15. Star Trek
Thanks to its early release and all the hype surrounding Avatar and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Clusterfuck, Star Trek is this year’s forgotten sci-fi blockbuster, a fast-paced rollercoaster ride of big budget fun and special effects mastery. Sure, there’s that stupid sequence where Simon Pegg’s Scotty is trapped inside a water tube for forty-five minutes. Sure, there’s all that non-sensical time travel mumbo-jumbo that J.J. Abrams is all too partial to these days. And sure you have a scenery-chewing, lifeless Eric Bana delivering his first of many terrible performances this year. But beyond these campy logic missteps (and what Star Trek remake would be reverent without those) this movie is fun and exciting in the same way that my favorite 90s blockbusters were. Independence Day and Men in Black aren’t the smartest movies of all time, but I’ll be damned if they aren’t some of the most fun to watch, especially on the big screen. Star Trek is so infused with popcorn-munching madness that it has more in common with The Rock than Michael Bay’s mega-robot crapfests. Really strong performances from the new Kirk and Spock make this movie one worth watching repeatedly, especially thanks to its Spock-centric story. The special effects are occasionally so impressive that I would say they stand out to me more than Avatar‘s, but mostly because my personal fetishes dictate an attraction to green space ladies rather than blue ones.
14. Drag Me to Hell
After two half-assed Spider-Man successes and one colossal web-slinging failure, it’s nice to see Raimi getting back to his campy horror roots. Drag Me to Hell is funny, smart and effectively creepy. It’s not quite as chilling as my other favorite horror film this year Orphan, but in terms of the gross-out occult genre you can’t really do better than this picture. Highlights include wisenheimer Justin Long stealing most of the show with abject disbelief of his surroundings, while Alison Lohman tests out her blank-staring B-movie chops. If that doesn’t get you excited, maybe the talking goat will. That’s right folks. Talking goat. This isn’t some chaos reigns bullshit either. This is hardcore full-frontal goat conversation. And if that’s not enough, be prepared for some weird gross liquid squirting into Alison Lohman’s mouth about every fifteen minutes (God knows half the internet just started downloading the movie before they finished reading this sentence). Drag Me to Hell is served best with a bottle of wine and liberal laughter, like the best of Raimi’s films. It’s slightly more serious than Army of Darkness and slightly less ridiculous than Spider-Man 3. I think the lack of a dance sequence is a good call on Raimi’s part, although Lohman could probably use one after the sick twisted acts she commits in this film. (WARNING: Not PETA’s favorite film this year.)
I’ve gone back and forth on Avatar a million times since I saw it. Initially I picked it apart like so many critics, angered by the soulless storytelling and hollow visuals that seemed to ape much of Lucas’s Star Wars prequels for all things spiritual or presentational. But in truth, there’s more heart here than Lucas has in his whole body, and while this film hardly holds a candle to Cameron’s own past successes- Aliens and Terminator 2 come to mind- there’s a sense that Avatar functions as Cameron’s seminal gift to special effects society, packed with enough technological advancements to last CGI designers a few decades. Placing spectacle back into cinema is a huge feat, and while 3D technology has been on the rise since early this year, Cameron reinvented the wheel in a major way. Integrated 3D technology that allows the viewer to experience a rebirthing on Pandora through a new set of eyes is a marvel. In a way this is the anti-Transformers of over-hyped cinema. Rather than giving in to Michael Bay’s maddening “toss a bunch of crap at other crap” sense of mis-en-scene, Cameron crafted a story with cogent situations and designs where “what am I looking at?” is never a question. That’s a huge achievement given the sheer amount of computer-animation and motion capture at work in this picture, especially since it’s something that Cameron’s contemporaries like Stephen Sommers and Bay have yet to realize. The only problem with Avatar is that its story and situations are so typical that they leave little room for questions or imagination. Rather than the sheer number of possibilities suggested by the Star Wars universe, Avatar has a decidedly myopic view of its own reality, barely giving us a sense of life on earth or anything in the space beyond the CGI paradise that Cameron created. But in a basic, commercial way, Cameron is simply flipping a switch and providing the world with Titanic for ten-year-old boys. There is no doubt in my mind how captivated I would have been by this film if I were a child, immersed in the technology and lost in the horizons it offered. This movie is a masterpiece, if only for its ability to allow kids to dream a little bigger when planning their own movies, those films that will populate our future.
12. 500 Days of Summer
I’ve heard complaints from detractors that 500 Days of Summer is written from a mopey and immature male perspective that leaves little room for female insight. I agree completely, but why does that mean we should hate it? I think the real problem with this movie is that it allows way too much perspective into the male condition, and some people just can’t handle that fact. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a whiny little loser, hung up on the one girl who won’t settle down and commit. This sounds like the premise of every major Rom-Com I’ve ever seen with the genders reversed. It’s true, there’s something unattractive about portraying male characters as petulant lovesick puppies. It’s almost a little too close to home, like we might need movies to portray impossible heroism and unattainable behavior to give us something to reach towards. But occasionally, I think it’s nice when writers get the chance to reflect on their own lives and share the embarrassing details of their past that made them who they are. The narrator’s anachronistic memory suggests the writers’ deeply emotional and wholly illogical relationship with their script, hinting that the experiences the protagonist faces are more akin with every bad break-up experience they’ve had rather than a particular one. Plus Mark Webb’s direction is undeniably pretty, and somehow makes Los Angeles look like a functional American city. 500 Days of Summer is a candid and enjoyable look at crappy post-college relationships, shining a satiric light on the mistakes and missteps that make adult romance more attractive, trickier and all the more engaging.
Another movie that slipped under most people’s radar, Coraline tells the story of a neglected only child whose rich imagination leads her to a parallel universe chock full of creepy delights. This film also utilizes the new 3D technology that everyone in the industry is raving about (mostly because it means they can charge double the ticket price), but does so in a subtler and less obtrusive way than most of its competition. The sporadic use of 3D in this picture allowed me to immerse myself in the story and character designs more easily than Avatar‘s, where I was often distracted by the bizarre suppository dialog about the importance of sacred rocks and trees. Aside from a few wandering mechs, I was mostly disappointed by Avatar’s character and creature designs, but the same cannot be said about Coraline, a film so ripe with beautiful design and skillful camerawork that it serves as heir apparent to the throne of Nightmare Before Christmas, more so than the lackluster follow-up Corpse Bride. Coraline isn’t a broad sprawling adventure. It’s more a coming-of-age tale told through simple dualities, and as a children’s fairy tale in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, the story and universe are both wonderfully immersive, charming to look at and another exciting example of why animation should not be confined to bright and cheery animal stories. There is more to be achieved in animated storytelling than most filmmakers are willing to risk, and it’s time Hollywood took that risk and made more films like Coraline possible.
Another coming of age tale (what- is this like a theme with me?), Adventureland features Jesse Eisenberg playing Jesse Eisenberg in a movie with an amusement park and the word -land in the title. Seem familiar? That’s because you probably saw a similar situation play out in this year’s epic zom-rom-com Zombieland. Whereas Zombieland was so jokey and ridiculous that it barely cling to its own story structure for narrative support, Adventureland sticks very closely to teen movie formula but somehow manages to present an intimate and realistic look at what it means to grow up in a small American town and get stuck with a crappy summer job. It’s mostly a romance featuring Kristen Stewart in a role where it’s finally okay not to like her, but the film also features a broad array of enjoyable side characters like Ryan Reynolds douchebag-mentor and the combined comedic brilliance of Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader as Adventureland’s married couple in charge of day-to-day operations. My personal favorite was Martin Starr as the beautifully underplayed Joel, a melancholic but thoughtful geek. The movie’s approach to sex and drugs suggest that the filmmakers might actually know something about sex and drugs, rather than writing about them through the vacuum of space like on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I have a feeling that Adventureland will slowly grow on people like dementia grows within the elderly, until that day when it finally achieves cult movie status, and old farts like future-me can sit and reminisce about it, along with all the sex and drugs we miss so fondly.
Deeply flawed, occasionally miscast, corny and uneven are all complaints easily affixed to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, but after multiple re-watches and reconsiderations I’ll tell you why this movie really speaks to me: Simply put, Watchmen achieved the impossible. For years, no one in the comic book or film industry thought that Alan Moore’s graphic novel masterwork could ever make it to the big screen. For good and for bad, Snyder brought us exactly what we asked for and effectively conquered a decades-old battle for the benefit of geeks everywhere. Don’t get me started on the awkward soundtrack choices or the goofy sex scene or Carla Gugino’s high-school theater make-up job. I know the movie has problems. But when a movie is almost twelve hours long, it’s got to leave some room for flaws. (Kidding.) Watchmen is cinematic history, and it deserves a viewing. You might be captivated by the universe or just get caught up in an individual moment or character, but there’s something to be marveled at for everyone. I’m personally wowed by the complete accuracy in which my favorite character Rorschach is portrayed on screen by Jackie Earle Haley, as well as by the skillful storytelling with regards to the big blue-dicked behemoth, Dr. Manhattan. There’s so much going on in Watchmen that it’s almost impossible to not find something you like, and the more of a chance you give it, the more it will impress you. Yes, Matthew Goode’s Ozymandius really sucks in this movie, but this is a comic book movie. You’re already taking some incredible leaps of faith just to be sitting in the seats. Why not take one more and forgive Matthew Goode’s badness so you can enjoy the sheer spectacle of the events as they unfold. And what a spectacle it is! More compositionally beautiful than believable, Watchmen presents some really spectacular imagery and fires into being with the best opening credits sequence this year, and yes, that includes the memorable part of Up. When you’re not nitpicking it apart, you’ll be surprised to find that Watchmen is actually pretty fun. With so much hype behind it, it couldn’t help but be a partial letdown. But within that letdown is a spectacular achievement in perseverance, a skillfully designed recreation of Alan Moore’s creations on the big screen, even if they aren’t always quite the way we remembered them.
08. District 9
There aren’t a lot of mainstream films where the heroic lead begins his journey with pre-emptive baby murder and ends it as a writhing half-mutant. The same can be said about movies where the lovable sidekick is a six-foot-tall prawn creature. And it’s surprising to find a film with major studio backing that contains no famous actors, even in cameo or supporting roles. Hell, the closest District 9 comes to cliché is its negative portrayal of Nigerians as terrorists, but if Neil Blomkamp had really wanted to make his satire hit home, he should have waited a few months and packed his Nigerians’ diapers with alien weaponry before sending them on an international flight toward infamy. D9 is a vastly unique, chaotic and unpredictable experience, and it stands to be the only film this year with a narrative arc that I couldn’t see coming from a mile away. Rather than focusing on individual details of the story, I was so captivated by District 9‘s sheer originality that I didn’t have time to question or complain about the tumultuous madness sprawling before me. Not only is Blomkamp’s Halo-surrogate a great use of Peter Jackson’s FX team (better than King Kong anyway), it’s a powerfully memorable movie with as many exciting moments as disturbing ones. Plus it’s a fantastic first showing for Blomkamp as a thinking man’s director of pop entertainment. Blomkamp may be the Brad Bird of live-action cinema, as he takes outlandish premises and wraps them around intimate character portrayals that tend to highlight the humanity of his scenarios rather than the wafer-thin glitz (and yes, I am aware that my phrasing sounds like a cracker). I can hardly wait for Blomkamp’s next movie. Maybe his first big project after District 9 can be a post-Lovely Bones lobotomy on Peter Jackson.
It’s easy to fall in love with a Miyazaki movie from a sheer entertainment perpective, but I tend to love his films even more when he bucks storytelling convention to focus on emotionally exploitative visuals and sheer Japanimated weirdness. Howl’s Moving Castle was my favorite of his films prior to this one, because it didn’t get bogged down in the leaden pro-environment conclusions of Princess Mononoke. Howl’s decided to tell a strange and off-kilter story about a character who would have traditionally functioned as the love interest rather than a hero. We see the events of Howl’s life unfold from a generally untold perspective and have a voyeur’s view of the insane action. That’s risky storytelling, and some people found it less effective than yours truly, but I appreciate any successful filmmaker who is willing to test his audience with something different. Ponyo is different indeed, from mainstream cinema as well as Miyazaki’s body of work. Instead of pitting its protagonists against clear obstacles, there is a marked ambiguity throughout Ponyo as if even the characters themselves are so staggered by the absurdity of the world they live in that they can no longer discern absolutes like good or evil. They simply ramble along through insane scenarios making brash judgment calls about what must be happening or its potential significance. By allowing only the more psychedelic and ancillary characters to worry about the stakes of the situations, Miyazaki invents a retelling of The Little Mermaid that focuses on the fun of living in a wholly malleable universe. Ponyo‘s adorably accurate portrayal of childhood love, sibling relationships and the elderly will warm your heart, and its surreal character design is enough to illicit an emotional reaction from even the most cold-hearted filmgoer. The animation of the water alone is something to be marveled at, and the titular Ponyo is the most adorable amorphous creature since Nintendo’s Kirby. To describe this film as a narrative would miss the point. Do not expect a mastery of dramatic storytelling. Expect the effervescent life and energy of childhood imagination exploding onscreen.
Duncan Jones’ Moon is much like his Twitter account: Entirely awesome. Not only do you have a fantastic Oscar-worthy performance from Sam Rockwell, you have a wonderfully contained vision of technical mastery and human drama. The fact that Rockwell was snubbed this year is shocking, but the Academy’s reticence to change its perception of cinema is less so. This year’s Oscar nominations are riskier than usual, in the same way that an elderly man’s painstaking decision to purchase a different brand of bowel loosener at the supermarket is riskier than usual. But my goal here is to exalt Duncan Jones for creating a majestic yet intimate picture, not to insult those ugly old fart-fucks at the Academy. It is wholly beneath me to waste negative words or time on those hermaphroditic Neo-Nazi cock-gobblers. Instead, I implore you to give Moon a chance. Its impressiveness lies in its sincerity and presentational abilities, and it should not be dismissed as simple science fiction. Rockwell owns the show, providing the audience with both protagonist and antagonist in his performance. And if you’re not a big Sam Rockwell fan, might I entice you with Kevin Spacey as a motherfucking robot? Spacey plays Rockwell’s medical robot sidekick with a slight inspiration from the HAL-9000 operating system. I don’t want to spoil this movie for you with too much explanation of the plot, but just know that for every DVD of Moon rented or sold, a member of the Academy grows a pair of balls. That’s right, even Meryl Streep. And if you can’t be convinced by Kevin Spacey as a robot or Meryl Streep with big saggy balls, then stop reading this list now. There’s nothing for you here.
05. Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
You don’t understand how much it excited me to see a good Terry Gillam film in theaters. He’s one of those directors that you hope can pull it out of the trashcan at the last minute, no matter how bad the picture is. Even during the abysmally somniferous Brothers Grimm, against all sense of reason or dignity, I was pulling for Terry. He’s a former Python for God’s sakes! Show some respect! Lucky for me and the rest of film-going society, Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is a wholly entertaining movie packed with Gillam’s trademark costume and character designs and a whole lot of unexpected CGI mastery. Yes, the film does dive into some bizarre, dark places but the picture it paints as a whole is lovely enough that you can gleefully ignore its more obtuse moments. Dr. Parnassus runs a traveling sideshow with a magic mirror that transports people to a world displaying their ultimate fantasies. Heath Ledger graciously returns from the grave to provide us with a final performance, as a sly but mysterious salesman for Parnassus’ show. Also notable is Lily Cole as the most attractive creature in human existence. I think she plays Dr. Parnassus’s daughter or something, but I honestly couldn’t tell you, because my brain was too ravenous with lust every time she was onscreen. To fill in for Heath at certain moments when he was too dead to perform, Jude Law, Johnny Depp and that guy who played Bullseye in Daredevil all make cameo appearances. The real star of the show is the incredible FX work in the third act of the movie. There’s a moment when Tom Waits, as the Devil- I’ll pause for a moment to let the awesomeness of that sink in- walks off a cliff onto a series of clouds, and it’s absolutely breathtaking. I guarantee you’ll have story problems with Dr. Parnassus. I think the movie only really makes sense to Terry Gillam and the retarded kid at the beginning of The Sound and The Fury, but as a spectacle the movie really cannot be topped this year. If Avatar is special effects porn for ten-year-old me, Parnassus is special effects porn for that creepy European guy I hope to become sometime next decade after my techno album goes platinum. Float, don’t perambulate to your local theater to be immediately disappointed that Dr. Parnassus is not playing there and never will be. This is a Terry Gilliam movie after all, straight from God’s mouth to your Netflix queue, with a brief stop at the acid dealer inbetween.
04. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
I love Wes Anderson, yadda-yadda-yadda. He’s the greatest filmmaker of our generation, blah-blah-blah. It really doesn’t matter which method I choose to pretentiously annotate my adoration for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the truth is that this is best animated film of the year, the best children’s movie this year, and without a doubt one of the finest movies of any genre to be concocted in decades. The limitations of family-friendly fare confine Anderson to basic human emotions rather than petulant potty-language and ambiguous sexual confusion. His daddy issues are less whiny and more realistic when they come out of a fox’s mouth, believe it or not. The more time that passes, the more I cannot wait to get my hands on the Blu-Ray of this little puppy, and I suggest you do the same. If you’re not interested in the film student’s dissection of why this movie is great, perhaps you and your children will simply be amazed by how charming the characters and the story are. For that, you can thank both Roald Dahl’s creativity and Wes Anderson’s dialog. The animation and character designs are both fun and beautiful. I really cannot rave enough about this picture enough. See it, now.
03. A Serious Man
I love the Coen Brothers, as well. A Serious Man may be a black sheep in their long list of brilliant and comedic dramas, but it will stick out to me as a masterpiece because of its incredible sense of narrative and history, incorporated skillfully in an otherwise small story about a modern day Job. See it, now.
02. Where the Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze presents society with his most perfect film. Society responds with shortsighted anger about having outgrown the subject material. People mocked Kevin Smith when he claimed he didn’t make his movies for critics, but I have a feeling Spike Jonze didn’t make this movie for anybody but himself and the kid who played Max. Not only is this movie a deeply adult story in a children’s book framework, it does the impossible in reminding us that children are often more adult in spirit than we often give them credit for. This might be our closest shot to having a Calvin & Hobbes film onscreen, completely with melancholic angst, bizarre imagination and interchangeable moments of beauty or sorrow. Max appears to the Wild Things out of nothingness, a would-be messiah in the body of a child. Max discovers the difficulty of protecting and loving those he cares about, and that even when you do the best you can for people, sometimes it isn’t enough. In a totally thematic and underplayed way, Max learns how to be a parent and how to say goodbye to those that he’s created, even though it pains him. Those who were disappointed with this film had a mistake in their expectations.
01. In the Loop
What the hell? How can this be your favorite movie of the year, Matt? I’ve never even heard of it, and I’m some prick who reads about movies on the internet! Validate me! Yeah, yeah, yeah. I understand your ignorant scorn, believe me. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by In the Loop either. I assumed it would be a quaint political comedy with some genuine British wit thrown in to keep things interesting, and in a way that perfectly describes the picture. But you have to understand the importance of a movie like this, a movie where there are constant minute-by-minute laughs and not a hint of the sophomoric retardation that permeates American comedy. I enjoyed the Hangover, I really did, but is it too much to ask for a movie that uses comedy for more than a vehicle for shit, dick, and tit jokes? South Park is a great example of how the two can be miraculously blended, but aside from the exception that proves the rule, our comedies are getting stupider and stupider. Judd Apatow can’t be expected to provide society with a funny movie anymore, even when the movie has the word Funny in the title. Unlike Apatow’s bloated three-hour masturbation session, In the Loop tells the scarily real story of how international war is declared in modern politics, poking fun at both the British and American governments for the bureaucratic and interpersonal ironies that undercut their day-to-day activities. Endlessly clever and entertaining, In The Loop is packed with great performances by Yanks and Brits alike, like James Gandolfini as a surly American general and Tom Hollander as a politically impotent low-ranking British official. The standout performance of the movie is Peter Capaldi as the ballsy and charismatic British political adviser with a non-stop sailor’s mouth and the world’s shortest fuse. The fact that his performance is another Oscar snub shows just how deep the rabbit hole of the committee’s ignorance goes. Also, if you’re wondering what happened to that cute little girl from the movie My Girl, the answer is that she grew up and became incredibly attractive, as well as impressively funny. This is the kind of movie with few equivalents. If you’re looking for a movie as intelligent as it is comedic, I ask you to look no further.