Friday, January 1, 2010

My top 10 films of 2009

1. Humpday

As I wrote in June, Lynn Shelton's highly improvised tale of two buddies who dare themselves to make amateur porn together (despite being straight) goes places I didn't expect it to. Hell, most of where this movie travels is off the map. Though I appreciate the "bromance" genre, which aims to explore male friendship in ways rarely seen onscreen, I'm used to films like I Love You, Man that only hint at the squirm-inducing truths beneath the comedy. Not Humpday.

It may be nominally about guy-on-guy action, but Shelton's movie investigates monogamy, polyamory, the paradoxes of settling down, the joys and perils of being a wanderer, and how friendship and sexuality rub up against each other in our relationships. By giving them little more than an emotional trajectory to follow in any given scene, Shelton got remarkably realistic dialogue out of her talented triad: Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as the reunited friends, Ben and Andrew, and Alycia Delmore as Ben's concerned (but not closed-minded) wife. Delmore's vulnerable, intelligent performance is one of the year's best by an actress; I hope to see more of her in the near future.

My friend Michelle, who writes screenplays, commented that she envied Shelton's ability to write such honest, naturalistic dialogue. This was, of course, before she knew about the director's working methods. Leonard has come a long way since The Blair Witch Project; his Andrew embodies the archetypal restless soul while remaining a fully realized, three-dimensional character. Duplass is tremendously present as an actor, which is key, since a lot of the film's comedy (and, for that matter, its drama) comes from Ben's reactions to the outrageous dare as it changes from a drunken pipe dream into an uncomfortably genuine proposition.

What it means that these men want to make porn together keeps shifting, as such daring projects, uncertainly entered into, tend to do in real life. Shelton gets an amazing amount of psychodrama out of her ridiculous-sounding premise, which might be wearying if the whole thing weren't so damn funny. Added bonus: Humpday was made and set right here in Seattle. It may not have been the best year for movies in general, but it was certainly a good year for local ones.

2. The Hurt Locker

Just as people didn't expect Mickey Rourke's performance in The Wrestler last year, few would have predicted that action-movie veteran Kathryn Bigelow would make one of 2009's best-reviewed films. (Then again, her filmography includes not only the widely mocked Point Break but also 1995's visionary, underrated Strange Days.) My friend Reed observed that The Hurt Locker is respectful towards soldiers without glorifying or sugarcoating their work. Few war films I've seen have managed that balance as well as this one.

The movie gathers further strength from journalist Mark Boal's airtight screenplay and Jeremy Renner's astonishing, Oscar-worthy performance as William James, a man whose truest love is disabling explosives in Iraq. As many critics said, a subplot that sends James into civilian territory on a personal mission risks losing narrative focus, but for a film that has focus to burn, that risk is worth taking. The sequence in question provides both a welcome interlude between tense combat sequences and an added sense of emotional weight. The Hurt Locker is a compelling character study, a vivid portrait of war, and a tribute to those who endure it in real life.

3. Adventureland

Greg Mottola's latest coming-of-age dramedy breathes new life into the genre. Then again, so did his 2007 hit Superbad. Roger Ebert praised Up in the Air director Jason Reitman for making intelligent, somewhat edgy mainstream fare, and the same could -- and should -- be said about Mottola. Adventureland follows an Oberlin College graduate (Jesse Eisenberg) through the summer of 1987. He spends his last months of freedom before grad school working at the titular amusement park and befriending some of his equally overqualified coworkers.

Most alluring of all is Em (Twilight's Kristen Stewart), who's having an affair with an older man (Ryan Reynolds, well cast) but might be amenable to the advances of someone her own age. Adventureland doesn't deal with groundbreaking topics, but it succeeds in so many ways that it can't help but feel fresh. It's funny, touching, and thoughtful in all the right places, and the combined intelligence of the screenplay, Eisenberg, Stewart, and the invaluable Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) makes the whole thing shine like carnival neon at dusk. It's a lovely, heartfelt movie, and I smile just thinking about it.

4. Whip It

Local culture pundit Geoff Carter considers Whip It a companion piece to Adventureland. It's true that the movies share a bittersweet, smartly comic take on life, but while the latter portrays young people enduring the humiliation of crappy summer jobs, the former is about a young woman enjoying the thrill of a new extracurricular activity: flat-track roller derby. Ellen Page's natural talent is easier to appreciate outside the Juno hype bubble, and the role of Bliss, the wannabe derby girl, suits her beautifully. Reviewers said about Whip It pretty much what they said about Adventureland: familiar beats, exuberantly hit.

It's the details that matter: Daniel Stern is funny and moving as Bliss's milquetoast father, Marcia Gay Harden sharp as a blade in the role of her domineering mother. And the bunch that first-time director Drew Barrymore assembled for her derby squad -- Eve, Juliette Lewis, Jimmy Fallon (not awful!), a dialed-down Kristen Wiig, Andrew Wilson (brother to Owen and Luke), and Barrymore herself -- is an example of top-notch casting. Any film with room for all that and still a bit to spare for Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat to look like a rising star is a generous one indeed. I picked most of this year's top 10 based on how happy they made me, and Whip It made me very, very happy.

5. Inglourious Basterds

That the 153-minute running time of Quentin Tarantino's latest film goes by in a flash is one testament to its genius. Another is the fact that we care about his characters. After 1997's Jackie Brown, QT began favoring style over substance in a way that made it hard to get emotionally invested. Basterds, arguably his return to form, is grounded in emotion, starting with the widely praised first scene, in which Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Oscar shoo-in Christoph Waltz) smoothly interrogates a French farmer about the Jews he may or may not be hiding in his house. That scene's bloodless yet brutal denouement is unforgettable -- and a lot of what follows is hard to shake, too.

I've seen wham-bam movie endings, but Tarantino stages a truly remarkable finale at the theater owned by Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, expertly balancing toughness and vulnerability). Sound, image, classic tragedy, and primal rage combine to exhilarate rather than pummel the viewer. After serving up compelling character development, delicious visuals, and typically smart Tarantino dialogue (often in German or French), Basterds rewards our patience with the kind of wish fulfillment only the id -- or a filmmaker deeply in touch with it -- could concoct. The icing on the cake: Brad Pitt in one of his most entertaining roles to date.

6. Up

I've said it before: I'm a sucker for Pixar. But the studio gives me no choice when it turns out emotionally potent, visually awesome all-ages fare year after year. The supremely poignant sequence that sums up the marriage of Ellie and Carl (Edward Asner, terrific) is the only cinematic moment this year that made me cry. And I didn't just cry -- I sobbed. If there's a lovelier depiction of lifetime partnership out there, I'd like to see it. I haven't watched the sequence for a second time, in part because I'm afraid I won't get as emotional, but also because I'm afraid I will.

The rest of Up is breezy, smart, funny, and solidly entertaining (the "talking" dogs alone could probably carry a movie), but nothing in it compares to that magical account of a happy marriage -- and, to a lesser extent, the scene where Carl takes another look at his and Ellie's "adventure book" and gets a memorable surprise.

7. An Education

Some coming-of-age stories, especially if they're based on memoirs, seem more like therapy for the writer than entertainment for the audience. An Education isn't like that. Nick Hornby's screenplay, adapted from Lynn Barber's memoir, is consistently funny and bright even as it probes that thorniest of British issues, class, and depicts an affair between a thirtysomething man and an underage girl.

As in so many good films, the excellence starts with the casting. Carey Mulligan is a revelation as Jenny, the precocious teen who goes in search of real life and gets a bigger helping of it than she expected. Alfred Molina is superb as her moody father, and Peter Sarsgaard portrays her lover, David, as a suave, handsome trickster whom few girls could resist. Of course, we're drawn into David's con as well, hoping against the odds that he won't break Jenny's heart. Yet the movie shows its true strength when he does turn out to be a knave, and Jenny responds less like a schoolgirl than like a budding adult. Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson do great work in small roles, and the film ends on just the right note.

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox

There's never been a better time for animated film. Maybe the '70s were the golden age for live-action cinema, but the '00s (and hopefully also the '10s) might represent the pinnacle of animation. Where Up is a deeply emotional journey, Fox is a high-spirited, briskly intelligent caper. Liked Ocean's 11? You'll love this movie. Loved The Royal Tenenbaums? Well, that film's writer-director, Wes Anderson, was also at the helm of Fox, his best work since Rushmore -- and arguably his best, period. The much-lauded voice work by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman deserves all its kudos, and the stop-motion animation makes every frame a delight. When I'm a parent, I'll be even more grateful for kid-friendly fare that actually gives me renewed faith in the movies. Bravo, Mr. Anderson.

9. Julie & Julia

Nora Ephron hasn't made a movie this fresh in 20 years. She wrote 1989's When Harry Met Sally..., but her career as a director has been mixed at best. (Bewitched, anyone?) What makes J&J work is that it's a romantic comedy about two women who fall in love with cooking (and, not secondarily, with food). The men in their lives are supportive, and Stanley Tucci's turn as Julia Child's loving husband, Paul, is a reminder of his prodigious talent. But the movie belongs to the ladies, and they both make a great go of it.

Meryl Streep is the rare performer who consistently elevates everything (and everyone) around her, and Ephron's fun, witty script makes her work easy. As she's done with many other real-life figures, Streep embodies Julia while giving a decidedly original performance. You can watch her work and admire the skill involved while simultaneously believing, on some level, that she is Julia -- and that the Julia Child we see on PBS reruns is some kind of impostor.

Amy Adams is a charming actress, and she portrays J&J's modern-day protagonist, Julie Powell, as a confused, frustrated denizen of the Internet age. Fame and wealth through blogging is our era's American Dream, and Julie realizes it after much trial and error, and not a little marital tension. Adams' instinctive sunniness keeps us loyal to Julie even when she spazzes out, and anyone who can't see a bit of herself in the character may want to look a little harder. Many of the film's fans are half-fans, enamored with Julia's story but bored with, or annoyed by, Julie's. I loved them both.

10. We Live in Public

Ondi Timoner isn’t a technically sophisticated filmmaker, but she has two things many documentarians should envy: tremendous access to the zeitgeist, and a great nose for a good story. Her 2004 documentary DiG! won widespread critical praise for exploring the rivalry between two rock bands many people hadn’t even heard of. Similarly, We Live in Public profiles an Internet guru few netizens knew about. His name is Josh Harris, and his ultra-fascination with pop culture and interactive media began long before YouTube and Facebook came along.

The details of the story -- the Web company he founded, the wacky projects he undertook -- are interesting, but it’s his romance with a kindred spirit named Tanya Corrin that anchors Public emotionally. Like Charles Foster Kane, Harris built himself an empire based on his own eccentric tastes, but he never learned how to maintain human connections. Unlike Kane, Timoner’s subject is still alive and kicking, and there’s always the chance that he’ll come back with something even stranger and more visionary than anything depicted in the film. Yet Public’s key sequences -- the underground bunker that offers zero privacy, the cameras trained on Josh and Tanya’s crumbling relationship -- are haunting enough at a time when Facebook addiction is a growing problem and YouTube has turned many of us into video autobiographers.

Honorable mentions:

Up in the Air -- Like his 2007 film Juno, Jason Reitman's tale of love and business in a down economy has suffered from excessive hype, and the inevitable backlash. That's a shame, because George Clooney and Vera Farmiga both give great performances, the script is smart, and two sequences -- one at a corporate party, the other at a wedding -- really come alive.

District 9 -- Love it or hate it, Neill Blomkamp's sci-fi apartheid parable was one of the year's most talked-about movies. (It even inspired a highly publicized tiff between Roger Ebert and New York Press critic Armond White.) I confess to finding it overrated, but it is unlike most other films, and a few of its quieter moments will stay with me.

Moon -- Speaking of science fiction, who knew David Bowie's son would make such a crackerjack sci-fi director? Moon brought the genre back to its original role as an existential exploration of the human soul. Who needs fancy special effects when Sam Rockwell's around?

Prodigal Sons -- One compelling story is enough to power most documentaries, but first-time filmmaker Kimberly Reed got two for the price of one. She intended to chronicle her experience coming out as transgender at her high school reunion; instead, Sons is about her relationship with her mentally ill brother, Marc, and their discovery that he's related to Orson Welles.

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