Best of 2009 (of What I've Seen, Anyway)

Ah, the end-of-the-year best-of lists.  I'll also soon be doing one for the decade, although I think I'm gonna give it a few months to catch up on the end of '09 stuff that I still haven't seen due to the fact I live in South Carolina.  In any case, here are my ten picks for best of the year, in alphabetical order (except for the one that I want to single out as the best).  Discuss, dissect, hate.

I haven't ever experienced a music documentary quite like this.  The two permanent members of Anvil! are a testament to the power of musical expression.  This movie pulls on heart-strings while making me want to rock out all night.  Silly as it is, metal is sometimes really fun and energetic music, and this band really gets that.  Experience the opening sequence, with footage from the band thirty years ago up to now thrashing away on their semi-hit "Metal On Metal" and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Henry Selick's magical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel is quite breathtaking in 3-D, featuring what may be the best and most subtle use of the technology I've yet seen (and yes, I've seen AVATAR).  The stop-motion animation is seamless, the voicework is top-notch, and the overall atmosphere is really creepy for a children's fable, harkening back to the classical settings of Grimm's fairy tales, with wickedness out to get the little ones at every turn.

A return to form for Sam Raimi, who has spent the past decade making Spider-Man movies of varying quality (the first two are great, but the third was overstuffed).  Harkening back to his roots in the EVIL DEAD films, he goes all-out with this tale of gypsy curses, demonic possession and mortgage payments.  The film plays more Tex Avery than Moe Howard, but that's not a bad change of pace for a man who basically created the modern horror-comedy.

Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic story is a wonder to behold.  There's a rickety quality to the animation that brings to mind Harryhausen's original mastery of the form, and the camerawork brings to mind a storybook more often than not, with lots of play within lateral planes.  George Clooney is great as always as the voice of Mr. Fox, but Jason Schwartzman's subtle and utterly dry line delivery steals the show.  There are also great visual gags, and unexpected moments of pure wild animal behavior.  A Grade-A classic any day of the week.

Brad Pitt is hilarious as Lt. Aldo Raine, but Christoph Waltz is a revelation; if he doesn't win every acting award possible it will be an outrage.  The film is quintessential Tarantino cinema-bake, with a dash of anything and everything, and even some newer stuff thrown in for good measure.  Not only does this film re-write history, but it places cinema square in the middle, where I'm sure any good cinephile would like to think of it anyway.  And the entrance of the Bear Jew is one of the best intros to a character in recent memory.

Sam Rockwell gives an amazing performance as an astronaut stranded on the moon by a company that sent him up for a simple mining operation.  When he discovers a body that looks just like his own after an accident at one of the mining sites, the film really gets weird.  There's a moment when three Sam Rockwells are running around on screen at once, and it could have gotten to be too much, but the direction by Duncan Jones (David Bowie's kid, Zowie) is top-notch, and the production design is rather brilliant, featuring tons of miniatures, which isn't done so often nowadays what with the fancy CGI and whatnot.  This was a surprise, and I can't wait to see it again.

As bleak and despairing as it is hopeful, John Hillcoat really outdid himself with this one.  After directing one of the best films of the past decade with THE PROPOSITION, he found material that suited his sensibilities perfectly and wrung the best damned adaptation possible out of it.  Viggo Mortensen is great as always, and no one really carries the screen in brief moments like early scene-stealer Garret Dillahunt (who was fantastic in DEADWOOD and the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT).

Disney/Pixar continues their string of amazing films with UP, about an old man who has always dreamed of travelling with his wife, is off to see Paradise Falls, and becomes caught up in the adventure of a lifetime.  Bittersweet, comic and even a bit romantic, UP will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.  The animation is gorgeous, and really evokes a true sense of itself.  This is a very assured film.

While not flawless, this is definitely one of the most ambitious movies to come out in 2009, and it succeeded far more than it had any right to.  Infinitely interesting as an adaptation (the film adapts how the graphic novel works moreso than why it works), it will no doubt become a more rewarding and cherished experience with each viewing, much like the novel it's based on does with each read-through.  Visually arresting, and featuring not one, but two fantastic uses of Leonard Cohen songs, this is one of the unsung heroes of the year.

This is hands-down the best movie to see a theatrical release this year.  Jody Hill's brilliant, absolutely hilarious and dark character study is a thing that exists unto itself.  Starring Seth Rogen as the off-his-medication shopping mall security guard tracking down a flasher terrorizing the staff and patrons, OBSERVE AND REPORT goes into unexpected and dark places.  This is the most daring, original and balls-out film anyone is likely see for years to come.  If, like most audiences, you missed this in theatrical release, please do yourself a favor and see it.


Art Films for Kids: a review of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX

2009 has been an amazing year for children's films.  Aside from the routine crap forced in theatres like G-FORCE and IMAGINE THAT, studios have put out films like MONSTERS VS. ALIENS, UP, and CORALINE.  Then, this Fall we were delivered two children's films by heavyweight artists, Spike Jonze's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and Wes Anderson's THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX - both based on beloved books, and both very endearing movie-going experiences.  These films are amazing, and like Disney/Pixar's output and Henry Selick's CORALINE, they trust kids to grapple with subjects that may be slightly over their heads, but with which they need to grapple.


Golden Globe Nominations


The real showdown at the Golden Globes will be between Tarantino and Bigelow, two filmmakers at the peak of their abilities, and two of my favorites.

If there are any surprises in the nominations the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced earlier today, it's that Sandra Bullock was nominated not once, but twice, and that I nearly vomited when I realized that. But then, I just remembered what a shit year it was for female roles and how almost any actress was relegated to rom-com performances (or, for Gabourey Sidibe, something a little...different.)

Anyway, I've been thinking about them all day, and I actually think there are some strong choices. I still haven't seen THE HURT LOCKER, A SERIOUS MAN, a handful of other smaller films (ANTICHRIST, A SIMPLE MAN, THE ROAD, THE WHITE RIBBON, BROKEN EMBRACES,) and the late-December/early-January wide release flicks (NINE, AVATAR, UP IN THE AIR, IT'S COMPLICATED,) but I will eventually; definitely before Oscar time. You can check out the full list at the HFPA website. I'm going to make some predictions based on what I think will happen, and reserve my own choices for a more informed post with the year-end stuff I've caught up on.

Without further ado, my predictions in a few categories:

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy - 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
This was the most inventive comedy I've seen all year. I think it runs a good chance of winning this, and nothing else. A shame, really.

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy - Michael Stuhlbarg (A SERIOUS MAN)
Haven't seen it, but the Globes sometimes like to give awards to actors no one has ever heard of. Stuhlbarg is supposedly quite good, which furthers him as my pick.

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy - Sandra Bullock (THE PROPOSAL)
Just because everyone else was so dismal and Bullock isn't really ever recognized for her 'acting.' I'll stick with SPEED and DEMOLITION MAN, thank you.

Best Picture, Drama - THE HURT LOCKER
I don't think there's a chance at anything else winning. It's walking away with every other critic's circle award.

Best Actor, Drama - George Clooney (UP IN THE AIR)
I think this will be the nod that both Clooney and Reitman get for the next few years. Then, they'll both win probably for something not as good. But, having not seen it, this could be the thing they win for not being so good anyway.

Best Actress, Drama - Gabourey Sidibe (PRECIOUS)
Already won it so many other places, and really there's not another female performance this year that comes close.

Best Animated Feature - THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX or UP I really can't make up my mind here what I think will win.

Best Foreign Language Film - THE WHITE RIBBON
Haneke is a striking filmmaker, that's for certain. I am anticipating this very much, especially given my own predilictions toward German history and filmmaking movements. Plus, it's really the only foreign selection garnering near-universal acclaim.

Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS)
There is no question in my mind he will take this award at the Globes and the Oscars. This was the best single performance I saw from anyone all year; period.

Supporting Actress - Penelope Cruz (NINE)
Gotta recognize NINE somehow, right, and why not with Ms. Cruz in the supporting role? If she loses, it all has to do with politics and making sure to spread the love around.

Best Director - Quentin Tarantino (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) / Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER)
This category's really tough. Tarantino really nailed it this year, making a 'movie movie' through and through, and that may earn him points with the Hollywood critical acclaim crowd. However, by all accounts, Bigelow pulled off a similar feat with THE HURT LOCKER, and I would really like to see her win; she's one of my favorite directors, and I can't wait to see her film in the coming weeks. But, I can see this going either way...and if anyone else wins, well, it'll be because this vote was split.

Best Screenplay - Quentin Tarantino (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS)
Yeah, I think it's that good. Of course, look for Neil Blomkamp as the dark horse for DISTRICT 9.

What do you guys think? Let's discuss this, everyone. There will be more to come, after all!



In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. Ladies and gentlement, once again, I give you an installment of "Blurbs":

No one pulls of goofy and sophistcated from role to role quite like George Clooney.  Though it's now a routine comparison, he really is a modern actor capable of Cary Grant-like skill in both comedy and drama.  In THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS he plays an Army vet who tells a reporter on assignment in Iraq about his training in the New World Army, an elite psychic warfare unit that almost changed the course of U.S. military research (really).  He pulls out all the stops to craft a character composed of such sheer lunacy and composed calmness that he could only be real, and yet never quite shows whether he's really capable of astral projection or stopping hearts by concentrating hard enough, or just crazy.  Jeff Bridges is also fantastic as his signature "Dude-ness", and may as well be considered a version of that beloved Coen creation, but this time with goals and ambitions.

This movie kicks ass!  Sure, it's prototypical teen rebellions is now a bit tame, but how awesome is Helen Slater as Billie Jean?  And what other 80's teen flick makes an icon out of Joan of Arc as a model for female empowerment?  Directed by Matthew Robbins, and co-starring a young Christian Slater, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN chronicles an outlaw group of kids (also including Yeardley Smith) who only want the money to repair a motor scooter damaged by a local sleazeball's kid.  Kick-ass!

DISTRICT B-13 (2004)
A fun piece of French action fluff, this Luc Besson-scripted tale follows a cop and an ex-con as they infiltrate a gang in Mega-dangerous Paris slum B-13, a district so bad it's been walled off from the rest of the ctiy.  The gang has stolen a bomb that's set to go off, and there's a subplot involving the con's sister at play, too.  The duo engage in gun battles, free running, and fistfights aplenty, all in typical Besson style.  Worth a look, as this is also the first collaboration with new Besson favorite Pierre Morel, who directed TAKEN and the upcoming FROM PARIS WITH LOVE.

This may be the apex of the current ultraviolent/monster/body mutilation subgenre of Japanese action/horror.  With sly wit, swimming pools full of blood, and the most fucked-up underground prostitution ring I've ever seen, TOKYO GORE POLICE tells the story of Ruka, an officer in the Tokyo Police Corporation, and top-notch "engineer" killer.  The engineers are a race of human/mutant hybrids that, when wounded, can regrow their felled body parts as deadly weapons - all of which are hilarious, ultra-gory, and usually disturbing in some way.  I can't say I'd recommend it to everybody, but I thought it was fun, and if it sounds like your thing, check it out.

Tobias Schneebaum, an openly gay writer/painter/illustrator/anthropologist from New York's East Village, is the subject of this pretty fantastic documentary.  Throughout his life, Schneebaum sought out "primitive" cultures and lived with them - prominently the Asmat people of New Guinea.  Throughout the film, there runs the current of events that happened in Peru in the mid-Sixties, when Schneebaum disappeared into the Amazon and emerged a year later having participated in one tribe's raid on another, and his subsequent eating of the conquered men's flesh.  The film isn't overly concerned with cannibalism, though it does crop up from time to time, and instead is entirely focused on Schneebaum now, currently a man in his 70s, and his journeys back to the places he loved so much as a younger man.

Underrated: SPARTAN

David Mamet's 2004 thriller SPARTAN is so underrated it might be the least-seen absolutely amazing movie I can think of.  In hyperbole, for every 20 people I ask about it, maybe one or two even knows what I'm talking about.  Seriously, though, the people who have seen SPARTAN know it is one of the most amazing achievements in a stellar career few will ever rival.

The film, like much of Mamet's work, assumes a lot of its audience.  For example, it doesn't explain every single plot point, instead opting to trust the audience to follow events and use context to extrapolate what's happening.  This is a rarity in most Hollywood-produced films, and SPARTAN isn't a film where nothing happens that needs explanation, either.  It's a twisted, convoluted road to travel down, full of red herrings and double-crosses; trade-mark Mamet.

The plot involves a black ops agent, Scott, played by Val Kilmer riding his mid-decade come-back, who is given the task of finding the daughter of a high-level government official.  Not once in the first thirty minutes is it even clear whose daughter it is, but when talk of the Secret Service enters the picture, it's pretty clear who is at stake.  That's the trust in the audience it has, not overt or explicit, but enough information to have a full grasp of the situation, as long as one is willing to think about things the same way characters are being asked to in order to make conclusions.

The film is full of amazing performances.  Here, Ed O'Neill steals the show.

The cast is filled with a ton of fine actors, some Mamet regulars, like William H. Macy, and others who I wish did more work with the director, like Ed O'Neill, who steals early scenes in a too-little yet just right role, and Kilmer himself, who probably hadn't turned in a performance this good since he played Jim Morrison for Oliver Stone.  Also of note is a pre-fame Kristen Bell as the kidnapped girl. 

The film's visual style is a hybrid of genres, with lush reds and cool blues dominating almost every frame.

Music, cinematography - fantastic.  The film is awash in hues of reds and blues, creating a hybrid visual aesthetic that's somewhere between spy thriller and film noir.  The world Kilmer's spy inhabits is filled with shady deals and slimy characters, after all.  The music emphasises the blending of genres, with horn parts and staccato drums throughout, never quite settling into which mode it wants to be in, and is really a great score when put with the imagery.

The audience is involved in the mystery itself thanks to great writing, and a superb trust in the audience.

I love little things about the dialogue.  Something about everyone asking, over and over, "Where's the girl?" to anyone who may have remotely been involved or know anything has a kind of charm to it; a poetry of phrasing and emphasis, maybe.  And then there's the scene where, trekking through the last known wherabouts of the girl at a club and Kilmer and Derek Luke interrogate a suspect in an alley behind the place.  There is a brief tussle with Kilmer breaking the guy's arm. 

Scott : (to Luke) Take out your knife. (to suspect) Where's the girl, Jerry?  (no answer; to Luke) Take his eye out.  (brief pause, Derek Luke looks at him unbelieving) You bet your life.

This is intense stuff, and much of the action in the film is handled in conjunction with people talking, something Mamet is known for.  The thrill of the language is just a big as that of the events happening onscreen, and propels the film into the outer spheres and makes it into the magical wonder that it is.  If you still haven't seen SPARTAN, do so.  I guarantee one of the most rewarding film experiences of the last decade, if not ever.


2012: Disaster Porn for the Masses

Special effects dominate much of the film, but they are thrilling.

Since 1994's INDEPENDENCE DAY, director Roland Emmerich has been the pre-eminent destructor of the planet Earth on film.  If there's a national landmark - or even an international one - chances are he has destroyed it, possibly in multiple movies.  After this Fall's 2012, is there anything else left to destroy?  And if there is, why do it?  Isn't this, the mother of all disaster movies, enough?  Well, I hope so, because he's maybe made the best of his crop.  Yes, after INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA (1998), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, and 10,000 BC, he has made a film that not only is watchable, but also gets its own ridiculousness.

Anyone remotely familiar with the movie's premise knows it's about the theory that the ancient Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world, on 12-21-12.  As per usual, there's a large cast of characters that revolve around an intertwine with two central stories:  that of an average family's race to escape the apocalypse, and of a scientist struggling to make the government's plans for survival more populist and less greedy.  But the real star of the show isn't the plot - or even any of the characters - but the wholesale destruction of Earth as we know it.

Yellowstone erupts in a fury, and the heroes narrowly escape once again.

In mind-boggling graphic detail, California falls into the Pacific, first seen at ground-level and then via panoramic overhead.  Yellowstone becomes the planet's largest active volcano.  The Pacific Ocean floods the Himilayas.  Vegas is destroyed.  It's all thrilling, if a bit silly.

Continuing with his comeback year, Woody Harrelson steals the entire movie with only about six or seven minutes of screen time.  He plays a conspiracy theorist/radio host.  I'll allow you to extrapolate how awesome he is from there.

Harrelson and Cusack spar - Harrelson wins with a K.O.

The other actors all turn in relatively weak work.  John Cusack is barely passable, and Chiwetel Ejiofor struggles to keep things grounded.  Amanda Peet would be praise-worthy, but she's given almost nothing to do, so I can't really qualify her in my mind because she's so utterly wasted as a potentially interesting presence.  But, again, no one really expects acting to be a strong point, do they?

Underused and underwritten.  Amanda Peet gives the best performance of the main cast, but isn't given enough to do.

So, in short, maybe Emmerich should hang up the disaster urge.  I seriously doubt he'll top the sheer thrill of this one.  Maybe he'll pursue more "serious" Sci-Fi like STARGATE, or move on to try something different, like he did with THE PATRIOT.  Either way, 2012 thoroughly destroys everything, so there's really nothing left to keep him here.


So, realistically, I don't have the time to write extensively about every movie I see. However, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on a few things I've watched recently (for the first time, or just my latest viewing of it) that struck me as interesting or pleased me in some way.  Here it is, another installment of "Blurbs."

Clive Barker's HELLRAISER (1987)
The first (and still best) entry into the ongoing exploits of the demonic Cenobites.  HELLRAISER follows Kirsty Cotton, whose dead uncle Frank has come back from eternal torment and attempts to take her father's identity, as well as his wife.  It's a horrific story of love across dimensions and the pleasures derived from painful experience (physically and emotionally.)  Doug Bradley has spent two decades portraying Pinhead, the leader of the Cenobites who exposes those who solve the Lament Configuration puzzle box to the pleasures of the flesh.  Still chilling and completely uncompromising, Clive Barker's HELLRAISER is a true masterwork of the macabre.

A real shitfest from Roland Emmerich, which I find myself compulsively drawn to despite my dislike for it.  There's something compelling I just can't explain - like passing a car accident and absolutely having to slow down and look.  No one turns in a performance that's even remotely convincing, despite Matthew Broderick's best attempts.  But, the special effects are convincing enough for the time, and when the giant lizard finally makes it onscren, there are moments that are almost worth all the crap leading up to and surrounding them.  Watch at your own risk, or, like me, for much-too-frequent morbid curiosity.

I recently picked this up for $16 bucks from the Criterion Collection, having seen it some years back during my initial Herzog obsession.  A brilliant portrait of the uncompromising German director's four year attempt to film FITZCARRALDO.  The centerpiece: pulling a 350-ton steamship over a mountain without using models or special effects just for authenticity's sake.  This is probably the best "making of" doc ever made, and as valid an exploration into the obsessive needs of a burdened genius as any of the films Herzog himself was making at this time.

I love H.P. Lovecraft, but this film adaptation sucks.  I actually fell asleep a bit myself, and there's really only about 30 seconds of squid-monster badassery - and even that sucks.  Stuart Gordon is still the only competent adaptor of Lovecraft, I guess.  Check out his DAGON and RE-ANIMATOR films, or even his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Dreams in the Witch House."