20
Dec
2009
Feature: Jordan's Movie Quest
Jordan's Movie Quest: The Year 2009
Jordan
Looking over the last year in cinema, I was shocked to discover how much quality was there. All year I have been mocking the lower caliber of movies, and to an extent I feel I was right; there are no "all-time classics" that jump out of this year, no masterpieces that I know will be treasured among the best in decades to come, but there are a slew of very good movies that deserved recognition. Were it not for my own OCD tendencies that forced me into cutting it down to 10, you might see 15 or 20 entries on this list (among the last to go, and deserving of honorable mentions are An Education, Moon, and Up in the Air). Without further ado, here are my top ten movies of the last year:

10. Coraline-After years of being largely ignored for doing the lion's share of the work on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach (both of which are largely considered Tim Burton movies), Henry Selick should certainly become a household name after the visually stunning, wildly inventive Coraline. Based on the short novel by Neil Gaiman, the film tells the story of Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) a young girl forced to move away from her friends and into a boring house in the middle of nowhere. Her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) largely ignore her, and the only other kid around is a socially awkward adventurer named Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.). Her life seems to have hit rock bottom, when she discovers a door in her house that leads to another world, full of wonders and populated by doppelgangers of everyone in her life, improved and centered on exactly what she would like. Coraline is visually superb, wonderfully creative, and more than a little unsettling, creating a new, creepier take on the standard "be careful what you wish for" story to thrilling effect.

9. Where the Wild Things Are-Spike Jonze had a lot of trouble bringing his adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's classic to the stage. The book was short, the content dark and controversial, and the studio unsure whether it would be marketable for kids. Looking past all that, Jonze (who co-wrote the script with Dave Eggers) created arguably the best movie ever made about the excitement, loneliness, jealousy, depression, and rage that come along with childhood. When Max (Max Records) runs away from his mother (Catherine Keener) and travels across a vast sea, he finds himself crowned king of a gaggle of creatures (voiced by an all star cast including James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, and Chris Cooper), each of whom reflects one of his own flaws. Max struggles to come to terms with issues he doesn't even fully grasp yet, and it is part of the magic of the film that the ending is ambiguous as to whether Max has learned anything at all. Jonze does not force any meaning down the audience's throat, nor does he seem to emphasize one interpretation; rather he has made a movie that is structured like a child's play-date and exudes all the wide range of emotions that comes along with that.

8. Away We Go- Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) have been together, and unmarried for years. When they find out Verona is pregnant, and that Burt's parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O'Hara) are moving away and leaving them alone, they realize the world is open to them and set out to find the perfect place to make a life for their new family. What begins as a series of vignettes on the variety of parents they encounter on their journey (including Allison Janney, Jim Gaffigan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, and Paul Schneider) soon evolves into an in-depth examination of the anxieties that accompany impending parenthood and the variety of approaches to raising children that exist. Grounded with aplomb by Director Sam Mendes, and backed by a soundtrack from Alexi Murdoch, Away We Go manages to be both touching and very funny in its look at what makes parents, what binds them to their children, what keeps them up at night, and what finally helps them to realize they are on the right track.

7. (500) Days of Summer-Tom Hansen (the always excellent Joseph Gordon Levitt) thinks he was meant to be with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), a beguiling, commitment-phobic beauty from the greeting card company where he works. The trouble is the two have just broken up. Told out of order and spanning the titular 500 days in the life of its characters, the film examines the ups and downs, ins and outs and all other aspects of a relationship from its first kiss to what may be a last goodbye. From the beginning the narrator informs you that this movie is not a love story; in fact it's something much more meaningful. It's a film about how we see ourselves, the plans we make for our lives, the people we want to be and the people we end up being. (500) Days of Summer is an in-depth look at how different people approach love, and how various approaches can lead to disastrous, or sometimes wonderful results.

6. Fantastic Mr. Fox-There is no doubt that when you walk into a Wes Anderson movie, you know what you're getting. Over his five previous films, he has established himself as one of Hollywood's most unique auteurs, developing an inimitable style that makes each of his movies unmistakably his. That Fantastic Mr. Fox can be undeniably Andersonian and also a fairly close adaptation of the excellent Roald Dahl book from which it originated is a testament to his whimsical ability as a director, and to the lasting power of the story. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is a retired thief working as a columnist and living happily with his wife (Meryl Streep) and son (Jason Schwartzman) when he decides to recruit his neighbor (Wally Wolodarsky) for one last big heist, from the evil farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (lead by a nefarious Michael Gambon). Co-Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jarvis Cocker and Willem Dafoe, the movie is wonderfully verbose, subtly clever, occasionally hysterically funny, whimsical, endearing, and occasionally wise in its meditation on the animal that resides in all of us, and how its hard to let our glory days go, but even harder to deny that with a little help from family and friends, and yes, a pretty fantastic fox, anything is possible.

5. Big Fan-Paul (Patton Oswalt) is a parking attendant by day and a Giants super-fan by night, calling in to deliver pre-planned diatribes on the team's successes and their opponents failures. His life is small, but he is happy, until he runs into his personal hero, the team's quarter back and is beaten to a pulp by him. In the aftermath of the incident, Paul must deal with the medical, legal, and personal fallout from the beating, as well as the ethical and moral dilemmas that come along with the choice between damaging his team and damaging himself. Oswalt is tremendous as a man with a tenuous grip on everything he loves, divided between his faith and the reality that keeps being imposed on him. At its heart, Big Fan (written and directed by The Wrestler scribe Robert Siegel) is a meditation on how far faith can drive us, and of what we are willing to do to cling to the things that make us comfortable. The film also exists as a darkly comic, often tragic examination on the potential differences between what we want for ourselves and what we "should" want, on the role that faith plays in our lives, and on the tension that often exists between happiness and truth.

4. Up-From the moving montage that opens the movie through its thrilling final set-piece, Up is a gem of a movie. Telling the story of the recently widowed Carl (Ed Asner) and his quest to make it the one place he and his wife always hoped to travel, with a young wilderness explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) in tow, the movie does not shy away or pull any punches in its look at the effects of death, the process of grief, and the potential to find joy again in life. Both Carl and Russell are broken down and abandoned, Carl by his beloved wife and Russell by his neglectful father, yet together they manage to find a way back into happiness, as well as a rollicking adventure involving a dastardly explorer, a multi-colored bird and talking dogs. The movie is as thought-provoking as it is hilarious, and as exciting as it is heartwarming, proving that, for now at least, Pixar can do no wrong.

3. In the Loop-Arguably the greatest political satire since Dr. Strangelove, In the Loop is a scathing, brilliant, quick witted, black as midnight on a moonless night look at the political machinations of the western world as it teeters on the brink of armed conflict in the Middle East. When a fairly powerless British politico (Tom Hollander) accidentally claims that war is "unforeseeable" he is pulled into a complex web of political plotting, back-stabbing, scheming and lobbying that drags him across the pond and into a spotlight he never desired. Filled with characters as verbally vicious as they are verbose, including a spin doctor (a hilarious Peter Capaldi) prone to profanity filled rants, In the Loop is an uncompromising and hysterical look at how history can be shaped via the foibles of a few, and how mountains can be moved with just one misplaced word.

2. The Hurt Locker- The story of a bomb-squad assigned to disengage IED's in Baghdad, The Hurt Locker is almost unrelentingly tense as it follows the squad (played by Jeremy Renner, in an Oscar worthy performance, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) through several of their missions and through some time on the base during one of their tours. Renner's leader is a creature of conflict, exuding an invincible swagger and a disregard for protocol that would feel right at home in an action movie, but often seems insane in the hyper-real setting here. The character is doubtlessly a hero, but the question of what toll his work takes on him weighs hard on his soul, and adds another layer of tension to the already boiling film. Gritty, daring, horrifying and thought-provoking, Director Katheryn Bigelow has made a movie that both respects the soldiers it examines and stops short of canonizing them, showing that these are men who do heroic things in the service of their country, but at a great cost to themselves and those around them.

1. A Serious Man-Larry Gopnik (a stellar Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man of Job-like proportions. His wife wants a divorce, his son is smoking pot, a student is trying to bribe him, his brother is having a breakdown, an anonymous letter writer hopes to deprive him of tenure and on, and on, and on. The Coen Brothers craft the film as a parable about Larry's visits to three Rabbis, to whom he looks for spiritual guidance, and who provide him with a series of muddled messages and absurd anecdotes. Larry is beset on all sides by tragedy and misfortune, and finds that in a world with no higher meaning, the lyrics to a Jefferson Airplane song can have as much meaning as the words of the Torah. The film coats its disaffected nihilism in a sheen of sympathy for its hapless protagonist, and never ceases to be hilarious and intriguing as a recording of one man's quest for meaning in a world that may be without it. Funny, philosophical, and finally surprisingly affecting A Serious Man is a movie more about the questions we should be asking than the answers we may find when we decide to look.
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