(500) Days of Summer - About one minute into this feature a narrator tells us the following: "This is the story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story." What follows is a film that carves its way around standard rom-com tropes and delivers a film that circumvents the standard definition of a film romance and delivers something far more real and relatable. For those audience members that have lived through experiences like this, what you are given is a hard hitting film that will stick with you for days. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes for a strong, albeit unconventional leading man in this narrative and I like that the film has no problem painting him in a negative light when called upon to do so. He, like many entitled males, feels he is owed the relationship he want s with Summer because he wants it, but fails to listen to her wants and needs. Through the course of the film, his character (slowly) takes a more introspective look at their relationship and learns the valuable lesson of their relationship. The casting of Zooey Deschanel was a brilliant choice. She is the embodiment of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope and the film treats her as such because that is how Tom views her, but she absolutely isn't that trope. She is her own character with her own agency, he just never bothered to listen to her. The film has some excellent beats of humor, especially from Chloe Grace Moretz who plays Tom's little sister who he seeks for relationship guidance. But it is the more dramatic beats that really hit close to home. The film is written excellently by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. They wade into some interesting territory in dissecting relationships from a distinctly male worldview and lay commentary on how society nurtures adolescent males into romantic entanglements as depicted in the film. Director Marc Webb brings the excellent screenplay to life through rich cinematic scope and an interesting visual language. This was my favorite film of 2009.
Inglourious Basterds - This could be argued as Quentin Tarantino's best film. Certainly, it is his strongest screenplay and offers two scenes that are contenders for the strongest work he has put to celluloid. The opening segment in the film is inspired, brimming with rich tension and traverses some excellent dialogue. It really is the perfect embodiment of Alfred Hitchcok's 'bomb under the table' theory of filmmaking. Tarantino nails that scene, and from that moment on Christoph Waltz owns this film. The other scene, of equal tension and strong Tarantino spin is the card game scene in the back half of the film. Some excellent work by Michael Fassbender. This really kick-started Tarantino's revisionist history storytelling which he would implement in each film up to and including Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The screenplay earned him another Oscar and a well deserved one at that. Waltz also took home an Oscar, but the stunning work of Melanie Laurent went unrecognized which is criminal. She is extraordinary in the film.
The Lovely Bones - After young Susie Salmon is brutally raped and murdered, we enter her dreamscape as she navigates the afterlife and watched those left behind. We are treated to worlds of extraordinary beauty while being inter-cut with how her unsolved murder has torn her family apart. The juxtaposition of her lively heaven and the bleak world she leaves behind is excellently portrayed. Props must be given to Peter Jackson on adapting this impossible to shoot novel (something he has some history with in the past) and developing some genuinely inspired imagery. Strong performance work from Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci really sell the film, and a good supporting cast led by Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weise, Rose McIver and Susan Sarandon really elevates the material.
A Serious Man - The Coen Brothers return to heir Minnesota roots with this fine period drama that offers some sly humor and great visuals of suburban mundanity. The film is a slow burn character study of a man who copes with his life that is constantly unraveling. Michael Stuhlberg drives the film home. The entire movie rests on him and he masterfully raises to the task and never gets submerged with the weight of it all. To the contrary, it seems to feed into his performance. This is a strong effort from the Coen's and makes for a solid companion piece to Fargo as a window into life of the suburban Midwest.
Up - I am going to say this up front, this film is more than its first 10 minutes. People often forget how whimsical and charming the rest of the film is because they are so impacted with the prologue. This is a surprisingly mature meditation on grief and the art of letting go. Pete Docter brought this picture to life with beauty and allows the emotions to soar. The humor hits as hard as it does because it comes as relief from how hard the pain of loss hit early in the film. As Carl's life unspools, his friendship with a boy and the thrill of an adventure he never took with his beloved wife captivates him, but they are all just masking that which he needs to accept; his time with his wife has passed and his own life needs to take center stage. I like the symbolism of the house. It is something you see quite often with elderly people. I love that this film addressed it in a mature, yet easily digestible way. This film earned its Best Picture nomination and gladly took home the trophy for Best Animated film.
Best Picture : The Hurt Locker - This is another exercise in tension and well made at that, but I find this to be a rather unimpressive victor for Best Picture. I thought that Ingourious Basterds was a far better achievement than this film, but alas, it took home Oscar gold.
Biggest Box Office : Avatar - For 10 years this film would hold the top Box Office (until it was dethroned by the fourth Avengers outting...and the seventh Star Wars outting four years prior in the states). This film was a firmly experiential immersion into another world and it captivated audiences. But what it offers in technical achievements, it rather lacks in the story department. The plot is a space centered reworking of the 'white savior' narrative and is rather abrasive at that. I will say that James Cameron knows how to make a movie that entertains and moves at a brisk pace, so it is ever watchable and I don't think its flawed (and regressive) narrative approach makes for a straight up bad film as some people argue. The correct word would be disappointed, not bad. One would hope that the sequels will offer improvement in this area but as Cameron seems to be hellbent at being stuck in his ways (that of his heyday of the late 80's/early 90's) that seems unlikely. I will add, though, that Zoe Saldana's exquisite performance was robbed of Oscar recognition. She is phenomenal and worth the viewing alone.