Wednesday, January 27, 2010

2009 in Film (and Some Thoughts on Two Years of Blogging)

We'll get to the best films of 2009 in a moment, but first some thoughts as I think about the second anniversary of this blog…

Well this week marks the anniversary of this blog, and I have to say I'm surprised I've kept with it for this long. There were times when I felt like throwing in the towel, but I kept coming back to why I started this thing in the first place. When I started this blog two years ago it was just an excuse to throw my amateur musings on film into the already crowded blogosphere…it also gave me an excuse to talk about things that interested me like books, sports, religion, and Italian horror movies. I remember thinking that it would be fun to do cross-posts with my brother about bad movies, and this year, two years after the initial thought, Troy and I finally started our "bad movie" blog. I think what's most amazing though about my two years on this blog is that people actually read what I have to say. I know it seems passé to say that, but it's true, and there isn't a hint of cynicism behind those words: I truly am amazed. When I stayed I never thought I would have 86 followers…now I know not all 86 of those people read the blog, and really the "Follow" option is admittedly an ego boost when I don't feel like my blog is worth a damn, but I'm more than thrilled that people feel compelled to click that little button on the left side of my screen. More thoughts and my list for the best movies of the year after the jump...

There were a lot of milestones for me this year with my blog. Esteemed bloggers, and people I aspire to write like – Jason Bellamy, Ed Howard, Dennis Cozzalio, Joseph "Jon" Lanthier, Tony Dayoub, and Tim Brayton just to name a few – stopped by the blog more than once to comment and participate in some kind of discussion here. I carried my first blog-a-thon, Italian horror themed, to what I consider a huge success as some of the aforementioned heavy hitters not only stopped by to see what was going, but contributed pieces. Nothing seemed worse than attempting a blog-a-thon and not having anyone join the party, so I was elated to see that people were not only interested in the idea, but enthusiastic about spreading the word. Greg of Cinema Styles – a blog that inspired a post last year on why I was a cinephile – created the banners for the blog-a-thon and did an amazing job. Dennis, Ed, Tim, Ryan Kelly, Alexander Coleman, Bill R., Sam Julianio, J.D., Jeremy Richey, and others I've met this past year were also kind enough to help promote the thing. Not only that, the aforementioned Jon Lanthier asked me to be a contributor for his western blog Decisions at Sundown, an honor considering he also asked Ed and Tony, two writers I admire a lot, to participate.  Boy was I in good company. That's when I knew – as narcissistic as this may sound – that I had a quality blog and it was worth sticking with.

I've met a lot of new readers this year, most notably Sam Juliano who has always been more than effusive in his praise of my work here, and who tirelessly compiles the works of fellow cinephiles in weekly round-ups. Also Ric Burke whose Counting Down the Zeroes project allowed me to meet numerous bloggers (like J.D. and fellow Olson Rick) because of Ric's impressive ability to day-after-day not only compile reviews from all over the blogosphere, but tirelessly praise the authors that submitted those reviews. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of that praise on more than one occasion. I also posted my first "official" interview with a filmmaker, the more than gracious Jeffrey Goodman (whose film The Last Lullaby you'll read about later in this post) who was kind enough to not only agree to an interview, but stop by on more than one occasion and join the discussion that was going on here. That's when I knew Jeffrey wasn't just a filmmaker looking to get more people to recognize his film by invading blogs with his comments, his love of cinema was genuine which comes across on his blog.

Onto the movies of 2009...


I'll start this thing off with my usual caveat…I rarely get a chance to see everything. Below you'll find a list of films I haven't seen yet, so these "best of" lists – as subjective and arbitrary as they usually are – are never set in stone. I also like to always add that no year is a bad year for film…sure the depth of films may not have been the same as 2005 or 2007, but any year that gives me an excuse to talk about movies is a good year. Call me naïve, call me "too easy" on certain films…I don't care. Any time I get the opportunity to see movies by The Coen Brothers, Werner Herzog, Steven Soderbergh, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Mann, Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Spike Jonze, Judd Apatow, Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, The Dardenne's, Sam Raimi, and Atom Egoyan is a great freaking year. Love or loath the movies they produced this year it doesn't matter, because anyone who looks at that list of filmmakers is going to say…'wow, that's a quality group of filmmakers releasing movies in the same year.'

By my scorecard I see that I saw 38 movies that were released this year…that may be a record. I only gave an F to one movie (the grades help organize my list on a spreadsheet), Crank: High Voltage. And I only gave a D to one movie, Antichrist. So, I didn't see too much crap this year, although there was a lot of middling films with a total of 16 of the 38 scoring a B or C. However, there were a lot of bright spots this year, and some films that I just plain loved to death…movies that made me excited to actually pay to see a movie.

So with that being said…here's my list of the best films of 2009 (most of these thoughts are compiled from reviews I did for these films throughout the year, click the linked movies titles to read the full reviews with comments):

Movies I didn't get a chance to see this year that possibly could have found a way on this list:
An Education, A Single Man, Julia, The Headless Woman, Up, World's Greatest Dad, Bright Star, Silent Light, Coralline, Up, The Informant!, Sin Nombre, The White Ribbon, 35 Shots of Rum, and Police, Adjective.

Honorable Mentions: Avatar, Extract, Food Inc., Funny People, The Invention of Lying, Invictus, Lorna's Silence, Moon, Observe and Report, Sugar.

20.) Adoration 
Directed by Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan's first large-scale production, The Sweet Hereafter, is undeniably his masterpiece. That film based on a haunting novel by acclaimed author Russell Banks was about the disintegration of a community after a tragic school bus accident. Egoyan's newest film, Adoration, (set to be released in July or August) is also about disintegration, albeit in the form of a student named Simon and his memories of his deceased parents, and how a community can (for better or worse) shape the memories of the one's we love. There are layers upon layers of memories, just like any good Egoyan film, that are slowly revealed and brought to light. Egoyan explores the truth behind these memories and what that means in a day and age that is all about the quick information of blogs and chat rooms. Egoyan enjoys putting these news mediums under the microscope that show the ease of manipulating facts that perpetuate hate and lies until they reveal the truth about the community we live in.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

The film is told through the fractured narrative that Soderbergh made so enjoyable in The Limey, as we hear Chelsea reading her thoughts from what is presumably an online journal. She tries to heighten her profile online by getting involved with some not-so great individuals, and to our surprise we come to sympathize with Chelsea's dilemma as she tries to further her career and keep a relationship afloat (that's the experiment). Soderbergh does his usual auteur stuff as he not only directs but shoots and cuts the film (under his usual pseudonyms). It's a fascinating film about a fascinating profession (I saw a special on high-end escorts on CNBC one night and it was fascinating to me how many of them are paid to essentially be shrinks) where sex isn't the most valued commodity; that would be the ability to converse. The film opens with Chelsea discussing the documentary Man on Wire with a client…this discussion, and the ability to engage in an intelligent discussion about the arts, is more important than sex for these men. On the CNBC documentary I watched interviewed escorts talked about how for these powerful men, they aren't just looking for sex, that they can get anytime they want with their money, but they're looking for is something that is far more valuable. Soderbergh brilliantly broaches this topic and examines it with the eye of an auteur. It's a highly interesting snapshot of what life is like right now for a select few as Soderbergh gives us a sketch (the film is only 77 minutes) of the "have's" trying to make sense of the Capitalistic nightmare they've created, and a woman who has her finger on the pulse of such men.

18.) 500 Days of Summer
Directed by Marc Webb

Webb's unconventional rom-com seemed like a throwaway movie at first, but upon further reflection (thanks to Craig's brilliant three-day entry on the film at his blog) I see that it's a more complicated comedy that plays upon the audiences expectations of the genre it's working with. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wonderful as the heart-on-his-sleeve greeting card writer Tom who falls in love with the pixie-like Summer played by Zooey Deschanel. The performances are good (more so Levitt than Deschanel) and the film is completely stolen by one ridiculously good scene where Tom is invited to a party by Summer. Webb utilizes the split screen to show Tom's expectations on the left and the reality of what is happening on the right. It's a fantastic scene set to Regina Spektor's "Hero", a perfect song for a perfect moment. It's one of the best soundtracks I've heard since Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and meshes perfectly with Webb is trying to evoke here. A film that needs to be seen twice to be fully understood.

17.) Watchmen 
Directed by Zach Snyder

You have to go all the way back to Feburary to find the real action "experience" of the year. Watchmen is not only a better action film than Avatar it has better ideas, too, and it doesn't need a gimmick like 3-D to be considered "memorable". Oh, I know I'm stepping on some toes with this one, but I found Zach Snyder's pastiche of colors, blue schlong, blood, and slo-mo action to be far more exhilarating and memorable than James Cameron's film (which I liked). Watchmen is an experience in every sense of the word, and after the opening – a slow motion, violent ballet of bloody pirouettes that is edited perfectly to the croons of Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" – Snyder supplies one of the best opening credit sequences I've ever seen. Unlike the action films of 2008, Snyder's film has ideas; it slows things down and doesn't rely on things blowing up all the time. Because of this certain scenes are allowed to evoke real emotion (like the scene of Dr. Manhattan constructing his own world on Mars), and that's a rare commodity in a movie based on a comic book. I know a lot of people didn't like this movie, but I found it fascinating and still find myself coming back to it and relishing in its visuals.

16.) I Love You, Man
Directed by John Hamburg

The best American comedy of the year, John Hamburg's hilariously astute comedy of bromanitc manners is head and shoulders above the more popular American comedy to be released this year, The Hangover. Paul Rudd deserves a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for playing awkward so well, and Jason Siegel does his typical shtick to great effect as Sidney, the man Rudd tries to court as his best friend. The film is definitely adult, and by that I don't mean raunchy (although there are some of your typical Apatow jokes in here for good measure), but what I Love You, Man does is show adults talking like adults. Some of the things that are played for raunchy laughs in lesser comedies seem normal in this movie because the characters are mature enough to where those types of things aren't played for cheap laughs. The movie is – dare I say – subtle in its comedic approach, and that's refreshing these days. Plus any movie with jokes that revolve around Rush is good in my book. Now…go slappa dat bass, man.

Directed by Jeffrey Goodman

Jeffrey Goodman's The Last Lullaby is one of those rare debut films that is so assured in its style that it becomes clearer and clearer as we watch the film unfold that we're dealing with a major up and coming talent. So rare is it these days to find a thriller that is willing to slow things down – to exist in silence and push aside all the needless noise that clutters modern thrillers. Here is a film that understands the essentials of filmmaking, and why we go to see movies like this. The Last Lullaby is a classic noir existing in a 21st century film – it may not be the most original story (but what noir claims to be wholly original?), but it's a breath of fresh air; it reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson's first film Hard Eight…not in plot, but in how good of a debut film The Last Lullaby is. On the back of the DVD box Goodman asks "can we make movies slower and quieter and still make them riveting?" He certainly can. This is one of the best surprises of 2009.

Directed by Armando Iannucci

It's Ricky Gervais' "The Office" meets Aaron Sorkin's "The West Wing" in this hilarious political satire about the days leading up to Gulf War II. What's so great about the film, based on the popular British TV series "The Thick of It", is that it never once mentions the war, Blair, or Bush; and that restraint to go for the easy jokes is what made this far and away the best comedy of the year. I was blindsided by the film as I knew nothing about it going into it (except for the numerous rave reviews it was receiving), but I'm glad I watched the film as this kind of comedy – a preferred taste no doubt – is right up my alley. Peter Capaldi steals every scene he's in as the foul-mouthed assistant to the PM. It's a fast paced, manically hilarious satire that doesn't disappoint.

Directed by Sam Raimi

I remember being a freshman in college and reading Emily Dickenson's masterful poem about a fly. I never looked at a fly the same again. Now there's Sam Raimi's extremely entertaining Drag Me to Hell, which offers up a whole new reason to look at a fly differently. This is exactly what summer movies should be: exciting, unapologetic, genuine, and fun. This is the type of movie I have in mind when I want to go to a movie on a summer afternoon. Like a 90 minute walk through a masterfully constructed funhouse Drag Me to Hell is the most fun I've had at a horror film in a long, long time. The film is like a masterfully constructed funhouse: for 90 minutes every askew perspective provides an eerie feeling that something is about to scare us, and every corner we turn there's something else that jumps out at us. We expect to jump and scream and have fun...that's why we paid the price of admission. Raimi uses shadow and sound masterfully throughout the film. Just like in his previous horror films he's instituting the tropes of the horror films that thrilled him no doubt when he was younger. Drag Me to Hell is, to put it rather plainly, a whole lot of fun. Raimi films certain scenes with the same frenetic energy and glee found in his Evil Dead series. It reaffirms my belief that all horror doesn't have to leave you cold and depressed.

Directed by Wes Anderson

The voice acting by the entire cast (Clooney and Streep being the only non-Anderson regulars) is top-notch, and Anderson and his editor Andrew Wesiblum construct a franticly paced story (the first part of the story feels like it flies by as we see Fox's three-pronged plan go through its preliminary stages and then we get to see it put into effect…these moments – along with a montage set to people singing along with a banjo around a campfire and a fight between Fox and Rat in a High Voltage area – are the highlight of the film) that is infectious in its whimsy and energy. Essentially what we have here is an animated, 87 minute, Wes Anderson film; however, I enjoyed this film (I think it's time for people, and I've been as guilty as anyone, to stop being apprehensive about films just because they're animated) far more than Anderson's other whimsical affair, The Life Aquatic. Well…just what the cuss am I trying to say? This is one of the best film experiences of the year, and I was really surprised (even though I love Anderson's work) that I was so into every frame of this film.

Directed by Ramin Bahrani

Since I'm so late to the Bahrani bandwagon it shouldn't shock anyone when I say he is clearly one of the leaders of the new wave of filmmaking; he's someone who makes honest films in dishonest times, and even though they may be based in neo-realism, his films actually succeed where most neo-realist films fail: they place you in a specific place without having to feel the onus of reality; in other words I could see myself watching this film numerous times without it ever feeling stale (and let's face it, some neo-realist work feels stale after awhile). There's a subtle aesthetic at work in Bahrani's film, an entity that deceives you into thinking that everything looks "easy"; but, everything Bahrani and his actors do in Goodbye Solo is extremely difficult and rarely found in modern films. You just don't run across films like this very often.

10.) Two Lovers 
Directed by James Gray

The interiors of the apartment (dingy), the iciness of the exteriors, and the overall grunginess of the Brooklyn location perfectly evokes the inner feelings and psyche of the film's characters, again, making me think of the Dardenne's: these characters are not only representations of their geography, they're products of it. Unlike a previous melodrama I reviewed (Breaking and Entering) James Gray's Two Lovers perfectly understands how to use mise-en-scene as metaphor. The actors don't have to explain to us that their surroundings symbolize the emotional and mental battles they're facing, nor does Gray's aesthetic (a superbly subtle and cerebral one) call too much attention to the off-kilter world these characters inhabit. Much like Scorsese's working relationship with a city and a particular actor, James Gray – who has been quietly doing the same thing – evokes the same feeling; however, instead of a manic and young DeNiro perfectly encapsulating the hyperkinetic New York Scorsese wrote about, Gray's New York is appropriately represented by the morose and melancholy Phoenix, but the effect of the latter isn't any less effective than the former. If this really is Phoenix's last film (and I doubt that it is) then he's left us with one of his best performances. I've never been a huge fan of his, and quite honestly I've never understood what the big ado was about some of his earlier performances (Okay, I get it he's a method actor…but still…), but here he creates a character in Leonard that is all at once annoying and pathetic; but also sympathetic…he earns our pity but also our impatience with how he handles the relational situations that arise in his life.

Directed by Werner Herzog

How does one explain Werner Herzog's "remake" of Abel Ferrara's indie hit Bad Lieutenant?  That film -- starring Harvey Keitel as drug-taking, sex-crazed, and out-of-control cop -- is one of the best films of the 90's. I only mention this because these are the only things these two films share in common. Herzog's vision is essentially just a manic cop story acting as a vessel for Nicolas Cage to do his thing. Love him or loathe him, Cage is always interesting and can make even the most mundane film at least watchable. This is not a mundane film, however, and the energy that both Cage and Herzog inject into this post-Katrina setting is something that is befitting of them both. The film has one of the most hilarious drug busts I've ever seen, it has a scene where Cage hallucinates that iguanas are staring at him (and only Herzog would provide us with a POV of the iguana), it has bad drug trips, it has Val Kilmer actually toning it down so that the screen won't explode with both he and Cage emoting…ths blowing up the camera in the process, and the film – above all these other crazy elements – is an interesting cop story that is resolute in how crazy it wants to be, but unafraid to slow things down just enough to have a somewhat contemplative ending. I don't know that I totally buy that ending, but it's understandable why Herzog would throw it in there. Really, though, from the onset (a great scene where Kilmer and Cage debate the merits of getting their expensive clothes dirty to save a prisoner drowning in his cell from the flooding, hurricane waters) the film makes it clear that its main interest is being off-kilter; and what better person to have as a representation of that mood than Nicolas Cage. Here Cage gives what may be his best performance (at least of the manic ilk…which is just about 90% of his performances) in a role where it's clear that he and Herzog – a crazy man himself – were born to work together. It's a performance of maniacal glee, and I was thrilled that I never quite knew where Cage was taking it. That unknowingness, the inability to predict the beats of the performance (which flows quite nicely with how unpredictable Cage's character, Terrence McDonagh, is), is the primary reason to see this movie.

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen's darkly comic, Job-like tale is obviously one of the most personal films the brothers have made. Taking place in suburban Minneapolis (where the brothers grew up) the film centers around Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg who fits in nicely with the Coen universe) whose life is just one bad piece of news after another. The film is essentially about the absurdity of life, and the even more absurd practice of trying to make sense of that absurdity. This polarization – absurdity vs. certainty – is dealt with in the typically bleak and darkly comic Coen manner. His job, a professor of math who fills his board up with all kinds of proofs, is the perfect metaphor for what the brothers Coen are getting at here. Job-like metaphors and Yiddish symbolism (the film opens with a six minute short film that introduced me to the term dybbuk) flood the everyday occurrences of Larry. The whole idea of things "not making sense" is humorous enough, but the Coen's always look to take things deeper, evidenced by the discussion he has with a confused student: "The stories are just illustrative; the math is how it really works." And sure enough the Coen's hilariously juxtapose the confused Larry with a backdrop of a giant blackboard filled with a proof that is meant to explain mysteries away, or the great scene where he's talking with his attorney (Adam Arkin) and they are surrounded by weighty tomes, a perfect metaphor for the film as knowledge is always bearing down on the protagonist. The ending will confuse and befuddle many, but I found to be one of the best and most appropriate of the year. Special shout-out to Carter Burwell for his superlatively stark musical score and for the way he and the Coen's use Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love"…one of the best uses of a song this year.

Directed by Jim Jarmusch

The Limits of Control is part Ghost Dog and part Coffee and Cigarettes, meshing those two previous Jarmusch experiments and creating the movie, it seems, he was building towards this whole time. The film is like a great ambient rock album (or as the kids call it these days "Dream Pop")…you just kind of drop the needle and go with the flow of the music. The film meanders from scene to scene, but what an intoxicating meandering it is! Jarmusch always makes films that leave one in a weird state of reverie – whether one likes that or not is what makes the auteur so polarizing – and The Limits of Control is no different as it makes no qualms about taking its sweet time with what it's doing. Either you're into this movie or you're not…again, keeping with album metaphor, either you like it or you don't; and sometimes these things grow on you (I recommend seeing this movie more than once) the more you let the music (or in this case the imagery and peculiar dialogue) marinate. I've read other places that film is in the vein of the great French New Wave filmmaker Jacque Rivette. Here's the deal: I know enough about Rivette's work to notice what Jarmusch is doing here, and yet I'm not familiar enough with Rivette's work to really know what Jarmusch is doing here…nevertheless, that shouldn't stop you (it didn't stop me) from seeing what is a brilliant genre exercise from one of the true auteurs working today.

Directed by Spike Jonze

Maurice Sendak's sparse (in terms of words) children's book (alive with its imagery) gets the big budget treatment from auteur Spike Jonze in what has to be one of the most un-condescending children's movies ever made. I was blown away by the filmmakers ability to show us the pain a kid must feel being at an age where a broken home is a confusing thing that gives way to a varying degree of emotions. The aptly named actor Max Records plays Max, a wild child who we're introduced to as he wrestles a dog to the kitchen floor. One night he bites his mom in a frenzy of confusion, child-like audacity and unrestrained revelry. He doesn't quite understand why his mom (the always wonderful to see Catherine Keener) is so angry with him. Max runs away to a world he creates, a world where big creatures called The Wild Things live. Each "Thing" is given a distinct trait that parallels Max's, and this is what makes the film such a joy and treasure: it doesn't placate to children. Sometimes kids endure dark times…hell sometimes kids worry more about the unknown than adults, and the "Things" whether they are know-it-alls, out of control, shy, or nosy represent a specific emotion that Max has. This isn't just a film where Max runs with the "Things" and plays with them and builds forts and pretends to be their king; this is a film that tries to better understand the violent tendencies of Max (who shares the most with the wild Carol voiced by James Gandolfini), or why he thinks he's entitled to so much when his mom is struggling just as much as he is. The CGI is hardly noticeable as the "Things" look like half computer generated images and half muppetry, giving a weight to the "Things" that makes them more than just creatures. I loved this movie. I loved the way Jonze understands that not every kids movie has to be condescending, I love how Carter Burwell's score meshes so perfectly with the beautiful soundtrack by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeah's, I love how Jonze and writer Dave Eggers create a filmable story out of Sendak's six sentences that doesn't overstay its welcome, and I love that ending…boy do I love that ending. I love everything about this movie.

Directed by Greg Mottola

I was stunned by Adventureland and how deep it was for the type of film I was expecting. Here's a film that perfectly evokes that summertime nostalgia we've all experienced growing up. Mottola's film is universal in that sense; his experiences were from the 80's and involved a seasonal amusement park, my experiences were from the early 2000's and would involve much different music than what is used on Mottola's soundtrack, but that's what's so wonderful about the film: everyone can bring their own experiences to it. I love when movies surprise me like this and take me to a very specific time and place that is obviously important to the filmmaker.  I also appreciated how Mottola, like he did in Superbad, ends his film on a somewhat ambiguous note with the two characters looking at each other and not knowing what the future holds, but they know that the decision they've made is the right one for the moment (another aspect of Mottola's films I love so much, he understands that making movies about teenagers and 20-somethings you have to deal with the logic of living in the moment, because that's how most people that age live, moment by moment). That's not something you often get in these kinds of comedies, and I think it's safe to say that Mottola is operating on a whole different level than his contemporaries like Judd Apatow and Jodie Hill.  The authenticity of the film is evident throughout, and because of the authenticity and care Mottola puts into Adventureland you have a very personal film that still manages to tap into the universal nostalgia of summertime during your young twenties. Adventureland is a surprisingly warm and charming film.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

There's nothing much I can add to the million other glowing accolades this film has received. I've always liked Kathryn Bigelow, and I've always thought that she's one of the more underrated action directors (if you haven't seen the brilliant Strange Days yet I highly recommend you rectify that problem). I just have to ape what everyone else is saying about this movie: tense action scenes that are brilliantly staged, a wonderful performance by Jeremy Renner, and a great storyline that shows how these guys love war because of the tension and excitement it brings to their lives; all of these elements mesh perfectly to create a refreshingly apolitical war film that snuck up on a lot of people upon its initial release. Thankfully more people are starting to see the movie thanks to the award machine, and I can only hope that Bigelow – a James Cameron apprentice – can beat her mentor come award time for the best action film of the year. The Hurt Locker is what an action film should be, and even though I enjoyed elements of Avatar, it's a tad upsetting that it's the action movie everyone is talking about right now. Bigelow knows how to do action right (if you haven't done so I highly recommend looking at Point Break with new eyes…it's one of the best action films of the 90's), and The Hurt Locker is a perfect example of her skills. It's definitely her masterpiece.

3.) Disgrace 
Directed by Steve Jacobs

Disgrace is filled with interesting and intense conversations of moral ambiguity, something that made the novel so memorable – there are also themes of gender roles, race relations, dominance/rule in post-colonial societies, and other buried subtexts that make the film (and especially the novel, which always better lends itself to deeper explication) a deep and enriching, not to mention uncompromising and difficult to swallow, film experience. You're on the edge of your seat listening to these people engage in philosophical discussions because they aren't compromised characters; they stay true to their values and the realities in which they must deal with on a daily basis. This isn't a parable with a happy ending; apologies don't suffice for these characters – it's about what they are to do with their lives, the tough decisions they must make, after they apologize for the wrong they've done. This is hard, tough, and morally ambiguous film that raises more questions than could possibly be answered; but it'll have you thinking about those questions long after the film is over. This is a film that sinks its claws into your brain and stays with you for days. I can't think of anything that is wrong with the film…it's the perfect adaptation of the perfect novel.

Directed by Michael Mann

This isn't a gangster film like that of Scorsese or Coppola. There are no family gatherings or quirky characters that make you laugh and think "hey they don't have such a bad life." These are gangsters who rob for a living, but never seem to enjoy themselves (except for Baby Face Nelson who takes great pleasure in shooting things up). Like most of Mann's crime films this is a deeply existential one (again reminding me of Melville). Mann loves for the viewer to come up with their own theories on the histories of the characters and why they do what they do; he may make action movies, but it's the deep thoughts and pondering of the film's main characters (again, Mann loved to use the shots of those faces) that he's most interested in. And he when he does do action, he does it better than anyone else; he does arty action, comparable to anything Terrence Malick has made.

Dante Spinotti re-teams with Mann (he shot his first foray into digital The Insider) and evokes a lot of the classic gangster film feel. He also gives several visual nods to a lot of Mann's other crime films. What's most amazing about the way the film was shot was that we have never seen a period piece shot with digital before. So, it's a little jarring at first, but it also feels all the more real, like we're there watching all of this happen. It's so much more effective than sepia tone or muted colors. It's yet another example of one of the many things that has always fascinated me about Mann's pictures: his ability to make you feel in-the-moment, yet simultaneously keeping you at arm's length, which is appropriate for the type of "only think about today" type of person Dillinger is portrayed as here. It's a new kind of gangster picture and one that certainly has a place at the table with such sacred cows as The Godfather and Goodfellas.

1.) Inglourious Basterds – Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Was there a more entertaining movie this entire decade? Was there a film with more allusions and subtexts, and that sparked more debate? This is arguably the richest, most satisfying film of the decade that is full sub-textual goodness, but more than anything else is just an exhilarating and extremely entertaining experience.

The film is made up of memorable moments, but none more than the two most talked about (deservedly so) moments: the opening and the tavern scene. Here's what I wrote after seeing the film in August:

"Always make the audience suffer as much as possible." – Alfred Hitchcock

The tavern scene is a perfect example of what Hitchcock is talking about in the quote above. The scene is nearly 30 minutes long, and all I could think about was this it ended too soon. I suffered alright, but it was the greatest suffering of all. There's tension in the tavern scene that I haven't felt watching a movie in ages. Tarantino sets the scene masterfully by having the one person not originally a part of the Basterds platoon screw the whole thing up. I have to say, when the SS officer makes his appearance from around the corner, I was genuinely surprised, and my nerves were at a fever pitch as to what would happen. The acting in the scene (as well as the whole film) was spot-on, and Tarantino uses that "rubber band" philosophy of ratcheting up suspense with this movie-stealing scene.

The scene stretches and stretches until the viewer can only think that something bad is bound to happen because we've been sitting on the scene for so long (much like the masterful opening interrogation scene). The way Tarantino patiently allows the scene to unfold shows restraint that a lot of modern directors are incapable of displaying. When the rubber band finally bends as far as it can go, and the guns are pulled under the table (a nice subdued variation on Tarantino's famous Mexican standoff scene from Reservoir Dogs) I remember thinking that I literally hadn't sat back in my seat the entire scene. I mean I wasn't, as the cliché goes, on the edge of my seat, but I was sitting upright…not relaxed at all. When the rubber band finally breaks (after nearly a half hour of bated-breath-anxiety on whether or not the rubber band can withstand the tension being put on it) and the guns go off in a quick burst of bloody violence the crowd I saw the film with let out a collective sigh (granted there were only about 15 of us in the theater…but still it could be heard).

This scene reminded me a lot of the beneath-the-surface tension that was on display in those brilliant final moments of Kill Bill Vol. 2 where Bill is talking to Beatrix about his theories on the superheroes, specifically the Superman/Clark Kent dichotomy. This spill out into a conversation with the two at a table outside of Bill's house…and the tension is palpable as we know that the two must meet and that Bill must die (after all, like Inglourious Basterds it's your basic revenge story…plus the film is called Kill Bill), so for Tarantino to be able to get to the conclusion he wanted without it feeling boring or stale shows just how much skill this man has directing scenes of tension where nothing is really "happening" in the conventional Hollywood way.

It's one of the most masterfully executed scenes I've seen in any movie. And when I say that I don't mean in a hyperbolic "this is 30th best film of all time according to IMDB" kind of way…this isn't some brash reaction from a Tarantino fanboy (or maybe it is who the hell cares), but I'm genuine when I say that the movie is worth seeing for the tavern scene alone.

The other great scene is of course the ending, which I've already talked about a little bit. The scene in the cinema begins with some of the Basterds out of their element, and it's one of the rare moments in the film where Tarantino goes for real laughs – and fails. It's not that the actors aren't up to it; it's just that the jokes aren't that good and feel really played out. It's almost as if I was left saying "really Quentin…jokes about people not being able to speak a language?" However, once a crucial character is taken away from the Basterds the final 30 minutes of the film or so (I really don't how long the end is because the film felt like a breezy 90 minutes despite its 150 minute run time) well crafted that all of the aforementioned directors that Tarantino alludes to would be proud to call the finale of this film their own.

This is also where the only bit of imagery from the concentration camps comes in as Eli Roth gleefully unloads his machine gun on piles of Nazi's as the scratch and claw for a way out of the locked theater. Again, though, I don't want to delve into that here (although the comments section is fair game), but the ending is something to behold. For any lover of film it's an orgy of allusions and visual nods to film geeks everywhere. It's also one of the most assured pieces of direction Tarantino has ever shown. I felt like I was watching a Hitchcock espionage movie like Notorious the way the camera beautifully pans through the crowds of characters, momentarily being intercepted by important characters making their arrival and Tarantino's helpful animated arrows telling who a certain someone is. The movement of Tarantino's camera -- especially the way it effortlessly follows Landa around the pre-screening party -- in this scene and the blocking of action is something that is normally not attributed to Tarantino.

Another memorable aspect of the film is the performance of Christoph Waltz. Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa with a smoothness that is evident in investigators we see in other films. Watch the way he is always ahead of those he's questioning (the scene with the crème is brilliant stuff, and I love the way he laughs uproariously at the absurdity of a German actresses who is acting as a double agent for America when she lies about breaking her leg) and how he justifies his actions by thinking of himself as only an investigator, and not a murder of Jews. He sees himself as being the best at his job because he can think like a Jewish person (the monologue at the beginning of the film is brilliant in the way he likens good investigators to rats, not hawks), something that his peers cannot (or will not) do. He's a weasel, and one of the best villains I've seen in a movie in a long, long time. Waltz deserves every award he's bound to win for this role.

I want echo what blogger Tim Brayton said upon the film's release, that Tarantino's career, for as lauded as it has been, seems to be "deceptively intelligent". A lot of people give QT credit for being savvy and cool with his films, but not a lot of people talk about the skill that goes into the look of his films, or the way that he can take a subject that is wholly unappealing to the masses (WWII films, Kung-Fu films, Blaxploitation) but deeply personal to him, and make them into successful, enthralling, and viscerally entertaining pieces of art. I, oddly enough, don't think Tarantino gets praised enough. It's amazing that Tarantino has crafted two of the best films of the decade, not because he is an incapable director, but because he fashioned these masterpieces from Kung-Fu films and WWII B-Movies.


I don't know what next year holds. I know I have another blog-a-thon idea in the works, I look forward to doing another all-weekend account of the Salem Film Festival (where I saw Jeffrey's film last year, not to mention great films like Adoration and Sita Sings the Blues), in May I'll be hosting TOERIFC where we'll be discussing my favorite film 8 1/2, and I'm sure there will be more irreverent posts on horror movies, bad action flicks, and whatever else I want to write about. It's been a fun year watching this grow and seeing that people like what I do here. It may sound cheesy, but I'm truly humbled by all these blog awards people have nominated me for. I'm bad at keeping those particular memes going, but it doesn't mean that I'm not appreciative of the thought. Seriously…thank you all. You make this fun to do, and what started out as a reason to indulge myself and get me writing again has turned into a fruitful exercise that gives me fulfillment because it allows me to converse with cinephiles all over the world on a daily basis.

This whole blog thing is comment driven, there's no getting around that fact: we like people to comment on our blogs.  I know that sometimes I don't leave as many comments as I should at people's blogs, but that's what I love about this community I've found over the last year: comments are nice, and they act as amazing ways to further engage the film or topic in question, but it seems to me that this community I've stumbled upon isn't comment driven, and that's refreshing.  I lurk and read and digest what I've read more than I comment, and even though it may seem like I'm absent from a lot of sites I assure you I'm not.  My daily stops (all the blogs on the left side of my screen) in the blogosphere are some of the best reading I do during the day.  The amount of quality work that is out there is astonishing, and I love that for the most part it feels like it's genuine...that's what makes this blogging thing so infectious. Until next time.  Onward and upward…


  1. Hey man, you got me to watch Adventureland, and you were right, I did enjoy it! I found it a little too long for the kind of film it is...but I ended up enjoying it.

    Only one I dont agree on your list is Drag me to Hell, which felt more like a half assed constructed fun house. They needed to give the funhouse some maintenance before premiering it. But it wasnt all that bad...I had some fun with it, it was just dissapointing cause I was expecting something like the jolt I felt when I watched the first evil dead. I got absolutely no jolts from Drag me to Hell. Sadly.

  2. OH and, it was thanks to your Italian horror blog a thon that I finally decided to watch Nightmare City, which I ended up loving! So thanks for that!

  3. TFC:

    I'm glad you liked Adventureland so much. It's a film that resonated deeply with me. We definitely disagree on the merits of Drag Me to Hell...I thought Raimi was up to his old tricks and found the film a refreshing break from all the nihilistic and cold modern horror movies that have been flooding theaters the last ten years.

    I'm glad you loved Nightmare City. It's one of my favorite Italian horror films because it's so goofy and care-free. There's not a boring bone in its body, and I just love how Lenzi throws one nonsensical scene after another. Plus not only does it have Hugo Stiglitz, but infected scientists wearing sports coats and drinking blood! Oh, and how awesome was that scalpel-throwing doctor?

    You blog was one that I came across because of the blog-a-thon, and I'm glad I found it. You also submitted great pieces for the blog-a-thon, so thanks for being supporter of it. It was great running across a slew of new blogs during that time.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Congrats on your milestone! That is awesome and your blog is one that I always look forward to reading.

    As for your Best of 2009 list, I'm glad you included both WATCHMEN and I LOVE YOU, MAN. A lot of people have crapped on WATCHMEN and the film certainly has its flaws but I think that there is a lot going on in this film and it is just about as good as an adaptation we are ever going to get of the graphic novel. So, count me as a fan of this film as well.

    I couldn't agree more with your thoughts on I LOVE YOU, MAN. Since I caught up with it on DVD I've watched it numerous times and enjoy it more and more. The interplay between Jason Segal and Paul Rudd is very well done but the film never overdoes it.

    I'm also glad you mentioned DRAG ME TO HELL. I love this film as well and it was great to see Raimi go back to his horror film roots and just deliver a wildly entertaining film.

  5. Wonderful, wonderful list here. My first reaction is that it's great to see that The Limits of Control is slowly gaining the following it so richly deserves, and while I'm not quite as enthusiastic about Inglourious Basterds as you (and so many others) are, but there's no denying that it is a great movie, if not a transcendent one.

    You're certainly right that you can't catch everything, there are so many movies (including much of your list) that I haven't gotten to. But even though I've missed out on so much, I've seen enough to say it was a pretty damn good year; capping off what was, in retrospect, a pretty damn good decade, no matter what some may say. I'll leave my top ten here without comment, if it's not considered too intruding.

    1.A Serious Man
    2.The Limits of Control
    3.Bright Star
    4.Inglourious Basterds
    5.The Girlfriend Experience
    6.New World Order
    8.The Hurt Locker
    9.Il Divo
    10.Up in the Air

  6. Congrats on the two-year milestone. Just discovered your blog and am enjoying it immensely. Couldn't agree more on your pick for the year's best. So true what Tarantino does with those scenes. I'm looking forward to giving Adventureland another look since I enjoyed it a lot the first time around. Fantastic list.

  7. Excellent year-in-review feature, Kevin! An exciting and perceptive read all around, especially your enthusiasm for Inglourious Basterds, which I share.

  8. Kevin, this is quite the mother of all posts, and I appreciate the very kind words in the blogging discussion near the outset. Your work here has been prolific, amazingly dedicated and of a consistently high quality. Your moving to other ventures, like Decisions at Sundown has treated teh blogosphere to your remarkable versatility, and your various specialties have been informed with expertise.
    I was thrilled to see that you had Jeffrey Goodman's film in your Top 20, as Jeffrey is now a egular contibutor on the Monday Morning Diary, and is also on the blogroll.
    I know you have loved the Tarantino from the outset, and your writing on it is marvelous. I was also rather surprised - but happy - to see DISGRACE high up on the list, especially since it's received little attention, even with solid reviews.
    The only films of this generally excellent batch that I wasn't thrilled with (but we've discussed this) are WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, PUBLIC ENEMIES and THE LIMITS OF CONTROL, but again I know these films have their fans, as does INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, which I took a lot of heat on for not embracing.
    In any case, wonderful layout and summary presentation!

  9. J.D.:

    Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you also like I Love You,'s a film I keep coming back to. A lot like last years Forgetting Sarah Marshall it's the perfect blend of raunchy and esoteric pop culture humor.

    Glad to see you feel the same about Watchmen and Drag Me to Hell...two films that I think a lot of people forgot about because they came out so early in the movie season.

    Thanks again, as always, for being a good friend to this blog.

  10. Krauthammer:

    You're always welcome to post anything you want in the comments. I loved your list and I think I need to see A Serious Man again on DVD to really "get" it. Also I'm glad to see The Limits of Control on your list, too. Isn't just a hypnotically intoxicating film?

    I haven't seen Bright Star, Il Divo (or Gomorrah for that matter), New World Order (haven't heard of that one, I'll look it up), or Up in the Air (waiting to watch that one on DVD with the wife). I look forward to adding those to the list of movies I need to see from 2009.

    Thanks for the kind words and for dropping by. As always it's great to have you around here, Krauthammer.

  11. Jeremythecritic:

    Thanks for joining and for stopping by and taking an interest in what's going on here. I appreciate it. I'm glad you'll be giving Mottola's film another chance. It's such a surprisingly poignant film.

    Thanks again for the kind words and for stopping by!

  12. Andrew:

    Thanks for the kind words, buddy. Your blog has been one of my favorites since I started this thing two years ago. I especially echo your thoughts you left on my brothers blog about A Serious Man and why it resonated with you. I had a very similar reaction to it, and like you, I can't wait to go through it again on DVD and let it marinate in my mind even more.

  13. Sam:

    Thanks so much for the kind words! I knew you would take issue with some of my choices in the top 10, and as I was compiling this list I couldn't help but think: "Sam's not going to like this!" Haha. I too am glad that Jeffrey has been making the rounds on the blog. I appreciate that he's a fan of film, first and foremost, and that he hasn't infiltrated all these blogs with a "watch my movie" campaign. That makes me like him as a director even more, haha. But regardless of that his film really deserves to be lauded on year-end lists. It's a pleasant change of pace from all the noise that clutters theaters.

    Also, I've been disappointed too in the lack of recognition for Disgrace. Hopefully that's due to its small theatrical run, and more people will hopefully be able to catch it on DVD. I still distinctly remember scenes from that movie and it's been a few months since I've seen it. Powerful stuff.

    I appreciate all the promoting you've done for this blog, especially the extremely kind well-wishes my wife and I received from you and other Wonders in the Dark readers back in August.

    Thanks again for the comments...and someday you'll wise up to the brilliance of my top two choices! Haha.

  14. Great list guys. Congrats on making two years. I hope for many more.

  15. Good job on remembering Two Lovers... I completely let it slip by. If anything, Joaquin Phoenix's performance is one of the best of the year, and it was refreshingly constructed, rather like 500 Days of Summer, playing with our expectations.

    Of the ones you missed, I think you'd like An Education, Up, Up in the Air, and possibly A Single Man.

  16. Guess I shouldn't even bother posting my belated top 10 list since it's a virtual duplicate of yours. You obviously have good taste in cinema.

    Congratulations on your 2nd blogoversary. I celebrated mine this week as well. Does that make us brothers from another mother? What would that make Troy?

  17. Tommy:

    Thanks! I'm glad you liked Two Lovers really was one of the most forgotten movies of the year. I will eventually see all of the movies I didn't get a chance to at some point this year, but I think the one I am looking most forward to is An Education.

    Thanks for the comment!

  18. Tony:

    Thanks for the kind words! That's funny that our lists are pretty much the same. But don't let that stop you from posting your top 10, hehe. And thanks for the congrats. Congrats on your blogs anniversary, too. I've been meaning to get over there, and I saw your post the other day about that but I forgot. Sorry about that. And perhaps we are brothers from another mother, haha. I don't know what that makes Troy, hehe, although he's been suspiciously absent from this comment maybe when he shows up he can answer that one.

    Thanks for the comment and the kind words.

  19. I enjoy your blog - so I'm glad you've kept on blogging.

    I like your top-20 lists. Glad to see The Girlfriend Experience on there - it was one of my favorites of the year. I also enjoyed many of your other picks.

    As for #1 - your pick is right on! This was the most sublime movie experience of the year. I made sure to see it 4 times in theaters before it was doomed to leave cinemas and be relegated to DVDdom. The tavern scene and the opening scenes alone make the film a classic. Like you, I feel that the tavern scene is a masterpiece. Definitely, the best scene of any film this year. I've watched it repeatedly on DVD. "Hallo, Ihr Lieben!"

  20. Hokahey:

    Thanks for your kind words. I'm glad you like what I do here. I'm glad you weren't turned off by The Girlfriend Experience, either, as it seems a lot of people didn't really understand what Soderbergh was trying to go for.

    As for Basterds...this is why I love the blogosphere, because you all get it, and it's nice to converse with people who love this movie as much as I do. I remember when Kill Bill 2 came out and I saw it twice in one day, and for some reason people couldn't understand that kind of enthusiasm for it. I didn't get to see IB as much as you did in the theater...but Blu-Ray has treated it kindly.

    I still watch that tavern scene in amazement..."Say goodbye to your Nazi balls..."

    Plus, I just love that he names a character after one of my favorite bad exploitation actors, Hugo Stiglitz.

    Thanks again for your comment, Hokahey. Glad to have ya around here adding to the conversations.

  21. Congratulations on the blogiversary! I'm glad you've stuck with it - of all the writers I started reading last year, you're right up there with the best. The Italian Movie Blog-A-Thon was one of the most fun things I did all year

    And y'know, damn good top 20, and well-reasoned, even if there's hardly any overlap between the two of us. But that's the joy of being an opinion-making animal, I suppose.

  22. Tim:

    Thanks for the kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed the Italian horror blog-a-thon. I'll be making it a tradition around here in October. And thanks for the kind words in regards to my top 20. A lot of the films certainly polarized audiences (Watchmen, The Limits of Control, Inglourious Basterds, Public Enemies) but you're right...that's what makes being opinionated so much fun! Haha. Of the 20 I listed my hopes are that people will really seek out The Last Lullaby and Disgrace, and will hopefully give Adventureland a chance if they thought it was just another teen comedy.

    The quality of your work, and the rate at which you get it out there on the blog, is something that I aspire towards. It's wonderful to know that you like what's going on here. I've really been digging your Pakula retrospectave...especially now that you're in the movies where one just scratches their head and says, "why the hell did he make that!?"

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  23. Your thoughts on 'Inglourious Basterds' encompass everything that I wholeheartedly and unapologetically love about Tarantino's alternately hilarious and horribly suspenseful epic - has a film ever balanced brazen liberty-taking and loving homage so beautifully? - a film, for my money, that stands as his best since 'Pulp Fiction'.

    I second Tim's opinion on your Italian horror movie blog-a-thon: that my intended one-off article developed into three giallo themed pieces is testament to how much I enjoyed participating.

  24. Happy anniversary, Kevin. (I keep wanting to call you "Hugo." Apologies in advance for when I finally do.) And thanks for your links and kind words, both here and previously. I always enjoy stopping by. You add a great deal to the blogosphere, so I hope you keep at it for a long time.

  25. Neil:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    I actually think that Inglourious Basterds works better as a pastiche film than Pulp Fiction does...I think it's more enjoyable, too, but then again Pulp Fiction -- for as great as it is -- hasn't aged very well.

    I'm glad you liked the blog-a-thon, it was great having someone so enthusiastic about it participate. Hopefully I'll see you for round 2 this October. Coming across your blog was one of the great pleasures of hosting the blog-a-thon. Keep up the great work.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  26. Craig:

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. There's no shame in being called Hugo...hehe. He's a legend in Mexico! I'm gflad a came across your blog this year. It's one of my favorite places to visit.

    Thanks again for the kind words!

  27. I'm finally here (it's been one busy week at work and in life...ugh).

    That was an awesome top 20 list. My favorite part about it? It's likely mine will be quite a bit different from yours, which I think goes to show the diverse nature of this years batch of films (as opposed to years past (2007), where the top 5 were fairly uniform). We'll have to do the whole comparison thing when I finally get around to posting mine.

    Your point on the great directors we got to see movies from, regardless of the perceived quality, is spot on.

    You've got tons of great reviews here, and, as I'm sure you know, I likely comment here less because of the fact I see you and talk to you face to face all the time. Don't think I don't read your great writing though :)