To qualify, a movie had to open, in the UK, in 2009. This means that movies like The Road and Up In The Air aren’t eligible, as we don’t get them ’til January. Also, i have to point out that i haven’t seen Up, Inglourious Basterds, and maybe one or two others that may have otherwise had a shot at this list. And i think i’ve made my feelings about Avatar quite clear, in case you were wondering why there was no mention of it…
So, here it is. As always, i encourage any and all feedback in the comments at the bottom. This is as much your forum as mine.
10 District 9
On a lot of other years, District 9 probably wouldn’t have made my top ten. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that’s good about Neill Blomkamp’s debut. Great cinematography, some very clean and sharp CGI that puts Transformers 2 to shame. Interesting plot developments, and great action sequences. What let District 9 down was the first thirty minutes. It starts off a little… silly. The pseudo-documentary style of the movie is, for me, poorly executed, the use of news reports as exposition tired, The talking head interview excerpts are just a little too tongue in cheek, bringing a serious sci-fi movie a little too close to Spinal Tap for my liking. For a movie allegorizing a very serious issue like Apartheid, it veers dangerously close to satire. Once the story gets going however, and less use is made of the COPS style documentary camerawork, a great movie starts to shine through. The protagonist Wikus is refreshingly bumbling, not a typical action hero, and his uneasy alliance with his alien comrade is well played out. The alien tech and weaponry is cool, and the three way battle between MNU, the Nigerian racketeers and Wikus and chum lend the finale a frenetic, exciting air. Definitely one of the year’s most inventive movies, better than any of the big sci-fi blockbusters, and easily the best action movie of the year. It’ll certainly be interesting to see what Blomkamp can produce as a follow up.
9 The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke tends to tackle dark and sometimes distasteful subjects, and has been on occasion unfairly compared to Lars Von Trier. Whilst Haneke’s work can sometimes be difficult to watch, it never reaches the point of exploitation. The White Ribbon is a great case in point. Touching on subjects of murder, random acts of violence, and the physical and sexual abuse of children, his film manages to tackle such issues sensitively, without any graphic depictions. Whilst the true idea at the core of The White Ribbon is probably too subtle, that the events that occur in the small village are the young roots of fascism, the cinematography and great acting make it a compelling watch nonetheless. It’s beautifully shot, in black and white with zero musical scoring, and despite it’s length never feels slow. What is truly astonishing is the level of acting on display, particularly on the parts of the young actors portraying the possibly murderous youth of the village. the dark, bleak drama is lightened, somewhat, by a sweet and innocent love story beautifully played out over the course of the film. Not a movie i necessarily would have chosen to watch if i hadn’t been sent to review it, but one that will stay with me as one of the most well made of the year, it certainly was deserving of it’s place as the winner of last year’s Palme D’Or.
I’m a fan of the graphic novel, and was very excited about seeing this movie at the Imax. This is usually a recipe for disaster, as i inevitably end up feeling disappointed under these kind of circumstances. Instead i was mesmerised by one of the greatest comic book adaptations i’ve ever experienced. From the initial fistfight between Comedian and his attacker, coupled with the greatest opening credits sequence in movie history, to the surprisingly well drawn out ‘new’ ending, there was much that impressed me. I already knew Jeffrey Dean Morgan was a great, charismatic actor, and if there was more of The Comedian in the story he would have stolen the movie, but it’s Jackie Earl Haley’s note perfect portrayal of Rorschach that made it for me. Sadistic, hard boiled and truly committed to justice, it was a great character played to perfection. However, i bought the Blu-Ray, and it was upon watching it a second time that the flaws became apparent, and the cracks appeared. It was hard going to re-watch it, the magic had been used up the first time around. Whilst Watchmen proved not to be unfilmable, for me it was almost unwatchable the second time. I’m happy to include Watchmen in my ten however, purely for one of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life.
7 The Hurt Locker
That The Hurt Locker is winning the lions share of awards right now only goes to prove what a slim year it’s been for great filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, it IS great, but like every other movie on this list it is a flawed masterpiece. As an exploration of how war affects the human condition differently for everyone, it’s a great success. On first glance the main protagonist, Jeremy Renner’s SSgt James, seems unrealistic. Tasked with a job where your career, and life, can literally blow up in your face, his demeanour seems a little too casual, his lack of visible fear too much to believe. But as the movie progresses, the cracks appear, and you realise he isn’t heartless, it’s just that bombs are easier to deal with than human beings. They don’t lie, you follow the wires and they lead you to the answer. The entrenchment of James’ team halfway through in a remote spot in the desert, playing out a cat and mouse sniper battle that seemingly takes an eternity, gives you a real feeling of the isolation that occurs, and demonstrates how quickly and easily a soldiers life can end. The Hurt Locker gives as much of a glimpse at the futility of the war in Iraq as you’re gonna find, and it’s only James’ search in the second third for the young kid he befriended that lets the movie down, feeling out of place in the otherwise unstructured story. Probably the best movie so far about the Iraq war, and as you see James’ experience of life after war upon returning home, you can almost understand why he would want to return.
6 The Wrestler
I was sceptical when i first heard Darren Aronofsky was going to tackle the subject of a washed up wrestler. Professional wrestling is seldom portrayed in either a flattering or authentic manner by mainstream media, so this reportage style look at the life of veteran wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson could have been terrible. The gifted filmmaker however did his homework, and the result was a movie which will probably come as close to capturing the feel of life on the independent circuit as any ever could. Though the storyline plays out as little more than a dramatisation of events shown in fantastic wrestling documentary Beyond The Mat, the great performance by Mickey Rourke and the downbeat cinematography bring the reality of such a life to the mainstream in a truly compelling way. In many ways a very personal performance for Rourke, that of a former champion reduced to the minor leagues, Randy comes across as mixture between Terry Funk and Hulk Hogan. A one time hero who’s body has all but given up, he simply cannot let go of the industry that has been a part of his life for so long. Poignant and sad, The Wrestler is a masterwork and perfectly accessible to moviegoers with no knowledge whatsoever of the grapple game.
5 Che Part One
I’ve been a fan of Soderbergh on and off since Out of Sight. Some of his work baffles me, and i really didn’t understand why he would go back to Oceans 13 after 12 was such a mess. Then Che came along, and i realised that if you have an ill-advised dream project in mind, sometimes you have to do what it takes to get the clout to get it done. Che Parts One and Two were highly ambitious. Big budget production, weeks of intensive guerrilla shooting, to make a four hour movie with one star, in a foreign language. It was definitely a risk, and really no surprise that American audiences didn’t pay it off. Che, however, is brilliant. Excellent cinematography, a fascinating story, and a great performance by Benicio Del Toro, who has quietly become one of the best actors in the business. In my opinion. Much like during the revolutionary campaign, there are large stretches where very little happens, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen nonetheless. Soderbergh has shown great attention to detail, the endless shots of green forest are broken up by flashes of Che adressing the UN, adding some context and exposition to the fighting, and the finale is well choreographed and ample reward. Che Part Two dosn’t make the list, Part One is well structured and arguably a more interesting story, thanks to history Part Two lacks an effective structure, and the story inevitably has a less well balanced stopping point. A great work, sadly overlooked and even much maligned in some quarters.
4 Red Cliff
I don’t know a whole lot about feudal Japanese history, my knowledge of the story of the battle of the three kingdoms is weak, and i haven’t had time to do my homework on the movie. So i’m in no position to judge the historical accuracy, or lack thereof, of John Woo’s epic return to form. This turned out, however, to be a good thing, as it meant i could afford to just sit back and enjoy the sheer awesomeness of Red Cliff. I’ll readily admit that yes, it does owe a debt to Lord of the Rings. I accept that some of the one-on-thirty battle scenes are a little over the top. But, hey, this IS John Woo’s Red Cliff, it says so on the box. Flying birds, stilted dialogue between lovers, and long scenes of people drinking tea and playing drums. These are the burdens you have to bear to enjoy the slow motion brilliance of a Woo action movie. Intelligent plot twists, Dynasty Warriors videogame style fighting, and epic aerial shots of huge armies converging, Red Cliff is as usual style over substance, but only just. In many ways it’s a guilty pleasure, but for me John Woo is back to his best. If you never enjoyed his best, this clearly isn’t for you, but i loved every minute of it. Bear in mind, i watched the condensed two and a half hour version, which is quite possibly better paced than the full version. I don’t know yet. I have the full length version on Blu-Ray, but God only knows when i’ll find five hours to enjoy it. Maybe when i do, Red Cliff will drop off this list. For now, however, it’s definitely in my top five of the year.
3 Revolutionary Road
Sam Mendes isn’t exactly known for feelgood movies, and Revolutionary Road is no exception. What amazes is his ability to authentically draw out the very model of a dysfunctional relationship, so much so it’s almost scary. The story of Frank and April, who married young and found out too late that they hold different ideals, is a compelling one mainly because it feels so true. I’ve known people who have lived out this exact relationship, albeit without such an extreme full stop at the end of it. The cinematography, set design and period detail are wonderful, but what really makes this movie is the lead actors. It’s easy to forget how much of a pleasure it is to see truly great actors at work, and in Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet Mendes had two of the best. Re-united ten years on from Titanic, the chemistry is there in both scenes of love and hate. DiCaprio excels as the man who is still a boy at heart, seemingly incapable of a mature relationship. Winslet manages a perfectly subtle air of sadness as a young woman desperately searching for more in her life. Both characters are guilty of reprehensible actions, but such human flaws also evoke the viewers sympathy. Revolutionary Road is a movie that manages to be both beautiful and ugly at the same time, which really is some feat.
I knew about Moon nearly two years before it was released. I’ve been a fan of Sam Rockwell for many years. He’s the reason i actually own a copy of Charlie’s Angels (His mid-movie turn is masterful, and something that very few actors could have convincingly pulled off). So i was excited about this project before cameras even started rolling. Whilst consensus is that Moon owes heavy debt to Alien, Silent Running and 2001, for me it’s only real similarity is that it shares the same sub-genre. The main conceit of the movie, the main twist, is sold off early on. It’s not what the movie is about. With the basis of the story set, it becomes a character study, an exploration of the human condition. And this is where the brilliance of Sam Rockwell comes to the fore. It’s not easy playing two versions of the same character, even harder when neither of those characters are anything like your real personality. Again, it’s something very few actors could pull off, but it seems to come easy for Rockwell. Helped along by a story that alternates between following and breaking the conventions of the sub-genre to which it belongs, Rockwell explores the questions of what it is to be human, and what makes us unique. It also explores a similar issue to my number one film, the exploitation of a human commodity. Duncan Jones has done remarkable work with a miniscule budget, and if his future projects hold the same level of intellectual interest, i may have a new favourite director.
Sugar sneaked up on me. I’d read a review, i’d then forgotten about it. It was upon browsing through Lovefilm that i saw the DVD, and remembered it was supposed to be good, but nothing more than that. It was the first DVD they sent me. And it was probably thanks to this amazing film that i took up membership when my two week free trial ended. Sugar follows Miguel ‘Sugar’ Santos, a baseball player playing in a farm league for the American baseball league in the Dominican Republic. The players are taught baseball, basic English terms used in the game, and dream of the day they will be called up to fly to America to play big time baseball. Sugar is called to a minor league team in Kansas at the tender age of nineteen. But this isn’t a traditional, inspirational sports movie. Instead, it’s a look at how American sports teams treat imported players purely as products, to be used and discarded at will. And it’s a look at the difficulties faced by immigrants into the US, with little support, basic language skills and no real idea of how different life in America will be. Sugar is naive, but not innocent. A hard working and happy young man, the frustration begins to build with his new life. Living with a small town American family with no idea of his culture or language, he is condemned to a life of French toast for breakfast because he doesn’t know how to order a fried egg. Gradually he realises he may not be good enough to achieve his dream, in a poignant and touching drama that more than anything else feels just so real. As his dream begins to collapse, you can’t help but feel a little teary. By the end Sugar makes peace with his lot, but as a viewer it doesn’t come so easily. You realise that that person serving your Venti Mocha in Starbucks also had a talent, and a dream, and that the line between success and failure is so fine, that it could easily be you standing on the other side of that counter.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bazmann