[A portion of this column also appeared at Film.com and is reprinted here by permission.]
Choosing 10 films for my list this year was easy. The hard part was deciding which film should be No. 1. Was I prepared to declare any of these fine movies unequivocally the Best Movie of 2009? But on the other hand, did I want to wuss out and do a lame alphabetical list? The answer to both questions was no.
Someone on Twitter suggested I list them chronologically, which would also be lame but not quite as lame as alphabetical. I mulled that over and rather liked the idea of listing them not in the order in which they were released but in which I saw them. It would be a little trip through my own personal year of movie-watching.
This idea was solidified the day after Christmas, at my parents’ house, when my little nephew was watching a DVD of “Ratatouille.”
Near the end of the movie, the imperious food critic Anton Ego is won over by a chef’s preparation of the title dish. One bite and he is instantly transported to his childhood, savoring the ratatouille his mother used to make. I was struck by something that hadn’t occurred to me the other times I’d seen this movie. While Anton Ego was impressed by the quality of the chef’s cooking, that wasn’t enough to put it over the top. What really did it for him was the fact that it reminded him so much of his mother’s cooking. It was purely a personal reaction.
And I realized that’s how all criticism works. Sometimes we like to point to a particular film and say THIS is an excellent movie, then rattle off the list of reasons why, but all of our technical expertise can only take us so far. In the end it’s that personal response — the feelings and emotions that it inspires in us — that makes us love something. If the ratatouille had merely tasted great and been well prepared, Anton Ego would have given it a high rating — but he wouldn’t have loved it. It was the memories and emotions it conjured up that made it something special.
Similarly, while I can tell you, for example, why “500 Days of Summer” is a terrific movie — it spruces up a familiar story with witty dialogue and clever structural tricks; the performances have an Everyman and Everywoman quality to them; etc. — it’s really the way it strikes me, Eric D. Snider, that makes me, Eric D. Snider, love it. It’s the fact that I can relate to both of the main characters, and the fact that I’ve seen a hundred movies with this basic formula but still managed to be surprised by the way these filmmakers did it, and the fact that there is a song-and-dance number in the middle of the film. None of those elements are quantifiable, and not every viewer will react the same way. But that’s how I reacted. That’s why I love it.
The truly great movies manage to inspire strong personal reactions in a large number of viewers. (The ones that have that effect on a smaller number of people while leaving others cold are called “cult favorites.”) If you think about it, it’s amazing that a work of art can inspire even one person to feel the emotions intended by the artist. When it causes that reaction in millions of people, it’s miraculous.
Here’s my list of what I believe to be the best films of 2009, arranged in the order I saw them, with some personal and self-indulgent reflections.
The Best Movies of 2009:
“Il Divo,” Sept. 5, 2008.* It was on my inaugural trip to the Toronto International Film Festival that I first saw this stylish Italian tragicomic political biography. Despite knowing nothing about Italian politics — I barely know how American politics work — I was riveted by Paolo Sorrentino’s super-cool direction and Toni Servillo’s grimly amusing central performance.
Humpday,” Jan. 16. Sundance audiences were drawn in by the eyebrow-raising premise — two straight male friends decide to make a sex tape — but were won over by how plausible the outrageous scenario winds up being. That’s because the writer/director, Lynn Shelton, and her actors, Joshua Leonard and Mark Duplass, play everything naturally. The result is a surprisingly insightful and funny look at male friendship, platonic love, and society’s concept of masculinity.
Precious, Jan. 17. It was still called “Push” at Sundance — that’s the title of the novel it’s based on — and people were already making jokes about it getting mixed up with the other “Push” scheduled for 2009, starring Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning as people with superpowers. Distributors wisely changed this one’s title to “Precious,” but the movie stayed the same: a stark, terrifying portrait of a Harlem girl in awful circumstances, bolstered in the end by a rush of hope and decency. Alarming but never exploitative, this is one of the most emotionally powerful films of the year.
“500 Days of Summer,” Jan. 18. Three days in a row of Sundance premieres that would eventually make the top 10 list! It was a good year for the festival. Check out the diversity, too: While “Precious” was harrowing, “500 Days of Summer” was breezy, hilarious, and resonant, a near-perfect depiction of a failed romance that manages to be realistic (you’ll see yourself in one or both of the main characters) as well as inventive and loopy.
“Drag Me to Hell,” March 15. Sam Raimi’s return to his horror roots is the fun kind of scary, like a roller coaster or haunted house, not the kind that gives you nightmares afterward. That’s my favorite kind of scary, and seeing it at midnight with an enthusiastic South By Southwest audience — introduced in person by Raimi! — was a memorable experience. I saw it again later in a more conventional setting and was just as delighted by its twisted imagination, macabre humor, and good old-fashioned thrills.
“Star Trek,” May 2. A lucky audience in Austin got to see this well ahead of schedule when an Alamo Drafthouse screening of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was altered by two things: Leonard Nimoy made a surprise appearance, and he asked if everyone wouldn’t rather watch the new film instead. (Those intent on seeing “Wrath of Khan” were, I guess, disappointed.) The place went nuts, and everyone loved the film. I was skeptical, though — not because I had any reason to believe J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot might be lousy, but because it’s hard to trust responses from a crazy premiere like that. You think you’re seeing something else and get the brand-new “Star Trek” instead? A month early? Introduced by Spock himself?? The stunt was designed to produce giddy enthusiasm, so it was no surprise that giddy enthusiasm was the result. It was a relief, then, to see the film a few weeks later, at a regular ol’ press screening, and find myself almost as wowed as that Austin audience had been. There had been no need to stack the deck to get a gracious response. Something this energetically funny, smart, and exciting was going to earn praise no matter where it was shown.
“Up,” May 26. This makes three summers in a row that Pixar has released an animated film that eventually made its way to my top 10. Every year I look forward to the studio’s latest invention, and almost every year I am astonished at how they have managed to surprise me yet again. The dialogue-free segment near the beginning, showing Carl and Ellie’s life together, is one of the most beautiful sequences of the year, not to mention one of the most concise, expressive, and well executed. What other cartoon would even dare to address the issue of Carl and Ellie’s inability to have a baby, let alone pull it off so sublimely?
“In the Loop,” June 11. After hearing raves about this British political comedy at Sundance (where I missed it), I was eager to see it at CineVegas. Then I had to see it again six weeks later, at a local screening, to catch the lines I’d missed the first time because I was laughing (or because their British accents are sometimes a little indecipherable). Imagine a world where everyone speaks in a nonstop barrage of withering sarcasm and profane insults. To live there would be hell, but to view it from a safe distance, as in this film, is comedic bliss.
“A Serious Man,” Sept. 21. Joel and Ethan Coen’s films tend to be among my favorites, and this darkly funny story about a man seeking answers from the Almighty is right up there. It’s a tough movie, though, one that required a lot of thought and scrutiny before I really “got” it. But once I got it, I got it good. Just like Pixar, the Coens always make whatever movie they want, no matter how bizarre or unorthodox, and they nearly always succeed.
“Fantastic Mr. Fox,”, Nov. 9. I was re-watching this with a friend who had not seen it before, and about 10 minutes into it he said, “I can’t believe how Wes Anderson-y this is.” And that’s part of its delight: It’s a typical Wes Anderson movie (“Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums”), only enacted by woodland creatures. This makes it funnier, of course; the fact that they come to life through stop-motion animation gives the film an extra boost of quaint whimsy. The film also teaches us that moles are good at seeing in the dark, rabbits are fast runners, and badgers are demolition experts. Good to know.
* * *
OK, if I really had to rank them from 1-10, the list would look the way it did in Salt Lake City Weekly. But I had to submit that before I got the better idea of listing them chronologically, so don’t take it as canon.
(*Dates are the first time I saw the films; I’ve seen them all at least once more, too.)
Honorable mentions: “A Single Man,” “Goodbye Solo,” “Coraline,” “Black Dynamite,” “World’s Greatest Dad,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “The Hurt Locker,” “An Education.”
The Worst Movies of 2009:
I had no problem ranking these.
1. “All About Steve” Its therapeutic benefit notwithstanding, the second of Sandra Bullock’s three starring vehicles this year was embarrassing, unfunny, and actively annoying. It is one of the worst comedies ever made without the names Pauly or Shore attached to it.
2. “Old Dogs” If anything gave “All About Steve” a run for its money on the No. 1 spot, it was this putrid, desperate fiasco starring Robin Williams and John Travolta, from the director of “Wild Hogs.” All three men should be on the TSA’s no-fly list for suspicion of smuggling cinematic train wrecks in their underpants.
3. “I Love You, Beth Cooper” There was once a man named Chris Columbus who wrote “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” and directed “Home Alone” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Somehow, that is the same Chris Columbus who directed “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” perhaps after receiving a blow to the head and losing all knowledge of how comedy works. As I understand it from television, another solid knock to the brain should restore his memory, so I believe this should be attempted as soon as possible, by anyone in his vicinity, repeatedly.
5. “New in Town” One of those movies about an idiot who goes to an unfamiliar place with absolutely no concept whatsoever of the local weather, customs, or practices, then has hilarious misunderstandings when she gets off the plane in, say, Minnesota, and is shocked to discover that the climate is not conducive to miniskirts. Also one of those movies in which Renee Zellweger walks around all the time looking like she just smelled a fart and not being funny.
6. “Downloading Nancy” The only redeeming thing about this loathsome, fragrant heap of excrement is that nobody saw it.
A total of 151 films played in wide release (more than 500 screens) in America this year. I reviewed 136 of them, but the ones I missed included the Jonas Brothers concert and something directed by Rob Zombie, so I don’t think those should count. In addition, there were another 59 limited-release movies that I reviewed, for a nice even total of 195 for the year. To see ’em all, go to the Archives page, then click the black arrow at the top of the Date column and filter so only 2009 releases show.
Shortest movie: “The Girlfriend Experience,” 77 minutes
Longest title: “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”
Shortest title: “9”
Most enjoyable bad movie: “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li” (for Chris Klein’s hilariously bad performance alone)
Least enjoyable good movie: “The Road”
Do not get these movies mixed up: “9,” “Nine,” “District 9”; “Up,” “Up in the Air”; “A Serious Man,” “A Single Man”; “12 Rounds,” “2012”; “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” “I Love You, Man”; “The Informant!,” “The Informers”; “Taking Woodstock,” “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”; “(Untitled),” “The Unborn,” “The Uninvited”
Movies in which a character is seen throwing up (with the vomit actually visible as it’s spewed): “Adventureland,” “The Haunting in Connecticut,” “Drag Me to Hell,” “Observe and Report,” “I Love You, Man,” “The Hangover,” “Year One,” “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Miss March,” “Thirst,” “District 9,” “Jennifer’s Body,” “Zombieland,” “The Road,” “The Fourth Kind,” “Gentlemen Broncos,” “Precious,” “The International”
Movies released on July 31 in which teenagers throw a fit about having to go on a family vacation, and in which people are terrorized by intruders in their homes, and in which the little girl is named Hannah: “Aliens in the Attic,” “The Collector”
Movies with amusing cameos by beloved and/or kitschy pop icons: “I Love You, Man” (Rush), “World’s Greatest Dad” (Bruce Hornsby), “Bandslam” (David Bowie), “Funny People” (James Taylor, Eminem), “Up in the Air” (Young MC)