I didn’t get to see a lot of films this year, a combination of a lack of motivation and money. Dear movie theaters, lower your prices – thanks! Well, here’s my top 5 favorite films, for you to enjoy (One note, #6 would have been Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” read my review in the previous entry).
5. (500) Days of Summer
An exciting entry into the romantic comedy genre, that both embraces and rejects the rules of its categorical definitions. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is quickly becoming our generation’s Dustin Hoffman. Zooey Deschanel is well cast, as she is the dream girl, or the “Summer” of every twentysomething who has been obsessed with her since “Almost Famous.” The film is quite untraditional in that it doesn’t envelop its audience in romanticisms – instead it sets up early on that it is not a love story, yet only a story about love – and an honest one at that. A brilliant script, utilizing motifs to show both the rise and fall of the young couple’s relationship – “(500) Days of Summer” is further proof that independent film is able to break the mold of any generic category of film. It’s also refreshing that even after the passing of John Hughes, there are filmmakers that are still able to plug into all the pain and sorrow of youth and decode those emotions through the medium in such a new and original way.
4. District 9
The best success story of the year, as it not only cost very little to make – but made huge piles of money, and did so deservedly. In the past decade, science fiction has been artistically strong for sure (see “WALL-E,” “Children of Men” and “Paprika”) but not popular among average American audiences. Three films last year changed everything. The first film on this list, “Avatar” (which wouldn’t even make it on my top 10 list – even though it will change the movie-going experience, but whatever), and “District 9.” Any worries that theater audiences would miss out on consummate science fiction were dashed away with the release of unknown director Neill Blomkamp’s visionary film. Produced by Peter Jackson (not directed, as many people have come to believe due to the film’s advertising campaign), “District 9” presents the story of a species of aliens, known by the derogatory term “Prawn,” whose mother ship stops over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. Its misguided protagonist Wikus van de Merwe, portrayed in a debut performance by Sharlto Copley, learns through extreme measures the sociological implications of xenophobia and segregation. Copley delivered one of the best performances of the year, using improvisation in a genre that rarely allows it. Needless to say, it won’t be the last we see of him.
3. The Hurt Locker
A taut action drama that, like “(500) Days of Summer,” is able to both utilize the great techniques of its genre while finding a way to reject and neutralize the tension. The performance of up-and-comer Jeremy Renner, who has gained a small amount of street cred in the film industry by appearing in mostly independent works, is quite powerful. While the film holds the audience to their seats – the tension mounting as these brave soldiers put their lives in danger – Renner’s character SSgt. William James eases the tension by approaching life without fear and with blind confidence. He never learns from his mistakes, because he always saves the day. It’s a glorious metaphor for the American engagement in the war, thus the most honest portrayal of our involvement in Iraq set to film yet. Katheryn Bigelow’s film takes the war seriously, both in rejection of its horrors and in praise of its heroes.
2. Where the Wild Things Are
A film that permeates the mind, and allows one to discover their inner child in a way you’d never expect. The attainment of innocence and one’s inner child is impossible to exact in a completely genuine way – but one single viewing of Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book will transport its viewer (if not for a single night) to a place they’d wholly forgotten. The tragic loneliness of childhood – the inability to let out one’s deep emotional pains because you lack the education to iterate it through metaphor – is portrayed, something I’ve never seen in the medium. The innocent intelligence of a child’s mind which only exists within that mind is actually achieved in Jonze’s brilliant script and through the performance of Max Records. And that’s only the first fifteen minutes. Sendak’s original book was relatively thin in terms of characterization, but it spoke loudly in terms of the explosive potential of a child’s imagination. Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers name and explore the actual wild things, utilizing each beast’s personality as a reflection of the complexities of a child. The voice work is phenomenal (watch the film, then check IMDb and be amazed at who played certain characters) as is Karen O and Carter Burwell’s inspired score – the best in terms of cinematic relevance since Jon Brion’s score or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” While the film has become something of a hipster’s wet dream, it should not be ignored as it is artistically important and singular in a new genre of film – the inner child’s film.
1. Star Trek
Not necessarily the best film technically, or in story or in character – but the most unabashedly fun and fearless film of the year. J.J. Abrams has gone where no one has gone before and made Star Trek not only fun again, but achieved the greatest act of desegregation since the Civil Rights Movement (although you might want to Wikipedia that…). The film re-introduced us to characters that have been reserved to the dreams of Trekkers and Trekkies – Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. As a Trekkie, I was hesitant to this film. Who wants an O.C. version of one of the greatest shows of all time? All fears were brushed aside by Abrams incredible ability to entertain, and in the best casting calls of all time. Zachary Quinto seemed an inspired choice to play Spock as he looks disturbingly like a young Leonard Nimoy. Not only was the appearance inspired – the performance was too. Quinto played an emotional Spock, and inhibited Spock haunted by both his human side and his Vulcan side. Watching his breakdown is heartbreaking. However, the best performance of the film and of the year is that of Chris Pine – who surprised every single fan who had doubts from the very beginning. As I wrote when I first saw the film: Pine doesn’t re-imagine Kirk, nor does an impression of William Shatner. Instead, Pine’s Kirk is a more charming leader and something of an accidental hero. Pine’s depiction is raw – a force of nature. He’s a leader you can follow, who has flaws anyone can identify with, most importantly the control of ones ego. Pine fleshes out the character of Kirk in a way no one could expect anyone other than Shatner could. This film will make Pine a star, and deservedly so. As I’ve watched the film five or six times since seeing it twice in the movie theater, I find myself seeing so much more to Pine’s performance. There are moments that feel Brando-esque, most specifically in Pine’s first scene of the film. Pine remains in control during the entire bar fight scene even as he’s getting the snot beaten out of him. I really hope that Pine’s talent is not wasted on the blockbuster. “Star Trek” is the rare blockbuster that actually promotes fine acting under the veil of SFX. Abrams needs to step up to the plate. The first film is, without a doubt, a fantastic space adventure that takes audiences (no pun intended) to no place they’ve gone before. However, it lacks in the most essential aspect of science fiction. Sociologically, the film does very little. It had the potential, had the villain Nero (Eric Bana) been a little more developed as a character – but the film really doesn’t achieve what other science fiction films have. “Star Trek” did a lot for Star Trek, but very little for what science fiction is definitively. With his next installment, Abrams must realize this. This is a very delicate situation, where something like the addition of Klingons could be either a great idea or could come off as cheesy. It worked as cheesy in the series, but Abrams new film sets up a more serious Trek so he must act accordingly. Needless to say, there’s very little doubt that Abrams will make a consummate sequel.
Thanks for everything 2009, you certainly taught me more than I could have ever been prepared for. 2010, please hold back on the sequels and remakes – unless you’ve got something to say, I’m not wasting my time on you.