*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Don't forget to check out my previous posts for 2006 and 2007 and 2008. This installment will be focusing on 2009. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.
A passing glance at my selections for the Top 10 Films of 2009 might have some mistaking it for a "Worst Of" list, as three choices in particular leap out as being universally reviled by critics and audiences alike. Whereas my previous entries for this series carried few surprises, mostly falling in line with the general consensus, than this year provides the first major deviation. But I'm most definitely not being contrarian for the mere sake of it, as all three of those films did initially receive raves from me upon their release.
The bigger surprise is that the needle hasn't moved very much in my original assessments of The Box, The Informers and The Lovely Bones since then. If each are extremely galvanizing in its own way, no one can claim any of them are forgettable, which helped them here. While I sometimes saw the same flaws others did, I mostly read them as something that improved the overall experience or didn't care because they came as a result of reaching and risking than most other efforts that year.
That Richard Kelly's The Box made the cut despite it being the weakest of his three outings and my waning interest in the Sci-Fi genre, only underlines the fact that his absence (semi-retirement?) has left a void, as more recent films rarely dare to challenge audiences or provoke nearly as much thought. I wouldn't go as far as to say The Lovely Bones or The Informers are necessarily misunderstood, as people have very valid reasons for disliking each, but much of what bubbles under the surface of both didn't go unnoticed by me. The same is true for The Girlfriend Experience, which through time has revealed to be one of Steven Soderbergh's most successful and memorable indie "experiments."
While Crazy Heart follows a formula as old as time, it's also a reminder why such a formula exists, and what an acting treasure Jeff Bridges is, winning what has to be one of the more tolerable, career "make-up" Oscars in history. Looking back on and rewatching it, it's surprising how well it still plays, guaranteeing its spot. Without its sensational, painfully realistic ending, I'm not sure Up in the Air would get such high marks, but it's a smart character-driven picture director Jason Reitman would only end up topping with his following effort.
I struggled with where to place Inglourious Basterds, if at all. While it's considerably superior to the aforementioned titles, Tarantino suffers from constantly repeating himself in the revenge genre with none of it even remotely approaching his greatest creative success in Pulp Fiction. But he's very good at what he does and therefore can't justify ranking many films from a surprisingly rich '09 above it. Except three. Another thinking sci-fi entry, Duncan Jones' Moon, deserved all the adulation that the similarly themed The Martian received over the past year, while lacking the unnecessary jokiness. A "romantic comedy" of sorts makes its first top five appearance on a list, if you'd even categorize (500) Days of Summer as that, which I wouldn't. And neither would anyone who's been through anything resembling what happens between those two characters. It's also a reminder how strong a movie actress Zooey Deschanel was becoming before we lost her to comedy TV.
The number one pick was easier than expected. What Spike Jonze did with his really out there interpretation of Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are is hypnotizing, haunting and captures childhood in difficult ways mainstream audiences weren't prepared for. It stands as the 2009's most fully realized vision in American filmmaking and one of the great children's book adaptations of all-time. In this fairly competitive year, there were many runners-up, including The Hurt Locker, The Brothers Bloom, Away We Go, World's Greatest Dad, An Education, The Informant!, Bronson, The Messenger, Adventureland, A Single Man, Observe and Report, Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked), and Halloween II (Director's Cut). All strong candidates, but when pushed to replace any of the titles below, I just couldn't do it. Ask me in a month or two and it's possible you'd get a slightly different response. But not likely.
10. The Box
"Was there ever any doubt critics and audiences would despise 'The Box?' Seriously, any doubt at all? Burdened by belonging to a genre that doesn't get any respect, made by a director few want to see work again, and starring a polarizing A-list actress, minds were already made up. This never stood a chance. And if that wasn't enough, how many times have we heard the phrase, 'It's like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone' as a supposed insult aimed at high-concept sci-fi or mystery/suspense thrillers? There's no doubt critics' mouths were watering at just the thought of bashing a movie THAT ACTUALLY IS based on an episode of 'The Twilight Zone.' But it turns out writer/director Richard Kelly's third feature can in no way be described as merely an extended version of anything." - 11/23/09
9. The Informers
"Ellis' work has always been more dependent on capturing a specific mood or feeling. This is a far different '80's than the warm, nostalgia-filled one presented in 'Adventureland' earlier in the year, or the alternate version of the decade we saw in 'Watchmen.' It's much more lived in. The fashions (Ray-Bans), and the music (Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung, Simple Minds) are all there but they exist only as part of this cold, desolate landscape of greed and excess. As frighteningly accurate as it's portrayed, it's even scarier that you rarely stop to notice. It just is. More than simply watching a movie, you've committed to taking a disturbing time travel trip from which there's seemingly no recovery." - 10/20/09
8. The Girlfriend Experience
"The men Chelsea encounters and keeps company with aren't nearly as interesting as she is, though that's likely the entire point. We have a protagonist who doesn't know herself or feelings at all and men so incapable of forming emotional bonds that they have to hire someone to pretend that they can. We can only hope the movie's wrong--that people aren't this lonely. But that's probably wishful thinking. For better or worse, it's an experience that stays with you." - 1/23/10
7. Crazy Heart
"There's relief in discovering the movie never feels like it's trying too hard, instead casually letting this world the protagonist inhabits wash over you. The music and performances are what I'll come away remembering most, but it's surprising how much respect rookie writer/director Scott Cooper shows the audience by not playing any games and just delivering it as is. And that was more than enough considering it's Bridges who carries much of the load in the role that justifiably won him an Oscar." - 4/29/10
6. Up in the Air
5. The Lovely Bones
"Reaction to this much-maligned adaptation of Alice Sebold's 2002 bestseller was almost destined to split viewers into two camps: Those who read the novel and hate what he's done to it and those who never read the novel and are impressed. I fall into the latter category, but wouldn't plead ignorance to any of the film's perceived or actual flaws, remaining completely cognizant of why it's attracted so much animosity. But the one complaint against it I won't accept is that it in any way "wussed out." Especially when it so thoroughly denies the characters and audience closure, or at least closure as it's traditionally expected in American movies. Or not a single story beat going down as it normally would in this genre. Are these problems? Or did Jackson actually find a way to capture the sloppiness of everyday life? Part thriller, part metaphysical drama, 'The Lovely Bones' is the best 'Unsolved Mysteries' episode that never aired. Just as long as you don't read the book first." - 5/10/10
4. Inglourious Basterds
"There's usually a section in any bookstore where you can find those speculative fiction novels dealing with various alternate history scenarios. The victory of the South in the Civil War. The survival of the Byzantine Empire. Nazi Germany's victory in World War II. Quentin Tarantino uses the pages of those books as toilet paper in Inglourious Basterds, the alternate history to end all alternate histories, and easily his best film since 'Pulp Fiction.' What everyone expected to be another one of his fun B-movie tributes (this time to Spaghetti Westerns) over-performs considerably to become something far more, representing a giant leap forward for a director who was written off as peaking a while ago." - 12/23/09
"The most obvious aesthetic influence on the film is '2001: A Space Odyssey,' even if its theme and consequences more closely parallel 'Solaris.' But in reality it's nothing like either, sucking the viewer into a hypnotic vortex of confusion that mirrors the plight of the main character(s). It's appropriate I re-watched the film right after it ended because the entire experience of watching the film is re-watching it as the narrative travlels in circles before shocking us, then arriving at its mind numbing conclusion. Many won't care for it, but the kind of cerebral filmmaking on display here is something we rarely see anymore, as deserving of recognition as the compelling, career defining performance that carries it." - 2/7/10
2. (500) Days of Summer
"In somewhat of a breakthrough, the script doesn't take sides, presenting a free-thinking female lead who's an agent of action rather than a prize to be won. It acknowledges neither character is blameless, with Levitt and Deschanel's performances filling them with too much complexity for you to completely dislike either. Both have their issues, but at the same time actually seem real, making the same mistakes we would. He didn't get the message, while she was careless with his feelings, but the screenplay cleverly disallows us from viewing the film through the same one-sided prism Tom saw 'The Graduate.' It isn't just about a failed relationship and there's a universality in recognizing that everyone's a "Tom" or a "Summer," or at least a combination of both." - 8/23/09
1. Where The Wild Things Are
"Those thinking they wanted an inventive, mature interpretation of the material should have known the commitment that would entail as audience members and the sacrifices the studio would have to make to do that. One of those was not making a children's movie. Instead, Jonze was more interested in making a movie ABOUT childhood and the pain, sadness and confusion that can accompany it, especially for kids with overactive imaginations. More than that though, it's about the child in all of us that fades away as we enter a world full of responsibilities and burdens. If you're lucky enough, a small piece of that kid hangs on for the ride. That small piece is immortalized in Max's journey." - 3/12/10
My Top Ten Films of 2009
1. Where The Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)
2. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)
3. Moon (dir. Duncan Jones)
4. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
5. The Lovely Bones (dir. Peter Jackson)
6. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)
7. Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)
8. The Girlfriend Experience (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
9. The Informers (dir. Gregor Jordan)
10. The Box (dir. Richard Kelly)