…But first, my top five documentaries! This was a great year for movies I liked, great enough that I can make a second list for documentaries. As usual, I didn’t see nearly enough of those, but my favorites are below. And after that, we’ll get to the main event – my personal Top Ten of 2009!
(In both lists, I linked to my earlier articles in the cases where I previously wrote about them.)
My Favorite Documentaries Of 2009
I don’t think there are many people out there who are one-hundred-percent pro-Tyson, but I don’t think there are many people who will watch this movie and can come out of it one-hundred-percent against Tyson. Whether you believe him to be a hero or a villain, Mike Tyson is a legendary athlete, a legend in self-destructive behavior, and without a doubt one of the most quotable people of all time. His life story says plenty about American sports over the last couple decades. This movie delivers him right to you – pure unfiltered Mike, for worse and for better.
I need to find out where people can get to see this movie – it’s been playing festivals across America and I haven’t heard about a wider theatrical release yet. Something else I haven’t heard: a single negative word about it. Then again, if anyone has a negative word to say about Winnebago Man, they’re a fucking idiot and you don’t want to hear a goddamn word they have to say. And if you can handle that kind of language, you too will adore this movie. One of the funniest AND most touching movies around, documentary or otherwise.
3. Good Hair
Here’s a shaky metaphor for you: If the black moviegoing audience is a heavy dresser, and the white moviegoing audience is a wall, then Good Hair is the movie that fell between ‘em. Chris Rock’s hilarious documentary is playfully critical of a sociological trend that consumes black women and therefore affects black men also, while remaining absolutely foreign to almost all white people everywhere. (One of the exceptions is in this movie, and he must be seen to be believed.) It’s a shame that so many people missed Good Hair, because it’s Chris Rock, and Chris Rock has no problem bridging audiences. If Good Hair has a flaw, it’s that there’s enough story here for a miniseries (no joke!) and the many storytelling strands could’ve used more time to develop. If modern movies have a flaw, it’s that they underuse the adorable Nia Long, who appears here to attempt to explain “weave sex” – which sounds so bizarre and awkward that it actually sounded totally appealing. (Probably helped that it was Nia Long discussing it, and not, say, Oprah or Mo’Nique.)
Everybody called this movie “the Spinal Tap of documentaries” and if that gets more people to see it, then sure, I’ll go with that. I think I like Anvil better though, because yeah, it’s real! It has a pair of lead characters who are initially somewhat laughable, but very quickly become lovable and even admirable throughout the course of their story, and not to give anything a way, but this documentary has the happiest ending since King Of Kong. I’m pretty sure you’ll love this movie. Give it a chance!
1. The Cove
The Cove shook me. Deeply. It made me furious and it made me despair, and at the end of it all, it made me motivated. I truly hope that everyone who reads these words takes a look at The Cove. It centers on the monstrous slaughter of scores of dolphins by Japanese fishermen in Taiji (among other locations) – thousands a year! While the opposing point of view is admittedly not heard in this movie, let’s face it: there is no opposing point of view. There is no reason to massacre dolphins. Since the Japanese government won’t stand against these crimes, a small group of filmmakers, specialists, and activists took matters into their own hands and filmed everything. The Cove truly is a vital act of altruism. It’s hardly dull or boring – movie fans will enjoy the way the team is recruited and prepared for the job, Ocean’s Eleven style – but beyond its concessions to entertainment, The Cove feels absolutely necessary.
Didn’t See In Time For Listing: Soul Power, Facing Ali, Food Inc, It Might Get Loud.
Loved, But Don’t Think It Counts As A 2009 Release: Not Quite Hollywood.
My Ten Favorite Movies Of 2009
10. (500) Days Of Summer
I didn’t expect to like this movie, not even a little bit. I figured, by all appearances, that it was going to be cutesy. Normally, I’m revolted by cutesy. Guess what? (500) Days Of Summer was totally cutesy, and I still dug it. There is an aspect of recognition at work – I can relate to some of the experiences enacted here, and the locations are very familiar to me. There is also an ace pair of lead performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, and some nice supporting comic balance from the underrated Geoffrey Arend. Most of all, the moral of this story (which, as is promised early on, is about a boy and a girl but is not a love story) is one I needed to hear at the time I heard it. It’s something I’ve understood and internalized over the last few years but it was nice to hear it said. You can have your heart broken – more than once! – but you can not allow your broken heart to turn black. It doesn’t do you any good to be embittered towards a girl who doesn’t love you (back/anymore/at all) – feel grateful for the experience and be always ready for the next one, which can easily be right around the corner.
Blackest comedy of the year. Most unintentionally timely movie of the year, period. For all the events of 2009 – the war(s), the economy, the inauguration of the first black president, the return to glory of the New York Yankees, and so on – it seems like this year is destined to go down in history as the year that a ton of famous people died. The sane man can feel alone in noticing that cruel celebrity mockery and weepy celebrity worship are increasingly separated by one moment in time: that celebrity’s death. Apparently, the sane man is not alone – he has Bobcat Goldthwait to speak for him. (!) Bobcat’s script and direction of World’s Greatest Dad impeccably illustrate the ways that the still-living sentimentalize dead people, and in the process he gave Robin Williams one of his trickiest and most sympathetic roles in more than a decade, depending on what you thought of Good Will Hunting.
8. Observe & Report
I cannot comprehend the sentiment I heard a few times this year from some people, that they’ve had too much of Seth Rogen – I can’t get enough of the guy! He’s a great comedy writer and a uniquely charming performer, and he has got to be respected for taking on the psycho-stalker role this early in his career. Of course, Ronnie Barnhart, mall security guard, is a little more complicated than your average psycho-stalker, especially for a comedy. He really does want to do good in the world, and he might actually make a decent cop, if not for his mental state, which Rogen and director Jody Hill certainly play for laughs but also manage to hint at the sadness informing it. The best thing about Observe & Report is that you just don’t know where it’s going and you can hardly believe it when it gets there! Jody Hill is bringing anarchy and amorality back to film comedy, and I salute him for it, in an age when most comedies are “Diet” flavored and even the good popular comedies hang their stories on plot points you care nothing about. (See The Hangover: Who gives a good fuck if that pussy Doug gets back to his wedding on time? Send Galifianakis back to Vegas to hang out with the tiger, that’s what we all want.)
After that Hangover quibble, you may not trust my opinion on comedy anymore, if you ever did. Honestly, maybe you shouldn’t! I’m about to tell you that Black Dynamite was pound for pound the funniest movie of the year, in my opinion. From start to finish, I never really stopped laughing – after every joke, there was always another wave of funny to catch. It helps that the genre that Black Dynamite is spoofing, “blaxploitation” or 1970s black action films, is one of my sweet spots, cinematically speaking. I definitely kicked to the fact that someone managed to get a movie like this one released in 2009, and I loved the thorough detail of the twisted world seen here. I thought Michael Jai White played it perfectly – of course he would’ve been a great star of those films back then, but back in the here-and-now, he brought incredible comic timing to his outsized hero character. “Blaxploitation spoof” is one of the most specific genres I can think of, but Black Dynamite stands with the best of them.
6. The Road
Of all the movies on my list, this is the one I hope I don’t have to watch again anytime soon. Sweet Jesus, was it bleak. Look, there are a couple givens here: Cormac McCarthy’s novel was brilliant and there are intimate, lyrical moments in the book that no movie can come close to capturing. But damned if director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and his brilliant crew of production designers, cameramen, and costumers actually pull it off. The Road as a movie is brutal and uncompromising and the only reason it didn’t hit me harder than it did is that it was so loyal to the book that I knew what was coming in the end. If for nothing else, you must see this movie for Viggo Mortensen’s performance. This guy is just one of the best there is – his physical and emotional commitment to his role was apparent, transformative and extraordinary.
I took a lot of heat for liking this one, no pun intended up there, but I stand by it. Michael Mann is my favorite filmmaker, and there’s no one currently working whose movies I’d rather watch. No matter how universally a movie is respected or attacked, movies are ultimately a subjective experience and Public Enemies just worked for me. It isn’t my favorite Michael Mann movie; it isn’t even my favorite Michael Mann movie of the decade. But there’s so much good going on here that I just can’t let the dissenters dissuade me, even as I see their points on some of the more technical complaints. I like how the movie actually flips the script of the Mann film it’s most compared to, Heat: In Heat, both groups of cops and crooks are vivid and (for better or worse) likable, whereas in Public Enemies Dillinger’s guys are generally undependable and untrustworthy, and Purvis’s guys are corrupt or inept pigs. It really is cop versus crook, Dillinger versus Purvis, and there’s no doubt who you’re rooting for this time. I think Depp is a great Dillinger and Marion Cotillard really got to me as his lady love. Most of all, I like how Mann cast a guy in a significant role (Jason Clarke as Dillinger’s associate Red Hamilton) who looks exactly like a younger version of himself.
4. Big Fan
Robert Siegel, as a writer, now has two movies to his name (The Wrestler and Big Fan) that just make sense to me in a very instinctive and personal way. As director, he really immediately took command and asserted his voice in a way that makes me eager to see his next film. He has a skill at capturing the tri-state area, both visually and atmospherically, in a way I recognize. Really, if he keeps going in this direction, he’ll be favorably compared to Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. In Big Fan we’re looking at Staten Island and parts of New York, and trust me, I know these people. I know people like them, anyway. If you look at Paul Aufiero as a cautionary tale, then be afraid, because I see Paul Aufieros all over the place (not to mention his shithead lawyer brother and his thickheaded best buddy, and so on). And speaking of Paul Aufiero: Patton Oswalt gave one of the best dramatic performances of the year in this movie, and considering that he put out the best stand-up comedy album of the year already, that just ain’t fair. Patton’s got talent on lock.
3. District 9
I agree with everybody who loves District 9 and I don’t know I can express it any better than they all have. Fucking rocks. This is a movie that will be talked about for a long time. It’s an exciting, spirited action movie that evokes real-world issues without being too overt and obnoxious about it. Arguably its most remarkable achievement is the way it shifts the audience’s allegiance in the case of “Christopher Johnson” and the other “prawns” – at first we’re disgusted by them, then we are actively rooting for them against our own species, and ultimately we’re moved by their plight. That’s not just an achievement of brilliant visual effects, which it is, but also an achievement of storytelling. Yes, there are quibbles here and there, such as the monstrous portrayal of the warlord character and the way the movie abandons the mockumentary format pretty early on, but honestly, who cares? The movie is so good that it transcends minor critiques even as it invites serious conversation.
I have a theory. I believe that sometimes the movies get together in order to tell us something. For example, it can’t be an accident that in 2007, three of the best movies (There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, and Zodiac) were dire statements about the downturn of goodness and morality in America. I guess it has something to do with synchronicity, with smart minds pondering the same issues and ideas. I feel like that’s happening again this year, between movies as different as Up In The Air, The Road, and A Serious Man. These movies are about the question “What really matters in life?” but they are also about “What’s the point, really?” A Serious Man goes the furthest into that question, and it’s also the funniest. Not everyone got the joke, but that’s fine. Sometimes the best jokes are missed by the most people. I doubt the Coen brothers care. However, I do like to think that they made this one for the Chosen People. The goyim get enough movies catered to them around this time of year.
That’s right, I said Drag Me To Hell. Far as I’m concerned, here’s the best movie I saw all year. No joke! Drag Me To Hell is, technically speaking, the most perfect movie of the year. It does exactly what it sets out to do. It wants to spook you, to gross you out, and to make you laugh. It does all of those things thoroughly and efficiently. Sam Raimi is a master filmmaker and he schooled everybody else this year with this one, not that enough folks noticed. You can find a flaw in the making in any of the other so-called “best” films of 2009, but not Drag Me To Hell; its machinery is flawless. Now, I do believe that there’s some hidden depth to this deceptively simple movie, thematic texture that begins to show itself the more you watch it (which has been five times for me so far). There’s something to the fact that both Alison Lohman and Justin Long seem to be cast to seem too young for the jobs they have; there’s something to the cultural and racial and even religious overtones to the casting and character naming; there’s something to the question of whether Christine Brown deserves what happens to her. There’s even a theory out there on the internet that what happens to Christine is all imagined, and that she is hallucinating because she suffers from bulimia! I love the fact that the movie somehow led someone to think that theory up, although I doubt that Sam Raimi chose to make an entire movie about that serious topic. The bottom line is that Sam Raimi made Drag Me To Hell in order to loosen up and to let loose, and since no one lets loose with a camera and a bed of sound effects quite as energetically as Sam Raimi can, that is a rare and wonderful thing to witness. A hell of a thing, in fact.
Didn’t See In Time For Listing: The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Red Cliff, Brothers, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, The Hurt Locker, Crazy Heart, Trucker, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, The Princess And The Frog.
Dug A Lot, But Need To Take Another Look At: Funny People, Extract, The Informant!, Up, State Of Play, Where The Wild Things Are.
Coming on New Year’s Day: THE 2010 SLOW-MOTION QUICK-DRAW AWARDS.