Friday, March 5, 2010

The Third Man’s Top 30 Movies of 2009

Disclaimer: The Messenger never came to Indianapolis, Un Prophete doesn’t start here for another two weeks, and Broken Embraces, Me and Orson Welles, Ponyo, Brothers, and The Lovely Bones I missed in theatres (sorry, but trying to see EVERY movie is difficult, time consuming, and pricey; something always has to give). It’s possible that one or more of those films may have factored into this list had I seen them.

Warning: I’ve tried to avoid completely giving away any endings, but, nevertheless, plot spoilers run rampant in many of the following critiques.

Group A: The Great Movies

1. The Hurt Locker – Directed By Kathryn Bigelow

Perhaps more than any other reason, The Hurt Locker is the best movie of 2009 precisely because it doesn’t feel like it came out in 2009. Sure, it takes place in the current climate of the Iraq War, and it absolutely utilizes the best of modern-day production values, but, aesthetically speaking, it feels more like a product of the 1970’s heyday that has come to be known as the “The Film School Generation.” Amidst all of today’s hyper-speed ADD moviemaking, The Hurt Locker, which is constructed entirely around only ten scenes, takes its time drawing you in. Hitchcock famously once said “if you see a bomb under the table and it goes off, that’s action; if you see a bomb under the table and it doesn’t go off, that’s suspense.” Because there’s the proverbial bomb under the table during almost every minute of The Hurt Locker, the suspense is pretty palpable. Using long takes, stretches with very little dialogue, and almost no score, Kathryn Bigelow and her editing team crafted a movie that you simply can’t take your eyes off of. But just as compelling as the movie’s craft is its study of character, particularly in Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. William James. I have always believed that the meaning of life is to find out exactly what creates and/or provides meaning in your life, and then pursue that with all the zeal you can muster (provided it doesn’t infringe on the autonomy of others and yadda yadda—I’m trying not to turn this into a philosophical discussion); The Hurt Locker, then, is a film about a seriously crazy son of a bitch who may be less crazy than he seems… because he’s figured out the meaning of his life. Sgt. James gets out of bed and puts his pants on in the morning just so he has the pleasure of diffusing bombs that might kill him. He’s even in the habit of keeping the detonator switches of the bombs that really impress him—much the same way I keep an album of concert tickets. The Sgt.’s attempt (or lack thereof) to suppress this aspect of himself makes for a compelling story, and the movie’s final shot will go down as one of the classics. This movie will be remembered and studied for years to come.

2. Inglorious Basterds – Directed By Quentin Tarantino

Allow me to get this off my chest: I had to spend a significant amount of time talking myself out of putting this at #1. While I finally settled on Inglorious Basterds not quite being the best movie of the year, it was definitely my favorite movie of the year. Why did I like it so much? Well, to start with, it’s a movie featuring an alternate history in which WWII was won by American Jews and French film geeks; as I represent both of those groups, it sort of felt like this movie was made especially for me—it allowed me to be the action hero that real life (and genetics) has cruelly denied me. But beyond how much Basterds obviously catered to my own small demographic, it is still undoubtedly a great movie. Howard Hawks, one of the greatest filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age, once said that the mark of a great movie was to have three great scenes and no bad ones. While that statement does oversimplify things a bit, it’s still an extremely useful idea as a sort of “great movie barometer,” as in, if a movie doesn’t have three great scenes, or does have a dud in there, then a burden of proof may exist on behalf of anyone arguing said movie’s greatness. Basterds, though, fits Hawks’ ruling perfectly. No scene was less than very good, while three of them stood out as true classics—the opening interrogation at the French dairy farm, the basement shootout (“fighting in a basement presents certain disadvantages, number one being, you’re fighting in a basement.”), and the reveal of the Basterds’ prowess with the Italian language when they arrive at the climactic movie premiere. And like all Tarantino movies, a great soundtrack (pilfered from vinyl dollar bins and old Ennio Morricone scores), fantastic camera work with some truly memorable individual shots, and heroes and villains so classic they’ve already entered the cultural consciousness are all standard fare. Much ado has been made of Tarantino’s decision to blatantly rewrite history (major spoiler: Hitler doesn’t die by his own hand in the movie), and while it never bothered me, I now feel very strongly about it as an artistic choice after recently revisiting the great 2007 film Atonement. That film ends with the reveal of a character having rewritten history to give long dead people the proper ending they never received in life. While it may not have even been intentional on his part, I feel that Quentin Tarantino has given the Jews that proper ending they never got the first time around; the chance to be the heroes, to end WWII themselves, and to kill Hitler before he could do it himself. No matter how fake the reality, there is serious value in the creation of that feeling. So why did I talk myself out of ranking Basterds number one? Because even though I love it all, I recognize that the film’s violence, absurdity, and stylistic arrogance may turn off some viewers, while The Hurt Locker is just classic filmmaking through and through. (Side tangent: I really think Howard Hawks would have liked Tarantino’s movies had he lived long enough to see one of them. They both place an emphasis on great dialogue as the foundation of great cinema. Tarantino even cited Hawks’ His Girl Friday as one of his own favorites in a 2002 poll.)

3. Up In The Air – Directed By Jason Reitman

In 2009’s only great movie about the world we live in right now, George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a loner employed by a soulless corporation to spend more than 300 days a year traveling from place to place for the sole purpose of informing people they’re fired, just so their own bosses don’t have to bother with it themselves. Not only does Bingham feel his job has real value to people—he helps them “transition” into a new life in which a fresh start will help them find their inner nirvana—it’s also speedily helping him reach his own life’s goal of earning ten million frequent flier miles (“more people have walked on the moon than have hit that number,” he tells us). But even though he believes himself to be the most streamlined of people, having disposed with any object or relationship that he didn’t need, Bingham becomes a metaphor for the lack of meaningful personal interaction in today’s overly digitized, on-the-go business world. He’s against the idea by fresh college grad Natalie (Anna Kendrick, in a subtly powerful performance) to start firing people via web-link, citing the need these people have for the personal touch that he can provide, but he doesn’t allow that personal touch to permeate his own existence. Only when he meets Vera Farmiga’s Alex does he begin to reevaluate himself. Three movies in (Thank You for Smoking and Juno were the first two), Jason Reitman—son of Ghostbusters director Ivan—has proven himself to be one of the best directors of the new century, and he’s gotten a little bit better and more self-assured with each movie. Working from a script he co-wrote, Reitman drew out the best acting of Clooney and Farmiga’s careers, pieced together a great soundtrack that improves the scenes without overwhelming them, and created the best opening credits sequence in recent memory—the kind that’s so good it makes you love the movie before it’s really even began.

4. Avatar – Directed By James Cameron

The first time I saw Avatar was a 7pm show on opening night, Friday, December 18th, and the theatre was maybe 30% full. I saw Avatar a second time exactly thirty days later, a Sunday afternoon show on January 17th, and I ended up in the far back corner of a sold out show. How many movies can do that? How many movies anymore feel like true cultural events? I understand the complaints levied against James Cameron’s futuristic epic—it removes the human element of moviemaking; it’s too preachy in its politics and messages; it’s about the white man rescuing a technologically inferior native culture; it’s a blatant remake of Dances With Wolves/Pocahontas/Fern Gully. People don’t realize, but similar complaints were levied against Star Wars back in ’77: it was racist, Mark Hammill couldn’t act, its plot was stolen from old Kurosawa samurai movies, etc. But Star Wars overcame these complaints by combining a classic hero myth with cutting edge special effects that captured the imaginations of audiences all over the world. It’s easy for people to scoff at the notion of comparing Avatar to Star Wars, but why? Visually, Avatar is every bit as groundbreaking. The CGI is so good at times that I literally lost the realization I was watching CGI. And even though I disagree with James Cameron that his motion capture techniques will be the future of acting, they are undeniably mesmerizing to watch. The only major thing that Star Wars did better than Avatar was its creation of a true mythology. With Avatar, you basically feel like you’re brought in at the beginning of the story, or at least as much of the beginning as you care about seeing. Part of the genius of Star Wars was the idea that it brought you in at the middle. There was a history there that Avatar didn’t manage to create in the same way. I was a bit frustrated at some of the minor thefts—a speech that hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) gives towards the end of the movie to unite the tribes felt like a word for word swiping of the “they can never take our freedom!” speech from Braveheart, and the climactic fight against the villain in the robot armor suit was so much like the end of Cameron’s own Aliens that I was legitimately expecting one of the characters to shout “get away from her you bitch!” But the biggest reason I have Avatar ranked 4th is that even though it feels bigger than any of the movies in the top three, it’s less of a complete work in the sense that it doesn’t draw strength from every avenue of filmmaking the way the top three do. Things like dialogue, acting, and music, while not awful, are certainly not Avatar’s best qualities. Ultimately for me, the importance of Avatar boils down to one thing: in 2005, in his review of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Roger Ebert said “This is the kind of movie that makes people fall in love with going to the movies.” That’s what Avatar is—a movie that will make people fall in love with seeing movies, whether all over again, or for the first time.

5. Precious – Directed By Lee Daniels

I truly believe that great movies can influence who we are, and the best movies can even change our lives. Precious is that kind of movie. The story of Precious (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe), a barely literate sixteen year-old girl living in Harlem in 1987 who was recently impregnated by her own father for the second time and gets routinely mentally and physically abused by her own mother, this movie really makes you feel with a capital F. It’s a story about how important it is to just be polite, to not only value people but to make them feel valued. While Sidibe is great as Precious, it’s Mo’Nique’s performance as her mother, Mary, that must rank as the year’s very best. For the first half of the movie, Mary is basically the antichrist, even going so far as to throw a TV at Precious and her newborn baby. But in the tearjerking climax, Mo’Nique’s jaw-dropping performance creates sympathy for her evil character even while it’s revealed that she knew her husband was raping Precious. The word powerful gets thrown around too often when describing movies, but no word could be more appropriate for Mo’Nique’s towering performance. A minor quibble: why was the movie set in 1987? Even if that’s when the book took place, the movie should have been moved to a contemporary setting. A period piece creates the subliminal perception that “this happened then, not now,” but people need to realize this sort of thing is still happening every day. So why is Precious stuck in fifth place? The top three movies on this list manage to simultaneously exist as both great art and great entertainment. Precious is not entertainment. I will likely never want to see it again, but I will just as likely never forget it.

6. (500) Days Of Summer – Directed By Marc Webb

An idiosyncratic comedy about getting over a love that never attainably existed, (500) Days of Summer is akin to Annie Hall for the Facebook hipster generation. Marc Webb (a music video veteran directing his first feature) draws on a wide range of styles and methods of moviemaking, using flashback, split screen, dance ensemble, animation, black and white, non-linear chronology, and differing points of view. What Summer does so successfully is create a feeling. I’ve long admired Almost Famous for so successfully recreating what it feels like to be in love with music. In that same vein, Summer perfectly captures what it feels like to be in love with someone that almost, nearly, just about… doesn’t quite love you back. Two scenes stand out as being perfect: the first, “best day ever” starts as Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Tom walks to work for the first time after getting in Summer’s pants. The happy-go-lucky stroll progresses from a few winks and high fives into a full blown song and dance number with what feels like the entire city congratulating him for getting laid, while Hall & Oates belt out “you make my dreams come true!” The second great scene chronicles two different versions of the day Tom believes he’s going to win Summer back. Done in split screen, the left side of the screen shows us how the evening would play out in Tom’s mind, while the right side of the screen is simultaneously revealing what really happened. Needless to say, the two halves of the screen are not symmetrical. With a fantastic soundtrack, plenty of funny moments, and winning performances from the stars (Zooey Decshanel plays Summer almost too well), (500) Days of Summer is the year’s best love story… except it’s not a love story. As the movie’s tagline tells us, it’s a story about love. Amen.

7. A Single Man – Directed By Tom Ford

The debut film by the world’s leading men’s fashion designer, you will never see a better looking movie. Every single shot and every single frame look like they were taken from a Vanity Fair photo spread. Colin Firth plays George Falconer, a British homosexual working as a college professor in 1962 Los Angeles. George’s lover of sixteen years perished in a car accident eight months ago, and after trying during that time to still view his life as worth living, he no longer sees the point. Chronicling, from start to finish, the day George has decided to end with his own suicide, A Single Man takes place almost entirely within George’s emotions. Subtly conveying everything he feels without ever completely letting his emotions boil over, Colin Firth gives the best lead acting performance of the year. The moment you realize how good he is comes during flashback, when George is informed via telephone call that his lover has just died. George doesn’t collapse in tears and screams, but rather looks like he can barely breathe. You can see it in his throat. Good supporting work is provided by best friend/fellow ex-patriot Charley (Julianne Moore) and bi-curious student Kenny (Nicholas Hoult—the nerdy kid from 2001’s About a Boy—all grown up and looking like a Calvin Klein model). Interviewed recently on Oprah, Tom Ford was asked about his motivations to go from fashion design to filmmaking. Fashion is fickle and ever changing, Ford explained, and even though it will always be his first love, he longed to create something permanent that could still be appreciated over time. He has.

Group B: The Very Good Movies

8. An Education – Directed By Lone Scherfig

In a movie about the ultimate value and purpose of a great education, Carey Mulligan turns in a powerful breakout performance as sixteen year-old Jenny, a bright young girl living in pre-Beatles London, 1961. Jenny is studying to get into Oxford, where she’ll be able to fully explore her love of jazz, great art, and great literature. But when a charming and wealthy older man named David (Peter Sarsgaard) begins seducing Jenny, she realizes she can live the life she’s dreamed of with him, and skip all of the hard work in between. Adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) from the memoirs of a noted journalist, An Education is a wonderful and thought-provoking film that features great supporting performances by Alfred Molina (Jenny’s father) and Emma Thompson (headmistress at Jenny’s school).

9. Up – Directed By Pete Docter

The latest in what is starting to feel like an assembly line of masterpieces from Pixar, Up is the story of a cranky old widower ready to go on his last great adventure. Like 2008’s Wall-E, all of the emotional complexity and beauty is packed into the first 15 minutes and then the fun really kicks in. Similar to The Hurt Locker, Up is a story about figuring out what creates meaning in your life, even if your wife has just passed away and it feels that your life no longer has any meaning. Featuring an army of talking dogs hunting exotic birds, a flying house touching down on a waterfall, a climactic confrontation on an air ship, and a heartbreaking four minute montage chronicling the entirety of a decades long relationship, Up is not to be missed.

10. District 9 – Directed By Neill Blomkamp

Using sci-fi and aliens to tell an edge of your seat apartheid parable, South African director Neill Blomkamp (guided by producer Peter Jackson) submitted a truly original vision. Sharlto Copley, one of the year’s best new acting discoveries, plays Wikus, a guy who normally sits behind a desk and is suddenly placed in charge of moving Johannesburg’s stranded alien visitors into a shabbily constructed camp meant to house them. After accidental exposure to an unknown substance, Wikus slowly begins to see the aliens’ viewpoint, quite literally. Feeling more like a fall drama than a summer action movie, District 9 is an exciting debut by a great new talent.

11. Star Trek – Directed By J.J. Abrams

In an effort to reboot the franchise, the plot of J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek was so blatantly stolen from the original Star Wars that during a scene with a young Kirk staring off in the distance at the construction of a new starship (The U.S.S. Enterprise, of course), they might as well have used archival footage of Luke Skywalker gazing at the twin suns of Tatooine. But if you can look past such an egregious theft, Star Trek is probably the most purely entertaining movie of the year. With great dialogue similar to what made Casino Royale such a successful reboot of the Bond franchise, strong character work, a brisk pace that barely scratches the two hour mark, and good CGI that never overwhelms the story, Star Trek is a nearly perfect popcorn flick. Best of all, though, is Chris Pine as the young Captain Kirk. It’s refreshing to see Hollywood finally get it right and give us a great young action star after so many years of getting it wrong (does anyone else remember a metro-sexual Orlando Bloom trying to carry Kingdom of Heaven?). Combining the rugged masculinity and swagger of Steve McQueen with the “how the hell did I get into this” everyman quality that Harrison Ford had a PhD in, Chris Pine proves to be the rare actor that can bring “star power” without actually being a star first. Take care of him Hollywood, he’s the real deal.

12. Crazy Heart – Directed By Scott Cooper

As Bad Blake, a journeyman country singer who’s seen better days, Jeff Bridges has found his best role since playing The Dude in the 1998 Coen Brothers classic The Big Lebowski. Relegated to playing gigs in bowling alleys, Blake spends more time drunk these days than trying to write new music, but meeting a young journalist played by Maggie Gyllenhaal inspires him to change his ways. With fantastic original songs written by T Bone Burnett (who also handled production of the soundtrack) and Ryan Bingham, the beautiful music is one of the best elements of the movie. The other, of course, is Bridges’ performance. To me, the best moment of the movie is when Bad Blake says to Gyllenhaal’s character, with genuine vulnerability, “I feel I oughtta apologize for bein’ less than you probably imagined me to be.” The amount of truth and pain in a statement like that is heartbreaking.

13. Logorama – Directed By H5

Is it possible that the most wholly original movie of the decade could be a sixteen minute animated short film? The last time I saw a movie that truly reminded me of NOTHING I had ever seen was over ten years ago with Being John Malkovich. Created by the French collective known only as H5, Logorama takes us to an alternate Los Angeles in which every single person, building, vehicle, tree, and object is an easily recognizable corporate logo. We are then given a short crime story in which Ronald McDonald holds Big Boy, Mr. Peanut, and the Pillsbury Doughboy hostage inside a Pizza Hut, while the Michelin Man police force attempts a rescue operation. Of course, a shootout occurs. And then an earthquake. The most amazing thing about Logorama has to be the legality of its existence. Ronald McDonald firing a machine gun while shouting “Die you fucking pigs?” Mr. Clean as a flamboyantly gay tour guide? Big Boy saying that the zoo “sucks balls?” The Jolly Green Giant with his jolly green dick barely covered up by a “parental advisory: explicit content” logo? How were these companies okay with this?!? I’ve sought an explanation on the internet but have come up empty. Not only is Logorama absurdly original and quite ridiculous, but the ending also plays with big themes and ideas. I have no idea if this will ever exist on DVD, but if it does, add it to your Netflix queue. You won’t be disappointed.

14. Moon – Directed By Duncan Jones

A minimalist Indie sci-fi flick about a remote engineer stationed on the moon discovering he may not really exist, Moon has a sort of Truman Show meets 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe. Sam Rockwell, as the movie’s only real actor, does a fantastic job holding the screen by himself (and sometimes with himself). First time filmmaker Duncan Jones created a compelling story of identity that will hopefully be the beginning of an interesting career. Just one complaint: given that Jones is the son of David Bowie, would it have been too much to ask for Rockwell’s character to be called Major Tom?

15. Black Dynamite – Directed By Scott Sanders

There’s a very fine line between loving homage and outright parody, and Black Dynamite straddles that line perfectly. What Grindhouse was to B-movies and Shaun of the Dead was to zombie movies, Black Dynamite is to Blaxploitation movies. Taking place in 1972 (and looking like it was made then), Michael Jai White stars as Black Dynamite (yup, that’s the only name he’s ever given), an afroed ex-CIA kung fu master who’s half Shaft/half James Bond. With orange tinted film, velour pimp suits, and kids going through smack withdrawal, Black Dynamite leaves no genre cliché left uncovered. The all-original music would have seamlessly fit onto a Sly & The Family Stone album from the era, and the surprise villain is hilarious. For some extra fun, try counting how many shots Dynamite gets out of his revolver during each shootout. To copy is easy, but to utterly recreate can be an art form. Black Dynamite is the latter.

16. A Serious Man – Directed By Joel & Ethan Coen

Oft-described as the most personal film those wacky Coen brothers have ever bequeathed to us, A Serious Man chronicles the ups and mostly downs of a suburban Minnesota Jewish family-man in the late 1960’s. Trying to juggle his wife’s infidelity, son’s impending Bar Mitzvah, brother’s ineptness at life, and upcoming decision on his tenure, Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) seeks the advice of three Rabbis and the Torah to help him manage a life that seems to be increasingly spiraling out of control. While the Coen brothers have usually found perfect ways to commence their films, my major complaint about A Serious Man is that the opening was poor. Even still, the typical Coen wit and quirk is present, and there’s a great scene featuring a rendezvous with the milf next door set to the classic Jefferson Airplane song “Today.”

17. Big Fan – Directed By Robert Siegel

The best and most heartbreakingly realistic sports movie in recent memory, Big Fan stars Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, a truly insane fan of the New York Giants who lives for their game days when he can watch his idol, quarterback Quantrell Bishop. After a real life encounter with Bishop goes nightmarishly wrong and Paul ends up hospitalized at the hands of the violent athlete, Paul must decide if pressing charges is something he can really do, considering Bishop’s absence would hurt the Giants’ playoff chances. To some people, Big Fan may seem ridiculous, but it has a lot to say about the ways so many of us allow sports to permeate our identities to the extent that they end up informing our sense of self.

18. Coraline – Directed By Henry Selick

Adapted from the children’s book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Coraline is the best non-Pixar animated film that we’ve seen in quite a few years. An “Alice in Wonderland” style tale of a girl who finds a secret world that seems far superior to her own, Coraline perfectly recreates the visual style that McKean brought to the original book. Dazzling and kaleidoscopic in 3D, Coraline is a great movie for imaginative kids… or kids afraid of their imaginations.

Group C: The Good Movies That I Really Wished Were Great

19. The Fantastic Mr. Fox – Directed By Wes Anderson

20. Where The Wild Things Are – Directed By Spike Jonze

Two of the most imaginative and groundbreaking directors of the last fifteen years tackling two classic children’s books, both featuring an all-star cast of voices? It’s possible my expectations were simply too high; I was ready for transcendent movies, and received movies that were only good. In both cases, I think there was on over reliance on the look of the characters providing the fun and humor, when the previews had already spoiled that possibility. Particularly in Where The Wild Things Are, I admired the ballsiness of taking a story with less than 400 total words and making a feature film out of it. The costumes and sets were outstanding, but the story and psychology were both too complex when the charm of the book was in the simplification and straightforwardness of the child’s melancholy. Really, the movie worked better as a trailer/Arcade Fire music video than as a feature, but all due respect to Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggars for shooting for the stars. Fantastic Mr. Fox, while being less ambitious, succeeds a little more, and I greatly enjoyed George Clooney as the title character. Like all Wes Anderson movies, the sets are remarkably intricate and could be stared at for hours, but the fun simply wears off too quickly.

21. Public Enemies – Directed By Michael Mann

After my holy trinity of Tarantino, Scorsese, and the Coen Brothers, Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider, Collateral) has always been a strong contender for my 4th favorite contemporary filmmaker. One of the greatest directors ever at setting film to music, and often the architect of some of the best camerawork ever captured on celluloid, Mann’s style has managed to lushly ravish my senses every time I’ve been subjected to it... until now. The problem with Public Enemies is that it just had no substance to it. All of the Mann trademarks were there, except the great story that he has always held up side by side with his resplendent visuals. I feel like Mann could see the look of the movie in his head so clearly that he basically treated the lack of a good script as an afterthought; after all, with Johnny Depp clad in a top coat and firing a tommy gun, what could go wrong? He was partially right—Mann and Depp make the movie completely watchable and decently entertaining when logic would dictate that it shouldn’t have been. But with that kind of director/star team-up capturing such a larger than life character, I hoped for greatness.

22. Invictus – Directed By Clint Eastwood

23. Nine – Directed By Rob Marshall

Funny how quickly things change—back in the fall (before anyone had actually seen them), everyone assumed these would be the two movies fighting each other for best picture. The directing prestige, subject matter, and acting talent were certainly all that you could you want, but the results… less so. Really, both movies suffered from versions of the same problem: Invictus is a sports movie with poorly executed sports scenes, and Nine is a musical with bad songs. Not only were the rugby match scenes in Invictus so poorly edited that the audience could never tell who was winning or how much time was left (or, in some cases, which match it even was), but the movie suffered from serious wishful thinking that an American audience would even understand the game of rugby. Sorry, but we don’t. Fantastic performances by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, as well as a lofty subject with a feel good ending, do their part to make the movie fairly entertaining and enjoyable, but nothing more. Nine, adapted from the stage play of the same name (which was adapted from the 1963 masterpiece of Italian cinema, Federico Fellini’s 8 ½) is visually lush with great camera work and so many A-list actors that you literally lose track of them. But, you simply can’t have a musical in which the songs don’t have memorable melodies. As he so often does, Daniel Day Lewis turns in a performance so good that it nearly saves the movie from its flaws. Nearly.

24. The Road – Directed By John Hillcoat

A quick math equation for you: what do you get when you subtract the warrior from the 1981 post-apocalyptic action classic The Road Warrior? Both semantically and metaphorically, you end up with 2009’s The Road, a beautifully rendered film that lacks enough of a plot to truly make an impression. The imagery is stark and haunting, and Viggo Mortensen’s performance as a father just trying to help his kid survive in a dead world is powerful, but when the movie ends, you don’t totally feel like anything happened. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 Pulitzer winner, I suspect the only mistake director John Hillcoat (who also gave us the 2005 Aussie western The Proposition) made was in choosing material that wouldn’t translate well to film.

Group D: The Very Entertaining Movies

25. The Hangover – Directed By Todd Phillips

The latest in the recent plethora of truly hilarious R-rated comedies (Wedding Crashers, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Borat, Superbad, Tropic Thunder, and Role Models have all been gifted to audiences over the last five years), The Hangover became the first of them to edge beyond “hit” and move into “box office conqueror” territory. Even though that financial status guarantees we’ll be seeing at least ten Hangover rip-offs over the next few years, for now, it still feels pretty original. Documenting the aftermath of a bachelor party that is never totally shown, The Hangover is sort of like Memento, except, well, hungover.

26. I Love You Man – Directed By John Hamburg

A funny and endearing movie about the deep need for a fulfilling bromance in every man, and the occasional desire to just retire to your man cave, crank up some Rush, and let fly with the air guitar. Bonus points go to Lou Ferigno for playing himself and to the most ridiculous group of groomsmen ever captured on film.

27. The Brothers Bloom – Directed By Rian Johnson

Rian Johnson thrives with bizarre amalgamations—his quite good 2006 debut Brick took the classic noir of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and set it in the labyrinthine world of a Beverly Hills, 90210-esque high school, while his new movie has a “Wes Anderson directs The Grifters” vibe. Both movies have had their share of style over substance faults, but both have also been eminently enjoyable, especially Rachel Weisz as Bloom’s Penelope—a loopy heiress whose hoarding of bizarre hobbies furthers her complete social ineptitude. Johnson is a very talented director who just needs to find his own voice.

28. Drag Me To Hell – Directed By Sam Raimi

Horror master Sam Raimi’s much ballyhooed return to the genre that sired him back in the 80’s (he debuted with the deservedly classic Evil Dead movies) after the unholy disaster that was Spider-Man 3 brings to mind the classic quote from The Shawshank Redemption about how a man can “crawl through 500 yards of shit-smelling foulness and come out clean on the other side.” Raimi’s best horror movies had always been two parts Exorcist vigorously stirred with one part Marx Brothers; at a time when so-called “torture-porn” has monopolized the genre, Drag Me to Hell was a refreshing and entertaining change of pace.

29. Taken – Directed By Pierre Morel

One of the year’s more preposterous movies (as another writer pointed out, the most ridiculous aspect of the movie may be the assumption that seventeen year-old girls would listen to U2), it is nonetheless 2009’s most entertaining pure action movie. Briskly moving along at barely 90 minutes, it’s all-killer, no-filler with a thoroughly badass Liam Neeson leading the way in some great action set pieces. It’s also surprisingly rewatchable as an HBO time-waster.

30. Zombieland – Directed By Ruben Fleischer

Anytime Bill Murray plays himself in a zombie movie that is partially about the search for fresh Twinkies in a post-apocalyptic world, you can count me in.

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