Best films of 2009

A decade has past us as 2009 ends and 2010 begins, but let us dwell in the past year as we saw the reemergence of acclaimed directors, such as Sam Raimi, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino, step up their game in terms of filmmaking and making their latest films more enjoyable then their last movies. Not only are the veteran directors are making a name for themselves, there is also an emergence of new filmmakers with fresh takes on familiar genres such as romantic comedies and science fiction.

10) A Serious Man
This film is Joel and Ethan Coen’s most personal film to date as it is set around the time and place of their childhood: 1967 Minnesota. Writing their first autobiographical screenplay, the film is about Larry (Michael Stuhlberg), a local college professor whose life is crashing around him with his wife cheating on him with a recent widower (Fred Melamnd) and becoming the caretaker to his inept brother (Richard Kind) in a matter of days within each other. As thing could not get any worse for Larry several bizarre and humorous events begin to occur and he seeks the advice of three local rabbis. A Serious Man is the Coen Brothers meanest film to date in terms in how they deal with their characters and putting unconquerable obstacles in their way. The Coen Brothers display their true trademark mean streak with ending the film on an ambiguous shot that is open to may interpretations on the fate of two characters in the film and ends with the Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”.

9) 500 Days of Summer
Coming out of Utah from last year’s Sundance Film Festival is the feature film debut of veteran music video director Marc Webb called 500 Days of Summer. The film tells the story of the highs and lows of a romance in the span of 500 days between a woman who does not believe in true love (Zooey Deschanel) and a young greeting card writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel’s performances and chemistry makes their on-screen persona believable and when things go south for the couple, it becomes heartbreaking and emotional at times. The story is told out of sequence ala Pulp Fiction and details what it is like to fall in love for the first time whether it pretending to be husband and wife at an IKEA store or showcasing the heartbreaking, soul-crushing end of a first romance. The highlight of the film comes when Joseph Gordon-Levitt performs a musical dance number to the tune of Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” in a local California park.

8) Drag Me to Hell
After directing the successful Spider-Man trilogy, director Sam Raimi returns to the genre that made him famous: horror. In his first directed horror film since 1992’s Army of Darkness, Drag Me to Hell is about an ambitious Los Angeles loan officer (Alison Lohman) who must rid herself of a demonic force known only as “the Lamia” in three days before she is literally goes to hell. This film shows us that Raimi has not lost his talent to spook moviegoers by telling traditional horror story set in a modern world and disguised as a morality tale. Raimi also manages to use old-school visual effects tricks that date back to his Evil Dead days that tortures the main character and results in more goo then gore. The performances from the cast are strong from Lohman as the reluctant heroine, Lorna Raver as the gypsy who has cursed Lohman’s character and Justin Long as the heroine’s non-believing boyfriend.

7) The Hangover
With The Hangover, director Todd Phillips took the meaning of the word ‘misadventure’ to a whole new level. Doug (Justin Bartha) is a soon-to-be groom and goes with his friends, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) to Las Vegas for a night that will never forget. The next morning, the groom has gone missing and the remaining trio can not remember what happen the previous night and must retrace their steps to find their friend. This film is one of the funniest comedies ever made as when the three men retrace their steps, the bigger the consequences are from their actions the previous night whether it is stealing Mike Tyson’s tiger from his mansion or kidnapping a naked Chinese man (Ken Jeong) armed with a tire iron. All three actors bring their comedy A-game to the table with the Phil’s coolness under pressure, Stu’s raw nervousness and Alan’s pure goofiness. The chemistry between Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis seems to across as genuine friendship, so much so that the actors actually real-life friends following the shooting of The Hangover. The biggest payoff is during the end credits where the guys get a look at snapshots taken on Doug’s camera that explains what happen during their night of debauchery.

6) Star Trek
As a film director, J.J. Abrams has managed to bring new life to a forty year old franchise and make it exciting and fresh for a contemporary audience and non-fan of the Star Trek legacy. Star Trek takes everything that was great about creator Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction franchise and added in a few winks and nods from previous installments such as Kirk cheating on the Kobayashi Maru test that Kirk cheated to the slugs that are used for interrogation in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The ensemble is terrific as Chris Pine captures the spirit of James T. Kirk without imitating the previous incarnation set by William Shatner and Zachery Quinto plays Spock as a young man caught between a human and being a Vulcan. Everybody in the ensemble gets their moment to shine whether it is John Cho kicking butt and taking names fighting as Zulu on top of a drill or Karl Urban’s spot-on portrayal of Leonard “Bones” McCoy that mirrors the mannerisms of DeForest Kelly’s performance from the TV series and movies.
5) District 9
After plans to make the big-screen adaptation of the video game, Halo, did not make it to production, filmmaker Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson decided to develop Blomkamp’s 2005 short film, Alive in Joburg, as a feature film. In District 9, an extraterrestrial race is forced by the South African government and private company called MNU to live in slum-like conditions in Johannesburg. However, when an MNU employee (Sharlto Copley) is exposed to the aliens’ biotechnology, he finds himself on the run from his employers and seeking refuge with the same aliens he tried to evict from their homes. The film is universal when it comes to the immigration issue as it shines the light on the prejudices and discrimination against immigrants in South Africa, with the immigrants in District 9 being aliens. The story of the movie is told through many different components of cinematography from fake news reports as the story’s exposition to documentary-like footage that begins the film.

4) The Hurt Locker
Director Kathryn Bigelow has taken on movie subjects such as vampires (Near Dark) and adrenaline-junkie criminals (Point Break). Set in the summer of 2004 in Iraq, The Hurt Locker takes look at a specific division of the Army: the elite Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). When two members (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) of the Army’s EOD lose a fellow soldier, a staff sergeant (Jeremy Renner) takes over the cheer without a worry in the world. However, his methods and disregard for safety puts his fellow soldiers in harm’s way as he blurs the line between bravery and cockiness. Renner creates a tremendous portrayal of a man who lives to take risks and do not find his civilian life in the United States with a wife and kid as satisfying as his life as a soldier. Bigelow creates tremendous tension and suspense in some of the film’s set pieces that makes really feel for the soldiers that lay their life on the line. Her cinematic achievement with The Hurt Locker should put in the frontrunner spot as the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar.

3) Up in the Air
Over a period of four years, director Jason Reitman (Juno) has created three unique pictures with his latest film being a masterpiece that shows portrays our current economic climate in the country. Oscar-winner George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who spends a lot of time traveling where he makes his living firing people and has the inability to commit to anyone or anything. However, his views on life is altered by two women: an ambitious young woman (Anne Kendrick) who threaten Bingham’s lifestyle and a care-free woman (Vera Famiga) that Bingham sleeps with and who shares Bingham’s ambition and lifestyle. The ensemble of Up in the Air is outstanding in their performances as all three major characters in the film go through some sort of transformation throughout the film that ultimately leads to different opinions of the character then what was perceived at the start of the film. What also makes this a breakthrough movie is that Reitman uses his extraordinary skill as a filmmaker by interviewing real people who lost their jobs and using in it this film to make show how the economic collapse has affected the lives of people who have found themselves out of a job.

2) Avatar
12 years after being proclaimed as “King of the World” with the success of Titanic, director James Cameron looks to reclaim his crown by developing a film unlike anything that has been seen on film before. After waiting many years for the technology to make Avatar, Cameron has created an immersive science fiction experience that has to be seen in 3D and in on IMAX screen because there is no other way to experience the film. The movie is set many years into the future where Jake (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine is sent on a mission to a planet called Pandora, whose inhabitants are a humanoid and indigenous alien race called the Na’vi. Using technology to link his brain waves with the body of a Na’vi hybrid, he is sent undercover with other scientists to observe Pandora’s dangerous environment. When Jake immerses himself with the Na’vi and finds himself falling in love with the beautiful Na’vi female, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he literally caught between two worlds and needs to decide who he is more dedicated to: the Na’vi or his human superiors. Cameron uses a lot of storytelling technique and simple archetypes to from his past films to tell his story whether it is Titanic’s romantic element or a seemingly indestructible villain in the form of grizzled war veteran (Stephen Lang) that first used in his Terminator films. The visual effects for Avatar are unlike anything that I have ever seen by using the motion capture technology to capture performances of the actors playing the Na’vi. It would be a crime for the Academy to no honor this movie with the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. At the current rate that Avatar is going with the money it is collecting from the box office, the movie has a chance to surpass The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’s $1.1 billion worldwide to become the second-biggest movie of all time, trailing Cameron’s own Titanic ($1.8 billion).
1) Inglourious Basterds
Director Quentin Tarantino’s sixth film is set in Nazi-occupied France where a soldier by the name of Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) hires several Jewish soldiers (aka THE BASTERDS) to eliminate any Nazis that get in their way and scalping their heads. Meanwhile, a Jewish woman (Melanie Laurnet) puts in motion a plan that will avenge the death of her family at the hands of “Jew Hunter”, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Tarantino uses his dialogue for humor and dramatic purposes, the same elements that made Pulp Fiction such a great screenplay and a masterpiece. This film is Tarantino’s most suspenseful film as he knows just how long to draw out a scene by building up suspense and cranking up the immense tension among characters in a scene that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. Inglourious Basterds also manages to do what no other filmmaker has done before: by creating an alternate reality where Hitler can put in a position where he could be assassinated on the silver screen and actually doing it. The sensational performance of Christoph Waltz as the ultimate Nazi villain is one of the many highlights of the film. His character creates the most tension in the film because he manages to be charming, yet loathsome and hateful at the same time. Look for Waltz to take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film as Lt. Hans Landa in February.



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