Mexican gang life, the return of Hugo Stiglitz, orchestral synesthesia, cider cellars, Butoh dance, metal on metal, set phasers to stun, a button of death, picks of destiny, and a particular set of skills. These are the best films of 2009.
J.J. Abrams’s rejuvenation of the “Star Trek” brand name is perhaps the single most heroic artistic act of the 2009 film year. Think about where “Trek” stood before last May. Think about the years of rigid canon that pushed the universe into confining corners, the derogatory attitudes aimed towards the uptight fan base, and the general fatigue of the franchise. And then consider what Abrams and his crack production team accomplished: they returned urgency to the material, made known characters vast human (and Vulcan) mysteries again, and treated cartwheeling space adventure with the sort of camera-spinning glee that makes the considerable financial effort of going to the movies worth every single cent. Skillfully assembled, lovingly performed, and blessed with flawless tech credits (not to mention the finest musical score of the year), the picture resuscitated a feeling for “Star Trek” I haven’t felt in over a decade: ravenous hunger for more.
As Quentin Tarantino a Quentin Tarantino movie can get, “Inglourious Basterds” engaged the filmmaker’s infinite imagination in ways previously unseen. In a ballsy move, Tarantino rewrites WWII history with this valentine to combat films and French cinema culture; a factual liquid paper cover job that opens the door to pristine bouts of breathless dialogue, explosive collisions of violence, and plenty of Tarantino-branded anachronistic daydreaming. “Basterds” stunned audiences and fried spell check programs; it was a frighteningly expansive redecoration of war, brought to lustrous life by Tarantino’s daring, abrasive, and persistently impish ego.
A brutal, petrifying saga of Mexican gangs and immigrant endurance, “Sin Nombre” eschewed romanticizing the illegal migrant journey to focus on more intimate, punishing circumstances. “Sin Nombre” is not an easy film to watch, but the insightful characterizations, bleak locations, and horrifying turns of fate are superbly intertwined by director Cary Fukunaga, evoking an unsettlingly intoxicating sense of complex emotions and desperation facing a cruel and unforgiving world. The filmmaking is gripping, the story adeptly pulled taught between dramatic demands and riveting authenticity, and the stirring performances drill right into the soul.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson was made for the meticulous, painstaking stop-motion animation process. Bringing his aesthetic fingerprint and neurotic familial bugaboos to an animated realm typically reserved for lightweight family fare, Anderson employed his magic touch to Roald Dahl’s source material, crafting a hilarious, breezy, brain-meltingly creative piece of work. The details throughout “Fantastic” are insane, requiring a good decade of repeated viewing just to catch all the minutiae shoved into the corners. Thankfully, a compelling, refreshingly edgy story and dynamite voice work help to beautifully embroider Anderson’s vision. It’s a dazzling feature film that deserved a far more enthusiastic response than it received at the box office. If there’s any justice in the world, “Fantastic” will become a home video staple for years to come.
A German film surveying the alienation of life as a widower, “Cherry Blossoms” wasn’t your average, everyday tale of loneliness. Director Doris Dorrie uproots the standard expression of regret by taking matters to Japan, bringing along a startling jab of culture shock to accentuate devastating shock waves of grief and marital guilt. “Cherry Blossoms” is an unwaveringly sensitive, tear-jerking motion picture, but the unexpected urges of behavior sold me wholeheartedly on the film, merging anguish with beautiful spasms of curiosity, not only with a mesmerizing foreign land, but also the depths of the human spirit, funneled through the art of the mysterious, purging Butoh dance.
Initial spin on “The Soloist” compared the picture to the likes of “Radio,” summing up the story as just another idiotic “wonderful whitey” diversion to please suburban audiences. “The Soloist” wasn’t that picture, instead plunging into the dark recesses of a fractured mind, struggling to hold onto some sense of reality with the help of an inquisitive stranger; a relationship that soon blossomed into a unique friendship. While Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx provided stellar work in the lead roles, “The Soloist” was all filmmaker Joe Wright, who elected to infuse the film with more social consciousness than saccharine heart, open to explore a stark side of mental disorder that can’t be cured in 120 minutes. “The Soloist” works in uncompromising ways, trusting in the power of human conduct and the spirituality of orchestral compositions to speak for the characters.
It Might Get Loud
The guitar is king, with subjects none more loyal than Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. Davis Guggenheim’s reverberating documentary went beyond mere six-string deconstruction to all-out worship, learning how three disparate, masterful musicians found their calling behind such a thunderous instrument. Part friendly conversation, part education, “It Might Get Loud” wielded slack-jawed hero worship masterfully, attaining a special harmony of reverence and shop talk that helped to not only understand the passions of these gifted players, but the heavenly magnitude of the guitar as well.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil
From the outside, a documentary on a struggling heavy metal band might seem unnecessary, perhaps even silly. However, once “Anvil” starts to unfold, revealing idiosyncratic band member personalities and vicious music industry struggles, the film transcends its “Spinal Tap” roots, forming a valuable celebration of feral determination, galloping (at times limping) onward in the face of financial collapse and public humiliation. While there are undoubtedly more respectable, globally-conscious documentaries for inspection, “Anvil” captured a feeling I’ve rarely seen committed to film: optimism, even in the midst of unimaginable failure. The picture is a soulful, never-say-die boost arriving at a time when we all could use the encouragement.
Drag Me to Hell
After spending much of the last decade enabling Spider-Man to keep doing whatever a spider can, filmmaker Sam Raimi took some time off from web-slinging to mold a ghoulish movie that flexed a few of his atrophying genre muscles. A sinister horror extravaganza, “Drag Me to Hell” recharged and unleashed Raimi’s once legendary low-budget mischief, set loose in a demonic humdinger of a terror zone, buttressed by a master class in shock jumps and a disgusting purging of bodily fluids. “Drag Me to Hell” was my favorite horror bonanza of the year, but most importantly, it returned the wildly imaginative Raimi to his genre throne, showing the kids how a proper and properly revolting fright fest should be prepared.
A lean, deliciously mean thriller from producing guru Luc Besson, “Taken” has all the subtext of a Mentos commercial, but what it does offer is an exhilarating filmgoing experience that trusts the glorious art of simplicity. Using Liam Neeson’s raging performance as its snarling guide, “Taken” embarks on a fabulously entertaining to-do list of jaw-cracking action set-pieces and unmerciful behavior, pitched with exquisite Euro-bruising tension by director Pierre Morel. It’s a perfect paternal protection revenge fantasy, delightfully fat-free and mindful of snappy suspense left turns. Perhaps “Taken” isn’t something suited for the National Film Registry, but for cheap, startlingly efficient thrills, there wasn’t a more enchanting act of steamrolling to be found this year.
Also of note: Up, Must Read After My Death, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ponyo, World’s Greatest Dad, The September Issue, Grace, In the Loop, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, White on Rice, The Damned United, Big Fan, Funny People, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, and Julie & Julia.