It didn't clearly occur to me until compiling this very list that 2009 was a really, really good year for movies (and an almost absurdly good year for cinematic sci-fi, among the best ever). No, there was no singular film that I loved as much as 2008's The Dark Knight, but movies as far down as the low teens on this list would have been easy top ten contenders last year and it was painful not to have room for some flicks that I enjoyed the hell out of. Let's have a brief moment of silence in memory of A Serious Man and The Princess and the Frog, the top two movies I tried to squeeze in but just couldn't.
Okay, moment passed. So now that we've seen the Oscars fumble around and fuck it up, let's get crackin' on the real top movies of 2009.
TOP 25 BEST MOVIES OF 2009
#25 - TAKEN
Take heart, wayward Republicans, for the spirit of the Bush administration lives on! Liam Neeson storms into France — that most hated of all countries for real Americans — and to rescue his kidnapped daughter does more damage to the Geneva Convention in 48 hours than George W. managed to pull off in eight years. He executes unarmed prisoners with glee and he tortures with a smile (and not just criminals and terrorists, but in one scene, a corrupt cop's innocent, ignorant wife! God bless America) and after the film culminates with him mass slaughtering hundreds of Muslims he faces absolutely no legal repercussions for his murders; exactly how the world should be according to Hannity and Beck. Taken is straight up right-wing porn and one of the most absurd and hilarious guilty pleasures in years.
#24 - BIG FAN
A phenomenal sports movie without one frame of actual sports in it, Big Fan is a pitch black comedy and character study of a man like many Americans for whom football is religion, the stadium his chapel, and sports radio his preacher, with his favorite team's star player filling the role of Jesus Christ himself. I'd go more into the plot but I doubt many people have seen this movie and I don't want to spoil the dark and fascinating direction it goes in, so I'll just say that Patton Oswalt gives a fearless performance and leave it at that.
#23 - (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
I don't think I'm being controversial when I say that no film genre is more formulaic and more ass than romantic comedies. I see commercials for The Ugly Truth and Valentine's Day and it takes all my willpower not to slash my eyes out with a straight razor. So (500) Days of Summer, while occasionally dipping a little too far into the post-Juno well of quirkiness, deserves kudos and applause for injecting a fresh dose of imagination and unique storytelling into its usually terrible genre. It helps that leading man Joseph-Gordon Levitt is easily one of the best actors of his generation, debatably the best.
#22 - PRECIOUS
There's definitely a part of me — that part that retches and shudders with revulsion at anything that smells of Oscar bait — that would love to hate Precious, which I still refuse to refer to by its absurd full title of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. I mean, this is a movie that seems to hurl every issue it can think of at you, from poverty to rape to incest to abuse to inner-city education to Down syndrome babies to HIV and AIDS, and yes, it was nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director and won a couple others for it, but fact is it's actually a really good and phenomenally well-acted movie that dredges up all these topical issues in service of a compelling central character, and it's made with a true filmmaker's eye moreso than any small-scale inner city drama is required to be. It's hardly light viewing (and seems destined for to join Schindler's List and Hotel Rwanda on that list of great movies that sit in their Netflix slips on top of people's televisions for months), but its Oscar nominations aren't bullshit.
#21 - THE BROTHERS BLOOM
A little bit comedy, a little bit heist film, a little bit romance, a little bit bromance, director Rian Johnson's second movie The Brothers Bloom carries on with the miniature tradition he established in 2005's outstanding high school noir murder mystery Brick of fusing genres seemingly at random to produce something fresh and original and wholly entertaining. It's not a comedy that aims for megapunchline belly laughs so much as smiles and chuckles, but it's a breezy and completely charming experience capped off by an unexpected and hugely memorable ending that makes the whole flick; not a forced, artificial "plot twist," but a flawless moment of thematic full circle. It seems obvious, but so many filmmakers don't seem to get that if your final two minutes are the most evocative of your whole picture then it lifts the entire experience. Rian Johnson gets it.
#20 - UP IN THE AIR
What is it? Is it a character study arbitrarily hung on the framework of the struggling modern economy? Or is it a sociological film about the impact of recession on the contemporary American worker that happens to be carried along by George Clooney? Director Jason Reitman himself claims it's the former, but I remain unconvinced — if the film ending with real laid-off workers giving documentary-style confessionals to the camera isn't a summation of a theme, then I don't know what is. At the same time, the movie takes about twenty minutes away from workers getting fired for Clooney to attend his sister's wedding, so I dunno. It's a solid dramedy though, funny, interesting, well-acted by both Clooney and Anna Kendrick. Liked it a lot.
#19 - THE MESSENGER
The first of two extremely different Iraq War movies on this list, The Messenger features no onscreen war of any kind — as a matter of fact, every second of it takes place in American suburbs — but is a thoughtful, interesting, and occasionally moving depiction of a wounded vet reassigned to duty as a casualty notification officer. For years it seemed that Iraq War movies could only exist on the two extremes of being either turgid, preachy bores or jingoistic farce, but with 2009 American filmmakers seem to have finally jumped that hurdle.
#18 - BLACK DYNAMITE
One of the greatest new fictional characters of 2009, Black Dynamite is super cool and he know kung fu. He drives a $5000 car and wears a $100 suit! And when it comes to the ladies... he's out of sight. It goes entirely without saying that Black Dynamite is the best blaxploitation spoof ever made, but I'd go further than that and say that it surpasses the vast majority of its straightforward brethren to become simply one of the best blaxploitation movies ever made, period. Consistently hilarious, massively quotable, and packed with mad kung fu, this is among 2009's most purely enjoyable cinematic experiences and would have made a much better second movie in 2007's Grindhouse double feature than Tarantino's Death Proof ended up being.
#17 - I LOVE YOU, MAN
Man, what's the deal with how this movie didn't seem to catch on while the far inferior The Hangover became the ultimate comedy smash hit of the year? I mean, I Love You, Man didn't bomb at the box office, but no one's talking about it anymore, and it's hilarious as all hell and deserves to be talked about. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel are two of the most wholly likable comedic actors currently working and scenes as outwardly mundane as them sitting around shooting the shit end up hilarious. This film's deft grasp of filthy dialogue and casual vulgarity and intense bromance made it — despite having no connection whatsoever to Judd Apatow other than using a few of his favorite actors — end up being a much better "Judd Apatow movie" than 2009's actual Judd Apatow movie Funny People.
#16 - THE HURT LOCKER
So much has been written about 2009's official Best Picture that I feel like there's really nothing left for me to add beyond reiterating for probably the millionth time that it's an incredibly tense, well-directed and well-edited war film. As opposed to the quiet drama of The Messenger set entirely in American suburbs, The Hurt Locker is an adrenaline-fueled action thriller set entirely in Iraq, which makes the two films a perfect yin and yang of Iraq War cinema to watch together (although Hurt Locker is the one soaking up all the attention). Also, I wish everyone would can it with their fascination about this film being directed by a woman, because the "oh, look, a woman playing in a man's world! That's super!" tone of all those articles and news stories is condescending and a lot more antifeminist than just letting the film be.
#15 - THE INFORMANT!
This cinematic portrait of Mark Whitacre, the highest-level executive of a Fortune 500 company ever to become an FBI informant, is an absolutely hilarious film that raises the question of why biopics always seem required to be stodgy, deadly serious affairs, which in fact a lesser filmmaker than Steven Soderbergh might well have tried to do with this very source material (and of course that lesser, much more generic alternate universe film would have been nominated for many awards, which The Informant! was not). The Informant! makes one of the absolute best, most creative uses of the dreaded voiceover narration trope that I've ever seen and has some of the greatest incredulous reaction shots (particularly from Joel McHale) since the heyday of Arrested Development.
#14 - ZOMBIELAND
Some people insisted on making the Shaun of the Dead comparison, but while Shaun and Zombieland are both zombie comedies I feel the analogy falls apart when you look at intent. Shaun was always stated by its creators to be a "romantic comedy with zombies," with a very British pacing and sensibility, while Zombieland's intent is right there in the title: it's a theme park ride. An astoundingly goofy, rollicking, freewheeling theme park ride. A nominal horror comedy that's 99% comedy and 1% horror, Zombieland is a crazy fun flick and with its lightning runtime you really have no excuse not to watch it unless you are The Fun Hater, officially state-sanctioned hater of fun.
#13 - WATCHMEN
The crowds were decidedly mixed on Watchmen — and not just newbies to the story, but hardcore Watchmen fanatics too. I've heard people call it an unwatchable piece of shit and I've heard people call it a full-blown masterpiece. Not being one prone to silly hyperbole I'd stop well short of masterpiece, I but enjoy the hell out of this film and definitely lean closer to that side than the other. There are some flaws, unnecessary alterations to the ending and Matthew Goode's baffling performance as Ozymandias chief among them, but by and large I found it a visually sumptuous and massively ambitious enough undertaking to more than justify its existence, with a ferocious performance from Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach.
#12 - EXTRACT
Maybe it's just residual fondness for Jason Bateman carried over from Arrested Development, but Mike Judge's newest comedy, the story of a man who hires a male whore to try to seduce his wife to see if she'll cheat on him and then horribly and hilariously loses control of the situation, truly clicked with me and is absolutely one of my favorite movies of the year, and that's coming from someone who isn't even a huge Mike Judge fan (I like Office Space alright, although it is overrated, but nothing else in his filmography really does anything for me). Ben Affleck takes a shit all over everyone who spent the last half-decade insulting him with one of the best comedic supporting performances of the year, and the movie somehow even manages to make the hoary "guys sitting around smoking pot" trope hilarious. Arguably the most underrated movie of 2009.
#11 - WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
One of the ballsiest adaptations of any source material in the history of film, Spike Jonze took a legendary children's book that any other studio would have lazily and profitably adapted as some juvenile joke-a-minute CGI cartoon nonsense and instead meticulously crafted a melancholy art film about the childhood condition. America didn't get it, but then again, America also believes that Obama has secret concentration camps for old people, so that's really just to the movie's credit, isn't it? So we got unintentionally hilarious articles with dumb parents gobsmacked that the film dared to actually show children as human beings — angsty, inarticulate human beings churning with volatile emotion, you know, the way it actually is to be a child — rather than fun-sized adults popping out one-liners and witty catchphrases written by a 40something screenwriter. Fuck 'em. This is a profound, gorgeous, brilliant movie, and one of the best films about childhood ever made.
#10 - IN THE LOOP
Although Iraq is never mentioned by name, this fictitious tale of British and American political maneuvering and deception in the build-up to a war in the Middle East could easily be counted alongside The Messenger and The Hurt Locker as 2009's third great Iraq War movie. A spiritual fusion of the politics in the highest corridors of power of The West Wing, the naturalistic vérité comedy of The Office, and the cynical nihilism of Dr. Strangelove, In the Loop is one of the most simultaneously hilarious and depressing movies I've seen in ages (I don't think I'm spoilering anything to reveal that the movie ends with efforts to thwart hostilities failing and war being declared), exposing how the behind the scenes of international politics can be every bit as petty and jaw-droppingly stupid as the most banal office job and also featuring some of the most creative profanity in all of motion pictures. Fuckity bye!
#9 - SHERLOCK HOLMES
I'll be honest and say that I had to suppress subjectivity to rank Sherlock Holmes even this low. I understand, acknowledge, and won't argue with a lot of the gripes that many critics made about this awesomely cheesy movie which reinterprets Arthur Conan Doyle's ace detective as an action hero, but this movie just clicked with me. I loved it. Loved its depiction of Holmes's minutiae-centric sleuthing, loved its Victorian London settings, loved Holmes and Watson sharing the most homoerotic onscreen male friendship since Frodo and Sam, loved Hans Zimmer's brilliant musical score, loved the fisticuffs, loved the whole flick, and I plan to buy it on DVD and damn well can't wait for the sequel.
#8 - MOON
The spirit of the Golden Age of Science Fiction lives on, and it can be found in director Duncan Jones' debut film, Moon. Tears of nostalgia will spring to the eyes of anyone who longs for the days of Asimov and Heinlein short stories as they watch this lean, brainy, creative piece of hard sci-fi, and while I try not use the phrase "tour de force" because critics who overuse it rob it of its power, in this film Sam Rockwell gives a tour de force performance as the only onscreen human with more than a minute of screentime. Brilliant film.
#7 - AVATAR
God, what can I possibly say about Avatar that hasn't been said? Every movie news site and movie blog that I read has had Avatar stories and articles literally every single day for the last four months; no one will shut up about this movie! There's nothing more for me to add to the Avatar dialogue, so I'll just say that it brings epic spectacle back to the big screen in a way unseen since The Lord of the Rings and leave it at that.
#6 - ADVENTURELAND
When I'm reading movie forums and they get going with making fun of Twilight, I either chuckle along or ignore it (more likely the latter, because making of Twilight has become as dull and played out as Twilight itself these days, but that's for another post), but when they turn to making fun of Kristen Stewart I feel the need to point that Ms. Stewart does other things besides Twilight and was actually in one of the best films of 2009, Greg Mottola's incredibly underrated coming-of-age story Adventureland. As a semiautobiographical film based on Mottola's brief career as an amusement park attendant and embarrassingly old virgin after graduating from college in the 80s, the tone, warmth, and understated, relatable humor of Adventureland reminded me a hell of a lot of Paul Feig's semiautobiographical TV series about his experience as a Michigan high school nerd in the 80s, Freaks and Geeks (both even feature Martin Starr in a major role), and I dig that vibe. Only like seven people saw Adventureland in theaters but it ain't too late for you to check it out on DVD.
#5 - INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Nazi ain't got no humanity! And they need to be destroyed! After briefly scaring me into thinking he'd lost his touch with 2007's Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino came roaring back to life with arguably the second best film of his illustrious career, a demented and brilliant World War II epic that casually and happily shits all over history and painstakingly milks tension unlike few movies I've ever seen. As anyone who even casually reads my writing well knows, I'm an enormous villain fan, and as an enormous villain fan it goes without saying that the highlight of Inglourious Basterds for me was Colonel Hans Landa, Nazi detective, whom Tarantino arrogantly and correctly called one of the best characters he's ever written and one of the best characters he'll ever write. Christoph Waltz rightly won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the Colonel, which after Javier Bardem winning for Anton Chigurh in 2007 and Heath Ledger winning for the Joker in 2008 basically makes Best Supporting Actor the Oscars' unofficial Best Villain category, a new tradition I endorse with roaring applause.
#4 - OBSERVE AND REPORT
Theatrically released comedies just don't get this dark, this crushingly bleak and utterly nihilistic, which is why critics and audiences alike found themselves baffled by Jody Hill's brilliant Observe and Report. Using Scorsese's 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver as a template, Observe and Report is a rich character study of a sociopathic fascist mall cop played by Seth Rogen who dreams of dispatching evil with swift violence, even as his definition of "evil" shifts through the film as his sanity declines from thugs and criminals and perverts to people parking their cars wrong to loitering skateboarders to, finally, the actual police. This movie is truly demented and uncomfortable, and I'm equally shocked and ecstatic that a studio was willing to take a chance on it — a chance which did not pay off financially, but sure as all fuck paid off artistically.
#3 - DISTRICT 9
That Moon and Avatar somehow aren't the best sci-fi movies of 2009 is a credit to both the year and specifically to this film. District 9 makes two fundamental and brilliant alterations to standard aliens-on-Earth formula: one, shifting the location that aliens touch down from the cinematic norms of New York or Washington D.C. to Johannesburg, South Africa, and two (and this is the one that many seemed to miss the importance of in their reviews), having the aliens touch down back in the 1980s and then shifting the story's time frame forward to present day in a world that has long since adapted to their presence and altered its policies accordingly. The film brilliantly mixes a rich mythology with a compelling protagonist (while most sci-fi films can only handle one, or neither) while also mixing sociological commentary with balls-out action, all carried along by staggeringly good special effects for any budget, let alone the $30 million it was made with. The fact that this assured work is director Neill Blomkamp's first feature is stunning.
#2 - UP
Pixar's got the magic touch. They've always had the magic touch, but at risk of offending any Toy Story aficionados, they've somehow just gotten better and better as time has gone on. Setting aside the lukewarm misstep that was Cars, look at this sequence of film releases since 2004: The Incredibles. Ratatouille. WALL·E. And now Up. I mean, what is that? What genius juice is in the water over there? Up mixes pathos, humor, freewheeling adventure, and dazzling visual creativity to produce yet another film that casually swats aside the notion of the family-friendly category being a lesser ghetto for lazy producers and shitty writers to shovel crap into, making me really excited for this year's Toy Story 3.
#1 - STAR TREK
J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is somehow the greatest Star Wars movie since 1983. Sure, it says Star Trek on the tin and it has Kirk, Spock, and the USS Enterprise, but honestly, look at the spirit of red-blooded adventure and the planet-destroying superweapons and the goofy character comedy and the heightened angst and melodrama of this film and tell me that J.J. Abrams isn't trying to do a new Star Wars and do it right this time. Which he does! The only thing missing is lightsabers and a John Williams soundtrack (the latter of which is actually a shame... imagine how epic that would be). Anyway, I love classic Star Wars more than just about anything and Star Trek reminded me of Star Wars and because of that it's my favorite movie of 2009 by far and if you don't like it then I hereby decree that you report to my house to suck on my balls. Hell yeah, this movie fuckin' rules!
TOP 5 LEADING PERFORMANCES OF 2009
#5 - Matt Damon, THE INFORMANT! — It was agony deciding on Patton Oswalt from Big Fan, Seth Rogen from Observe and Report, or Matt Damon for this spot, but in the end Damon does the best job capturing the comedy and the sadness, and his awesomely ludicrous voiceover narration clinches it. Absurdly, the Academy nominated Damon for his rote and boring supporting performance in Invictus and not for this actually great leading one. Whatever, Academy.
#4 - Peter Capaldi, IN THE LOOP — I've heard a lot of profanity in my day, but as Malcolm Tucker, British Director of Communications, Peter Capaldi somehow weaves profanity into an art form, coming up with new combinations of swears I never before imagined. I bow to him.
#3 - Michael Jai White, BLACK DYNAMITE — The coolest movie character of 2009, Black Dynamite is a bad mothafucka with franchise potential. He exists in a heightened satire of blaxploitation, but played straight and with higher production values I could easily watch a big-budget action flick starring this cat. Michael Jai White owns the role from the starting gun, creating an aura of 70s cool that rivals James Bond.
#2 - Sharlto Copley, DISTRICT 9 — It's a shame that genre movies have an innate bias weighing against them when it comes to awards, because Sharlto Copley's amazing work (from any actor regardless of experience, let alone a first timer thrust into a starring role as Copley was) in District 9 captures the callousness of his character's initial worldview, the panic of his situation, the adrenaline of his fight back against his former allies, and his sense loss and desperation as acutely as pretty much any contemporary performer could aspire to. Amidst all the aliens and mechs and starships it was Copley's work that I kept thinking about after the film was over.
#1 - Sam Rockwell, MOON — Okay, this one is bullshit. The Academy not nominating Sam Rockwell for his stunning one-man show performance in Moon is bullshit. It's not quite Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, no, but it is the best leading performance of 2009.
TOP 5 SUPPORTING PERFORMANCES OF 2009
#5 - Collette Wolfe, OBSERVE AND REPORT — The nice girl romantic interest that our leading man can't see through his focus on the sultry sexpot is an old trope, but Collette Wolfe finds new life in it in Observe and Report while providing the lone bright spot of hope in a hopelessly bleak film. I was surprised to find out that she's the director's wife because that kind of nepotism usually ends badly, but in this case it gave the movie its heart.
#4 - Mo'Nique, PRECIOUS — Whatever critics or awards shows may claim, Mo'Nique doesn't "find the humanity" in her nightmarish child abuser; she's basically a Disney evil stepmother with a little bit more baby-throwing and facilitating of serial incestuous rape. But it's a powerful, fiery, fearless performance devoid of any ego, effortlessly one of the most memorable of the year, and she deserves Best Supporting Actress and every other award she's gotten for it.
#3 - Zachary Quinto, STAR TREK — Okay, maybe you think this counts as a leading performance and I'm cheating, and if that's the way you feel you're probably right as Spock has no more than ten minutes less screentime than Jim Kirk. But Zachary Quinto grabbed this movie and absolutely ran away with it to the extent that it's hateful for me to picture it without him. To play a half-Vulcan you have to find that perfect balance of emotionlessness while letting that annoying humanity always lurk on the edges, and I'm gonna piss off some Trekkies by saying that Quinto did so as well as Leonard Nimoy himself.
#2 - Jackie Earle Haley, WATCHMEN — I can't imagine a more perfect onscreen interpretation of a classic literary character. Okay, okay, maybe Gandalf, but that's damn near it.
#1 - Christoph Waltz, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS — There's a moment about fifteen minutes into Inglourious Basterds where Nazi Colonel Hans Landa is interrogating a French dairy farmer he suspects of sheltering Jews. The audience had just gotten done laughing a few seconds earlier at Landa's absurd Sherlock Holmes pipe and the mood was one of levity. Waltz then shifts his expression very subtly but with infinite impact — a nearly imperceptible hardening of the eyes and the corners of his mouth — and asks, "You're sheltering enemies of the state, are you not?" and you felt the mood in the theater instantly swerve into icy dread. At that exact moment I knew I was watching an all-time great cinematic character who will fifty years from now be regarded as one of the classics.
TOP 5 SCREENPLAYS OF 2009
#5 - UP — Pixar movies stand untold miles above the rest of the animated crowd because of the care and the craft that goes into their stories and characters and dialogue, and this is no exception. A precarious balancing act of comedy, tragedy, and adventure, Up is a great work even entirely removed from its visuals.
#4 - OBSERVE AND REPORT — A movie as bleak and dark as Observe and Report could have easily lost control of its tone and felt like it was just trying too damn hard to be offensive, but every beat of this script develops Ronnie's character in some way, making it the best character study of 2009.
#3 - IN THE LOOP — As I stated above, The West Wing meets The Office meets Dr. Strangelove. Ridiculous. Brilliant.
#2 - MOON — While being decidedly modern in terms of its special effects and vernacular, this film captures the mood and the vibe of classic Golden Age sci-fi short stories so perfectly that if I didn't know better I would have looked it up to find out what story it was adapted from after getting home from the theater.
#1 - INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS — Surely the biggest farce of this year's Academy Awards was denying Quentin Tarantino his Oscar for the best screenplay of 2009 and quite possibly one of the top ten of the decade, up there with the likes of Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. An epic, original, irreverent, funny, tense, and daring work that reminds you that this dude wrote Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds is that rare script that can be called important.
TOP 5 DIRECTORS OF 2009
#5 - James Cameron, AVATAR — Well, I mean, no shit. Look at all the candy on the screen!
#4 - Spike Jonze, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE — Spike Jonze isn't the first director to try to visually capture the inside of a child's imagination, but he's by far the most successful. Movies made with child protagonists yet aimed at adults are very rare — Pan's Labyrinth and Empire of the Sun and maybe two or three others come to mind — but by choosing to repackage Maurice Sendak's book as something moody and dark and ethereal Jonze has done just that and produced a piece of art that will stand the test of time.
#3 - Quentin Tarantino, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS — With a mixture of chapter breaks and onscreen text and graphics and freeze frames and anachronistic music and random narration from Samuel L. Jackson bizarre by even Tarantino standards, Inglourious Basterds' filmmaking is nearly as gutsy as its script, and it pays off in the form of a truly unpredictable experience.
#2 - J.J. Abrams, STAR TREK — With this film I believe J.J. Abrams has found what we feared lost since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989: red-blooded adventure on the big screen. This film, not Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or the prequel trilogy, is the modern reinvigoration of the spirit of the adventure serial, painted in broad strokes with primary colors but thrilling and grand and exciting and making me want to watch it again the second the credits roll. My inner child salutes you, Mr. Abrams, and I truly hope you can recapture in Trek 2 what you did here.
#1 - Neill Blomkamp, DISTRICT 9 — I cannot believe that this movie was made on a $30 million budget, i.e. $8 million less than The Ugly Truth and one-fifth of what X-Men Origins: Wolverine cost. The special effects are so seamless that I was initially squinting in confusion trying to figure out whether the alien prawns were costumes or CGI. Beyond that the violence in this movie is sudden, shocking, and gruesome in a way that will give a jolt of adrenaline incredibly foreign to modern cinema, and the performances are directed to a caliber way, way beyond what we associate with sci-fi action. I said above and I say again that the fact that the rich, complex, visceral experience that is District 9 is a debut film made on an indie budget is mind-boggling to me. I cannot fucking wait to see what this guy does next.
SPECIAL PRIZES 2009
Best Score: SHERLOCK HOLMES — Is there even any realistic debate on this? I knew the second the opening strings of "Discombobulate" hit the screen under the production company logo that I was listening to the freshest, most original, most exciting musical score of 2009. Hans Zimmer is cinema's greatest post-John Williams composer and looks likely to hold onto said title for some time.
Best-Implemented Special Effects: WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE — Note that this is different than plain old best special effects, which is so obviously Avatar that to entertain any debate otherwise is just silly. But in Avatar I found myself actively thinking about the onscreen CGI for nearly the entire runtime, whereas the Wild Things' brilliant combination of traditional on-set costumes with only the faces animated via computers in post-production made me entirely forgot I was looking at CGI almost immediately and for the duration of the film.
Most Improved Harry Potter Character: Draco Malfoy, HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE — Draco was just kind of there but with little memorable impact in the first five films, so I dunno what happened or where he came from to suddenly become the best part of the sixth, overshadowing not just all the teen romance but the backstory of Lord Voldemort himself. Nice work, Malfoy!
Best Nude Scene: Betsy Rue, MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D — Five minutes. Full frontal. Three dimensions. 'Nuff said.
Best Performance in a Terrible Movie: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, G.I. JOE: THE RISE OF COBRA — I considered going with Chiwetel Ejiofor in 2012, but all I have to do is remember subtle, nuanced indie darling Joseph Gordon-Levitt wearing a hilarious Darth Vader wannabe gasmask and snarling with cartoonish malevolence about how he must destroy the Joes and I start laughing all over again. Surrounded by a cast of dry planks of wood, Gordon-Levitt alone seems gloriously alive and completely aware of the action figure trash he's slumming in and he plays the kitsch to such a heightened caliber that you wish the stupid Joes would just get out of the way and make way for Cobra Commander: The Movie. I can't wait to see what Gordon-Levitt can do in a non-shitty sci-fi movie with this summer's new Christopher Nolan film Inception.
TOP 10 BEST MOVIE MOMENTS OF 2009 — Spoilers!
#10 - The ending, THE BROTHERS BLOOM — I'm serious about the spoiler thing! Skip ahead if you haven't seen The Brothers Bloom! Anyway, after a series of reversals that make you think Mark Ruffalo's character Stephen has faked his own death, the moment when Adrian Brody's Bloom realizes his brother was faking the faking and really is dead is an incredibly moving ending to what up until then had been a breezy comedy. God, I told you not to read that!
#9 - "Giants suck!," BIG FAN — Hardcore, mentally unstable New York Giants fan Paul Aufiero disguises himself in a Philadelphia Eagles jersey and ventures across state lines to track down his sports radio rival Philadelphia Phil on game night at a bar for some unknown revenge. The scene that follows as Paul hesitantly joins in chanting "Giants suck!" with the rabid Eagles fans, their behavior indistinguishable from the Giants fans we've spent the movie with, is suffocatingly claustrophobic and intense as it builds dread over what Paul plans to do about his petty sports rivalry.
#8 - The final battle, AVATAR — Maybe it's kind of cheap to count this as a "moment," since it's like half an hour of fighting spread across many scenes and locations, but seriously, it's aliens and dragons versus gunships and mechs. Thousands of 'em! That's some nerdvana shit right there.
#7 - Bill Murray cameo, ZOMBIELAND — One of the greatest cameos I've ever seen in film or television, Bill Murray's appearance is somehow both incredibly random and seamlessly integrated into the story. When he's mistaken for a zombie and shot in the chest and with his last breath laments doing the Garfield movies, any lingering question over whether Zombieland is comedy or horror is pretty well taken care of.
#6 - Sniper battle, THE HURT LOCKER — In a film that's about IED technicians, the standout scene actually has nothing to do with bombs as our main characters get trapped by insurgent sniper fire. The several minutes that follow are violent and intense and swat away every other sniper duel I've seen onscreen to claim the crown for this kind of scene. Pretty impressive, seeing as the movie isn't even about snipers. You hear that, Enemy at the Gates? You just got
#5 - Birth of Dr. Manhattan, WATCHMEN — Although Rorschach is the greatest character, the film's highlight is the powerful ten-minute sequence of Dr. Manhattan on Mars contemplating his past life as Jon Osterman and his transformation into a god while haunting Philip Glass music overwhelms. It's also probably not coincidentally the segment of the film that follows the novel most closely, corresponding damn near panel-to-shot and line-for-line with chapter four. The film is an indisputable case of "the book is better," but I'll go out on a geek limb and say that this one segment of the film is in fact superior in emotional impact to its counterpart on the page.
#4 - Ronnie shoots the flasher, OBSERVE AND REPORT — Simultaneously the darkest moment and single hardest, loudest, and longest laugh I had at a movie last year. After weeks of detective work, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt finally comes face-to-face with the mall flasher and his penis. Ronnie then pulls out his gun and shoots the offending pervert in the chest. As blood pumps out across the floor, Ronnie's supervisor shouts "Jesus Ronnie, you killed him!!!" and Ronnie nods proudly, I again wondered how on earth a comedy this pitch black ever made it through the studio system.
#3 - TWO WAY TIE! Hans Landa interrogates Perrier LaPadite & Hitler meets his end, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS — This was too tough to call (not to mention there were another four or five moments in Basterds easily worthy of this list) so I just had to split it between the film's beginning and its end. The introduction of Colonel Hans Landa is the greatest establishment of a film villain since, well, the Joker just the year before, but you get my point, and how in the world could I not include seeing uncle Adolf get a faceful of hot lead? Yep, it's gotta be both. That's a bingo!
#2 - Opening space battle, STAR TREK — This certainly isn't among the most artistically or intellectually ambitious scenes of 2009 — it's basically just an evil starship blowing up a good one — but on the other hand this scene grabbed me the balls and didn't let go unlike anything else onscreen last year. In fact I'll go as far as to say that few movies in my life have yanked me into their worlds with such immediate ferocity. I won't quite say it's the best space battle of all time, a title still held by Return of the Jedi's Battle of Endor, but it is the best one-on-one battle between two ships I've ever seen. My heart rate was still elevated half an hour later.
#1 - Carl and Ellie's life together montage, UP — Arguably the most heartwrenching montage in the history of film, the opening minutes of Up show us Carl and Ellie meeting as small children and marrying as young adults and then a whirlwind tour of their life together set to Michael Giacchino's already-iconic score; the small joys and heartbreaks of an ordinary suburban couple as they grow up together, then grow old together, then Ellie dies and Carl is left alone forever. Wait, what? Pixar, what're ya doin' to us, man?! The shackles of what a "kids movie" is supposed to entail are shattered as all of America weeps together at this incredibly bold, striking, and memorable opening to a film that had been advertised as a fun balloon house adventure, and it stands as the best filmmaking of 2009.