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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.

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Nimble “Zombieland” a bloody good time

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

Be vewwy, vewwy quiet: Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) and Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) are huntin' zombies.

No matter how intelligent, urbane and evolved we humans fancy ourselves, there’s just no getting around it: Nothing beats watching a slobbering, crusty, stinking zombie get his skull smashed with a mallet. Or a baseball bat. Or a tire iron. Why is this so  satisfying? Because zombies, you see, exist solely to get murdalized.

And boy do they ever in “Zombieland,” a gonzo, bloody, ridiculously entertaining movie about a world overrun with mindless flesh-eaters and the two wildly different survivors — Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), zombie killer extraordinaire, and the timid Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) — who join forces more out of sheer boredom than any desire for human companionship. They are, we assume, the only humans to survive the fallout of a brain-swelling disease passed through cattle meat. And Tallahassee and Columbus kill a lot of zombies. Heaps of them. The hulking morons get slaughtered in such gleefully creative ways it makes me wonder if Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who penned the script, are brilliantly inventive or just didn’t get out much. It matters not. The kills (no, I’m not going to list them for you) are what make “Zombieland” wicked good.

Know what else makes “Zombieland” so entertaining? The characters, which sneak up on you in the midst of all those inventive ZKs (some are clear contenders for Zombie Kill of the Week). There’s something sweet and touching about the shy Columbus’ self-awareness; it’s obvious he understands that he let his fear — of girls, of clowns, of  life — cut off avenues for connection and emotional intimacy. Eisenberg, who should have Michael Cera quaking in his vintage cargo pants, drops these verbal bombshells with just the right amount of frankness and regret. “The first girl I let into my life and she tries to eat me,” he laments when he realizes his hot neighbor has morphed into a zombie. There’s far more bittersweet candor in this line than there has to be in a movie about lumbering liver-chewers and the people who blast ’em.

But back to the blasting. Columbus has managed to survive just fine using his rules, which include such gems as stressing the importance of cardio (“the fatties are the first to go”), the double tap (“don’t be afraid to use your ammunition”) and the perils of public restrooms. Tallahassee isn’t that cerebral. He’s a loner with nothing to lose and a mean hankering for Twinkies, and he’s transformed zombie killing into an art form. (Notice his nod to “Deliverance.” It’s thing of beauty.) These two make for an unusual pair, and their unconventional family gets even weirder when they happen upon Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), two sisters who share a talent for working the short con. All four head off in search of a place where zombies don’t dwell, and along the way they end up in the posh home of the Greatest Movie Star in History.

(INTERJECTION: If there’s still a chance as small as a zombie’s IQ that you don’t know about the cameo, do NOT let anyone ruin it for you. Turn off your TV and Internet and radio, go all Howard Hughes and hoard tissue boxes to avoid genuine human contact — do whatever you have to do preserve the blessed element of surprise.)

So the body count and the gore, right? Completely disgusting, thoroughly enjoyable and mostly devoid of any of the sociopolitical commentary George Romero made famous. Nope, “Zombieland” is all about the sheer, unbridled joy of undead killin’, and it takes human form inTallahassee, played with characteristic drawl and zeal by Harrelson. (See, Christian Bale? Acting can be fun!) But the writers pepper in plenty of deadpan humor, and they make some half-hearted noise about how we should conquer our fears, learn to need people, seize the day. This touchy-feely stuff might seem out of place if not for Eisenberg, who gives “Zombieland” the very last thing anyone would expect: a heart. 

Grade: B+