It's that time of the year again, and The Weekend Warrior
has once again racked his brains to muse over the 320+ movies he's watched, many of them more than once, to come up with a list of (roughly) 25 of what he considers the best of the year in terms of filmmaking and entertainment.
Over the past year, the Warrior has established an almost infallible system of keeping track of all the movies he's seen, as well as a slightly more fallible rating system. There are many criteria for any movie to make it onto this list, but scoring high is certainly first and foremost, and that's not always based solely on quality but also on entertainment value. Only one movie this year received a perfect score of 10 out of 10, while a couple came close, but to even be considered for our Top 25, a movie had to rank at least 8.5 out of 10 or higher, quite amazing when you realize that scoring 8 out of 10 (which is roughly a B+) wasn't enough to get into the final list. Put it this way, this is a year when two movies called Nine
and another one called District 9
weren't able to score that high in my ratings system, so rest assured: we are not messing around here.
We're pretty happy with the rather eclectic results and somewhat surprised by how many movies we loved that didn't quite make the list (like Taken
and The Hangover
). It's also surprising that roughly a third of this year's list (and most of the docs) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, either this year or last, just showing you the quality of the movies that festival can claim.
A couple of quick notes: We've moved the documentaries to their own category below, because as hard as it was putting the narrative films in order, trying to compare them to all the great docs this year would have been impossible. We've also included links to all the reviews where applicable as many of these movies have been considered the "Chosen One" in the Weekend Warrior in the week they were released, so feel free to click through for more thoughts as well as inks to interviews, festival coverage, etc. We should also include one last disclaimer that the Weekend Warrior is going to be cheating a bit this year so that he can name-check as many movies he liked as humanly possibly in hopes they'll all be given a look over the next week while everyone has time off to watch movies.
Enjoy, and please try to be constructive when offering your opinions and criticism of this year's list. Thanks!
25. Crazy Heart
Scott Cooper's country music laced road drama starring Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, a downtrodden country singer/songwriter trying to get by as he plays dingy Southern dives to earn money to buy alcohol has really stuck with me since I first saw it earlier this month. Most of that is due to Bridges' performance for sure, but the country music that drives the film is also key to why it's so enjoyable. Watching Blake's transformation as his relationship with Maggie Gyllenhaal's reporter and her young son flourishes really makes this a heartwarming film on par with last year's "The Wrestler," and it's a great first film from Cooper, one that's certain to be loved as more people discover it.
24. Star Trek
J.J. Abrams' take on Gene Roddenberry's classic science fiction franchise has already received a lot of raves from the Geek Squad so we won't bore you with more. It took me a little more time than most (and two viewings) to truly appreciate it, since it didn't seem that different from the "Star Trek" stuff I've mostly ignored over the years, but there's no denying the great cast and strong writing made this one of the more entertaining movies this past summer. The action and outer space FX were so well-done we've even found it in our hearts to forgive all of Abrams' lens flare, and there are likely few people who saw this movie who don't want to see more of this version of the Enterprise crew.
23. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
(Sony) and Up
(Disney/Pixar Animation) and Ponyo
This really was the year of the animated movie and these are the three I loved most. Although one can never deny the brilliance of Hayao Miyazaki or Pixar, I'd probably have to tip the scales a little towards "Cloudy," not because it was the most cutting edge in terms of its animation or because it was especially original (it was based on a children's book) as much as the fact that it was very clever in its use of humor in the storytelling, something that really took me by surprise. It was the best movie that Sony Animation had made to date and a fantastic debut for Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Pete Docter's Up
was an equally fantastic film, mostly the first half where we meet cranky old Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Ed Asner, and the young boy named Russell who tags along on an adventure to South America. The movie's great but it hasn't quite stuck with us like Ratatouille
, mainly because it turns into more of an action movie ala The Incredibles
in the second half. Miyazaki's new film was another wonderful story as well, just as unique as the other two movies, and just glorious in the fantastic visuals the Japanese animator brought to life, while featuring an adorable fantasy character in the lead. (I also liked Henry Selick's Coraline
and Shane Acker's 9
, but both ended up slightly lower on the list of my favorite movies of the year.)
Like some of the other movies that follow, this was another movie I saw at the Sundance Film Festival, and it really is a tour de force not only for Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("The Pusher Trilogy") but also for British actor Tom Hardy, who few would ever expect to deliver such a wild performance as Britain's most violent prisoner, Charlie Bronson. With fantastic visuals and score and ultra-violent fights right out of "A Clockwork Orange," Refn created one of the most unconventional biopics we've ever seen, and it always comes back to how he's able to capture all of the erratic behavior of the title character. This movie isn't for everyone, but you'll know within the first five minutes if it's your kind of movie and once it's got you, it doesn't let go.
My love for zombies has allowed quite a few zombie flicks to get into this year-end list including Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead
and of course, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead
. While you'd think both of those had all bases covered in terms of "fast zombies" and zombie humor, along comes this comedy set in a world overrun by zombies that is more about the akward pairing of zombie killer Woody Harrelson and virgin Jesse Eisenberg as unlikely road companions then about scares or chills. Once the duo meet Emma Stone as the sexy love interest/con artist trying to protect her sister, played by Abigail Breslin, the movie offered so much more fun and laughs than most of this year's straight comedies. More than anything else, it left me really impressed with what a great job first-time director Ruben Fleischer did bringing together the different elements of this genre-smashing classic, which would have been a difficult task at twice the budget.
20. Drag Me to Hell
(Universal) and House of the Devil
Drag Me to Hell Review
House of the Devil Review
And the cheating continues as we pair together our two favorite horror movies of the year, which are very different in tone and feel as they explore the supernatural and the occult. Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell
took a lighter approach as he literally put Alison Lohman through hell after she fell foul of an old gypsy woman (Lorna Raver) who immediately casts a curse on the young loan officer. And man, do you feel guilty as you laugh and cheer at all that happens to poor Alison. Ti West's lower budget House of the Devil
perfectly captured the look and feel of the horror movies of the early '80s with newcomer Jocelin Donahue being the perfect central character to follow as she agrees to housesit in the middle of nowhere. The movie starts innocently enough, then starts this chilling slow build of tension before exploding with a gory ending that's just as effective when you know it's coming. To see a veteran like Raimi return to horror with such a strong offering and a relative newcomer like West create something so memorable really gives me high hopes for the future of horror.
19. The Girlfriend Experience
Having despised director Steven Soderbergh's Bubble
, I couldn't imagine he could make another movie with non-actors that I might like. Then he introduced the world to Sasha Grey... or rather, he introduced her to the world of people who weren't already familiar with her vast background as a porn actress. In the movie, Grey plays a high-paid New York escort going by the name Chelsea who tries to balance her professional life with a personal one with a live-in boyfriend unhappy with some of her decisions. It's a brilliantly crafted film and a terrific mainstream debut by Grey (who also was hilarious in a PG porn short by James Gunn this year), so we cross our fingers that more filmmakers will try to see what she can do in different roles and settings.
18. The Great Buck Howard
If this comedy from filmmaker Sean McGinly was released last year, it might have ended up in my Top 10. Considering how well it placed in my Sundance wrap-up, it probably should have placed higher this year, although the film's charm did slightly cool off since I first saw it at the festival. It stars John Malkovich in what I feel is one of the best roles of his career playing the Great Buck Howard of the title, an aging mentalist who has been traveling on a circuit of small Podunk towns and venues (similar to Jeff Bridges) while trying to regain the game he once had. Along comes Colin Hanks as his new assistant and things start looking brighter for the entertainer. It's a terrific feel-good movie that sadly got a very low-key release, but I remember thoroughly enjoying it, especially Malkovich's on-stage persona, and wishing others had a chance to see it.
17. The Maid
(Elephant Eye Films)
This was one of the films that sadly got away from us this year in terms of having time to write a review. Having first seen Chilean-born Sebastian Silva's dramedy at Lincoln Center and MOMA's "New Directors/New Films," we were really impressed with what Silva was able to do in terms of mixing his own life story with an entertaining slice-of-life tale of a housemaid who has lived and worked for a family for over 20 years but suddenly falls ill, forcing them to bring in help... And that's when the fun and the Maid Wars begin! There was already buzz coming out of Sundance for the performance by Catalina Saavedra as the title character, and she'd really is fantastic, giving the type of performance one might expect from one of America's most respected actresses. Of course, if Hollywood ever remakes this one, it will probably be a wacky comedy starring Queen Latifah or Mo'Nique (see below), but for now, this is the little indie movie that should be sought out and seen if possible.
16. An Education
(Sony Pictures Classics) and Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
An Education Review
These two movies have become so intrinsically linked in my mind because both are coming-of-age films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to raves, mainly for the performances of their two fairly inexperienced lead actresses. I've seen both movies a number of times and they've each offered many new layers of depth to analyze on each viewing, but on the surface, it comes down to what Carey Mulligan brings to An Education
as a British schoolgirl who gets involved with an older man and how Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious, a pregnant teenager who must contend with the worst screen mother since Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest
, an absolute monster played by Mo'Nique. In both cases, I was just as impressed by the screenplays--An Education
is written by my favorite author Nick Horby--and the work of directors Lone Scherfig and Lee Daniels to tell these stories using strong cinematic storytelling methods, showing both of them to be at the top of their form. Sure, they each had their flaws--Peter Sarsgaard's creepy behavior in the one and the hard-to-watch incestuous rape scenes in the other--but they also offered hope and optimism that both young women can overcome their situations and strive in whatever they choose to do once each movie ends. While I'm not sure I loved these movies as much as others did--hence their placement outside the Top 10--I do think they're both incredibly strong films and worthy of being considered among the year's best.
15. In the Loop
Probably one of the first movies I saw in 2009 at a pre-Sundance screening, Armando Iannucci's take on U.S. and U.K. politics featured some of the best comedic writing and performances of the year with an ensemble of political types who showed how miscommunication can lead to countries going to war. Tom Hollander is at the center of the political fiasco that brings together the two countries in meetings where everyone has their own agenda, and watching Iannucci, a mainstay of British comedy, pull together the disparate characters and storylines is a beauty to behold. What most people will be blown away by is Peter Capaldi's character, a constantly angry Scottish minister who spouts a slew of expletives and one-liners at anyone who gets in his way. Personally, I can't wait to watch his deleted scenes now that it's been released on DVD!
14. The White Ribbon
(Sony Pictures Classics)
My review of Michael Haneke's Palm D'Or winning period drama is still in the works, but it's really a fantastic film, unlike anything else out there with its look at a German village during the days leading up to World War I, as a series of tragic events has the entire community in conflict with each other, as the village becomes divided not only by class but by generation. Filmed in stunning, gorgeous black and white, it might be one of Haneke's best films, although it's just as enigmatic as his past work, leaving the viewer with no easy answers. Like with "In the Loop," this was one of many ensemble casts that really impressed me this year, Haneke having assembled a group of actors who really make you believe you're watching a quiet community fall apart.
13. Me and Orson Welles
(Freestyle Releasing) and Paris 36
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Me and Orson Welles Review
Paris 36 Review
Having loved Stephen Frears' Mrs. Henderson Presents
, it probably shouldn't be too big a surprise that I also loved these very different movies set in the world of theater during the time leading into World War II. I first saw Richard Linklater's "Orson Welles movie" at Toronto last year and was really impressed how Scottish actor Christian McKay portrayed the great filmmaker in his younger days, but it the entire ensemble cast is great, and I loved watching Zac Efron's journey into this world just as much. Sadly, Paris 36
came and went and was quickly forgotten (and I only got a chance to see it once, too) but it features fantastic performances and musical numbers--all original music--that really left me with a smile. I was especially blown away by talented young actress Nora Arnezeder, who just shines whenever she's on screen. (This was a great year for young ingénue as you can tell from this and other movies on my list; here's hoping they all have thriving careers following their breakout roles.)
12. Sherlock Holmes
Those who've been paying attention might remember this was my second most anticipated movies of 2009
but considering how disappointed I was in my first most anticipated (McG's Terminator Salvation
), I was more than a little thrilled that Guy Ritchie's take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's literary detective delivered. Much of it comes down to the quirky performance by Robert Downey Jr. and his rapport with Jude Law's Mr. Watson, but the movie featured a strong story that's faithful to Doyle and some great action scenes that really play up to Ritchie's strengths as a filmmaker.
11. Passing Strange: The Movie
Some might consider this more of a documentary or a concert movie, since it's essentially Spike Lee capturing the last few Broadway performances of singer/songwriter Stu's fantastic rock musical using HD digital cameras. Even so, this was one of the best movie musicals I've seen this year, just really awe-inspiring how Stu uses his music to tell an autobiographical story with a minimal supporting cast and a rousing band playing right from the stage, all of them interacting with the actors. Lee was able to capture every note and every bead of sweat in a way we haven't really seen before.
10. Away We Go
As a long-time fan of Sam Mendes and having been disappointed by Revolutionary Road
for many reasons, it was thrilling to see the director reinvent himself with this road comedy starring Jon Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a young couple hoping to have a baby and trying to determine where the best place to raise it. What sounds very high concept and could be played very broadly is actually an insightful look into family relationships as each stop on the couple's journey puts them into encounters with odd friends and family who give them a new perspective on their decision. The movie is funny one moment and poignant the next, but it really left a lasting impression each time I saw it.
9. The Road
John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel about a father (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his son traveling across the country after a devastating event that left it a barren wasteland was one of the highlights of the Toronto Film Festival this year. A lot of people had trouble enjoying it, because it is so dark and grim, but I just found myself riveted to the screen watching this father and son make their way across the country as they try to avoid bands of cannibalistic militiamen. Although the movie veered dangerously close to be genre, what really helped make it what it was is that like some of the other movies on this list, it perfectly captured the mood of 2009. I have a feeling this will be the movie that people won't have a chance to see, but in 5 or 10 or 20 years, they'll discover it and realize what a great film it is.
You would think this was deliberately included on this list after "The Road" due to the thematic connection, but in fact, Steve McQueen's debut, which I first saw last year at the New York Film Festival, had a lot more going for it than just being about Bobby Sands' famous hunger strike that ended in his death. Experimental artist McQueen instead created an extremely daring pull-no-punches drama that tried to recreate the terrible conditions in the British prisons holding accused IRA members, and how they were able to survive and maintain communication with the outside world. It's a riveting film driven by an astounding performance by Michael Fassbender (who also starred in a movie later on in this list) as Sands, a role that has him putting his body through the wringer in order to recreate the effects of starving for two months. He's also involved in an extended dialogue scene (co-written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh) that leads up to that last act in an unforgettable way.
7. The Hurt Locker
Yeah, yeah, yeah... you've probably already heard the raves and heard about all the awards the movie has been receiving, and maybe some of you might even remember when I first wrote about Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq film from the Toronto Film Fest
. Following a bomb squad trying to survive their tour of duty, the movie was probably the closest a filmmaker has come to creating a live action "Call of Duty," just an intense movie set at war when you're never sure what will happen. With amazing performances by Jeremy Renner as a hotshot sergeant who joins the crew and immediately puts the others (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) at risk during their missions, I've gotten more and more out of every scene the more times I've seen it (roughly five times now?) and hopefully, its awards attention will help get more people to see it on DVD, because it's criminal that the movie never got a very wide release.
(Sony Pictures Classics)
Despite not being a fan of baseball, I immediately found myself absorbed with this sophomore effort by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson
), which follows Miguel "Sugar" Santos a young man from the Dominican Republic recruited into the American minor leagues as a pitcher. Once he arrives here, he learns that breaking into the big leagues is much harder than he thought as he keeps facing obstacles that forces him to reassess his dreams. It's just a wonderful film (and heartbreaking at times) due to the filmmaker's decision to mainly use non-actors to create authenticity to the story that really pulls you into that world. Considering how few American baseball fans really understand where the top players come from, it's an amazing achievement for American filmmakers to get so deep into this world and shine a spotlight on the truth.
(20th Century Fox)
You've probably already heard it before: "It's a game-changer." "You'll never see movies the same way again," etc. etc. When Steven Soderbergh said something similar to that to me in an interview earlier this year, I stupidly didn't believe him, but when I first watched the movie in a near-empty movie theater in Vancouver, I finally understood what he was raving about. In a year where 3D movies thrived in all genres, director James Cameron created the most immersive fantasy experience one can possibly have in theaters. Is this the greatest or most original story ever told or characters we've never seen before? Absolutely not. These are clearly simple archetypes and storytelling methods at work, purposefully used in a way that can appeal to the largest audience possible, which certainly isn't the case with 99% of the movies being made these days. And the visuals... WOO! Having seen the movie twice now (and I'm already up for a third), it's clear this movie is on par with what Peter Jackson did with the "Lord of the Rings" movies, and frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cameron's sci-fi epic being declared the "Star Wars" for a new generation.
4. Inglourious Basterds
As much as I loved Pulp Fiction
and Jackie Brown
, I certainly didn't think Quentin Tarantino had it in him to make a World War II movie that was so different from everything that's come before, but still so distinctively Tarantino in its ability to meld influences from comic books to European films and others. While most people assumed the movie was all about Brad Pitt's band of Nazi-killing Jews, it actually was a much more intricate story involving characters from different countries and the revenge one young Jewish woman (Mélanie Laurent) hopes to enact on the man responsible for the death of her family. And the movie made for a fine showcase for the talents of little-known German actor Christoph Waltz who stole the movie as that man, a sadistic SS officer who plagues most of the rest of the cast over the course of the movie. I saw Tarantino's latest twice within the course of two weeks--once at the rowdiest Comic-Con screening I've ever attended--and I'm certain it will be considered a classic for many years to come.
3. (500) Days of Summer
My favorite movie from this year's Sundance Film Festival (where it received standing ovations) was this debut from Marc Webb, a distinctively different take on the romantic comedy than anything we've seen before or since, as it follows the ups and downs of the relationship between Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel over the course of 500 days (hence the title) but doing so in a non-linear fashion and using a lot of unconventional storytelling techniques. As someone who has grown tired of current romantic comedies and the way they use formula and clichés to appeal to mainstream audiences, it was great to see someone trying something different yet still delivering just as much humor, emotion and emotion as so many other movies have tried to achieve.
Yojiro Takita's gorgeous film won the Foreign Language Oscar earlier this year and when I finally had a chance to see it at the Tribeca Film Festival I immediately discovered why. The unconventional film follows a former concert cellist who takes a job at a funeral home doing ritual cleanings of the dead before cremation despite the disapproval of his young wife. It's not a tradition that's very well known in the United States, which is why it might have been a far more difficult sell to American audiences, but it's a wonderful film through and through. Mr. Takita found a way to make a movie about death and grieving that allowed room for light humor as well, and it was shot in a gorgeous way. I have absolutely no regrets that I gave this movie the only perfect 10 out of 10 rating of the year.
Which normally would have made it the top movie of the year, but instead, we had to go with...
1. Up in the Air
While this was almost left off the list for a variety of reasons we won't get into, there's no denying that 32-year-old Jason Reitman (Juno
) has made a powerful film that works on so many levels, one that's completely timely to the current climate in the country as well as one that really struck a personal chord to someone who spends a lot of time traveling. As Ryan Bingham, George Clooney once again shows why he's one of the most likeable actors on screen even when playing a character who one shouldn't have any reason to like - Bingham fires people for a living and he's unable to commit to anyone or anything. That starts to change when he encounters two women who force him to rethink his way of life - Vera Farmiga is care-free, almost his female counterpart, and Anna Kendrick is an ambitious young woman who threatens that way of life. The way the story is told both in terms of Ryan's journey but also in terms of how the economic collapse has affected those who've suddenly found themselves unemployed makes Reitman's third film quite a breakthrough, one that has more than earned the top spot this year.
The Top 12 Documentaries of the Year
Unlike last year when James Marsh's Man on a Wire
was our top movie of the year, we've gone back to separating out the docs, just because it's much easier. (We're listing this one in preferential order.)
1. Walt & El Grupo
(Walt Disney Pictures) - Theodore Thomas (son of legendary Disney animator Frank Thomas) assembled every photograph and piece of film footage he could find, then found all of the people in those photos (or their relatives) and interviewed them in order to visually recreate Walt Disney's cultural exchange trip down to South America in 1941 with a crew of animators. The movie really struck a chord with me, having been such a fan of Disney's animated movies as a kid when I lived in South America, but also because of the impeccable way the movie was assembled to make you feel as if you were there with Disney on the trip. If you've ever been a fan of Disney's animation, especially during the early years, than this is a movie you must try to see whenever it becomes available on DVD. (Who knows when that might be?)
2. We Live in Public
(Interloper Films) - Ondi Timoner's look at internet pioneer Josh Harris, who was integral in the development of web technology such as chat rooms and streaming video, but then swayed into the world of performance art and concepts that could very well have influenced reality shows like "Big Brother." Learning that all of this was going on in New York was quite fascinating, and like with Walt & El Grupo
, the movie really struck a personal chord due to my own interactions on the internet over the years, but it's also just incredibly impressive for the way it tells Harris' story.
3. Food Inc.
(Magnolia) - Robert Kenner took an intensive look at the problems within the food industry and why we eat what we eat, what's good about what we eat and mostly what's bad. The amount of information sometimes reaches overload, but it's all stuff that anyone who actually eats food (i.e. everyone) needs to see and be aware of.
4. Art & Copy
(Seventh Art Releasing) - Doug Pray's fascinating look at the world of advertising and how it's changed over the last four or five decades and where those behind some of the most memorable ad campaigns got their inspiration. Another underrated doc that few people saw.
(Magnolia) – Kirby ("This Film is Not Yet Rated") Dick's look at gay politicians living in the closet really sent shockwaves through the political community when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival but was then quickly forgotten. Even so, it's another really strong bit of investigative journalism from the man who exposed the MPAA years earlier.
6. Every Little Step
(Sony Pictures Classics) - Filmmakers Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern followed the audition process for casting the revival of "A Chorus Line" on Broadway, and the resulting documentary offered everything "American Idol" and other reality TV shows fail to do, which is to capture the experience of following your dreams with all the emotion involved in the decisions.
(Sony Pictures Classics) - James Toback's portrait of his friend, boxer Mike Tyson, told completely in his own words, was one of the first things I saw at Sundance, and there's no denying that however you feel about the former Heavyweight Champion, you might rethink your position, even if only just a little bit, after seeing so many different sides of him.
8. The Cove
- Director Louie Psihoyos leads an "Ocean's 11"-like team of activists and filmmaker to Japan to capture on film the brutal killings of dolphins in a secluded Japanese village which has remained that country's darkest secret. It's an amazing film that's likely to be the frontrunner at the Oscars... and unfortunately, I never got around to reviewing it.
9. No Impact Man
(Oscilloscope Labs) - A very different global warming doc from Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, who trained their cameras on New York City author Colin Beavan for a year as he did research for a book by radically changing his entire lifestyle (and that of his wife Michelle) in an attempt to live without making an impact on the environment for that year, a decision which meant giving up electricity, public transportation and other luxuries we take for granted.
10 Burma VJ
(Oscilloscope Labs) - Filmmaker Anders Østergaard assembled hundreds of hours of footage illegally filmed by Burmese activists as they captured brutal government retribution against protesting monks on film and released it to the outside world at a time when the world's press weren't allowed to enter the country and witness it for themselves.
11. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
(Arthouse Films) - The daughters of the famous Civil Rights lawyer and infamous defense attorney who took on criminal cases no one else would touch created an intensely personal portrait of their father which gave a very different look at the often controversial public figure.
12. Youssou N'Dour: I Bring What I Love
(Shadow Distribution) - Because we need at least one solid music doc in any year, we ended up going with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's portrait of the Grammy-winning artist from Senegal as he tours over two years for his most personal and spiritual album "Egypt," which has caused controversy for its pro-Muslim views.
That's it for now but check back sometime late next week for the inverse of this column, the worst turkeys we had to endure when we present the annual Weekend Warrior Terrible 25!