Celluloid Heroes: Jason Zingale’s Best (and Worst) Films of 2009

For film critics, the end of the year means only one thing: “best of” lists. It’s probably one of my favorite parts about the job, so when Bullz-Eye decided to do a decade-end feature in place of our annual retrospective, I didn’t let that deter me from putting one together anyway. This year’s crop of films was just as uneven as in past years, but while you might have had to dig a little deeper to find some real gems, there’s no denying that 2009 still delivered some truly great movies. Here’s a look at my ten favorite films, along with a few honorable mentions and a list of the year’s worst.

THE BEST FILMS of 2009:

1. “Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s WWII revenge fantasy is every fan’s dream movie. Not only does it feature the director’s trademark dialogue (and plenty of it), but it also boasts a stellar ensemble cast, award-worthy performances from Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender, and some of the most thrilling sequences of the year. The German bar scene may feature QT at his nostalgic best, but the opening chapter is his magnum opus. That “Inglourious Basterds” can run for an additional 120 minutes and still be just as engaging is a testament to the film’s supreme quality.

2. “The Hurt Locker

This Iraq war thriller is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen, piling on the tension so high that you’ll literally spend the entire film on the edge of your seat. Jeremy Renner is a marvel to watch as the bomb squad thrill junkie at the center of the story, but the real star is director Kathryn Bigelow, who takes an otherwise barebones script and transforms it into a series of memorable set pieces that continually upstage the one before it. But best of all, “The Hurt Locker” proves that female directors don’t have to make movies for women to be taken seriously in Hollywood.

3. “Up in the Air

There’s a pretty good chance that “Up in the Air” would have moved up a spot on my list had I found the time to see it a second time, but as it stands, the Jason Reitman-directed seriocomedy is still one of the year’s best movies. Reitman may not get a lot of credit as a director, but between his funny and timely adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel and keen use of his actors, it’s pretty clear that he has a promising future in the business. George Clooney continues to charm the hell out of moviegoers in a role tailor-made for the veteran actor, while Anna Kendrick steals the show yet again in a performance that deserves to be rewarded come awards time.

4. “Fantastic Mr. Fox

I’m surely in the minority on this one, but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the best animated movie of the year. I love Pixar just as much as the next person, but while “Up” proved to be yet another excellent addition to the studio’s still-flawless portfolio, director Wes Anderson’s adaptation of the popular Roald Dahl children’s story is even better. From the spot-on voice cast and witty script to the incredible sets and wonderful costume design, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” has so many layers that you have to watch it several times just to soak up all of the rich detail that went into making the movie.

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Celluloid Heroes: David Medsker’s Top Movies of 2009

Let’s not mince words, because our very lives depend only upon truth: 2009 was not a great year for movies. It was the most profitable, but how much of that was driven by quality versus 3D and IMAX surcharges? And at the risk of sounding like one of those cranky critics who’s never satisfied, let me state that I did indeed find several movies that I enjoyed at the theater this year; I’m just not sure how many of them will stand the test of time.

This was very much a disposable entertainment kind of year, where movies were built to serve like a meal (consumed once), rather than a piece of furniture (stays with you for decades). Having said that, there were some damn good meals served up this year. Here are my ten favorites.

zombieland
10. Zombieland
The single best time I’ve ever had at the movies. It was at a theater that served beer, and the crowd was eager to have some fun. Needless to say, we did. I still think the death of the actor who turned in a brilliant cameo performance was cheap and illogical, but based on the woooooot! that it received when it happened, I am clearly in the minority.

avatar
9. Avatar
It’s not great storytelling – we’d actually pony up the dough for someone to punch up James Cameron’s dialogue if he’d allow it – but “Avatar” is extraordinary filmmaking. The landscapes of Pandora are so rich and unique that it’s easy to forget that none of it is real. To put in perspective just how huge “Avatar” is, the RoboCop-type battle weapon was the big showstopper in “District 9.” Here, there are dozens of them, and they’re just part of the scenery. People dog Cameron for his admittedly monstrous ego, but for God’s sake, look at this movie. Who else could make this? Nobody, that’s who. Love him or hate him, James Cameron makes sure every one of his movies gives you something you’ve never seen before, and holy cow, does he do that here.

district 9
8. District 9
That slapping sound you heard is Paul Verhoeven hitting his forehead for not thinking of this first. Neill Blomkamp’s aliens-as-Apartheid-victims story is the kind of art-imitates-life metaphor that makes Verhoeven involuntarily drool (and, sometimes, demand that an all-nude shower scene be written in somewhere), and Blomkamp works CGI miracles on a relatively miniscule $30 million budget.

basterds
7. Inglourious Basterds
It is such a treat watching Quentin Tarantino grow up. His stories are infinitely simpler, but they’re better because of it. “Basterds” is his simplest one yet, and while the movie is mostly dialogue, it’s not overly chatty. The scene in the sub-level German bar is worth the price of admission below, but Tarantino goes one better by delivering an over-the-top finale that is revisionist history at its most sublime.

coraline
6. Coraline
We love “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as much as the next Goth kid, but “Coraline” is Henry Selick’s best stop-motion feature yet, by a country mile. It has all of the spooky/funny elements of “Nightmare,” but the story, courtesy of Neil Gaiman, is ten times better. Most importantly, this movie is actually scary, as in ‘pay attention to that PG rating before deciding whether to show it to your kids’ scary. Unless you want to be awaken by your six-year-old’s night terrors for the next nine months, in which case we say go nuts.

hurt locker
5. The Hurt Locker
This has to be the front runner for Best Picture at this point, and it’s a most worthy candidate. Kathryn Bigelow’s been playing with the big boys for a while now, but even when she had big names (Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze) or big budgets (“Strange Days”) behind her, she never had a story as gripping as “The Hurt Locker” at her disposal.

fantastic fox
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
So delightfully odd that it’s almost impossible to describe. The animals, while incredibly well spoken, are still animals at heart – stay away from Mr. Fox when he’s eating – but Wes Anderson makes sure they’re also as human as can be. Bonus points for recruiting Jarvis Cocker to write the movie’s campfire song.

up 2
3. Up
It took repeat plays with my son to see just how bold and nontraditional this movie was. If the directors at Pixar are parts of the body, Pete Docter is unquestionably the heart, and his tale of a lonely widower and the little boy unfortunate enough to be on his porch when he sails his house for South America tugs the heartstrings like no other movie in Pixar’s catalog. When I interviewed Docter earlier this year, I told him that the “Married Life” montage brought me to tears…but not before I called him a bastard for making me cry. (He thought that was hilarious.) I’ve now seen the movie another five or six times, and damned if I don’t cry at that scene every single time. Fuck you, Pete Docter. You’re awesome, but fuck you.

500 days
2. (500) Days of Summer
The story of a guy who’s prone to fugue states, likes sad British pop music and singing karaoke, and spends years in the work force doing a job he has no business doing, and then he falls for the girl that is both the end-all-be-all and bane of his existence? Let’s just say that this movie spoke to me. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are too cute for words as Tom and Summer, and director Marc Webb stages one of the simplest but most brilliant scenes of the year with Tom’s expectations of Summer’s party playing out side by side with the reality. Also had the best musical number of the year.

up in the air
1. Up in the Air
Director Jason Reitman taps into into George Clooney’s effortless, endless reservoir of cool and uses it to make his protagonist, the terminally single, travel-happy hatchet man Ryan Bingham, a likable guy. Clooney has never been better, and Anna Kendrick (props to EW’s Owen Gleiberman for his pitch-perfect description of her character as a ‘bottom-line chipmunk’) goes toe to toe with Clooney from start to finish. Just when I thought I knew where Reitman would go next, he veers off in a different, much better direction. He’s only made three full-length movies, and he’s already a better director than his father.

Honorable Mentions
Moon
Anvil: The Story of Anvil
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Star Trek
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

  

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Celluloid Heroes: David Medsker’s Top Movies of the 2000s

For better or worse, every decade has a couple of unique characteristics that serve as a convenient description for the period as a whole. The ’70s had disaster movies and the explosion of auteurs like Scorsese and Coppola. The ’80s had Spielberg, John Hughes, and the rise of the cheap slasher film. The ’90s were all about the indie explosion (and more disaster movies). What will history remember about the 2000s? If I had to guess, I’d sum it up in four words: Attack of the Fanboys.

Take a quick look at the top ten grossing movies of the decade (using worldwide box office numbers): There are four “Harry Potter” movies, two “Lord of the Rings” movies, two “Pirates of the Carribean” movies, “The Dark Knight,” and “Shrek 2.” And don’t forget the three “Spider-Man” movies, the two “Transformers” movies, the last two “Star Wars” movies, “300,” or “Iron Man.” Put them all together, and you have one mondo pile o’ fanboydom, right there. The first movie on the list to feature an original screenplay is Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” at #15, which brings us to the unofficial subtitle for the 2000s: The Decade When Everyone Ran Out of Ideas.

Ah, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There were some original ideas out there, and on the flip side, some of those fanboy movies made as much money as they did because they were phenomenal pieces of work. As we continue our series of reflections on the decade that was, I submit to you for your snarky dismissal approval, my top ten movies of the 2000s.

return of the king
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
I’ve still only seen this movie once, but so much of it is still imprinted in my mind. The final fight between Frodo and Gollum. Samwise kicking orc ass while carrying Frodo at the same time. That hellacious battle of Minas Tirith. And then, just when you think that Peter Jackson will let you take a breath, he unleashes another horrific shriek from those damn Fell Beasts. Yes, I admit that when Sam and Frodo had their tearful goodbye at the movie’s end, I wanted to scream, “For God’s sake, just kiss him already!” But there is a reason this movie won every single Academy Award it was nominated for. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.

king of kong
9. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
What began as an innocent look at the classic video game circuit slowly morphed into a tale of David vs. Goliath proportions, as unknown Donkey Kong wizard Steve Wiebe encountered a political shitstorm that would give Machiavelli pause. Billy Mitchell is my pick for movie villain of the decade, and worse: he’s real.

wall-e
8. WALL·E (2008)
Only Pixar could turn a story about a lonely robot into the most heartfelt movie Hollywood’s made in years. The fact that this didn’t win a single Academy Award for its sound work is disgraceful.


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Celluloid Heroes: My Favorite Posters of the Decade

With all the different ways that studios can market a movie these days, it’s nice to see that movie posters haven’t completely fallen by the wayside. Sometimes, a single image can make or break my interest in a film, and though trailers speak louder than posters, it certainly helps when you’ve got a kick-ass one to display in movie theaters. As part of our look back at the movies of the 2000s, here are some of my favorite posters from the last decade. You’ll probably notice that a good percentage of them come from the last two years, and while that may be representative of studios having to be more creative than ever, I think it’s more just a result of my constantly evolving taste.

antichristcold_souls

“Antichrist” (2009)

Lars von Trier’s latest film has been stirring up controversy ever since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. I still haven’t seen it myself (and I’m guessing I’ll probably hate it when I do), but this poster is great nonetheless. It’s both beautiful and ugly in its marriage of eroticism and nature, and the chaotic lettering crudely written across the image gives you a pretty good idea that you’re not about to see just any ordinary film.

“Cold Souls” (2009)

Paul Giamatti has a great face, so it only makes this Matryoshka doll concept that much more interesting. When viewed in context of the movie’s plot – about a suffering artist (Giamatti playing a fictional version of himself à la “Being John Malkovich”) who stores his soul for safe keeping – it also says everything without really saying anything at all.

gracemoon

“Grace” (2009)

In terms of sheer grotesqueness, the indie horror film, “Grace,” takes the cake for its simplistic blood-in-a-baby-bottle. The fly perched on top is also a nice touch. Still, there’s something quite alluring about the image in that it doesn’t so much make you sick (like the posters for Eli Roth’s “Hostel: Part II”) as it does curious about the movie.

“Moon” (2009)

There’s certainly not a lot going on in the official poster to Duncan Jones’ directorial debut, but it mimics the quiet tone of the film perfectly. That trippy stereoscopic sphere stationed behind Sam Rockwell steals my attention every time, and that’s all you can really ask for from a poster.

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Celluloid Heroes: Eight Musicals of the 21st Century

A funny thing happened this decade — the once dying genre of live-action movie musicals seems to have returned to the movie repertoire. As the decade closes, I can think of exactly two major westerns, but I keep remembering musicals that I should consider for this piece (including the mostly well-regarded French musical “Love Songs,” which I forgot to see before writing this, je suis désolé).

As a lifelong fan and a nearly lifelong tough critic of musicals, I love most of these films. However, this list is not so much a traditional “best of” and I’ve included one choice I definitely don’t like. (It won’t be hard to guess which.) These are musicals that I think contributed to the development of this polarizing and hard to pull off genre. They don’t hark back to times gone by or try to recapture a past glory that will never return, but actually take us into the future. That’s important now that musicals seem to have a future.

“Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Earlier this year, the brilliant but often irritating Danish director Lars von Trier shocked hard-to-shock European festival audiences with graphic sexual violence in “Antichrist.” Back in 2000, all he needed to divide audiences was some really intense melodrama and an approach to making dark musicals partially borrowed from TV creator Dennis Potter (“Pennies from Heaven,” “The Singing Detective”).

Featuring a literally once-in-a-lifetime lead performance by singer-songwriter Björk as a young mother ready to sacrifice everything to save her son’s failing eyesight, “Dancer in the Dark” is maybe the most emotionally potent story of parental love I’ve ever seen. As a musical, it’s strange and arresting.

Like the Potter television shows and movies and “Chicago,” further down the list, the musical numbers take place in the mind of the lead character. In this case, however, it is particularly poignant as our heroine is a fan of musicals who, though she is gradually going blind, is attempting to appear in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music.” Below, she musically confesses her situation to a smitten Peter Stormare (yes, the guy from “Fargo”). Lumberjacks or not, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” sure seems like a long time ago.

Moulin Rouge” (2001)
As the non-musical Pixar films became the dominant template for animation and the musical form lost its last apparent movie bastion, big studios began to experiment with musicals starring humans. Unfortunately for me, the first and still one of the most popular of this decade’s high profile film musicals was Baz Luhrmann’s beautifully shot, amazingly designed, dull-witted, and over-edited “Moulin Rouge.”

Yes, this musical fan is not a fan of the musical that’s been credited with resurrecting the genre. Why? A couple of sequences work, but on the whole I expect the funny parts of a movie to make me laugh and, even more important, I like to see the movies I’m seeing. As far as I can tell, Luhrmann simply doesn’t have the confidence in this film to allow us time to view the arresting images he’s worked so hard to craft, nor does he permit time to actually see the hard work his dancers and actors put in. Editor Jil Bilcock is expected to do all the performing instead.

As for what Luhrmann and his arrangers did with the various classic songs they threw into a musical Cuisinart, the less I say about it the better. At the risk of sounding like a fogey (or a member of an 18th century Austrian court), too many notes. Way, way, way, too many notes. See if you disagree.

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