In an effort to stretch my critical muscles, I thought I'd pick a random year and write up my top ten. Check here for my top 25 performances of 2009
Film of the Year: Up in the Air-The opening montage of borrowed aerial shots lets us know that this is going to be an apologetically modern story for our modern times. Jason Reitman’s third film is a spiritual successor of sorts to his debut, “Thank You For Smoking”, in looking at grandiose themes with cutting satire. This time Reitman looks at the glitzy but ultimately unfulfilling life of corporate travel. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) travels around the country firing people with dignity. His social needs are taken care of by the occasional rendezvous and the familiar faces of gate attendants and corporate logos are the closest thing he has to a home. Through Bingham, Reitman looks at modern detachment from the inherent contradictions of the firing people with dignity, and looking at the loneliness such a job would entail. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick both compliment in roles that deservedly won accolades.
2. Inglourious Basterds-Quentin Tarantino’s gleeful take on the World War II film is less beholden to history than having a good time. The film is marked by Mexican shoot-outs, explosions, and memorable characters of both the good and evil variety. From the polyglot colonel played with theatricality by Christophe Waltz to the egotistical sniper with a voyeuristic streak played by Daniel Bruehl to the larger-than-life German actress played by Dianne Kruger, this is a movie where the action isn’t second to performances.
3. The Soloist-This film, about the relationship between a human interest reporter and a homeless cellist with Julliard training, came and went without making much of a dent but there’s a lot to recommend about this film. Being a human interest reporter for seven years and having a fascination with what makes classical musicians tick certainly helps enjoy this film, yes, but it’s also a more universal story of two people symbiotically rediscovering themselves with Robert Downey Jr’s stoical performance keeping the film from dripping out any excess sap. Lisa Gay Hamilton, Catherine Keener and Tom Hollander all provide great supporting roles.
4. Star Trek-My cynical attitude towards franchise reboots quickly dissipated from “why?” to “why not” within a few scenes. J.J. Abrams’s sleek visuals and fully-realized action scenes are complimented by one of the most perfectly-selected casts I’ve ever seen. Sure they all look unrealistically pretty compared to their predecessors but I’m willing to let that slide.
5. In the Loop-Armando Ianucci’s political satire is populated with fast-talking characters straining to be taken seriously who ultimately have little clue what they’re talking about. If you’ve seen “Veep”, the pace of dialogue and humor won’t surprise you (and I can’t say I’m qualified in any comparative analysis having only seen a couple episodes of "Veep") but it’s a joy to see this type of energy in cinematic terms. It might even be said that the one-off nature of the plot makes a sharper point about the directionless bureaucracy that guides politics considering that serialized television has to take a direction sooner or later.
6. Up-While not Pixar’s most ambitious movie concept, there’s a lot to be said for the execution. Ed Asner gives, for my money, the best voice over performance in history, the film rightfully gains recognition for its emotional punch of an opening montage, and a balloon trip to South America lends itself to visuals that dazzle in a whole new light. More than that, it’s a story with a sense of non-stop adventure backed by a pair of characters one gets easily invested in.
7. Sin Nombre-Cary Fukunaga explores the bleak life choices of people in the middle triangle of Central America whether they decide to risk their lives emigrating northward or live under a lawless void that’s pervaded by the lure of gang life. The story finds its heart in a gang member who makes a decision to do something decent (stop a brutal rape) and follows his impending doom.
8. 500 Days of Summer-Tonally, this love story is wispy fairy tale but it’s also an unflinching look at unhealthy romantic expectations. Wide-eyed Joseph Gordon-Levitt (matched in charm and cuddliness by a flighty Zooey Deschanel) is a man with a wide-open heart but is doomed by his unwillingness to face the reality of what his partner wants.
9. The Blind Side-The true story about a homeless teenager who gets adopted by an affluent white family in Tennessee is a classic sports film with unusually quiet and somber notes and a focus that takes place mostly off the field. It’s not the post-racial declaration of coexistence people might be looking for but it’s told with nuance and anchored by strong performances.
10. District 9-Neil Blokamp’s regionally specific version of dystopia is so gritty and visceral, one can feel its otherworldly landscape. The film plays with P.O.V. and format to maximum effect. Set in a future version of South Africa, the film parallels the struggles of apartheid without turning it into pure allegory.
Stephen Soderbergh’s The Informant isn’t particularly coherent on a first viewing but it’s a very clever playing out of the “unreliable narrator” trope and has some curious casting.
The Invention of Lying is a classic man-environment mismatch comedy: In this case it’s lying man vs. honest society, an inversion of 1997’s Liar Liar. It doesn’t deliver on Ricky Gervais’s trademark cringe humor but it gets maximum comic mileage out of its premise and has a surprising amount of heart.
Extract is an underappreciated Mike Judge film that once again takes on his familiar themes of working class frustration but delivers its “the right workplace for you is waiting out there somewhere” parable with a bit more conviction and heart than his previous films. The film deftly juggles a pair of intersecting hair-brained schemes while leaving room to fill out the quirks of its auxiliary characters with a strong sense of place.
Funny People is the only Judd Apatow (or Judd-Apatow-by-association) film I’ve seen that seems like a genuine attempt to move people with humor than a quest to inject moviedom with as many dick jokes as possible.
The Hangover created a sizeable dent in the pop culture sphere due to its lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between and the gut punch value of its reveals as three friends try to piece together what happened the night before. With a naked Ken Joeng popping out of a car and Mike Tyson’s (with pet tiger in tow) extremely random cameo, the film kept audiences in an anything-can-happen trance that still holds up today.