Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Best Films of 2009!

It seems somewhat crazy in retrospect, but, sitting at the tail end of last year – a period which produced some of the most noteworthy films of the decade - the approaching movie year of 2009 was awaited by many with a combination of trepidation and ambivalence. We were warned for months prior that, due to the lingering after effects of the WGA strike, there would be bombarded with a considerable amount of shoddily-written tent-poles and hastily-assembled projects green-lit solely to fulfill the economic needs of the business.
Indeed, there was definite cause for concern.

However, though there were certainly a few clumsy high-profile black marks (such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Year One), 2009 proved, intriguingly, to be the anti-hype year, with the majority of the best film-going experiences thriving on the buzz of discovery, as opposed to pre-sold satisfaction. While massively-marketed blockbusters (like Terminator: Salvation and Angels and Demons) and prestige awards-bait (Nine, Invictus, The Lovely Bones and The Informant!, to name a few) disappointed, startling word-of-mouth hits such as District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Paranormal Activity and Star Trek (A project which, prior to release, seemed destined to underperform) thrilled and moved ticket-buyers the world over.

Looking over my list, I’m inspired by the staggering originality and craftsmanship of the films on it, and I treasure the unforgettable trips each and every one took me on. These ten – and the honorable mentions, of course – exemplify the intense excitement and stunning artistry of a wonderfully rich year of movie-watching; an ideal close to an often turbulent cinematic decade.

1) INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS If Death Proof occasionally felt like Quentin Tarantino spinning his wheels, this blood-spattered ode to WWII and the liberating power of cinema is like a baseball bat to the head of mainstream filmmaking; a staggeringly grand-scale-yet-intimate effort that you yearn to dismantle just so you can decipher why its disparate parts fit together so flawlessly. From gripping intro - wherein sadistic Nazi Hans Landa (the chilling Christoph Waltz) interrogates a frightened farmer - to nightmarish conclusion, Basterds hums captivatingly along like a brutal, witty, well-oiled machine. Movies this breathtaking, innovation and unique are a dearly treasured rarity, and I’m indescribably thankful to know that – sixteen years in – Tarantino still has enough fight left in him to continue to shock and awe anyone who buys a ticket.

2) THE HURT LOCKER Appearing like an oasis in a sea of bloated political polemics, The Hurt Locker succeeds triumphantly by eschewing the hot-button issues almost entirely. Rather, in drawing us into the white-knuckle day-to-day life of Ssgt. William James (Jeremy Renner in a star-making performance), an adrenaline junkie tasked with defusing bombs in war-torn Iraq, director Kathryn Bigelow adroitly provides a nail-bitingly suspenseful you-are-there experience which, true to the movie’s “War is a Drug” tagline, leaves you feeling shaken and buzzed, yet fixing for more.

3) A SERIOUS MAN Of the numerous original characters that emerged in 2009, none were quite as tragically unforgettable as Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the beat-down Jewish physics professor battling to escape a suffocating hell of personal, professional and existential crises. Wearing a frazzled expression of woeful hope and, alternately, impotent dread, the bespectacled Larry’s blackly comic descent into damnation provides the bitter center to the Coen Brothers’ challenging and often deeply unsettling 60s-set absurdist odyssey. Utterly uncompromising, A Serious Man is a tantalizing cinematic enigma that attaches itself to your brain and refuses to let go. No matter how nicely you ask it.

4) UP Following in the rusty tread-marks of Wall-E, Pixar’s tenth feature-length slice of animated delight once again proved the studio to be the utmost crafters of emotionally-devastating first acts in the business, with a heart-rending, dialogue-free recap of the romantic life of Carl and Ellie Fredrickson leaving many – myself included – moist-eyed and sniffling. Luckily, Pete Docter’s Up manages to hold its course for the entire duration, shifting from thrilling adventures, to sincerity and broad comedy as buoyantly as Carl’s magnificently soaring home.

5) ADVENTURELAND Criminally under-seen during its release, writer/director Greg Mottola’s lovable amusement park coming-of-age tale deserves recognition alongside the life-affirming works of inspiration Cameron Crowe. A touching tribute to the lazy summer days and nights of low-wage employment, Adventureland, with its marvellous cast - including Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Ryan Reynolds - and impeccable soundtrack, lulls you into a blissful state of nostalgic joy, where even the raunchiest laughs speak to a recognizable truth. This is a movie you want to hug and treasure; a tender reminder of time gone by and of those balmy, enchanted evenings when the mysteries of the cosmos could almost be unlocked by a bright smile or an adoring gaze.

6) HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE Silly me, I was becoming convinced that Harry Potter was beginning to run out of magic dust, following the rather lacklustre Order of the Phoenix. So it now feels pretty terrific to be eating crow, as this summer’s Half-Blood Prince proved to be the very finest of the cinematic literary adaptations. Directed with a true storyteller’s zeal by David Yates, and featuring stunning cinematography and a crackerjack performance by Jim Broadbent, the world of Hogwarts has never been as exciting, perilous or sublimely gorgeous as it is here.

7) FANTASTIC MR. FOX After a string of lukewarm disappointments, it was a dazzling, hysterical treat to witness hipster auteur Wes Anderson rediscover the beauty of his own idiosyncratic cinematic language through stop-motion technology and the sneaky, miraculous spirit of Roald Dahl. In detailing how George Clooney’s wily animal thief extraordinaire leads a trio of callous farmers on a wild goose chase, the gifted director delivers a sumptuously detailed visual banquet of a fable, replete with sharp ironic zingers, warmth and – evidenced best during a poignant encounter with a majestic lone wolf – unadulterated, entrancing wonder.

8) UP IN THE AIR Jason Reitman’s revelatory third effort – a standout in a weak year for studio-produced prestige projects - is a refreshingly adult meditation on the complexities of human connection and corporate culture. Riding confidently on the broad shoulders of George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, a travelling professional free of personal ties, who takes on a naive protégé (Anna Kendrick) and begins a playful relationship with a similarly-spirited mystery woman (Vera Farmiga), Up in the Air expertly walks a fine line between cynism and optimism, offering plenty of truthfulness and good-natured humour. It further proves that wunderkind Reitman may just be his generation’s answer to Billy Wilder.

9) STAR TREK Jubilantly breaking free from forty years of suffocating continuity, J.J. Abrams whizz-bang reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s iconic science-fiction universe is a truly astonishing sight to behold. Soaring higher than it has in eons, this Enterprise – now staffed by a brilliantly cast new crew of space voyagers, led by the ultra-charismatic Chris Pine – takes audiences on an exhilarating and massively entertaining flight into the heart of popcorn blockbuster nirvana. Now, with a rejuvenated life-force and infinite opportunities ahead, Star Trek’s future has never been brighter.

10) DRAG ME TO HELL Francois Truffaut’s oft-quoted statement on the filmic medium was that “cinema should express either the joy of making cinema or the anguish of making cinema”. Well sir, Sam Raimi’s return to the spook-a-blast genre of his youth falls, goofy and grinning ear-to-ear, into the former; a slime-soaked tribute to the gloriously bonkers world of gypsy curses, moonlit séances and cackling possessed farm-stock. Aided by on-screen co-conspirator Alison Lohman - a good sport if ever there was one – the director unleashes one of the decade’s greatest fright-fest extravaganzas, a goofball exploration of the macabre that delivers jack-in-the-box scares with irresistibly impish glee.


Thursday, January 21, 2010


Michael Cera was born to play a character named Nick Twisp. With his unabashedly earnest demeanour, dark, frightened rabbit eyes and graceless, lanky frame - which frequently seems to be trying to burrow within itself – the star has shown a masterful knack for portraying sheltered, neurotic adolescents longing to break out of their awkward shells, but lacking the resolve to overcome their own self-imposed strict moral and emotional boundaries. It’s a winning schtick that has served him very, very well, in comedies ranging from terrific (Superbad, Juno, TV’s Arrested Development) to unbearable (Year One, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), and more or less carries Youth in Revolt, a reasonably entertaining adaptation of C.D. Payne’s absurdist novel.

When we first meet Youth’s put-upon protagonist, he’s a sensitive, V-card carrying soul, enamoured with Frank Sinatra music and art-house cinema, living in an insufferable household presided over by his strumpet mother Estelle (Jean Smart) and her pathological liar boyfriend Jerry (Zach Galifianakis). Invisible to his female classmates, forlorn Nick finds his life fortuitously turned upside-down when, during an abrupt family lake-side vacation, he meets the beautiful Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday – walking the thin line between innocent and erotic as tantalizingly as if starring in a Lolita remake), a fellow frustrated teen desperate for companionship. However, when the Twisp clan decides to return home, placing the two not-quite-lovers’ union on excruciating hold, the dejected Nick devises a labyrinthine scheme to reunite with the object of his unbridled infatuation.

Inspired by the flamboyant bad boys of new wave cinema, our wishy-washy hero creates a moustachioed nogoodnik alter ego dubbed Francois Dillinger (who alternately looks to have escaped from the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video), a foul-mouthed anarchist bent on destruction and manipulation in the name of sexual conquest. After one of the doppelganger’s chaotic acts results in arson, Nick, a wanted man, retreats back to his vacation destination, underachieving father George (the oh-so invaluable Steve Buscemi) and 25-year-old trophy girlfriend Lacey (Ari Graynor) in tow, with the intent of continuing his romance with Sheeni – a plan which promptly crumbles when he discovers that she has been sent away to boarding school. So, with Francois once more off-the-leash and running wild, Nick sets out on a single-minded quest to win Sheeni’s hand anew, regardless of laws and consequences.

This feverishly hormonal split-personality odyssey gives Youth in Revolt its novel spark. Although Cera can still effortlessly draw laughs by gawkily muttering verbose non sequitors or attempting to save face when any chance for preserving dignity is long past, his bold portrayal of Francois reveals previously unwitnessed dimensions to the actor. Hiding behind an ever-present cigarette, blue contacts, and tight-fighting wardrobe, and speaking in an octave or two lower than his usual gentle pitch, Cera projects a convincingly monstrous id; a hilariously comedic study in unflappable self-assurance in the face of conscience, logic and reason. He’s a fun creation – one the film would have been better-served utilizing more of – and, when contrasted against wimpy Nick Twisp, there’s genuinely sharp chemistry. It’s one of the better examples of an actor playing duelling roles in recent memory.

It’s too bad that the movie, directed by Miguel Arteta, isn’t working on the same elevated level. Despite being only 90 minutes long, Youth in Revolt’s pace has an unfortunate tendency to flag during the increasingly scattered, overly wacky latter sections. This problem is an inherent flaw in the script by Gustin Nash, which, in attempting to distil Payne’s 500+ page book, often short-changes characters, such as Jade Fusco’s Bernice Lynch, Buscemi’s Twisp Senior and Graynor’s impulsive Lacey, who feel set up for far more than they ultimately pay off. Most grating, though, are the prominent animated segments that, besides not being remotely amusing, feel precious and obnoxious; a thin attempt at drawing in the hipster crowd.

Luckily, even with the obvious under-writing and condensing, the film’s star-packed cast often matches Cera’s strong work, and help to ease out the narrative bumps and diversions. Adhir Kalyan, playing Nick’s new high school friend, almost steals the show entirely during a road-trip section – easily the flick’s strongest detour - where the duo crashes Sheeni’s French-Only boarding school. Equally effective, in smaller roles, are Ray Liotta as a cop with lusty eyes for Mrs. Twisp and Fred Willard, who earns the film’s single biggest laugh, as a nutty, uber-liberal neighbour.

Youth in Revolt is a fairly typical January release; an amiable and breezy watch, with some enjoyable turns, which will probably play better on a lazy night in front of the idiot box than in the multiplex. Although the movie is loaded with the expected sexual innuendos and vulgar language, the tone feels too safe and restrained, reluctant to truly explore the darker avenues that its hero recklessly wanders down. Frankly, I wish Arteta had spent less time trying to emulate genial ol’ Nick and more time embracing his own inner-Francois. 

3 out of 5

*Originally printed in SFU's The Peak: Jan 18th, 2010.