Okay, so here is my much considered and pondered over list of favourite films of 2009.
Please note I say ‘favourite’ and not ‘best.’ I make no claim that any of these films are definitely better than other films released last year, only that I personally preferred them. And I make no apology for being populist in my tastes. I saw a fair bit of stuff last year, which included Oscar winners and indie/art house films. And while many of those were great I have to remain honest about what I loved most and what connected to me either emotionally, thematically or just on a pure unabashed entertainment level. Films that, for whatever reason, had an instant rewatchability factor. Or, better still, films that gave me the feeling while watching them of being totally transported away, of simply hoping for them never to end. That last feeling is one that doesn’t happen very often. Normally no matter how good a film is after a couple of hours have passed in a cinema I'm ready to go home. But sometimes movies come out that so captivate me that I become instantly lost in the world they create, so engrossed that I don’t ever want to leave that world. That happened twice last year with Let The Right One In and The Dark Knight and twice again this year with my top two choices. So, without further ado, here goes:
10. District 9
Peter Jackson produced, Neill Blomkamp directed sci fi tale of aliens as refugees in South Africa and the ensuing cultural and civil strife caused. A brilliant allegory for race relations and apartheid with excellent FX by WETA and an affecting and star making central performance by first time actor Sharlto Copley. Sci fi doing what sci fi does best – holding a mirror up to society and asking us who we are and why we do the things we do.
An inspired, zany, inventive zombie comedy (zomcom?) with a great script and a great cast headed up by the never better Woody Harrelson as nutty zombie killer 'Tallahassee.' Opposite him Jessie Eisenberg as the nerdy, insecure college kid ‘Columbus’ is just as good. And the movie is filled with tons of very funny sequences and lines of dialogue all brilliantly played and delivered by the spot on cast. This flick is a whole lot of crazy, clever fun that had me laughing hard while admiring the gruesome zombie mayhem, which wasn’t skimped on one bit with the blood and gore is still there, as you’d expect from this sub-genre.
8. Inglorious Basterds
Tarantino is back! Basterds is a gruesome WW2 fairytale, historical accuracy be damned. I loved the inventive cinematic style on show here. Basterds is gorgeously photographed and designed employing everything from captions, insertion of old film clips, narration, flashbacks and gloriously shot imagery - especially around the beautiful Melanie Laurent as Shosanna and her lovely old style cinema. The performances are all very good with two being great: Christophe Waltz as the Nazi Jew hunter Col. Landa and the aforementioned Laurent. Waltz is charming and brutal while Laurent is lovely and calmly compelling. Of the Basterds, Pitt is thuggish and funny and Til Schweiger as ex-German soldier turned Basterd Nazi killer is quietly psychotic. A great movie with QT back on top form.
7. Paranormal Activity
A genuinely scary, tense, creepy and unsettling mockumentary film where atmosphere and tone is everything. A young couple, Katie and Micah, have become isolated in their own home. Sleep deprived, paranoid, terrified, they are being persecuted by an unseen supernatural entity. Nobody will come and help them and they can't run, as it is Katie who is being haunted and not the house. There is something most unsettling about watching people sleeping through a locked off camera while you scan the screen tensely awaiting the next freaky incident - be it a moving door, ghostly footprints appearing, a moving bed sheet or a nasty sudden and violent attack. Yes, a couple things make you jump like any decent horror film should, but it is the hopelessness and the relatability of the situation that scares the most. Brrr!
Bryan Singer makes a tense, old fashioned and highly skilful adaptation of the real life attempt by high-ranking German officers to assassinate Hitler in the hopes of preventing the destruction of the fatherland in the later days of WW2. This is great stuff with a solid and commanding central performance by Tom Cruise as Von Stauffenberg, the leader of the plot. Cruise is excellently supported by a top-notch cast including the always wonderful Bill Nighy and Kenneth Branagh. But it is the true story itself and the meticulous telling of it along with the brilliant recreation of the period that impresses most. It was also shot on location using the real places where the events actually happened lending a genuine sense of grim reality to the whole thing. Excellent.
5. Drag Me To Hell
Or ‘When Sam Raimi stopped messing about with Spider-Man and dramas and went back to what he does best.’ Drag Me To Hell is a crazy, inventive, scary roller coaster of over the top horror. Sam pulled out all his favourite Evil Dead/Army of Darkness tricks and made a really loud, intense, scary spookablast of a film. It's ninety minutes of earsplittingly loud sound effects, yucky gloop, superjumptastic scares and tons of zany black comedy. Watching this I was jumping out of my skin one moment then laughing so hard my sides ached. Drag Me To Hell is huge fun and is one of those films that really does deserve to be seen in a theatre with an audience. It's a proper movie going experience. Screams and laughter all around. Popcorn flying. Great stuff!
Once again Pixar knocked the ball way out of the park with Up, a gloriously entertaining adventure that’s also a bittersweet tale of life, love, loss and life again. Up has a wonderful, layered, intelligent script packed with so much depth, honesty and meaning. The entire film is brilliant but the first act transcends brilliant to become something quite special. It is genuinely moving in a way most films can never hope to be. The montage of Carl & Ellie’s life together is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of storytelling put on screen. But the emotional story never overshadows the humour. Up is consistently very funny in smart and inventive ways. All the characters are fab but I especially love Doug the Dog, "SQUIRREL!" Pixar is something to treasure. They are not driven by selling merchandise but rather by creating art that generations will come back to again and again long after the likes of the Ice Age’s and Monster’s vs. Aliens have been forgotten.
Director Zack (300) Snyder pulled off something pretty darn special here: an incredibly faithful film adaptation of beloved source material.
The story of Watchmen poses the question what would society be like if masked vigilante heroes really did exist as they do in comics? What would these heroes really be like and what would that choice to don a mask and ‘do good’ actually do to them - physically and mentally - as well as to the world around them? My overriding memory of the book is of Rorschach - the streetwise, moral absolute and unbalanced vigilante with the ink blot shifting mask who narrates a lot of the story by writing in "Rorschach's journal". It has to be said that Jackie Earl Haley who plays him in the film is perfect. The character has come direct from the page to the screen intact. The rest of the cast is also great - especially Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg played by Patrick Wilson. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Blake aka The Comedian is also very good. The character is a vile, misanthropic, murderous nutcase and Morgan plays him disturbingly well.
The whole film looks stunning and captures the feel of a nihilistic and hopeless time just counting down the hours until its own end. Watchmen is also extraordinarily violent with a lot to say about the often depressingly vile nature of humanity and our unending capacity for cruelty and (personal as well as global) self destruction shown by nuclear demigod Dr. Manhattan's gradual disconnection and eventual isolation from humanity. Towards the end of the film there is a small hopeful note of beauty amidst all the horror and chaos as the doomsday clock eventually hits midnight, but the story finishes on a final bleak note; a last truthful, moral absolute which could still destroy everything.
I loved the book and I thought this adaptation was note perfect. It is a great movie that looks fantastic and makes you think.
2. Star Trek
JJ Abrams movie is exactly what this franchise needed - a reboot/sequel that relieved it of the intolerable weight of over forty years of canon. Star Trek went back to the beginning and returned the idea to its original concept: Kirk, Spock and the USS Enterprise. Above all, though, it just made Star Trek fun again.
The new cast is perfect. I was initially concerned about Chris Pine as Kirk as I wasn’t familiar at all with him as an actor. And with Shatner as such an iconic presence in this role, how could anyone else capture the essence of James T. Kirk without just descending in to parody? But to his enormous credit Chris Pine doesn’t do that. He’s done his own thing as Kirk with just a few tiny classic Shatner/Kirkesque poses creeping in. Pine just exudes charisma like a young Harrison Ford and also has excellent comic timing. The sequence with Kirk charging around trying to convince everyone of the Romulan trap while McCoy is running after him and injecting him with various hyposprays is hilarious. In short Pine is amazing and delivers my favourite male performance of the year. A big time movie star was born right here. Karl Urban inhabits Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy completely. His take on the irascible doctor and extremely reluctant space traveller is awesome. It’s almost as if Deforest Kelley is back with us. Zachary Quinto is also very good as Spock, although he is quite a different Spock than I remember. He’s far more emotional and easy to rile. He’s even having a full on romantic relationship with a certain lovely young communications officer. And speaking of…
Zoe Saldana as Uhura. What a year she’s had starring in two of the biggest and best films of 2009 with her being one of the very best things about each. I love this girl. She is a damn good actress and just so natural, charismatic and likeable. She has real presence. Her Uhura is immensely intelligent, wise, emotionally sensitive and supportive. Another big time movie star was born right here.
To sum up, Star Trek is enormous ear to ear grin making fun, a wonderful adventure with a great cast who brim with charisma and talent. Star Trek manages to be both nostalgic and modern and is just tons of rip roaring, space faring fun.
Nobody makes films like James Cameron. He makes very few, but when he does they are huge in scope and cost more money than the GDP of a small nation while always pushing forward new technologies and methods of filmmaking or just inventing entirely new ones. Every time the naysayers and doom mongers predict his latest film will be rubbish and unsuccessful. And (almost) every time they're wrong. Hugely wrong. Okay, so The Abyss was financially not so successful, however it was still a very good film. But apart from that (and Piranha 2) every film Cameron’s made has been either awesome or a classic and been embraced by audiences worldwide. His last, Titanic, was twelve years ago and is a great movie. If you haven’t seen it (how come?) then do so. Don’t believe the haters. Since Titanic rewrote the books on box office success it has taken JC a very long time indeed to get around to making his next film and to develop the technology to a point where he could make that film exactly how he wanted, to do it justice and to give audiences something special.
And, boy, did he ever.
I love Avatar. A lot. It may not be perfect or the most original story ever told but that really misses the point as similar stories to this have been told and retold for as long as people have told stories. They are just reinvented and retold in different ways. It is not what you do it is how you do it. And nobody has ever told this story like Cameron has with Avatar. He has created an entire world called Pandora with an eco system based on sound science and come up with great sci fi ideas within that eco system that bring to life many similar real life concepts here on Earth such as the Gaia hypothesis. But Cameron’s genius is to present it all in a quasi fantasy/pulp sci fi romantic adventure style that harkens back to the otherworldly tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Frank Herbert. Plus it has real emotional weight and is chock full of relevance to our current world. For instance the destruction of Home Tree is a fabulous and terrible sequence that carries a huge visceral and emotional wallop. It is awful to behold and reminds us of real life atrocities – none more so than 9/11. And Cameron has not lost his touch in directing action and spectacle either. The sweeping vistas of Pandora are stunning, as are the intense, violent and perfectly choreographed battles.
So the story is familiar but great and the world created is perfectly constructed and stunning. That brings me to the single best thing about the film. The Na’vi. They are simply amazing. The level of performance capture and CGI realism is far beyond anything previously managed. But the technical side of their creation would mean nothing without the performances of the actors playing them. And they all do great work but especially the fabulous Zoe Saldana as Neytiri. It astounds me. Neytiri is incredible, a wonder to behold every time she is onscreen. She lives and breathes. She is the single greatest synthespian character ever. Zoe’s gestures and movements - be it subtle look, a twitch of a cheek muscle, a trembling lip, a ferocious snarl, a tiny giggle - are all captured perfectly. Neytiri is a brilliant character and Saldana nails it perfectly.
It was a close run thing this year between Star Trek and Avatar for my fave movie and truth told there is not much in it at all. They could easily be swapped. But I think Avatar just edges it for the sheer scope and scale of James Cameron’s imagination and creation, for the utter mind boggle I get every time Neytiri is on screen, for the incredible use of 3D, for the emotional wallop I get when Home Tree falls. For the nerve jangling animal howl of rage and grief Neytiri gives as her father dies in her arms. Gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
As I write this, Avatar has been a strong critical success and a huge financial success with it looking likely that James Cameron will end up being writer/director of the two biggest grossing films of all time. Nice going JC. So can we have Avatar 2 please? Just not in another twelve years.
I see you.