(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (Marc Webb, 2009)
Life and love are rarely as tidy as art's simplified representations and the romantic's self-deluded perceptions. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER takes a hammer to romantic comedy tropes that distort the interpersonal dynamics between men and women into childish knight-in-shining-armor and princess fantasies. As the commitment-seeking emotional mess and the nonchalant pragmatist, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are a delight to watch as they reverse gender stereotypes. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER doesn't reach the rarefied level of Woody Allen's masterpiece ANNIE HALL, a clear influence, but the film's bruised yet clear-eyed romanticism is refreshing to find in a genre that often settles for something less than truthful or passionate.
ADVENTURELAND (Greg Mottola, 2009)
Warm and genuine, the nostalgic romance ADVENTURELAND fondly remembers the exciting and painful time in life that comes after college graduation but before one's life is sorted out. Writer-director Greg Mottola knows that while this period may feel like the end, it's actually a beginning. The characters come across as the pretentious but self-deprecating older siblings to the teens in the director's previous film SUPERBAD. Having a more mature but still insecure protagonist and supporting cast means ADVENTURELAND is filled with many modest charms rather than sidesplitting laughs, but it's an equally well-observed and funny slice of life.
BLACK DYNAMITE (Scott Sanders, 2009)
The blaxploitation parody BLACK DYNAMITE looks as though it could be a hilarious, forgotten film from the 1970s. Director Scott Sanders and co-writer/star Michael Jai White lovingly and convincingly recreate the cheap, junky, and freewheeling aesthetics of the genre, but this is more than just a skilled mimicking of another era's filmmaking style.
THE BOX (Richard Kelly, 2009)
DONNIE DARKO writer-director Richard Kelly takes another exceedingly strange and haunting look at the consequences of our decisions and how we rationalize them in THE BOX. As the plot developments become crazier, what Kelly's aiming for isn't always clear. Still, this Stanley Kubrick meets long-form TWILIGHT ZONE episode is an invigorating science fiction film with plenty to ponder.
CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS (Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2009)
Among 2009's rich yield of animated films is the clever, character-based comedy of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS. This lighthearted look at conspicuous consumption soft pedals its message in favor of a lot of sly visual and verbal jokes. For me this beautifully computer-animated film with depth-enhancing 3-D was one of the year's biggest surprises.
AN EDUCATION (Lone Scherfig, 2009)
In the hands of director Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick Hornby, Lynn Barber's memoir is treated with a youthful innocence rather than an adult's experience and perhaps jadedness. It's a critical distinction because taking an older view of this story would taint how it is observed and reconciled. AN EDUCATION showcases several fine performances in this story about the dangers of youthful cleverness. In her first major role Carey Mulligan does keen and sensitive acting to peel back the effects of the schooling the character gets in prizing her own intelligence to a fault. Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, and Rosamund Pike do excellent work in adding more seasoned, yet not always wiser perspectives in this coming-of-age tale.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX (Wes Anderson, 2009)
FANTASTIC MR. FOX is ostensibly a Roald Dahl adaptation, but more than anything it's a different canvas for director Wes Anderson for expressing his fixations. Anderson's films have always felt handcrafted, so going into the stop-motion animated realm for the funny and bittersweet tale of a restless, middle-aged fox is a natural, if unexpected, extension of his way of doing things.
GOODBYE SOLO (Rahmin Bahrani, 2008)
Ramin Bahrani spotlights people and places who exist in the background or who aren't given much consideration. With GOODBYE SOLO, his third neorealism-steeped feature film, he again proves his ability to suss out meaningful stories about the invisible in American society. The developing relationship between a Senegalese immigrant taxi driver in North Carolina and his likely suicidal customer gains quiet power as Bahrani illuminates their lives and attitudes. Souleymane Sy Savane's charismatic performance as the amiable cabbie Solo adds deeply human and heartfelt qualities in the face of a stranger's immense sadness.
GOOD HAIR (Jeff Stilson, 2009)
Chris Rock leads the way in this highly entertaining, funny, informative, and surprising documentary about African-American women and their hair. The humor and discussion about beauty standards and self-image make GOOD HAIR plenty worthwhile even for those for whom it isn't the cultural eye-opener like it is for me.
LORNA'S SILENCE (LE SILENCE DE LORNA) (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2008)
The social consciousness of the Dardenne brothers probably gets in the way of their work being conventionally considered as thrillers, but these masters of economical storytelling invest their films with a strong degree of nail-biting suspense and genuinely uncertain outcomes. LORNA'S SILENCE follows an Albanian woman in a short-term marriage of convenience to attain Belgian citizenship and enough cash to start her own restaurant. Finalizing the end of the deal proves to be pretty distasteful, even for the complicated and highly compromised Lorna. The Dardennes tell the character's tough and heartwrenching story to make points about immigration and human trafficking, but viewed merely as a straightforward thriller, it's pretty harrowing stuff.
MOON (Duncan Jones, 2009)
MOON is practically a one man show for star Sam Rockwell, who plays a solitary worker on a lunar mining base nearing the end of his assignment. His stellar performance and the striking visual sense of first-time feature director Duncan Jones give this science fiction mindbender to explore as it floats along in a most peculiar way.
MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE (Werner Herzog, 2009)
2009 was a good year for fans of director Werner Herzog. The deranged THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS and its out there Nicolas Cage performance stirred online buzz, but the less talked about MY SON, MY SON, WHAT HAVE YE DONE was the slightly better and more consistent effort. Loosely based on a real incident, this hypnotic, disturbing, and yet weirdly funny film about a San Diego man who kills his mother with a sword features a compelling lead performance by Michael Shannon. As usual Herzog's interests are not in understanding or explaining the behavior but in studying the bizarre lengths people will go to in trying to achieve their self-identified purposes.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (Oren Peli, 2007)
The makers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY understand that the most frightening things are what we imagine but can't see. Writer-director Oren Peli uses the limitations of a single location and low budget to his supreme advantage. The mental wear and tear of living in a stressful place and an increasingly tense relationship is played beautifully by Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat. Since we observe everything through their eyes, the believable, lived in performances build the fear factor in things that go bump in the night and their fraying interpersonal connection.
THE ROAD (John Hillcoat, 2009)
Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, THE ROAD is a haunting portrait of what it means to be a parent. Clearly the stakes are exaggerated and raised in this nightmarish, post-apocalyptic world, but the underlying sentiment holds true. Keeping one's child safe in a world full of harm can be the most terrifying endeavor for any adult. Viggo Mortensen delivers a fierce (and practically feral) performance, and director John Hillcoat evokes a hostile atmosphere whose stern, gray beauty makes common kindness stand out in sharp relief.
SITA SINGS THE BLUES (Nina Paley, 2008)
The dazzling SITA SINGS THE BLUES finds animator Nina Paley turning to an ancient Hindu text for assistance and insight into her current romantic troubles. Paley's study of how old religious parables are shaped and can be applied in contemporary life is invigorating and playful in its intellectual wrestling and creative solutions. Reinterpreting a story thousands of years old through Annette Hanshaw's jazz recordings from the 1920s and the filmmaker's autobiographical struggles ties together how vexing love can be no matter the time.
STAR TREK (J.J. Abrams, 2009)
Rebooting a decades-old franchise doesn't get more pleasurable than J.J. Abrams' rejuvenation of STAR TREK. Abrams accomplishes what might have seemed practically impossible: making an affectionate and knowing tribute that satisfies and flatters longtime, hardcore fans while putting a fresh spin on the mythology that is an easily accessible gateway for newcomers and casual viewers. This version of STAR TREK may not be as contemplative as its predecessors, but the 2009 entry is a funny and exciting piece of cinema that shows what summer event movies can be when at their best.
SUGAR (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2008)
SUGAR provides an absorbing look at the Dominican Republic's baseball pipeline, a system that significantly impacts the game yet is largely unfamiliar to fans. The film delivers a potent reminder of off-the-field challenges that affect performance on the field. Athletes aren't robots, and this humanizing examination of one immigrant's quest grants greater appreciation for what must be overcome to even have a chance to succeed.
UP IN THE AIR (Jason Reitman, 2009)
UP IN THE AIR has been lauded for being very of the moment in its treatment of massive corporate layoffs, but where it truly shines--and what will give it more staying power through the years--is how it details the importance of a personal touch over more convenient but impersonal technological solutions. Director and co-writer Jason Reitman demonstrates these values and does his best work to date with a solidly crafted film whose greatest resource is its actors. George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga are terrific playing characters confronted with the choices they've made regarding how to lead their lives.
YOU, THE LIVING (DU LEVANDE) (Roy Andersson, 2007)
Swedish director Roy Andersson follows up his 2000 surrealist comedy SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (SÅNGER FRÅN ANDRA VÅNINGEN) with more darkly humorous sketches about the dilemmas of human existence. Laughs catch in the throat, although this time a bit more optimism underlies the drollness and Scandinavian emotional coolness. Andersson favors gorgeous, deep focus compositions that establish scenes in which the jokes trickle out in unbroken shots. The meticulous craftsmanship and impeccable timing in YOU, THE LIVING show an artist in full command of his distinctive voice.