My Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2009

For the last few years, I have run the usual year-ending Top 5 Favorite Blah Blah Blah pieces, similar to the same content you’ll find on the more upscale and reputable entertainment websites. I used to offer up one post per discipline, covering the key movies, games and TV shows that entertained me greatly in the year prior. As I don’t watch as much TV as I used to (although that volume is beginning to rise), I kicked TV to the curb and simply run with the other two.

Last week I posted my Top 5 Favorite Video Games of 2009.

And now I reveal my Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2009.

When I sat down to inscribe this list, I was going to follow the same numbering scheme as the Game’s piece – keeping it to my five faves. But, I found I was having a real hard time settling on 5 and kept coming up with a Top 8 – which just looks weird. So, two bubble flicks got to sneak in purely because there were three other flicks that I thought warranted a mention.

My other disclaimer is that these should not be considered the BEST movies of the year – even if some may be. My list is bound to vary from the proper critical opinion. Rather than give you a Top Ten Best Movie list, I’m just going with those flicks that I really connected to – whether at an emotional level or for the most important reason we settle down to watch a movie in the first place – because it entertained my ass.

Also, these days much of my viewing is done at home via Netflix. So there may be late year arrivals that I haven’t seen yet (or will forever be listed as VERY LONG WAIT a.k.a. The Hangover). If one film surpasses the flicks on this list, I’ll give it a shout out next year. And to prove I’m a man of my word, Slumdog Millionaire was worth its weight in Oscar Gold. I saw that midsummer last year and loved every freakin’ minute of it. Hell, I started wishing I were living a Bollywood fantasy.

Enough with the prattle – on with the show.

10.   Observe and Report

Seth Rogen first caught my eye  when he costarred on NBC’s woefully short-lived, unappreciated gem; Freaks and Geeks – the show which launched a thousand stars including James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, Rashida Jones, Judd Apatow and the list continues. Rogen had a small but potent role as Ken, one of Franco’s circus of freaks, and every single line he delivered in that droll deadpan killed me. This guy was born to be a character actor but due to the unlikely, mammoth success of Apatow’s Knocked Up, he was pushed to the A list with due haste.

Observe and Report is Rogen’s Cable Guy with one major difference. Carrey made that dark fantasy long after Ace Ventura had exploded and his fans were left numb expecting another 90 minutes of dumb fun. Carrey wanted to stretch but his crowd wasn’t willing to bend. Rogen signed up for director Jody Hill’s twisted mirror world version of Paul Blart: Mall Cop at just the right time – throwing audiences a wicked curve that leaves them off their toes and unable to pigeonhole him and guess what he’ll throw next.

Observe and Report is warped, disturbing pitch black dark comedy. It doesn’t exist in any real world outside the mind of its pill-popping, manic depressive protagonist Ronnie, who views himself as supreme protector of the strip mall. Audiences didn’t jibe with the flick but I predict this film becomes the next Office Space – lingering long in memory after Paul Blart has shuffled off to Direct-to-DVD sequel hell. May Ronnie take aim at Blart’s ass and blast him a new one.

9.   Adventureland

It’s amazing to me how influential the fleet, 18-episode arc of the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks was to the landscape of American comedy ever since NBC unceremoniously dumped it way too early. For all of you following the Conan O’Brien/Jay Leno fracas know this – the only thing executives do well is repeat history. Doomed, I say!!!

Adventureland is a semi-autobiographical comic account of director Greg Mottola’s post-collegiate gig at a rundown amusement park. Mottola jacked one out of the park for Apatow when he helmed the Seth Rogen scripted Superbad and while he captures some of that off-the-cuff shaggy dog comedy of the former flick, he tones down the raunch and films his “lost summer” through a realistic and heart-rendering filter. These kids feel like people we knew… or were.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as a newly graduated college boy whose plans for a summer getaway are dashed when his financing falls apart. Taking a job at the dilapidated Adventureland, we follow his daily travails as he mans one of  those shady Games booths and spins in and out of the orbits of a collection of colorful, yet familiar, characters. Everyone feels real – or as authentic as you remember it if you were a child of the 80’s, which is the era when this film is set.

Like Freaks and Geeks, Adventureland remembers the decade how it was and not as a Wedding Singer celebration of eighties’ excess. Not everyone moonwalked through that decade in one white glove and off-the shoulder sweatshirt. At least not this guy. And Adventureland nails the aesthetic of that decade while completely capturing the agita of aimless young love that remains a timeless conceit.

8.   Funny People

Once again we come to the Apatow connection – this one his third outing as director, and arguably his most personal. Judd worked his way to the throne by writing jokes for several funny guys including some of his buddies, such as Adam Sandler, who were themselves struggling to make a name in the cut throat world of comedy. In Funny People, he casts Seth Rogen as his surrogate and then drafts Adam Sandler to play an alternate universe version of himself – a funny guy propelled by mass adoration and the Hollywood mainstream to make a successive stream of man-child fantasies which boost cashier coffers while offering the critical community a rapidly flowing stream of diminishing returns.

When I first caught the trailer to Funny People, I decided that this would be the first Apatow flick I’d skip on first-run. As a father to two young children, I get out to the movies infrequently and I was not about to spend my hard earned coin on a glorified Lifetime Movie of the Week – not if Meredith Baxter wasn’t going to come out in it. It was one of those piss-poor campaigns that reveals and ruins every major story beat; meaning I knew Sandler’s dire diagnosis wouldn’t stick thus robbing the film of any dramatic tension.

I’m glad I tossed it in my Netflix queue and gave it a shot. While it is regretful that I knew the big twist (the movie loses some of its potency when you know that’s coming down the pike), I did find it to be a very funny, affecting and surprisingly personal piece. While Rogen’s Ira is a loose approximation of Apatow – one feels that Sandler’s revealing and honest portrayal cuts closer to his bones. While I don’t think the real world Sandler is as angry as his character here – there is a real poignancy to the plight of a promising talent continually paraded in a series of infantile Merman movies simply because Hollywood panders to that lowest common denominator all too frequently.

The film stumbles a bit in the last act, particularly as it races to a its climax but in a way that’s a lot like the life it’s aiming to depict – sometimes funny, sometimes messy and always unpredictable. If only the ad campaign were the same.

7.   Star Trek

Last Summer was arguably the most dreadful big-budget box office season we’ve had in a very long time. The big tent pole flicks all landed with a thud and the only flicks worthy of our bank were released in early to mid-May – leaving a long stretch of empty road from Memorial Day until we put the whites away to travel along. The less said about dreck such as Year One and GI Joe, the better.

Star Trek kicked off the summer after Paramount reassigned it from a Winter 2008 release – almost as if they saw the mire that was coming their way and knew that J.J. Abrams’ fresh take on a musty golden oldie would capture more attention in the arid desert than the cool winter climate.
And Abrams did the impossible by making Star Trek more relevant and better looking than it’s ever been. Growing up, everyone loved Star Wars while Star Trek sat alone – the geeky kid left to attract others of its own kind. Decades of that reputation would be enough to sink any enterprise so for Abrams to step up and essentially craft this year’s Iron Man (an out there property that surprisingly touches the zeitgeist) is an amazing accomplishment.

And he did it by embracing all worlds. His flick pays homage to the past, involves the canon mythology that the fanboys demand and then tosses everything aside to chart a course for a brand new timeline. The boffo box-office receipts demand the continuing voyages of the Starship Enterprise and I am finally thrilled to call myself a Trekkie… errrr, Trekker. Sorry, my Klingon is rusty.

6.   Away We Go

I’m probably a good decade removed from John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph’s self-described “f@#k ups” but I remember those days well. The days when you feel you’re supposed to be a “grown up” but you feel so completely aimless in your life. And it’s that feeling that really resonated with me as I watched Sam Mendes’ sweet, funny and sentimental look at the current day thirtysomething – a generation of guys and girls who never really had a war to call their own, and hence have awhile to go before they have to grow up real fast.

I’m a huge fan of The Office and feel John Krasinski has a nice, long career ahead of him so long as he rejects Hollywood’s insistence on making him the go-to rom-com leading man in favor of quirkier fare like this flick. Krasinski plays a nice amiable guy in the film but colors the performance with enough self-doubt to let you know that this guy is really racing to figure it all out before the life-changing birth of his first child.

While I depend on Krasinski, Maya Rudolph completely floored me with her role. She’s called upon to dive into deep emotional waters and she makes the journey with ease – grabbing our hand and dragging us down with her as she plumbs her soul looking to do the right thing at this brave new phase of her life. The sequence where she and her sister take a new tub for a test drive while shopping in a retail store; thus kick-starting a little impromptu soul searching, provides a great showcase for Rudolph’s gifts. She showed her comedic side on SNL but in this flick she expresses great layers that I never knew were there. This is a real talent to follow, wherever she may go.

Away We Go brings us on a fantastic voyage; ultimately arriving at the only destination that makes all the sense in the world. It’s a picture perfect ending to a touching travelogue, aimed at exploring disparate parts of our country while one couple journeys deep into their souls to find that which matters most to all of us – a home.

5.   Avatar

When I walked out of the theater after experiencing James Cameron’s first film in 10 years, my mind still woozy from the same intoxicating visuals that are so awe-inspiring they’ve sent manic depressives into hiding for fear they’ll never find Pandora, I heralded this as the best time I’d had at the movies in the last five years.

With a few weeks removed from the screening, I still call this a must see event picture, one that I’ll certainly revisit, but it’s not the top slot any more. That said, it is an amazing bit of complete world building on behalf of the self-imposed once and future King of the World who really has trumped George Lucas in bringing this world a new Star Wars. Hell, the fact that Cameron fills the screen with an army of blue muppets and not one Jar-Jar emerges from the shadows is achievement enough.

Cameron’s flick may be derivative of so many other films but what it cribs in narrative beats, it eclipses with sheer awesome beauty. The action scenes thrill with well staged choreography and Cameron’s vision of Pandora shows that the man knows his science and nature as well as his guns and ammo. His ecosystem makes sense and makes one wish they could stay for a spell and learn more about how it all comes together in a natural, symbiotic manner. I’d love to see the Planet Earth HD documentary on this wild world. While the tale ultimately becomes a simplistic battle between the good tree huggers and the evil corporate drones; it is without a doubt an action-packed spectacle that rewards your ticket purchase. Every freakin’ dollar of that reported $300 million price tag is on the screen and I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like this.

Also, Cameron knows how to make a flick move. This is 2 & ½ hours of visual delight that unlike Michael Bay’s bloated Transformers is actually interested in the old fashioned conceit of filmmaking – telling a decent story and taking us somewhere we’ve never been.
I was glad to enlist and I can’t wait to heed the inevitable call back to Pandora.

4.   Moon

On the opposite side of the spectrum is this low budget hard science fiction flick that does the same with well crafted models and set design that Cameron cobbles from his green screens and fancy new 3D cameras. Director Duncan Jones effectively brings us to the dark side of the moon for a piece of speculative fiction that sees mankind looking to an energy source embedded in the moon’s surface and as out there a concept as that may be, Moon’s science makes all the sense in the world.

I was first attracted to Moon when I saw that it starred the great character actor Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is one of those guys who the second you see listed in the credits, you know you’re in for a treat so long as he is on screen. He’s been unforgettable in flicks such as The Green Mile, Galaxy Quest and Frost/Nixon and he was arguably the only thing worth watching in that awful Charlie’s Angels flick.

With Moon, Rockwell pretty much is called upon to run the show, as he is the sole inhabitant of a Moon-based mining operation. As he nears the end of a 3-year tour of duty, he begins to suffer hallucinations that hint at something sinister. What initially appears to be a standard space-based sci-fi thriller takes on a more moving and tender feeling as the true nature of Rockwell’s visions reveals itself.

There are some decent twists along the way and the absolute less you know about this flick, the better. This also makes a nice companion piece with the similarly-themed Sunshine but whatever you do don’t chase it with Battlefield Earth.

3.   Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

This past summer, I worked my way through the entire series of books. Having watched the films since the beginning, I was struck by one amazing feat – the filmmakers behind this series (starting with Chris Columbus on through Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell and now David Yates) have done a masterful job of bringing JK Rowling’s singular vision of a fantastic universe to life. The fact that absolutely every role has been essayed by the same actors (some hired as young kids) and that they’ve all grown into these roles like a second skin, is amazing – one of the most memorable achievements in cinema. This is truly a series for the ages.

The latest flick is the best of the bunch. As the tale matures and takes on some dark shadows, the actors including the three main principals (and Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy) more than meet the challenge. It’s amazing that what began as a spirited romp with magic and monsters has now taken on such dire, life-and-death circumstances.

As the books grew more dense, major subplots had to be excised. I’ve always been a firm believer that with adaptation, so long as the core holds, a director and screenwriter is free to whittle away in order to shape a novel into feature film form. Half Blood Prince nails it by incorporating the major story beats, throwing in tons of period details that reward obsessive readers, and telling a tale that works as a stand-alone enchantment as well. By the time we get to the revelation of the true Half Blood Prince, the moment is staggering and acts as a fine culmination for the character actor who’s been staring from the sidelines the whole way through.

The final book – The Deathly Hallows – is being split into two volumes, with the first flick due to arrive this holiday. It’s going to be a sad day when we finally have to say goodbye to Hogwarts. It’s been a real pleasure visiting each year.

2.   District 9

District 9 incorporates action, explosions, aliens and giant robot suits in a way that Michael Bay could only dream of doing – making this flight of fantasy feel documentary in approach – as if somewhere, in a hellhole corner of the Earth, the plight of these creatures and one lowly bureaucrat who got mixed up with them actually happened.

District 9 was born of Hollywood hubris. The director, South Africa’s Neill Blomkamp, was originally recruited by Peter Jackson to helm an adaption of the popular videogame series, Halo. When Microsoft and Universal Pictures got into a pissing contest over royalties, the project fell apart deep into the creative development process. Jackson looked at the imaginative shorts that Blomkamp had done (including Alive in J-Burg which inspired this flick) and encouraged the young director to flesh them out.

Hence District 9, which acts as a legitimate piece of speculative science fiction, a darkly comic action flick, and a social parable at the same time. Using his keen eye for delivering photorealistic visual effects, Blomkamp parks a massive UFO over Johannesburg and then alienates his visitors to the ghettos outside the city – allowing him to play off the unfortunate cycle of racism that almost destroyed South Africa during apartheid.

And on top of all of this, he offers up his take on Michael Scott – Action Hero, presenting neophyte actor Sharlto Copley in a strong debut role as the office drone whose life is alerted through exposure to the aliens and their awesome technology.

This is a tremendous debut made on a miniscule budget that rewarded Jackson and Blomkamp for their tireless efforts. I guarantee that the one-two box office punch of District 9 and Avatar has a number of Universal reps kicking themselves over the Halo debacle. Regardless, I can’t wait to see what weird and wild sights Blomkamp shows us next.

1.   Up

For the second year in a row, the mad geniuses at PIXAR are responsible for my favorite movie of the year. Yes, I’m a family man so I’m prone to seeing a number of kids movies but that’s the beauty of PIXAR flicks; they transcend the family movie designation and exist not only as movies for everyone, but as important cinema for all time. After 9 consecutive home runs, I would hate to be the guy who whiffs and delivers the studio’s first strike-out. Let’s hope that day never comes.

Up continues their streak of telling tales involving unlikely protagonists. By paring an octogenarian with an outcast cub scout, and then sending them on a grand adventure that trumps any of that silliness an aged Indiana Jones went through last summer, they deliver one of the most thrilling and touching entertainments in years. Hell – the 10 minute opening sequence, which sets Carl’s courtship of his wife through their unified life to music, completely dialogue free, is one of the more compelling and heart-breaking sequences I’ve seen in years. Instantly Carl becomes a real person and we yearn for this old codger to finally realize his oft-shattered dreams.

PIXAR is also unafraid of introducing mature scenes in sequences that speak to the adults but fly over the kid’s heads. The dinner sequence later in the film takes on a truly menacing direction that ups the stakes for everyone involved. That’s the beauty of their artisanship – they never pander to anyone in the audience. They never pepper their flicks with pop culture references that will be way past their Born on Date two years from now. Story and character are their sole motivating factors and they carefully nourish both to insure their films will live long, full lives.

Up is a triumph. I walked out of that theater, alongside my family, with a smile plastered on my face as, once again, PIXAR reminded me why I love going to the movies in the first place. Year after year, they take me up, up and away and they’ve only been at this for a little more than a decade; a speck in Hollywood history.

To paraphrase Dug, we have just met them… and we love them.

Comments now closed (7)

  • On first read through…I only saw 2 of them…Star Trek and Up, which I saw 4 days ago. So I would have to move Star Trek to #2! Up is definitely #1!!

  • But give me your top 5 – you don’t need to use my selections. C’mon – we all know New Moon is on there.

  • Nice write-up. I have only seen 5 on here so far. Funny People is on my coffee table as I type and District 9 is in the top 5 of my queue.

    Having finally just seen The Hangover myself last weekend, I would hazard a guess it would break into your Top 10, but not Top 5.

  • At any point, did you think I was going to have New Moon on the list. I have a good feeling I’ll dig The Hangover but I really was just gonna’ run with 5 flicks but I couldn’t decide which 5 made the cut out of 8 so you are right, it’s doubtful The Hangover would push any of these. For comparisons sake, I love Old School but if I had that in this field, it would fall at 9 or 10.

    Also – Watchmen just missed the cut for 10. I really liked the movie but it’s not one of my favorite movie. Weird but true. So well done and a great adaptation but having seen it once, I don’t need to see it again. As for the flicks on this list, these are the ones that I would implore others to seek out.

    Funny People was definitely the biggest surprise – especially the 1st half. It’s sort of like Apatow’s Almost Famous, in a way.

  • I definitely rate The Hangover on par with Old School and no, I didn’t think New Moon was going to make the cut. I’m sure it is Joe’s Top 5 though.

  • Just my opinion~

    #1 Hurt Locker I am not ever a fan of war movies but this one was done with such feeling that you can’t help but be sucked in. (By the EX of Mr. Avatar no less)

    #2 Anvil The Story of Anvil The story of everyman. And probably every mans dream each and every morning they schlep to the office. And a few girls I know have this dream also.

    #3 In The Loop James Gandolfini is Tony Soprano no longer.

    #4 Food, INC. A movie everyone that ever eats food ever should see. Will change you eating habits in record time. This should be a diet regimen, watch the movie=lose weight.

    #5 Ponyo Just a breathtaking movie with a pretty cliche story line done so beautifully you don’t remember it’s a kids flick.

    #6 Julie & Julia I may take heat for this one because of my crush on Julia Child, but even if you didn’t know her before you saw this film, you will when you leave and you will love her.

    #7 Tyson A film I put off watching because I really was ambivalent about him, but I can now classify myself as a fan of his. Truly a peek inside his mind.

    #8 Sherlock Holmes I don’t have a real reason except it kept me glued to my seat and made me like Jude “I am a PIG” Law so clearly it was a good movie.

    #9 Avatar I didn’t want to be just another person to like this movie. But it won me over.

    #10 Is a tie for The Hangover/UP/Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Three great movies. They all made me laugh out loud and smile and get just a little sad in all the right places.

    God I <3 movies.

  • @Sarah – Awesome list and all are in my queue for the day they finally see Netflix release. I have a system where my flicks make it back on a Monday thereby assuring me almost instant access to a DVD on its Tuesday release. Sometimes they get by me (hence, The Hangover on VERY LONG WAIT) but it works more times than not.

    Also, I’m dying to see The Hurt Locker. I’ve been a big fan of Kathryn Bigelow since Near Dark. She also directed the Cameron-scripted Strange Days, which really was a fairly potent blend of prophecy. Cameron had a good eye for what was to come down the pike.

    Ponyo is Miyazaki I believe – who is a freakin’ genius.