Wednesday, December 09, 2009

My top five of 2009 so far (in no particular order):

Perhaps the most perfect film this year, Jason Reitman's latest feels both timely and timeless. George Clooney gives the performance of a lifetime in a film that feels like it will age very well, despite its obvious relevance to the here and now. I'm convinced that history will mark this as the zenith of his distinguished career. But the other two principals are stellar as well: Kendrick is impressive in a role tailer-made for her, and Farmiga reveals a sly charisma and mystery that I had no idea was there.

The impeccably crafted script gives the actors room to create real characters, and the film, though annoyingly sleek and glossy at first, keeps deepening until its gloriously "open" ending. In short: believe the hype. This one is the real deal.

I'll be honest: I'm a trekkie from way back. I've seen all of the first ten movies; in fact, I owned nine of them on VHS. But after the embarrassing Star Trek: Nemesis and the slow fizzle of the latest series, I began to question my former fandom, and basically wrote the franchise off for dead.

But this reboot surprised me. I initially dreaded it, assuming it would chuck everything that was great about the originals and replace it with CW-style vapidity. But instead, it turned out to be perhaps the most viscerally cinematic entry in the whole Star Trek canon. All absurdities of physics and preposterousness of plot aside, this is one grand adventure yarn, powered by stirring music, editing and effects, and a wonderfully game young cast. My hat is off.

Lee Daniels' moving film about an obese, abused teenager in 1980s Harlem is not perfect. His seemingly indiscriminate directorial flourishes and indulgent, haphazard style do little to foster any sense of cohesiveness. But then, the world he's putting on display is not perfect either - far from it. And what Precious does best is put us, the audience, deep inside the head of its protagonist, and thoroughly immerse us in her world. The raw open wounds of her life are laid bare for all to see - and feel - in this gripping and deeply emotional film.

Great performances abound, but Mo'Nique is a true standout. Her monstrous Mary Jones is like the gritty naturalistic flipside of Streep's Miranda Priestly: not as sleek or fun, but much scarier and, ultimately, more moving.

What I respect most about Tarantino's newest epic ode to violence, vengeance and showmanship, other than all the pure craft involved, is that he dared to have fun with a topic normally considered sacrosanct: World War II and the Holocaust. As a result, he now has a film that is at once utterly trashy and totally oscar-bait. Oh, the irony.

That this film has become both a financial and (more than likely) an awards success, despite its somewhat divisive nature, is further evidence that filmmakers shouldn't be afraid to go for broke, defy expectations, and challenge stuffy viewpoints, preferably all in the service of a fun ride. Basterds does all this and more, and thus is one of the year's most fun and thrilling cinematic offerings.

Pure poetry. That seems like the most appropriate phrase to describe Jane Campion's beautiful study of first love. Many will find this Keats biopic (of sorts) slow, plodding, or even downright boring, but those adjectives describe many of my favorite films. This is the kind of movie I'll be able to pop in on a quiet afternoon while I work, or at night to help lull myself to sleep. It's a keeper. But it was also a joy to discover for the first time on the big screen: the gorgeous images, vivid atmosphere, and slow-burn romance were infectious.

Abbie Cornish is a revelation in a kind of "everygirl" role, but the underrated Ben Whishaw is also terrific: he captures the charm, elusiveness and "je ne sais quoi" quality of Keats with such aplomb that we easily see how Frannie would fall for him.

These writeups will likely be recycled when I do an official top ten list in the coming weeks. But since I've actually seen enough films so far this year to justify a bit of a retrospective, I thought I'd get started now. Unfortunately, I still have some major blind spots, The Hurt Locker and Hunger chief among them. But those will be rectified soon enough.

Thoughts? Similarities? Differences? I'd love to hear some opinions on this year's crop of films.


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