I started making a 30-minute short film this year. Which means I stopped watching a lot of movies. There’s a heaping buttload I haven’t seen, but it is my general impression that most of the best stuff were small movies released quietly over the summer. And unless you were smart enough to check out the Tara in north Atlanta or the Plaza Theatre on Ponce, you missed out, and that sucks because I don’t think “Summer Hours,” in particular, is coming to DVD anytime soon.
THE TOP 10 MOVIES OF 2009
1. “Inglourious Basterds” (Quentin Tarantino)
A bunch of people are gonna’ see “Inglourious Basterds,” and a surefire contingent of them are going to complain that it’s “too talky.”
You would think this sort of shit would have ended after people said the same thing about “Death Proof.” But it hasn’t. And it won’t. Not until Quentin Tarantino stops hopscotching around genres with vastly different audiences like Stanley Kubrick on Ritalin. It’s pretty interesting how this works, actually. Everyone has seen “Pulp Fiction,” and 90 percent of the people who saw that movie liked it. But then Tarantino started deconstructing specific genres (the kung fu film ["Kill Bill"], the slasher flick ["Death Proof"], the caper movie ["Jackie Brown"]), and most of those genres have a dedicated audience, and they’re, like, murderously protective of those genres even when most of the crap they watch tends to be just that… crap.
Then Tarantino comes along and gets his characters talking. And they just sort of talk… and talk… and talk. Meanwhile, the genre fanatics are waiting for genre shit to happen. If it’s a slasher flick, they want heads to roll. A kung fu flick? Crazy-ass swordfights. A war film like “Inglourious Basterds?” Each act should climax with a battle sequence.
Tarantino, however, smartly builds the story as a slow burn to a wonderfully indulgent eruption involving the destruction of the Nazi high command. It couldn’t be more satisfying.
2. “Up” (Pete Doctor, Bob Peterson)
“Up” almost made me cry like a baby, which is a feat because I make it my purpose not to cry in movie theaters. At the end of the day, it has everything you could want in a movie, and this is something Pixar has discovered how to do quite well — make broad masterpieces, basically. It’s a shame these things are animated because if they weren’t, this thing would win Best Picture at the Oscars. “Up” has action sequences that seemed like they’re wonderfully ripped from Spielberg’s “Raiders” playbook. The main character, Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Ed Asner, carries more warm, romantic sadness than any character I’ve ever seen. An 8-minute, silent montage that traverses his decades-long relationship with his dead wife nearly killed me. Then it turns into this hilarious buddy action comedy.
If “Inglourious Basterds” wasn’t so much damn fun, “Up” would take the cake on this list. I can’t imagine anyone sitting down to watch this thing and walking away less than uplifted.
3. “Sugar” (Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden)
Is “Sugar” the best baseball movie ever made? Is that question insane? My favorite baseball movies before seeing “Sugar” were “The Sandlot,” “A League of Their Own,” “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams.”
“Sugar” kills nearly all them, “The Sandlot” excluded.
Fleck and Boden are one of the top five filmmaking teams working today. They write very dramatic, internally conflicted characters, they find exceptional actors to play those characters and then they shoot it almost like a documentary. The freewheeling mastery of it all feels like a sledgehammer to the head.
“Sugar” focuses on the journey of young, Dominican baseball players through a large farm system in the Dominican Republic as they crawl up the minor league ladder in the United States with the dream of making it to The Big Show. There are a number of movies like this. “Bull Durham,” for instance. But, at the end, “Sugar” steps back and realizes its characters aren’t just baseball players, and their movie isn’t just about baseball. It’s about disappointment. It’s about resignation. It’s about realizing that athletes are part of a system that coldly discards those who don’t produce quickly. It’s about how this shit really is, not how it’s supposed to be, which is what most baseball movies are about.
4. “Summer Hours” (Olivier Assayas)
When filmmakers break every basic filmic storytelling rule in the book, the results tend to be, at best, interesting or just pretty good. “Summer Hours” is a very notable exception because this movie is probably a masterpiece and easily Assayas’ best. There’s very little conflict save for the internal debates of one character, and it’s very much an ensemble drama. A French family discusses the disintegration of their mother’s estate. Their mother is the niece of a long-dead, classic, Parisian painter, and the home is filled with pieces he painted or was given by other notable, French artists. Therefore, the estate is valuable monetarily and to the French government, which wants to preserve its cultural heritage.
But the estate is also important to family members who grew up there. A less honest movie would devise different conflicts between family members. They’d fight over the pieces and the past. “Summer Hours” doesn’t do that. Each character must come to terms with the fact that time passes, eras and lives come to an end, people must move on. At the end of the movie, the pieces of art beautifully represent why we value stuff in the first place: They are landmarks to our best and worst memories, and like the people who keep them, they have their own stories. “Summer Hours” is a gorgeously photographed, subtly acted masterpiece.
5. “Sin Nombre” (Cary Fukunaga)
Wash away all the gorgeous cinematography, all the Spanish subtitles, the hyper-authentic Mexican gangsters and its obvious concern with present immigration issues. At its core, “Sin Nombre” is a genre movie, a chase thriller. In fact, if you broke it down to its parts, you could reassemble it as a standard, American chase flick except it would probably take place in a car rather than on a train.
This movie is for anyone who likes taut, edge-of-your-seat thrillers.
There aren’t any stars in this. A redemptive teenage boy tries to leave the MS-13 gang in Mexico by way of killing two of his partners on top of a train. A young Central American girl is also on that train, and she’s been riding it with family and friends for several hundred miles. Obviously, they’re both headed north for the United States. They spend the rest of the movie fleeing MS-13 members who wait for them at every train stop. Will the young couple hook up? Will they get to the States or will the gang catch them and hack them to death with rusty machetes?
Pretty simple story. And it’s awesome.
6. “Goodbye Solo” (Ramin Bahrani)
If we’re handing out Oscars now (which is a terrible phrase because they’re never handing out Oscars when people say that), save one for Souleymane Sy Savane, the West African star of “Goodbye Solo.” He’s the only guy you’re going to see on the silver screen this year who makes you feel like you’re a dark, useless and terrible hate tank of a person by comparison, but you can’t help but adore him anyway. Savane plays Solo, an immigrant cab driver in Winston-Salem, N.C., who tries to help an elderly man who gets in his cab one night, hands him a wad of cash and tells him in several weeks he’s going to ask him to drive him one way to Blowing Rock where it is assumed the only thing he could possibly hope to do is commit suicide.
For the whole movie, Solo has a pure agenda to save the old man, William, played wonderfully by Red West. He befriends him and charms/elbows his way into William’s life, looking for a way in. As Solo, nearly everything Savane says makes you smile. He’s an extraordinary guy who seems charming and goofy when he hits on women in a way that makes other guys seem like scuzzy pricks. Everyone likes him, and he has no ulterior motives. He is a purely nice person, and you rarely see characters like that in movies — at least not honest ones.
“Goodbye Solo” must be one of the warmest movies ever made where one of the main characters, quite literally, has a death wish.
7. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” (Sacha Gervasi)
Souleymane Sy Savane may deserve an Oscar nomination for being one of the sweetest men in the history of human beings, but if Steve “Lips” Kudlow was a fictional character rather than the actual person and lead singer of the Canadian metal band “Anvil,” he’d give Savane a run for his money. Because at the end of the day, as most human beings kiss their dreams goodbye somewhere around their late 20s/early 30s, Kudlow and best friend and Anvil drummer Robb Reiner kept going, job security be damned. This documentary finds them 20 or 30 years later after their 15 minutes of fame in the early ’80s opening for bands like Bon Jovi and Whitesnake at Japanese rock festivals. “Anvil” is about metal music, but it’s also about big, big things like friendship, loyalty… even self-delusion maybe.
You might recognize Gervasi as the writer of the Spielbergian crowd-pleaser “The Terminal.” As it turns out, Gervasi was a British fan of “Anvil’s” and, for some time, a roadie. He decided to do the documentary after discovering the band was still going 20 years after he left them. So he wrote and directed this cinematic love letter, and it’s probably the most inspiring documentary I’ve seen. Pouya Dianat cried a little when he saw it too.
8. “District 9″ (Neill Blomkamp)
A.O. Scott nailed this movie on the head in his New York Times review a few weeks back. The vast majority of alien movies — if not all of them — are centrally about the same question: If aliens came to Earth, what would they do to us?
“District 9″ asks the inverse question: What would we do to them?
Pretty crappy stuff, apparently.
According to Blomkamp, we’d stuff them into festering camps where they’d wallow in poverty. Then we’d have to move them into the country after the city folk tired of their presence. “District 9″ also has one of the best protagonists I’ve ever seen in an action movie: Wikus Van De Merwe portrayed, quite possibly, in an Oscar-nom-worthy performance by Sharlto Copley. Van De Merwe is an insufferable corporate bureaucrat in charge of moving the aliens to their new camp in exurban Johannesburg. Over the course of the movie, he becomes a champion for aliens once his DNA accidentally mixes with theirs. His transformation from a sniveling, disengaged wimp into a pro-alien warrior is probably one of the the most bad-ass and satisfying things you’ll see this year. A great, great action movie with real heart, and when the movie ended I practically sucker-punched the Asian girl sitting next to me in a moment of unrestrained anticipation of the sequel.
9. “Observe and Report” (Jody Hill)
An compressed excerpt from my review: It’s hard to deny the significance of what filmmaker Jody Hill is building, starting with “The Foot Fist Way” in 2006 to the HBO television series “Eastbound & Down” this year and “Observe and Report” now. “Observe and Report” is shot across the bow of every comedic filmmaker working right now, including Judd Apatow, one of the men responsible for Hill’s breakout success. (Apatow, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were among the first somebodys to see “Foot Fist Way” and champion the film after its Sundance debut in 2006.)
Hill is showing the rest of them where comedy can go and what it’s ignored. He cited “Taxi Driver” as an influence. Now, how many studio comedies have you watched where a director cited a classic, urban tragedy as source material? I can’t exactly think of any. I can’t even name similar movies. Maybe “Bad Santa,” but that only tricks you into thinking it’s purely dyspeptic. It’s actually a sweet movie. I’d also compare “Observe and Report” to “Punch-Drunk Love” — if “Punch-Drunk Love” ended with Adam Sandler’s character, Barry Egan, losing the girl and murdering a neighbor in a fit of rage.
10. “The Informant!” (Steven Soderbergh)
The best way to illustrate “The Informant!” is to relay a story Matt Damon has told several times in interviews. When Damon’s character, Mark Whitacre, finally has to face his monumental corporate indiscretions at the end of the movie, he addresses the court to apologize before his sentencing. Damon said he had an actual transcript of everything the real Whitacre said at that very moment, and he tried to deliver the lines as sincerely as he could, as sincerely as he believed the real Whitacre likely felt.
Soderbergh walked up to him after he finished the take, shaking his head.
“Wrong movie,” Soderbergh whispered. He thought for a moment. “Do it… Do it like you’re accepting an award.”
Pretty bang-on direction. Damon’s performance in the scene is rib-crackingly funny.
And that’s pretty much what “The Informant!” is — a hilarious farcical take on ridiculously ambitious, international corporate crime. Damon gained a pantload of weight to play a shapeless version of Whitacre, a rich, conniving corporate criminal who lied to his company, the FBI and his wife all at the same time with a stunning recklessness.
How about every movie I saw in 2009 from top to bottom? OK? Some of these get pretty bad by the end.
Starting at No. 11…
11. “(500) Days of Summer”
12. “The Hurt Locker”
13. “That Evening Sun”
14. “Two Lovers”
16. “Up in the Air”
19. “Star Trek”
20. “The Soloist”
21. “Sherlock Holmes”
24. “State of Play”
25. “Funny People”
28. “Whatever Works”
29. “Drag Me to Hell”
30. “Sunshine Cleaning”
31. “I Love You, Man”
32. “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism”
33. “Public Enemies”
34. “The Hangover”
35. “The Men Who Stare at Goats”
36. “A Perfect Getaway”
37. “Angels & Demons”
39. “Taking Chance”
41. “The Last House on the Left”
42. “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day”
43. “Lynch Mob”