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John’s 10 Biggest Movie Surprises of 2009

I’ll be up front with you: the list you’re about to read wasn’t what I had in store for you. As I sat at my desk and prepared to crank out what would be another top ten list of 2009, I realized that I was utterly ill-equipped to do so. As many great films as I witnessed this year, I missed just as many that I’m sure I’d enjoy: A Serious Man. The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Hurt LockerThe Brothers Bloom.

I know. Just thinking about it makes me sick. But I saw enough to be confident in saying that 2009 was an extremely good year for movies — from blockbusters to indie pictures, we’ve witnessed some great films and surprising debuts from unique filmmakers.

What follows isn’t a list of the “best” films of 2009, but instead is a list of the most surprising, excellent and notable items that will define this year in my memory as a movie-goer. Enjoy.


10. How Zach Snyder and Spike Jonze changed the rules of adaptation

(Watchmen and Where the Wild Things Are)

The story of filmmakers crumbling under compromise — or worse, that of filmmaker mangling good material — is a familiar one to anyone acquainted with the world of movies. Gavin Hood showed us what it was like this year with X-Men Origins, while Michael Bay stuffed Transformers 2 with every robot known to the franchise for the sake of selling more toys. Comic book and novel adaptations have notoriously gotten this raw deal — Batman was left in ruins before Christopher Nolan arrived on the scene; Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was tarnished. It’s a difficult, daunting task — how does one craft a film of substance while adhering to established canon, being faithful to detail while making a property his own?

Zach Snyder and Spike Jonze might be the first two filmmakers to consider these questions and then slap them right in the face before saying this is the movie I want to make. Studio interference and toy sales be damned. For Snyder, this meant crafting an unrelentingly faithful adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, one that strayed only to make a more cinematic climax. While Nolan took comic book adaptations into a dark territory with Batman Begins and The Dark KnightWatchmen is a uniquely adult take on graphic novel tropes. Apparently all the parents with children in audiences weren’t clued into this little fact.

For Jonze, this meant taking the sparse and ambiguous Where the Wild Things Are and shaping it into a meditation on youthful exuberance, aggression and fear. He could have made another Shrek, but instead chose to make one of the least patronizing and certainly the most innovative “family film” of the decade.


9. How Jason Reitman and Marc Webb reminded me what falling in love is really like

(Up in the Air and (500) Days of Summer)

In what other year have we been audiences for not one but two of the most honest, creative and down-to-earth takes on the romantic comedy genre?

We’d be lucky enough to receive Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, a great love letter against the perils of falling in and out of love. Directed with more musical zest and life than any romance in memory, Webb’s film paints a picture of love that is well-rounded — not in the sense that it paints Zooey Deschanel’s Summer with equal depth as Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s young hipster, but in the sense that the entire arc of love is summarized. Isn’t this essentially the story of most loves you’re familiar with? Cut from the same cloth as The Graduate, Webb’s first foray into feature film left me incredibly excited to see what else he has up his sleeve.

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air is a stretch to define as being a romantic comedy; in many ways it’s more of an examination of a lifestyle choice. While I didn’t fall head-over-heels for the film as many others did, what was striking about the film was its grounding of the characters — every person in Up in the Air feels completely real, and relationships between these human beings proceed in the movie as you’d expect. But then again, nothing can be expected; Reitman’s script defies genre constraint at every corner.


8. How actors close to (or of) my generation are coming into their own

I felt a sense of loss along with everyone else when Heath Ledger passed away in 2008, as if I had lost an actor that was a part of my generation, one of a group of actors that represented me, personally. Watching Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus only reaffirmed this  — the absence of his talent has left a vacuum that we’d never be able to understand unless we could see what would have been.

On the flip side of that coin, however, 2009 was host to a surprising amount of good and great performances from actors in their prime: Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie in Coppola’sTetro, Anton Yelchin in Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation (say what you want about the film, but his Kyle Reese was the best part), Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland.

These are only a few examples, but the point stands: the child actors who were once associated with my generation are now becoming actors, and that’s a really cool thing.


7. How Greg Mottola made a film that essentially defines my young adulthood


It’s possible that no film has so specifically and directly spoken to me as I sat in the theater as Greg Mottola’s Adventureland did this year. As a college student facing the looming burden of overwhelming possibilities, Jesse Eisenberg’s James Brennan is living out my life on screen.

I’m sure that I’m not alone — Mottola’s film is so well crafted that it will undoubtedly be a signature film for many of those people who viewed it around my age, the way so many John Hughes coming-of-age films are seen. Adventureland is every bit as moving and insightful as it is hilarious, and like so many of the films of 2009, it is down to earth in a way that is refreshing and invigorating.

I don’t know if Mottola’s is the best film of 2009, but time might prove that it’s the most important to me.


6. How Francis Ford Coppola proved he could still bring the goods


I had grown accustomed to thinking of Francis Ford Coppola as the director with nothing left to prove. After The Godfather saga and Apocalypse Now, what was left to do but decline into luxurious fame and relaxation?

I was wrong. After more recent failures like Youth Without Youth, Coppola burst back onto the scene this year with Tetro, a film so thematically and aesthetically beautiful that it in many ways consolidates all of the achievements he has attained in his career.

Tetro raked in just over $500,000, but can’t be evaluated in terms of box office fare. The performances from Alden Ehrenreich, Vincent Gallo and Maribel Verdu are exquisite, embedded within a film that is shot more beautifully than any other this year — I can’t wait to see it on Bluray.


5. How J.J. Abrams reminded the world what a summer blockbuster could be

(Star Trek)

While I love Star Trek like my own child and I was an easy mark for J.J Abrams’ reboot in the first place, I never would have expected him to deliver on all fronts the way he did. The new Star Trek did more than set the bar for reboots in general — it is one that allows all continuity to be essentially morphed, but maintains the integrity of all that preceded it — but also proved itself to be the best popcorn flick in a long, long time.

It’s a film that’s satisfying on a surface level but also doesn’t pander to non-Trek fans. By serving as both prequel and sequel to the original series and films, it both pushes the franchise in the right direction and acts as a love letter to all that came before.

In terms of rewatchability, Star Trek might be unparalleled this year: Zachary Quinto’s Spock and Chris Pine’s Kirk capture the essence of what made these characters great at the dawn of the series. From casting to the impeccable pacing and forward momentum of the script, Star Trek is a marvelous piece of entertainment that will be on heavy rotation in DVD and Bluray players for a long time to come.


4. How much Gavin Hood and Chris Weitz tried to make me claw at my eyes/break my own spine

(X-Men Origins: Wolverine and New Moon)

I’ve already made my peace with the fact that X-Men Origins and New Moon are terrible, terrible movies. Unfortunately, I’ve probably written about them more than I have the films that I loved this year.

For the latter, I knew I had it coming: the premise of these books is horribly demeaning to women as well as derivative and simply stupid. Wolverine, however, had a background of years of subject material to lay a foundation, as well as two excellent films by Bryan Singer to get the wheels greased. I had been prepared for the fact that Wolverine wasn’t all that great by reports from early screenings, but I simply had no idea.

From my original review: “Wolverine is a turgid, awful piece of garbage, betraying the affection Hugh Jackman has for the lead character and pilfering the original three films of all their interesting components. A quick glance at the majority of big reviews out there won’t lie to you: Wolverine is a mess. … more like a cartoon spin-off than part of the same canon, it’s the stupid beginning of what’s bound to be a much better summer season for films. On DVD, it’ll make for a great drinking game. But the best part of X-Men Origins is this: I watched Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood afterward to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. And it was glorious.”


3. How two newbies made a couple of the defining science fiction films of the decade

(Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Duncan Jones’ Moon)

I’m not sure you could say that Neill Blomkamp and Duncan Jones reinvented the wheel with their films — the former’s follows an action formula while the latter is a 50/50 Hitchcock/Kubrick split — but we were lucky to get actual science fiction in the first place.

While Blade Runner has given way to action pictures like Surrogates, it feels as if District 9 and Moon came from a different era in filmmaking, one grounded in storytelling and hell-bent on attaching you to the plight of central characters. Moon is a terrific mystery with a central performance by Sam Rockwell that’s so well-rounded it could be adapted into a stage production. District 9 builds an entire world upon our own, integrating a CGI species with human actors almost seamlessly.

And both were executed by first time directors with relatively little cash and resources, with all the prowess you’d expect from seasoned veterans.  With imaginations like these, both Blomkamp and Jones shot to the top of my radar.


2. How Quentin Tarantino made a legitimate ode to the art of cinema

(Inglourious Basterds)

Tarantino has straddled the line between homage and thievery for quite some time. He gets away with it because he’s so talented to his very core. But there’s an odd detachment I’ve always felt when watching Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction — as great as those films are, they exist in my mind in some separate spectrum of existence from everything Tarantino is being reverent to.

Inglourious Basterds blurred that line completely, and is a watershed moment for Tarantino’s development as a director. The opening of the film isn’t just an homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, nor is it simply embedding it within another genre, but instead creates something completely innovative. We are at once aware that we’re familiar with the sort of images we’re seeing, but can’t deny that we’ve never seen anything like this before.<

No other movie this year (and perhaps this decade) succeeded in intertwining so many elements so effortlessly, into a film that’s both schlocky spectacle and a unique ode to everything cinema has delivered us. And I haven’t even touched upon the character of Hans Landa!

It’s a cliché, but Inglourious Basterds is the definition of being greater than the sum of its parts.

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1. How much I enjoyed James Cameron’s Avatar

As I stated in my review of Avatar (which you can find here): I wanted so badly to hate James Cameron’s new film, to prove his mentality of excess was a failing venture. The blue cat people looked stupid to me. I didn’t get it, and I didn’t think I wanted to.

I’ve seen it three times as of today, and it is as engaging of an experience the third time as it is the first. My glowing opinion of the film has been questioned, both by friends and by extremely well-written articles that expose the faults of the film (seriously, if you haven’t read Elisabeth Rappe’s piece, do so here). Quite honestly, I can’t deny the weaknesses they’re pointing out — the story here is as simple and black and white as they come.

But that doesn’t stop me from loving the film on its own terms — this is a science fiction fantasy, complete escapism, and Cameron’s tactics engrossed me completely. It’s a showcase, spectacle film, and while you can logically tear it to shreds (and you should — I’m not saying there isn’t merit to analyzing a blockbuster, as many fools have been saying lately), if you open yourself to the adrenal and visual rollercoaster that Cameron has made, you will love Avatar as well.