You might say it’s a little late to be doing a year end movie list, but hey, if Hollywood can’t get around to honouring their so-called best until March 7, why should I? While I’ve been busy listing the decade (something I still need to finish doing), the truth is that I didn’t think I’d bother doing a movie list this year. With the birth of my son in June, I just simply haven’t had the time to watch very many this year. To wit, when I posted last year’s list, I had seen 63 films with a North American release date of 2008 from which I made my list. This year, I’ve seen 30, 11 of which I actually saw in 2008 during my trip to the Toronto International Film Festival. Which is why I’m spending Oscar weekend writing a top ten list instead of the Sixth Annual Andy Movie Awards (another blogging tradition that is on indefinite hiatus).
So take this list with a grain of salt. If a movie doesn’t appear on it that you thought might, there’s a good chance I didn’t see it (unless it’s a certain “highest grossing film of all-time”, which I did see… and chose not to rank). Still, I’ve been making year end movie lists since I started blogging, so why let a little thing like “having an informed opinion” stop me now?
Honourable Mentions: Up in the Air, Food, Inc., The Hangover, Chocolate, (500) Days of Summer
10. The Brothers Bloom – I saw Rian Johnson’s follow-up to his fantastic debut Brick way back in 2008, when he debuted it at TIFF. He and the three leads were in attendance (plus, randomly, Ethan Hawke), making an already fun movie an even more fun experience. A modern caper film with a twist, as Johnson yet again blends genres – this time mixing in a storybook motif to a story of con men brothers. Rachel Weisz is the standout in the film, who delivers what is clearly Johnson’s personal filmmaking philosophy when she says “it’s not reproduction, it’s storytelling”.
9. I Love You, Man – The bromance has been the underlying theme of roughly 75% of all male-centric comedies since Judd Apatow released The 40-Year-Old Virgin in 2005. I Love You, Man simply decided to remove the unnecessary other concepts, and just made a film that made subtext the text, and it worked great. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a comedic pair with easy chemistry, as Paul Rudd and Jason Segal have here, and let them have fun with each other. There’s really nothing else to this movie, and there doesn’t need to be. My favourite pure comedy of the year.
8. Coraline – Just saw this a couple days ago, and what a pleasant surprise it was. Given that it’s been out for over a year, I obviously wasn’t too excited to see it. I’ve never seen any of director Henry Selick’s earlier films (including The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is generally incorrectly credited to Tim Burton, who created it, but didn’t direct it), nor have I read much of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Both struck me as niches that I didn’t belong to, given the macabre nature of the story and character design. Instead, Coraline is a wonderfully imaginative and wholly original film with a clever and spirited female protagonist in a medium that tends to limit female characters to princess roles. The film is certainly bizarre at times, but never loses the emotional thread that provide much of its appeal. It’s probably too scary for my son to watch it for another decade or so, but when he does, he’s in for a treat.
7. An Education – A great script by Nick Hornby, a fantastic performance by Carey Mulligan supported by strong performances by Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, and Emma Thompson, assured direction by Lone Scherfig, and wonderful period details by the production team. It’s that easy (and that difficult) to make a great film. The relationship between Mulligan and Sarsgaard is both highly inappropriate and seductive, much like the world they inhabit, where the options for an exceptional young woman such as Mulligan’s Jenny are limited to marrying wealth to gain status or living as poorly paid spinster teacher. As an audience, we know that this is all about to change, and in less than a decade a world will open for Jenny that will make her story seem as unseemly as it does to us. What makes the movie work is that it never treats the situation from the audience’s perspective, and instead plays it straight, thus allowing us to have our own reactions to the subtext.
6. District 9 – I missed this in theatres (the boy was too young for us to leave him for too long), and when I did finally get to see it on blu-ray (my brother-in-law bought it for me for Christmas, knowing that I’d like it), it was spread over the course of three (non-consecutive) nights, at times with my son serving as a distraction. But despite these non-optimal viewing conditions, the quality of the film was still evident. I’m sure I’d rank it higher if I ever got to really concentrate on it in one sitting. It just proves that an original idea can overcome budgetary restrictions, and story still remains the best special effect.
5. Star Trek – Not that big budget special effects are without their charms. My level of Star Trek fandom is rather small. I watched the Original Series a bit as a kid, then The Next Generation off and on as an adolescent/teen, and caught about half of the movies. So I had no prejudices or expectations going in, other than looking for a good time. And on that score, it delivered. Perhaps the most fun I had at the movies this year, Star Trek had exciting action sequences, good humour, a charismatic lead, and a satisfying concept. I particularly like how they got around the problems with prequels and reboots by making this an ongoing part of the original continuity (through the time travel/Spock portions), freeing them to take the story in any direction they want without replacing that which came before them.
4. Adventureland – This is the last movie I reviewed (back when I used to do that sort of thing), so if you want to get my full thoughts, go read that. I’ll just say that I’ve seen a couple more times since then, and the warm feelings I have for it have only increased. A quiet little coming-of-age film miscast as teenage romp, Adventureland will make you nostalgic for an era that you may have never actually experienced.
3. Inglourious Basterds – If Coraline was my biggest surprise of the year, Inglourious Basterds was a close second. I haven’t seen a Tarantino film since 1997’s Jackie Brown, so I guess you could say that I’m closer to being a Trekkie than I am to being a QT fan. But this one drew me in (possibly because of Brad Pitt’s ridiculous accent in the trailers), and I freaking loved it. Sure, there’s the visceral thrill that came from bringing vibrancy to what had been a moribund movie topic (after last year, I thought I’d sworn off WWII films for a long time). But beyond that, there’s the deliciously subversive element to the film, where history’s (and cinema’s) biggest villains, the Nazis, are surprisingly genteel (embodied by Christoph Walz’s phenomenal performance), while the good guys are the bloodthirsty animals. It’s a powerful way of inciting and condemning the impulses of the audience at the same time. Moreover, for all the manic energy Tarantino exhibits every time he’s in front of the camera, he exhibited remarkable patience behind the camera despite the explosive nature of the film. In three remarkable scenes (the opener, the brunch scene, and most especially the tavern scene), Tarantino draws the action out to incredible lengths, masterfully letting the tension boil over to unbearably uncomfortable heights. Plus, how can any movie lover not appreciate a film that brings down the Third Reich as a result of the lure of film?
2. Up – Pixar does it again. Up may not have been their most inventive film (although, a movie with floating houses, rare birds, and talking dogs is certainly creative), but it’s certainly their most emotional. The first ten minutes perfectly encapsulate the story of a well-lived life and misplaced regret, and is the most beautiful ten minutes of film all year. But the film is much more than that glorious opening. I’ll never fail to be thrilled by the scene of the balloons flying free, or to be touched by Carl’s continued devotion to Ellie, or to be delighted by Dug, or to be moved by the sadness lurking behind Russell’s constant enthusiasm. It’s not just that Pixar continually makes movies I admire; they make movies I love.
1. The Hurt Locker – They’ve been making movies about the Iraq War pretty much from the moment Dubya posed in front of a Mission Accomplished banner, and until The Hurt Locker they’d all fallen somewhere between failure and instantly forgettable. Kathryn Bigelow succeeded where all others didn’t by ignoring the politics, and focusing on the soldiers. What followed was a breathtaking action film that cleverly inverts most of the beats we’ve come to expect from explosive action films. Usually, the audience is waiting for the explosion. Here, the tension and excitement all comes from preventing explosions. So instead of getting the release that usually accompanies explosions, we spend the entire film on the edge of our seat dreading them, as moments that seem mundane quickly become dangerous, while the dangerous are treated as mundane.
Bonus: The First Annual Almost Completely Uninformed Andy Movie Award Winners
Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
Best Actress in a Leading Role: Carey Mulligan in An Education
Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
Best Adapted Screenplay: Nick Hornby for An Education
Best Original Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino for Inglorious Basterds
Best Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd for The Hurt Locker
Best Animated Feature: Up
Best Documentary Feature: Food, Inc.
Best Visual Effects: Avatar
Best Costume Design: An Education
Best Makeup: Star Trek
Best Art Direction: Avatar
Best Original Score: Michael Giacchino for Up
Best Editing: The Hurt Locker
Best Sound: The Hurt Locker
Best Animated Short: Wallace and Gromit in ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’