2009 Glennies, Part 5: Best Picture (Top 10 Films of 2009)

#11: Avatar



(written/directed by James Cameron)

Last year, I cheated my Top 10 list a bit because a numbering error in Word caused me to accidentally type an extra description. This year, I’ve opted to include James Cameron’s Avatar for a wholly different reason. You can read my full review of the film, in which I fully acknowledge a number of serious plot, character, and storytelling problems with this film. By any of these measures, Avatar was not worthy of my Top 10. And yet, I am compelled to include it, because I had an absolutely marvelous time with this film. My first viewing was on a miniscule screen, from a seat crammed into the right front section of the auditorium, but I still couldn’t take my eyes off a single frame. This film is a grand and wondrous spectacle. Even as piracy, obnoxious advertising, and a constant barrage of texting diminish and devalue the theatrical film experience, James Cameron has given us a new reason to adore it. And beyond that, the film has proven provocative enough to spawn some of the most in-depth and fascinating film writing I’ve ever seen in print or online. Avatar absolutely piles on its message, but whether you love it or hate it, you will certainly have something to talk about afterward.

#10: The Boys Are Back



(directed by Scott Hicks, screenplay by Allan Cubitt, novel by Simon Carr)

Scott Hicks’ The Boys Are Back accomplished something remarkable… It managed to take a rather somber premise – a husband and father dealing with his wife’s untimely death – and turn it into a downright cheerful film. The film is shot in Hicks’ native Adelaide, Australia, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography (complimented by Hal Lindes’ delightful score) give this film an absolutely gorgeous backdrop. The film excels in its tone and pacing. It deals with some weighty issues, but the story moves right along when it needs to, and never veers too far into somber territory without coming back to show us something genuinely delightful. This variable emotional curve could easily have come off as jarring, bipolar, and seemingly not serious enough for the film’s subject matter, but it manages to avoid these problems. The result is a joyous portrait of family and fatherhood, featuring a trio of strong performances from Clive Owen and his cinematic sons.

#9: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince



(directed by David Yates, screenplay by Steve Kloves, novel by J.K. Rowling)

When I first read J.K. Rowling’s sixth Harry Potter book, I thought it was a fascinating middle chapter, but easily the least cinematic in the franchise. I held a similar view of the fifth book, so imagine my surprise in 2007 when director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg turned it into one of the best films in the franchise. And with the sixth film, Yates and returning HP screenwriter Steve Kloves have done it again.

I will throw in a caveat… This is definitely not a film for newcomers to the franchise. It’s crammed with back story and setup for the final chapters. It relies on an existing interest in and affection for the characters, their relationships, and a rich and elaborate world that deftly raise the stakes for this entry. And yet, this is one of the film’s most persistent strengths. We’ve watched these kids grow up in the joyous halls of Hogwarts, but this time around, the school feels strangely empty and somber. DP Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography makes the grounds look absolutely gorgeous, and provide a brilliant “underwater” look for the film’s many flashback sequences (I was quite pleased to see the Academy take notice). Nicholas Hooper’s score is hauntingly beautiful at times, but keeps the same cheery flourishes that I so enjoyed from the fifth film (particularly the Weasley twins’ theme).

I already singled out Jim Broadbent’s fantastic supporting role, but there were too many strong performances in this film to even mention. The character work and storytelling were effective, and the adaptation showed remarkable restraint in omitting an entire battle sequence from the end of the film. In print, this sequence always played like a lighter version of the next book’s final battle (minor spoiler – there’s a final battle), and cutting it out of the film was definitely the right choice.

#8: Up



(written/directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

The latest Disney/Pixar film from Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc) definitely fell prey to what I would call “WALL-E syndrome” – the first half hour is absolutely the best part of the film. It tells the poignant love story of childhood sweethearts Carl and Ellie Fredricksen in a matter of minutes, and is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking montages I’ve ever seen put to film. It is also a taut piece of visual storytelling, effectively conveying such weighty adult issues as infertility and broken dreams with only the briefest of glimpses and zero dialogue. By the time we meet Ed Asner’s cantankerous old man, he is thoroughly endearing, and finds an excellent partner in crime in Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer who is just the right blend of cute and annoying. The ensuing adventure film is immensely fun, and features the hilarious motif of a talking dog with the intelligence and personality of…a dog (with a great voice performance by co-writer/director Bob Peterson). Up certainly takes place in a heightened reality, but it tells a very down-to-earth and touching story.

#7: Adventureland



(written/directed by Greg Mottola)

As I said in my original review, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland defied my expectations on every level. I went in expecting a comedy akin to Superbad – and the film’s marketing certainly encouraged this image of the film. Instead, I was presented with a mature, poignant drama that presented a brilliant portrait of the twentysomething post-college experience, and the sudden, reluctant thrust into adulthood.

The film boasts some brilliant performances… Jesse Eisenberg plays a great everyman, and was just shy of my Top 5 for Best Actor. Ryan Reynolds and Kristen Stewart were both surprisingly effective (each of them having lowered my expectations at some point), and Martin Starr – whom I’ve adored since “Freaks and Geeks” – continues to show his prowess here.

Adventureland is both an effective coming-of-age tale and a touching romance, whose conciliatory message (“You can’t just avoid all the people you’ve screwed up with!”) will likely resonate as much with this generation as it did in the 1980s, when a young Greg Mottola was working at the real Adventureland. Whether this indicates the film’s timelessness or simply Mottola’s understanding of modern twentysomethings, the result is well worth seeing.

#6: Coraline



(written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, novel by Neil Gaiman)

The best use of 3D animation I’ve seen this year was not in James Cameron’s Avatar, but in Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of Coraline, a children’s novel by Neil Gaiman. Equal parts Nightmare Before Christmas and Alice in Wonderland, this film is a fantastically creepy exploration of a child’s desire to escape boredom. The voice cast is enjoyable, with effective performances by Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, and a fantastic use of Keith David as a talking cat. The plot does get a bit too much like a video game in the third act (use your special scope, go here, retrieve one item from each location, BOSS FIGHT!), but it balances this with an absolutely stunning mixture of stop motion and CG animation as the fantasy world starts to crumble – and I’d be hard pressed to tell you where one stops and the other begins. Everyone has a film from their childhood that is as beloved as it is nightmare-inducing. Coraline absolutely deserves the title for today’s kids.

#5: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs



(written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, novel by Judi and Ron Barrett)

Sony Pictures Animation has only made a few films, they got off to a fantastic start with Gil Kenan’s 2006 film Monster House. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs had an atrocious marketing campaign, and hardly looked like it would be a worthy followup. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the best comedy of the year.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor whose latest invention is a machine that can turn water into food. The science in this film is very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic – immensely fun and borderline magical. The character design is deliberately cartoonish, in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film’s North Atlantic island locale feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

This is a screwball comedy driven by a non-stop barrage of surprisingly thoughtful gags. The casting is fantastic, with great performances by Hader, Anna Faris, Andy Samberg, James Caan, and even Mr. freaking T (whose character actually sports an inverse mohawk). This supports some very believable relationships and effective character work. The film even tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but keeps this to a very basic level. It’s one of many ways the film shows respect for its audience, kids and adults alike. The running gags all pay off fantastically, lending the film extremely well to repeat viewings.

This is about as preachy as I’ll get during my top 10… This is a film for everyone. It’s the best character-driven animation since The Incredibles, and one of my all-time favorite comedies. See this movie!

#4: Moon



(directed by Duncan Jones, written by Nathan Parker, story by Duncan Jones)

I’ll keep this one brief, since I’ve already raved about Sam Rockwell’s performance, and this is basically his one-man show (you can check out my full review here). Duncan Jones’ Moon does a lot with very little, creating a compelling moon base environment on a downright meager budget. It’s helped along by an absolutely beautiful score (I have yet to hear a Mansell score I haven’t loved). It’s a fantastic character piece, and a welcome return to true sci-fi. Check it out if you love big ideas.

#3: The Hurt Locker



(directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal)

Kathryn Bigelow’sThe Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly have a conventional plot, but feels rather like a series of carefully constructed action set-pieces. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly effective thriller, owing largely to the action direction – that sense of spatial relationships that is that is absent from so many action films today. From my original review:

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

The rest of the film’s effectiveness is due to the three leads. Renner, Mackie, and Geraghty are just fantastic, and present a fascinating psychological profile of these characters, even as the film’s plot and dialogue exhibit utter contempt for anyone trying to analyze them. The film’s greatest strength is in crafting a palpable sense of urgency and danger – when it’s over, you’ll have to forcibly pry yourself loose from the edge of your seat.

#2: Up in the Air



(directed by Jason Reitman, screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, novel by Walter Kirn)

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air bears a few similarities to Reitman’s last bit of corporate satire, Thank You For Smoking (including another great soundtrack), but has a much more somber tone. In my original review, I called it a brilliant and timely character piece, and I can’t stress this point enough. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a doubly fascinating character, between his constant air travel and his job as a professional hatchet-man. This may be the best performance of Clooney’s career, amid a trio of fantastic acting. The film takes a great number of risks, but stops just short of spreading its characters too thin. What’s more, it contains some of the richest dialogue and most effective scenes I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year. And while it may be timely, this does nothing to diminish its rewatch value (three times and counting for me).

#1: Inglourious Basterds



(written/directed by Quentin Tarantino)

This film’s brilliantly deceptive trailer made it look like the Basterds (and their commander’s awful and hilarious scenery-chewing) would be the stars of the show. While I actually ended up liking Brad Pitt’s performance in the end, the Basterds feel more like a backdrop for the main revenge plot, which featured powerhouse performances from costars Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, and Diane Kruger.

In my original review, I noted some minor similarities to Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film, Valkyrie. In that film’s insistence upon historical accuracy, it demanded a great deal of its audience – namely, to root for a plot whose failure was a matter of historical record. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while.

And what a world it is. A world of fantastic performances and increasingly tense 15-minute dialogue scenes. These scenes stop just short of being self-indulgent, and ultimately, Tarantino earns every moment in this film. It feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it simultaneously feels complete.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil (fantastic documentary by Sacha Gervasi – omitted because I only just saw it)
  • In the Loop (directed by Armando Ianucci, written by Jesse Armstrong)
  • Drag Me To Hell (directed by Sam Raimi, written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi)
  • The House of the Devil (written/directed by Ti West)
  • The Brothers Bloom (written/directed by Rian Johnson)
  • Trick ‘r Treat (written/directed by Michael Dougherty)
  • District 9 (directed by Neill Blomkamp, written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)
  • (500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb, written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber)
  • Observe and Report (written/directed by Jody Hill)
  • Star Trek (directed by J.J. Abrams, written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci)

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

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Week in Brief: “Whip It”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

whip-it_poster-690x1024

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old girl who takes a shine to roller derby – the sport in which ladies both lovely and terrifying skate around a banked oval track throwing elbows and attempting to collapse each other’s lungs while passing their opponents’ crumpled bodies to score points. The title refers to a technique whereby one or two skaters act as an anchor to in order to “whip” a teammate past them – a slingshot maneuver designed to greatly increase the teammate’s speed around the track. When I saw this and similar maneuvers put forth in the later matches of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the “Flying V” of The Mighty Ducks. Indeed, Whip It ends up falling somewhere between a Disney sports film and a Texas football tale, and even without the other story trappings, it would be an admirable entry in the sporting genre.

Bliss’ mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) puts constant pressure on her daughter to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball, and is naturally appalled to find out what her daughter is doing with her spare time. The parallels to overeager Texas football dads aren’t exactly subtle, but this subplot worked well for me, owing largely to Page and Harden’s performances, as well as that of Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father.

When confessing her secret sporting life to her parents, Bliss proclaims, “I am in love with this!”. This line was in the trailer, and Page delivered it with such earnestness that it was almost solely responsible for my interest in this film. The story of a teenager in love who doesn’t need to wallow in brooding, misunderstood angst was strangely appealing to me, and Page’s performance delivered on every bit of promise from this line.

And yet, Bliss is not an unrealistic or idealized teen. She acts bratty and selfish at times, and is ultimately put in her place a bit for it. She partakes in a romance with a local guitarist, for no clear reason other than because he’s (omg) super-hot. This storyline initially seems pointless, but pays off rather well in the end, and treats us to a bizarre, but entertaining underwater makeout scene.

The supporting cast is solid, with great performances from Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Zoe Bell (the Kiwi stuntwoman from Death Proof), Andrew Wilson (Idiocracy), and Kristen Wiig (“SNL”) – who proves her acting chops even without her signature comedic deadpan. The great Juliette Lewis is also effective as a rival derby player.

The only real weak link in the acting – with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as an absolutely repellent announcer – is director Drew Barrymore. I was conflicted about her presence as an actress in this film; at times, it seems self-indulgent. Barrymore plays a member of the derby team – basically a non-character, lacking any defining characteristics beyond her nom de guerre (Smashley Simpson). I can’t comment much on her performance, since she doesn’t really do much acting, but she does bring the same convincing physicality to the derby sequences as the ladies above (granted, I have no idea how many of the stunts were actually done by the actresses). There’s seems to be no reason for her to be in this film except to join the fun, but I can’t fault her too much for it.

As a freshman filmmaker, Barrymore’s direction is not mindblowing, but she has done a fine job. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings the same sort of semi-grainy look that he’s used in every one of Wes Anderson’s films, but it works fine here. The camera starts off tight and claustrophobic – focusing on a one or two players at a time, intermixed with POV shots (seemingly from a camera on skates), but as the film goes on, the shots get wider, and we see more and more. The direction kept the action coherent, built the matches’ interest as the film went on, and brought an adequate measure of intimacy and earnestness to the character moments.

The empowering message of “Be Your Own Hero” is ever-present, but not overwrought. If there’s one message the film conveys best, it’s that roller derby looks brutal and immensely fun, and it’s wrapped in enough solid character work to make this a memorable film.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
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Poster for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Every once in a while, a film comes along that challenges Pixar’s well-earned dominance of the animation market. A film with a solid story, compelling characters, and gorgeous animation. Last year, it was about a panda that wants to learn kung fu. This year, it’s about a scientist who builds a machine that turns rain…into food.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor who has built a myriad of bizarre inventions since childhood, from spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. His latest invention is a machine that can “mutate the genetic formula of water to turn it into food”. And that’s about as detailed as the science gets in this film. Lockwood’s lab is designed very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic, complete with a set of blast doors painted onto a curtain. And just like Calvin, all of the science he develops is immensely fun and borderline magical.

Lockwood lives on a drab island town in the North Atlantic called Swallow Falls, which had previously survived solely on its sardine industry. This industry collapsed when it was discovered – and announced in newspapers the world over – that “Sardines Are Super Gross”. While the town makes an ill-conceived attempt to revitalize through “sardine tourism”, Lockwood’s invention accidentally blasts into the sky (as crackpot inventions are wont to do), and he discovers that it can be programmed remotely to make the skies rain down any food the townspeople want like manna from heaven.

Also in the mix is the power (and food) hungry mayor (Bruce Campbell), a beautiful weather intern (Anna Faris), Lockwood’s disapproving father (James Caan), an aging former sardine mascot (Andy Samberg), and an alarmingly speedy cop (Mr. T). The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Sony appears to have learned a lesson from Dreamworks’ failures. You can’t just pack a film with movie stars and expect them to do well as voice actors. These actors (even Mr. T) feel very much at home in their parts.

As for the character design, it seems quite deliberately cartoonish. Flint Lockwood looks more or less like Jon Arbuckle, with a nose easily half the size of his head. His father’s eyes aren’t even visible under a huge bushy brow and above an equally monstrous mustache, and Mr. T’s cop sports an inverted mohawk (a line shaved down the center). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and yet the island of Swallow Falls feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

The film could have stopped there, but it goes on to showcase some remarkable visual wonders and absurdities. There are depictions of food and food-related wonder and peril that I never could’ve imagined before this film. What does a sunrise look like through the shimmering golden walls of a palace made of jello? How do the children play in a town covered in giant scoops of ice cream? What does it look like when huge animate gummy bears hop onto the wing of a plane and start ripping out wires like a pack of gremlins? I could go on. By the end of this film, you will know all of this, and more.

The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the writers of CBS’ brilliantly funny sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother”, and this film has many similarities to that show. In addition to the rapid-fire jokes delivered throughout the film, it also showcases several well-conceived running gags, each of which has a hilarious payoff by the end. It also balances the humor, which is unrelenting and hilarious, with some solid character work. There’s Sam Sparks, the weather girl, afraid to show how smart she really is, and ‘Baby’ Brent, the former sardine mascot, unsure of what to do with his life in adulthood…

There is also a very well-conceived relationship between Flint Lockwood and his father. Tim Lockwood is a simple fisherman, afraid of new technology, who can only communicate meaningfully with his son in the form of fish-related metaphors. As Flint unveils his fantastical machine to the townspeople, this relationship becomes imbued with subtle shades of the creative destruction wrought by new technology on old industry. The relationship keeps these shades while confronting one of the most basic questions between father and son: Is Tim proud or appalled by what Flint has accomplished?

It is largely through this relationship that the film tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but it keeps this to a very basic level. This treatment of the film’s message seemed well-suited for such a lighthearted romp of a film, but it may feel to some like a missed opportunity. To such individuals, I would simply say this: not every film needs to be WALL-E. This film deftly acknowledges the implications of its grand premise, and then leaves its audience to ponder them further if they desire. This, along with the myriad of smart running gags, will ensure that this film rewards repeat viewings. This is a gorgeous, intelligent, and family-friendly piece of animation, sure to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It respects its audience and will leave them begging for more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Special thanks to Devindra Hardawar from the /Filmcast for recommending this film, which I would probably have overlooked otherwise.