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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.

Clooney, Reitman hit new heights in “Up in the Air”

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) discovers life's better with company (Farmiga) in "Up in the Air."

Sit next to the sharply dressed Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) on a plane and he’d gladly unpack his carry-on of inspirational messages. You look like you need to talk, he’d say, and he’d be right because what traveler wouldn’t welcome a pleasant distraction from the crying babies, that pinging “fasten seatbelt” sign? Ryan Bingham is nothing if not an expert at diverting attention.

In truth, Ryan’s actually a professional distractor, though his business card proclaims his job title to be “termination consultant” or something similar in corporate speak. And in Jason Reitman’s witty, subtle and deeply felt “Up in the Air,” that’s just what Ryan does: fly around the country and distract people from reality — he’s firing them from their jobs because their bosses lack the guts — with chatter about new opportunities. The way he sees it, firings and layoffs translate into something valuable: the promise of motion. In fact, Ryan adopts “moving is living” as his credo of sorts. And Reitman structures “Up in the Air,” his witty, remarkably accomplished third film, around this mantra, not because he swallows it as gospel truth but because he understands how people can use — and abuse — the idea.

Ryan, played with maturity and grace by Clooney, deserves lifetime membership in the second group. The only time he sits still is on a plane. He lives out of compact suitcase, spending precious little time in his blank Omaha, Neb., apartment, and finds comfort in the sterility of rental cars and hotel suites. He believes he’s happy flitting from city to city, pushing toward a certifiably insane goal of 1 million frequent flyer miles, until two things happen to change his mind. Or, rather, two people happen. The first is Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga, divine as always), a bold and sexy corporate traveler who informs Ryan: “Think of me as you with a vagina.” She seems a saucy match for Ryan, and he enjoys her company so much he begins to question his in-flight lifestyle.

Second comes Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a cutthroat Cornell grad with big ideas about streamlining (i.e., taking it online) the process Ryan’s perfected. He’s horrified by her suggestion his methods are obsolete and takes her on the road, where she sees, really sees, that the printed names on a list belong to people. That’s hardly a novel concept, but pay close attention to Kendrick’s expression as she sits in on firing after firing. There are so many emotions — indifference, surprise, horror — at play on her face that Kendrick turns these moving scenes into an epiphany. Though the experience affects her profoundly, she’s too stubborn to admit it. But Ryan observes the change in her eyes, and what he sees makes him own up to a distasteful truth: he long ago stopped buying the platitudes he’s selling. Maybe he never did.

Gently observant films like this require strong writing and performances captivating enough to make us want to investigate, to unearth the subtleties.  In this regard, “Up in the Air” plays like Ensemble Acting 101; put simply, the acting is superb. Every actor, from those onscreen 10 minutes — Danny McBride injects humor as Ryan’s jittery future brother-in-law, while Melanie Lynskey, as Ryan’s estranged sister, radiates hope for reconciliation — to Clooney and Farmiga, rise to the challenge. Farmiga proves, as she did in “Down to the Bone” and “The Departed,” that she is an actress of exceptional warmth, and her chemistry with Clooney is palpable. Kendrick is a find, an actress possessed of the kind of talent that belies her 24 years; she makes us feel the sharp distress of her growing pains.

Turns as strong as these might lose steam without an achoring performance, and Clooney provides a measured but impressive one. He’s one of the rare actors who has allowed age to improve his talent. Clooney knows there’s more to Ryan than gimmicky speeches, and he hints at those depths with his changing eyes, his face, his body language. There were no shortcuts; he had to do some living to be ready for this performance. He did, he is and he finds good company in Reitman, who, with “Up in the Air,” has created the magnum opus of his young career and a snapshot of recession-era America. 

Grade: A