#1 - Up
I came into this film knowing only what was seen in trailers: a floating house, lots of balloons, an old man, a young boy scout, and some talking dogs. Very little and very uninterested. I came out emotionally exhausted, and wanting more.
From talking toys, talking bugs, talking cars, talking fish, talking monsters, talking rats, etc; never has a Pixar film been able to convey human emotion as well as it has with Up. Yes, characters of previous films have been able to effectively portray human characteristics, ponder human decisions and morals. But never have they been this relatable. This real. Real humans - the unlikeliest of Pixar protagonists - going through deep, layered and mature issues. They have tempers, problems and obsessions.
The main protagonist, Carl Fredricksen, is first seen as a youngster watching a newsreel in which his hero, adventurer Charles Muntz, is accused of fabricating a giant bird skeleton he claims to have brought back from South America. Carl’s faith is unshaken, and he finds a kindred spirit in young Ellie, who shares the same dreams of someday being explorers.
Then we are witness to perhaps the most touching and poetic sequence captured in a feature animation. Carl and Ellie grow up, have a courtship, marry, buy a ramshackle house and turn it into their dream home, are happy together and grow old. The lovebirds save their loose change in a gallon jug intended to finance their trip to the legendary Paradise Falls, but real life gets in the way: flat tires, home repairs, medical bills, and a heartbreaking discovery.
This lovely sequence is silent, except for music, without dialogue, that deals with the life experience in a way that is almost never found in family animation. And it’s only the firs 10 minutes.
The focus of the film is on a grumpy 78-year-old Carl, now a recluse that has shut himself out from the world, and keeps his home as a memorial. One day he decides to pack up and fly away - literally. Having worked all his life as a balloon man, he has the equipment on hand to suspend the house from countless helium-filled balloons and fulfill his dream of seeking Paradise Falls.
What he wasn’t counting on was an inadvertent stowaway, Russell, an Asian American 8-year-old dutiful Wilderness Explorer Scout, who Carl finds annoying. The two, seemingly forced, end up forming the most unlikeliest of bonds on their seemingly improbable adventure.
This is an extremely heartfelt, emotional rollercoaster of a story set in an always visually gorgeous Disney adventure. It’s a hugely imaginative and magical fantasy adventure that explores issues such as loss and dreams deferred with such a light and universal touch that it will appeal to an extremely broad audience, young, old, or in between.
No other Pixar film resonated with me after watching it since Toy Story did.
Up is my favorite film of 2009.
Honorable Mentions of 2009
With my #1 film about to be unveiled, I thought I’d list a few good films that barely missed the cut.
- Crazy Heart *
- Two Lovers
- An Education
- Funny People
- Ponyo **
- Thirst **
- Sin Nombre **
- Big Man Japan
- The Chaser
* (Would have made top 25 but was unable to watch it prior to making list)
** (All 3 would have made top 25 had foreign films not been omitted)
#2 - The Hurt Locker
A depiction of men who risk their lives every day on the streets of Baghdad and in the desert beyond, and who are too stressed out, too busy, too preoccupied with the details of survival to reflect on larger questions about what they are doing there. The focus is on three men that make up Army unit Delta Company: Brian Geraghty, a bundle of nerves and confused impulses, eager to please, ashamed of his own fear and almost dismayingly vulnerable, Anthony Mackie, a careful, uncomplaining professional who sticks to protocols and procedures in the hope that his prudence will get him home alive, away from an assignment he has come to loathe, and Jeremy Renner, their leader, the specialist, the very best at his job, a surgeon of his craft, actually finds pleasure in what he does, bold, but seemingly reckless - their job is to detect and defuse bombs. With 30 days of duty left for each men, its in their best interest to avoid unnecessary risks, yet, Renner, a man addicted to war life, is compulsive, and often needlessly puts his men in danger. The film is a viscerally exciting, adrenaline-soaked tour de force of suspense and surprise, full of explosions and hectic scenes of combat, but it blows a hole in the condescending assumption that such effects are just empty spectacle or mindless noise. Most of all, it is a real intelligent film, psychologically told clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they’re doing and why, and a real emotional one, filled with real daily tension between two soldiers and their leader, doing mission after mission that may be their last, whose contrasting temperaments knit this episodic exploration of peril and bravery into a coherent and satisfying story.
#3 - Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino’s latest, centered around a plot to kill Hitler and the entire Third Reich in alternate reality World War II, is a big, bold, audacious, purposively abstracted, stylized and at-times comical war film. Divided into 5 chapters, (much like Pulp Fiction) it intertwines the story of three characters: Brad Pitt, a jaw-jutted, Southern accented leader of a well known band of Nazi-killing American soldiers called the Basterds, Christoph Waltz (true star of the film), an evil, sardonic, multilingual, viciously charming Nazi colonel nicknamed the “Jew Hunter”, and Melanie Laurent, a beautiful, young French Jew in disguise, who once escaped the grasp of Waltz and now owns a cinema where the final act takes place. All of the Tarantino staples are present such as his loyal limitless nods to movie references through cinematography, music, characters (we have a French cinema owner, a British film critic, and a German actress, just to name a few), etc; his strong development of those characters, and most importantly, his brilliant dialogue. You need only witness the opening act, where Waltz questions a farmer about harboring Jews, like a stalker effectively filibustering his prey; a simple scene with anticipated build-up and massive tension using dialogue, not action, and that is where the director’s genius shines. No doubt this film is controversial, sadistic, violent, bombastic in style, and not for everyone, but the craftsmanship is undeniable, and those with an open mind may find this film rhapsodic, and even bloody entertaining.
#4 - 500 Days of Summer
Right off the bat, our narrator reveals that the film is not a love story and that the two leads will not live happily ever after, yet, despite knowing how it ends, the audience is drawn to the fact that the hero has no idea why. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a greeting card writer, is a hopeless romantic, an unapologetic believer of true love and soul mates, and he starts an office romance with Zooey Deschanel, the office assistant, who is the opposite, a non-believer skeptical of such notions, a free spirit also free of commitment. On the surface, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to deduce why they aren’t meant to be, but the story offers glimpses of Zooey enjoying Joseph perfectly, sincerely; she wants more and more of his company and this leads him, and the audience, to believe that her carefully maintained barriers to intimacy are beginning to fall. The story scrambles and shuffles the beginning, middle, and end of their 500 days together in clever fashion, using artistic and stylistic devices, and restores a measure of suspense that is usually missing in the rom-com genre. This ingenious structure is a reflection of most failed relationships because we never go in chronological order when we look back on it all, rather, most of the time we start near the end and then hop around between the times that were euphoric and the times that left pain - this film works that way.
#5 - The Messenger
In a profession where traumatic experiences happen everyday overseas, this beautifully acted film introduces us to some of the most grueling work a military officer can be called upon to perform. Ben Foster, a decorated U.S. Army soldier in rough emotional shape after returning from Iraq, is assigned to the Casualty Notification program with his mentor and fellow officer, Woody Harrelson (in his Oscar nominated role), who is a combination of by-the-book stickler and loose cannon - they are the messengers who deliver grim news to the families of fallen soldiers. There is a protocol they must follow no matter how much they are affected by the reaction of the deceased’s loved ones: they cannot so much as touch the next of kin, cannot console them, must remain stoic as they are greeted with denial, resignation, howling anguish, or at times, anger and hostility, as when a father spits at them and calls them cowards. This triggers differences between both men, as the rookie has trouble containing his compassion, while the veteran is quick to cite the rulebook whenever his partner wavers; the camaraderie they form is nuanced and completely convincing. Purged of melodrama and glum indie-conventions, the film as a whole is remarkably textured with suffering and bits of humor, and is an impressive mixture of empathy and objectivity.
#6 - District 9
Twenty years ago an enormous, city-size UFO descended from the sky, hovered over Johannesburg, and after the nations of the world got curious, was opened up to find a million-plus malnourished aliens, refugees from their home planet, inside. Since then the human-sized creatures, nicknamed “prawns” by our fearful human populace because of their lobster/grasshopper appearance, overrun an area of the city (the film’s namesake) filled with shantytowns, barter with Nigerian gangsters to satisfy their drug-like addiction to cat food, and eventually become the target of a relocation effort overseen by a private security firm known as Multi-National United. That task is led by a grinning, over-enthusiastic, insensitive, clueless bureaucrat (South Africa’s version of Michael Scott), and with film crew in tow, he goes around District 9 gleefully evicting alien residents until he runs afoul of a certain fluid that changes his entire life. The major appeal of this film is its genius sense of realism, making clever use of documentary footage and interviews, along with seamless CGI, to give us a believable, refreshing scenario where aliens, having inhabited the planet for many years, still face the harsh realities of literal alienation and segregation.
#7 - Where The Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze’s film, extrapolated from a few hundred words and a dozen or so illustrations by Maurice Sendak, is dense with difficult emotions, veiled with exemplary cinematography and sprinkled with childlike, fanciful music. The hero, Max, is often angry, lonely, frustrated when his sister neglects him and jealous when his divorced mother spends time with her boyfriend, so he escapes to an enchanted world, filled with furry, fun-loving, quarrelsome, passive-aggressive creatures, to live carefree and cater to his childhood joys. He proclaims himself as king, and the wild things follow with loyalty and love, but soon discovers that no place is free of conflict and no person has the power to make problems disappear. In a film considered to be children’s entertainment lies a strong adult messge regarding the essence of life: Where there is happiness - friendship, adventure, affection, security - there is also, inevitably, disappointment.
#8 - I Love You, Man
Paul Rudd, a nice guy that seems hopelessly clueless when it comes to being cool, gets along fine with women, but has no male best friend and actually needs to find one to be best man at his wedding. After a few unsuccessful man dates, enter Jason Segel, a witty, direct man comfortable in his own skin - an immediate bromance is born. There is a genuineness present as the two men share a sincere rapport, making it very plausible that they can be best friends in real life. Most importantly, it’s one of those rare comedies that actually grows funnier in reflection; where odd, improvised one-liners like Totes Magotes, and many other shining moments induce more genuine laughter than any other comedy in 2009.
#9 - Watchmen
In an alternate 1985 where superheroes exist, Richard Nixon, faced with law enforcement anarchy, has banned superhero activity. But the murder of the enigmatic Comedian, seemingly a plot to destroy the world, has forced the Watchmen - Silk Spectre II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, The Nite Owl, Rorshach - together again. These superheroes are only human (a common paradox), but possess natural God-given skills and don traditional comic book wardrobe - capes, boots, gloves, belts, masks, props, anything to make them one of a kind - with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, a shiny blue skinned being that lives outside time and space. The experience is visceral, a fearsome beauty filled with stylized sounds and images that evokes the feel of a graphic novel, and compelling, focusing on the contradiction shared by most superheroes: they cannot live normal lives but are fated to help mankind.
#10 - Precious
Precious is overweight, fodder for torment from anyone that crosses her path, pregnant with her second child conceived by her father through rape, has shut off the bleak world around her and she’s only 16. Her mother, abusive, resentful and seemingly heartless, is defeated by life and makes sure her daughter is too; she is the demonstrative source of Precious’ pain and suffering. Great distance separates Precious and the vague light at the end of the tunnel, but her alternative teacher, responsible for making her realize her worth, is with her every step of the way. This film, filled with a terrific cast of relatively unknown and inexperienced actors (Mo’Nique is haunting), is heartbreaking and emotionally difficult to watch, yet, there’s a poignant ray of hope that shines within.
#11 - Black Dynamite
The Man has gone done it now - his merry gang of jive ass turkeys have been dealin’ smack to the poor orphans, flooded the ghetto with adulterated malt liquor, and usin’ his knowledge of scientific biological transmogrification, which is only outmatched by his zest for kung-fu treachery, to fulfill the rest of his evil deeds. But y’all be cool now, no need for fright, keep it tight, outta sight, cause Dynamite’s gonna shake the tree from the roots, rake up the fruits, rip it up out the ground to find out what’s goin’ down. Don’t worry bout tomorrow cause tonight, Dynamite’s gonna make it all right!
#12 - Sugar
An eye opening depiction of an impoverished foreigners’ journey through Major League Baseball’s farm system. Kids in the Dominican Republic get recruited at a young age, bred in grueling training facilities, live like kids in military school, seldom visit family, and when/if they are ready they get sent up to America - and that’s just barely scratching the infancy stage of a long journey that more often does not lead to riches and fame. There is a touch of Lost in Translation as the film follows Sugar, who only knows a minuscule amount of English, attempting to survive the harsh realities of living the American dream.
#13 - Away We Go
After an unexpected pregnancy forces John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph to shed a lifestyle that has been putting adult life on hold, they go on a whimsical tour across North America visiting prospective places for their future family of three. This film, laden with comedy and perspective, works well because our main protagonists, unmarried and imperfect, possess an assuring, impenetrable bond that some married couples yearn for. It’s a very rare thing in movies nowadays to have two soul mates, devoid of consequential differences designed to tear a relationship apart, share such an immense love that you know will carry them to ends of their life together.
#14 - Zombieland
Four strangers take a road trip across the country and help each other discover life’s little essentials: companionship, trust, love, and most importantly, the art of not being devoured in a zombie infested world. Filled with bloody entertainment, well timed humor, an OCD nerd, a twinkie loving cowboy, a con artist big sister whom yours truly is crushing on, and a con artist little sister not named Dakota Fanning, this film is more than a mindless good time. All of it, including a cameo from a particular comedy legend that nearly steals the entire film, is sure to leave you desensitized with delight.