Just in time for the Oscars, I present my Top 10 Movies of the Year. I know it’s already mid-March, but what can I say? Sometimes I get lazy. Obviously I didn’t see every film that came out last year, and there were several that might have made it on here had I gotten a chance to see them. These include Coraline, Humpday, Thirst, The Road, A Serious Man, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Adventureland. Other movies I saw that were good but just not good enough to make the top 10 include The Girlfriend Experience, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, World’s Greatest Dad, I Love You, Man and Zombieland. You’ll notice Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is absent from the list. Now I know that film was really critically acclaimed, got nominated for an Oscar and is generally beloved by the NYU Tisch film kid crowd. But I thought it was bullshit and I’m tired of seeing Tarantino make the same film over and over again in slightly different variations. Inglourious Basterds can go screw itself.
Now for the list:
1. District 9
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
What, you were expecting something else? I struggled for a long time to decide whether to put D9 or The Hurt Locker in the #1 spot. I originally felt The Hurt Locker was more deserving because a) it dealt with real life b) it had a deeper, more poignant message and c) it had already garnered so much critical praise. But at the end of the day it came down to one thing: originality. I’m not saying The Hurt Locker isn’t original, it is, but it’s a war movie, and an Iraq War movie to boot. D9 presents a universe unlike any other. Like every other film it’s influenced by those that came before it, but in many ways it tells a story that no one’s ever told before. Humans never subjugate aliens! Aliens subjugate us! By turning this trope on its head, Neill Blomkamp created something incredibly unique, entertaining, and at times, even touching.
The best thing about the film is that it’s actually three different movies for the price of one. It starts out like a faux-documentary, then turns into a David Cronenberg horror film, and then climaxes in a balls to the wall action blowout in the final act. What I don’t think a lot of people realize about the movie is that it’s actually really hilarious, and is sometimes simultaneously comedic and horrific. That’s a hard feat to pull off, but Blomkamp does it, thanks in large part to the terrific acting of Sharlto Copely, who’s Wikus van de Merwe is one of cinema’s greatest bumbling anti-heroes. If more science fiction was like this the world would be a better place. Way to go, South Africa. Making me proud of my heritage.
Read my review.
2. The Hurt Locker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
To be honest, on second viewing I was not as impressed with The Hurt Locker as I was the first time I saw it. My mother made an insightful observation as to why: the first time you see this film it’s surprising. It’s not what you expect; it doesn’t follow the mold of other war films, even war films set in Iraq. It doesn’t try to create some high-handed moral message about the horrors of war, nor is it really a tale of the damage combat does to one’s psyche. Sure, all three of our central characters face mental breakdowns at some point in the film, and there’s no doubt The Hurt Locker portrays war as a terrible fact of life. It’s just not the point; it’s not what the film is about. The film is just about war. It tells it like it is, and thus ends up being something more similar to Black Hawk Down than Saving Private Ryan.
The film is not without its flaws, but I like it for several important reasons. For starters, Jeremy Renner’s character and performance are awesome. I know he doesn’t represent the vast majority of bomb defusers in the army, and yes he can be hard to relate to because he’s a bit of sociopath, but good characters don’t always have to be likable characters, and the fact that he’s in it just for the adrenaline rush was something I found really appealing. Second, the film has great action sequences, particularly the Barret .50 cal sniper scene in the desert. And lastly, Bigelow manages to create a war film that is exciting, thought-provoking and dark, but doesn’t leave you feeling depressed and overwhelmed once it’s finished. At the end of the day, it’s just a really great story set in one of the worst places on Earth.
Directed by Pete Docter
This movie gets the #3 spot because it made me cry. Straight-up. I’m not ashamed. No other film on this list gave me that kind of visceral emotional reaction (Where the Wild Things Are came close), and the fact that it’s an animated film shows just how powerful it is. Up puts more heart into its opening sequence than most movies have throughout- in fact that opening sequence is amazing because it’s almost like its own little silent film. And it’s heartbreaking, because even though it’s animated it’s telling a story that’s very true to real life. People fall in love, and then inevitably one of them dies. While it’s just a short sequence and a very small portion of the film, it really touches you, and also does a great job of setting up the character of Carl Fredricksen.
Of course, the rest of the movie is pretty great too. While it doesn’t have the same level of whimsy as WALL-E, Up still exemplifies what PIxar does best- blending adult drama with universal comedy so that both children and adults can enjoy their films. In many ways, Up actually feels like the first film they’ve made aimed at adults, even more so than The Incredibles. That film was about a family, and as such there’s a brother-sister dynamic that is very relatable for kids. Up is about an old dude looking for happiness at the last stage of his life, so it’s really not a film made for kids. Which is probably why Pixar threw in a little Asian boy, talking dogs and a wacky giant bird. But hey, that’s stuff’s awesome too. Dug’s the bomb, yo.
Directed by James Cameron
As you probably know, I was very skeptical about Avatar before I saw it. I’m a huge Jim Cameron fan- I’ve seen all of his movies, with the exception of Xenogenesis (great title, btw) and Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (not so great) and love them all (yeah, even Titanic. You got a problem with that?). But there was just something about all those tall, blue Native Americans running around, combined with the fact that the military’s design looked identical to Aliens and Halo, as well as the revelation that the 3D would still require glasses, that just rubbed me the wrong way. Thankfully, Jim proved me wrong, and once again reasserted himself as the King of the Blockbuster.
Before I praise the film, I should note that the plot, dialogue, and some of the acting is, truth be told, pretty weak. I mean, Jim called his unattainable resource that is the key to all Earth’s energy woes “unobtanium.” That’s pretty sad, bra. You couldn’t come up with a better name, or you know, a better trope? And of course the unobtanium motherload just happens to lie under the Na’vi’s giant treehouse. C’mon, man… try a little harder. And I seriously don’t get why Sam Worthington is such a big action star now- he can barely act and just looks like a slightly less handsome Tahmoh Penikett. But all that aside, Avatar is amazing.
The story may be cliché, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck you in. It even tugs your heartstrings a couple times, albeit in a very big, cheesy, old-Hollywood kind of way. If you look past the cutting-edge technology, the film feels very old school, mostly in the way it chooses to tell its story. But let’s stop beating around the bush- the real reason this movie rocks is because it’s a visual feast for your eyeballs. It’s the Last Supper of visual eyeball feasts. You may think the Na’vi look stupid or that the movie is just a whole lot of hype, but trust me- Avatar is a work of art like none you’ve ever seen, and you’re really missing out if you don’t see it on IMAX 3D. No movie, not even Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings achieves what it achieves. It creates an entire new world and draws you in. For two and a half hours, you’ll actually feel like you’re on Pandora… which in reality would not be a good thing, as literally everything on that planet can kill you.
5. Paranormal Activity
Directed by Oren Peli
A lot of people seem just as skeptical about this film as they are about Avatar. I think this trepidation stems from the fact that Paranormal Activity greatly resembles another low budget horror success, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. It’s true that TBWP is mostly just angsty twenty-somethings yelling and arguing with each other as they trudge through woods, but rest assured- Paranormal Activity makes TBWP look like Leprechaun: Back 2 Tha Hood in comparison. I know the poster looks like it’s lying- this can’t be “one of the scariest movies of all time” you say! But believe me- it is. This movie is fucking terrifying. I saw it in a very empty theater with one friend and I felt unnerved and uneasy for the rest of the day. It doesn’t get in your head the way say, The Shining does, but it definitely stays with you.
The concept for Paranormal Activity is just brilliant, and the parts they don’t really go into in the trailer are what make it even better. The distinction the film makes between a ghost and a demon is great, because let’s be honest- ghosts aren’t really that scary. But demons are, especially if they’ve been haunting your girlfriend her entire life and more or less want to take her soul. And even though the majority of the film is just a static nightvision shot of the protagonists’ bedroom, the subtle sight gags the filmmakers employ are just brilliant. Like any good horror film, Paranormal Activity wouldn’t be anything without superb sound design, which it has in spades. If you still don’t believe me, consider this: I don’t like ghost stories that much, but Paranormal Activity scared me more than The Shining, The Exorcist or The Thing. So yeah, it’s pretty scary.
6. Up in the Air
Directed by Jason Reitman
For some reason (probably because of the hype) I was expecting this movie to be the best of the year. It’s not, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the better ones I saw. The truth is, it’s nothing all that special. Its script, structure, shooting & editing styles are all very classic Hollywood, and while its story is pertinent to current events, it doesn’t tackle them in any particularly original way other than hiring real people who’d been laid off for certain interview sequences. But it’s a really solid movie with really fantastic performances. All three leads are great, especially George Clooney, who once again proves he’s one of the country’s finest actors. If there’s anything that really stands out about the film it’s its tone- it starts off as a hilarious black comedy, then transforms into a romantic comedy for the majority until devolving into a really dark, depressing tale of mid-life crisis. To make that work is both an impressive feat of writing and directing, and Jason Reitman deserves some kudos.
7. Star Trek
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Even though I watched Alias and LOST, I was never a true J.J. fan until this film came out. I always felt like he was getting more credit than he deserved. J.J. tends to pen the pilots for new TV series, then hand them over to his buddies while taking all the credit. For instance, anyone who isn’t a diehard LOST fan would think J.J. is not only the creator but the current showrunner. In reality, all he did was co-write and direct the pilot, as well as a handful of other eps. He’s even stopped running Fringe. And don’t get me started on Mission Impossible III. That film has to be the most critically acclaimed heap of garbage this side of Crash. But the man really flexed his muscles on Trek and did the impossible in the process: he made Star Trek cool. This 2009 outing was great because it was both true to the original series and characters, and fresh, exciting and new. If you want to hear me blabber on about it some more, read my review.
8. Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
Probably the weirdest film on this list (yeah, even weirder than District 9), Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the children’s classic is still poignant and touching, as well as a masterpiece of art direction. A bizarre tone, lack of a definitive story structure and slow pace prevented it from being the masterpiece I had hoped it would be, but it’s a great film nonetheless. The voice acting is top notch, and the emotional finale almost brought me to tears. The film’s greatest triumph is the way it portrays childhood, and the way it made a 23 year old like me empathize with its spazzy protagonist, Max. Even if your parents aren’t divorced, I think everyone can relate to the frustration one feels at that age.
Read the review.
Directed by Duncan Jones
This film wasn’t quite the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque mind trip I was expecting, but as character-driven sci-fi films go, Moon was outstanding. I would expect nothing less from the son of David Bowie. I don’t want to go into the plot too much so as not to ruin the big twist, but I will say that it’s a fairly original yarn and that you don’t really see the twist coming. Sam Rockwell is an amazing actor, and this is probably the finest performance I’ve seen him give. I mean, the movie’s pretty much just him; the only other character he interacts with really is a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey. It’s just nice to see a sci-fi film that doesn’t rely on extensive special effects or ridiculous action scenes to tell its story. Although, seeing as District 9 is my number one movie of the year, I guess I sort of prefer that style. But still, Moon is a nice change of pace and is definitely worth seeing.
10. Drag Me To Hell
Directed by Sam Raimi
I realize a film called Drag Me To Hell isn’t what you’d expect to find on the top 10 list from a Tisch graduate. But god damn if this wasn’t some of the most fun I’ve had at the movies this year. After the debacle that was Spider Man 3, it was nice to see Sam Raimi go back to his goofy horror film roots. Drag Me To Hell is rated PG-13, but still manages to be just as scary as Paranormal Activity… okay, not really. But it is scary, and WAY more gory. It’s classic Raimi, and feels like it deserves a spot right next to Evil Dead II. It’s funny, gross and terrifying all at the same time. Some of the gags in this film are just absolutely ridiculous (I recommend the director’s cut for extra ridiculousness). Like Oren Peli, Raimi realizes that the scariest villain for a horror film isn’t a ghost, a monster or a zombie- it’s a demon. Nothing’s more scary than a practically invincible hellspawn that serves Satan and wants to devour your soul. Well… maybe a crazy gypsy woman.