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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.

Oscar snubs its nose at you, Matt Damon (et. al)

"What do you mean I didn't get an Oscar nomination? I gained 40 POUNDS!"

Every year begins with the same blasted vow: I won’t wear my heart on my sleeve. I won’t get sucked in. I’ll be strong and aloof. In short, I swear I won’t let myself get emotionally involved in the Oscar race.

PFFFFFFT. Go on. Now pull the other one.

Yeah, so that never happens. Never comes close to happening. It’s all gibberish. Maybe my real resolution should be that one of these days I might flush all these delusions of keeping my heart out of the Oscar race down le porcelain bowl … but it won’t be this year! Especially not this year, when the Best Picture race got expanded to 10 (what a nice, big, fat round number, no?), a sure signal that the Academy had opened its ranks to deserving films that, before, never would have had a chance.

While that may be true (say what you want about “Avatar,” but rare is the blockbuster that crashes the Best Picture ball), in true Academy fashion these snobbish cats have doled out some fairly glaring and some just-plain-wrong snubs. They are as follows:

Best Picture / “Star Trek,” “Two Lovers” — Mental gymnastics are required to reason out why “Avatar,” with its amazing visuals and so-so storyline, merited an Oscar nod while “Star Trek” did not. J.J. Abrams’ energetic, heartfelt summer blockbuster is nothing short of a total reinvention. Thrilling action, special effects, wit, verve, inside jokes, great acting — “Star Trek” has them all in spades. James Gray’s “Two Lovers takes what could have been a Lifetime TV movie — an aimless, emotionally damaged man (Joaquin Phoenix) torn between two women — and turns it into a nuanced character study with almost no melodrama, and a very fine motion picture deserving of some statues.

Best Actor / Damon, Maguire, Phoenix — Oh, the triple negligence the Academy has perpetrated in this, its 82nd awards season. First is their thoughtless brush-aside of Matt Damon, who comically and painfully captured the disordered mind of whistleblower Mark Whitacre in Stephen Soderbergh’s deceptively jaunty “The Informant!” (His acting there was better than “Invictus.”) Second was the blatant disregard of Tobey Maguire’s blistering portrayal of a POW so ruined by war that he cannot reclaim his family and life in “Brothers.” Last but for certainly not least is the absence of Joaquin Phoenix’s name, which is a travesty considering his troubled Leonard Kraditor in “Two Lovers” may be the most haunting, commendable piece of acting he’s ever done.

Best Actress / Abbie Cornish — In the Focus Features 2006 film “Candy,” Abbie Cornish gave us a glimpse of her blossoming talent, but in “Bright Star,”* about Romantic poet John Keat’s short-lived, passionate romance with Fanny Brawne, she emerges fully formed. She gives beaming vitality, spirit and life to one of poetry’s greatest-known muses, and for that she deserves much, much acclaim. Why, Academy, do you insist on withholding the love?

Best Supporting Actress / Laurent, Rossellini — Considering the hot, exhilarating mess of a spectacle that is “Inglourious Basterds”, perhaps it’s inevitable that someone would get lost in the mix. That someone, however, should not be Parisian actress Mélanie Laurent, for her Shosanna is the emotional center of the film; her outstanding one-on-one with Waltz in the cafe should have cemented that award. Isabella Rossellini, who plays Leonard’s worried mother in “Two Lovers,” is no less subtle or devastating. Her quiet performance is a thing of beauty, and it’s the crowning achievement of a career that hasn’t had that many. 

Best Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty dramedy about two conmen brothers — one wants out; the other turns long cons into art — and the rich, innocent mark they’re about to bilk out of millions. Is it arty, maybe a bit too arch and complex? Maybe. Does it possess the kind of fiendish cleverness and originality Hollywood sorely lacks? Abso-damn-lutely.

Best Original Song / “Stu’s Song” — I’m not about to argue that “Stu’s Song,” hilariously performed by Ed Helms in “The Hangover,” is overflowing with the emotional depth of, say, “The Weary Kind” or has the glitter-and-sequins of “Take It All.” But it’s still an tremendously funny tune that manages to be clever and neatly sum up what “The Hangover” is all about. And that last line is PRICELESS.

*Review forthcoming

Damon grounds Soderbergh’s gnarly, screwball “The Informant!”

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Agent 007, listen up: You got nothin' on Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who blows the whistle on corporate price fixing in "The Informant!"

Matt Damon, it would seem, is on a mission to make Trey Parker and Matt Stone chow down on some crow — big, heapin’ pie shells full of it. Since 2004, when “Team America” gave us the Matt Damon puppet, the Oscar winner has headlined two more “Ocean’s” movies, another Bourne thriller and mind-benders like “The Departed” and “Syriana.” And now he’s gone and tackled Mark Whitacre, that squirrelly fellow who blew the lid off a huge price-fixing scheme perpetrated by lysine development conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), in the mid-1990s.

How does Damon fare, you wonder? Let’s just say Trey and Matt might need to rifle their utensil drawers for some big ole’ wooden spoons. Damon is flat-out fantastic in Soderbergh’s twisty, witty corporate thriller, finding comedy in Whitacre’s delusions — he’s 0014, he insists, because he’s “twice as smart as 007” — but also the boredom and unhappiness that puddle at the roots. This is a whopper of a performance, sad and humorous and disturbing, but so subtle that it probably won’t earn Damon any nominations. But acting this good is a triumph in itself.

Soderbergh, who seems to have some innate softness for whistle-blowers (“Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider”), lets Damon stand at the center of Scott Burns’ adapted screenplay. That’s a wise decision, considering it gives “The Informant!” a dose of humanity to offset the air of whimsy, the pretzel-like script and the dementedly chirpy score (direct all praise to composer Marvin Hamlisch). Whitacre’s an ambitious man looking to ascend the ranks at ADM, so he’s none too happy when his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) forces him to detail ADM’s global price-fixing plot to FBI Special Agent Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula, playing the bemused straight man). The feds get involved — including Special Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale, who’s sold out and probably can’t keep at it with that “Talk Soup” gig much longer) — and Whitacre ends up sporting wires, orchestrating clandestine meetings and, eventually, narcing on pretty much everyone who signs his sizable paychecks. And yet there’s so much more to the story, including a complex subplot involving a $9 million embezzlement scheme so mind-boggling in its flagrant stupidity that the feds don’t think to look for it.

Certainly there’s enough mayhem in Burns’ screenplay — adapted from Kurt Eichenwald’s book — to keep viewers occupied for days. How could ADM keep a scam this big going so long? How many people were really involved, and how many had dirt on their hands? And the biggest question: Why would a man netting well over $300,000 a year even think of making a peep? The beauty of “The Informant!” is that we get few answers, and we get no answer at all to the last question. It’s all buildup and almost no release, no spoon-fed conclusion or resolution to settle that slightly sick feeling in our stomachs. While it’s plain fact that ADM faced stiff fines — to the tune of $100 million — and a few top execs did light jail time, Whitacre spent more than eight years in federal prison on those embezzlement charges. He did a public service, sure, but he paid handsomely for it. We’re left wondering uneasily: Did the real crooks get away because the informant had a few stacks of cash in his closet?

The way Damon plays him, no one can tell. He gives away nothing about Whitacre’s motivations (think Chris Cooper in “Breach”), providing us only with a surprisingly nuanced portrait of a man living so far inside his own head it’s a wonder he could hear people when they spoke to him. He spins wild yarns while acting cooperative, then retreats into his inner stream-of-consciousness monologue. Damon reveals more humanity in these moments than we expect — just watch the scene where his wife (Lynskey’s marvelous here) and Shepherd (Bakula has depth too) catch him in his last lie. The emotions — exhaustion and fear and resignation — that play on Damon’s face will twist your heart painfully. That’s what sticks with us when the music fades and the jokes dry up. Somehow the words “Matt Damon” don’t ring quite so funny. 

Grade: B+