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Best & Worst 2009 - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Best & Worst 2009
First, a disclaimer: The way I approach this list is that they are the movies that made the greatest and longest-lasting impact on me, and which I saw in the year 2009. This means there are some movies that were released last year that make it on my list for this year. The purpose of my sharing it is mostly to tell my readers what movies I saw over the past twelve months that I would most recommend to others due to their entertainment value, technical achievement, or visual artistry. With that in mind, it would be ridiculous to omit certain titles just because they were originally released elsewhere in the country in 2008. This was still the best of 2009, for me:

10. Avatar A-

U.S.; opened December 18; viewed December 18 and December 20

The most impressive special effects ever put on film -- especially if you don't watch it in the intended 3-D, which is often distracting and forces your eyes to focus on areas they aren't always naturally drawn to. Not the most original story in the world -- it's Dances with Wolves crossed with Pocahontas with a dash of Aliens -- but with a movie this spectacularly entertaining, that's a small quibble. The awe-inspiring visuals actually do make up for a lot, and the story is actually more engaging than many give it credit for.

What I said then: Most of the time, Avatar is simply breathtaking entertainment, taking place in a completely invented environment and using invented character creatures that look and act real enough to make you genuinely care about them.

9. Up in the Air A-

U.S.; opened December 18; viewed December 19

Perhaps the timeliest film on this list, what with its broader context of an ailing economy, which creates booming business for Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a constantly traveling "Termination Facilitator." If the economy gets better -- or even if it gets much worse -- Up in the Air is quickly going to look dated, but in the meantime, it's an effective time capsule of the state of the country in 2009, and a wonderfully nuanced portrait of a man whose self-imposed isolation turns out not to be all he thought it was cracked up to be.

What I said then: Up in the Air is a simply pleasant film, sprinkled with a nice amount of humor, and given a huge booster shot of timely resonance. Certainly now is the best time to see it.

8. Broken Embraces A-

Spain; opened December 25; viewed December 27

Pedro Almodóvar's latest took a while to sink in for me. While watching this film, it was difficult to decipher its masterful editing, as all the puzzle pieces slowly fit into place -- a process so deliberate and meticulous, the film looked better and better as I thought about it in retrospect. Penélope Cruz stars as Lena, the secretary-turned-prostitute-turned-mistress whose elderly movie producer boyfriend jealously meddles in the affairs of the film she's working on, directed by a man with whom she's having an affair. All this occurs in 1994; the film cuts back and forth between then and 2008, when the director is blind and suspicious of a young man interested in collaborating on a script about paternal revenge. Everything you see is connected to everything else in one way or another, including the mysterious fact that Lena is absent from all the 2008 sequences. There's no easy way to describe the plot of this film, but it's inevitable that anyone with an understanding of obsession (both in love and in filmmaking) will have a deep appreciation for it.

What I said then: It's always nice to see a movie that is both great entertainment and respectful of the audience's intelligence.

7. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire A-

U.S.; opened November 20; viewed November 21

A sucker-punch of a movie, both in its depiction of inner-city abuses and in its sudden jolts of humor. Precious is packed with powerhouse performances, from Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe as the barely literate, obese teen mother-of-two title character, to Mo'Nique as her viciously abusive mother, to Sherri Shepherd as the alternative-school receptionist and even a totally unrecognizable Mariah Carey as a social worker. Ultimately, though, what makes Precious great is the depiction of Precious a well-rounded human being, in spite of her being a target of virtually every abuse imaginable, both at home and at school. But she discovers her own potential, and strategically takes advantage of opportunities presented to her, thereby bettering herself -- it's a story of great triumph over adversity depicted with gritty realism.

What I said then: It's not often that a film comes to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion, but Precious is one of those exceptions. It's that truly rare film that lives up to the hype.

6. Up A-

U.S.; opened May 29; viewed May 29

Leave it to Pixar to create a feature cartoon with real emotional depth, not to mention a broadly entertaining main character who happens to be a crotchety old widower. In a grand Disney tradition that goes all the way back to Bambi, Up refuses to shy away from the tragedies that occur in all our lives -- in this case, the loss of a beloved wife -- but presents it with both accessibility and respect. Here, the old man finally decides to take that dream trip he'd been planning all his life with his wife by hoisting his entire house into the air with hundreds of helium balloons. He ends up with a Boy Scout stowaway, with whom he has a grand adventure in South America, complete with hilarious dogs sporting electronic collars that read their thoughts ("Squirrel!"). These collars are designed by a once-famous but now secluded adventurer who turns out to be a villain that ultimately seems a bit more obligatory than anything else, but luckily that doesn't stop Up from demonstrating with finesse how as long as you're still breathing, it’s never too late to live with purpose.

What I said then: Everything about the story in Up is lovely, and is absolutely in keeping with Pixar's consistently inventive writers.

5. A Single Man A-

U.S.; opened December 25; viewed December 26

One of the most visually stunning films of the year, with much of its story conveyed through its editing and particularly its cinematography and color filters. Colin Firth gives a flawless performance as a British man living in 1962 Los Angeles, closeted, unable to stop thinking about his partner of sixteen years who died eight months before. The film is a day in his life -- the last day, according to his intentions. Julianne Moore gives a typically stellar performance as his lonely best friend who is still in love with him, and writer-director offers up an ending that turns out to be the only one that could possibly be satisfactory.

What I said then: A Single Man rewards you for paying close attention. It only seems as though it's missing details when you're not looking closely. It challenges the viewer. It may not be mass market entertainment, but it's exactly what genuinely powerful cinema should be.

4. Everlasting Moments A

Sweden; opened March 6; viewed February 21

Perhaps the year's greatest surprise for me, I never would have been all that motivated to bother seeing Everlasting Moments if it weren't for getting an invitation from SIFF to an advance screening. But then this true story of a working-class woman in early 20th-century Sweden finding herself an unlikely photographer with innate skill turned out to be surprisingly affecting. The story moves along with a quiet grace that stays with you, and really made it the best foreign film I saw all year.

What I said then: Everlasting Moments, its title referring to what is captured in Maria's photos, unveils a completely realized world which, while devoid of cheap cinematic tricks, is completely unlike any other.

3. The Wrestler A

U.S.; opened January 9; viewed January 10

Indeed, this is technically a 2008 film, but I refuse to wait until all films up for Oscar consideration have been released locally in Seattle before I construct my best-of list -- that would force me to publish mine up to three months after everyone else has done theirs; and this is an end-of-the-year activity, after all! I had no access to The Wrestler in 2008, and it would be a crime for me to omit it from this year's list, as it's easily the best live-action film I saw all year. Darren Aronofsky is in top form in this uncharacteristically naturalistic film about a washed-up and aging professional wrestler, not coincidentally played by previously washed-up and aging professional actor Mickey Rourke. This isn't a film about the sport of wrestling -- although it does provide a lot of interesting (and sometimes gory) insight -- so much as a film about the promise of redemption, and how much a man's character informs the likelihood of that promise getting delivered.

What I said then: There is no visual trickery here to wow the viewer; this time, it's the straightforward presentation of characters engaged in their struggles, and that alone is every bit as compelling as the most sophisticated of Aronovsky's previous technical achievements.

2. Waltz with Bashir A

Israel; opened January 30; viewed January 31

A stunning, flash-animated feast for the eyes, filled with haunting yet gorgeous imagery. Given the subject matter -- a documentarian interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon in an attempt to reconstruct his own repressed memories -- it's impossible to see how this film could have been made in any other way. This is an examination of the fluid nature of memory, something that could only be effectively rendered in the expertly rendered, dream-like animation seen here. This would be far more effective seen in a movie theatre, but no matter what the medium, this film needs to be seen.

What I said then: The animators create so many images of such indelible quality that the animation style becomes immaterial: this is a film full of unforgettable, stunning, beautiful, and most of all haunting images.

1. Sita Sings the Blues A

U.S.; no wide release; viewed May 20

I never really suspected when I watched Sita Sings the Blues back in May that it night become my favorite movie of the year -- especially since it got no wide release, and I only managed to see it in a theatre due to it being shown at the local dinner theatre Central Cinema. In fact, this film can be and always could be seen online (sitasingstheblues.com) -- and I urge you all to find it and watch it! This movie, a stunningly animated telling of the Hindu text the Ramayana, featuring its lead character singing blues songs by Annette Hanshaw (one reason for its lack of wide release: the rights to the songs could not be purchased), is every bit as visually inventive as Avatar. It just gets there with far less sophisticated equipment, and features an undeniably more original -- not to mention interesting -- story.

What I said then: A couple of the animation styles are kind of crude, with otherwise stationary objects bouncing around a lot like they did in Monty Python animation, and yet in context, it works perfectly. In the realm of Sita Sings the Blues, there is not one flaw in the way the animation is presented; most of the time it's gorgeous. And if it's not gorgeous, then it's funny, or touching, or poignant -- in any case, always worth watching.

Five Worst Films

Another side note: I actually didn't see a huge number of terrible films this year; indeed, of all the ones I reviewed, the worst grade I ever gave was a C+. For that reason, I almost didn't even compile a worst-movies list this year. It's not that I love all movies; it's that I'm not a paid movie critic, and if I'm not getting paid, I don't see the sense in shelling out the money to buy tickets to movies I already know I'm going to hate. As such, the following is a list of movies that weren't great, but which I either thought might be good, or I didn't realize I'd be going to see until the last minute.

5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine C+

Not terrible, but certainly the worst in the X-Men franchise, largely because it fails to realize its potential, and instead relies on tired action-movie tropes. How many times do we need to watch Hugh Jackman outrunning a huge explosive ball of fire? At least he does a nude scene, so there's always that.

What I said then: As flattering as it may or may not be to Jackman, the presence of his bare ass being the best part of a movie is not really all that great a reflection on the movie. Neither is the fact that he spends a fair amount of time shirtless is the second best part. Or that we get to see a pretty good amount of Ryan Reynolds's spectacular body. Not that I pay attention to these things or anything.

4. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs C+

U.S.; opened September 18; viewed September 30

I only saw this movie because I was trying to find a way to entertain myself alone in Burbank while my partner was attending an acting class -- and, having already seen everything else playing that I might otherwise have been interested in, this was my best option. Well, actually it came to a choice between this and Surrogates, and Surrogates probably would have been better. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs got inexplicably great reviews, but I found it to be easily the worst animated feature I saw all year -- not awful exactly, but certainly no better than average, with its ridiculously silly plot and its frenetic story propulsion. In short, it's too busy -- and an unnecessary sensory overload.

What I said then: There are a few moments of clever humor, even for the adults -- I did laugh out loud a couple of times -- but, most of the time, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs focuses on its wowing technical wizardry at the expense of genuine coherence.

3. Phoebe in Wonderland C+

U.S.; opened March 6; viewed March 10

An inept and contrived story about a little girl (played by Dakota's little sister Elle Fanning) who doesn't understand her own obsessive-compulsive behaviors and finds solace in the story of Alice in Wonderland. Christ, when will OCD stop being so trendy in movies and TV? Enough already!

What I said then: "Phoebe in Wonderland seems to be made by a group of people who genuinely believe they've made Something Important, but the sad truth is that they all have something in common with Alice, as they're living in la-la land."

2. Pornography C-

U.S.; no wide release; viewed June 21 at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

The two worst films I saw this year were two of the four films I saw in the theatre but then never wrote reviews -- because they were last-minute viewings of San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival screenings, which a friend of mine took me to during a weekend visit. I was too busy enjoying a weekend away, and seeing too many movies (I saw four in two days), to have time for the reviews. It's just as well, because three of the four movies I saw were crap -- including this one, a supposed "thriller" about people involved in the gay porn industry, but transparently intended to titillate rather than illuminate. Why not just watch actual porn?

1. Greek Pete F

U.K.; no wide release; viewed June 20 at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival

This is only the second movie I've ever given an F since I started writing reviews, and I didn't even get a chance to review it! It's too bad, because reviews of the worst movies are the most fun to write -- and this one was easily the biggest stinker I saw all year. It's too bad that so much of so-called "gay cinema" is always so awful. In this case, it's a misguided attempt at creating a so-called "docu-drama" about the year in the life of a British rent boy trying to win "Escort of the Year", never quite clear as to what's real and what's (much more likely) staged, but always pretentious and dull.

What I said then: That sucked. Or something to that effect! (I don't remember exactly what I said, about either this film or the previous one in this list -- because unfortunately I never wrote it down -- not even on Twitter!)

1. 1/1 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button B
2. 1/3 Valkyrie B
3. 1/5 Rhinestone D ****
4. 1/7 Revolutionary Road A-
5. 1/10 The Wrestler A
6. 1/12 Gigli F ****
7. 1/13 United States of Tara B
8. 1/17 Che B
9. 1/21 Hotel for DogsB-
10. 1/25 God of Cookery B ****
11. 1/27 Last Chance Harvey B
12. 1/30 Were the World Mine B+ (2nd viewing; 3rd counting home screener)
13. 1/31 Waltz with Bashir A
14. 2/4 Frozen River B+
15. 2/7 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live Action A-
16. 2/10 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Animation A-/B+
17. 2/11 Pray the Devil Back to Hell B+
18. 2/14 Gomorrah B+ *
19. 2/18 Coraline A-
20. 2/21 Everlasting Moments A *
21. 2/24 Milk A- (3rd viewing)
22. 3/3 Ballerina B
23. 3/6 Watchmen B
24. 3/10 Phoebe in Wonderland C+
25. 3/18 Carmen Jones B-
26. 3/20 Duplicity B-
27. 3/24 The Edge of Love B+
28. 3/27 Sunshine Cleaning B+
29. 4/1 The Great Buck Howard B
30. 4/4 Alien Tresspass B
31. 4/7 Moscow, Belgium B+
32. 4/8 Predator C-
33. 4/24 State of Play B+
34. 4/26 Monsters vs. Aliens B
35. 5/5 X-Men Origins: Wolverine C+
36. 5/6 The Lemon Tree A-
37. 5/8 Star Trek A-
38. 5/12 Star Trek A- (2nd viewing)
39. 5/17 Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up B+
40. 5/19 Outrage B
41. 5/20 Sita Sings the Blues A
42. 5/21 Enlighten Up! C+
43. 5/25 Terribly Happy B *
44. 5/26 Terminator Salvation C+
45. 5/27 Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian B
46. 5/29 Up A-
47. 5/31 A Woman's Way B *
48. 6/3 Patrick: Age 1.5 B+ *
49. 6/4 The Country Teacher B *
50. 6/6 The Baby Formula B- *
51. 6/7 Fruit Fly C+ *
52. 6/9 Away We Go B * [**]
53. 6/10 The Hangover B+
54. 6/14 Give Me Your Hand B+ *
55. 6/20 The Butch Factor C+
56. 6/20 Greek Pete F
57. 6/21 ACT UP B-
58. 6/21 Pornography C-
59. 6/24 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert A- ****
60. 6/25 Food, Inc A-
61. 6/27 Edward Scissorhands ****
62. 7/2 Every Little Step A-
63. 7/4 Public Enemies B+
64. 7/7 Moon B+
65. 7/10 Bruno B+
66. 7/14 Humpday A-
67. 7/15 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince B+
68. 7/20 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince B+ (2nd viewing)
69. 7/22 Mars Attacks! A ****
70. 7/29 (500) Days of Summer B+
71. 7/31 Flash Gordon D+ ****
72. 8/4 In the Loop B
73. 8/11 Julia & Julia B+
74. 8/13 The Cove B+
75. 8/15 District 9 B+
76. 8/18 Adam B+
77. 8/21 9 to 5 ****
78. 8/22 Inglourious Basterds A-
79. 8/29 Cold Souls B
80. 9/2 Blood on the Flat Track: The Rise of the Rat City Roller Girls B+ ****
81. 9/4 Taking Woodstock B
82. 9/5 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone B+
83. 9/9 9 B+
84. 9/11 Man in the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Sing-Along Tribute A-
85. 9/18 The Informant! B+
86. 9/19 Big Fan C+
87. 9/22 Bright Star A-
88. 9/25 No Impact Man B
89. 9/26 Amreeka A-
90. 9/30 Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs C+
91. 10/7 Toy Story and Toy Story 2 3-D double feature A- ****
92. 10/8 Capitalism: A Love Story B+
93. 10/10 A Serious Man B
94. 10/13 Zombieland B-
95. 10/16 Where the Wild Things Are A-
96. 10/20 Whip It B-
97. 10/22 New York, I Love You C+
98. 10/27 Good Hair B
99. 10/28 Coco Before Chanel B
100. 11/3 This Is It B+
101. 11/7 The Men Who Stare at Goats B-
102. 11/10 An Education A-
103. 11/14 2012 B
104. 11/17 Pirate Radio B-
105. 11/19 Skin B+
106. 11/21 Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire A-
107. 11/25 The Road B+
108. 11/27 Fantastic Mr. Fox B+
109. 11/29 The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans B+
110. 12/1 Red Cliff B-
111. 12/6 Brothers B+
112. 12/8 The Messenger A-
113. 12/13 The Princess and the Frog B
114. 12/15 Invictus B
115. 12/18 Avatar A-
116. 12/19 Up in the Air A-
115. 12/19 Avatar A- (2nd viewing)
116. 12/20 It's Complicated B *
117. 12/26 A Single Man A-
118. 12/27 Broken Embraces A-
119. 12/29 The Young Victoria B+

* SIFF advance screening
** Public invitation advance screening
*** Press screening
**** Re-issue and/or outdoor cinema (no review)
***** Seattle Lesbian & Gay Film Festival screening (advance if linked to a review, re-issue if not)
****** San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival Screening [surprise screenings while on a trip; no review]


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