The Oscars are over. The awards have gone to whom they have gone, deserved or no. I enjoyed the ceremony quite a lot, especially Neil Patrick Harris’ dance #, which recaptured the elegance and style of the Oscars, but also the fantastic comedy provided by co-hosts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. The Best Speech of the night was probably Sandra Bullock’s, even though I didn’t like her performance. Michael Giacchino, who won for Best Original Score (“UP”) gave the most heartfelt, about the need as children and young artists to be encouraged to create. Once again, the Best Actor and Best Actress categories involved introductory speeches about each nominee from another entertainer. I love this practice, the Academy should continue it.
And even though 2009 was not history’s best year at the movies, it’s still like every other year. Not everyone who deserves to be recognized will be recognized. Frustratingly decent films are lauded as masterpieces (ahem), but will be forgotten in a few years, when much better films couldn’t even wrangle a nomination. Some films are too big to be ignored and have found their way onto my list along with nearly everyone else’s. Part of me used to feel guilty and want to apologize for not having discovered 10 unheard-of masterpieces to unleash to the world. Now I’m just content with finding as many great movies every year as I can. I’ve chosen my 10. They may look different than yours. I hope we can still be friends. I’m okay with that if you are. There’s a few big ones missing from my list, and I’ll just cop to them now. I didn’t love “The Hurt Locker” or “Precious” or “Crazy Heart” as much as the rest of the world did. I skipped “Julie and Julia” and “Invictus” even though they’re probably pretty good. I had no interest in seeing “The Blind Side,” went anyway, and was punished accordingly for my $13 sin. Even the popcorn tastes bad when you’re watching that movie. I forgot to see “Nine,” and I’m mostly okay with that.
Here’s my list. See what you think. Prepare to judge and be judged:
#10 - The Informant
10. The Informant! - Directed by Steven Soderbergh (who does about 5 movies a year, usually all great), starring Matt Damon, this is the story of the Vice-President for a major agricultural corporation turned whistle-blower for the FBI regarding international, multi-corporation, industry-wide price fixing during the 1990′s. That’s the simplified version. The film comes at its subject in two ways that make it uniquely enthralling. First, it approaches the material as a comedy. With an overbright retro visual style and a great score by Marvin Hamlisch, Matt Damon’s bumbling Mark Whitacre is the world’s worst secret-agent, if anybody had just realized to look in front of them. The comedy comes from the way powerful people assume both that they are untouchable and that the people around them are as greedy as they are. Which Whitacre is. But he’s also something neither his company, nor the FBI bargained for: a pathological liar. The film places us inside his mind throughout the film, which invites us into the madness. “The Informant” is a painfully funny movie. Which one of those words you think describes it better will tell you a lot about yourself.
#9 - No Impact Man
9. No Impact Man – Do you want to change the world? Colin Beavan thought so too, but he regretted it later. The lone documentary on my list, this follows Beavan, a writer looking for a book to write and wondering how much difference one person can make for the environment. Those two things mix together and create the thrust for the film, which follows Beavan, his wife and daughter as they seek to literally have a carbon foot-print of ZERO for an entire year. No waste. No electricity. No spending. No luxuries. We see them having their last Starbucks, turning off their electricity, making a compost heap, trying out an old-fashioned refrigeration idea of a “pot in a pot.” Did I mention they live in Manhattan?Filmed with energy efficient methods, the movie engages us in the way the family grows together through the struggle to live this way for a year. The failures and setbacks and annoyances of dis-comfort. The vilification of Beavan and off-handed dismissal of his project from almost every corner of his life. This could have been one of the snobbiest movies ever made. Instead, it’s honest and sweet and kindof funny. What they learn about being energy efficient is fine and well and important, but the real story is what they learn about their family.
#8 - An Education
8. An Education - A smart, independent school-girl falls in love with an older man and learns life-lessons by the end in the most boorish-sounding movie on this list. But it’s not. Written by novelist Nick Hornby, this movie is much smarter and more sly than you’d think. We follow Jenny, who’s one of those beautiful girls we were too afraid to talk to in high school. She’s smart, but she seems to have more important things to do than school. Carey Mulligan plays her perfectly. She’s so sure of herself, and she makes decisions instead of letting others make them for her. She is active in her life, which causes hell for her father (played brilliantly by Alfred Molina) and attracts David (Peter Sarsgaard). Molina inhabits a role that is usually a non-entity in the story, but here is given the screen-time to present an important counter-argument for the attitude his daughter has. She doesn’t understand him, just as much he doesn’t understand her; just as much as she doesn’t really understand all sorts of things she thought she did. Seeing all of those things in young Carey Mulligan’s eyes is as breathtaking as the way the camera observes her. Makes sense it was directed by a woman.
#7 - Where the Wild Things Are
7. Where the Wild Things Are – Few movies make me feel like a kid again, but this one did. I was enamored from the very first frame with the spirit of young Max. He is ferocious and rough and completely alive. Co-writer, director Spike Jonze is all those things too, and the sensibility saturates the screen. For once in a kid’s film, you can feel the danger, when Max travels to a remote land, encounters large beasts, Wild Things, and becomes their king for a while. He’ll have to go home, of course, but you know that already. The movie has a powerful range of emotions that mix and clash and become symbols of Max’s personal life in ways that are always clear but never simple. Some parents didn’t think their kids could handle the movie. If your child has ever thrown a tantrum so bad you wanted to bury them alive, they’re old enough to see this movie. For the rest of us, we can see visualized on screen what it felt like to be a kid. For me, it was an overwhelming, magical experience.
#6 - The White Ribbon
6. The White Ribbon – In a small German town just before World War I, strange things are happening. A wire is mysteriously placed between two trees, making the doctor’s horse fall and seriously injuring the man. A woman falls down a shaft at the mill. A young boy is kidnapped. Crops are destroyed. Who is doing these things? Is it a group of kids? Is it angry workers, raging against the few pillars of the community? Michael Haneke’s film is as much about the physical acts as their emotional, psychological motivations and consequences. How do you assign blame to an entire community? What is most impressive is the way Haneke sidesteps simple answers and easy targets. Almost everyone in the town has secrets, but this doesn’t make them completely evil. When we don’t have all the facts, how do we know what was an intentional act and what was a random accident? It’s easy to assume the work of an evil, plotting mastermind. It’s more comfortable to us. And Germany certainly had one around that time. Yes, but what were the people doing all the while? Haneke is often criticized for the bleakness of his films, and while it’s not exactly a jaunty film, there is a measure of hope that Haneke instills into the proceedings. Even if hope cannot thrive, it still lives in the spaces between things.
#5 - AVATAR
5. Avatar – Yes, that “Avatar.” Lookit, if you (I, rather) want complex political material, just look at #4. If you (I, once again) want a sweeping melodrama with a simple story but powerful, moving imagery than surpasses any need for brilliant dialogue and ushers in an entirely new cinematic movement and makes you (me) for the first time ever in your (my) life say the words “You HAVE to see it in IMAX 3-D,” then this is your movie. My movie. It is, hands-down, my favorite experience of going to the movies this year. I was enamored with the visual brilliance, I cared about the characters, I loved watching them fall in love. Anyone not watching this movie for the classic love story and amazing visuals has no business sitting in the theater. There is a reason James Cameron is a brilliant director and absolutely deserving of his nomination. It’s because somehow he just knows what an audience will respond to. He is a great story-teller with an eye for mind-blowing innovation. When Jake Sully flies on that big damn bird for the first time, it took my breath away. Sometimes the movies by-pass all your defenses and just get to you. “Avatar” got to me. And when people complain about it, I tell them to wait until the next “Transformers” debacle comes out, then go back and see “Avatar” again. I think you’ll realize that some movies do it right (“Avatar,” “Star Trek”) and some movies are terrible (“Transformers,” “Wolverine,” the list goes on). And that’s that.
#4 - In the Loop
4. In the Loop – Based on the British TV series, “The Thick of It,” this is hands-down the funniest movie of the year. And maybe the smartest. It’s the first few years of our new century. Peter Capaldi and Tom Hollander work for the British government, and when Hollander’s character states publicly that war in the middle-east is “unforeseeable,” it sets everyone off, including the Americans, who are working with Parliament at what could maybe unofficially be the exact opposite purposes. The film becomes a international farce as a cast of at least a dozen major players connives, deceives and finagles (look it up, bitches) every other character through bloody gums, secret committees, and a sea of the funniest profanity you’ve ever heard. David Mamet, the torch can now be passed with confidence. There is nothing better than biting, satirical bureaucratic humor. And there’s no greater bureaucracy than the United States government. For the best example of what I mean and my favorite scene in the movie, check out James Gandolfini as a US General, using a child’s talking calculator to explain how many troops we’d need for an invasion. It will make you cry with laughter.
#3 - UP
3. Up – It’s the end of the year, it must be time for me to remind everyone how great Pixar is and how it deserves to win Best Animated Feature as well as Best Original Screenplay (not that that would EVER be allowed, but still). There is an extended sequence early on in “Up” that wordlessly takes us through the entire life of a couple. It caught me so by surprise. I cry every time I see it. It’s my favorite part of the film, not because anything after it isn’t completely brilliant itself, but because that sequence moved me like few sequences ever have. It is perfect. It shows a deep, truly loving marriage sustained not by flawless circumstances or the achievement of every dream, but by a commitment to another that is eternal. Without that sequence, there isn’t much cause, really, for Carl’s adventure. It’s the weight of the thing he lost that compels him. It’s his grief that has made him lose sight of the truth. The rest of the movie is delightful and moving and exciting and the ending – oh the ending is really perfect, don’t you think?
#2 - Inglourious Basterds
2. Inglourious Basterds – It was in this way that the movies themselves saved the world. That’s essentially the heart of the matter for Quentin Tarantino. In another life, he’d have been a great playwright, and that knowledge sneaks into his writing so that we are given a small number of long, intricate scenes with people who have objectives and goals and desires and beliefs and must discuss something with or find out something from someone else right now, and in that way his films feel like real life. Do I think the movie short-changed us on actual awesome action? Yes I do. That’s why it’s number 2. That’s its punishment. But the creation of Hans Landa, as played by one Christoph Waltz, will go down as one of the most important, exciting characters in cinema history. And, in the movie, world history. Again we have an opening scene that is the best thing in the film. Truly marvelous. And the way Tarantino connects his three story-lines for the climax, makes them matter for each group of people, makes each central figure – Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, Melanie Laurant’s Shoshanna, and Waltz’s Landa – a focused, driven basterd in their own right, well, it’s really compelling stuff. But seriously, what is f***in’ BJ Novak doing on my screen at the end?
#1 - Up in the Air
1. Up in the Air – Writer/director Jason Reitman is the filmmaker I’m most excited about. He has a very accessible sensibility that also maintains an artistic angle to his stories. Here he finds three actors who all hit for the cycle and create characters with very different points of view who aren’t simply on-screen to argue with each other. Every character affects the way the others view things. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, another of his efficient, capable men whose self-worth is tied solely to his vocation. Here, he fires people for a living. His company makes him take on Natalie (my future wife [pipe dreams, people, pipe dreams], Anna Kendrick). She’s young and wants to fire people via, essentially iChat. Vera Farmiga (can I have two future wives?) is the career-woman Bingham falls for. The interactions between the characters take center stage, and it is rare to see a movie this smart and adult and moving be so entertainingly re-watchable.
Reitman also manages to make a movie that is about our times without getting trapped in them. His film is about every single person on screen. Researching for the film, he found real people willing to discuss losing their jobs. They are seen in a few different segments throughout the film, and what struck me was how the movie allowed me to care about every one of them, a dozen or so people, even though they were only on screen a few brief moments. That empathy and human truth drives the film, and I love its ambiguous ending. We’ve seen Clooney’s character have to rethink his personal philosophy. That’s the easy part. Now what does he do?
For these and so many other reasons, “Up in the Air” is the best film of the year.