“The Best (and Worst) Movies of 2009”
2009 was not a great year for movies. In fact, this was a year when I found myself somewhat actually struggling to choose ten truly memorable movies that stayed with me. This awards season may have been nominating movies like Inglourious Basterds, The Blind Side and Up in the Air but they represent solid goodness, not greatness and would be less distinguished in a better cinematic year. In hindsight, I think 2009 will be remembered as a year for overrating and over-praising.
Yet, there were movies to write about from unusual places. There was The Hurt Locker, a movie that started small but gained power as people could not deny its impact and the fact that it was the first movie to tackle the Iraq war in a ruthlessly focused yet brutally honest light. There were a handful of good movies from South Korea such as Take Off, which was a sports movie more engaging and unpredictable than The Blind Side, and Mother, which meshed a murder mystery plot and a story of maternal love in several sublimely unexpected ways. There were also some independent American gems like Goodbye Solo and Precious, which exist on totally different worlds but each shed a truthful light on the human condition and spirit.
Perhaps the biggest pleasure, however, came from seeing the growth and maturity of the family movie genre. The Pixar studio scored another triumph with Up, which broke numerous genre traditions of children’s adventures and opened its adventure story to a reflection of life itself. More surprising was the potent impact of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book, Where the Wild Things Are by bringing an usually objective look at what it means to fully enter humanity as a child. Here is hoping that more bona fide auteurs will tackle the family genre and tackle the subject of simply growing up in unexplored emotional avenues.
So here are the 10 best movies I saw in 2009 and a small list of honorable mentions (that is far less than usual, which is once again indicative of the generally low quantity of quality films).
10. Take Off – While audiences stateside found much inspiration in the more conventional sports movie, The Blind Side, Korean audiences got to see a more realistic inspirational story very loosely based on the lives of athletes in the Korean Olympic ski jumping team. While not without a few sports movie clichés, you know that a sports movie has achieved something when you do not care about whether the protagonists win a medal or attain their dreams but just simply care about them as people.
9. Paju – Many independent films from South Korea have a way of creating slow-burning stories that tacitly portray characters who brood on their own emotional turmoil and this little-seen film by Park Chan-ok (not to be confused with Park Chan-wook of Thirst and Oldboy fame) is a great example. Set in a Korean town named Paju, which is geographically just right below the North-South Korean border and which most Koreans who live outside this town even know very little about, this story of a very complex relationship that forms between a woman and her brother-in-law (and it is not necessarily a love story as you think) weaves a fascinating tapestry of flashbacks and flash-forwards with a clear emotional through-line and bearing at all times.
8. An Education – The coming-of-age movie genre got a fresh new jolt of vitality in this film by Lone Scherfig that treads through a questionable relationship between a 16-year old girl and a 35-year old man and turns it into an empathetic story of valuable learning. Much of the movie's success in negotiating its tricky themes with charm is a tribute to Carey Mulligan, who delivers that kind of luminous performance that generates its own star power from the ground up and shows that she is here to stay.
7. Goodbye Solo – A movie that touchingly focuses simply on an unusual and unlikely friendship that is allowed to grow usually makes for a great piece of cinema and if 2008 had The Visitor, 2009 had this film. In telling the story of a friendship between a perpetually smiling Senegalese cab driver and a perpetually grizzled older man, this modestly elegant movie confirms director Ramin Bahrani as a filmmaker to watch. As seen in his past movies, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, he is not only skillful in delineating the grounded realism his characters require but is also keenly perceptive to the ever changing face of America.
6. Where the Wild Things Are – Along with Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, 2009 proved an interesting year for serious filmmakers to tackle classic children’s stories and Spike Jonze’s expanded adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic was a surprising artistic triumph. The best quality is in Jonze’s single-mindedness to stick to an uncompromising vision that remains faithful to the Maurice Sendak book but deepens the story’s emotions and implications to far more heartbreaking depths. All this he achieves with a technical wizardry that brings the fantastical creatures from the boy’s imagination as close to our own physical and emotional reality as they can be.
5. Mother – A movie that uses one of the most unpredictable murder mystery plots in recent years to plumb through the perhaps unsettling depths of maternal love, this follow-up by director Bong Joon-ho to The Host is a slow-burner that sneaks up and grows in its effect the more you think about it after. With the most sublime performance from veteran Korean actress, Kim Hye-ja’s career, the movie further proves Bong as a master in shrewdly combining the artistic and the commercial and subtly brewing his story’s depths beneath his stylish visual surface.
4. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire – No movie was more draining to watch than this one and yet few films so rewarding. Much praise (and deservedly so) is going to Mo’Nique who gives a chilling performance as the vitriolic mother of the tormented teenage heroine that she considers as "competition" with herself for the affections of the sexually abusing husband and father. However, it is Gabourey Sidibe who delivers the female performance of the year as the heroine who discovers that the only source of freedom from these cruel surroundings can come from within and ultimately finds it.
3. The Hurt Locker – Here is the first definitive portrayal of the Iraq war that proves the best way to find a universal perspective on a subject is to be ruthlessly focused on a narrow, personal arena. By focusing on bomb disposal experts who are intoxicated by the hostile and almost unbearable tension they encounter day in and day out, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal brilliantly captured that paradoxical mid-point within a battle soldier’s mind that feels so oppressively weighed down by being so close to death every moment and yet completely addicted to that very same danger.
2. Gomorrah – The harsh, brutal reality antidote to the often over-romanticized view of gangsters, this docudrama about the real-life Camorra shatters and obliterates any trace of moral justification or glorification set up in the gangster movie genre by The Godfather. Matteo Garrone’s hard, gritty portrait unblinkingly shows its characters idealizing their own rise in the organization in utter futility and idolizing Scarface while living in a totally animalistic world of kill or be killed. The real crime organization it portrays is truly realistically frightening because they so pervasively infiltrate so many sectors of modern society, even those that appear as legitimate ones. It is so close to the bone that the movie's release has forced the author of the source novel, Roberto Saviano to go into witness protection. Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival.
1. Up – For two years in a row with WALL·E in 2008, the Pixar crew has created achievements that outshone and outclassed any live-action release. Maybe it was the beginning masterful, wordless montage that so beautifully captured the hero’s marriage as the kind of happy marriage that everybody would dream to have. Or it was the fact that the hero was a 78-year old man transformed what seems to start as a typical children’s adventure into a profound rumination on balancing self-aspirations and real life. Or that the hero who eluded his dreams his whole life found that his life was valuable regardless of those dreams when he finally opened himself to a new human relationship with a 7-year old boy. Whatever it was, this was the movie that allowed me to reflect on life itself in a more complete way than any other film this year.
Honorable mentions: Avatar, Broken Embraces, In the Loop, Moon, The Informant!, The Messenger, Thirst and The White Ribbon.
Worst films of the year: All About Steve, Angels and Demons, Bride Wars, Couples Retreat, I Love You, Beth Cooper, Sherlock Holmes, The Ugly Truth and Year One.
Franchise movies well past their sell by date: Terminator Salvation and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The Worst of the Worst (and the movie for which I deliberately delayed my viewing in order to save good theater money): Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (I only cite the director's name to state that he needs to be stopped).