Top Ten Movies of 2009 — Number One

My favorite movie character of the year is Ellie Fredericksen. Ellie doesn’t get much screen time in Up. She’s seen as a little girl, playing pretend in an old house, talking about the world and all its potential wonders with an enthusiastic fearlessness that utterly beguiles a young boy named Carl. From there, we see her life proceed with Carl, whom she marries and works beside at the local zoo, their years together depicted in a beautifully conceived and rendered dialogue-free montage that carries them through an entire life of togetherness, affection, modest comforts, compromises and sorrow. Then Ellie dies, living Carl an elderly widower, plodding back to the new solitude of the house they shared together. This happens probably no more than ten minutes into the film. Ellie is gone, and we in the audience never heard her speak a single word in her adult voice. And yet she remains, fully present throughout the rest of the film, as Carl defies his pending loss of their residence by binding a bounty of balloons to the andirons of the fireplace, thereby lifting the entire structure skyward on a mission to reach the South American paradise that Ellie always dreamed of visiting. She’s there as Carl begrudgingly befriends a youthful stowaway and a small crew of animals that communicate in surprising ways, eventually finding a fatherly, protective side of himself. Most movingly, she’s there as Carl overcomes his own natural reticence, moves past his sadness to embrace life and the continuing uncertainty of an existence that offers endless possibilities. She’s not there as some beatific, spectral presence, murmuring loving advice to Carl, as she certainly could be thanks to the casual movie magic that is only more limitless in the hands of crafty computer animators. She is there because we feel the lasting hold she has on Carl. She is there because the mementos and memories of the life she lived. She is there because when we lose someone, they linger with us, they remain a part of our thoughts and our hearts. They still shape who we are, and who we want to be. Lots of movies deal in grief because it is a shortcut to building emotional power. Up deals with grief as realistically and honestly as any film I can think of, showing how it is a pathway to an enduring appreciation of the person who’s gone. This is a sombre accomplishment within a film that is anything but. Up is as filled with adventure and buoyant comedy as any of its inspired siblings from the splendid creative factory of Pixar. Director Pete Docter and his co-director Bob Peterson keep the intricate plotting straight and tell their story in vivid fashion, building everything upon a remarkable depth of character. The artistry of animated film directors sometimes gets discounted because, in a criticism that is bafflingly counter-intuitive, they have so much more control over every detail of their films than their live-action counterparts. With Up, Docter demonstrates that control is an opportunity that turns into a duty. Something unerringly great can be created, something that represents masterly storytelling, something that honors with focused attention every character on screen. Even those characters that are only on screen for the briefest amount of time.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Ten Movies of 2009 — Number Two

Jason Reitman’s third feature as a writer-director is perfectly positioned to tap into the dismal zeitgeist of economic hardship and jobs that are vanishing as fast as double scotches in a hotel bar. George Clooney doesn’t just play a businessman who spends most of his life jetting from city to city, entirely untethered from a settled life. He’s a hired hit man, taking up temporary residence in the conference rooms of failing firms to tell a morose parade of professionals that they are are loosing their livelihoods. It’s a bleakly comic reflection of the most downbeat pages of today’s newspaper. But as much as Reitman’s film is of the moment, it is also built with a clear love for the sort of classic Hollywood narrative built around vibrant characters and piercing emotions that goes exponentially further out of style with every advance in computer animated imagery. Clooney’s character is forced to face his evasion of his own self through the insidious safety of constant pampered transience when he comes into the circle of two very different women, one his female equivalent, and the other his completely opposite. The screenplay, adapted from a novel by Walter Kirn by Reitman and Sheldon Turner, artfully uses these relationships–one romantic, one of shifting mentorship–to further illuminate the man at the film’s core, to show the way that he’s lost, aimless, uncertain. It shows that his whole life is indeed up in the air. In this tricky role, Clooney delivers the finest performance of his career thus far, playing on his own real life reputation with a deftness familiar from some of Warren Beatty’s savviest work. He taps into the character’s low idle yearning with ever lapsing into needy pathos. He is charming and endearing, but also signals the way the character is quietly conflicted. Throughout, Reitman brings Clooney’s expert performance, as well as the equally fine Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, to the forefront, while also maintaining a splendid poise in the construction of the story and the images.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Ten Movies of 2009 — Number Three

It’s no mystery why filmmakers are drawn to stories about heists and con artists. The grifters that populate these stories employ a similar artistry to directors and screenwriters and everyone else who collaborates on cinematic offerings, building fictions compelling enough to leave someone in thrall, lost in twists and turns, and even strangely satisfied, or at least admiring, that they’ve been fooled. Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom makes that connection even more explicit as the shifty siblings of the title are not invested in their plots just for the bankbook boosting or the thrill of criminality. It is the artistry of it, the opportunity to practice their illicit gamesmanship with an eye towards story construction and character development. One character observes that the cons are built like Russian novels, with allusions and motifs and little hints as to their artificiality all around the borders. It crackles with the energy of pure invention, and the same sort of inspired reinvention that marked his debut feature, Brick. Johnson makes no effort to conceal or otherwise downplay the inherent phoniness of the film, the heavy stylization, or the broadly colorful nature of the characters. Instead, he turns those qualities into strengths, playing around with a perfectly calibrated level of self-awareness that invites the audience along for the ride instead of imposing cleverness. One of Johnson’s most remarkable tools is his ability to draw inspired work from his entire cast, led by the appealing rumpled raffishness of Mark Ruffalo, the sweetly forlorn longing of Adrien Brody, the endearing maladjusted expertise of Rachel Weisz, and, perhaps most surprising and satisfying of all, the deftly cunning offbeat charm of Rinko Kikuchi. All the machinations on screen are impressive enough. The clearly apparent joy taken by the creators of those machinations–the fictional creators within the film and those standing behind the cameras–takes The Brothers Bloom into an entirely different realm.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Ten Movies of 2009 — Number Four

There was a time when Joel and Ethan Coen were known (and, in some quarters, loathed) for the gymnastics they regularly took their camera through on the way to a finished feature, sending it racing down a bar with a quick vault over a collapsed drunkard or rocketing down a hotel sink drain. By contrast, what continually struck me while watching their latest film, A Serious Man, was the completeness of their command of the pure mechanics of narrative storytelling. That doesn’t mean their shot choices have gotten mundane. They still frame their images in fascinating, inventive ways, but also understand how to shape a scene, how to share information, how to drive forward their storytelling with the ways they assemble all their material into a finished work. Just watching the prologue that opens the film–a sequence as sneakily vital as anything they’ve inserted into a film since Margie Gunderson had an awkward encounter with Mike Yanagita–is like sitting through a master class in cinematic construction, building tension with the editing, the pacing, the sounds, the smart and subtle use of offscreen space. The expertise continues once they get to the main story, following college professor Larry Gopnik through a few particularly trying days. Without melodramatic flourishes or other crass trickery, they build tension until it is nearly unbearable, the celluloid clicking through the projector beginning to sound like the straining steel of a tightening vise. In one of the year’s great and underrated performances, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the leading role with subtle building strain, taking his character up to his spiritual breaking point without quite reaching it. The film is bleakly funny, right up to its perfect closing image.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Ten Movies of 2009 — Number Five

War is hell. And in the first years of the twenty-first century, it’s a particular type of hell that would have eluded Dante on the most fertilely creative day. It is entirely unpredictable with rules of engagement that shift as quickly as sands on a windswept dune. The Hurt Locker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, is about this, but it’s also about the insidious allure of war for some of those soldiers who strap on a helmet and head into the fray. The film follows a bomb squad unit in Iraq, pressing in on a war that still burdens our fighting men and women with an uncompromising ferocity that serves as an important, uncomfortable reminder that what unfolds before us may be fiction, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also very real. Befitting Boal’s background, the film has a reportorial authority. It doesn’t unfold with a tidy narrative, but moves from incident to incident taking the challenges as they come, just like those warriors must. Without a clear thread to return to, Bigelow must pull on different reserves of ingenuity to propel the film forward. She crafts something that is dynamic and intimate, bold and quietly intelligent, empathetic and free of political judgment. Through this approach, she finds the unexpected center of the film’s protagonist, played exceptionally by Jeremy Renner. He tackles his job with a fearlessness that might seem reckless if it weren’t grounded in pure pragmatism. He finds some thrill in the adrenaline of defusing bombs, but, more importantly, he finds an odd dependability there, a sense that he can define the parameters of his task in a way that seems impossible when staring down an overstocked grocery aisle in civilian life, where the abundance of choice inspires paralysis. Before a battlement of colorful cereal boxes, the more easily defined dangers of a war-torn street often their own form of solace and security.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Ten Movies of 2009 — Number Six

It is England in the early nineteen-sixties, a buttoned-down time and place. A girl is standing in the rain after an orchestra rehearsal when a man pulls up in his car and offers her a ride, smiling as he feigns concern for her cello as the motivation for his gallantry. Thus begins the romantic relationship that drives Lone Sherfig’s An Education. It is a romance built less on attraction or heat, and more on simple exposure to an edgier, more daring life. The schoolgirl gains entry to a world of champagne and elegantly smoked cigarettes, horse races and illicit derring-do that stands in stark contrast to her tiresome trudge through academics that promises little more than even duller, more challenging studies to come. She is told she’s throwing away all her potential, but Sherfig’s deft direction and Nick Hornby’s screenplay of easy charm perfectly convey the way she might survey all the jazzy decadence laid before her and determine that it is better than foggy promises. Through her eyes it is the grandest possibilities already realized. It is life lived robustly. Even as enough similar stories have been told to make the crumbling of the facade seem inevitable, it’s easy to be caught up in the sweep of it all, to understand her conviction that the thrill will be eternal. That’s in no small part because of Carey Mulligan’s performance, her marvelously expressive face and quizzical, twinkling eyes making every quickening of her pulse and denting of her heart vividly clear.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

Top Ten Movies of 2009 — Number Seven

I’ve seen lots of movies made for kids, but I haven’t seen that many that are really about being a kid. Movies recast children as precocious dispensers of unlikely wisdom or junior wisecrackers, their youthful sass punched til its a series of Borscht Belt one-liners. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Movie characters of often idealized, fantasy versions of ourselves, and it’s no more necessary for the Our Gang styled marauders in short pants that race through kiddie movies to be paragons of verisimilitude than it is for us to witness Indiana Jones filling out his sabbatical paperwork before jetting across the land in search of archeological treasure. Still, as with our adult characters, it’s more meaningful when we can believe that the children onscreen are real people dealing with real concerns. The film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved story Where the Wild Things Are perfectly captures what childhood is, what it feels like. It could have easily been an overblown cartoon made live, the bounding monsters that Max befriends after an argument with his mother depicted as joyous pals who teach him some pat life lesson. Instead, they’re reflections of Max’s own combustible emotions, extensions of the earlier scenes which depict with care how sadness over being ignored can become enraged aggression faster than anyone could control, or how the elation of unhinged play can turn into forlorn dejection in a suddenly scary moment. Max, like most kids, has stronger feelings than he knows what to do with, and they shift and change within him so quickly. Jonze fully understands and properly conveys the important detail that’s always been at the heart of Sendak’s enduring story: Max is the wildest thing of all.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)