Monday, February 15, 2010

Diamonds In the Rough: The 10 Best Movies of 2009 #1-5

Like my 10 worst list a while back, this top 10 list isn't as timely as I hoped, but, once again, now is as good a time than any. 2009 marked the end of the first passing decade of the new century...and we went out with more questions than answers, and doubt rather than a sense of certainty we all felt after making history in 2008. CEO's are still practicing the "greed is good" philosophy that led to the financial catastrophe and recession we are still in, the promise of revamping the nation's health care system is in serious jeopardy of not passing Congress, and doubts are quickly rising about our newly-elected President's ability to carry out his agenda.

Movies in 2009 seemed to imitate life around us. Films that were sure-fire contenders for Oscar glory were deadpanned by critics (Nine, The Lovely Bones), blockbuster franchises turned out to be total crap (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), and average films managed to become favorites for awards season. Still, there were those that broke through all the mediocrity and garbage on 2009's disappointing movie-going season. A movie about the Iraq war managed to be both a white-knuckle-thriller and avoid preaching to either base. Pixar reminded us why they are still the kings of animation going into the 21st century. James Cameron took us to Pandora...and took the movie going experience to a whole new level. And the ultimate revenge fantasy came to life by the man who cut cop's ears off...among other twisted things. Here is my list of the 10 movies that mattered in 2009.

1. Inglourious Basterds - History tells us that Adolf Hitler and his newlywed Eva Braun died by committing suicide before Berlin fell to the Allies in 1945. In the eyes of Quentin Tarantino, Hitler and the rest of the Nazi high command meet their match at the hands of Brad Pitt, Hostel director Eli Roth and their squad of Jewish-American soldiers, known only as "the Basterds." Tarantino's latest effort was more talkative than Pulp Fiction, more violent than Kill Bill Vol. 1, and it was the most entertaining, balls-to-the-wall movie that came out this year. Tarantino's dialogue (subtitled mostly in German and French) is as ludicrous and engaging than ever, while prolonged suspense, tantalizing dialogue and outrageous acts of violence are mated together in a dance of carnal passion as only Tarantino can deliver. Pitt, playing the leader of the Basterds, takes Aldo Raine and plays him like a blast-from-the-past Apache warrior, exacting his mixture of revenge and near-psychotic enjoyment in slaughtering Nazis, with demented glee and raw intensity. Dianne Kruger plays bravery and brains as German movie star as Bridget von Hammersmark, in the biggest role of her life: acting as a double-agent for the Allies. Mélanie Laurent breathes fire and brimstone bottled up as Shosanna Dreyfus, the last French Jew who escaped execution from the hands of the charming, sadistic SS Cor. Hands Lander, who makes Ralph Finnes' Amor Goeth seem sane and friendly. And the film's real bastard, Christoph Waltz, as Lander, creates QT's most memorable character since Jules Winfield spouted Bible verses before going on a killing spree in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino provides the shot of adrenaline movies have been missing for far too long: a cast, a script and it's mad director, all unwilling to compromise to please the naysayers and create a bloody, entertaining, and chilling meditation on how America conducted its foreign policy during the Bush years.

2. Avatar - 11 years ago, James Cameron became the king of the box office with his overrated romantic drama, Titanic, and sailed that ship to Oscar glory in 1998, winning 11 Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture. In 2009, there's a new box-office king that has dethroned Cameron's tale of star-crossed lovers on a doomed ocean-liner, and it's...James Cameron. This time, the world of Pandora and it's indigenous people, the blue-skinned Na'vi are the big draw. Cameron brings 3D to the mainstream, shooting his breathtaking alien planet in the third dimension. But its the story, albeit predictable, that has us engaged: a crippled ex-marine (Sam Worthington) ships out to Pandora to get the natives to move out of the largest deposit of Unobtainium (a resource needed to fuel the dying planet Earth in 2154), only to end up falling for the tribal princess, Neytiri (an excellent Zoe Saldana), and joining their rebellion against the human invaders. We may have seen this tale before (Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai), and anyone can see the exploitation of the Na'vi in the movie can connect that to America's exploitation of Native Americans, but Cameron delivers it with eye-popping style and passion for his beautiful and terrifying new world.

3. Up - Pixar is to animation as Radiohead is to rock and roll: neither group can do no wrong. They can make their weakest releases - A Bug's Life and Cars for Pixar; Pablo Honey and Amnesiac for the Oxford quintet - and they would still be considered great. Their newest release, Up, continues that winning trend. This time around, they introduce us to Carl Fredrickson (voiced with weariness and touching poignancy by Ed Asner), a retired widow living in the same old house him and his now-deceased wife, Elle, lived in as the rest of the world around him becomes an isolating urban jungle. He uses the retirement saving he's collected, ties countless helium balloons to his house, and presto: it becomes a floating blimp with a roof and sets his sails to Paradise Falls. Accompanying him is a stowaway wilderness explorer, in the form of chubby eight year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai), and what soon begins as a trip to fulfil a promise to his wife, soon becomes a race to protect an exotic bird from the hands of obsessed and disgraced explorer Charles Muntz (the great Christopher Plummer) and a confrontation of Carl's and Russell's demons. With first rate visuals, a bittersweet storyline and a heart-filled score composed by Michael Giacchino, Up soars on Pixar's unlimited and endless heights of sheer imagination.

4. The Hangover - It's about four dumb, drunk boys sending off the friend, Doug, in style in Vegas, of all places, before he gets married in three days. One wild night later, the three buddies Stu (Ed Helms), Phil (Bradley Cooper), and Alan (Zack Galifianakis), the brother's groom - lose the groom-to-be. That's all you need to know about Tood Philip's The Hangover the most outrageous and ballsiest comedy of the decade, where Chinese mafia bosses, strippers, and returning Mike Tyson's prized tiger are all a part of the growing process for this trio of outgrown frat-boys.

5. Star Trek - The MVP of the summer movie season is J.J. Abrams, the director who breathed new life into the presumed-dead Trek franchise, by bringing style, swagger, and depth to our favorite characters from the original U.S.S. Enterprise. Chris Pine doesn't resort to the speaking style of William Shatner, but the cocky attitude, and the charm he displays are still seen thought the movie. Simon Pegg is hilarious as Scotty, and Karl Urban is inspired casting, playing the no-nonsense medical officer Lennard "Bones" McCoy. The surprise standout is Zacary Quinto as Spock. Instead of letting the pointy Vulcan ears act for him, Quinto digs deep to expose the conflict raging between his cold logic and his human emotions.

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