2009: Movies

Every year, I run the same game. In the summer, I see big blockbusters with friends. In every other season, I try and see the art films that make it to D.C., usually at the E-Street Cinema or the AFI Theater. In December, I see all the movies I missed–a task that has become easier, with Netflix, and harder, with my less-idle life.

So, here’s my end-of-year film ranking. I am posting it on Christmas Day with the intention of updating and re-ranking as I see a few more films–Still Walking, Broken Embraces, etc.

Oh, and it’s the end of the year, so HERE THAR BE SPOILERS.

47) Obsessed

I have an excuse! I watched this — for free, with plenty of work to distract me — so that the next movie would not be the worst one I saw all year. Let’s be honest, I made a great decision. This is a terrible, terrible movie, a hodgepodge of material that worked in other movies but falls completely apart in the hands of Idris Elba, Ali Larter, and Beyonce. She, by the way is the only reason to watch this, if less for her acting than for her pointlessly sexy outfits. All the drama in the climactic catfight (spoiler alert! like you give a crap) depends on whether Beyonce’s sexy heels will cause her to trip onto an attic plank.

46) Push

We’ve seen enough successful superhero movies by now that we know what the audience cares about and what it doesn’t. This film was full of “doesn’t”–the only images that stick with me were, honestly, the woozily floating guns and the Asian guy with huge eyes when he screams. It’s really bizarre seeing actors like Djimon Honsou and Dakota Fanning in a mess like this.

45) X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The director of “Tstosi” and an all-star cast bring you — total shit! We, as a society, got too cocky about the X-movies. After Bret Ratner delivered a pile of action scenes and called it “X3,” we thought we’d bottomed out. No, sir — here was a movie that looked cheap, with a script that made no sense, and an ending that the most addled fanfic writer would delete. Two words: Adamantium bullets. Two more words: Memory-erasing.

44) The Men Who Stare at Goats

This reminded me of Choke, in that the people who adapted the text seemed to have no interest in making a movie that resembled it, or replicated why it worked. Choke, however, was pretty fun on its on terms. This is just a tone-deaf piece of crap. I think there’s a case here that this is the year’s biggest disappointment — a fine cast with great source material, and nothing much to show for it. But the flashback scenes worked. So it’s better than “Wolverine.”

43) Underworld: Rise of the Lycans

Honestly, the best part of this movie was my arrival with friends, and my strongest memory is of Kriston Capps, getting in late, high-fiving his friends as he hurtled to his seat. The movie itself? Eh. Vampire-on-werewolf sex is always worth $10.

42) Monsters vs. Aliens

Perfectly serviceable, although as I consider it I think of how Shrek won the 2002 Oscar for Best Animated Film, and how in retrospect everyone denies that they thought broad, adults-can-enjoy-it-too genre parody was in the same league as Pixar. We’ve got our minds right now, and we recognize these Dreamworks CGI films as Family Guys to Pixar’s Mononoke Hime, fun and funny without touching any nerves.

41) Where the Wild Things Are

Aaaand here’s where I break with the critics and prove how edgy I am. I was bored silly by this movie, vaguely insulted by the simple and stupid morality play that Dave Eggers injected into the text. It’s beautiful to look at, absolutely, probably the most impressive thing Spike Jonze has done visually. But it left me cold. The monster dialogue and relationships were, as my friend Becks pointed out, imitation of the banal conversations late-twentysomethings are having right now. The whole exercise, turning a children’s book into a touchstone for whiny adults, is masturbatory. Again, though–beautiful to look at!

40) Terminator Salvation

To paraphrase William Hurt’s villain from A History of Violence: Post-apocalyptic robot warfare? How do you fuck that up? I, for one, do not accept Simon Worthington as our new action hero–better than Shia LeBeof, sure, but so is almost anyone. He punches and screams and blands-up his way through a barely interest robot-human conflict, given screen and character time I would have liked to see given to the comically under-written Kate Connor (Bryce Dallas Howard, who seems to specialize in paper-thin roles in fantasies–here, Spider-Man 3, Lady in the Water).

39) 2012

Here’s where I started to have fun. I love, love, loved the second act of this movie, when shit blew up real good, when Los Angeles fulfilled the destiny Warren Zevon set out for it, and when Yellowstone turned into a volcano. Everything else is second-rate, but man, try and admit you didn’t have fun for 30 minutes there.

38) Funny People

Sorry, Ross Douthat. The day may come when I discover some brutal humor in this movie. And on a second viewing–which I haven’t given it–I might replace my expectations of a quotable, paralyze-you-with-laughter Judd Apatow movie with a sadder Apatow-for-grown-ups movie. But I went in with those expectations and came away hugely disappointed, and quite bored. It’s not that the story of a 40something comedian unable to buy and charm his way out of his poor life decisions is so dull, it’s that Apatow takes so long to tell it, and forces us to watch his family–wife and daughters–act out key roles

37) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Eh, I feel like they adapted the wrong parts of the book. Why so much focus on the magical love potions and so little on the cute and tender Harry-Ginny love story? And why such a perfunctory treatment of the showstopping final scenes of the book? The weakest Potter film since Chris Columbus mercifully quit ruining them.

36) Knowing

A well-plotted and surprising apocalyptic saga, much better than it had any right to be. Really, the flash-forward sequences and the ending are fantastic, and the children-in-danger scenes work right up til the finale. Nicolas Cage is almost, almost, almost believable as a loving and normal father, which is a real success on his terms.

35) State of Play

So very much weaker than the masterpiece it’s based on, but smarter than the usual political intrigue picture. There’s an uncomfortable lesson in there.

34) I Love You, Man

I adored this while it was on, but it faded a bit afterwards. It’s a really serviceable comedy–it’s wonderful that the likes of Paul Rudd and Jason Segal are playing the “put ’em in that new comedy screenplay” role that, like Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd played 20 years ago. Nothing wrong with the movie, there’s just not much to it.

33) Tyson

Strange that this was sold to viewers as the first look at the “real” Mike Tyson, as he’s always been an unsettlingly honest interview subject. The artistic touches really fall flat (Tyson talking over himself like some sort of 1967 Steve Reich loop) but this is an un-fuck-up-able story.

32) Taken

A “Bourne” movie without the brains — fantastic idea! While it’s on, the emotional triggers all work just fine. You hope he rescues his daughter! You hope that one guy gets tortured! You hope that other guy dies for no reason!

31) Notorious

What’s the bigger sign of racial progress–President Barack Hussein Obama, or a hip-hop biopic that’s just as paint-by-numbers as Walk the Line? I, unlike a lot of critics, thought the acting was superb, and I grade on a curve considering how much heart and bias Diddy et al put into the project.

30) Observe and Report

Jody Hill seems to have alienated a lot of people with this unapologetic and unlovable black comedy. I wasn’t offended at all. Just thought it was a little lazy.

29) Adventureland

Could have been a whole lot better–some very strongly written characters are given way too little to do, and what they do get into is just too cliched.

28) Paranormal Activity

Works horrifyingly well in a full theater. I get the feeling it’d be crap on video on a re-watch.

27) Extract

Mike Judge’s best-plotted movie, and his least interesting. Funny how that works.

26) The Hangover

An 80s screwball comedy transplanted to 2009, complete with racist Asian stereotypes and a goddamn Rain Man parody of all things. Zack Galifanikas’s weirdness makes the movie.

25) The Limits of Control

Inscrutable Jim Jarmusch nonsense. “Reality is arbitrary.” Pass it on!

24) Up in the Air

Great first hour, nonsensical “deep” ending that seems very tacked on for Oscar season. Please explain to me how Alex’s decisions make any sense–why travel to Wisconsin with a man she is about to heartlessly discard? Also, for the record, Vera Farmiga is 12 years younger than George Clooney.

23) World’s Greatest Dad

Bobcat Goldthwait is now in the business of making brilliant black comedies–first Sleeping Dogs Lie, now this. I know, I’m surprised too. Daryl Sabara, who plays Robin Williams’s odious and sex-crazed son, gives one of the best performances of the year. Alexie Gilmore is given an impossible character–guilelessly sexy, loyal to multiple men without really thinking about it–and pulls it off. Robin Williams is controlled! And endearing! In the wake of the Michael Jackson death, and the quick turnaround of a celebrity from a Freak We Love to Hate to a Genius Who Will Be Missed, this had real resonance this year. As low as I’ve ranked it, it’s one of the first movies I’d recommend on this list.

22) Bruno

Fun, but my favorite Sacha Baron Cohen character this year was Orly Taitz.

21) The Brothers Bloom

Came and went through the theaters despite a high-wattage and sexy cast (I somehow wonder how we can go about our business every day when we could simply stare slack-jawed at Rachel Weisz) and despite being a Wes Anderson movie with momentum and real characters.

20) Star Trek

You know, it should probably be ranked higher. While I was watching it, I had more fun than I had with almost any other movie this year. So I’m going to back slowly away before anyone notices my cop-out.

19) Drag Me to Hell

Sam Raimi bounces back nicely from the Spider-Man 3 debacle with a gross (so many things going in and coming out of mouths!) and almost puritanical tale of morality that, by accident I’m told, happens to be about the recession.

18) Watchmen

Eh, it’s critic-proof. Obviously Zak Snyder’s not a genius, although his title sequence–invented for the film–is probably the best of the year. Obviously Malin Ackerman can’t act her way out of a wet paper sack, and the decision to give her the most pivotal and emotionally resonant role was a crazy one. But it’s a Watchmen movie, and it isn’t terrible, and I spent 1/3 of my likely lifespan waiting for such a thing. Yeah, I have the 5-disc DVD set.

17) Up

Like the last few Pixar films, it soars in the first act and drags as it turns into an action movie for the kiddies. Did I cry a couple of times, though? Yes. And that’s no fun with 3-D glasses on.

16) Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Like Watchmen, this is just critic-proof. I like Herzog. I like watching Herzog get tremendously bored with a cop-thriller script and decide to film a bunch of iguanas instead. Bonus points for the shamelessly strange casting–Jennifer Coolidge! Eva Mendes! Val Kilmer! Brad frigging Dourif!

15) Il Divo

A lot of fun, if hard to follow–and I write about goddamn politics for a living! I have to give special notice to the soundtrack, which is 1) fantastic and 2) jarring to hear in a foreign language film about byzantine European politics. Beth Orton! The guys who sing “Da Da Da!”

14) Sherlock Holmes

The trailer, which made it seem like Guy Ritchie had turned Holmes into a swaggering ladykiller, lowered my expectations. The movie exceeded them. Downey’s Holmes, rather than being dashing, is just fantastically weird, a few cats and old newspapers away from shut-in status. The only bring-down for me was the performance of Rachel Adams, who’s blown off the screen to a comic, ACME-brand dynamite degree every time she appears. As my friend pointed out, they should have cast the newly Oscared–and thus, I’d think, less picky–Kate Winslet.

13) Avatar

As gorgeous to look at as it is IQ-destroying to think about–seriously, some of the most derivative plotting and dialogue of the decade. “They won’t think twice about eating your eyes for jujubees”? You can just see Cameron at the Macbook, glancing alternately at a thesarus and the stuff he has lying around the room.

12) Gomorrah

Almost as good as everyone says it is, just a little bit boring when it really shouldn’t have ever gotten boring. It’s about ugly Italians killing each other!

11) District 9

Easily the best White Man Goes Native And Betrays Humankind movie of the year.

10) The Road

By all indications the studio buried this movie–its widest release sent it to 396 theaters–and I can see why. At its best it’s a straight translation of Cormac McCarthy’s instant-classic novel, and at its worst it’s been altered for maximum Oscar potential in a way that just doesn’t work. But a good adaptation of one of the decade’s best novels is, damn it, a good movie. Watching this, I got the same hollow, scared feeling I’d gotten when tearing through the novel two years ago, and that’s more than I can say for most movies. The acting is weary and pitch-perfect, the scenery is relentlessly grim, the moments of tension are unbearable, and the soundtrack, which most critics seemed to despise, is basically the same as the one Nick Cave and Warren Ellis composed for “The Proposition.” They could have screwed this up, and they didn’t.

9) Zombieland

Probably the most pure fun I had at the movies all year, because, not in spite, of its truly weird lack of forward momentum and real danger. Even this late in the zombie renaissance, it brings in new tricks like the “rules” that appear as tactile, giant words in the foreground.

8) Coraline

Perfect storytelling, beautiful animation, and a retrograde message that I just loved–kids, don’t talk back to your parents, or you’ll be enslaved by spider-demons!

7) (500) Days of Summer

Quickly ascending into the pantheon, along with Kicking and Screaming and Before Sunrise, of Romantic Dramas About White People That Dave Considers Knowing and Profound. It’s easy to pick it at, but this gets so much right, from the “dream girl” character whose dreaminess is an ongoing joke with the audience, to the filmmakers’ winking acknowledgment that Tom is, at this stage in his life, kind of an asshole. The “freak out at the office which reveals all of the bottled-up emotions and not-so-subtle subtexts” scene was a bit much, but have you read the original screenplay? It’s amazing how much that stuff was toned down by the time it got to the screen.

6) The Fantastic Mr. Fox

The best Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore, I’d say, very noticeably improved by the script-doctoring of Whit Stillman, who really needs to make another goddamn movie of his own sometime.

5) Inglourious Basterds

I came out of this one with mixed feelings. It seemed like a collection of scenes more than a movie, and Tarantino didn’t exactly disguise that fact by putting up title cards before each big scene. But it stuck with me. Images stuck with me — rubber Hitler being riddled with machine gun bullets, the stand-off in the rendezvous bar. Music stuck with me, like the first-ever successful use of Bowie’s “Cat People” theme.

4) A Serious Man

This one was a grower, with dialogue and scenes that spent days rattling around my brain. The only aspect that sunk in while viewing was the acting, and that, two, only gets better as you think on it–sobbing Richard Kind! The guy who plays Sy Abelman oozing slime from every pore! The hapless rabbis!

3) The Hurt Locker

Yes, I’m part of the hallelujah chorus here. I was nailed to my seat for every second of this movie. I had trouble talking about it afterward. Kathryn Bigelow has made a great, great war movie that finds and leaves its characters in uncomfortable places, and makes us care for a hero who, let’s face it, is more or less a fucking crazy person.

2) In the Loop

In an interview with Jesse Thorn, Armando Iannucci recounted his trips to Hollywood back when he was trying to adapt “The Thick of It,” his comedy about British politics, into an American sitcom. Iannucci saw firsthand how America’s engines of entertainment worked. He translated that to our engines of government. He was completely successful. Bonus points for the consulting work my friend and colleague Spencer Ackerman did on this.

1) Anvil! The Story of Anvil

The other day, my friend Eric IMed me to gloat that Michael Moore’s newest documentary did not make the lengthy shortlist for the 2010 Academy Awards. That didn’t bug me. What bugged me was the inexplicable diss of “Anvil,” a documentary so stupid and so surreal that, when folks began blogging about it, naysayers demanded proof that it wasn’t a hoax.

It’s not a hoax. There really is a band named Anvil, a mediocre Canadian hair metal band that’s produced songs like “Metal on Metal” and “Free As The Wind” and “Butter-Bust Jerky.” Their ringleaders, guitarist/singer Lips and drummer Robb Reiner, really do lead lives of quiet desperation in Ontario. They really did mount a slapstick European tour and a “comeback” album that no label would release. And the guy who wrote the screenplay for “The Terminal” found them and directed their story. He plays it for laughs, at first — is there anything *un*funny about a former metal god delivering grade D meat to Canadian elementary schools? — and cuts deeper, staying in the room while Anvil threaten shady club-owners or break down over the knowledge that they’ve failed.