The end of the year is the time that critics assemble “Best of” lists, usually in the form of a top ten. So here’s mine. It’s not the most original presentation, I realize, but some things endure simply because they continue to work – like happy endings, pie fights and the presumed-bisexuality of all female characters in genre fiction.
In any case, this will cover what I’d like to think of as the middle ground between “stuff I liked best” and “stuff that objectively was the best.” In addition, I’ve elected to not limit the list only to films that were covered on “Escape to The Movies,” though you’ll find links to the ones that were: So, for example, while I probably had more fun at Drag Me To Hell than I did at anything else this year … no, it’s not a “year’s best.” On the other hand, while I’d consider Up In The Air one of the highest-caliber films of the year (and a near-lock for a Best Picture nomination) it’s a movie I admired more than outright enjoyed, so it doesn’t really rate ahead of any of the ten on the final list.
So, anyway, in order of last to first …
10.) Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson and a crack stop-motion animation team take the deliriously-dreamlike “It’s-not-supposed-to-look-even-remotely-real” dollhouse aesthetic he previously applied to backgrounds and technology in The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited and spread it out over an entire film in this oddly beautiful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic about woodland critters on a comedic burglary spree – think Ocean’s 11 meets Shaun the Sheep. It may take a little time to acclimate to how purposefully handmade everything looks (including the animation), but give it a chance and the final effect is like spending an afternoon browsing the back shelves in some magical turn-of-the-century toy store.
9.) The Informant!
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon, in one of the great underappreciated turns of his career) seems to be either bipolar, a pathological liar or both. Only a lack of darker ambition seems to keep him from full-on psychopathy. A corporate executive, he narc’d on his company for a massive price-fixing scheme and became an invaluable FBI double agent … until they found out he’d been pulling shenanigans of his own, double- and triple-crossing his superiors and the agency for reasons that didn’t even make logical sense to him. It’s a hilarious (and strangely touching) fact-based portrait of a man who’s making his entire life up moment to moment, trying to convince even himself that his randomness is just cleverness in disguise.
What’s left to say? Spike Jonze transforms a classic children’s story that’s the definition of a slim narrative into a sprawling mini-epic without actually having to change all that much. One of the purest renderings of the surreal experience of childhood – and of energetic, emotionally-confused little boys in particular – ever committed to film, punctuated by some of the most mind-blowing creature creations ever to come out of the Jim Henson crew.
7.) The Brothers Bloom
Between this and Fantastic Mr. Fox, it was a great year for quirky, character-driven crime comedies. Rian Johnson, director of the magnificent Brick, goes big and bouncy with this globe-hopping drama/farce about a pair of con-man brothers (Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo) going for the “big score” with an eccentric heiress (Rachel Weisz) and an enigmatic demolitions expert (Rinko Kikuichi. Otaku: Meet your new goddess) in tow. It’s hard to classify – something like a mashup of Mark Twain, Tintin and ’60s caper-comedies – but even harder not to enjoy.
Sam Rockwell has been one of the best actors who just hasn’t “hit” with audiences yet for over a decade now. Go ahead, look him up and marvel at how many movies you suddenly remember him from. Hopefully his upcoming role as bad guy Justin Hammer in a little movie called Iron Man 2 will help him finally break through, but until then, don’t miss his career-best (so far) performance here as the lone technician on a lunar mining base who just … might … be … losing … his … mind in what may well be the best “pure” science fiction film of the last few years. The only frustrating thing about this movie is that I can’t tell you why it’s so good, or especially why Rockwell’s performance should – in a just world – guarantee him the Best Actor Oscar; but I can tell you that it’s a must-see.
5.) A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers mine tragi-comedy gold transporting the Old Testament story of Job to the singularly unique world of Jewish-American suburban life in the mid-’60s. Ostensibly, it’s the story of an ordinary guy (Michael Stuhlbarg) upon whom the universe dumps one disaster (cheating wife, a scandal at work, blackmail, etc.) after another, but it’s equally invested in giving us a peek at the experience of Jewish America at that moment in history: A world of pre-fab temples and office-bound Rabbis where eons of religious and cultural tradition mix uneasily with the banality of mass-produced Americana. Careening from pitch-dark comedy to warm sentiment, the ultimate effect is deeply endearing, and the last few minutes will stick with you for a long time.
#4.) Inglourious Basterds
It takes quite an ego to decide you can end World War II better than history did, and it takes quite a talent to pull it off. Quentin Tarantino has both, and he proves his mettle in this subversive mind-blower that sets a revenge-seeking Holocaust escapee, a chillingly efficient SS officer, a ragtag team of Jewish-American counter-terrorists and Hitler himself on a collision course with justice – meted out not by the barrel of a gun but (literally) by the rolling of a film projector.
3.) District 9
All Hail Christopher Johnson! Neil Blomkamp fused a personal love of sci-fi, action movies and videogames with the turbulent history of his native South Africa and came up with a full-blown masterpiece. Avatar may ultimately get more attention, but as far as socially conscious, blockbuster sci-fi goes, this was 2009’s undisputed king. Slimy aliens, nasty military hardcases, a giant robot and some of the coolest sci-fi super-weaponry ever unleashed onscreen … and a story worth paying attention to. What more can you ask for?
What does it say that the most movingly human story of the year occurs in an animated adventure-comedy about an old man making his house take flight with balloons? For one thing, it says that even after one of the best track records in film production history, Pixar is still capable of topping themselves. If you aren’t profoundly moved by the first few minutes of this movie, something is seriously wrong with you.
Say this for Zack Snyder: The guy seems to be fearless. Remake Dawn of The Dead, one of the most sacrosanct genre films of all time? Done. Try and hammer a functioning narrative film out of a heaping slab of late-period Frank Miller machismo-porn (aka 300)? Ditto. But taking on Alan Moore’s 500-megaton bomb of superhero reinvention – a prospect that had already defeated entrenched directing titans like Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass? It would’ve been a miracle for anyone just to get it made, to say nothing of getting it made into the towering achievement Snyder did. Alternately a searing rebuke of Dark Knight‘s righteous vigilantism, a meticulous deconstruction of the whole superhero concept and a thrilling action-drama in its own right, Watchmen delivered on every possible level. I saw a lot of movies this year, but this is the one I kept coming back to. Here’s a movie that’ll stand the test of time and provide a how-to course for future dabblers in the dark side of costumed crimefighter tales. Were there other, more polished or nuanced films this year? Absolutely. But at this moment, looking back, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have as my No. 1.
And, as a little bonus…
Worst Movie of the Year: The Blind Side
Yes, yes, Transformers 2 was probably technically worse, but at least Michael Bay’s damage is contained within the parameters of his own career and the Transformers franchise. Blind Side, on the other hand, is the kind of treacly, sentimental awfulness that manages to sucker enough people into falling for it that it weeds its way into the popular culture and doesn’t go away for years. A clichéd, condescending brew of feel-good nonsense that retrofits a potentially fascinating story of an athlete at the forefront of a sport in transition into a shrill star vehicle for Sandra Bullock. A smug, intellectually vacant, inexplicably popular bucket of fluff getting by on make-believe “folksy” sincerity and cynical superficial pandering to the “wholesome, old-fashioned values” crowd. It’s the Sarah Palin of motion pictures.
So … there ya go. See you in 2010, folks!
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.