Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2009, a.k.a. Ten Reasons Why Avatar Does Not Deserve an Oscar (Part One)

A few months ago, I ranted about how the Academy's decision to expand the nominations for the Best Picture Oscar to ten was little more than a ratings-grabbing gimmick. With the 82nd annual award show coming next month, time has proven that my fears were justified. The inclusion of ten films in the running has done little to make the race more interesting; there is no question about what movie is going to win the top honors this year. Yet, seeing films like District 9 and Up nominated is undeniably intriguing. It proves that, in an ideal world, more nominations really would lead to a more interesting show.

That is why I wish to make a list of my own. It is by no means a definitive list, as I hardly saw every movie there was to see last year. Instead, take it as a humble suggestion of what the Best Picture nominees might look like if the Academy was truly interested in picking the ten best films of last year – without prejudice, pretension or any goddamn blue aliens.

Coraline is a rare breed – a kids' movie that will make parents want to leave the theater. That the film can be quite disturbing, however, is exactly what makes it so successful. Grappling with change as a child can often be a harrowing experience and Henry Selick's vivid fantasy captures every bit of the emotion that goes along with it. Coraline is not afraid to tap directly into the greatest fears children have and bring them to beautiful, exciting, horrifying life.

When the eponymous character begins to escape into a parallel dimension where her parents are more lively, attentive and fun, the visuals explode with warm, inviting color. It leaves no doubt as to why she would want to escape the dreary, decrepit reality of her life. Yet Coraline's doppelganger mother becomes increasingly fixated on keeping her in this fantasy world as it gradually degrades into something surreal and dangerous. The stop-motion animation in this film is impeccable – realistic and subdued when necessary, but more often vivid and expressionistic. It creates a fun ride, yes, but it also communicates considerable emotion.

Furthermore, the film provides the rare opportunity to see a strong girl as a protagonist. No prince sweeps Coraline off of her feet; she fights her own battles.

It may have been marketed as the successor to Superbad and its protagonist may only be four years older than those of that film but, Adventureland is a far more mature film. James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated college and, unsurprisingly, is stuck at home without a job. It is not long before he is forced to lower his standards and apply to work at Adventureland, the local bargain-bin theme park.

There are numerous strange coworkers, belligerent customers and exchanges of dry banter, but this film slowly reveals depth that goes well beyond the territory of teen slacker comedy. Ryan Reynolds' character may seem like the typical mentor-in-debauchery, but the truth about him is far sadder and far more believable than such archetypes. James' workplace romance with a girl named Em (Kristen Stewart) is equally complex – she provides fleeting moments of respite from his life of unremitting disappointment. The moments where their relationship is working beautifully represent the restlessness and the stasis of suburban life with montages of flickering fluorescent light and serene nightscapes. Adventureland's characters, themes and setting are all bound so closely that they create an uncommonly authentic portrait of this unique stage of life.

Moon proves right the old cliche that says "less is more." Indeed, much of Moon is less – from its cast of essentially two to its cramped moon base setting to its extremely understated style. Making it any other way would have greatly diminished the power of its story.

It is the story, after all, of one man. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is hired to manage a moon base alone for three years. We witness his day-to-day routine in this completely isolated home and then we witness his slow degradation. Moon, however, never takes the obvious route. When a second Sam appears in the base, it does not symptomize some crack in his psyche, even if he fears it might. A memorable sequence has Sam silently assess his double over a series of days, as he slowly realizes that he has not gone mad – he has met his clone. Thus begins the evolution of the relationship between Sam and Sam.

There are still elements of paranoia, deftly underplayed by director, Duncan Jones, but they focus on the mystery of clone Sam's origins. It results in a film that constantly defies expectation, even in a subgenre that regularly flounders in the shadow of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yes, Jospeh Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are an indie movie dream team, but that did not guarantee that their coupling would yield a great movie. 500 Days of Summer does not merely rise to this challenge, though – it breathes new life into the stale romantic comedy genre with a style that constantly innovates without ever feeling contrived.

Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber wrote a story that almost seems to take place in the head of Tom (Gordon-Levitt). It is a series of non-chronological moments from the course of his relationship with Summer (Deschanel). It allows the film to carefully explore how even the greatest romances can be, at once, thrilling and quite misleading. The highs are silly, funny and even breathtakingly beautiful. The lows are cryptic and often use clever editing to highlight their disparity with Tom's expectations. In the film's final act, things only become more chaotic as Summer's mysterious behavior becomes more difficult to understand. Fleeting moments from throughout their relationship flash by, and only toward the very end do they fully reveal their significance.

500 Days of Summer takes a unique look at romance and succeeds far beyond expectation. With there being no ground better-tred than romance, can praise get much higher than that?

The Harry Potter film series has not always been something worth watching. The fact that The Half-Blood Prince stands on its own as a great film, however, is a powerful indication of how far the series has come. For the first time, the series has imbued its nuanced fantasy world with vast emotional depth, proving that no franchise, no matter how trendy or profitable, has to settle for low artistic value.

Most people will know this story's tragic ending before they sit down, but that only enhances the film's powerful sense of tone. The wizarding world is becoming more dangerous by the day and Harry is fully aware of this. Excellent cinematography, deft direction and fine performances wring every conceivable drop of foreboding out of this story, even as the Hogwarts students sail ever-further into the silliness of adolescence. In fact, the film's numerous moments of comedy never clash with the overall tone; they, instead, throw the darker components into relief. When the giggling crowds of students fade into the grim shadows of Hogwarts' hallways for the final act, the burdens beset upon Harry, Malfoy and others are exposed as patently unfair.

I, for one, would never have expected this series to become as resonant as it has. Yet the efforts of an incredibly talented cast and crew – director, David Yates, in particular – have managed to elevate a childrens' fantasy story to something truly worthwhile.

The remaining five films will be presented this Saturday in Part Two.

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