January 26, 2010

The Mindful Critic’s Ten Best Films of 2009

OK, everybody, here are this year’s picks:

10. Star Trek by J.J. Abrams

It’s a mark of Star Trek’s incredible success that it scores big points not only with loyal fans of the venerable TV series and its many spin-offs, but with folks like me, who have no interest in the canon whatsoever.  Like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan before him, Abrams is careful to keep his characters and the story front-and-center, never letting the film degenerate into an empty special effects show. (*cough* *cough* Avatar! *cough*)  Star Trek draws you in, whether you have long loved this universe or are coming to know it for the first time.  It sure ain’t a masterpiece or anything, but it is a swirling, stylish, and silly dazzler that sends you out of the theater with a big ol’ smile on your face.  It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it does the job impeccably and has a good sense of humor about itself.  Abrams gets a lot of the credit here, but it sure helps that he has assembled an especially wonderful cast:  of special note are the riotous Karl Urban as Bones, the enchanting Zoe Saldana as Uhura, the splendid Zachary Quinto as Spock, the effortlessly charismatic Chris Pine as Kirk, and the always superb Simon Pegg as Scotty.  More like this please!


9. Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans by Werner Herzog

Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans brings together German auteur Werner Herzog (whose stunning body of work spans from Aguirre: The Wrath of God to Grizzly Man) and America’s Oscar-winning hambone laureate Nicolas Cage for a delectable, jaw-dropping crazy-fest.  A sequel to Abel Ferrera’s 1993 cult classic in name only, the film features Cage (who hasn’t chosen such an interesting part or rocked one this hard since Adaptation) as a drug-addled detective on the means of the Big Easy post-Katrina.  Though hard-boiled genre pictures aren’t necessarily his thing, Herzog still manages to find much about the human condition to ponder here, and he also fills out the picture with striking visuals (such as a prisoner drowning in a flooded jail cell) and some other terrific performances (most notably from Xzibit, Val Kilmer, Jennifer Coolidge, and Brad Dourif).  This is filmmaking that sticks.


8. Fantastic Mr. Fox by Wes Anderson

George Clooney was perfectly cast in two films this year, but this imaginative, visually distinctive animated feature by one of the U.S.’s great young auteurs is the better of the two.  (Not that Up in the Air isn’t pretty terrific.)  Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book offers Anderson the opportunity to continue exploring his oft-revisited subjects of family dynamics and exceptionalism.  It also features spectacular stop-motion work (pulled off by most of the same team that worked on Tim Burton’s Oscar-nominated Corpse Bride), and marvelous supporting voicework by such mega-talents as Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, and Jason Schwartzman.  Did I mention that it’s really funny too?  (Eat your heart, The Hangover.)  Wes Anderson hits the bull’s-eye once again.  Fantastic Mr. Fox is an absolute delight.


7. In the Loop by Armando Iannucci

The extraordinary Peter Capaldi steals the show as the spin doctor to end all spin doctors in this stunning new satire from Scotland’s Armando Iannucci, who is perhaps best known for his political comedy on radio and television there.  Grounded in some of the richest, funniest, and most startlingly profane dialogue in recent film, In the Loop is about the power of words in international diplomacy and warmongering–in this case, just one word specifically:  “unforeseeable.”  Though Capaldi makes the biggest splash, the rest of the cast (which includes Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Gina McKee, Steve Coogan, and David Rasche) is excellent as well.  As thoughtful as it is hilarious, In the Loop is a must-see.  I, for one, can’t wait to see what Iannucci does next.


6. The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker has been the critics’ darling this awards season, and very rightly so.  Beginning with a disquieting quote from Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, the film explores the rush and subsequent addiction that can come with the dangerous detail of working as part of a U.S. Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in Baghdad.  Sergeant First Class William James (brought to breathtaking life by Jeremy Renner) is a reckless man with the responsibility of sussing out improvised explosive devices in the Green Zone, which both infuriates and alarms colleagues who think he’s after an “adrenaline fix.”  Though she is best known for the masterful “vampire Western” Near Dark and terrific action pictures such as Blue Steel, Point Break, Strange Days, and K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow’s talents reach their full apex here.  It’s a stunning drama that approaches this material with the appropriate sobriety while still managing to keep the audience on tenterhooks thanks to its tremendously suspenseful direction and Renner’s commanding performance.


5. Crazy Heart by Scott Cooper

In a marvelous scene early in Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, the underachieving, alcoholic country singer-songwriter “Bad” Blake (a pitch-perfect Jeff Bridges) plays the first few bars of a new song to lady love Jean Craddock (the always excellent Maggie Gyllenhaal).  She thinks that it sounds familiar, and Bad explains that that’s how you know when you’ve written a good song.  Similarly, Cooper’s movie is fresh, but also feels like one of Bad’s old Stetson hats.  Yes, Crazy Heart traffics in themes so often revisted in cinema that they’re almost cliches (redemption, addiction, impossible love), but it is all treated with rare honesty and originality.  (Its depiction of a musician’s unforgiving life on the road is striking when compared to, say, A Hard Day’s Night or Almost Famous.)  The film is also very much a tribute to Bridges–a tribute that an actor of his magnitude richly deserves.  (The film’s opening, which has Bad flopping down at a bowling alley bar, will surely delight fans of his iconic performance in The Big Lebowski.)  It’s a phenomenal performance that can be enjoyed all the more because the film around it is every bit as good.


4. The Informant! by Steven Soderbergh 

Adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s look at the international lysine price-fixing conspiracy of the 1990s, and the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) whistleblower whose ulterior motives were revealed during the investigation, Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! transmogrifies the whole story into a comedy.  And it’s a doozy–not only the funniest film of 2009, but one of the funniest of the decade.  Major league kudos go to leading man Matt Damon, who seems to become a better actor with each successive performance.  (And, hey, I thought he was a pretty great actor to begin with!)  Here, he’s both sidesplitting (his stream-of-consciousness voiceovers are truly hysterical) and completely lacking in vanity (when his character is at his most desperate and pathetic it’s hypnotic because Damon is totally unafraid to look ridiculous).  The jazzy Malvin Hamlisch score, Soderbergh’s own cinematography work (using the super-cool, new Red One camera), and some lovely supporting performances (from Scott Bakula and Melanie Lynskey in particular) only up the ante.  A unique, entertaining, and engossing film from Soderbergh, who seems incapable of churning out anything uninteresting.



3. Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s newest (and most meta) film, Inglourious Basterds, is one of the best yet made on several subjects:  the powers of storytelling and filmmaking, the relationship between myth and history, the dangerousness of propaganda, the deep and all-pervasive immorality in times of war, the fallacy of “heroism,” and victories real and symbolic. In short, it’s a pretty rich experience.  The director also has the chutzpah to risk polarizing his audience by refusing to moralize at all in his story of a cell of Jewish Americans with no agenda beyond “killing Naht-zis” and inspiring terror in the Third Reich, and their role in the the fictional “Operation Kino.”  When Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) and General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) get wind of a private screening of a new film by German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (the priceless Sylvester Groth) for the entire German high command–including Hitler (Martin Wuttke)–they dispatch film-critic-cum-field-operative Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) to make contact with German-movie-star-cum-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).  With help from the eponymous Jewish-American squad, led by the part-Apache, southern-fried Lt. Aldo Raine (the very funny but never terribly convincing Brad Pitt), the plan is to blow up the theater.  Complications ensue, and those include contending with another plan hatched by Shoshanna Dreyfus (the sublime Mélanie Laurent), a Jew in hiding and thirsty for revenge of her own.  And absolutely everyone has the near-impossible task of trying outsmart the legendarily terrifying “Jew Hunter,” S.S. Col. Hans Landa (an unforgettable Christoph Waltz, who is now well on his way to Oscar glory).  Clearly, Tarantino’s “still got it,” and his work is only getting more ambitious and daring.  It’s exhilarating to watch a filmmaker so willing to play with fire not only do it but get it away with it by offering something indelible–something we “can’t take off.”  You know, Utivitch, this just might be his masterpiece…


2. A Serious Man by Joel and Ethan Coen 

In a recent post, I called my number two pick one of the best films of the last decade.  Here’s what I said about it then:  The Coen Brothers most recent and personal film, A Serious Man is (so far) the crowning achievement of one of the most consistently interesting film careers of the last twenty-five years. Set in a Jewish community in 1960s Minnesota, this loose adaptation of the Book of Job revolves around the trials and tribulations of physics professor Larry Gopnik (a genius Michael Stuhlbarg, who is best known to audiences as the odious standards-and-practices suit on Aaron Sorkin’s failed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Though a decent and, yes, serious man–bribed by a student in one of the first scenes, he clearly doesn’t even consider taking the money at first–Larry just can’t win: an impending divorce, ungrateful children, a troublesome brother, a bleak tenure outlook, money problems, vexing rabbis, and the possibility of a lawsuit from that student all have him asking, “Why me? What does it all mean?” The Coens’ most perfect marriage of comedy and drama (even moreso than their 1996 treasure Fargo), it goes to places as dark as their Oscar-winning opus No Country for Old Men, but with what many critics have rightly called their most sympathetic male character since Raising Arizona’s H.I. McDunnough. With Larry, the doormat trying desperately to make sense of his cruel world, the directors manage to make a connection with the heart as much as the head (which sets this film apart from some of their other excellent offerings this decade, such as the chilly and cerebral The Man Who Wasn’t There). A Serious Man is a serious classic–a great American original. It’s in theaters now, so go, go, go!



1. Invictus by Clint Eastwood

I’ll be honest with you:  A Serious Man and Inglourious Basterds are almost certainly greater works of film art, but Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is such an exciting, moving, important, and enjoyable work that it seems to me the one film on this list that reminds us what real movie magic is:  it offers powerful community experience (in the screening I saw, the audience clapped at the end), and genuinely inspires (which, I must say, is a rarer and rarer experience for me as a moviegoer these days).  Though it is very much an underdog sports movie cut from the same cloth as Hoosiers (and certainly the best of its kind since that film), Invictus is far more ambitious than most, for its subject is the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa–a crucial moment in the country’s healing post-Apartheid.  After serving twenty-seven years at Robben Island prison, Nelson Mandela (an absolutely magnificent Morgan Freeman) is released and elected President of South Africa.  Searching for ways to unite his fractured nation, he sets his sights on the Springboks–the country’s rugby team.  Specifically, he sees a potential ally in the Afrikaner team captain François Pienaar (superbly played by Matt Damon).  In their respective roles, the two try to steer South Africa towards a grand, symbolic, unifying win on the world stage.  Whereas many films about visionary leaders simply regurgitate their subjects’ most famous speeches, Eastwood has made an astounding film here about the actual mechanics of the reconciliation Mandela preaches.  (In particular, the subplot about Mandela’s security team is beautifully done.)  The director also manages to produce some of the most memorable moments of his career, including a visit to Mandela’s cell on Robben Island and the closing scene–which is one that I personally will not soon forget.  Additionally, in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, Freeman spoke of the film’s efforts to capture the essence of Mandela.  It succeeds brilliantly, in that by the time it is all over we can understand exactly why he recited William Ernest Henley’s poem to himself every day on Robben Island…

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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