These are the very best of the movies of 2009 that I have seen. Your comments are welcome below. The entire list of 62 movies is available here. This list represents each 2009 release that I have seen and is not purely a *best-of list.
*However any movie better than 25 or so should appeal to just about anyone.
There is sometimes a movie that strike such a chord — develops such a rapport with the viewer — that the end of the movie seems more like the end of a memory. For me Adventureland is like that; deeply moving with real characters that are only slightly hyperbolic and then only in an effort to ground the main character, James (Jesse Eisenberg), more on this side of reality instead of that side of reality. It’s possible that the painful reality of Adventureland is achieved because it is the partially biographic tale of writer/director Greg Mottola. Whatever the reason, the happy result is a reflection of lives — some combination of oneself and friends — in that awkward and troubled time that occurs after one is grown up, but has yet to actually grow into the role of being grown up.
08. The Road
Strict transliteration of word to screen is a mixed bag of success. On one hand one might get Watchmen which, though a visual feast, is a soulless affair with little life or depth. Watchmen may not have worked because of the depth of passion provided in the source material. The Road, on the other hand, was written as an ostensibly dispassionate narrative of an ultimately useless journey from Here to There with little or no reason to look forward to getting There or to stay Here. Cormac McCarthy’s novel is unsurprisingly existential in approach, but plays that aspect side-by-side with the very literal meaning of the tale: nothing. It’s a snapshot into nothing once everything is already lost and nothing is all that is left. Miraculously, however, somehow Something is born from Nothing. This is not a tale of great growth or, as the title would imply, a great journey; rather it is a tale of how if nothing is left, then finding Something at the end of the road is, indeed, something. Something to live for and something in which to look forward. The Road movie strikes at dire, visual art with its gray, cold, and somber presentation. The harsh and meaningless journey of Man and Boy is profoundly sorrowful and at times painful to watch as we search for something in hope for our protagonists to find. In the end, as the movies portrays as well as the book, a glimmer is all it takes. Beautifully shot while portraying the complete absence of beauty.
07. A Prophet
Perhaps the finest crime movie in years, Un Prophète is a French prison story of a young Arabic man who enters a brutal prison as prey, and through violence and innovation, becomes a ruthlessly powerful crime lord. Unflinching violence, patient cinematography, and remarkable performances stand out as Malik (Tahar Rahim) fights his way to influence, security, and respect in a rise to power that in many way mirrors that of Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II.
06. Star Trek
Big, fun, dynamic, and, yes, faithful. Those are some words to describe the surprising success that J.J. Abrams has in re-starting the Star Trek film franchise. Many folks thought it was sacrilege to invoke characters from The Original Series (TOS) when the original actors were not going to play them. That seemingly appropriate fear is completely void in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. The movie is able to tastefully use the tried-and-true Trek staple of time travel to alter the course of known (to us) history therefore allowing him to play around in the Trek universe of TOS with few rules of which to adhere. That may have been enough, but Abrams and crew goes further and finds a nearly perfect cast of younger talent to step into the iconic roles of TOS mythos and give dead-on performances of the characters and not the original actors that played the characters. It as an amazing accomplishment, an accomplishment that box offices around the world will cherish once every 2-3 years as a new Star Trek rolls into the theaters with guaranteed box office gold and a new and fresh universe in which to play.
05. District 9
It’s been a wonderful year for sci-fi in cinema. The above Star Trek, the ground breaking Avatar, and other movies on this list gave re-birth to the sci-fi genre in what is PG-13 horror and romantic comedy favored Hollywoodland. District 9 takes a modest 30 million dollar budget and crafts a gritty and daring world where a ship full of a million unfortunate aliens breaks down over Johannesburg, South Africa. In its ever altruistic best, the human population of Johannesburg help the aliens by regulating them to slums and segregation of Apartheid. District 9 takes place about 30 years after that event. The movie is unique in that its human protagonist is a dick and remains an unappologetic dick for almost the entire movie. District 9 is also unique in that is able to craft a completely sympathetic alien co-protagonist who is scaly, slimy, ugly, and only very vaguely humanoid. This is no cute blue cat-woman that the viewer feels for, but rather an alien whose race is nick named “Prawn” by the humans because that’s what they look like.
The movie displays brilliant budget special effects, a unique structure due to its jumping in and out of different narrative points of view, and a truly engrossing story with a tense finale. District 9 is a sci-fi movie to remember for its innovation and commentary as well as its near perfect execution.
04. The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker is the only instant classic nu-war movie. There have been a handful of films about American soldiers in modern conflicts and only one other, Three Kings, is in the same league as The Hurt Locker. A tight cast featuring Hollywood hot-property Jeremy Renner, as Staff Sgt. William James, propels the tense and visceral story through its 115 minute runtime in seemingly the blink of an eye. If viewed as an existential quagmire or as a literal peak into the life of one of the most dangerous jobs ever invented by mankind, The Hurt Locker will ring bells on every level of quality cinema. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) shows again that she is a force of dramatic art when dealing with a certain type of person and the violence that surrounds him — defines him.
In Johnny Slick’s review for Pop Bunker, he said that Inglourious Basterds “is a motherfucking ROCK STAR.” It’s hard to argue that statement. Quentin Tarantino is able to shed the shoddy non-event devices from the meandering Death Proof and guide Basterds into the atmosphere of iconoclastic deconstruction where Tarantino is most effective at play. And at play he is. Inglourious Basterds is presented as if about a group of Nazi hunting Jews in World War II. However, the movie actually has three distinct story lines that collide to form a revenge fable of the highest order and executed to perfection by Mélanie Laurent, as the tortured Shosanna Dreyfus, and Tarantino’s most memorable villain to date in the utterly charming and completely vile Col. Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz). Tarantino’s dialog is sharper than ever and delivers tension at a reckless and thoroughly enjoyable pace — often times with actors just staring at each other and talking. Many shots from the cinematography stick like still photos in the viewer’s head only to be remembered and dwelled upon later in order to examine the mastery of light, shadowy contrast, and dramatic impact.
Inglourious Basterds is not nearly Brad Pitt’s (Lt. Aldo Raine) movie and Tarantino is able to shuffle his star power to that of the supernova fulcrum which motors the narrative. Eli Roth, playing one of Pitt’s Nazi hunters, even manages to not be annoying. Love or hate Tarantino, this movie is one that must been seen.
02. Black Dynamite
To describe Black Dynamite would be like trying to describe a Jello Pudding Pop™. It’s like everything one loves about a comedy, but also about 1970s exploitation and grindhouse films, molded into a familiar and versatile shape and then stuck on a stick for mass consumption. OK, maybe it’s not exactly like that, but there is no real way to describe this amazing comedy from Scott Sanders and Michael Jai White. Bizarre, uninhibited, quotable, and damn funny, Black Dynamite combines the pulpy revenge device from kung-fu cinema and exploitation films with daft dialogue, brilliant timing, and insane situations to deliver a comedy like never before seen. Michael Jai White is the force in which the entire movies plays upon and he nails his part with the badass precision of the man Black Dynamite he portrays. Black Dynamite is part folk hero, part vigilante, part playboy, and all bad to the bone. When his brother is killed in a drug operation gone wrong, Black Dynamite has the suspicion that “The Man” is somehow involved. So he sets his site on every bastard from Kung-Fu Island to the White House to get his revenge and clean his neighborhood up. The revelation of the diabolical plot and final boss confrontation provided me with 30 straight minutes of belly-convulsing laughter for the first time ever in a film. I cannot think of a recommendation higher than that.
The 2009 Pop Bunker Movie of the Year
In my earlier write-up about James Cameron’s Avatar, I suggested that Cameron should not be held to the standards of sci-fi fiction greats like Dick, Niven, and Asimov when it comes to the scope and originality of his story. The story of Avatar is fine — good even. Duncan Jones, in his debut as director and writer, delivers a sci-fi narrative worthy of the heights of Dick, Niven, and Asimov. In an incredible feat by a first time writer, Jones hits the notes of classic and profound in the greatest tradition of sci-fi and, additionally, is able to pay tribute to the tropes of the genre while telling his own original story rife with topical interests of now and the near future.
Moon also captures space in Space. Visually the movie plays with the both the claustrophobic and vast; with boundaries and the limitless. The tale weaves in and out of each of these spaces in Space while conducting a deep psychological portrait; a study of morals; a severe existential crisis. At least those things. Or maybe none of them at all. Moon takes place in that area of cinema that is foggy with ambiguity. One can draw conclusions from the story, but on futher reflection one realizes that Jones only directed the tale, that the extrapolation is our own. The connection that manifests due to personal interpretation may best recall the works of Stanislaw Lem. The angles in which to approach the film, like the Space it takes place in, is limitless.
Sam Rockwell is a one man show (well… sorta) in Moon. He only shares the screen with the Kevin Spacey-voiced robot GERTY and video communications with his corporate employers. Rockwell is remarkable in a varied and, at times, heart-wrenching performance. His force of character in Moon elevates an already impressive story to a level of science fiction mastery. He is mesmerizing and deserving of some sort of recognition for this unique and powerful performance.
Moon belongs alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Solyaris as a cinematic master-work of science fiction.