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.

“Jennifer’s Body” a witty, surreal teen comedy

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

I knew it. I knew it. I knew that if I hoped and prayed and wished and waited a long, long time that the Bizarro Alternate World would take over and the unthinkable would happen. And in “Jennifer’s Body,” the unthinkable has become reality: The brunette’s dicing up male hearts like room-temperature butter, and her mousy blonde friend — who wears tortoise-shell glasses! — is nothing but a mopey, fraidy-cat sidekick.

(Sigh.)

It turns out this is not Bizzaro Alternate World so much as just the warped plot of the Diablo Cody-penned wittier-than-thou “Jennifer’s Body,” a pointless but way fun horror comedy that lampoons teen movie cliches with wicked glee. And since this is, you know, Diablo Cody, all the fun is wrapped up in dialogue so sharp and self-conciously urbane that you have shredded murder victims described as “lasagna with teeth” and an indie band frontman (Adam Brody) who yearns to “reach out to fans in the shitty areas, too.”  

Yep, “Jennifer’s Body” is that kind of movie, another hip reinvention of the teen horror movie that ends up completely farfetched but also completely enjoyable. Part of that trashy fun stems from Megan Fox’s rather impressive performance as Jennifer Check, the resident hottie at Devil’s Kettle High School who spends her post-cheer practice time consuming male flesh. (She’s not killing people, you understand; she’s “killing boys.” There’s a difference.) There’s Brilliant Subversion No. 2 — a girl who’s not the victim, who is, in fact, making mincemeat out of boys? Love it. Standing petrified on the sidelines is Anita “Needy” Lesnicky (the insanely talented Amanda Seyfried), who suspects her more socially desirable B.F.F. — “sandbox love never dies” Needy offers up as reasoning for their unlikely friendship — is a killer. Too bad Needy can’t get her sensitive, Strokes haircut-sporting boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) to believe her. But she has to try real hard because if not The Big Dance will become (he he) an “all-you-can-eat buffet.”

That’s what I love most about “Jennifer’s Body,” lines like that. These words bear no resemblance to the way people actually talk, though if they do it’s probably because everybody saw “Juno,” figured it was the new “Clueless” and started a flip pad of jargon. (Come to think of it, that isn’t a half-bad idea, starting a log of Diablo Cody-isms. She’s so hot these days.) There are other killers so funny it’s nearly impossible to laugh at them. Needy and Jennifer’s pet names for each other? Monastat and Vagisil. Jennifer is “actually evil, not high-school evil.” When Chip’s mom begs him to carry pepper spray to the dance, he responds: “I can take care of myself. I’ve been using the Bowflex.” And there’s a bit about Thai food and sex that might cause public consumption of pad Thai to go up or down depending.

This whimsical absurdism bleeds (pardon the pun) into much of “Jennifer’s Body,” which means there’s not much substance — unless you count the characters. Fox does more than what’s expected of her — she proved she had comedic chops in “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” but, really, who saw this coming? — and has a lot of fun with Jennifer. Her delivery’s just right, though it’s doubtful any man in attendance will notice. With the way Fox fills out her teeny heart hoodies, ushers should have buckets handy to catch the drool. But enough about Fox. Why use too many words for her when there’s a better, meatier part played by a better actress with more range? Given her own fair looks, it’s shocking to see Amanda Seyfried plain-Jane it up as Needy, but she looks every inch the meek friend. There’s a sadness to Needy that Seyfried’s not afraid to explore, and later a looming darkness that’s unnerving, not the least bit cutsey. This is why Seyfried will become a household name — she’s got such talent you can’t help but like her in anything.

Jennifer may be the body, see, but Needy’s the soul. And hey, someone’s got to do the real heavy lifting while Megan Fox makes sexy.

Grade: B-

It’s out! It’s out!

The Red Band Trailer for “Jennifer’s Body,” screenwriter Diablo Cody’s foray into comorror (work with me; I’m coining a term here) has arrived, and it has me salivating in anticipation. With Cody at the helm and Megan Fox starring as a high school cheerleader possessed by a murderous demon and a cast full of very funny actors (J.K. Simmons! Amy Sedaris! Seth from “The O.C.”!), this one’s sure to be a winner.

 

2009: Movies to Watch

Alas, the Oscars have come and gone. If you worship at the altar of Stephen Colbert, chances are you were not surprised by the outcome. I know I wasn’t. Check out my TV if you don’t believe me. You’ll find it refreshingly free of dents, dings, cracks and scratches. No foreign objects were harmed during The Really Big Show and, praise be to Will Scarlett O’Hara, I don’t have to make good on my promise to move to Canada. (Heath, I had your back … even though I generally don’t stick up for people dumb enough to mix Oxycontin and, you know, any other painkiller ever invented ever.)

But now I need a little something to lift me out of my post-Oscar funk. And what better way to forget about the past than charging headlong into the future? So here’s a treatise (more like a random sampling) of the 2009 movies I’m jumpier than a virgin at a prison rodeo to see:

  • Sunshine Cleaning (March 13) — Like anyone else nerdy enough to seek out IFC films, I fell in love with Amy Adams in Junebug, where I became convinced an actress who could make me love a character that cheerful and perky can do anything. She elevates any film she’s in, so imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing her paired with the divine Emily Blunt, who stole every scene from Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. If any two actresses can pull off a comedy about two sisters who start a business cleaning up violent crime scenes, it’s these two. Sign me up.
  • The Last House on the Left (March 13) — There’s only one reason to see “Last House”: to compare it to the supremely unnerving, gripping and violent 1972 classic directed by Wes Craven. The original gets my vote as one of the most disturbing films ever made — the top spot goes, of course, to Chaos — so I have bargain-basement hopes for the remake, particularly because the most famous actor in the whole movie is Monica Potter, who’s made a career of playing vanilla characters in B movies. If it’s crap, I’m pulling for a Chernobyl-styled failure.
  • I Love You, Man (March 20) — Know how I know there’s some sort of higher power? Because Jason Segel finally gets the coveted spot as Paul Rudd’s fake best friend/wannabe best man in I Love You, Man. Finally, people are starting to see what so many of us saw from the beginning (for Segel, Freaks and Geeks; for Rudd, Clueless): Segal and Rudd are supremely gifted comedic actors who deserve to headline their own movies. Toss in Rashida Jones (who had a career before The Office, people) and I’m already whipping out my AmEx and logging on to Fandango.
  • Adventureland (March 27) — I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age movie, especially when it takes place in a theme park populated by the likes of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. Adventureland, written by Greg Mottola (one of the brilliant minds behind Undeclared), is shaping up to be a kinder, gentler, more sophisticated Superbad. Newbie Jessie Eisenberg has a pleasingly naive William Miller quality about him, and I’m thrilled to see Freaks and Geeks grad Martin Starr (that’s Bill “You Cut Me Off Mid-Funk” Haverchuck for those not in the know) back. Add a Sno Cone and a bag of cotton candy and I’ll be in heaven.
  • The Soloist (April 24) — The fact that this movie has been shelved for more than a year worries me not. Why? Because this movie — about a journalist (Robert Downey Jr.) who befriends a homeless, brilliantly talented musician (Jamie Foxx) — has almost limitless potential. Downey Jr. is on fire these days, and Foxx continues to expand on the promise and skill he showed in Ray and Collateral. And, of course, don’t forget about Catherine Keener, a fine actress relegated to tiny bit parts. Color me excited.
  • Terminator Salvation (May 21) — I know what you’re thinking: Enough with the Terminator franchise already! I’d be inclined to agree, since I barely watched the original … and the one after that … and the one after that … and the one — well, you get the idea. But this Terminator stars none other than Batman himself, the profanity-spewing Mickey-Rourke-in-his-tender-years wannabe. Yes, post-Batman he’s become a prima donna, but Bale brings his all to every role he plays (did you see El Maquinista?). Hell, he reinvented Batman; I suspect he could do the same for John Connor.
  • Drag Me to Hell (May 29) — A horror movie starring a kinda-sorta-funny guy (Justin Long) and a talented but largely unfamous actress (Alison Lohman) about a supernatural curse. Does it get less original or more derivative than this? Hey, the plot description isn’t what sold me on this; it’s the fact that Sam Raimi — who had a fantastic career as a comic-horror cult filmmaker before the Spiderman series — is directing. He’s a superhero of a director, someone who can do horror and comedy and action. If Drag Me contains 1/16th of the pluck and wit that the Evil Dead films had, Raimi’s going down in my book as one of my favorite directors.
  • The Maiden Heist (May 29) — A museum heist involving: Marcia Gay Harden. Morgan Freeman. William H. Macy. Christopher Walken. Together. In. One. Movie. ‘Nuff said.
  • Public Enemies (July 1) — Gangster movies are a dime a dozen these days, thanks in part to the great but interminable American Gangster. This year’s high-promise gangster pic is Public Enemies, a story about the Feds’ attempt to bring down gangsters John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). With Depp, Christian Bale and Frenchie Marion Cotilliard in the mix, this is a recipe for greatness (Denzel, eat your heart out).
  • Funny People (July 31) — Call me crazy (it’s been suggested), but I can’t think of one good reason not to see a movie where Adam Sandler plays a dying comedian who takes a newbie (Seth Rogen) under his wing. Sandler has proven he can do subtle comedy and drama just fine. Even Rogen has his moments of levity (I still say his sex scene with Elizabeth Banks is one of the sweetest and best I’ve ever seen). The trick will be finding the right tone, pitched somewhere between Little Miss Sunshine and Reign Over Me. (Added bonus: There’s the potential to see Seth Rogen cry onscreen. Can he do it?)
  • Julie & Julia (Aug. 7) — Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in the same movie? What is this, Doubt with flatware, baking soda and a cast-iron skillet? Hardly. I’ve got huge, bursting hopes for this film about a kitchen novice (Adams) who decides to cook every recipe penned by Julia Child (Streep, natch) in her book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Adams and Streep were stellar together in Doubt, so I suspect this pairing — here in a much lighter, more comic setting — will be equally fantastic. And I never turn up my nose at a movie where Stanley Tucci and Jane Lynch show up in the supporting cast. C’est magnifique.
  • Jennifer’s Body (Sept. 18) — Can a violent black comedy written by Diablo Cody about a possessed, homicidal cheerleader (Megan Fox, who’s easy on the eyes and has crack comic timing) who offs male classmates be anything other than stupendous? No, no, a thousand times no, I say! Cody’s got an ear for whip-smart dialogue, and director Karyn Kusama has assembled a great team of actors — including the snarkastic Adam Brody, Cynthia Stevenson and Allison Janney — sure to make this Heathers for the Bring It On set. Rah. Totally.
  • Sherlock Holmes (Dec. 25) — The truth: I’ve been a RDJr. groupie since Less Than Zero, so I’ll watch any movie he makes and probably rave about it (I make an exception for Only You). Because, you see, he keeps taking these larger-than-life characters — Ironman/Tony Stark, Charlie Chaplin, Col. Lincoln Osiris, Dito, Harry Lockhart — and making them flawed, vulnerable and funny. He seems perfectly cast in every part, much the same way Roger Ebert said Frances McDormand does, and it would seem elementary that he’ll do a smash-up job playing the ever-droll Sherlock Holmes. And the fact that Guy Ritchie’s directing, well, that’s just icing.