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Sunday, October 9, 2011

My Favorite Movies of 2009


Over the course of 2009, I came to realize more than ever that I truly am a movie geek and have a true passion for the cinematic experience. From my earliest memories of seeing Star Wars for the first time at the drive-in theater to Saturday afternoons laying on the living room floor watching old school kung fu flicks on the family television, movies have been a big part of my life and have had a profound effect on how I view the world. With continued advancements in the art and science of cinematic storytelling, the experience of seeing these imaginative tales unfold on screen (IMAX or iPod), continues to be an enriching and engaging experience.

2009 saw a wealth of quality releases and I was fortunate enough to be able to see a lot of them in various Seattle area theaters with many of my friends. I have decided to compile a list of my 10 favorites from this year with my thoughts on how they managed to crack this list. It was tough to limit the list to just 10 and even harder to put them in any particular order. You may or may not agree with many of these choices and you may feel others should be on the list over some of my choices. Ultimately this list is my opinion and is a representation on my personal experience with these great films. Whether you agree or disagree I welcome any and all feedback.

My Favorite Movies of 2009:


The Road
Director John Hillcoat brings us a new take on post apocalyptic America as he adapts Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The catastrophe that brings the world to a state of being, for the most part, little more than a barren wasteland is never fully explained which adds to the plight of the characters as they seem to never quite understand what happened. They just know they are now living for the moment and doing their best to survive each day.

Food, shelter, and any other basic necessity taken for granted today are all basically unavailable to our two main characters, the father played by Viggo Mortensen and his son featuring Kodi Smit-McPhee in his debut role. We get to know the two as they battle not only the elements and other people fighting for survival, but also each other in a conflict mainly instigated by the son and his ill feelings towards the father and the situation they are in.

Charlize Theron also plays the role, in flashbacks, of the wife and mother in the weeks and days leading up to the catastrophe and adds layers of depth to the struggle between the two primary characters on their journey towards what they hope to be a better place. I have not read the book, but it seems that the movie’s portrayal carries the soul of the book to the screen in ways that so many other adaptations fail. You find yourself following the characters not only in their physical journey but in emotion as well.


District 9
This movie was a welcome addition to the Sci-Fi genre as Neil Blomkamp took his story in a more visceral and reality-based direction. This is an entirely new twist on the ageless story of an alien species arriving at Earth. The special effects work is impeccable as you never once think about the effects over the course of the movie. Everything from futuristic weapons to the aliens themselves, look as if they are very much a part of the world you are seeing on the screen.

Sharlto Copley played the lead role of Wikus Van De Merwe and really brought a refreshing performance to the screen with a character that is unsure of him self as he is thrust in to a leadership position. You really see Wikus attempting to be the boss and a leader making both good and bad decisions along the way. This transitional state of the character really sets him up for what happens over the course of the movie and, without the depth of this performance, the movie wouldn’t have near the impact that it does.

It’s very refreshing to see an entry in the sci-fi genre that does not cater to the demands of movie studio executives who make sure all the right marketing pieces are in place to cash in on first weekend receipts. This movie was well thought out and the creative team was able to squeeze out every last penny of the limited budget to bring a gritty and raw take on a tried and true sci-fi story line.


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
This was probably the movie that received the biggest amount of criticism from movie critics and even from a fair amount of movie-goers. Yes, the plot was a little hokey at times and some of the scenes were bad enough to either induce laughs or cringes, but this is still a very entertaining movie. Several releases in 2009 raised the bar for the Sci-Fi genre and this one, with huge battle scenes and amazing effects did not disappoint.

I’m not concerned about the quality of acting or the subtle nuances of plot development when seeing this movie. Shia LeBouf and Megan Fox are not known for Oscar contending performances and Michael Bay makes movies that are the quintessential summer popcorn blockbusters. Each explosion is a little bigger than the last and each “hero shot” is a little glossier and more polished than the previous one. Bottom line, this is a fun movie to watch with jaw dropping effects and a fairly a coherent story to keep it all together.

This movie picks up two years after the first with Sam on his way to college and the Autobots having joined forces with the military to hunt down any remaining Decepticons. Sam finds a splinter of the All-Spark which, upon contact, “uploads” all of its information in to his head. This puts the Decepticons on a path to find him in hopes of retrieving information that will lead them to the location of the Matrix of Leadership. Megatron is resurrected and many new characters are introduced on both sides. Eventually this all develops in to some pretty intense confrontations between the Autobots and Decepticons to decide the fate of the planet Earth. Will evil triumph or will the forces of good prevail once again?


Up In the Air
This movie was a pleasant surprise as the end of the year approached. Intelligently written and perfectly directed by Jason Reitman, Up in the Air is a movie that pleases on many levels. This is the story of Ryan Bingham, played brilliantly by George Clooney, a man who is employed by a company called Career Transition Counseling whose contracts are in corporate downsizing. In other words, they fire people.

Mr. Bingham is constantly travelling the country in flight after flight transitioning people in to the unknown world of unemployment and job search. His prized goal in life is to reach a rarified air that only a few others in the airline travel world have ever reached. Along the way, he meets a female travel counterpart in Alex Goran played by beautifully by Vera Farmiga. Immediately recognizing their similar enjoyment of air travel and the life it provides, they embark on a laptop scheduler and text message romance among the clouds and between 4-star hotel bedroom sheets.

Back at CTC, a new method of doing business is being implemented thanks to young upstart Natalie Keener. Her revolutionary techniques allow technology to take the place of person to person interaction and all but eliminating the need for air travel. Ryan, of course, is explicitly opposed to this and agrees to one last journey across the country to show Miss Keener the fine art of personal interaction and how much of a difference it can make to a person during one of the more pivotal times of their lives. The story plays out beautifully with each character learning something about them selves, about life, and that the future, no matter what path is travelled, remains ultimately up in the air.


Zombieland
This movie is an hour and a half of indulgent fun. We have seen many different takes on the zombie movie, but this is one of the best that I have ever seen. No need for elaborate back story on how the zombies came to be, you get a quick intro in to the world along with a rundown of basic zombie survival rules and then it’s off to the races. Each character is referred to by they’re hometown. The story begins with Columbus played by Jesse Eisenberg as he is on a journey to return to Ohio in hopes of reuniting with his estranged family. Along the way we meet Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock who eventually form a reluctant alliance in an attempt to reach an amusement park in Los Angeles that is rumored to be zombie-free.

Tallahassee, while surviving on this journey, is also on an alternate and glorious quest to locate any and all remaining quantity of Twinkies that may be left in the world. This one item is the key to retaining a piece of what was once his normal life. Woody Harrelson is having so much fun in this role, the energy pours off the screen often in the form of blood splattering from his numerous zombie kills. He is an expert in this field after all.

On the way to Los Angeles the four characters never know when they will be betrayed not only by other travelers but by each other. Wichita and Little Rock became experts at the con game even before the zombie outbreak and they are not afraid to take advantage of any situation to further their own gain. Columbus quickly realizes that Wichita may just be the love of his life and adds her to his quest for happiness as he was never been able to get the girl when life was still normal and survivable.

Along for the ride are hordes of zombies, other survivors doing everything they can to get by even if it means killing and stealing from everyone in their path, and a brilliant guest appearance that I will not give away here but is a wonderful surprise. This all leads up to a gloriously gory climax that is literally a carnival ride of zombie carnage.


Up
Pixar studios has proven time and time again that they know how to make a fun, engaging, and heartfelt movie better than just about any other movie studio out there. I really didn’t know what to expect going in to this movie, which is a wonderful thing in itself as Pixar refuses to tell the story of their movies in the previews. In this movie, they do manage to tell a story that resonates on so many levels, dealing with love, loss, life, friendship, growing up, growing old, and all the good and bad that each of those things can bring. All this wrapped in a fun and exciting story that audiences of all ages can enjoy.

The journey of Carl Fredrickson starts as a young boy full of dreams and imagination but lacking in social skills. He is determined to some day explore the world just like his hero Charles Muntz, but these are only dreams until he literally falls in to the life of the most amazing creature he has ever laid eyes on…Elie Docter. Their friendship becomes an unbreakable bond that seemingly nothing can break. Of course, things change in life and Carl is forced to adapt accordingly until one day he literally frees his home from destruction by sailing away powered by thousands of balloons. Unknowingly, Carl his acquired a travelling companion in a young wilderness explorer named Russell. Little does Carl know that this is the beginning of the adventure he has been waiting for.

Seeing Up in 3-D was also very impressive as Pixar chose to add depth and texture to the movie with the emerging technology rather than filling the movie with overly gratuitous scenes of objects hanging in front of the audience. The richness of the animation was enough to satisfy fans of Pixar but to then add the element of 3D was an added bonus. Technically, Pixar continues to keep raising the bar for all animation studios. You easily find yourself looking closely at the fibers of Carl’s tie and sweaters and then are so awe-struck by the lush jungles and rock formations you start to think you can actually smell the jungle plants and morning mists.

John Lassetter was once asked what the secret of Pixar is and his reply was that they set out to only make movies that they themselves would love to watch on the big screen. This movie will make you want to head out on the grandest of adventures but only if you are able to then stop and sit on a sidewalk while sharing an ice cream with a loved one.


Star Trek
As the movie franchise “reboot” becomes a more popular trend in Hollywood, this movie should be used as a blueprint for success. Not only did JJ Abrams and crew re-establish the franchise and send it in a new and fresh direction, they found a way to do it within the original Star Trek universe. Entertaining from start to finish, this movie was a very fulfilling experience and as the credits started rolling, I wanted nothing more but to see what type of adventure the crew of the Enterprise would find themselves in next.

Each actor did a great job of recreating their original character while not falling in to the trap of parody which would have ruined the film. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto threw in just the right amount of Shatner and Nimoy, while also managing to create their own identities through the essence of the characters. Special shout out goes to Karl Urban for his brilliant portrayal of Dr. McCoy. I never would have expected him to take on the role let alone absolutely own it like he did.

The story of Kirk and Spock’s parallel journey to adulthood are very well thought out having to play amidst already established Star Trek history. The turning point is brought on by a surprise character that alters the future forever. There are too many twists and turns to go in to any detail without giving away stuff you have to see for yourself so that’s all I’ll say about the story. Bottom line, if you want to just kick back with a bucket of popcorn and have a great time with some new yet very familiar friends…this is the movie to see.


The Hangover
Easily and by far the best comedy of 2009, this movie was non-stop laughs and actually had a solid plot. It was fun seeing these guys try to solve the mystery of what happened over the course of the previous night and there seemed to be surprises, some answers, and more questions waiting around every corner. Full of iconic characters and great performances, this movie will be watched over and over again.

The casting of this movie was spot on perfect and gave us fresh faces that you most likely did not already have a predefined characterization of. This really lent a sense of reality that these are just some averages guys, maybe even friends that we know, that get thrown in to this most bizarre of circumstances. The standout performance of course goes to Zach Galifianakis as the well intentioned, sometimes slow, and ready for anything character of Alan Garner who will always be remembered for such classic movie lines as “Not at the table, Carlos!” and “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the holocaust.”.

A comedy that is truly original and enjoyable is a rare treat in this day and age of bathroom jokes and retread humor, so to see a movie this genuinely funny was quite the treat. At the end of the movie, my first thought was what will the guys get in to next and to me that really is the telling sign of a good movie.


Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarentino has already established himself as a master of cinematic direction and this movie is yet another masterpiece in his amazing body of work. Written ten years ago, the story and dialogue are still fresh and engaging. Even during the most intimate scenes, you feel compelled to pay attention to every word and find yourself engrossed in every detail. The actors do a great job of conveying their characters in a hyper-real yet believable way which exemplifies the overall mood and feel of the story itself.

The character of Aldo Raine was made for Brad Pitt and he brought a wonderful energy to the role, making Aldo even more of a stylized character than Quentin himself had intended. His homage to old school war movie American heroes works just as well as a parody. This character exemplifies the overall direction of the movie as being a tribute to great filmmaking, a parody of American pride, and an all-out indulgence in re-writing the history of World War II to a more favorable ending.

Another standout performance is that of Christopher Waltz brilliantly playing the evil mastermind role of Colonel Hans Landa also known in the movie as the “Jew Hunter”. He was given this moniker for his ability to find and capture Jewish refugees trying to flee the tyranny of the German army during the war. You can tell that Mr. Waltz is relishing the opportunity to sink his teeth in to such a rich character and gives every bit of him self to the part in delivering some of the best dialog of the movie.

With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin has truly delivered his masterpiece.



Avatar
Easily the most hyped movie of any 2009 release partly due to the fact that this film and world was created by Mr. “King of the World” himself, James Cameron. He seems to carry a lot of baggage and expectation to everything he does although after making the highest grossing movie of all time in Titanic, you can’t really blame people for the reaction. Aside from all of that, he continues to put his heart and soul in to every film that he releases dating back to such great films as The Abyss, Aliens, Terminator 2, and even the Dark Angel TV series which starred a young and still unknown Jessica Alba.

Avatar is an achievement on many levels. Visually, there are moments in this movie that rival such iconic moments in movie history like the opening scene of Star Wars where we see a Star Destroyer for the very first time, or the siege of Minas Tirith in The Return of the King. You truly have to see this film to appreciate the level of detail and artistry put in to every scene. No detail was spared in creating the creatures, environments, and technology that we see throughout the movie. Not only did Cameron and crew look to create a fantastic world to place the story in, they based everything in a scientific reality never seen before in sci-fi or fantasy. Every creature and plant could viably exist in this world and every bit of machinery was designed literally down to the nuts and bolts. Granted some of the technology used in the story is not yet a reality, but that is where it is a fictional story set in a future that could happen.

The story follows a paraplegic marine named Jake Sully who is on his way to a distant moon called Pandora. There he will become part of a unique mission that had been intended for his twin brother who was killed in battle. The mission is for Jake to integrate with an Avatar originally based to pair up with the DNA of his brother and created in the likeness of the native species of Pandora called the Na’vi. He will then try to integrate himself in to their culture and try to get them to move from their native home which contains a rich supply of a valuable material called unobtanium.

At first, Jake is bent on successfully completing his mission but matters are complicated when he begins to become part of the Na’vi culture and begins to understand the harmony they have obtained with the planet itself. This deviation from his military unit’s mission begins an alternate plan set forth by Colonel Quaritch to forcefully remove the Na’vi from their home to complete the mission. Jake is forced to make a decision on whether he is to remain true to his human ancestry and help complete the mission or to move forward with his newly adopted culture and fight for what they represent.

Sam Worthington does a good job of playing the jaded soldier role in Jake Sully who eventually finds a greater purpose and allows him self to be opened up mentally and spiritually. Zoe Saldana (who also made this list with her appearance in Star Trek as Uhura) does a great job in playing the role of Neytiri, Jake’s newfound love interest and one of the leaders of the Na’vi tribe. Other standouts are Michelle Rodriguez as a sympathetic military pilot and Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch.

This is the first of what will be at least a trilogy of films set in the Pandora universe and it is certain to go down as one of the great achievements in cinematic history. James Cameron, as he so often does, has shown us things we didn’t think were possible both in special effects and in the newly emerging 3D technology. The richness and depth of the Avatar experience are almost overwhelming at times in a way that leaves you breathless and on the edge of your seat and that is what going to the movies is all about.


Honorable Mention:
2012
Drag Me to Hell
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Invictus
Let the Right One In
Moon
Paranormal Activity
Sherlock Holmes
Taken

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