Best films of 2009: Redux

Well, that’ll learn me not to make a yearly best list without seeing all the films out there. And thank you, Kathryn Bigelow, for that most useful little lesson.

Redoing these lists isn’t something I normally do (whether out of obstinance or laziness I don’t know), but Bigelow’s tense and amazing “The Hurt Locker” blasted its way into my heart and left behind an uneasiness that lingered for hours after viewing. In short, it demanded its rightful spot in my list … and with a film this outstanding, I’m more than happy to oblige.

(Oh, and “Hangover” — I’m sorry we had to break up, but … I found someone better.)

1. “Inglourious Basterds”

Never underestimate a Jew hunter (Christoph Waltz) who speaks softly and carries a HUGE pipe.

With most directors, it’s hard to know if they know when they’ve created a masterpiece. Not so with Quentin Tarantino, who concludes “Inglourious Basterds,” a gloriously loud, darkly comic and explosively complicated epic, with what seems like a statement of his genius. Really, though, can we blame him? “Inglourious Basterds” works as a brilliant piece of revisionist history, a kickin’ action flick, a layered character study (the most intriguing character being, of course, Christoph Waltz’s fabulously wily Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa) and a technicolor work of art. Bravo, Mr. T. Bravo.

 

2. “The Hurt Locker”

Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie show the spoils (and horrors) of war in "The Hurt Locker."

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Up in the Air,” insisted it was “a movie for this time.” It’s an apt and accurate observation, indeed, and it also applies beautifully to Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping “The Hurt Locker,” which throws us right in the uncomfortable, bloody, unsentimental middle of the War on Terror. Relative nobody Jeremy Renner gives the performance of the year as SSG William James, a reckless adrenaline junkie willing to sacrifice everything — including the safety of his fellow soldiers — to get his next fix. That performance and Bigelow’s confident direction make “The Hurt Locker” not just a great war movie, but one of THE great war movies.

 

3. “Up in the Air”

Airports are home to George Clooney, who makes for a most touching aimless drifter in "Up in the Air."

To watch “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s gutsy and achingly beautiful third film, is to witness a director coming into his own — though “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” hardly felt like the work of a novice — at the precisely correct moment. With “Up in the Air,” Reitman shines an unwelcome light onto the harsh yet strangely hopeful world of corporate downsizing, unemployment and the speedily tanking economy. The never-better George Clooney becomes the face and voice of this world, a drifter who eventually learns what we all know: Any man who insists he’s got life all figured out is twice as clueless as the people he’s lecturing.

 

4. “Precious”

Gabourey Sidibe (left) and Mo'Nique deliver powerhouse performances in the gritty "Precious."

Films don’t get much rougher or rawly acted than Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” adapted from Sapphire’s best-selling novel “Push.” At times difficult to watch, “Precious” nonetheless introduces us to newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who is a revelation as the Bronx-born Precious. The teen, rendered practically mute by the horrors of her life, endures unspeakable emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her vicious mother (Mo’Nique, who most assuredly deserves a Best Supporting Actress nod). Sidibe — and Daniels — manage the impossible here: to find hope in a life where none, rightly, should exist.

 

5. “Up”

Dreams deferred, then recovered, come to vivid life in Disney-Pixar's touching "Up."

There’s something about youthful dreams that never, ever get old. Disney-Pixar’s “Up” takes this never-aging concept and runs with it in “Up,” a sweet, very funny and often heartbreaking look at an elderly man’s (voiced by Ed Asner) stubborn refusal to let go of his late wife’s dream to travel the wilds of South Africa. How he goes about achieving that decades-old goal boggles the mind in terms of bright, gorgeous animation. But visuals aside, what “Up” does so wonderfully well is tap into our secret hope that it’s never too late to try again for the heart’s strongest desire.

 

6. “(500) Days of Summer”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt memorably discovers that not every love is eternal in "(500) Days of Summer."

Try as we might, humans can’t force love — or, at the very least, our memories of it once it’s vanished — to follow a neat-and-tidy timeline. Neither will it conform to the molds we attempt to force it into. “(500) Days of Summer,” a painstakingly constructed yet fragmented tale of love lost, drives home these points through Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a 20something convinced a coworker (Zooey Deschanel) must be The One. He’s wrong, very wrong, we learn in the opening credits, and thus “(500) Days” becomes a different kind of love story — the painful kind, but the one most likely to stick with us once the credits roll.

 

7. “Star Trek”

Eric Bana adds "villainy" to his already-full resume in "Star Trek."

Summer blockbusters often get snubbed come Oscar time (remember what happened with “The Dark Knight”?) on the basis they lack any substance beyond the visual pyrotechnics and the glitter. Count “Star Trek” out of that lot, for this is the other kind of summer blockbuster — the one that has it all, from the visuals to the special effects to great acting (found everywhere, but especially in the performances of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy) and first-rate writing. “Star Trek” is a treat for the senses, all of them, and a much-needed shot of epi to the dying “Star Trek” franchise.

 

8. “Two Lovers”

Joaquin Phoenix plays a beautifully damaged shell in the superbly acted "Two Lovers."

James Gray, with “Two Lovers,” does something most extraordinary: make a movie about a romantic triangle that eschews melodrama and focuses instead on affecting character growth. At the center of this character study is Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a shifty soul reeling from his fiancee’s departure who falls for two women: the beautiful but equally unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the kind daughter-of-a-family-friend who senses Leonard’s troubled nature and wants to help him. The strong performances lead to a resolution that’s poetic, somehow unspeakably sad and not the least bit maudlin.

  

9. “The Informant!”

James Bond ain't got nothin' on whistleblower Mark Whitacre, a spy of his own creation, in "The Informant!"

A story about one of the world’s biggest (and strangest) tattletales, Mark Whitacre (wonderfully portrayed by Matt Damon), sounds intriguing enough. Then in marches Stephen Soderbergh to direct, and, well, it’s all over from that moment on. Soderbergh, with his trademark verve and style, transforms the story of Whitacre, who blew the whistle on ADM’s price fixing racket, from a corporate thriller to a jaunty but deeply sad venture into the mind of Whitacre, who concocted such an elaborate, crazy scheme even he couldn’t wrap his fragile little mind around it. Credit Damon, at his best, for taking a buffoon and turning him into an oddly sympathetic Everyman.

 

10. “Brothers”

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal anchor the subtle "Brothers" with strong performances.

“Brothers,” much like “The Departed,” offers solid proof that remakes should not be discounted out of hand. Based on a Danish film, Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” stands as a fine creation on its own, a penetrating look at the effect war — particularly in the realm of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — has on families. Tobey Maguire is sheer dynamite as Capt. Sam Cahill, who escapes an Afghani prison camp but comes home to his wife (Natalie Portman) and worried brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) a broken, dangerous man. “Brothers,” with its wrenching but never showy performances, makes us feel the knife edge of his desperation and the way it slices clean through his family harmony.

Honorable mentions: “The Brothers Bloom” for its first-rate cast (Ruffalo, Weisz, Brody); “Jennifer’s Body” for its clever dialogue, genius reversal of the teen-girl-as-hapless-victim sentiment informing most horror films and a career-making performance by Amanda Seyfried; and “Zombieland,” which glides in on sheer gross, witty fun.

Advertisements

“(500) Days” an inventive, touching look at lost love

500_Days

In "(500) Days," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel discover a harsh truth: Love isn't all you need.

“Next time you look back, I think you should look again.”

There are many memorable lines in “(500) Days of Summer,” Marc Webb’s attentive, carefully crafted ode to 20-something love lost, but none resonate this strongly. Call it “hindsight is 20/20” for the 21st-century indie hipsters. What simple beauty there is in this observation, for who doesn’t see the past through the haze of happiness? Who bothers to remember what actually happened, the ugly parts unpainted, unsanded, unprettied?

Welcome to the universal appeal of “(500) Days of Summer,” a movie about a romance that sours naturally and a man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s heard too many pop songs (hint: he loves The Smiths) to believe that can happen. There’s a kind of endearing, tortured earnestness in Levitt’s Tom, who channels all those ideas about love everlasting into the greeting cards he writes. He may own a T-shirt that emblazoned with “love will tear us apart,” but he damn sure doesn’t believe that. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a free spirit who loves her independence and doesn’t give a fig about soulmates, he’s certain he’s found just what he thinks Ben Braddock did in Mrs. Robinson. And so the exquisite agony begins.

What makes that agony so achingly real, not the slightest bit generic, is the way Webb unfolds Tom and Summer’s story. Much has been written about the way Webb plays with the concept of time in the film’s script, leaping from the beginning of the relationship to the end to the middle with just a screenshot and a number (i.e., Day 1) to guide us. There’s no concealing the fact that this is a commonplace gimmick, but it’s an extremely effective one in a movie about failed love affairs and how we recall them. Does Day 1 really mean more than Day 37, or Day 185, or the last day? Webb suggests not, since our brains capture snapshots, not linear, neatly drawn timelines. Nor do we number the days. The beginning, the end, happy times in the middle — those are the things that stick with us.

There are other things besides the time splicing that Webb, a big-screen novice, does to make “(500) Days” surprising, unusual and unforgettable. Consider a dance sequence — that Levitt, arthouse boy though he is, can cut a rug — after Tom’s first night with Summer. Or a clip where the cityscape of Los Angeles become a crude sketch, fading around Tom’s slumped silhouette. Webb pokes such self-conscious fun at some staples of the romantic dramedy genre that you can’t help but smile. If only it didn’t go so wibbly-wobbly at the en- … oh never mind. For a new director capable of this level of ironic self-awareness and humor, a little forgiveness isn’t out of the question.

Webb’s eye for details, however, is matched by his unusually keen eye for talent. Deschanel’s an obvious and spot-on choice for Summer (she’s lovely and quirky and retro, the Indie Trinity), but Levitt? The really intense, moody guy from “Manic” and “Brick” and “Mysterious Skin”? Any remaining reservations about his talent — sure he’s edgy, but is he leading man material? — evaporate in “(500) Days of Summer.” He finds humor in darker moments and exposed nerves in quieter, happier ones. Tom’s experience with Summer could be cloying or irritating, but Levitt finds the tragedy there and gives us a man who, after years of bad programming, grows up. Watching that transition is one of the chief pleasures of the insightful “(500) Days of Summer,” a look at the ways bad love changes us as much — usually even more — than the love affairs that end with wine and roses.

Other characters pop in and out with insights that nudge Tom along. Notable is Chloe Moretz, who plays Tom’s younger but infinitely smarter sister Rachel. She’s the voice of reason that cuts straight through all his syrupy, sentimental, useless greeting card crap. Wise, too, is Paul (Matthew Gray Gubler), who offers another uncomplicated but revolutionary insight of his own: “She’s better than the girl of my dreams,” he says of his girlfriend. “She’s real.” Such wisdom and hope in those words. And if we’re half that smart, that’s exactly what we take away from “(500) Days of Summer.” 

Grade: B+

“(500) Days of Summer”…

… and “Julie & Julia” and “The Goods”! This weekend!

That is all.

“Summer” begins July 31

Given all my puffed-up talk about chick flicks, I think it’s time to (whispering) come clean about something.

I’m a sucker for a good indie romcom.

And if said indie stars Zooey Deschanel or Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Well, the Big Giant Head himself couldn’t hold me back.

Thus, it looks like July 31 will be my lucky day, since it’s the (tentative) day that Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer” opens in Charlotte, N.C. (Surprise! There are perks in living 29 miles from America’s 18th-largest city.) I’ve had my eyes on “Summer” ever since I heard Levitt and Deschanel were teaming up to play the starcrossed couple in question. I’d have to check with my pal Dear Diary, but I’m pretty sure this will be the best cinematic pairing since Paul and Jason. Levitt has morphed into an actor of formidable talent, making good on the promise he showed in “3rd Rock from the Sun.” (What? He was a teenage and he held his own against John Lithgow. You don’t think that’s impressive?) He consistently chooses difficult, non-mainstream projects — “Brick,” “Manic,” “Mysterious Skin,” “The Lookout” — that show his range. He’ll make for a quirky, rough-about-the-edges leading man. Deschanel has a history of being the best thing in bad (re: “Failure to Launch,” “The New Guy”), strange (“The Good Girl,” “Winter Passing”) or fiercely independent (“All the Real Girls”) movies. If she sings even half of one song, it will make the price of admission worthwhile. 

Still need convincing? Take a gander at ZooJo’s re-enactment of “Sid and Nancy.” If it doesn’t convert you, there’s just no talking to you.