Friday, January 21, 2011

Best of the Year: 2009

My Picks of the Year
(in alphabetical order)
Easily the most pleasurably cinematic event of the year. This is what big screens are made for. This is what the movie-going experience is all about. Yes, we can bemoan the script’s weaknesses or the heavy-handed environmental symbolism, but why? Some films are simply meant to entertain you and engage your senses, and Avatar delivers those promises in spades.

A sweet, lyrical road drama about a young couple looking to settle down and grow some roots before starting a family. Along the way, they visit relatives, reconnect with old friends, meet new people, and embark on a spiritual journey that prepares them for the next phase of their lives. It’s a beautiful film; smart, funny, and perfectly cast. Maya Rudolph is a revelation.

It’s so great to see a furious, gutsy performance by Nicolas Cage again. I always admire his work as an actor, and he can usually turn the most mediocre films into something interesting and watchable. But when he’s on fire and the movie is working on all levels, it is as close to a cinematic orgasm as we can get. It’s off kilter, edgy, unpredictable and loaded with an equal amount of heart and balls.

Brothers is a meticulously beautiful soap opera, featuring a trifecta of fantastic performances from Maguire, Gyllenhaal and Portman. These are the best actors of our generation. Jim Sheridan, an old pro in creating great drama out of familial relationships, is in top form.

The best documentary I’ve seen in a long, long time. It also happens to be one of the most entertaining ones I’ve ever seen. It’s structured like an old fashioned thriller, featuring activists risking their lives in their attempts to shed light at the disturbing Japanese tradition of slaughtering dolphins for profit. You will be moved and furious at the same time.

The best sports drama in recent memory, featuring a phenomenal cast of British greats (Timothy Spall, Jim Broadbent, Colm Meaney). The real star, however, is the terrific Michael Sheen who creates another indelible performance as a revenge-driven man who blows the opportunity of a lifetime as the new coach of the greatest professional soccer team of its time. It’s a fresh, hugely entertaining twist to a familiar genre.

The sweetest movie of the year. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor I can’t get enough of, and the charming Zooey Deschanel are pitch-perfect here in a romantic dramedy with a fresh spin. The story itself isn’t ground-breaking, but the way it is told and performed makes it just about as magical as it can get.

It is Hollywood’s pick as the best film of the year, and it’s a damned good choice. A tense, engaging thriller about a bomb-disposal unit in Iraq that is refreshingly apolitical and urgent. The cast is tops, the direction is assured and smart, and the film works as both a commentary of the fragile, emotional state of soldiers at war as well as a kinetic popcorn action picture.

Quentin Tarantino continues his electrifying run as one of the most dynamic, creative forces in the history of Hollywood. He simply never lets up. This work of art is a revenge fantasy about different groups of soldiers and civilians who hatch plots to kill Hitler…and succeed! The originality of the plot just scratches the surface of Tarantino’s brilliance; the film is loaded with set pieces so perfect, performances so memorable, and dialogue so rich.

A superb acting triumph for Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster. They are assigned the most difficult job in the Army – alerting the next of kin the news of their loved ones’ death overseas. The film does not resort to histrionics and soap opera-level twists; this is a quietly powerful drama about the fragility of the human spirit.

Given the budget, the concept and the execution, I cannot get over how well the picture worked for me. It’s everything The Blair Witch Project tried to be and failed. The viewing experience of this movie is extremely crucial – you must watch this in a dark room, preferably in a quiet setting, with no interruptions. If you let it, your imagination does most of the work. It’s not necessarily a scary movie, but for a thriller, it’s very effective.

This is the Coens’ best work in years; I liked it even more than their recent Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men. It’s a heartbreaking, funny story about a Jewish family man who is at a strange crossroads in life. He makes morally questionable choices and seeks answers from God about how to be happy. Don’t we all want to know how to be happy? It’s a deeply resonant film, very personal and wonderfully touching.

Oh, those Pixar folks. How can you not love them? Up is a magical kids film that features very grown up themes about growing old and moving on. This isn’t their best film, but it’s still remarkably better than most live action films out there. The first 20 minutes is probably the most emotional act of anything I’ve seen all year.

The greatest movie star of our generation, George Clooney, delivers an emotionally satisfying performance as a business traveler who needs to be grounded – literally and personally. It’s a beautiful film about appreciating life and those around you. Also features revelatory work from Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga.

Honorary Mention

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