Top Ten Best of 2009
Overall, 2009 was a pretty enjoyable year of movies. There was a huge amount of crap released over the past twelve months and I saw quite a bit of it, but when I look at the below list, I am reminded that a handful of 2009's cinematic offerings really moved me in exciting ways. So I now present to you my Ten Favourite Movies of 2009.
10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
I think it's safe to say that I'm not the kind of person that a movie about heavy metal music is being aimed at. I have a very selective interest in music and what music I do like is often connected to movies in some way. I don't pay a lot of attention to modern music and my passion for the medium is minimal at best. So when a movie about music comes along and manages to make me care about the subject and the individuals who love it so dearly, I find myself pleasantly surprised. The funny, heart-warming documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil is one of those movies. Directed by filmmaker and long-time Anvil fan Sacha Gervasi, this is the story of two middle-aged guys who have never abandoned their dream of fame and fortune. Back in 1973, high school buddies Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner discovered a shared love for heavy metal and so they began to play music together. They eventually formed a band called Anvil, which became very popular and influential in the 80s. But while other bands from the era like Slayer and Metallica became rich and famous, Anvil never quite reached the peak of success. Anvil! The Story of Anvil is about Kudlow and Reiner mounting one last attempt to strike heavy metal gold. But while the music is a big part of the story, the movie is really a tale of friendship and hopeful endurance.
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox
In a year filled with intriguing animated movies, this charming, hilarious little stop-motion confection really stood out in the crowd. Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, and Jason Schwartzman, this wacky adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1970 children's book is an imaginative celebration of silliness and wild animals. Clooney voices the titular Mr. Fox, a family man who finds he cannot resist the temptation of pilfering poultry from a trio of neighbouring farmers. His actions wreak havoc on the lives of his fellow woodland creatures and the mayhem is delivered in a sweet and funny package. Filmmaker Wes Anderson injects his quirky sense of humour and nostalgic visual style into a wonderfully unique world that appears lovingly hand-crafted in every frame.
8. Jennifer's Body
Female empowerment is one of my favourite themes at the movies and Diablo Cody's eerily funny ode to girl power and gory slasher flicks is all about empowering women. When gorgeous high school cheerleader Jennifer (Megan Fox, flashing some actual acting ability!) is possessed by a nasty demon, she begins devouring the male contingent of her high school. When Jennifer's best friend Needy (Amanda Seyfried, brilliant in her role) accuses her of killing people, Jennifer correctively responds with this quip: "No, I'm killing boys." The notion of a female monster using her sexuality to defeat men is pretty interesting fodder for a discussion about female empowerment on its own, but it is Seyfried's performance that really gives Jennifer's Body the dramatic energy it requires to be truly memorable. As written by Cody and played by Seyfried, Needy is just another teenage girl struggling to survive in the midst of high school hell. But when she is forced to become the heroine of the story, she discovers a strength she never knew she had. Seyfried brings so much to the role and Needy becomes an exciting vessel through which Cody and director Karyn Kusama can communicate the message of female empowerment in the face of staggering opposition.
7. In the Loop
This riotous gem about the British and American governments secretly dealing with the possibility of an impending war is one of the sharpest political satires I have seen in quite some time. The narrative cuts deep and the manner in which it mocks various politicians is scurrilously scathing. But the real reason this movie works so well is director Armando Iannucci's incredible use of his cast. Peter Capaldi gives one of the most furiously funny performances of the year as the British Prime Minister's Director of Communications, a man who cannot get through a conversation without launching into a tirade of foul-mouthed proportions. Capaldi is joined by Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Chris Addison, Gina McKee, and so many others who provide further hilarity. Simply listing many of the cast members fails to do the movie any justice, but rest assured that everyone plays their role with complete commitment and excellent comic timing. If political satire interests you at all, then I recommend that you put In the Loop high on your list of movies to see.
6. Observe and Report
Filmmaker Jody Hill effectively skewers American mall culture with this darkly demented comedy about a mall security officer (Seth Rogen, delivering his best performance to date) suffering from delusions of heroism. When a flasher begins terrorizing shoppers in the mall parking lot, Ronnie Barnhardt sees the incident as his golden opportunity to emerge a hero. The situation takes an especially personal turn when the flasher upsets Ronnie's love interest, cosmetics consultant Brandi (played to vacuous perfection by Anna Faris). Ronnie is convinced that this is his best chance to impress Brandi and so he embarks on a journey of self-righteous discovery. Observe and Report grows darker and stranger with every twist and turn of the plot, but Hill never turns his movie into a mean-spirited jab at his damaged protagonist. Ronnie has a lot of problems and his attitude ensures that he isn't particularly likable, but I found myself truly emotionally invested in his entire journey. In his own strange way, Ronnie is worth caring about because he has a dream and he is fearless in his attempts to attain it. Observe and Report is an engaging and effectively executed character study from which Jody Hill emerges one of the most exciting voices in modern comedy cinema.
5. Up in the Air
Playfully witty and smoothly moving, this intimate little tale of love and life is as charming as it is entertaining. Jason Reitman directs the movie with great confidence and George Clooney (him again!?) is absolutely delightful in the role of Ryan Bingham, a suave bachelor whose greatest passion involves his pursuit of ten million frequent flyer miles. When his life is turned upside down by two very different women (Anna Kendricks and Vera Farmiga, both exceptional in their roles), Ryan begins to question his philosophy on life and whether or not it is time for him to settle down. The narrative is sweet and delectable even when it seems to be on a familiar path, but then the movie takes off and heads in an unexpected direction that beautifully opens up the story without ever losing focus. The graceful joy of Ryan's story is very touching and Clooney clearly connects to the material. I have never enjoyed his charismatic presence on the big screen more than I did here, watching his character's outlook on life brighten in the dark.
4. Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi returned to his horror roots with this gonzo blend of creepy frights and slapstick thrills. When friendly loan officer Christine (Alison Lohman, going for broke in a physically demanding role) denies an old woman an extension on her loan in order to impress her boss, she soon becomes the victim of a terrible curse that threatens to drag her to hell after three days of otherworldly torment. Raimi wastes no time putting Christine in great danger and he seems to be firmly seated in his familiar comfort zone, manipulating the laughs and scares in a way that only a true master could perform. The result is an unhinged work of horror art that deliciously combines hilarity and terror into one intensely entertaining experience. The Spider-Man movies manage to showcase many of Raimi's abilities, but this sort of grimy, gooey horror is what he does best.
3. Where the Wild Things Are
Adapting Maurice Sendak's iconic children's book comprised of a mere ten sentences for the big screen must have been an extremely daunting task, but Spike Jonze makes the transition from page to screen so powerfully seamless that the usual scars of adaptation never show. Every decision that Jonze made feels effortlessly conceived, even though any movie of such haunting beauty must have required a ton of careful effort. He chose to set the fantastical land of the Wild Things in actual locations, such as deserts and forests, as opposed to opting for a complex set on a soundstage. He chose to use gigantic costumes and puppets courtesy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop in order to physically realize the Wild Things themselves. He chose to hire Karen O. and Carter Burwell to produce the uniquely whimsical music. All of these choices work wonders in the finished movie. But Jonze's greatest decision was in casting newcomer Max Records as potentially bratty protagonist Max. Records is perfect in the role, instantly putting his indelible stamp on modern cinema by being the best thing in one of the best movies about childhood I have seen in a long time.
2. A Single Man
I love this movie so much that it is difficult for me to fathom why it does not occupy the top spot on my list. But I guess that is a testament to the strength of my number one pick, rather than any indication of flawed execution on the part of A Single Man director Tom Ford. This is a masterful film and one that marks a spectacularly exquisite directorial debut. Fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford decided to put up his own money to bring this cinematic adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel to life and he illustrates an astonishing ability to convey intimate emotions through grand imagery. Ford's work registers as my favourite directorial achievement of the year and Colin Firth gives a performance that is easily the finest piece of acting I saw in 2009. As a gay man mourning the death of his lover, Firth fills every inch of his character's body and creates a fully realized portrait of grief.
1. The Cove
For the first time in my movie-obsessed life, a documentary has topped my annual list of favourite movies. Documentaries are often on these lists of mine, but never before has one occupied the number one spot. Clearly, The Cove is a movie that made a very strong impression on me. When I exited the theatre after seeing the movie for the first time, I was buzzing with emotion in a way that I had not experienced since my first viewing of Once (my favourite movie of the decade). The impact of The Cove is both epic and intimate, hitting me in the gut on a seemingly global scale. The subject matter is gruelling and greatly upsetting, since this documentary is about a group of activists attempting to put an end to dolphin slaughter in Japan, but director Louis Psihoyos makes the harrowing narrative so accessible, so distinctly human, that the movie's dramatic pull is impossible to ignore. Psihoyos digs deep into the conflict and its history, without ever hitting a false note. The narrative stretches far and wide, covering amazingly expansive territory with such precision that it becomes nearly overwhelming. The Cove ultimately emerges as one of the best documentaries I have ever seen, an unbelievably powerful tale armed with burning passion and startling urgency.