Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Best of 2009: Movies

The past year was uncommonly good for movies. For me, at least. Good is the year, when you have to worry about which movies to remove from your ‘Best Of’ list instead of struggling to find worthy ones to fill the slots. For an unapologetic list maker such as myself this is a great time of the year, because I get to indulge in all sorts of Best of This, and Best of That lists.

Before I provide my thoroughly biased and completely unscientific list of the better movies of 2009, a few notes first.

A movie did not make it on to this list just because it was visually the most amazing thing I saw committed to celluloid this year (that would be ‘Avatar’). Also, strangely, a movie did not make it on to this list just because it was the smartest, most cerebrally engaging film I saw (that would be ‘Up In The Air’).  The principal criterion for a movie to make it on this list was, simply, that it moved me. And I do not mean this in the sense that it necessarily made me sad. Every movie on this list connected with me at a fundamental level and displaced something in my emotional build at the time I was watching it. In small way or large. Roger Ebert calls this ‘elevation’ - when a movie resonates with you and elicits a strong, personal, emotional response. It is the reason I go to the cinemas.

Also, I believe that these sorts of lists are silly and wholly non-transferable. By definition, my list is predicated by my life-experiences, my political and ethical beliefs, and my station in life at the current time. And by how my brain neurons are connected to be pleased by some things and not by others. None of these would apply to another human being. I sincerely hope that this list does not match what you might have come up with. Then you can tell me so, and nothing gives me more pleasure than to argue about movie lists.

With that long preamble, forthwith is my list:

1. The Hurt Locker
It was an easy decision to place this movie first on the list. This is the best action movie in a long time, maybe the decade. I just have not had such a visceral experience seeing any other movie this year. It has been more than twenty years, since when I watched “Aliens” on a rainy day in India, that I have felt this claustrophobic in a movie theater. The Hurt Locker has scenes so intense, and suspense so unbearable, that it took all my resolve to keep from walking out of the theater. The story of a specialized bomb-detonation unit in Iraq, this movie gets everything right. Watching it was like a slap to the face that left me wondering in amazement – and gratitude - that movies still retain the power to do this to us. This film also belongs in that rarefied cadre of movies that are about one thing but manage to be about everything else – reflecting the universe through the experience of a few. If I could spend my time accosting strangers on the street and begging them to see The Hurt Locker, I would.

2. Three Idiots
I laughed and I cried. Seems simple enough, right? But think about how many movies you have seen for which you can make this simple claim. Chaplin films perhaps, perhaps some early classics, but it remains a slim category. Released in the last two weeks of the year ('3 Idiots' is only now gathering steam) this movie easily catapulted itself toward the top of the list. It represents the best in current Indian cinema. Describing the life of students at one of India's prestigious Engineering colleges (where students are boarded on premises during their studies), and their fates post-graduation, the movie employs (the currently trendy) disjointed chronology to tell its story. But what inspired treatment of the material this is! From the witty dialog (which sometimes gleefully tips into the uncharacteristically vulgar), to the acting, to the script, it all comes together rather wonderfully. The movie is by no means perfect however; it goes completely over the top in a few places (a baby being delivered during a storm! With instruction over a webcam!), seems a bit too eager to please, indulges in contrivances (the female love interest turns out to be the College Dean's daughter!) and you can see the end coming an hour before it actually arrives. But it works. Kudos also to this film for driving home its messages so successfully without preaching. The movie is a triumph for all concerned. 

3. 500 Days of Summer
This is a smart, witty, romantic film. I saw it and melted hopelessly in submission to its cleverness. Ladies and Gentlemen, this, is how you do it. There is enough creativity and heart here for three movies. Effortlessly funny, and sincere, it has connected with audiences, I think, because it is laser sharp in its realistic depiction of the ebbs and flow of early love, and what follows afterward. What to make, the movie asks, of a relationship where one expects so much more from it than another? The two leads of the movie (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel) are so winning that they are not, for a moment, anything less than fully believable. Much has been made of the intentionally scattered chronology in the movie, but that ultimately remains a gimmick; this movie would have been just as effective were it told linearly in time. Charting the step-by-step development of a relationship between two very specific characters, this movie walked first into my brain, and then, the heart.

4.     Inglorious Basterds
This was the most memorable movie of the year for me; scene for scene, much of the movie still reels in my mind months after seeing it. Call it what you will: indulgent, revisionist, overly talky...but it is difficult to say that the movie falls short of being fully entertaining. The story of a group of American men brought together to militantly fight back the Nazi intercuts with that of the opportunity presented to a Jewish girl to exact vendetta for the death of her family at the hands of a brilliantly devious Nazi colonel. This does not exactly sound like giddy entertainment. But it is. Directing with everything he has in his toolbox, (and he’s got a lot), Quentin Tarantino breaks cardinal rules of the film book with relish here. Every expectation is cleverly circumvented. Christoph Waltz, who plays the Nazi colonel with an impossible balance of grace and evil has an assured lock on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The film is cleanly violent. More than half its dialog is subtitled. But who cares when it is this much fun. A superbly plotted episode late in the movie that transpires in a tavern alone is worth the price of admission. Yes, this is genius.

5.     Wake Up Sid
There are some movies that you connect with unexpectedly, and it almost seems like voodoo. Movies that are not on anybody else’s Best Of list. But they resonate deeply and with high fidelity with something within you. I relish such movies like a gift; I offer ‘Wake Up, Sid’. The movie represents the emergence of a hard-earned maturity in Indian cinema. At once, truthful, fun, and fully satisfying, this film is the story of a young man from a rich family who slowly begins to find his place in the world. While this expectedly leads to a realization of his own failings, the film altogether avoids the trappings of the standard character arc to demonstrate this. The caliber of acting, particularly from the main leads, is stellar. Every person in the universe of this film, from the smallest character to the leads, is fully realized and allowed to have their own voice. How refreshing to be able to say this, finally. Here is an Indian movie, thank the stars, with the willingness to abandon the weary formulas of traditional Bollywood for good and all - while still telling a worthy, robust story. If anyone complains about the sorry state of Indian cinema right now, it is gratifying that there are so many films released in 2009 that I can point to in defence of a counter-argument. Few would be stronger than ‘Wake Up Sid’.

6.     Up
The folks at Pixar knock another one clear out of the park, and ‘Up’ reaches higher in the skies than most of the previous Pixar entries. In refusing to cater to children as the primary audience, and choosing to infuse the film with a deep underlying sadness, the movie hits paydirt. It is not exactly original (I see inspirations from many other movies), and there are a few uneven parts. But it all comes together beautifully, particularly in a much talked about ten minute montage early in the movie that sets a new bar for economy in effective story-telling. If you are not devastated by the emotional wallop of those scenes, your heart may have been irreversibly calcified. There are many who have complained that the movie is too sad, and not appropriate for children. But really, what better way for a child to learn about personal loss than from a perceptive, heartfelt movie.

[What a wondrous year this has been for animated and children’s films. Along with "Up", "The Fantastic Mr Fox”, “Coraline”, and “Ponyo" can proudly sit on any list of the best movies of the year. And I have not even seen “Where The Wild Things Are” or “The Princess and The Frog”.]

7.     The Hangover
Who says that the lowbrow cannot be high entertainment? The putrid alley is as good a place as any to find humor, and yes, insight. I started laughing at the start of this film and just did not stop. The basic premise of the movie is clever – trying to reconstruct the events transpired over a night of debauchery in Las Vegas that none of the participants have any recollection of. What I liked about this film was that it dared to be as raunchy as it wanted, without apologies (or the market/studio-driven push to deliver a sanitized PG-13 film). As the movie progressed, I kept waiting for that first misstep, the first sacrifice made to a character to get a cheap laugh, and then sat up with delight realizing that this may actually not happen in this film. Doing good comedy is hard, and few films deliver on this promise. May their tribe increase.

8.     The Messenger
There is a scene in the movie “The Messenger” where two US Army personnel (played by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster) walk up to the front yard of a woman’s (played by Samantha Morton) home to inform her that her soldier husband has been killed in Iraq. She guesses the news before they can say much, takes a few moments to look calmly in the distance, and then turns around to the men and says “This must be so hard for you”. The unexpected turn of the scene devastated me. This is a grim movie, but also one of the year’s most honest and rewarding. It is the story of two men whose job it is to inform families of the death of a son/daughter/spouse in combat (and hence the title), and features several such wrenching scenes. That the movie never gets gratuitous in the handing of these scenes is a testament to the maturity of the script, and the direction. One of the two men (Harrelson) is a seasoned informant; the other is being trained for this function. These are not cookie-cutter characters, and the script does not allow any easy outs for the two tortured individuals the men portray. Like the best movies about war, “The Messenger” will support your own political beliefs, no matter where you stand on the spectrum. It also has hands down, the best acting I have seen this year. I will lose my faith in cinema if Woody Harrelson, and Samantha Morton in particular, are not recognized for their terrific, beautifully toned performances in this film.

9.     Invictus
Last year, after watching ‘Gran Torino’, I said that I wanted to be like Clint Eastwood when I grew up. ‘Invictus’ this year is further proof of that sentiment. I don’t know how he does it, but here is Eastwood again with an equally effective film. I am frankly surprised that Eastwood is not celebrated more; how many other 79 year old film makers do we know who are delivering new high-quality films once, sometimes twice, a year. And these are films remarkable in the diversity of their tone and subject matter (his 2010 release will be a supernatural thriller). Invictus is loosely based on real-life events surrounding the early days of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in South Africa, and his stubborn push to support the then floundering (and predominantly white) national rugby team to a seemingly impossible win in the 1995 World Cup - in an effort to heal raw racial tensions in the country. Yes, it is a sports movie at the end, and how many of those have we seen already? But by picking this story, Eastwood makes the outcome matter. There has been criticism that Mandela’s portrayal in this movie verges on the saintly; but I saw it as just inspiring. I don’t know how else to say it, but this film is suffused with a sense of (well-earned) goodness. How daunting for an actor to portray a much beloved world personality who is still alive. Morgan Freeman is up to it. He plays Mandela as a man comfortable with blurring the line between being good and getting a few opportune things done at the same time. This movie is a fine example of Roger Ebert’s belief that what moves us most in the movies is not the very tragic, but rather it is individuals doing good in spite of themselves and their circumstances.

10.  Departures (Okuribito)
The winner of last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar (unseen by most at the time) this Japanese film is clear from the start about its intent to emotionally manipulate the audience. But that does not take away from its effectiveness. A recently fired cellist from Tokyo moves back to his hometown village with his wife. Since being unemployed he cannot seem to be able to find his feet, and frustrated, he answers a cryptic newspaper job offering under the title “Departures” presuming it is for a travel agency. It turns out it is for employment at a place where the dead are prepared for burial. Against his instincts - and judgment - he takes on the job at the funeral home and begins to get trained in the proper Japanese rituals for preparing the bodies of the recently deceased. If this sounds morbid, it is not. There is actually much humor in this film. There is something be learned from the observation of families who have recently lost a loved one. Ashamed to tell his wife about his true vocation, the protagonist nevertheless builds a tenuous trust with the owner of the funeral home and his daughter, which drives the plot for the remainder of the film. This is not a subtle movie, and some of the treatment is heavy-handed. But the film is sincere, and the potency of its message of tolerance is undeniable. Funny, yet affecting, this is the kind of movie that I can recommend without worry to anyone.

Movies that could just as easily been on the Top Ten list:
Adventureland, District 9, Duplicity, An Education, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Kaminey, Love Aaj Kal (Love, Today and Yesterday), Star Trek, Up In The Air

Movies that could make it to the list but are unseen by me (yet):
Moon, Where The Wild Things Are.

Outstanding movies caught at film festivals in 2009:
Bombay Summer, Bunny And The Bull, Deliver Us From Evil, I Killed My Mother, Karma Calling, Phobidilia, Shades Of Ray.

So let the events begin. Don't be shy to let me know how wrong I have been with this list!

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