5) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
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The buzz on this film had been so bad that I walked into the theater just hoping the sixth in the Harry Potter series was decent, that David Yates hadn’t completely crippled what had been otherwise a very charming film series based on a very excellent book series. But it turned out that not only had Yates not crippled the series, he had completely elevated it to a new level.
Half-Blood Prince is probably the best film in the Harry Potter series, and it may be the one that deviates the most from the source material. Is there a correlation? I don’t know, but I do know that I didn’t miss anything; unlike Chris Columbus’ by the numbers adaptations, and like Alfonso Cuaron’s magical third film, Half-Blood Prince takes on a life of its own. You forget you’re watching something based on a book and just fall into the world of these characters.
Having pulled off this feat I can’t wait to see what Yates does with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It can’t get here soon enough.
4) World’s Greatest Dad
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How can a movie so dark and so cynical about human nature also be so life-affirming and make you feel so good? Bobcat Goldthwait has directed two other very dark films, but World’s Greatest Dad is leaps and bounds ahead of his previous work – funny and twisted but also sweet and, in the end, joyous.
Bobcat earns major kudos just for that, but he should be getting some kind of Nobel prize for dragging back the good Robin Williams. The one who, fifteen or twenty years ago, you were proud to like. The guy who could be funny without dropping into one of his usual half dozen ‘characters’ or who could be serious without being utterly sappy. The pre-90s Robin. The actor sheds all of his usual tics to bring a really complex character to life; he’s a guy who loves his truly horrible son but doesn’t much like him, and he’s a guy who does all the wrong things in a tragic situation, but never for really sleazy reasons. The whole film is a tightrope between unbearable sentiment and cavernous bile, and Williams and Bobcat navigate it effortlessly.
3) District 9
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The little movie that could. Nobody expected a first feature from a South African director – set in South Africa, no less – to be the breakout action film of the year. Sure, Transformers made more money, but no other genre film in 2009 has created this much excitement.
And for once it’s a movie that deserves the buzz. Neill Blomkamp’s apartheid allegory may not be subtle but it’s damn well made. He starts you off disgusted by Earth’s new inhabitants, the insectoid Prawns, but by the end you’re on their side, rooting for the ETs to phone home… and maybe unleash a little whoop ass on the humans.
There are two elements key in making this happen: the astonishing, often photoreal effects (not done by WETA, mind you. And there are no shots of prosthetic or animatronic aliens in the entire film. Every Prawn shot, even the close-ups, are CGI), and the completely effective acting of the unknown Sharlto Copley as the bumbling, racist bureaucrat Wikus. There’s something powerful about having an unknown in the lead – you have no preconceptions, and there seems to be no rules as to what this guy might do or what might happen to him. After all, Sharlto Copley doesn’t have an image to keep up – he can die or be utterly evil or utterly cowardly.
But more than that, an unknown can really surprise us with a performance, and Copley does that. The reality he brings to Wikus, a tremendously flawed character, is vital in making the film work as well as it does. And the film works so well that people on the CHUD message boards have been arguing about whether the movie needs a sequel – it seems like everyone would be happy to revisit this world, but some folks feel like the story has been told perfectly and to return would just screw it up. That’s a rare sentiment in these franchise-happy times, when even the hardest core film fans look forward to prequels, sequels, reboots and remakes.
Oh, and beyond all that stuff, District 9 is splattery good fun. An almost perfect movie.
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Honestly, if only the top two films on my list had come out this summer I would have counted 2009 as one of the best seasons on record. It’s so rare that you find movies as good as these in a year, let alone two in a summer. Movies that are so good that you don’t just feel comfortable calling them masterpieces, you feel compelled to do so.
Up is undoubtedly the best Pixar film to date. There may be others that you mark as your favorite, or that speak more personally to your individual hang ups, neuroses, or personality problems, but Up beats them all in terms of sheer artistry. A movie that approaches utter perfection in pacing, sentiment and character, it backs all that up with beauty dripping from every frame. Just the image of the colorful balloon shadows projected in a young girl’s bedroom is more breathtaking than almost anything else I saw projected on a big screen this year.
1) Inglourious Basterds
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Another movie I’ve seen multiple times in theaters this most unusual summer, Quentin Tarantino’s latest is brilliant. Completely brilliant. The first viewing, so far, has been the best – the tension Tarantino keeps boiling in every scene is close to unbearable. He clearly shows you the potential – no, the inevitability – of violence and then makes you wait for it. In Basterds his dialog isn’t just overly cool patois but a weapon against the audience, designed to prolong the agony of waiting for the tension to burst.
But it’s a beautiful agony, one that makes this talky two and a half hour long movie the most exciting of the year. That thick, pulsating tension is gone on the second viewing, but the film remains as forceful. You’re just as sucked in to every minute of the film, but this time you get to really appreciate the work that Tarantino has put in, the craftsmanship on display in every single frame.
The Weinstein Company totally sold this film as something it isn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t get the film I was sold. Instead of a big, bloody, goofy, dumb movie I got a really smart, sleek and occasionally goofy movie. Other than Jackie Brown every previous Tarantino film felt like it kept itself distanced from being too serious, but Basterds is totally serious. Tarantino isn’t making fun of WWII or being hiply ironic about it – right from the opening chapter he makes you feel the turmoil and terror of the period, and he makes you understand the evil of the Nazis.
But even while demonstrating that evil he never loses sight of the humanity of the Germans. And that’s what makes them all the better villains – they’re not faceless stormtroopers that might as well be robots; a Nazi commander who gets beat to death by the Basterds is more civilized than the Americans, and he’s just as brave, honorable and loyal as any of our movie war heroes.
That’s part of Tarantino’s point. I think he may have made the greatest meditation on our relationship to screen violence ever, simply because he so clearly understands both sides of the issue. You could spend a semester in your film studies class just talking about the parallels at play in the final scene in the movie theater, the way the Nazis react to violence on film and the way the audience in which you sit reacts to the violence in Basterds. It’s sublime, and it’s something easy to miss the first time, when you’re simply caught up in Tarantino’s storytelling.
If all of that wasn’t enough, Tarantino introduces two of the most indelible characters in his canon. Hans Landa isn’t just the best villain of 2009, he’s one of the best characters of the decade. People are going to look back at the 00s and do imitations of Landa and Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood the same way they look back at the 70s and do imitations of Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo’s Nest and DeNiro in Taxi Driver. If people won Oscars based on actual worth, Christoph Waltz would be working on his acceptance speech right now.
The other character is Shoshana Dreyfus, a female character who manages to be utterly kick ass without becoming impossibly masculine. I never got the whole James Cameron view of tough women – Sarah Connor and Ripley are men with tits. One of Shoshana’s most badass moments comes when she’s putting on make-up. She engages in a gunfight looking immaculately gorgeous. And what I really love is that while the film is mostly about her quest for revenge against the Nazi regime that killed her family, she doesn’t seek it out. It’s a masculine thing to go hunt down those who wronged you; Shoshana gets along with her life, but when circumstances put her in the right situation, she acts unflinchingly and without hesitation. Shoshana isn’t just a male character rewritten to lose the dick, she’s a fully realized woman.
Inglourious Basterds is one of those movies that makes me want to write a book about it. There’s not a moment in the film that feels extraneous, useless or boring. I’m no Tarantino fanboy – I respect him, and I love a couple of his films while disliking a couple of others – but this is the kind of movie that must leave any real cinephile in quavering awe. This is one of the best films not just of this year, but of this entire decade.