGI and/or gratuitous torture scenes). But the “scariest movie ever” praise for what seemed like a slightly above average Tales From The Crypt episode guest directed by Sam Raimi merely confused me.
UNFAIRLY MALIGNED: JENNIFER’S BODY & THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
Megan Fox may be a pain in the ass, but the glee certain reviewers took ripping her perfectly fine comic performance in Jennifer’s Body seemed like nerds getting revenge on the uppity popular girl who wouldn’t dance with them in 9th grade, while Entertainment Weekly’s ever-delicate Owen Gleiberman’s F grade for the fun, silly Men Who Stare at Goats (especially compared to his C & C- grades for the aforementioned Bride Wars and Squeakquel) was notably inexplicable.
1. THE OBAMAUGURATION: Inspiring “You Are There” history improved by Aretha’s hat and Dick Cheney’s supervillain get-up and wheelchair. And people: even with the full Legion of Doom on his side, it took W. longer than a year to fuck up the nation beyond all recognition, so cut Barry some goddamn slack as he tries his best to un-fuck it with every terrorist, neo-con, unrealistic idealist and greedhead in the world (and friggin’ Joe Lieberman) working against him...the shit is hard!
2. “SHUT THE DOOR, HAVE A SEAT”: Mad Men is always good, even when it makes you feel bad (Sal!!!! Nooooo!!!!), but the unexpected, exhilarating caper at the end of this often meandering season was simply one of my favorite TV moments of the decade, and maybe all time.
3. GREY GARDENS: While some of this double-barreled biopic felt TV-movie small, the performances of Jessica Lange and especially Drew Barrymore as Big & Little Edie were downright Oscar-worthy.
4. MONTY PYTHON: ALMOST THE TRUTH (THE LAWYER’S CUT): Obnoxious comedy geeks may have run the parrot sketch into the ground, but this six-part tribute to the classic comedy sextet was fascinating and, more importantly, hilarious: all these years later, the gits have still got it.
5. BREAKING BAD/BIG LOVE: Two gripping, consistently outstanding long-form dramas that don’t get as much love or press as Mad Men, but nevertheless provide the same high levels of acting and storytelling firepower that I used to expect from movies.
6. THE AMAZING RACE: For the first time, this consistently enjoyable globe-trotting jaunt beats Survivor to the mat in my personal Top Ten race, as recent phoned-in seasons of the latter have tarnished the former jewel in the reality crown.
7. TRUE BLOOD: This show used to be a guilty pleasure, but now I’m a full-blown, out-of-the-casket fan. Season two cut back on the silliness (just a little bit) and kept me hooked with pulpy fun, a great cast and, well, Anna Paquin’s boobs.
8. THE OFFICE: A deep bench of writing talent and well-rounded characters continually makes this cheery American mutation of the British classic must-see T.V., but they really, really, really need to bring back Amy Ryan’s Holly as a semi-regular!
9. DAMAGES: The season lost steam as it went along, but for a while it was a helluva tense, stylish ride.
10. CHELSEA LATELY: Even good ol' reliable fake news is too depressing for me to watch consistently anymore, leaving Chelsea Handler and her raucous repertory company to cheer me up with regular infusions of basic cable comfort food.
Notable 2009 reads included Mark Barrowcliffe’s embarrassingly relatable memoir of pubescent D&D geekery The Elfish Gene, Colson Whitehead’s mellow coming-of-age novel Sag Harbor, Malcolm Gladwell’s thought-provoking study of success, Outliers, and Official Book Club Selection, a nakedly hilarious memoir that reminded me why I still love Kathy Griffin (even now that she’s become too A-list for her own good).
Topol’s farewell performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof was touching, The Comedy of Errors on the Boston Common was great, and it’s not like I see a lot of theater anyway...but SLEEP NO MORE? I mean, damn!
2009 Theme Song: “Sex Changes” by the Dresden Dolls
Favorite Albums: The Fat Man’s Hat (produced by Jim Dryden), Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (David Byrne & Brian Eno) and The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
IRIS STEENSMA’S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2009
IRIS STEENSMA’S TOP TEN FILMS OF THE DECADE
TH-TH-TH-THAT'S ALL FOLKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!
the 2010 listing...begin!