“Best Of” lists give me heartburn. I rarely see films in the theater, so I never see the year-end prestige releases in time for year-end wrap up articles. That said, here are the top and bottom ten films of 2009. Or at least, here are the top and bottom ten of the 2009 releases I’ve seen so far.
First, the best:
A Catholic priest contracts vampirism through a tainted blood transfusion. Everything’s under control, right up to the moment he falls in love. Unexpected, innovative, and scary, THIRST continues director Chan Wook-park’s streak of outstanding films.
9. THE HANGOVER
I don’t particularly like THE HANGOVER. It’s crass. It’s rude. It’s like a friend from you distance yourself once you figure out what he’s all about. But doggone is it funny. It’s funny during its introduction, it’s funny for all three acts, and it’s even funny during the closing credits. I just don’t think I’d have it over for dinner.
Coming from an original story by the great Neil Gaiman, CORALINE creates a complex, layered girl in its lead role and plunges her into worlds both delightful and terrifying. Remarkably, this film hit just the right note of scariness for my fourth-grader. It spoke to the existential fear of the child in ways the child can understand, but not in ways that’ll make him wake up screaming. Quite an achievement. Quite a film.
Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson walk away with this adult thriller about a couple of corporate spies and their lives, loves, plots, and counterplots. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play the spies, and they handle their repartee with excellent timing and great wit. But Giamatti and Wilkinson as the competing corporate titans who employ them – wow!
6. PARIS 36
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love Paris, and those who don’t know that they love Paris. If you love Paris, you’ll love this tribute to the City between the wars, when romance was in the air and anything was possible. Yeah, the heroes are Reds. But let’s face it: industrialists are boring. And the song and dance numbers? Fantastic!
The tagline reads, “She’s a special needs girl with a need to kick some ass.” Laying down pretty much every brand of fu imaginable, dancer JeeJa Yanin makes for a convincing martial artist in this creative, well choreographed, and altogether entertaining Thai martial arts picture from director Prachya Pinkaew, the man behind TOM YUM GOONG and ONG-BAK.
4. STAR TREK
Having grown up on the original “Star Trek” TV series, I was all set to hate this reboot. But then I sat in a theater in Fort Lauderdale and got caught up in this big, goofy, ridiculous confection. STAR TREK, far from the train wreck I expected, is big, good-natured, rewatchable fun. It’s also my biggest surprise of the year.
3. DRAG ME TO HELL
Oh, Sylvia Ganush, you had me at “I don’t want your cat, you dirty pork queen!” As I wrote in my original review, DRAG ME TO HELL is everything you could want in a movie entitled “Drag Me to Hell.” It’s gory, it’s scary, it’s funny, and it’s so far over the top that it goes down the other side, turns around, and comes back over the top again. If a Sam Raimi horror movie with mystic séances, possessed goats, and gypsy curses doesn’t do it for you, you must not like horror movies.
2. GOODBYE SOLO
Here’s a small film about regular people that avoids all the bromides about life, death, and family; all while being one of the most powerful movies about life, death, and family released this year. Red West is weariness, and Souleyman Sy Savane is the immigrant experience. It has been months since I’ve seen this picture, and I still can’t get it out of my mind.
Not only is up the best picture of 2009, I’m seriously considering calling it the best film of the decade. Not only is it the wisest film of the year, but it’s also the most beautiful, the most touching, and the most likely to challenge and entertain viewers aged five to one hundred five. I saw it in 3-D during its theatrical run and I’ve seen it on blu-ray at home. In either presentation, it’s magnificent. This is a towering achievement from a studio that practically has “towering achievement factory” on its letterhead.
Now, the worst:
10. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS’ fantasy depiction of the United States Army adopting the tactics of Al Qaeda in Iraq to win WWII was obscene. Yes, Tarantino knows how to manage all the technical aspect of filmmaking. Yes, the projection onto smoke was brilliant. But I can’t help but think that this film was an experiment in getting Western audiences to cheer for the tactics of the enemies of our civilization.
9. BIG MAN JAPAN
I don’t ask for much from my movies, but I do like to know what the heck is going on. BIG MAN JAPAN is an hour and twenty minutes of “WTH was that” topped with ten minutes of “WTF was that.” Neither funny nor comprehensible, BIG MAN JAPAN asks us to laugh at its characters. I don’t laugh at people.
8. CRANK 2
Look, this is a bad movie. Never mind that it’s compulsively watchable – Cheetos are compulsively edible, but they’re still bad food. Sexist, racist, ageist, and just about every –ist you can imagine, this film has no redeeming qualities. I can’t wait for the next one.
7. THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE
THE FIRST DATE EXPERIENCE would serve as a more accurate title. More specifically, the part of the first date when you sit across the table from your companion and realize that she is a wholly uninteresting human being. The part of the first date when you realize there isn’t going to be a second date.
I wanted to like TULPAN. I really did. But the film gave me no reason to care about any of the people onscreen. Where do you when apathy is the best you can muster?
5. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS
I don’t care about vampires who aren’t Korean Catholic priests and I don’t care about werewolves who aren’t attacking platoons of British soldiers and I don’t care about women dressed up in fetish gear unless they’re wearing leprechaun costumes. UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS adds nothing of interest to the vampire, werewolf, or fetishwear genres. Pass.
I fail to perceive how the events of ADVENTURELAND could intrigue anyone who isn’t directly involved in the events of ADVENTURELAND. This is a movie about people who need to get over themselves, featuring a protagonist who needs to get over himself. I got over it pretty quickly.
3. HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU
HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU made no attempt to engage me, the straight male viewer. I felt like the fifth wheel at a girls’ night out.
I like Hugh Jackman. I like Liev Schreiber. Heck, I even Will i Am. This overwrought film wastes the talents of all involved and, in the process, wastes our time. WOLVERINE tells us nothing we didn’t already know about the character, and it takes an hour and a half to do it.
1. THE MUTANT CHRONICLES
From writing to direction to editing to music to acting to, well, everything, THE MUTANT CHRONICLES earns its position as the biggest train wreck of 2009. This film fails on every level and has nothing to recommend it. In fact, it’s so bad that I feel bad about grouping it in with the rest of the movies on this list, since they at least were legitimate movies. I’ve seen better student films from my buddies in film school.
Saturday, January 09, 2010
Tuesday, January 05, 2010
I love how fiction can surprise me.
I thought the vampire genre had been pretty well played out. We’ve had vampire superheroes, vampire messiahs, even vampire glitter queens. Where else could the genre go?
Then 2009 came along, and two films from two continents reinvigorated the genre. First, there was Sweden’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, a staggering work of beauty and empathy about Eli, the 400 year old vampire and Oskar, the boy who’s either her latest victim or her greatest love. Now, there’s THIRST, from Korean master director Chan-Wook Park (JSA, The Vengeance Trilogy). It’s about a Catholic priest who unwittingly becomes a vampire.
Wait – a priest who becomes a vampire? I know: what a hook! THIRST has more going for it than its hook, however. As played by Kang-ho Song (THE HOST, JSA, MEMORIES OF MURDER, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE), this priest becomes a tangle of conflicting duties and desires, his face evoking a man who is emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually out of his league. He’d only wanted to do some (self abnegating) good, volunteering for a risky vaccine trial with a high probability of death. But when he survives, finding himself with new abilities and, oh yes, hungers, he doesn’t know what to do. Imagine Thomas à Kempis with a sudden, insatiable desire for, well, everything.
Song’s Father Sang-heon navigates these waters as best he can, and director Park keeps us in his shoes every step of the way. No matter where the story goes, we never disengage; we never stop believing. By the time the other shoe drops and Park has revealed his last horror (for oh yes, this is a horror movie), he’s wrung us out.
This movie works on every level. Along with its Swedish counterpart, it gives me new hope for the future of the genre.
Monday, January 04, 2010
History will treat STAR TREK; GENERATIONS unkindly.
I’ve long considered it a mildly successful entry in the Star Trek canon, weaving serious themes of addiction and mortality into a decent space adventure. Upon seeing it with my 9-year-old, however, I realize that it presumes too much. It presumes familiarity with and affection for characters from two long-cancelled television series. It presumes empathy for an android who, for newcomers to Trek, is just another machine. Most damning, its most important moments represent a passing of the torch from one Captain Kirk to a Captain Picard – moments with zero meaning for the viewer who grew up on neither one nor the other.
The story is standard Star Trek. It uses pseudoscience to maneuver Kirk and Picard together, puts a populated world at stake, and ends with world-saving fisticuffs with a madman. It takes character detours from time to time, concerning itself with the emotional development of a robot whom it assumes we care about from one of the television series. It even ends on a hopeful note, with the promise of new adventures to come.
Though I didn’t care about any of the new generation characters, never having watched their series, I cared enough about Kirk and Chekhov and Sulu and Scotty to carry me through. My son, however, didn’t know any of these people and, since the film never took the time to involve him, didn’t particularly care what happened to them.
I can understand that. It’s why future generations won’t go for this one.
Sunday, January 03, 2010
This spring, I’ll celebrate my 18th anniversary. Next fall, I’ll have known my beautiful bride for fully half my life.
I just found out that she loves THE SOUND OF MUSIC as much as I do.
Turns out we share the same childhood experience of gathering for the annual broadcast of this venerable musical. Turns out we smiled at the same moments, knew the lyrics to the same songs.
I don’t think she has a crush on Julie Andrews. But hey, if she does, I’m down with that.
For this is a great, great film. From the beautiful aerial photography at the beginning to the introduction of the problematic Maria to her integration into the Von Trapp family and on through the resolution, this film carries us along on the beauty of the Alps, the magnetism of Andrews and costar Christopher Plummer, and as fine a songbook as one is likely to find in the American Musical.
Sure, some elements thud. I never have cared about the romantic prospects of the eldest Von Trapp girl. Not every number reaches great heights. But on the whole, this picture just sings. It’s beautiful to look at, beautiful to listen to, just plain beautiful.
Who’d have guessed that a woman who would marry me would have such great taste.