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Mixing It Up

There wasn’t a lot of activity on Moviegoings last semester, but as I started to look over the list of films I’d seen, I realized that there was still a lot going on. A few years ago, I thought that before long it would start to become difficult to select 30 movies a year worthy of special attention (let alone 60, now that I’ve instituted my system of Honorable Mentions). It has become obvious to me that this is not the case. If anything, this was one of the most difficult selections I’ve made. I’ve been aware for some time that it isn’t possible to keep up with all of the movies released in the world, let alone make any real headway in catching up with the nearly century-long backlog that I’m working against. However, I’m beginning to realize that it may not be possible even to see everything that “the Critical Consensus” advises. In other words, I’m not going to suddenly run out of good movies to watch. Which is a pretty cool realization, actually. In any case, here are the best films I saw during the final months of 2009:

Inglorious Basterds

Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Fog of War

The Last Temptation of Christ

Toy Story 2

Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Almost Famous

Spirited Away

The Browning Version

A Serious Man

Roald Dahl was one of my favorite authors growing up (and still is), and I was super-excited when I learned that none other than Wes Anderson would be turning Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox into a film. The final result did not disappoint. It is a model of how to get adaptation right, nailing the spirit and feel of the original while still making it your own and using it as a jumping-off point for exploring new themes and ideas. On top of which, it’s just a whole lot of fun.

Also on the animated front, I finally watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, and it is a masterpiece; probably one of the top 5 animated films ever made. And, finally, after enjoying the re-release of Pixar’s Toy Story movies as a 3D double feature, I realized that it had been a very long time since I had seen them at all. Including Toy Story 2 (one of the tiny handful of sequels that manages to top the original) is my way of honoring both of them.

Speaking of sequels, I also finally watched Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill movies. It’s kind of absurd to consider them separately, so again, the inclusion of the second volume (which I did enjoy more) is also a tip of the hat to the first. And then of course I have Tarantino’s latest, Inglorious Basterds, on here as well. I resisted seeing it for a time because I disliked the way that it was being marketed, but ultimately I gave in and was promptly blown away. I’m still not sure about the claim that I “haven’t seen war” until I’ve seen it “through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino,” but that’s not really the point.

On a related note, however, you really haven’t seen war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Robert S. McNamara. But you won’t know that until you see The Fog of War, an amazing feature-length interview (well, it’s a documentary about his life and experiences, narrated by him) that I watched four times over Christmas break. I watched it because I’m trying to catch up with some of the most-acclaimed films of the past decade as I slowly craft a “Best of the Decade” list of my own (coming soon!). This also led me to see Almost Famous (which I had only managed to catch bits of before). On top of being incredibly entertaining, it had some really fascinating insights on American culture (specifically, musical culture).

On a totally unrelated note, my absolute favorite films of the past few months were the two at the bottom, both about academics (shock). I actually (coincidentally) watched them on consecutive days. The first is an older British film starring Michael Redgrave as a failed teacher of Greek, now rapidly approaching retirement and hoping pathetically for a sign that he has not completely wasted his career. The second is the latest film from the inimitable Coen Brothers; a hilarious, no-holds-barred spin on the book of Job, with a midwestern college physics professor in the 1960s standing in for the Old Testament patriarch. If you only see one movie this year  . . . etc.

Honorable Mentions:

The Earrings of Madame de…

A flawless exercise in cinematic form which tells a brilliantly executed story reminiscent of Gustave Flaubert’s celebrated Madame Bovary.

Eve’s Bayou

I had never even heard of this film before we watched it in the Contemporary Film Theory course I took last semester. It is a fantastic coming-of-age tale dripping with Gothic, Southern flavor.

Spartacus

I always forget how fantastic this movie is; truly one of the greatest cinema epics in film history. The big battle scene, accomplished without the aid of computerized special effects, is still a mind-boggling spectacle. It remains a fascinating story about a single man told on a scale that threatens to dwarf the imagination. Still hard to believe that this film was denied a Best Picture nomination in favor of John Wayne’s lifeless, overlong The Alamo.

The Firemen’s Ball

This quaint, hilarious comedy about the revels and travails experienced by the fire department of a small Czech village when they try to throw a party for a revered colleague was the last film made by Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) under watchful communist eyes before he emigrated to the United States. Despite the best efforts of censors and bureaucrats, the film still manages to be delightfully subversive and rollicking good fun.

Avatar

Only time will tell how well James Cameron’s towering sci-fi epic holds up with future audiences, but there is little point in denying its current merits as an experience of pure spectacle. By sheer force of will, Cameron seems to have accomplished what most sci-fi filmmakers can only dream of: The thoroughly convincing creation of an alien world which audiences are invited to visit, if only for a few hours.

A Man for All Seasons

Even though it never quite manages to escape the confines of its stage-bound origins, this story of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas More at least has a magnificent screenplay to work from, and talented actors to deliver it. With dialog like it has, one can almost forget that it looks like a particularly stodgy and outdated period piece.

The Great Buck Howard

This is a weird little film that made very little noise when it was made just a few years ago. Featuring a flamboyant John Malkovich in the title role, and Colin Hanks (son of Tom) as the protagonist, The Great Buck Howard offers both a great character study, and an amusing, absorbing inside look at the lost art of the mentalist.

Zombieland

There were undoubtedly better movies released last year, but surely none of them was as much fun to watch as Zombieland. Good zombie films are so rare, that I can almost count them all on the fingers of one hand, and most of those are comedies. This is one of the best of both; a sort of American spin on Shaun of the Dead, substituting more gratuitous blood and gore, spectacular set pieces, and sight gags for the Brits’ witty satire.

Jesus of Montreal

I saw two very different Jesus films for the first time last semester as part of my independent study in film and theology. One is up there in my top ten (The Last Temptation of Christ, of course), and the other is here. Neither is particularly conventional in its approach, but this is perhaps the more traditional of the two. A talented actor, given a free hand to stage the local Catholic church’s annual passion play, steps into the part of a lifetime and finds that his own life will never be the same now that he has taken on the role of Jesus Christ.

Up in the Air

Perhaps it is all a bit slick and a bit pat, but this mainstream film that feels like an indie still has a lot of heart and feels extraordinarily timely. It slides comfortably back and forth between humor and pathos, and (while hitting a lot of the expected notes) manages to keep a few unconventional surprises up its sleeve.

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~ by Jared on January 12, 2010.

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