Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 Reviewed

There are traditions governing the passage of the old year into the new, the most significant of which is the 'best of' list.  Once, it is said, such lists were inscribed in print.  They called such things "newspaper articles" or "magazine reviews," and they were popular, if memory serves, in Ancient Rome and other fallen empires.

While these publications died out centuries ago, we still honor their tradition here in this sea of knowledge and madness that men call "The Internet."

In this spirit, The Middle Room has set out to build a list of our own: the twenty best movies we saw this year in theaters.  But, as is so often the case, our best laid plans fell apart: alas, we've only been to the theater eighteen times since January.

Instead, we've decided to offer something more complete.  A list, from least to most favorite of every movie we've seen this year.  You may recall that we attempted a similar feat a year and a half ago, when we analyzed a summer's worth of films.  But this is an expansion, incorporating a year of films at once.

Let us begin:

The Disappointing: A year ago, looking forward, we were sure this was going to be the year of science fiction, and there were a few solid movies.  But the list of disappointments focuses on the SF.  A lot of films that we've been watching and eagerly awaiting fell flat, at least in some regards.

18. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Our apologies in advance to those of you who liked this picture.  Aside from some decent performances, there is nothing redeeming in this movie.  Any enjoyment we took from viewing this film was at the movie's expense.  It was somewhat entertaining to witness just how horribly the filmmakers mangled this character and story.  It's not hard to understand how a Wolverine movie could be bad, but it boggles the mind that anyone could produce a Wolverine story this boring.

17. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
If we took this list less seriously, we might display this and the next two movies as a tie: indeed, our feelings shift and change.  But that would be cowardly.  So, we won't round the decimal point.  While we were wowed by the effects and action in Transformers, the story and dialogue was simply too bad to ignore.  And, as much as we loved Jetfire, the twins drag down the movie.  If it weren't for those two, this would have beaten GI Joe and Terminator easily.

16. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Once again, this is movie with positives and negatives.  The first third of the film is slow, the second third is fantastic, but the ending is a huge disappointment.  Several of the villains were handled well, but the heroes - with the exception of Snake Eyes, who would be perfect if it weren't for the awful lips on his costume - were abysmal.  The main characters, if we may speak frankly, were portrayed as geeks when they should have been written as jocks.

15. Terminator: Salvation
Once more, the interplay between writing and effects comes into play.  Overall, the visuals in Terminator: Salvation were fantastic, but the story failed to convey any force or power.  There were a few good twists here and there, but the movie fell far short of the first two installments.

The Enjoyable: You may breath a sigh of relief, if you like: we've passed a boundary.  The worst is behind us now: we move on instead to movies that may not have been world-changing, but were solid nonetheless:

14. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Good?  No, of course not.  But Underworld: Rise of the Lycans was even more fun than the first two.  Oozing with melodrama and self-importance, it evokes B fantasy movies from the 80's.  Sit back and enjoy.

13. Monsters Vs. Aliens
Dreamworks Animation is trying, and, in some ways, they're even finding some success.  We're still waiting for them to produce something exceptional, but until then we'll make do with films that are good.  Monsters Vs. Aliens worked more often than it didn't, though it could have benefited from a lesson in subtlety.  The characters were likable, the action was good, and enough jokes worked to offset those that didn't.

12. 9
It's astonishing that no one told the writers they needed to do better.  While the visuals are breathtaking and the tone is refreshingly consistent, the story is hollow and simplistic.  This could easily have been a major achievement in science fiction, but there's just not enough thought here.  We look at this movie as something of a consolation prize: an awesome action movie when we were hoping for ground breaking SF.

11. Zombieland
Zombieland is very much a good movie that neither crosses nor approaches excellence.  But it does exactly what it sets out to do: it provides a solid, enjoyable diversion that's part comedy and part horror.  In a perfect world, where such a format wasn't frowned upon, this should have been released direct-to-DVD, where it will work far better.

The Impressive: We did not intend a break to fall at number 10, but perhaps it is fitting.  From here on in, we are considering movies that we either deeply respect, love, or both.

10. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
This is a great work of film, though, like Zombieland, it will make a better DVD than a movie.  The Fantastic Mr. Fox demands multiple viewings: this is an elaborate and complex picture.  We felt at times that it was better than we were giving it credit for, though there were a few elements that seemed awkward and forced.  Our advice remains the same: wait until this is released on DVD, buy it, and watch it a dozen times.  It's far more cost-effective than going to the theater these days.

9. Avatar
We've reached the middle of our list and have come to Avatar, the most recent film we've seen.  We spent some time considering this, toying with placing it as high as number 7 and as low as 11.  Like most science fiction movies released this year, this one was balanced between the awe of its spectacle and the weakness of its script.  Fortunately for Avatar, the spectacle was particularly impressive, more an experience than a mere film.  And the problems in the script added a touch of unintentional comedy.  Even so, Avatar couldn't elicit the sort of emotional response and connection to characters we'd hope for.

8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
It's reached the point where we almost take this series for granted.  They come out like clockwork and are always solidly enjoyable.  While not particularly memorable in itself, the consistency Warner Bros. has shown in these film is admirable, and we always enjoy the movies.

7. District 9
A great deal of our admiration for District 9 is because of the movie's budget.  For a fraction of the cost of a Hollywood production, its makers crafted something that surpasses all but a handful of the big-budget films released this year.  The story wasn't amazing, but the realism of the movie was astonishing.

6. Watchmen
A guilty pleasure, perhaps.  We do not claim that Watchmen is better than District 9 - or Harry Potter, for that matter - merely that we enjoyed the experience more.  With the exception of a few scenes, the movie failed to recreate the feel of the comic, but they offered us the next best thing: a world where superheroes were imposed on our history and culture.  For the duration we were in the theater, they felt real.

The Excellent (Top 5): As we mentioned earlier, at the start of the year we anticipated a year of science fiction.  But looking back, we see instead a year of film for or about children.  Four of our top five movies fit this bill:

5. The Princess and the Frog
We have our reservations about this picture, as we discussed in depth, but that doesn't change the fact that it's a joy to watch.  That it represents a return to hand drawn animation, a style we deeply respect, is also reason to celebrate.

4. Star Trek
The only non-children's film in the top 5, Star Trek was by far the best big-budget live action picture of the summer.  A brilliantly crafted epic, Star Trek is simply an incredible experience.  Some long-time fans were disappointed by the movie's focus on style over substance and the deliberate choice to model its pacing more on Star Wars than its own origins.  While we sympathize with such criticism, we found the movie immensely enjoyable.

3. Coraline
The line between the top three movies was razor thin this year: we could easily have given any the top spot.  Coraline was a fantastic film that raised the bar on stop motion.  Further, by telling a compelling story and carefully controlling tone, they've done what few have managed: they've offered real competition for Pixar.  Between this, Up, The Princess and the Frog, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the academy award for animated picture might actually be interesting for once.

2. Where the Wild Things Are
An absolutely glorious film, Where the Wild Things Are offers a portrayal of childhood that's starkly realistic and uncompromising.  By using its source more as inspiration than anything else, the movie is free to honor it better than we'd have ever thought possible.  This movie is dark, tragic, and riveting from start to finish.

1. Up

We know it's anticlimactic, but the simple fact is this was the best film of the year and we cried like infants throughout.  A perfect mixture of whimsy and melancholy, Up again reaffirmed that Pixar is the single most consistently brilliant production company in the history of film.


Jennifer said...

I must assume from this list that you either a) didn't see "Inglorious Basterds" or b) it's not the right genre for this list.

If it's a, please please please find yourself a second-run theater and get to it now! This film is going to be 75% better seen on a big screen, because in addition to being funny and clever and having great performances and dialogue throughout, it's a visual feast - one of the few filmmaker's films out there anymore.

Best of the year, hands down.

And I'd almost forgotten "Watchmen" until I read your list. Which is odd, because I really enjoyed it when I saw it and thought that it did Moore much more justice than "V for Vendetta," though some may disagree.

btw - I'm totally into Alan Moore these last few years, because I married a comic book geek who set me on the right path.

Erin Snyder said...

I've yet to see Inglorious Basterds. I want to see it, but it won't happen on a big screen: there are no second run theaters around here.

I thought V for Vendetta was more respectful of its source material than Watchmen, but I liked Watchmen better. Probably because there were superheroes.

Jesse said...

Dude you are such a Pixar junkie. I knew Up was going to be number one for you even though I don't agree. I bet you'll say the same thing about Toy Story 2. I'm making a prediction!

Erin Snyder said...

Jesse: Toy Story 2 came out more than 10 years ago. Your predicting skills suck.

Jesse said...

I assumed you hadn't seen it yet, because you are a big jerk.