2009 Ten Best List

     2009 was a very special year for me at the movies.  I have two favorite directors who are responsible for many of my all time favorite films, James Cameron and Quentin Tarantino.  Not since 1997 have both directors released a film in the same year (Titanic & Jackie Brown), so as you can imagine, 2009 was met with much anticipation on my part.  To say the least, I was not left disappointed as both Avatar and Inglorious Basterds exceeded my expectations.  Along the way, Iwas fortunate to see many other great films and I’ve managed to narrow the field to what I feel are the 10 best films of 2009.

10.   Capitalism: A Love Story

         Nearly every time I bring up the name “Michael Moore”, I’m met with a very  typical response:  “I hate Michael Moore!”  Instantly, my next question is always “Have you ever watched one of his films?”  The answer is, of course, almost  always “No.”  “Then why do you hate Michael Moore?”  I would ask.  “Because of  what he did at the Academy Awards!” is the most notable response.  I must  agree, when Michael Moore won the Oscar for Best Documentary for “Bowling  for Columbine” his choice of words during his acceptance speech was not  appropriate.  That being said, Michael Moore is one hell of a filmmaker.  He certainly has tackled his fair share of controversial subjects and thus, receives  his fair share of criticism. 

         One thing I believe about people who criticize his politics and his films is they are unaware that he is an equal opportunity critic of all that is wrong with our  country.  If Democrats are responsible for a bad decision then they will receive  his wrath.  Vice versa, if Republicans have made an error in judgement, then  they too will receive criticism.  I feel Michael Moore makes great films which  simply ask tough questions.  Questions which all of us should be thinking about  what the answers are.  Sure his style tends to poke fun at these various political     issues, as well as the many politicians involved, but thats all part of what makes  his films entertaining.

         Capitalism: A Love Story is no exception to the above.  Michael Moore has  made an important film, which like his previous work, is quite topical considering  the current economic times we live in.  Michael Moore has dared to make a film  that explains why we are in this mess and the result may surprise you.  This film  is funny, creative, and at times inspiring.  Most of all, it will make you think.  After viewing the film,  you can’t help but to wonder if he is on to something.   Capitalism is tried and true, but I found myself asking if we are the richest country     in the world and our financial system is truly the best , why the record  unemployment? why the record foreclosures? why are banks dropping like flies?  why is the auto industry on the brink of collapse? why do so many Americans  lack health care insurance?  Watch this film with an open mind and you may find  yourself wondering, regardless of your current political affiliation or your opinion of Michael Moore.  To ignore this film would be the ultimate example of a closed  mind. GRADE: B

9.  Star Trek

         As a child and young adult, I was always a fan of the original Star Trek cast.  I  liked the original series, but I loved the movies.  “The Wrath of Khan” still stands  as the best Star Trek movie and it likely always will.  I was never impressed, nor  could I get into the “Next Generation” films.  Save for “First Contact”, the movie  going public seemed to agree, as each “Next Generation” film got progressively  worse at the box office.  If anyone would ever attempt to revive Star Trek as a  feature film, the question was “How?”  Of course, there were more spin off  possibilities with since canceled Star Trek shows, such as Voyager and Deep Space Nine, but would they sell?  Probably not.

        Enter director J.J. Abrams and his “reboot” Star Trek which is a fantastic film  and successfully injects life into a dead franchise.  I remember telling my wife  when I heard this film was being made as a story about the original characters as  young adults.  As a fan of the original series herself, she seemed skeptical (she isn’t in to remakes).  We walked away from Star Trek pleasantly surprised and  wanting more.  This film has successfully introduced Star Trek to a new  generation of fans and at the same time, pleased the old ones.  I can’t tell you     how happy I was with the casting of each main character, as well as the  attention to detail particularly with the known story lines of the original series  (James Kirk with a Green Woman!).  The actors were dead on.

         The film was exciting, well paced, and the action sequences were top notch.  With many sequels sure to come, my hope is each of them retains the overall  quality of this one.  What makes Star Trek special, like most good films, is the  characters and the story which is being told.  We care about these characters  and what happens to them and that was the key to pulling this off.  As we already  know, these young Star Fleet Officers have a lot ahead of them and I can’t wait to  what’s next.  GRADE: B

8. The Blind Side

         The very inspiring story of real life Baltimore Ravens Tackle Michael Oher is  the best sports film of 2009.  While this is billed as a Sandra Bullock movie, credit  should be given to Quinton Aaron for his incredible performance in the lead role.   Whereas, many football films highlight the so called “skill positions”, viewers not  familiar with football are immediately educated on the all important position of the  Left Tackle and his responsibility to protect the quarterback’s blind side.  In a  rather unique and informative manner, the film utilizes the famous 1985 Monday  Night Football footage in which Linebacker Lawerence Taylor of the New York     Giants ends Washington Redskins Quarterback Joe Theismann’s career with a  vicious hit that resulted in a compound fracture of the leg, thus proving the  importance of having a solid Left Tackle.  As the key physical attributes of a Left  Tackle are described, we realize the special gift “Big Mike” has and why he has  enormous potential on the football field.

          As most sports movies are, this is a message movie about the importance of     academics in sports.  All the potential in the world won’t mean anything if you are  unable to take care of business in the classroom.  This message reminded me of  another film I like a lot called “Coach Carter”, which was also a true story and  chronicled the struggles of the less fortunate and their path to success on the  court and in school (Coach Carter famously locks his team out of the gym due to  several players not cutting it in class).  What makes this film special is the     recency of the story.  Michael Oher was drafted in 2009 and is just completing his  rookie season in the NFL as of this writing.  The issues this young man dealt with  are the issues many like him deal with today and he serves as a shining example  of how focus and determination can lead to success.  Furthermore, the film  shows the great satisfaction one can achieve by helping others become better,  which is a deed far to scarce in today’s society. GRADE: B

7. Observe and Report

         Movies loaded with surprises are always the best to me.  Surprise means not     predictable and it would be tough to predict the ending in Observe and Report.   My pick as the best comedy of 2009 ( a wide margin over The Hangover),  Observe and Report has Seth Rogan in the best role of his career.  Where many  thought Jim Carrey failed the first time he took on a darker role in The Cable Guy, Seth Rogan succeeds in every way in a role he seemed destined to play.  The  dialogue is priceless.  The plot is hilarious.  The ending is one for the ages.

         I actually saw Observe and Report long before I sat through Paul Blart. With  all of the hype surrounded the Kevin James flick, I certainly expected it to be the  better film.  Actually, Paul Blart was horrible!  So much for the battle of the “Mall  Cop” films.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a Mall Security Guard, but I  suspect each and every negative thought all of them have ever had is glorified in  Observe and Report to maximum comic effect.  Some of the shock value  certainly owes to many of the early Tarantino films, but I left feeling this film was     original and very entertaining.  GRADE: B+

6. District 9

        A recurring theme in this Top 10 list is originality.  Before I can ever comment  on a film’s acting, direction, and story, I have to feel like the film I’m viewing is  something I haven’t already seen before.  Fresh material is always refreshing  and while there have been plenty of alien invasion type stories, there has never  been one as engrossing as District 9. Famed director Peter Jackson may have  lent his name to the advertising materials, but in the end District 9 probably would  have been a success anyway.  A terrific concept from start to finish, District 9 tells  story of an alien race stranded on our planet and their segregation from the  human population.  The parallels are endless with our current society.  The  “District 9” area is presented as a ghetto neighborhood, complete with trashy  shack like dwellings, an abundance of crime and drugs, and a human population  geared to either take advantage of the alien’s status or get rid of them all  together.  In fact, the plot centers around the government’s plan to remove the  entire alien population away from the city District 9 occupies and move them     further away.  Apparently, the humans have had enough of this substandard alien  race and want them out of site.

        Enter Wikus Van DeMerwe, the government agent charged with overseeing  the aliens eviction and move from District 9.  The film is, at first, presented  through the lens of a news crew documenting the operation.  During the initial  eviction process, Wikus is infected by an alien substance which begins to  transform him into an alien.  Slowly he becomes one of them, as he plots with  another alien to restart the mother ship hovering over South Africa.  The CGI in     this film is top notch and its a shame it won’t get its due come awards time.  My  standard for good CGI effects is simple:  seamless integration.  The CGI aliens  are not an after thought.  They are the stars of this film and they fit into the live  action extremely well, convincing the audience they are real and we should care  about them.  Only one film this year did that a little better, but District 9 holds its  own and will go down in my mind as an important science fiction classic. GRADE: A

5.  Paranormal Activity

         So what has been occurring while I sleep at night for all these years?  The  answer may have come from the best horror film of 2009, Paranormal Activity.    Almost immediately, this film was hyped as one of the scariest movies of all time.   Now when you hear that, how many films actually deliver?  To say the least, this  film delivers and has one hell of a payoff at the end.  To put it simply, this film  scared the crap out of me.  Let me explain.

        My wife and I were vacationing in San Diego (this is also where the story  takes place).  We planned on seeing Paranormal Activity based on a  recommendation coming from my wife’s 20 year old daughter who claimed she  couldn’t sleep at home alone after seeing it.  As a typical movie buff, I knew going  in the film cost a mere $11,000 to produce.  I knew the movie studio had planned   on remaking the film with name actors, but Steven Spielberg stepped in and said     it was FINE the way it is.  I also knew the film had won a wide theatrical release   due to a successful Twitter campaign in which the original tweet from the studio  was re-tweeted over one million times.  What I didn’t know was I was in for a big  time scare.  One that I am thinking about right now, as I write this!

       So we see the film and afterwards, we can’t stop talking about it.  I’m not  looking forward to going to sleep.  Later that night in our hotel room, I eventually  do fall asleep but awaken because I have a strange feeling.  A feeling someone  was looking over me and there was.  My wife felt the need to stand over me in  the dark and stare at me like the woman possessed in the film.  Needless to say I  am now scarred for my life and you will be too.  Paranormal Activity is a classic  horror film and should be mentioned amongst Halloween, The Shining, and  Silence of the Lambs as one of the most psychological and shocking works of  our time.  GRADE: A

4.  Up In The Air

         Up In The Air is a triumphant film which perfectly depicts the economic times  we live in today.  There are many jobs in this country which the majority of people  would say they wouldn’t want to have, but you likely will not consider wanting a  job where you work for a corporation which is hired by other corporations to fire  their people.  George Clooney gives one of his greatest performances as Ryan  Bingham.  A man whose job entails flying about the country, for all but 40 days a  year, firing people for other companies.  Along the way he meets Alex, a female  version of himself, who isn’t what she seems.  He is also charged with training a     young woman named Natalie, who is blossoming with ideas to bring the  company into the tech age and thereby eliminating the manner in which Ryan  does his job.

         There are many themes in play here including our tendency to favor non- humanistic approaches to common tasks for better efficiency, rather than  sticking with what is tried and true, and perhaps more compassionate.   Characters are as important as any element in a story and when this one ends,  we know Ryan Bingham and we know him well.  We know his strengths, his  weaknesses, his tendencies, and his preferences.  Character studies such as Up     In The Air are always at the top of my list.  When you feel an emotional  connection with the characters, the film has succeeded.  When the story is  with today’s issues, in this case the effects of the recession, the film is that much  more special.

         Jason Reitman has gotten this right before.  Just a couple of years ago, his  film “Juno” won the hearts of movie goers everywhere for many of the same  reasons Up In The Air has.  The film is down to earth and realistic.  The dialogue  is excellent and I found myself laughing throughout.  The performances are top notch and I see George Clooney winning his first Oscar for Best Actor.  Without a  doubt, this is the sleeper pick to win it all,  but it will fall just short because two  certain directors decided to make movies in 2009 as well.  GRADE: A

3.  The Hurt Locker

         For years I have longed for a great war film based on the various conflicts in   the Middle East.  A film which would tell the true story and depict it for what it is,  pure hell.  Though many films have tried, none have done it as effectively as The Hurt Locker.  Kathryn Bigelow directs Jeremy Renner in the story of an EOD  team in present day Iraq and the intense nature of their daily job.  This film is just  simply not satisfied telling a story, the film wants you to feel the story.

         As I watched, I could feel the pure intensity of disarming the roadside IEDs.   No, this is not the typical Hollywood “Do I cut the red wire or the blue wire?”  It is  much more complicated than that.  Renner’s character is fearless and he has to  be.  His assignments have him going into the middle of an open street to disarm  a myriad of explosive devices so various other Army units can make their way through safely.  His safety is not only compromised by the explosives, but also the hidden enemies poking out of building windows and doorways, pedestrians,  and passing vehicles. During each intense scene, I noticed everyone but him  was hiding behind cover.  His actions are selfless.  This is not a caricature of an  Army Soldier.  This is the real deal.  This is how it is.

        The Iraq war is not popular (wars shouldn’t be) and this showed in The Hurt   Locker’s paltry box office take.  Nonetheless, the film deserves to be recognized   as one of the best films of 2009.  As I said before, war movies must take us there   and put us in the middle of battle.  A good war movie will have you feeling the   sweat and tasting the blood.  To many films glamorize war and forget to show us   the exhaustion, the emotional baggage, and the loss every one of our soldiers  with each and every day.  I’ve been hoping for a film like this and I think it would     be tragic if it went unseen by the masses.  I expect a strong push come Oscar   time and hopefully that will translate into a successful run on DVD. GRADE: A

2.   Inglourious Basterds

         When a director like Quentin Tarantino announces he is making a film, there   comes with it a high level of expectation, which only the great ones tend to be  held to. Could Quentin do it again?  As for myself, I never doubted him and  neither will you.  Inglourious Basterds is a great film, a classic film, and a sure fire  Best Picture contender.  Sure we have seen many World War 2 epics.  But has  anyone ever taken on the challenge of rewriting history.  Here, Quentin has     defied logic and crushed the Third Reich in a way he feels is the way it should  have gone down.

         Those who have done their homework already know Quentin is a life long fan  of cinema.  It should come as no surprise that the premise revolves around a   German movie premiere and multiple plots to kill key members of the Nazi party  attending the event, including Hitler himself.  Enter the Basterds, I group of   Jewish-American soldiers led by none other than Lt. Also Raine, played brilliantly  by Brad Pitt.  Their mission: go behind enemy lines and kill Nazis.  Plain and  simple.

          Even though a large portion of the film is spoken in German, the expected  priceless Quentin Tarantino dialogue is ever present.  Quentin is clearly the most  screenwriter in Hollywood and has continually, over a long period of time,  created some of the most original characters and intriguing stories of our  generation.  When a Quentin character speaks, he says it like real people do.   The dialogue doesn’t come across as fake, but rather genuine.  As a director,  Quentin has always shown he is a master at building tension.  Look no further  than the opening scene in Basterds.  The conversations between the French  farmer and the “Jew Hunter” center around fresh milk and how Hans Landa got   his name and reputation.  All the while, a Jewish family is being hidden beneath  them below the floor boards.  As the audience, we know Hans knows they are  there and we also know something really bad is about to happen.  Yet, the  conversation goes on and makes us question what the outcome will be.  That is  Quentin’s gift, he knows right when to hit us and he knows when to hold off and  make us sweat.

         Its difficult to rank Inglourious Basterds against such notable Tarantino works  as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Kill Bill, but when compared to the 2009  field, the film ranks as one of the very best.  On a side note, the film taught us a  cool new party game to play, which was a hit with friends during a recent trip to  Mexico!  GRADE: A+

1. Avatar

         As my wife will attest, I watched the Avatar Teaser and Trailer on my computer   every day for 3 months until December 18th, 2009 arrived.  Why, you ask?  Since  1986, my favorite film of all time has been “Aliens” and with the writer/director  being James Cameron, Avatar automatically became my most anticipated film of  2009.  Did the film live up to the hype?  As you must’ve guessed by now with the  prestigious #1 ranking, Avatar is the film I hoped it would be and more.

         As the movie drew closer to opening day, I noticed many parallels with  Cameron’s last feature film, Titanic, which had opened 12 years in ago in 1997.   That film, at the time, was the most expensive film ever produced at an estimated  price tag of $200 million.  And so came the naysayers, questioning whether or  not a movie in which we already knew the ending, with no A-list stars, could be  successful or even watchable.  Because of 1991’s Terminator 2, Cameron     already had staked claim to the first ever $100 million production and with a  resume’ of box office hits such as the aforementioned Aliens, plus Terminator 1 &  2, The Abyss, and True Lies, how could one doubt that Cameron would deliver  the goods with Titanic?  Of course, the rest is history.  The self proclaimed “king  of the world” shattered all known box office records as Titanic grossed  $1.8 billion worldwide.  The film also collected 11 Oscars, including Best Picture,     and made a household name of Leonardo DeCaprio.  Not bad.

        Avatar was met with the same prerelease scrutiny, as production costs were  rumored to be well over $300 million.  For months Cameron touted his new film  as a “game changer”, which would change the way we watch movies forever.  As  the story was revealed to the public, people began to question why 20th Century  Fox invested in a love story where the two main characters are CGI blue aliens.   Would the audiences connect enough to actually care about their fate?  More  importantly, would the studio recoup its substantial investments? After 12 years  between features, would Cameron deliver?

        Avatar is not only the best film of 2009, it stands as one of the best of the  decade.  For the first time on a large scale, CGI motion capture characters are  brought to life with raw emotion and completely convincing performances.  James Cameron has literally created a new world from scratch.  From an entire  ecosystem to countless creatures and species, military hardware and vehicles,  alien cultures, and a story pulled from todays headlines, Avatar stands as a     historic and groundbreaking feature, a timeless classic which will stand the test  of time for generations to come.

        I expect Avatar to come very close to surpassing Titanic’s all time worldwide  box office gross.  At the time of this writing, Avatar already sits at #2 all time with   $1.2 billion in worldwide receipts.  The film appears on numerous critics 10 best  lists and has already won several critics awards.  Avatar will be a serious  contender for Best Picture and may approach Titanic’s overall total at the  Academy Awards.  James Cameron has done it again and I love it!  People in my     social circle who never talk about movies are talking about Avatar and  recommending it to their friends. It has become a worldwide hit and deservedly  so.  To say I am impressed, is an understatement.  I can’t imagine what my idol  filmmaker will come up with next.  GRADE: A+