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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