16 is a weird number.
This list is really more for myself than for anyone else because, well, to be frank, I doubt anyone but me reads this blog. But I have compiled the list of my favourite 16 movies from this year. It was a nice 15, but then I saw The Hurt Locker today and changed it... but anyway, this list is seriously lacking because, obviously, I haven't seen every movie released this past year. I have, at the end of this post, a list of movies I haven't seen but want to just to make clear that, yes, the reason this movie or that movie might not be included is because I just haven't seen it. But, without further ado, here is my ridiculously long list, because I just HAD to write this and that about each of the movies. The comprehensible full list, in proper order, can be found at the end.
I love a good caper and this one was legitimately very enjoyable. It had fun twists and turns, it had Clive Owen charming and sly and wonderful again (no wonder I wanted him for Bond during the Brosnan/Craig transition), Julia Roberts was similarly enjoyable, and simply overall it was a fun, time-twisting, delightful heist movie. Not the most memorable film of the year, but right up my alley.
#15 I Love You, Man
An unfortunately forgotten and incredibly enjoyable comedy from early on in the year, this is one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year (and yes, I saw The Hangover. Twice, actually; no Zombieland yet though). It didn’t set me off quite like Role Models did last year, but it was clever and fun and featured one of my favourite things: a well-done bromance.
#14 An Education
I’m not sure if I’m pleased with the direction the movie took, although that’s due to its source material I am sure, but I do know that the movie itself felt like a great journey that Carey Mulligan’s Jenny brought us along for. Seeing the new world, albeit a bit skeptically, as the fun and delightful and shady place she entered, growing up, getting her brand of education, learning and eventually, at the end, returning to where she belonged, but with a better sense of her life. Carey Mulligan is stunning, as is the supporting cast, from Alfred Molina as her gullible father to Rosamund Pike as her ditzy new-life friend to Olivia Williams as Jenny’s intelligent, guiding teacher who makes it all better.
I saw this movie as part of a weekend home to celebrate my nineteenth birthday back in April, and it was such an honest film that I fell into it with ease. It wasn’t really trying for gimmicks and it wasn’t regurgitating anything I could recognize other than the nostalgia of something quite like an amusement park and the reality that they’re all pains in the ass (I went to two this past week while I was in southern California and I can’t see a single thing enjoyable about working there). But then, in the stupidest parts of life are some of the most fun and memorable bits, and a strange and great romance within. Adventureland has a great big heart and is so easy to access and enjoy. I still don’t understand why I was the only one so in love with it as we left the theatre.
#12 (500) Days of Summer
Many movies try to do things out of order to build suspension or to hint at future events or whatever, but most of the time I find these attempts to be useless and dull or sometimes too much (I’m looking at you, The Blind Side, for your weird flashforward to a confusing and utterly useless scene that does not build anything at all for your viewers). But with (500) Days of Summer, the out of order setting might not be necessary, but it doesn’t hurt the ride in the least, making it interesting rather than confusing, tantalizing rather than frustrating. The dance through time and between Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer is well-done and incredibly enjoyable and, well, the movie features one of the most satisfying endings of a film that is not necessarily happy I’ve seen recently. But in the interim between the beginning of summer and the beginning of autumn, the ride is fun and real and understandable. I give the movie a bit of shit for its similarities to How I Met Your Mother, but it’s not as if the television show’s premise isn’t any good. (500) Days of Summer was essentially a well-told story wrapped in a package wrapped with delightful scenes and a very cool dance routine.
#11 The Brothers Bloom
I said before that I like a good caper, and The Brothers Bloom is at the very minimum a clever caper of a film. Featuring a broody Adrien Brody and a charming Mark Ruffalo, not to mention an enjoyable eccentric Rachel Weisz and a scene-stealing, albeit silent, turn by Rinko Kikuchi, The Brothers Bloom is simply a brilliant sophomore work by Rian Johnson, who directed one of my favourite films of all time, Brick. But while his newest work focuses on something different, the stylistic flair of a confident director remains, allowing The Brothers Bloom to be something aside from your generic Ocean’s movies, featuring the typical leads (although, don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoy the Ocean’s franchise). Its plot is fun and twisty and quite fitting as it is, but it is mostly its flair that really gets me going, much like Rachel Weisz’s Penelope with that weird drunken montage with the train and the moans. Like Brick, The Brothers Bloom oozes with style and an air that the characters are not your everyday kind of people, but clearly something beyond the norm, people who will do these fantastic crazy things provided for them. I can’t wait for Rian Johnson’s third film.
#10 Bright Star
I have a mixed record with period romance types of films. I can be a sucker for them without really liking them, but there are some genuinely great ones, such as Sense and Sensibility, and, in this case, Bright Star. Featuring a romance that is sweet, real, and yet very untouchable, Bright Star isn’t obsessed either with chastity or bodice-ripping, something period romances tend to fall into traps with, but rather providing us with an intimate and sweet story. Jane Campion’s directing of Bright Star is among some of the most underappreciated of the year to me, and Bright Star also features stunning cinematography as well as art direction, costuming, and etc. It is one of the most visually beautiful films I saw this past year, watching with my eyes round as saucers as Fanny sat on her bed and the curtain blew in at her, sunlight streaking through, giving the movie an other-worldly feel, but not removing any connection I could feel. The acting was brilliant and it’s sad to have seen Abbie Cornish’s praise diminished nearly as soon as it had begun, but the work by Ben Whishaw and Paul Schneider especially was also very good, very moving, but nothing that felt forced or wrong. I expected to be a bit bored by the movie, not really involved, as when I went in, all I had heard was that Abbie Cornish was great in it. But I was surprisingly pleased when the whole movie fell so well with me. One of my favourite romances of the year, Bright Star is much more than that, showcasing a beautiful relationship much more than simply the romantic parts of it.
#9 Up in the Air
Up in the Air was a great ride to me, but, like An Education, some of the twists and turns I didn’t want to go down, particularly concerning the resolution of Ryan and Alex’s relationship. But all three leading actors were magnificent, getting the chance to see Clooney as more than just the self-assured man he was, but also as someone genuinely lost, Farmiga taking a character I normally wouldn’t be able to like but managing to, and Anna Kendrick pleasing me beyond all measure as, if not for Mo’Nique in Precious, the best supporting actress I’d seen all year. The story’s background, which Jason Reitman brought to great attention, was best described by some short silent moments, like Natalie in the empty room full of chairs, she and Ryan arriving in a cleared out building with a few terrified employees left for them to dispose of in Detroit, and, of course, the memorable scene of Natalie firing a man by video who is only in the next room. The movie is torn between the characters and the overarching theme, which don’t necessarily match up so easily, but finds a good balance and managed to strike a strong emotional chord with me.
#8 A Serious Man
I had some weird unknown beef with this film about the lack of ending that is so like the Coen brothers and so unpleasant for me about a movie supposedly based roughly off of The Book of Job which I had read earlier in the year for a class entitled Narratives of Suffering, which was a wonderful class that made me strongly appreciate different facets of storytelling that I hadn’t grasped previously. And if A Serious Man was not supposed to be based off of The Book of Job, I wouldn’t have any complaints… but The Book of Job is extremely important for its bizarrely happy ending, in which Job goes back to life with tenfold what he had before, not potentially dying or with his children facing an ominous and symbolic tornado. Ending aside, the movie itself is a great work by the Coen brothers, featuring a great turn by Michael Stuhlbarg and a good supporting cast (Stuhlbarg is on my ideal Oscar ballot for Best Actor and that ballot was one of the hardest for me), and the rest of the story struck me so strongly, as I spent the whole semester looking through fifteen different texts, trying to find the meaning of suffering, just as Larry does in A Serious Man, so I could sympathize with his journey, and I understood when he was forced to simply go back to life and ignore the questions (so like Job, until the extra couple minutes at the very end). I think my frustration simply comes from a place of great investment in the film, where Larry too feels such frustration and can understand it as easily as I do.
#7 Inglourious Basterds
I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s work for, well, not a long time since I only really began dedicating myself so heavily to movies a couple of years ago, but about since that began. I’ve missed a few of his features (Jackie Brown and Grindhouse/Death Proof), but both Kill Bill movies and certainly Pulp Fiction would end up being some of my personal favourite movies. Inglourious Basterds has been lauded by many as perhaps his best film and, while I’m not sure I agree, I certainly do believe that it is a fantastic film unto itself. There was nothing more satisfying in cinema this past year than seeing history turned on its head with such appropriate irreverence. There was no performance as electrifying as Christoph Waltz’s all year. Not to mention the cast at large being great and Tarantino’s script being a fun masterpiece all on its own. The very cool film references to the time, which were fun (I had two classes last year where we talked at least a little bit about Goebbels, one of which was my documentary class with, of course, a section on propaganda, most famously on Triumph of the Will and other such projects of the WWII era). Regardless of my attachment to the littler parts of the film, there is such unpredictability when it comes to Tarantino’s works. Many films, you see a formula at work and you know what’s coming, who will survive, who will die, but when it comes to Tarantino, I’m not sure if he’s going to kill nobody, everybody, or some number in-between. There’s a whole different kind of suspense at work in Inglourious Basterds than can be found in other, more grim features such as The Hurt Locker, but this suspense isn’t nail-biting, it’s fun.
I know that there are a lot of people out there who are vehemently against Avatar, or who want to see it fail because of its populist image, or who simply just didn’t like it all too much or find it too reliant on the CGI and not enough on being original. And, as I tell most Avatar-haters, far too few “original” films have ever been made. But that is hardly a problem to me. Because one of the best things about Avatar is the familiar epic touch it has, unafraid to attempt a new language, a new species, a new world, all in the name of creating something truly escapist and enjoyable. Normally, I scoff a little when people say that they go to the movies to escape (which is a normal reaction, but movies are much more than that to me), but Avatar really was an escape, 160 minutes on Pandora, somewhere I want to return to and explore more and more of. Yes, the CGI is brilliant and there have been better scripts this year, but I hardly think that the script suffers because of too much emphasis on the CGI, or that the script suffers at all. There was no cheesy dialogue that made me cringe, nothing that made me roll my eyes or groan in disbelief. Everything was fitting and right and, well, it is certainly quotable (I have said “You’re not the only one with a gun, bitch” several times since I first saw it, actually, as, although hardly poetic, it is a great line). I see no reason to nitpick at Avatar, to complain about its similarities to other (mostly great) films, to make jokes about the Na’vi being smurfs or cat people, because it’s stupid to reduce such an epic to something so base (something I was responsible for doing to the Harry Potter book series before giving it a chance, reading it, and unabashedly loving it). Avatar is not the best film made this year, but it is one of the most enjoyable, stunning, and engrossing. It stole me away in a manner few other films managed to this year, and I cannot ignore the longing I feel within me to keep going back, to want more of Pandora, more of this new world. As cheesy as this sounds, far more cheesy than anything from Avatar, my heart is what assures me that I loved that movie. And, honestly, if your heart isn’t in a movie, if you can’t feel it tugging at you, then there’s no legitimate connection.
#5 Star Trek
Raised on Star Wars as opposed to Star Trek, I’d never had an interest in the franchise, and since I saw the new Star Trek movie, I tried my hand a bit at some of the older fare, two of the movies (Voyage Home and Wrath of Khan) and a few minutes of one of the original series episodes and I realized that no, the reason I like the new Star Trek movie has nothing to do with the source material and everything to do with it being, on its own, a fantastic ride. Star Trek features a fantastic cast, which is one reason it originally caught my attention. Led by the before-unknown (although I’d had a celebrity crush on him since The Princess Diaries 2) Chris Pine as the fantastically cocky and amazing Captain Kirk, and Sylar’s Zachary Quinto proving that his brilliance as Sylar (even as Heroes fell further and further into suckage) was only the tip of the acting iceberg. The supporting cast was also built up with two-time sci-fi stars this year Anton Yelchin (one of my favourite parts of Terminator Salvation) and Zoe Saldana (in that little film a lot of other people saw called Avatar), Eomer’s Karl Urban, Brit Simon Pegg, Harold and Kumar’s John Cho, and Eric Bana in a limited, but strong, villainous role. All of the supporting cast, although faced with generally limited screen time, made the most of their appearances on camera. Star Trek also featured probably my second favourite opening sequence of this year (the first being Up’s story of Carl and Ellie): the brilliant space battle where George Kirk died and James Kirk was born. Upon second viewing, this opening nearly brought me to tears it was so grand. I’d really like to give some credit to Star Trek’s great score here too. Beyond the opening, Star Trek didn’t waste any time. It told a good story, strong, but nothing spectacular, and introduced familiar characters (well, to other people) in a way that someone a Star Trek newbie like me could understand and appreciate them without thinking that too much is being thrown in at once. I’m a sucker for quality space operas, and Star Trek is, at the heart, exactly that. The film is stunning in every manner and has a humour without selling itself short, without resulting in the camp I later saw in the original version. Star Trek is one of the most delightfully and simply enjoyable movies I saw this year, not the smartest but smart, not the best but excellent, and not the wildest but incredibly entertaining.
#4 The Damned United
The Damned United is probably the best sports movie I have ever seen, and my prior knowledge of British football is that my friends all tend to be Manchester United fans and that Chelsea supposedly sucks and we Americans have David Beckham now. I went into the movie, fearing that I might be confused or lost, but that was hardly true. The Damned United was extremely accessible and highly gratifying. Not to mention that it contained one of my favourite bromances of all time, led by two talented actors, Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall. I hate that Michael Sheen will once again not be recognized for his masterful work here, and that Timothy Spall has been equally ignored, but I feel extremely privileged to have gotten the chance to watch the film and fall in love with it. It felt so good, watching Brian Clough and Peter Taylor kick ass and move up the ranks in the sport they clearly have a talent for working at. Not a moment is wasted and there is nothing in the film that bothered me in the least. Michael Sheen played Clough with impeccable talent, making a man that we root passionately for and yet don’t groan too loudly in frustration when he makes a stupid mistake, and then cheer for as he grows up and learns his place and begs for his dearest and best friend back on his knees (an amazing, amazing moment). It is such a flawless portrait of a man and his ambition and arrogance, but also his care and love and understandable determination. Not to mention that the sports part is very entertaining, something that doesn’t always catch my eye in a film (or in sports in general, as they tend to bore me).
#3 District 9
It’s been a little while since I went to Johannesburg with Sharlto Copley and the aliens derogatorily called the “prawns,” but I remember how satisfied and pleased I was with the movie. One of my biggest upsets with the awards season thus far is, not only the lackluster love for the movie, but also the total neglect for its heart and soul, no matter how blackened that heart seems at time, Sharlto Copley as perhaps my favourite lead performance of the year: Wikus. Wikus is ordinary and boring and he doesn’t transform into the hero in the end, doesn’t undergo some miraculous personality shift and change his allegiance because of deep love the way Jake Sully does in Avatar. Rather, Wikus distrusts his new allies to the end, wants more than anything to be human again, although he clearly has come to understand the hardships of the imprisoned aliens in the process. The effects and technology of the movie boast of a gigantic budget the film never had and never needed, giving us proof that while some movies like Avatar can prove that their big budget was worth it, you don’t need such a budget to make a sci-fi epic. With its excellent story straight out of reality, showcasing any instance of segregation (most notably Apartheid, of course), District 9 moves to become more than a sob story of a repressed race and doesn’t come around to have the natives win at life, but gives us a real portrayal of a struggle and the slow resolution that comes with real stories. There’s nothing I dislike about District 9, and it makes me confident in the ability of unknown filmmakers to provide us with a stunning vision where the movie doesn’t need stars, big names, or lots of money to get the story out… and make a great deal of money while at it. Paranormal Activity might be the low budget film story of the year, and I haven’t seen it, but District 9 is all the more impressive for the scale it dishes out, the epic quality of it, without trying too hard or selling out.
#2 The Hurt Locker
The most recent of the films I have watched, it reminded me of something a few of my friends complained about when watching The Dark Knight, about how the movie felt like it was always at a climax, building and building and building. That was one of my favourite things about The Dark Knight and the constant intensity and anything-can-happen spirit of The Hurt Locker made it instantly shoot to the near-top of my list of my favourite movies of the past year. I skimmed the Wikipedia article just now and was pleased and impressed to see how influenced the film was by Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent vision, even when talking about something that to passer-by fans is totally useless, like the type of stock used, Bigelow amazes me; I’ve used 16mm film and it doesn’t look anything near the artistic mastery shown in her piece (granted, she used Super 16, but regardless, they’re ultimately quite similar in my humble, barely educated opinion). The cast itself is stunning and it was a nice surprise to see beyond the amazing three leads some familiar faces; I kept arguing with myself “That’s Ralph Fiennes! Is that possible? Could it be?” and he’s barely in the movie, but even characters like his that only appear for short bursts are excellently portrayed. You can see writer Mike Boal’s experiences and trust in them to show such a stunning and engrossing adaptation of the real events of the War in Iraq (though, technically, as my documentary film professor reminded me, war was never officially proclaimed, but let’s not get into technicalities like this just now). The focus on the bomb squad, specifically on that 38 day rotation we saw them through, made the movie so much better than it could have been if it had tried to be any of the other sappy, dramatic epics trying to capture the whole thing. I’ll be sad to see the supporting cast, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, not get the attention they deserve, but awards season is always tough. I do hope that The Hurt Locker pulls out to be the winner. I know some audiences don’t like it when the little unknown wins (well, that is, if it didn’t make as much money as Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, or Juno, which I’d reckon a guess The Hurt Locker hasn’t), but The Hurt Locker is definitely the more masterfully made movie over its main competitor, Avatar (although it is also on my list of favourite movies this past year). All in all, I will stop weighing its awards chances and leave it at this: I am so glad I got the chance to rush into danger along with The Hurt Locker, feeling the experience very strongly, and although not wanting to go back to Iraq like one would want to go back to Pandora, understanding the other-worldliness and relishing it nonetheless.
There were a lot of good films this year that I saw and that I didn’t see, but Pixar has a habit of stealing my heart, ever since I first saw Toy Story when I was only just learning to spell. I first saw Up at the drive-in with my friend, her boyfriend, and her mom, and so I put a lot of effort into not crying during the movie. Then, a couple weeks later, after being in a horrible mood all evening, I rushed out at night and went to see Up and cried several times, feeling wonderful the whole time. Up is a beautiful portrait of, excuse my sort-of lifting of The Lovely Bones’ tagline but, a beautiful marriage and everything that came after. As many have said before me and many will say after, the first ten-odd minutes of the movie are enough to prove the movie’s excellence, much like people said of WALL-E’s opening half an hour. But then, the movie goes on past Ellie’s death and proves to us, like Pixar is so skilled at doing, that although the introduction is a story onto itself, stories are vaster and more grand than even the span of seventy years in the life of Carl Fredricksen. And those seventy years, illustrated in mere minutes, seemingly insignificant to the rest of the film, were everything and represented more than any words could ever say. When I first showed my mother the film recently after acquiring it on DVD, she saw Carl, older, alone, walk past the empty “Paradise Falls” coin collector and sighed, “It’s so easy to forget your dreams.” But I glanced over at her and told her to keep watching the movie, because as the movie teaches us, Carl’s life wasn’t one into which he settled and was deprived of the adventure he wanted when he was young, nor was Ellie’s – they both lived full and wonderful lives of strong love between them, many years of affection and care that are impossible to count out. The rest of the movie, beyond Carl and Ellie’s story, is a wonderful example of the adventure that Carl had wanted, but never needed, but it did allow him to appreciate, as Russel mentions, “the little things,” like eating ice cream on a curb, playing pointless, silly games, and so on. Dug too, although I was initially wary of having talking dogs (especially talking dogs that fly fighter planes), plays a beautiful role in the education of Carl, especially when complemented by the separate, but equally heart-warming, short film “Dug’s Special Mission.” Up is visually beautiful, the score is extremely fitting and one of my favourites of the year, but its story is, unsurprisingly, its best element. I will never tire of the masterpieces Pixar manages to churn out.
#2 The Hurt Locker
#3 District 9
#4 The Damned United
#5 Star Trek
#7 Inglourious Basterds
#8 A Serious Man
#9 Up in the Air
#10 Bright Star
#11 The Brothers Bloom
#12 (500) Days of Summer
#14 An Education
#15 I Love You, Man
And as a special treat, I’m taking the People’s Choice Awards categories (because it’s funny) and naming my favourites:
Favourite Movie Actor: Sharlto Copley
Favourite Movie Actress: Meryl Streep
Favourite Action Star: Jeremy Renner*
Favourite Breakout Movie Actor: Sharlto Copley
Favourite Breakout Movie Actress: Anna Kendrick
Favourite On-Screen Team: Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall
Favourite Independent Movie: District 9 or The Hurt Locker
Favourite Comedy Movie: I Love You, Man
Favourite Movie: Up
*Because his character’s attitude to defusing bombs is totally that of an action star.
Disclaimer of movies I've missed:
I haven’t seen several movies I might enjoy as much if not more, or at least want to see, including, but perhaps not limited to: Nine, Zombieland, A Single Man, The Lovely Bones, Crazy Heart, The Road, Bad Lieutenant, Broken Embraces, The White Ribbon, The Beaches of Agnes, Good Hair, The Cove, Food Inc., Every Little Step, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, A Prophet, The Messenger, The Maid, Whip It, Capitalism: A Love Story, Ponyo, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, In the Loop, and Moon.