L Critic Picks for Best (and worst) Films of 2009

12/24/2009 4:00 PM |

Jesse Hassenger’s Best (and worst) Films of 2009

Pixar’s latest animated masterpiece brilliantly chases a devastating, lyrical passage of love, disappointment, and aging with a lovably wacky child, a daft exotic bird, and pretty much the last word on talking dogs in cinema. If Dug the dog and his more ruthless biplane-piloting frenemies can discourage future filmmakers from even attempting to add CGI lips to live-action canines, Pixar should be considered for collective sainthood. In the meantime, feel free to enjoy every minute and every genre of this life-affirming comedy-drama-adventure-fantasy. Carl Frederickson’s lonely house lifting up by the power of a thousand helium balloons is, in some ways, the ultimate Pixar image: whimsical, gorgeous, memorable, surprisingly weighty.

The Brothers Bloom
The expert con men played by Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo travel the globe performing elaborate, multi-step symphonies of deception in Johnson’s hilarious and heartfelt follow-up to Brick, his excellent teen-noir debut. For purposes of this whimsical but thoughtful fable, cons are made near-synonymous with storytelling; reclusive mark Penelope (Rachel Weisz) characterizes the chicanery as an “adventure story” and gets to work doodling logos for her new smuggler’s gang. It’s a small gesture, but funny and oddly touching, and The Brothers Bloom is full of such details. Johnson sometimes gets tagged as a filmmaker who knows mainly about other films, but the pure pleasure of his characters and their peculiar obsessions transcends mere riffing.

Inglourious Basterds
Speaking of movies about movies that are actually so much more, Quentin Tarantino may have turned his men-on-a-mission WWII project into a paean to the cinema, but the sustained power and confidence of his work is on full display in this two-and-a-half hour movie that contains, what, like a dozen scenes? For a director with such a supposedly predictable MO, Tarantino continues to make surprising, idiosyncratic, carefully paced films with, get this, kickass roles for women.

A Serious Man
The Coen brothers have taken to observing a gaping void in the universe where the meaning is supposed to be, and that unfeeling maybe-God has taken to them right back. The spiritual searching they oversee in A Serious Man is less thoughtful inquiry than increasingly panicked rummage, which of course resembles dark farce, which of course they observe with their characteristic deadpan humanity.

Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox
Adaptation, as you may remember from some movie, is key to survival; this is especially true in modern Hollywood, where even the most inventive filmmakers are encouraged to snap up brand names and develop properties, like a big-ticket game of Monopoly (which is, by the way, on Ridley Scott’s current to-do list). But Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson kept their voices, maybe even intensified them, while working within the confines of the big-studio kid-lit business. Jonze takes Sendak, Anderson takes Dahl, and they both come up with meditations on wildness in families: Wild Things navigates the vivid, perfectly captured emotions of children swinging from delighted to disappointed to near-feral, while Anderson’s wayward fox struggles with his natural urges to both endanger and protect his family.

Greg Mottola’s follow-up to Superbad isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny, but it similarly benefits from his impeccable ability to ground comedy into reality. Aided by a wonderful cast including Jesse Eisenberg doing his patented lil’ Woody Allen routine, Martin Starr as a sour, self-aware suburban intellectual, and Kristen Stewart doing a likable version of her twitchy neuroses, Mottola takes us through an uneventful but entertaining summer at a third-rate amusement park. The laughs, fleeting romance and pathos all have that extra bit of lived-in believability—which of course makes them funnier, more romantic, and, especially, deeply empathetic.

Observe and Report
I didn’t have much use for Jody Hill’s Foot Fist Way, but his newest riff on a deluded loser, with Seth Rogen as a 21st-century Travis Bickle, provides an intentionally depressing flip side to Paul Blart: Mall Cop (the existence of the latter hit may have sealed Observe‘s box office fate, but also made for a sick practical joke on budding aficionados of the nascent fat-mall-cop genre). Rogen’s Ronnie Barnhardt is racist, sexist, oafish, and deranged but ultimately pitiable, which leaves Hill’s shock comedy perching even more uncomfortably between big laughs and face-freezing psychodrama.

Star Trek
The screenplay, from Michael Bay’s go-to writers, has some lazy storytelling, but you barely notice with J.J. Abrams and his young cast taking command of these familiar characters and making them human and fresh-faced without sacrificing iconography. Rocket-paced and quite funny, this franchise restarter doesn’t sell out Star Trek—it cannily turns newbies into fans. I love a movie that can make nerds of us all.

Public Enemies
Maybe it has to do with seeing it in the summer, sandwiched between fast-cut heavy-sheen blockbusters, but Public Enemies sticks in my head as one of the most beautifully composed movies of the year. Michael Mann is a convert to digital video, and not the kind that produces a shiny, barely distinguishable imitation of film: his depression-era cops and robbers are shot with handheld immediacy, with washed-out skies during the day and grainy, vivd blackness at night. It’s all gorgeous, as are the understated performances from Johnny Depp as Dillinger, Marion Cotillard as his love, and Christian Bale as the no-nonsense fed who brings him down.

Honorable Mention: Comedy Division

Judd Apatow’s Funny People rambles on a little—yeah, sometimes it feels like he’s workshopping TV season arcs, not polishing a stand-alone feature—but its stubbornly thorny exploration of the male comedian psyche works more often than not, and the sprawl makes room for several hilarious yet believable characters on the margins. There may be caricatures on the margins of Away We Go, but the film’s portrait of a thirtysomething couple (John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph) looking for a place to raise their impending child is disarmingly sweet and affecting and free of romantic melodrama. Both of these films made me laugh, but neither, nor anything in my top ten, made me laugh as hard as Derrick Comedy’s Mystery Team, in which three boy detectives continue solving suburban mysteries at age eighteen.

Honorable Mention: Soderbergh Division
It was a good year for fans of Steven Soderbergh’s brainily experimental side: The Girlfriend Experience, shot quickly in the fall of ’08 as the economy collapsed, gave us an unknowable Sasha Grey and an all-transaction Manhattan, while The Informant! turned a thriller into a comedy into a psychological profile.

Honorable Mention: New Worlds Division
I also quite enjoyed the vivid (and in smartly deployed, non-gimmicky 3-D, immersive) new environments James Cameron and Henry Selick respectively created in Avatar and Coraline: new technology deployed to create an old-fashioned transporting effect.

Honorable Mention: Horror Division
Horror fans are used to setting low expectations and getting let down anyway, but this year saw a lot of strong work in that disreputable genre. Only one was actually scary: Paranormal Activity, a Blair Witch-y haunted house yarn that actually made me feel dread in the pit of my stomach. Thirst showed the continuing potential of vampires as movie subjects, even in the face of Twilight overexposure, while Zombieland and the minor but underrated Jennifer’s Body went for comic but still human takes on horror tropes.

… and the worst: New York, I Love You
That Paris got the Coens, Alexander Payne, Tom Tykwer, and Gus Van Sant, among others, while New York’s love-based anthology had plenty of room for Brett Ratner, is insulting enough. But not as galling as the final product, which paints an indelible and nuanced portrait of New Yorkers as fast-talking yearners who take cabs everywhere and are constantly smoking, even in bars; is this a poorly defined period piece, too, or have these filmmakers not visited or even thought about New York in the past five to ten years? First-time writer-director Natalie Portman fares the best, maybe because she’s actually spent some time here, or maybe because her short rises to the level of proficiency.

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