Best Of 2009: A Baker’s Dozen

As we charge into the new year, we’ll be taking a few moments over the next several days to look back at the past year and decade in films. First up is Michael McGonigle’s Best of 2009.

Each time I compile my annual list of the films I liked the most, I usually notice an over-riding theme that connects them.  This year, the films I liked best were mostly from regular genres like romantic comedy or sci-fi thriller, yet somehow, had a fillip of originality and style that made them stand out.  Here are the films of 2009 that I liked best; in alphabetical order:

1.   17 Again

I know the Old/Young body switch story has been done many times before, so what made 17 Again work so well?  A combination of above average direction by Burr Steers, a former actor (Pulp Fiction) and now director (Igby Goes Down) and one of the oldest reasons in the Hollywood book; the excitement and talent of a cast who managed to inject fresh energy into what are basically stock characters.  Matthew Perry is surprisingly touching as the former golden boy now gone to seed and Zac Efron is disarmingly charming as the seventeen year old reincarnation of Perry’s character who comes to realize he has been granted a second chance to connect with his dysfunctional family.  With the always welcome Leslie Mann as Perry’s soon to be ex-wife who embraces her inner-cougar as she deals with an unsavory, but strangely compelling attraction to this new neighborhood teenager who is the spitting image of her husband when he was younger.  But it is Thomas Lennon who steals every scene as Perry’s adult best friend, a former high school nerd now turned software millionaire who assists Perry by pretending to be his father causing untold comic havoc.  For pure enjoyment, 17 Again is hard to beat.  Available on DVD.

2.   (500) Days Of Summer

This film is a true rarity; it’s a romantic comedy that is actually romantic and funny.  Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt) is a young man who works for a greeting card company in Los Angeles.  One day a new temp named Summer (Zooey Deschanel) joins the firm and Tom is thoroughly gob-smacked, smitten and flipped head over heels in love.  The film follows their 500 day romance using a helpful on-screen counter to jump from day 41 to day 368 to day 139 and so on, to show us the various highs and lows of their affair.  Using film within film parodies, split screen sequences, a God-like voice-over narration and one heck of a musical number full of dancing pedestrians with an animated blue bird and set to a bouncy Hall & Oates tune, you never know where this charming film directed by Marc Webb will take you next.  Ultimately, the film delivers a dose of realism by showing us what usually happens to a relationship when one person is more in love than the other.  That’s a heartbreaking “Ouch” moment that movies rarely explore, but almost all of us have experienced. Available on DVD.

3.   Anvil: The Story Of Anvil

I went into this documentary thinking it was just another whiny “Behind The Music” type program about a now forgotten band who had achieved some minimal success and then blew it all on sex and drugs, but Anvil: The Story Of Anvil is not a cautionary tale about the excesses of the music business.  No, the Canadian heavy metal band Anvil is a working band, still plugging along trying to make records, trying to play concerts, trying to make something of their lives as professional musicians, even though they all have to work ordinary jobs to pay the rent.  I was exhausted for them when they went on an ill-advised European tour where they played to less than capacity crowds and endured many indignities.  You know, when you’re 20, being forced to sleep on the hard floor of a Budapest train station is a romantic adventure, but when you’re 50, it just aggravates your arthritis.  So, when Anvil gets a chance to record a proper new CD and an offer to play an important concert in Japan, I was as excited as the band was that finally, after 25+ years of toiling in virtual obscurity, they might be getting their big chance.  Anvil: The Story Of Anvil is one of the best documentaries I have seen on what motivates creative people to put everything they have on the line time and time again, especially when there is no guarantee of success, at all.  Available on DVD.

4.   Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans

When it was announced that the great German film director Werner Herzog was going to direct a remake of the 1992 cult film Bad Lieutenant with Nicholas Cage as the star, nobody thought it had any chance of success.  Well, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans not only reinvigorates the moribund “crooked cop” thriller, but with Werner Herzog at the helm, the film moves into truly dangerous and demented territory.  Nicholas Cage has never been more unhinged, which is REALLY saying something and yet, he has never been more captivating.  Whether he’s trying to keep an eye on some suspicious iguanas who keep following him or is demanding that drug dealers keep pumping bullets into an already dead Mafia hood because “his soul is still dancing”, or subjecting a wheelchair bound old lady to an astonishingly violent interrogation, I dare you to try and look away.  With a great score by Mark Isham and palpably sweaty cinematography by Peter Zietlinger, Werner Herzog has taken an exhausted genre and infected it with his own personal cinematic vision and I fear I may never be able to look at an ordinary “crooked cop” drama the same way ever again.  Most audiences will probably not like this film, but lets face it, this is what genius looks like.

5.   The Girlfriend Experience

The Girlfriend Experience follows Chelsea (played by porn actress Sasha Grey), an expensive, high class call girl in NYC over a five day period.  We watch as she services regular clients, attempts to expand her business via the internet and deals with Chris, her fitness trainer boyfriend who has become increasingly needy.  Initially, Chelsea comes across as cold hearted, and self-centered and appears to be all business, all the time.  Because Chelsea has vast knowledge about business and sex, she naively thinks this gives her an equal understanding of the complexities of life and love and the human heart, but it doesn’t.  This makes her eventual emotional downfall all the more heartbreaking and humiliating because while we in the audience could see it coming, Chelsea could not.  Director Steven Soderbergh tells this story with long takes and a fractured time-line that may be confusing to some, but ultimately it allows us to realize that while Chelsea is not the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold” this doesn’t mean that the heart she does have can’t be broken.  Available On DVD.

6.   Gomorrah

American gangster films usually present the criminal underworld as an attractive place, focusing on the guns, girls and glory ethos of thug life.  Therefore, Matteo Garrone’s sobering film Gomorrah, based on the factual book by Roberto Saviano showing us the lifestyles of real work-a-day gangsters in Naples may come as a shock.  This vision of Mafia hell is a cure for films like The Godfather, Scarface, Heat or any gangster film wherein charismatic actors play romantic tough guys until they go out in an exciting blaze of cinematic glory!  Gomorrah shows us the harsh reality and there is no honor among these thieves.  When it’s your time to get killed, you will probably get popped by some anonymous thug racing by on a motor scooter, or shot in the face multiple times while relaxing in a tanning bed or even set up by that nice 13 year old neighborhood boy who sometimes delivers your groceries.  This is the real world of organized crime as you have rarely seen it, with all its petty violence, ridiculous turf wars and the simple fact that the people running things are just not that smart, but are in positions of leadership simply because they have not been killed. . .yet.  I was not surprised by the resistance most American audiences had towards this film.  Nobody likes to have their cherished cinematic myths challenged, but you won’t find a more sobering view of organized crime than Gomorrah.  Available on DVD.

7.   Goodbye Solo

In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a crusty old white man named William (Red West) gets into the cab of Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a hard working  African immigrant from the Ivory Coast and makes Solo an offer he can’t refuse.  William will give Solo one-thousand dollars, as long as he promises to pick him up again in ten days and take him to the top of Blowing Rock, a well known mountain tourist spot nearby, known for its constant blowing wind and beautiful views.  And no, Solo will not have to take William home again.  It is not said out loud, but we all know William is planning to kill himself.  While it is none of his business, Solo’s innate humanity forces him to impose himself on this old man’s life and thus begins one of the most compelling friendships between opposites this side of Midnight CowboyGoodbye Solo is the latest film by Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart), one of the best new American writer/directors to show up in a long time.  The performances by all are excellent, the script is well written and Goodbye Solo is also one of the most beautifully realized films in terms of imagery and sound that you will see and it packs a wallop at the finale that is believably human and absolutely heartbreaking, yet it could not be any other way.  Available on DVD.

8.   Inglourious Basterds

This has quickly become my favorite Tarantino film.  It’s got a beautiful physical look, an intriguing set of inter-woven stories, great music by artists from Ennio Morricone to David Bowie and one of the most charismatic of villains in Hans Landa, the S.S. Colonel played to perfection by the multi-lingual actor Christoph Waltz.  From the films opening title card announcing “Once upon a time. . . in Nazi occupied France” through its fiery conclusion, Inglourious Basterds is a modern variation of the gutsy type of WWII action films I loved when I was younger like The Guns Of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen.  Although I’m ashamed to admit it, I rather enjoyed seeing evil Nazis get their heads bashed in by Jewish soldiers with baseball bats, or having swastikas carved into their foreheads with over-sized bowie knives.  To the people who have dismissed Inglourious Basterds for not presenting the death of Adolph Hitler with historical accuracy; where were you when the films They Saved Hitler’s Brain and The Boys From Brazil were released?  I can also assure you, Quentin Tarantino is not the first filmmaker to ever have sacrificed historical accuracy for the sake of telling a good story.  Saving Private Ryan was also inaccurate as history yet critics fell all over themselves praising that film.  So tell me, who’s the bigger fraud; Quentin Tarantino who freely admits that Inglourious Basterds is inaccurate and purely meant to be fun, or Steven Spielberg who pretends he told the truth?  Available on DVD.

9.   Knowing

There was no way I was going to like this film.  It’s an uneasy mix of sci-fi and horror, leavened with unsubtle religious allegory.  Nicholas Cage plays a bereaved MIT professor who begins to think that a sheet of paper unearthed from a time capsule buried fifty years ago containing nothing but numbers may actually be a key to predicting major disasters in the future, including the end of the world, due in oh, say, a couple of weeks?  As implausible as this all sounds, after witnessing a particularly nasty plane crash, followed by an equally disastrous subway derailment, Cage becomes convinced that the paper with the numbers is genuine, but like a male Cassandra, he can’t get anyone to believe him.  Furthermore, who are those mysterious humanoid-like beings who always seem to be hovering around in the background and what about his son’s incredibly realistic visions of the Earth welling up in flames?  Directed with visual acuity by the Egypt born, Australia raised Alex Proyas, Knowing is a soul satisfying film that is very hard to talk about without giving away plot secrets.  What I will say is this film greatly impressed me and left me a tearful wreck by the finale.  Available on DVD.

10.  Moon

Sam (Sam Rockwell) is the lone human worker on this moon base harvesting a raw material used as fuel back on Earth.  Sam is coming towards the end of his two year contract and while the robot GERTIE (voiced by Kevin Spacey) is a fine companion, Sam still misses his wife and daughter and is eager to get back home.  Then, while out driving on the lunar surface, Sam crashes his vehicle and well, that should be the end of Sam, except he wakes up the next day in the infirmary seemingly none the worse for wear.  Sam is puzzled by this and rather unwisely goes back outside and finds the lunar vehicle he wrecked. . .along with the injured driver still inside.  What?  Apparently, things on the moon are not quite what they appear to be; to say any more would ruin the surprises and narrative twists in this thought provoking sci-fi tale.  Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance here (he won’t get it) and when you combine that with the great cinematography, the inventive production design, the fabulous music score by my new favorite Clint Mansell (The Fountain, Requiem For A Dream) and sharp direction from first timer Duncan Jones (better known as Zowie Bowie, yes, it’s David Bowie’s son) you have one of the most pleasant surprises of the year.  Available on DVD in January 2010.

11.   Public Enemies

To say I was blown away by Public Enemies is an understatement.  While I’m not a big fan of director Michael Mann, Public Enemies is exactly the kind of core-shaking, cinematic experience I always hope will happen when I go to the movies.  It’s not that the story is original, God knows there are hundreds of gangster films, but there is something about the look, feel, movement and sound of Public Enemies that left me breathless and struggling to find words eloquent enough to describe the experience.  Of course, Johnny Depp deserves kudos for his terrific performance as John Dillinger as does Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, Marion Cotillard as Billy Frechette and all too briefly Stephen Graham as Baby Face Nelson and Channing Tatum as Pretty Boy Floyd.  Billy Crudup deserves extra special praise for playing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a way that doesn’t make him seem like a creepy, perverted flatfoot, something the real J. Edgar Hoover was never able to manage.  But it is the look of the film that most impressed me.  Shot in Hi-Def video on as many real locations as the filmmakers could find and seemingly lit with practicals and not movie lights, Public Enemies makes you feel like you have stepped back in time, that this is really how the world looked in the early 1930’s.  Finally, the soundtrack includes many great standards from the period as well as a dynamite original score by Elliot Goldenthal.  Something brand new was happening in Public Enemies, I just wish I could explain it better.  Available on DVD.

12.   Sin Nombre

Initially, Sin Nombre looked like one of those medicinal films you see to become a better person, albeit without actually having to do anything difficult.  Boy, was I wrong!  This first feature in Spanish by Oakland born writer/director Cary Fukunaga is a thrilling story about poor immigrants riding freight trains north to the USA where their only hope for a future exists.  Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is a young girl from Honduras traveling with her father and uncle, eventually to New Jersey where she has family.  Willy (Edgar Flores) is an ex-member of a violent gang, who’s been marked for death by the gang for betrayal and he knows it.  So he’s just riding north to oblivion.  What I found bracing and original is that Sin Nombre manages to exude the delicious kind of fatalism usually found in the film noir genre.  Most Americans never think about how big a country Mexico really is and how most immigrants never even make it to our borders.  The dangers along the way are real and constant, from bandits, crooked cops, and border patrol thugs, coupled with the daily struggles of finding food, going to the bathroom and most importantly, maintaining your balance on the roof of a fast moving freight train.  At one point, a character trips and falls between the rail cars and is never seen again.  And I mean like he fell off the end of the Earth.  The cinematography by Adriano Goldman is gorgeous; the music score by Marcelo Zarvos is excellent; I was not prepared for a film as beautifully moving and human as Sin Nombre was.  Available on DVD.

13.   Waltz With Bashir

The most stunning thing about the Oscar nominated Waltz With Bashir is that it got released in this country at all.  First, it’s a documentary about a war the USA was not involved in, which automatically means most Americans will not care one bit.  Second, it’s not in English, but Hebrew, and most of my fellow citizens would rather pour molten lead into their ears than read subtitles.  Third, the film is animated and we all know animation can only be used for non-serious kiddie stories and finally, Waltz With Bashir is a very personal and subjective film, and we all know that real documentaries are objective and present a balanced view of every side of  every issue.  This is arrant nonsense.  The genesis of Waltz With Bashir occurred when Israeli director Ari Folman was talking to an old friend troubled by nightmares relating to when they both served in the Israeli Army during the 1982 Invasion of Lebanon.  Folman was puzzled by the fact he had no memories of his time there, so he sought out all of his surviving Army buddies to see if they could jog his memory.  Boy, did they ever!  You might have subconsciously repressed your memories too, if you had seen the violence and horrible atrocities that Ari Folman witnessed.  Using extraordinary imagery, a compelling story and a gorgeous score by Max Richter, Waltz With Bashir left me stunned and literally unable to move when the film was over. Waltz With Bashir is one of the truly great films of the year and I believe it will be one of the most remembered films of this decade.  Available on DVD.

Honorable Mentions:

$9.99, Adventureland, Afghan Star, Art & Copy, A Serious Man, A Single Man, An Education, The Baader-Meinhof Complex, Bronson, Bruno, The Class, The Damn United, District 9, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Flame And Citron, Food Inc., Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, Herb And Dorothy, The Hurt Locker, Il Divo, In The Loop, The Informant!, Jerichow, The Messenger, O’Horten, Outrage, Precious: Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire, The Proposal, Rudo y Cursi, Star Trek, Sugar, Taken, World’s Greatest Dad

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January 17, 2010 2:41 am

I really loved Sasha Grey in the Girlfriend Experience. I think the way she portrayed the call girl was pure genius, I wonder if that’s how Soderbergh wrote it, or if it was how Sasha just interpreted the character. Either way, it was a great movie.