In the films of 2009 we find a common thread in that the stories are journeys that will fundamentally alter who the characters are as people as they undertake them. As with the ending of the year, we have to ask how much of the old will remain and how much will be jettisoned in the hopes that someone or something greater will emerge. That depends on the person, I guess, but that the journey changes you remains true nevertheless.
Anti-Christ: Some of the most fruitful conversations I've had about any movie this year have been on Lars Von Trier's thoughtful and shocking mediation on the nature of guilt, evil and one fantastic mister fox. Normally, I find Von Trier's on the wrong side of the love/hate equation but with this one chaos reigns firmly in his corner.
Funny People: I hope you like your somber dramedies with a hearty injection of beef, er, dick jokes because well there's a lot of them. At two and a half hours "Funny People" never feels too long but it certainly feels lived in. A good thing, too, because the film stuck in my craw while being the furthest from my memory, but thankfully a second viewing didn't disappoint. The movie seems to seethe with a lot of anger at the fact that the guy who constantly made you laugh feels like he's not going to make a lasting impression that means anything, but both Apatow and Sandler have done just that. As a reflection of his celebrity persona and what it means at the end of the day Sandler and Apatow have created the comedy-drama equivalent of "Unforgiven." "Funny People" is poignant, funny and maybe even a little sticky.
Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans: Just one of two absolutely batshit crazy films on this list, Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage team up for the story of a drug addicted cop in post-Katrina New Orleans whose crazy ass personal life keeps getting in the way of him doing his job. It also happens to be the most life affirming film on the list because Herzog paints the city as a place full of lost souls crying out between desperation and agony to be saved, and in order to be saved you just have to want it and providence will provide.
Brothers: Boasting perhaps my favorite ensemble acting of any film on this list, Jim Sheridan's quiet and absorbing film is the story of a family in turmoil reeling from the presumed death and sudden reappearance of a brother, husband and son from war. It doesn't make judgments about who Sam Cahill is when he returns, but it milks every drop of tension it can out of the fact that he has changed. Arguably, the most daunting material of the film goes to Bailee Madison as the eldest daughter of Maguire and Natalie Portman, who is given the unenviable task of not only realizing that her father is still alive but wishing him dead all the same.
Private Eye: Having seen this film the most of any film on this list I can say that Dae-Min Park's "Private Eye" is the most compulsively watchable film I've seen in a long time and I find it to be a more satisfying experience than "Sherlock Holmes" which simply left me cold. The mystery is dark and contemporary despite an early 1900s setting and the team of Jeong-Min Hwang and Deok-Hwan Ryu as the private eye and the doctor are irresistible from their vast height differences down to their baby faced handsomeness.
District 9: Wikus Van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is not the most likable guy in the world, but it's the compassion of everyone around him that makes him worth following-- the wife who humanizes him and the father/son aliens who become his reluctant allies. We see Wikus evolve from a clueless bureaucrat to someone who revels too fully in the horrors perpetrated in the government's name and finally to someone understanding what it means just to survive. It's not a full-on redemption but it's a clearly defined character arc that lends the story suspense and immediacy. Also, lots and lots of shit gets blown up real good. I know I sold this short somehow, but trust me you'll love it.
Moon: Duncan Jones film is a sparse and beautiful story about something that shouldn't be but is. To say much more is to ruin the joy of the experience, but if you already like Sam Rockwell now then those feelings will probably double or triple.
Up In The Air: It isn't often that consummate professionals like George Clooney and Vera Farmiga get a movie stolen right out from under them, but that's pretty much what Anna Kendrick does as the protege of Ryan Bingham's (Clooney) professional downsizer. She wants to revolutionize and depersonalize his business while he wants to show her the humanity of it and along the way she challenges the compacted nature of his life and relationships. When the film ends we get a sense of where Clooney and his fellow traveler sex companion (Farmiga) are headed because they're older and more of their history seems written and certain. Kendrick, on the other hand, is just coming out of her shell, younger, more open and less certain of what fate has in store for her and I can't stop thinking about how she'll end up. Not a lot of characters can earn that level of love and compassion up front. It's rare and altogether special.
Thirst: Park Chan Wook's story of unhinged (blood)lust and passion is the craziest film on the list featuring ghost that haunt during sex, a woman trying to communicate using just her eyes and an index finger, repressed retarded mama's boys and lots and lots of fucking is a perfect distillation of everything romantic, dangerous and disturbing about vampire love. It's also not afraid of the red stuff, being honest about desire and what truly happens when you step into the sun. If you don't find this film immediately you're missing out on one of the very best experience that world cinema currently has to offer.
Star Trek: Perhaps you'll call this a cop out, but it was an explosive way to start off the summer and had the perfect opening. I don't know if the beginning makes Kirk a tragic figure, but I like how it provides a parallel to Kirk's rise to hero and also explains his brash, devil may care attitude. Big budget spectacle aside the film lives and dies by performances and Chris Pine and Karl Urban just make me happy that the movie exists. I'm not as big a "Star Trek" geek as some, but the movie worked for me on every level and the fact that that opening still retains such power speaks volumes about the movie's longevity for me. I'm also not a stickler for canon and mythos but I'm happy that it stuck to the most basic principle demanded of it-- to entertain me, it upped the ante by making me care.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Fantastic Mr. Fox
And now the worst
I'll keep this short and sweet, suffice it to say every year we see our fair share of epic fails and clunkers.
Old Dogs: No clearer example of a paycheck movie can be found this year. It's the kind of thing famous people resort to when dignity is less important to them than paying for their latest round of botox.
The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day: Spontaneous eruptions of laughter in the screening I attended proved there are at least thirty people in the world that I am smarter than. I also didn't pay so I'm willing to take that statement to the bank. Everybody's favorite bickering Irish assassins are back and someone's trying to frame them for murder. There's hell to pay or if you're an audience member there are just certain hells you pay for.
Ninja Assassin: Heavy on the interminable action scenes and CGI gore, but light on anything that resembles tension, talent or craft. "Ninja Assassin" is a glossy little snore that so bad they "ass"ed it twice.
Play the Game: Maybe someone finds this piece of piffle to be charming, but it isn't me. It's the most uninspired, unintelligent romantic comedy to come around in ages and it has Andy Griffith exclaiming, "I have an erection!" Not me, I have an anti-boner.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G-Force: Both are big, loud and stupid films about annoying heroes and killer kitchen appliances. Both feature a connection to Jerry Bruckheimer (the latter produced by him, the former directed by his former minion) and both were embraced by the young and the brain dead and made someone incredible rich. Did I also mention the kitchen appliances on the attack sequence in both films? If you're going to have to take your children to movies like this one day then I'd recommend you get your respective ectomies now