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Column Thu Dec 31 2009

The Best and Worst Movies of 2009

Call me crazy, but I actually waited until the year was over before I finalized my Best Of... list. I managed to squeeze in a few more movies in the last two weeks of the year that were serious contenders for at least one of my lists. And if you think that a list of the 30 finest pieces of cinema of 2009 in overindulgent or just plain unnecessary, please feel free to stop at Number 10.

As in most years, I simply couldn't help myself — plus there were way too many great movies this year to ignore, and I'm not a big fan of simply piling all of the almost-made-it movies into a list. I've got 30 features, 15 documentaries, and 20 of the worst pieces of dung I got to endure in the past 365 days. With the first 10 of my Top 30, I've included excerpts of my original reviews. I'm sure you'll all disagree with my choices, so allow me to throw raw meat to the lions and wave a red rag in front of a bull. Enjoy.


1. Up In The Air
Through its note-perfect use of laughter, tears, and some of the best character building you're going to see all year, Up In The Air is a film that can be watched repeatedly, and each time, you'll discover something new and remarkable. There's an easy flow and dignity to this movie that made watching it the most effortless and enjoyable experience I had all year, but it still made me ponder (and often reaffirmed) my definitions of connections, relationships, family, and friends. There's a genuine pleasure to watching Up In The Air that I got from so few other films this or any other year, and I truly can't wait to revisit Ryan and the circle of acquaintances that clutter his life.

2. District 9
This seriously well-made science fiction epic combines politics, social commentary, aliens, extreme cartoony violence, and one of the best classic Hitchcock-ian, wrong-man-pursued plots in recent memory. Above all other things, District 9 is endlessly entertaining. I don't even know why you're reading this; you know you're going to see this three or four times in theaters and then go buy the DVD the day it comes. Yes, folks, it's that good. And I think without anticipating it, I've stumbled upon my favorite movie of the summer of 2009. I love when that happens.

3. Inglourious Basterds
Basterds feels like the film that Quentin Tarantino has been building steam toward his entire career, which I guess goes without saying since it is his latest work. But I'm talking about something different. I don't think Tarantino could have made a film with this scope and level of sophistication without having gone through some of the finest trial-and-error exercises a filmmaker in the modern age has ever gone through. There's a patience and elegance to Basterds that I simply wasn't prepared for. Sure, the blood flows like a geyser at times, but not nearly as much as I thought it would, which makes the film infinitely better. You are actually able to settle down with the movie's many American, German, and British characters, and get comfortable in their presence by simply listening to them chat and interact with each other. Then, when the violence begins, it breaks the serenity and lets hell rush out until it consumes you.

4. The Hurt Locker
How can I put this as gently as possible? Let whatever higher power I believe in help me find the words. Ah, here we go: You're an idiot if The Hurt Locker is playing within a 50-mile radius of where you live and you don't go see it. OK, I understand there might be extenuating circumstances that could keep you from going to see what is one of the best films of the year and easily the finest set in the midst of the Iraq War, but unless you're in a vegetative state, you've really go not excuse. If you don't have a car, start walking. If you're too young to see this R-rated fare, they're doing wonders with aging makeup these days; take advantage of this. Watching The Hurt Locker terrified me at times, both for the physical and emotional well being of its characters. My psyche was seriously fractured by watching this movie, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Seek this one out as if your life depended on it.

5. Moon
Moon is one of the finest works of cinematic science fiction that I've seen in a very long time. I've been telling people that it's the best sci-fi work I've seen in five years, but that timeframe isn't really tied to a particular movie. For all I know, it's the best science fiction film made in 20 years. I keep searching my personal databank to think of a film set in the future that I've enjoyed more, and I have to go back to some major league classics to find one. People are going to draw all sorts of comparisons between Moon and such classic films as Silent Running, Alien (more for the ho-hum quality of space living than the presence of any actual aliens) Outland, even 2001: A Space Odyssey, but rather than look for plot or tone similarities, look at what great company this film is keeping in the minds of critics and fans alike. This is a film made for people who grew up loving great science fiction films and literature, especially works made during the 1960s and '70s. There's a timeless quality to Moon that drew me in and gave me no choice but to have a deeply emotional reaction to this beautiful movie. I have little doubt this film will end up on my best of 2009 list, and you should see it just as soon as it lands in your neck of the woods.

6. Where the Wild Things Are
Director and co-writer Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers have given birth to a type of film that defies conventional film criticism. To say you loved, like, were neutral on, or hated their adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are doesn't quite get the job done. No, this work demands a far purer emotional response and deep psychological self-examination to get to the heart of why this telling of this very simple story gets to the root of what we are as human beings. Jonze might be better at this than any director working today. He doesn't thrust cold, therapeutic analysis at us. He takes us by the hand and guides us into the often-scary world inside our collective minds and shared experiences as both children and adults. Where the Wild Things Are is all sorts of glorious wonder in one sweeping package. That said, it was not a life-changing experience. For me, it was a life-affirming one. I'll somehow handle the disappointment. I've already said too much and spilled my guts more than I should have, but fuck it, this one is worth it. Just go see it, and bring with you all the baggage of your childhood, and prepare to have it partially exorcised if you're lucky. This is an incredibly moving and smart trip that I can't wait to watch repeatedly, and hear what others have to say about it.

7. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Holy sweet Jesus dipped in molasses. OK, I had no freakin' idea that this film was going to kick quite this much behind. But knock your ass into your shoes is exactly what happens when you take a familiar title, turn it into a franchise (this is no remake, re-imagining or retread of the Abel Ferrara Bad Lieutenant), and hand the reigns over to visionary Werner Herzog, who really has to go out of his way to make a bad movie these days. So here's the upshot: if you claim to be bored with formulaic Hollywood movies, this is a film custom made for you. Nothing about this movie is conventional, acceptable or easy to watch, but, man, is it insanely entertaining. I don't know who to heap the most praise upon — Herzog or Cage — so allow me to bow to them both and hope they make many more films together. They clearly belong in each other's company. And together, the two capture New Orleans so completely, you can actually smell the dank, moldy pockets that existed after Katrina. Just thinking about it gives me the vapors. Just go see this movie if you really need a cinematic experience that will take you way the hell out of your comfort zone and wake you the fuck up.

8. An Education
I walked into this fantastic little British production knowing next to nothing about who was in it or what it was about. So as each new layer of the story revealed itself, I was more and more impressed as time went one. The film is, at times, lighter than air and heavy beyond words. For such a small film, it takes you on one of the biggest life journeys I've seen in ages.

9. The Informant!
Watching The Informant! is like watching a building fall down one brick at a time, but in rapid succession. The lead character is clearly bipolar and a compulsive liar, and Matt Damon's performance is, without debate, the finest he's ever committed to film. But Damon is only a portion of why The Informant! absolutely rules. My first thought after watching the film was "How soon do I get to experience that again?" Soderbergh makes smart films look effortless, and that is no easy task. Not all of his films have been great, but he goes out of his way not only to find unusual stories to tell, but also fascinating ways to tell them. Just go see The Informant!, one of the funniest, most intelligent and entertaining bits of wackiness you'll see all year.

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Fantastic Mr. Fox might be the single most charming film I've seen all year, and I choose that word carefully and specifically. Charm is one of the most difficult things to get across in the film. You can like or love a movie and its characters well enough, but charm is a different monster. It's about winning over an audience to the point where we'd actually like to hang out more with these characters in the universe the director has created. There's a comfort element to the experience that you don't get with many films, even ones you adore. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is loaded to the gills with charm, sweetness, and humor without abandoning the irreverent wit and distinct visual style that director and co-writer Wes Anderson injects into all his film. This is a film that invites its young and old audiences to find things to love about its homemade aesthetic. Adults will adore the brand of humor and cleverly created family drama, while youngsters will swoon at it for entirely different reasons. Both will marvel at the rich, lush and inviting scenery while getting pulled in by these marvelously layered characters. Now show me the closest bar where a guy can grab a beer with his foxy new friends.

11. Star Trek
12. The Brothers Bloom
13. I Love You, Man
14. Antichrist
15. (500) Days of Summer
16. Adventureland
17. World's Greatest Dad
18. Up!
19. Zombieland
20. A Serious Man
21. Ponyo
22. In the Loop
23. Thirst
24. The White Ribbon
25. Coraline
26. Away We Go
27. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
28. Sin Nombre
29. Humpday
30. Goodbye, Solo


The Human Centipede
A Fantastic Fest standout that cannot be explained and almost can't be endured. There was one point during the film where I simply had to remove my glasses AND look away from the screen to simply not acknowledge what I was seeing on the screen. It's not that what was being portrayed visually was so appalling; it was more about the thought of what those poor people in this mad scientist marvel were going through that I simply couldn't stomach for fear of fainting, vomiting, crapping my pants, convulsing, or some combination of all of the above. If there is any way I can screen this awesomely repulsive film in Chicago, it will happen. Please seek this out by any means necessary. It doesn't make the Top 30 list, only because it wasn't officially released in 2009, but fingers crossed for 2010.


1. Tyson
I genuinely can't remember the last time I felt as torn about a documentary's subject matter as I did after watch director James Toback's penetrating and sometimes scarily intimate profile of former boxing champion Mike Tyson — he of the rape conviction, ear biting and bas-ass face tattoo. It's clear from the extensive interviews that Toback conducts that Tyson, now in the early 40s, is still somewhat confused and torn about his past, and he seems somewhat eager to set the record straight while still confounding us with his views on women, money, boxing, family, and his fractured state of mind. Odds are you won't have a clue how to look upon Mike Tyson, which in no way is a discouragement to this extremely important film. Quite the contrary, you should attempt to see this on a big screen. It's worth it to see such a bold and vengeful piece of filmmaking. Check this one out, even if sports in general and boxing in particular aren't that your favorite thing.

2. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
3. Best Worst Movie
4. The Cove
5. An Unlikely Weapon
6. The September Issue
7. Food Inc.
8. Winnebago Man
9. Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
10. The Yes Men Save the World
11. Herb & Dorothy
12. Walt & El Grupo
13. We Live in Public
14. Every Little Step
15. The Beaches of Agnes


Aliens in the Attic; All About Steve; Alvin & the Chipmunks: The (Motherfucking) Squeakquel; Amelia; Bride Wars; Hotel for Dogs; I Love You, Beth Cooper; The Final Destination; Halloween 2; Jennifer's Body; Land of the Lost; New In Town; Madea Goes To Jail; Next Day Air; Old Dogs; Paul Blart: Mall Cop; Pink Panther 2; Street Fighter; The Time Traveler's Wife


Crossing Over
The biggest difference between Crash and Crossing Over is that the latter film takes a great idea and compelling structure — exposing the current state of immigration and earned citizenship in America with several stories about different types of legal and illegal immigrants &mdash and then forgets some of the most basic fundamentals of filmed storytelling, like credible acting, editing that makes sense, believable scenarios, and not feeling like the film's message needs to be broadcast from a megaphone atop the tallest building in the land. The biggest surprise about Crossing Over is how many of the name-above-the-title actors let us down. They're either sleepwalking through their roles (as Harrison Ford does) or they emote so that those in the third balcony can feel it (Ashley Judd's immigration defense lawyer character is incredibly self-righteous, and Cliff Curtis as Ford's partner is just ridiculous). In a film that should have been about compassion, struggle, family and what it means to be an American, Crossing Over spends its running time calling attention to how noble it's being. The end result is a film that skims the surface of the immigration issue, while revealing itself to be nothing more than a heavy-handed, wretched message movie.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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