The 2009 cinema year was a lot like my life, not particularly noteworthy or remarkable, except for a few really amazing films which saved the year from being entirely mediocre. Looking back a year ago, I remember thinking that 2009 could be a really amazing year for movies, with some of my favorite franchises getting new attention (Star Trek, Wolverine, Terminator, Harry Potter) as well as new movies from great filmmakers like Tarantino and Michael Mann. In the end though, it was the quiet movies we didn’t know much about at the time that ended up saving 2009.
Rather than trying to order every film (an impossible task when you get to the best films of the year), I thought I’d split them up in to three groups: disappointments, honorable mentions, and the best of 2009. In the comments, I fully expect you to lambast me for my poor taste and act outraged for neglecting your favorite film of 2009.
These films are not necessarily bad, but they failed to live up to expectations, much like my dating life. And just like my dates, these are movies that I wanted to like (because of the cast, director, or source material) but I was left wanting.
Public Enemies – Johnny Depp made a very dapper John Dillinger, but the on and off again documentary style shooting of this movie proved distracting. Bale was also good, but very one dimensional compared to what we have come to expect from 3:10 to Yuma and Batman (raspy voice aside.) I really don’t think I’ll ever see this movie again.
Wolverine – Jackman reprises his role as my favorite X-Man, but he spends the whole movie being angry and/or confused. We end up missing that wry humor and his interaction with the other characters that made X-Men 1 and 2 so great. Despite it’s problems, this move has it’s fun parts and is entirely watchable. I imagine I’ll see this one in the gym occasionally or at a co-ed movie night where people are trying to appease the masses with a little violence, a little love, and no R rating.
Terminator: Salvation – For someone who has had so much experience with Terminators, you’d think Bale’s John Connor would have figured out the plot to this move in about 5 minutes. But that’s not the problem with this movie; the real tragedy is that we don’t get to spend more time with Sam Worthington’s character as he struggles with his own identity as a man/machine, which I found very compelling. It was also nice to see this movie with a PG-13 rating to expand the visibility of the franchise, but this is very certainly no Terminator 1 or 2.
Men Who Stare At Goats – This movie has the who’s who of ensemble casts: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, but was released at the end of August where movies go to die. It makes sense when you realize that everyone is playing a character from a previous movie (George Clooney as seen in Burn After Reading, Jeff Bridges as The Big Lebowski, Kevin Spacy from 21, and Ewan McGregor as a Jedi.) That would have been fine, but the supposedly true parts of the story are simply too unbelievable and confusing.
Not every movie can be the best, so these are the ones that surprised me by being much better than expected.
The Blind Side – I’m really tired of the “overcome all odds” sports movie. I realize that sports can be a good vehicle for life lessons, but in the end it frustrates me that we are so entertained by the stories of athletes, whose struggles, in the grand scheme of things, are significantly less meaningful than the struggles of our artists, scientists, teachers, and public servants. And I guess that’s why I enjoyed the Blind Side, because it didn’t try to make some grand statement out of Michael Oher’s story. Sure, there are Hollywood elements, like the horribly miscast younger brother and the ruse that Michael Oher was a gently giant that didn’t know how to play football. (The reality is that he was a natural athlete born with that killer instinct required to play pro football.) There are also the cliché elements of racism and classism, but the core of the story is about a family taking in a young man and helping him succeed. The love they feel for each other is truly genuine, and the director wisely does not toy with that emotion. From beginning to end, you know that things are going to work out, and it’s wonderfully satisfying when it does.
Star Trek – After watching how Terminator and Wolverine both fumbled their respective franchises, I was worried that the same might happen to Star Trek. Fortunately, that was not the case. The casting is excellent, and the special effects are really amazing but still believable. (For once the engine room of the Enterprise isn’t built around some miscellaneous glowing orb.) All in all, I would say that this movie is a great revival of the Star Trek universe, despite Abrams retcon trick and the fact that this film seems to be much more action oriented than Roddenberry might have intended for his franchise.
The Hangover – My sister will be upset that The Hangover is listed here instead of I Love You, Man, but I have to go with my gut. I saw I Love You Man with Staci in the Spring and cried I laughed so hard. Then a few months later, the roommates and I were excited to go catch Public Enemies, but when it was all sold out we ended up seeing the Hangover on a whim. We were expecting some juvenile gross out humor, but what we got was that and so much more. We haven’t laughed that much since 2008’s Tropic Thunder.
Zombieland – Finally, the US has produced a competitor to Shaun of the Dead. Sure, this movie contains nothing that hasn’t already been done in the zombie genre, but it does it with so much more heart and humor than all of its competitors. Woody Harrelson is a lovable hic (I generally hate hics), Abigail Breslin has come a long way from Miss Sunshine, Jessie Eisenberg plays Michael Cera as well or better than Michael Cera, and I would totally make out with Emma Stone. Toss in a zombie clown and perhaps the best celebrity cameo ever, and you’ve got a film that I will watch every Halloween season.
Avatar – I had serious doubts about this movie. Like most people, I’m wary of too much CGI, (ala Polar Express), and I’m equally concerned about anything that is released in 3D (flashbacks of Captain EO). Avatar overcame my fears however and is honestly the only movie this year that can be accurately described as an experience rather than just a movie. It’s also fair to call it “Dances with Smurfs" because the story is instantly recognizable and the characters are, well, blue. Despite this, I was still totally sucked in. Because the story is recognizable but still well told, you can spend the bulk of the experience immersing yourself in the world that Cameron created. The planet Pandora is breathtaking in its complexity and completeness, showcasing Cameron’s attention to detail and desire for scientific accuracy. His use of technology to produce hyper accurate facial expressions and movements of the CG characters draw you deeper into the story rather than being distracting. You also end up feeling a real connection to Sam Worthington (making me wish, again, that we had seen more of him in Terminator.)
District 9 – I’m a total sci-fi junkie, and this movie scratched exactly where I itch. This movie had a small budget by today’s standards, and yet blew it’s competition out of the water. Everyone makes the inevitable connections to illegal immigration, apartheid, and segregation, but the message of the movie is far greater than that. I never expected that any film would make me sympathetic to 8 foot tall insect-like aliens, but this one did. It also reminded me that sci-fi movies are supposed to have a conscience. This movie would have made Badbury, Roddenberry, and Asimov proud.
Inglourious Basterds – Great movies require great villains. Inglorious Basterds has the best in years in Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter.” The first 30 minutes of this where he is introduced, if released on it’s own, would win every award offered for short films. Despite the occasional art-house feel, the film is both entirely fun and quotable while clearly on par with the likes of the Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape. Sure, Brad Pitt is over the top, but he plays an alternative Steve McQueen to a ‘t.’ I’ve already seen this movie three times and I think several more are in the future.
The Hurt Locker – The Iraq war has to be the most politicized war of the last decade, and yet this film provides an honest look at the war in Iraq without a hint of political message. Set in the early days of the second Iraq war (when we didn’t know there weren’t any WMDs and Saddam was hiding in a hole), we follow a bomb disposal unit during the last few months of their tour of duty. The movie uses a cast of relative unknowns to provide an unflinching look at the high stress work these soldiers engage in every day. The first time I saw The Hurt Locker, I basically held my breathe until the movie was over. The second time, I was even more impressed that anyone would volunteer to put themselves in harms way the way these men do. The Hollywood elements of the movie are few and far between, and most of those are added to protect the actual tactics of soldiers that work to diffuse IEDs every day. What Band of Brothers did for the American experience in WWII in Europe, The Hurt Locker does for our modern conflicts.
**I know, I know, there are some glaring omissions on this list. Live with it. I’m still getting around to seeing “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, “500 Days of Summer“ (taking applications for a young single female that would like to watch it with me), “Up” (same offer applies), “Moon”, and “Up in the Air.”