I have a complex relationship with the Oscars. It’s not that I don’t think the movies they nominate aren’t good (or even great) movies, it’s just that they are never the type of movies I chose to see on the big screen. So when it comes time to make my annual favorites list it’s a combination of my favorite “big screen” movies from the current year and then last year’s Oscar’s bait. But this year the academy doubled the nominations and doubled my fun, allowing a few more big screen faves into the mix, and lo and behold, 3 movies from this year’s noms made my list. I’ll let you know next year how I feel about the other 7. Until then, here are my favorite 25 movies I saw for the first time in 2009 (and some honorable mentions).
The usual caveats apply, especially the one about recommendations, and the * beside a title means there was enough objectionable content that you should probably do your own research before viewing.
Body of Lies* – 2009 must have been the year of the political thriller for me, as there are at least a half dozen of them on my list. This one features a couple amazing performances from DiCaprio and Crowe, and an intricate compelling story for them to chew on. Don’t expect to casually follow along on this one, but if you’ve got a couple hours to dedicate and can stand the gritty realism, it’s a rewarding destination.
District 9* – I didn’t love this as much as many of my sci-fi brethren did, but I get the attraction and thought it was expertly constructed and executed. As with most great movies the theme is broad enough to apply to almost any sociological grouping which gives some added weight to the effort.In Bruges* – Hmmm. There’s always one movie each year I hesitate to even put on the list. But for the sake of intellectual honesty I have to tell you this movie had a major impact on me. It is not easy to watch, and that’s what makes it so powerful. It’s about the reality of murder and death and violence and is willing to look at it’s impact on the human psyche and soul. Colin Farrel and Brendan Gleeson are brilliant in portraying hit men who struggle with the realities and consequences of their job. In the end, wouldn’t you rather see a movie honest about how awful violence is, rather than celebrate it stylistically like “Wanted”? Wait, what’s that? “Wanted” is on this list too? oh.
Milk* – Homosexuality may have become the most divisive issue of our time. Christians seem to have difficulty approaching it with any kind of humility or grace, and the gay community sees it as such a deeply personal attribute, that no amount of “love the sinner, hate the sin” speak can erase the sense of judgement. Good thing I don’t have to have the answers to know that this movie was a powerful and touching look at a man who struggled deeply with these issues. Is there an agenda here? Maybe. Did it keep me from being moved by this story? Nope.The House Bunny – A surprising tame movie considering the setting and subject but one of the funniest films I saw all year. Anna Farris’ unique sense of comedy and delivery make this a perfect role for her. I was completely caught off guard by how funny, sweet, and even positive this was.Wanted* – So what was that I was saying about the stylistic portrayal of violence? I guess this is where I have to make an admission, as much as I love message and drama, at my heart I think I’m still an action movie kind of guy. I love it when an action scene drops my jaw and makes me say things like, “Are you kidding me?”, “NO WAY!”, and “WHAAAAAA?” Wanted is one long take of these kind of moments and I don’t think it intended to be anything but that. If this movie had even the slightest heart it probably would have been much higher on the list, but as it is I have to admit I enjoyed the spectacle.We Own the Night* – A powerful story of fathers and sons and what it means to be a brother. This movie makes honorable mention almost solely on the compelling story and crazy good performances by the three male leads.
The Top 25
25. State of Play – There is something simply about the presence of Russel Crowe that makes a movie better. Having said that, State of Play is a story that earns its own points without him. The twists and turns of the plot are engaging and the overall message of the importance of truth, friendship, and a free press are delivered flawlessly.
24. Traitor – I told you there were a lot of these political thrillers on the list, this being the third in a row. And this, like the others, is a completely compelling story but it has the distinction of being the brainchild (at least originally) of Steve Martin. It also has the distinction of being the only PG-13 story of the bunch. Once again, great performances all around (man, I love Jeff Daniels) and totally worth a couple hours investment if you haven’t seen it.
23. Australia – I am a Baz Luhrmann fan. I love how he makes movies with an abandon and willingness to put style over realism. But this movie is loooooong and at times it feels it. There are a few scenes in Australia that are worth the wait, and the story is triumphant and emotionally engaging, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could have been even better if had been shorter.
22. Bedtime Stories – Pure family fun. Nothing too deep, but a great couple hours laughing in front of the TV with the kids. I’ve never been a huge Sandler fan, but I think he is getting better with age.
21. Duplicity – I find Julia Roberts a bit creepy. I’m likely the only one in the entire universe that thinks so, but her mouth freaks me out, always has. So it says something about this film that I was able to look past that and enjoy a pretty wild ride. I’m a sucker for a good movie twist and this movie has a few. In fact, I feel like this is the exact kind of movie my main main Hitchcock would be making if he had somehow become immortal and wanted to still make movies instead of ruling the world with his zombie army (not sure where they came from, I just figured if you are immortal, you would have one.)20. 2012 – Yep, pure unadulterated destruction porn….. and I loved every minute of it.
19. Run Fat Boy Run – Part of the beauty of technology is that it has brought the world closer together so that we colonists can enjoy some of the amazing stuff coming out of the empire. Simon Pegg is a treasure in everything I’ve seen him in and this movie is no different, except that it gives him some romantic muscles to stretch along with his already toned comedic ones. It might also have to do with the fact that I had started doing a lot of running of my own when I saw this and could identify with him.
18. Pride and Glory* – Last political thriller, I promise. The truth is these are the kind of movies that when I hear they are good I sigh. It almost feels like homework to have to watch them. But when I finally give myself over to sitting down with it, it completely sucks me in. This movie is essentially We Own The Night with more twists and turns and a greater number of stunning scenes and performances.
17. Son of Rambo – This one may be a little personal, but there is something captured in these kids trying to remake Rambo that speaks so deeply to my desire to be an artist, to create. There is also a beautiful exploration of childhood and morality and what the world can feel like when you are growing up.
16. Flash of Genius – Most often when I’m drawn to a movie it’s because of the truth in it. So movies that are based on true stories already have a little bit of an edge (you know, like 2012). This story has the added benefit of being a David vs. Goliath story with the slingshot replaced by a windshield wiper and David’s triumph over Goliath being replaced with… well you’ll just have to watch to find out. There is also an underlying theme of obsession and its cost that is at the same time engaging and disheartening.
15. Seven Pounds* – I saw this movie quite a bit ago and I still can’t really tell you how I feel about it at it’s core. The crisis moment in this film is so unique and so powerful that it has stayed with me in a very real way. Will Smith proves again that he is more than an action star, but be ready to dig deep in your emotions for what you would do when faced with the same situation.
14. Man on Wire* – The only documentary to make the list this year. It’s the story of a man who simply did the things he set out to do. Even if that thing was to walk between the twin towers on a tight rope when he had been explicitly forbidden to do so. The account of how this story unfolds is progressively jaw dropping.
13. Horton Hears a Who! – Surprisingly well done adaptation of the original story. I was expecting to hate this and came away with a big smile at well they had expanded Horton’s world and how beautiful it was to look at. I’m sure a lot of it also has to do with Jim Carrey’s excellent voice work but underneath it all they simply allowed the inherent strengths of the source material to shine through.
12. Synecdoche, New York* – Charlie Kauffman solidifies his place as the MC Escher of movies with this deeply layered and almost impenetrable maze of self reference and meta gymnastics. To watch a Kauffman movie is to give in to the insanity of layers and loops and just hope you come out the other end with some semblance of meaning. I’m not sure there are many that could put up with it for too long, but this kind of structuring makes me smile even in the effort of it. To pull it off as eloquently as I believe he has is a rare sign of actual genius.
11. City of Ember – I wasn’t even planning on watching this one, til a good friend convinced me it might be worth a gander with the kiddos. What I found was a heartfelt and very well done movie about perseverance and hope in the midst of despair. Plus any chance to see Bill Murray in action is time well spent. I’m almost convinced to check out the books this movie was based on how genuine this universe feels.
10. Slumdog Millionaire* – Jai ho! I wasn’t as taken by this story as many were, it strikes me as a pretty cut and dry drama, but I did think it was an engaging concept. I was actually taken out of the reality of the film by the juxtaposition of the real feeling tragedy of the story to the fairy tale coincidence of many of the elements. Though I understand this was the theme of the film it still made it difficult for me to fully get engaged. Having said that, the beauty and power of the realities was enough to land it in my top 10.
9. Speed Racer – I cannot believe that this movie got slammed the way it did. It’s beautiful, adventurous, and brilliant, at the same time paying homage to the original with presenting something new. I can only guess that people were put off by the stylistic choices the brothers W. made in delivering it. But I found those choices to be fresh, inventive, and more than anything else a blast to watch.
8. Star Trek – My feelings have softened on this after a second viewing (my initial reactions are here), but it’s still a pretty amazing film. I was too caught up in the moment to catch a few of the flaws in the story and script but the character development and scene direction are so stellar that it makes those minor blemishes easy to overlook. I will tell you this. I cannot wait to spend more time with this group of characters.
7. Hancock – In a movie trailer culture it’s rare to go into a theater without knowing most of what you are about to see. Which is why after a FINALLY saw Hancock I was shocked. This movie is so much more than what the preview would lead you to think. There is a killer mythology here that I cannot wait to revisit in prequel or sequel form as long as Will Smith can make it happen. If you avoided this film because you thought it looked like just another superhero movie, please, give it a chance. It will surprise you.
6. Changeling* – Who is the best director working today? You might expect me to say JJ Abrams or Christopher Nolan, but it’s not. It is Clint Eastwood, and it’s not even close. Eastwood is delivering such powerful movies, one after another, that two of his films are in my top 6. The way he delivers this tragic and heart wrenching (that phrase isn’t even strong enough) story is pure poetry and the performance he pulls from Angelina Jolie is one for the ages. As a parent I found it difficult to endure parts of this, but as a film lover I found it pure joy.
5. Frost/Nixon* – I love a good battle of wits, and I love it when a movie is confident enough in the performances and dialog to let a movie breathe with it. This movie has both qualities and results in the most action packed scenes you’ve ever watched that involve two guys just sitting in a room talking to each other. It also must be said that Frank Langella absolutely melts into the essence of Nixon in a way that you are almost sure they are using actual footage at times even though the physical resemblance is weak.
4. Doubt* – One of the most engaging films I’ve ever seen on the topics of faith, being judgmental, and the power of accusation. Streep and Hoffman are so good in this movie that it makes you wonder how anyone else in Hollywood gets a job. What is really amazing is that Amy Adams stands her ground against these brilliant performances and really holds her own. This movie will make you question your own attitudes and then question yourself for questioning them while at the same time questioning whether it’s really a question at all. Brilliant all around.
3. Gran Torino* – The second Eastwood film in my top 6 and one of three movies that any other year could have been number one. The power of this story is so resonant that here several months later I still cannot shake it from my head. This is a movie about relationships, about loss, about redemption, and about sacrifice. It’s a movie that grabs your face in the first few moments and refuses to let you look away until it has told you everything you need to know. The fact that Eastwood both starred and directed is a testament to the work he is doing in solidifying himself among the greats of all time.
2. Avatar – How exactly does James Cameron continue to live up to his own hype? I guess when you ruminate on a movie for a decade you can expect it to be good, but to deliver this masterpiece is quite an achievement. Avatar, like Titanic I expect, will get some backlash as it ages, but my guess is those that choose to revisit it will continue to find an amazing story set in an incredible world told with a storytellers flair and heart. It cannot be overstated how powerful the 3D in this movie was and the way Cameron used the camera to show that depth isn’t about a gimmick. He used the extra space to better tell the story he wanted to tell and the results are absolutely stunning. So stunning in fact that I thought the story was weak the first time I saw it because I was so distracted by the beauty. Upon a second view I realized the story is almost as powerful as the visuals, and that’s a one two punch that is hard to beat. That is of course unless you are….1. Up – Pixar. Once again the men and women at the home of Luxo Jr. have delivered a near perfect movie. The emotion in just the first 15 minutes of this movie is more than most movies hope for in a full 2 hours. And after a full two hours, you realize there is now film company now, or ever, that has excelled at this level for this long. Someday they will make a mediocre movie, I’m sure, but will they are flying this high I will hang on for the ride. Even in the moments you know are coming, Pixar fiinds a way to surprise you and wring one more tear from your eye. I had more fun, adventure, love, laughs, and tears sitting through this gem than any other film this year, and truth be told, many other years as well.