This week in honor of the Academy Awards – traditionally the last opportunity to discuss the previous year of films in a critical light – we here at The Fourth Wall take one last look back at 2009. The Weekly Listicle proudly presents William Bibbiani and Julia Rhodes’ lists of the Best and Worst Films of 2009.
WILLIAM BIBBIANI’S TOP TEN FILMS OF 2009:
My lists were previously published, in much less detail, on Geekscape at the end of 2009, but over the last few months they have changed significantly as I have caught up on some prominent – and less than prominent – films that I had previously missed. So please consider these my new, official lists for 2009.
In a year of epic wonders and intelligent independent cinema my favorite film, and by extension the best (since I feel my opinion is justified by the film’s quality), was this incredible action-drama from director Pierre Morel and producer Luc Besson. Liam Neeson stars as a man who dedicated his life to preserving national security only to lose his family’s love as a result. When his daughter is kidnapped in Europe he must ironically utilize the skills that separated his family unit to bring them back together again. A flawless screenplay that portrays violent acts while respecting their consequences and a captivating performance from Liam Neeson as the most human action hero of the last decade combine to make a classic film, regardless of its genre.
2. World’s Greatest Dad
Bobcat Goldthwaite returns to the director’s chair to tell a story with the heaviest thematic material of the year – by far – and in a move that cements him as a filmmaking talent extraordinaire also makes it the funniest, most heart-wrenching film of the year, featuring what may be Robin William’s finest performance as a father making impossible decisions for the sake of his abominably unlovable son. To say any more would ruin the experience.
3. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino stepped out of his comfort zone to tell a World War II story freed from the boundaries of epic set pieces, all male casts and even that pesky “historical accuracy.” The result may go down as his best film. Daringly constructed as a series of suspense sequences worthy of Hitchcock, and anchored by marvelous performances from Academy Award-winner Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent.
4. (500) Days of Summer
(500) Days of Summer pulls a remarkable about-face from its romantic comedy brethren, who in one respect or another all seem to have been making variations on His Girl Friday for the past 70 years. Yes, it’s funny and yes, it’s sweet, but most importantly it’s the first romantic comedy in memory that actually seems to understand what it’s like to be young and in love in the 21st Century, with all the hope, fear and confusion that entails, anchored by a fine decision to tell the tale from the subjective viewpoint of the wonderful Joseph Gordon Levitt, a romantic who finds himself completely right and utterly wrong about everything he wants to believe in.
5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s seemingly effortless artistic style somehow survived through stop-motion animation, the most effort-intensive filmmaking process imaginable. In perhaps the most impressive screenplay adaptation of the year, Anderson took Roald Dahl’s children’s story and brought out a mature subtext about sacrificing dreams for responsibilities and dealing with the consequences, even when doing so is against your nature. And somehow it seems as innocent and pure as all the other classic family films it is destined to be ranked alongside in the future.
6. In the Loop
It’s pretty remarkable to discover that In the Loop is just a spin-off from the BBC series “In the Thick of It,” since the film stands completely on its own as one of the best political comedies ever filmed. In the Loop details the complicated nature in which flawed human beings change the world – for better but usually worse – through their often failed attempts at communication, the source of the film’s seemingly boundless humor.
7. The House of the Devil
Ti West’s House of the Devil is exactly the kind of horror film that everyone claims to want to watch yet never actually pays to see. His masterful pacing and spot-on eye for 1980’s period detail makes this incredible slow-burn horror film, about a babysitter who falls prey to Satan worshippers, stand out from the “Hey Mom, look at me I’m making a horror film!” mentality that so many younger directors seem to think is necessary to get noticed in the industry. West’s work here has earned comparisons to the early films of Roman Polanski, and with very, very good cause. He’s a director you should keep your eye on.
Every film, indeed every work of art, is emotionally manipulative (or at least trying to be). Up is that rare kind of film that you end up thanking for putting you through the emotional wringer. Much has been made of that incredible extended prologue telling the story of a love that lasted a lifetime, yet not – to our protagonist’s dismay – two of them. But not enough praise has been given to the rest of the film’s innocent wonder at the possibilities that life provides… if you only go out and look.
9. District 9
Avatar was a white guilt movie about a guy who adopts a foreign culture and ends up fighting his own in a kind of too-little, too-late attempt at redemption. District 9, a much bolder and more impressive filmmaking accomplishment, ironically covers the same territory but by removing the “white guilt” part director Neill Blomkamp manages to explore much more complicated emotions and thematic material. Wikus Van Der Merwe may be the most unlikable protagonist of the year, but that makes his harrowing journey all the more unexpected and compelling than all the tired old Christ-analogues Hollywood keeps shoveling down our throats. And, if I may say so, the action sequences are totally badass.
10. I Love You, Man
Remember when I praised (500) Days of Summer on this very same list for deviating from the same romantic comedy tropes we’ve been recycling for 70 years? Now watch as I praise I Love You, Man for following them to the letter. Director John Hamburg and his impeccable writers and cast use these familiar conventions to illuminate another facet of 21st Century socialization that often goes ignored – the complicated emotions, interactions and politics of heterosexual male bonding. The results are hilarious and completely relatable in a way that most “Guy Comedies” rarely strive for, let alone achieve.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
The Brothers Bloom
Drag Me to Hell
The Last Station
Up in the Air
JULIA RHODES’ TOP TEN FILMS OF 2009:
1. Where the Wild Things Are
I’m genuinely surprised and disappointed WtWTA got totally snubbed by the Academy. Its art direction, cinematography, and music are gorgeous. Max Records is adorable and frankly, a joy to watch under the watchful eye of director Spike Jonze. The film immerses you completely in the mind of a nine-year-old, and you realize it is a fantastic place to be—and that maybe there are parts of childhood we shouldn’t leave behind. It made me joyful and giddy, and if Maurice Sendak is behind it, by golly so am I.
2. A Serious Man
I am absolutely no fan of the “poor schmuck” subgenre (Meet the Parents, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” etc). The Coen brothers’ lowest-profile movie in a few years, A Serious Man, could easily have gone in that direction—but it didn’t. It’s brilliantly written, beautifully rendered, and has no Hollywood…anything (and I mean that in the best way possible). The more bad things happen to the protagonist, the more you cringe and chuckle, and the weirder the movie gets, the stranger you feel about liking it. The Jefferson Airplane soundtrack doesn’t hurt.
Zombieland takes the wholesome, innocent American pastime of amusement parks, adds a dollop of gory zombie kills, stirs in a good script, fantastic performances, and a touch of hilarious Bill Murray, and the brew is perfect. There’s very little more to say—Zombieland is a riotously smart, first-class horror comedy.
4. The Hurt Locker
I’m positively thrilled Kathryn Bigelow, whose Near Dark is one of my favorite horror films, won the Best Director Oscar for her work on The Hurt Locker (she’s the first woman to take home that award). Sometimes the Academy gives big awards to unworthy filmmakers and awful films, but in this case the movie deserves all the recognition it got. The Hurt Locker is an extraordinary picture; I spent the whole of it struggling not to bite my nails, and few movies do that to me anymore. Defusing bombs is obviously one of the most stressful jobs in the world. A movie that can successfully project that tension to its audience, though, is a tour de force.
5. Drag Me to Hell
Horror’s prodigal son Sam Raimi returned from his Spider-Man foray with Drag Me to Hell, and it was good. The movie’s sound effects and ridiculous gross-outs are incredible, and the story is classic old Hollywood. It’s got everything you could imagine in a ‘30s horror flick: a gypsy curse, a possessed goat, a séance. The relationship between Alison Lohman’s Christine and Justin Long’s Clay is functional and genuinely loving, and that’s refreshing. Anyone who liked the Evil Dead movies will adore Drag Me to Hell.
6. Pirate Radio
Pirate Radio is a fascinating, jovial story about British culture in the 1960s and those who were brave enough to stand up to censorship for the love of rock ‘n roll. The art direction, soundtrack, dialogue, and acting are top-notch. Think of every funny Brit (and New Zealander) you can, and half of them are in Pirate Radio. This movie didn’t release as widely as it should have (largely because it released the same day 2012 came out—bah).
7. District 9
District 9 is the best science fiction movie of the last few years. If you ask me it’s one of the best sci-fis, period. The action sequences, sound, and cinematography are beautiful and effective. The acting, especially from unknown Sharlto Copley, is terrific. South Africa is still reeling from the effects of apartheid, and District 9 makes a stunning connection between fiction and history. The sci-fi genre is perhaps the easiest through which to analyze societal fears and anxieties, and though the apartheid metaphor in District 9 beats you over the head a bit, sometimes that’s a necessary evil.
8. Thirst (Bakjwi)
Vampires are all the cinematic rage right now, haven’t you heard? Chan-wook Park’s brutal, gory vampire film is not only strikingly attractive, but also eerie, sick, and gruesome in all the right ways. A priest contracts a disease that renders him a powerful, inhuman blood drinker, but trouble doesn’t truly arise until he infects his childhood friend’s oppressed, crazy wife. The two take a jaw-dropping downward spiral into the pleasures of the flesh—and when I say jaw-dropping, I mean it. How long do you think until we see this Korean beauty remade in America? Or is it just a little too hardcore?
9. Food, Inc.
“You are what you eat” can be a terrifying axiom when you are so heavily dependent on corn (and you are—just watch the movie). I’m reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemmaright now, mostly because Food, Inc. stuck with me. It’s the true (and scary) story of the food industry, from corn to eggs to cows to soy. The film’s editing and footage is used for maximum visual stimulus, but not the kind of shock value Michael Moore tends toward. It’s informative, intelligent, and utilizes concrete facts to make its point, which is really quite simple: we should take a few moments to think about what we eat.
10. Taking Woodstock
Ang Lee is Taiwanese, yet somehow his American movies are love letters to the landscape, the cultural history, and the issues that make this country what it is. Taking Woodstock is not one of Lee’s best, but it is sweet, funny, and nostalgic. When Yasgur’s farm is invaded by thousands of kooky hippies, it presents problems for the conservative Teichberg family, but (in the spirit of the flower children) it’s all cool, man. Lee (or his visual effects supervisor) must’ve done some drugs in his day: the LSD trip sequences are hypnotic and astonishing. It’s one of my favorite movies about the Woodstock since A Walk on the Moon.
Julie & Julia
Adventureland (William & I disagree on this one)
I Love You, Man
WILLIAM BIBBIANI’S BOTTOM TEN FILMS OF 2009:
1. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
It’s difficult to describe in words just how awful is G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, a film which is purportedly based on the franchise but bears only rudimentary resemblances to anything that originally made it popular… A film that shows a three-month training montage and tries to pretend that it happened over the course of a late evening… A film in which a protagonist dies on-screen then shows up in the next scene without so much as raised eyebrow… A film which doesn’t understand that ice floats… A film in which super-soldiers are designed to live without fear or pain yet scream in fear and pain constantly… A film… You know what? It’s not worth it. This movie makes Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen look like Shakespeare.
G.I. Joe may be the worst film of the year, but Avatar is the worst “kind” of film… a genuinely awful movie that tricks audiences into thinking that it’s great because of either heavy-handed “subtext” or neat visual effects. By now we all know that Avatar is just another white guilt movie that tells essentially the same story as Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Fern Gully and many, many others, but even without those comparisons it completely falls apart on even rudimentary examination. The protagonist was given three months by the “big bad corporation” to find a diplomatic solution to their conflict with the Na’Vi, yet he spends the entire time shoving his genitalia into forest animals and wooing a girl whom he knows is engaged, and then his inaction directly causes thousands of deaths and the destruction of their homeland. Then he turns their real estate dispute into a jihad by getting God’s help, which is only going to piss humanity off more and justify their own crusade (I’m looking forward to the sequel in which we nuke the Na’Vi from space). I could go on. In fact I have, and at length. Yes, it’s pretty. So is Megan Fox (I suppose), but that doesn’t mean either of them necessarily have any substance.
3. Year One
Not funny, glacially paced and thoroughly forgettable. Harold Ramis’s attempt to make a comedy out of the Old Testament may have seemed like a good idea on paper, at least until that paper was used to make the script, but the results were as just bad as advertized. Maybe worse.
4. Crank 2: High Voltage
The first Crank was a hilarious, fast-paced satire of the MTV generation of filmmaking, its tale of a man who needs constant adrenaline just to stay alive mirroring the perceived need of many filmmakers to mindlessly entertain at all times regardless of the needs of pacing or drama. This sequel, from the same filmmakers, makes a good argument that the unbridled brilliance of the original happened completely by accident. Not amusing at all and, with its bizarrely bold tendencies toward racism and misogyny, equally unpleasant, Crank 2: High Voltage was among the most miserable film experiences of the year.
Greg Mottola’s not-funny-enough-to-be-a-comedy, not-involving-enough-to-be-a-drama, and barely-interesting-enough-to-be-a-film… Wait, that’s basically my review right there. A boring coming of age tale featuring lifeless performances from its protagonists, bolstered only occasionally by the infinitely more interesting supporting cast led by the likes of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. It may be sincere, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good.
Here’s a question: What do you get when you take all the eroticism and thrills out of a common erotic thriller? This sorry excuse for a Lifetime Original Movie, a film whose original title, “Oh No She Didn’t” (really), was wisely changed to the generic Obsessed to prevent the film from being confused with something interesting. The normally charismatic Idris Elba is one of the dullest protagonists in modern cinema, and the genuinely sexy Ali Larter has nothing to work with as an uninspired, unmotivated and remarkably ineffectual sexual predator.
7. The Girlfriend Experience
Steven Soderbergh can make a good movie when he wants to, so what was he thinking when he cast the exuberant porn star Sasha Grey as a prostitute and then spent the entire running time whining about the economy while failing to make any cogent observations about it? Or, for that matter, exploring the potentially fascinating world of a prostitute who offers “genuinely” loving relationships to all of her clients, yet ignores the one man who loves her for who she is? Few movies this year missed as many opportunities as The Girlfriend Experience, which was so rushed to be the first movie about the economic crisis that it had nothing interesting to say on the subject.
8. Fast and Furious
Justin Lin directed the charmingly simple The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, so it stood to reason that his next action-adventure outing Fast and Furious would be another pleasant action-packed diversion? Not hardly. This sad excuse to get all of the original cast back together again may have made a little money, but also it made absolutely no sense whatsoever, and the action-sequences have by now become repetitive and mind-numbing.
9. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
There’s a certain stupid charm to the first Transformers movie, but this sequel – while certainly flashy and distracting – abandons any semblance of audience involvement for wacky nonsense and incomprehensibly shot and edited special effects set pieces. The really sad thing is that underneath the racist stereotype robots and glaring plot holes there are a few interesting ideas that are raised… and then completely forgotten ten minutes later in favor of robo-testicles clanking on the Egyptian pyramids and close-ups of John Turturro’s speedo, from the back and the front. Why, God? Why…?
Yes, it was based on a Broadway play, but remaking Fellini’s 8 1/2 as a movie musical still doesn’t make any damned sense, particularly the way Rob Marshall directed it, in which a film director for some reason fantasizes entirely in musical theater. The title, which originally referred to the fact that the film was Fellini’s eighth and one-halfth film (7 features and three shorts), was repurposed to reflect that there are nine important women in the protagonist’s life, one of whom (Kate Hudson) has absolutely no impact on it whatsoever, invalidating that premise completely. Nothing seems thought out in Nine, least of all why in God’s name anyone would ever want to see the damned thing.
(dis)HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
The Blind Side
The Burning Plain
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
The Taking of Pelham 123
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
JULIA RHODES’ BOTTOM TEN FILMS OF 2009:
1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
I wrote over nine hundred words about how terrible this movie was. Then I got frustrated and quit. Whether you focus on the godawful script, the racist Twins, the blatant, horrifying objectification of Megan Fox or Isabel Lucas, or whatever else, it doesn’t matter. The first Transformers was bad enough, but the sequel is purely an atrocious piece of celluloid crap.
2. Paranormal Activity
Watching the comments on my Paranormal Activity review was a lot of fun. I hated it. So did some others, but it was pretty divisive—a lot of people think it’s the best horror movie in years. I wanted a spooky Halloween movie, and it failed me miserably. I was one of three people in the theater and I just wanted it to be over. I will re-watch with a studious eye and give the alternate endings a chance, but I was so very much happier with Trick ‘r Treat on DVD—that’s the movie I should’ve seen near Halloween.
3. New Moon
I have read all the Twilight books. I even enjoy them. They’re terrible, but amusing and silly. Picture a sparkly vampire committing suicide by sparkling. Picture a pack of CGI werewolves (shapeshifters, actually) who exist solely to kill vampires. Then put a weak, obnoxious damsel in distress in the middle of it all. You have New Moon. As if the plot weren’t bad enough, dreamy main actor Robert Pattinson and apparent real-life girlfriend Kristen Stewart have virtually no chemistry; the script is terrible; even the scenic Washington vistas are missing. When Summit fired Catherine Hardwicke, they lost the slightly indie feel that made the first one halfway bearable. It was a mistake.
4. Angels & Demons
Dan Brown is by no means the world’s best writer. He sure can produce a page-turner, though. That said, I have read Angels and Demons, and the movie took an already badly written (though entertaining) book and made it into a worse movie—which included skipping one of the more important storylines altogether. It’s two and a half hours of dumb, but with Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor playing the leads, it should’ve been much better.
Nine had such potential. It boasts the biggest A-list cast of any 2009 movie, and Daniel Day-Lewis nearly guarantees Oscar consideration. Rob Marshall’s Chicago made me really happy, and I’m a fan of New Wave cinema. These things should’ve added up to make it a really fun experience. Unfortunately, Nine had some of the worst music, dreadful pacing, and ridiculous scenes of any movie in 2009.
6. My Bloody Valentine 3D
I missed My Bloody Valentine 3D in theaters. I was expecting a fun, gory romp. What I got was a headache from the stupid red and blue glasses, a horrible script, and terrible acting from both Jensen Ackles (who didn’t even take off his shirt, oh cruel world) and Jaime King. I’ll give it a point for having eyeballs and viscera fly at your face, though.
7. The Uninvited
Note to American filmmakers: QUIT REMAKING J-HORROR. It doesn’t work. This redo of the remarkably weird and creepy A Tale of Two Sisters gets everything all wrong, from the acting to the pacing to the twist ending.
8. Friday the 13th
In reality I didn’t expect much from this remake. The original Friday the 13th series is classic, but not particularly good. The remake brought absolutely nothing new to the table aside from a few fun kills. I watched it on DVD once, and don’t remember it well. I guess that’s the problem.
9. The Blind Side
Sandra Bullock won the Best Actress Oscar. Alright, fair. She was good, in that she was notSandy Bullock while playing Leigh Anne Tuohy. (Gabby Sidibe was better, but hopefully she’ll see more awards in the future.) The Blind Side is effectively about benevolent rich white folk adopting an enormous, poverty-stricken black kid. The script compares Michael Oher to Ferdinand the Bull, and his character plays like a big, dumb animal. It just made me cringe. It’s no wonder Oher, a Baltimore Ravens player, wanted nothing to do with this movie—it’s horrifically insulting.
10. The Lovely Bones
The Lovely Bones wasn’t a terrible movie. It is pretty. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic, and Stanley Tucci was brilliantly creepy in his role. But with Peter Jackson at the helm of Alice Sebold’s unforgettable novel, I expected much more. It makes my bottom ten list because it was a huge disappointment, and not as a sheer value judgment.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Terrible, but Taylor Kitsch, Ryan Reynolds, and Hugh Jackman are certainly easy on the eyes)
PERSONAL NOTE: If I can avoid it, I don’t see movies that look terrible. It’s hard for me to come up with a Bottom 10 because if I can not give money to crap movies, I won’t. My time is precious!