15. Adventureland (dir. Greg Mottola)
Here you have a movie that not only successfully captures wishful love between two teenager (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart) as they spend their summer working at an amusement park, Adventureland also successfully captures the spirit of the eighties (in the same manner that Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti examined their respective eras). Eisenberg excels at being this bumbling insecure type of boy while Stewart matches his insecurity with a sexually neurotic demeanor.
14. District 9 (dir. Neil Blomkamp)
The most original film of the year, District 9 uses the racial overtones of setting the movie in South Africa to then take a jarring look at how humanity would realistically react to alien visitors. The film also has a visual intensity that only increases the paranoia surrounding the dark conspiracy of what Earth's government plans to do to those that are just simply different than them. Sharlto Copley's performance is also a key component to the already emotionally wrenching story-line.
13. Big Fan (dir. Robert Siegel)
Siegel (writer of The Wrestler) takes the story of two New York Giants fans (Patton Oswalt and Kevin Corrigan) and instead of creating this obsessiveness that moviegoers would expect from something like Fatal Attraction, Siegel is one of the first filmmakers to deal with the positive aspects of being a "fanboy." Siegel's understanding of character benefits his two actors as they both enter the realm of dramatic acting to a great surprise. I hope directors take a cue and begin casting these two comedians in more serious material.
12. The Girlfriend Experience (dir. Steven Soderbergh)
This haunting (only in tone, not in content) story of a woman (Sasha Grey) who may appear as a call-girl but is really an expert at acting intimate, is set against the backdrop of the recent decline of the U.S. economy. Normally this would be too strong of a statement to make in this kind of film, but the crew behind this low-budget movie uses that to create a sense of chaos as all of these rich men turn to this girl who is willing to, for one night, be in love with them. The film becomes something else entirely when it begins to ask, how does this affect HER sense of well-being?
11. A Serious Man (dir. Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
The Coens are known for writing and directing films about sinners, but what about making a movie where sinners turn to faith to save themselves? Michael Stuhlbarg stars (in his breakout performance) as a Jewish man whose life completely sucks (dumb kid, cheating wife, low-paying job) so he turns to both God and pot to sort everything out. The Coens's character study of a soul trapped by society's carelessness reminds us that those who stick out, can tend to be the most sane. Oh, and there is a lot of Yiddish dialogue to listen to as well. You have to appreciate that.
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)
The whole film looks like someone took a box of arts-and-crafts from a kindergarten classroom and then managed to create an animation style that is so visually detailed, you can't help but wish this caper film would slow down so you could admire everything that you are looking at. The over-the-top story, based on the book by Roald Dahl, is Anderson's first animated film but quite possibly one of his most genuine. Without the presence of human actors, he uses stop-motion techniques to create a memorably funny experience for audiences of all ages.
9. 500 Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)
This premise of this film is not just a gimmick, but it actually puts a lot of the elements of a relationship into perspective. Thanks to the performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, we gain insight into what goes into those moments where one breaks up/falls in love/has sex/gets jealous/moves in/discovers they love the same music with the man or woman that they love. Although this might seem like "Memento the romantic comedy," you instead have a film that is just as convincing when watched in chronological order... or reverse... or jumbled up.
8. Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)
Jonze's third visually stunning film features these monsters called Wild Things and thanks to a variety of special effects, we come to view each one as having their own different and unique personality. In a sense, each represents a part of the imagination of Max (played by newcomer Max Records), a young boy who is just learning what it means to grow up. The film makes arguments for both the pros and cons of being a highly imaginative youth, but at the end of the day, childhood doesn't last and that is the tragedy that Jonze's film examines.
7. I Love You Man (dir. John Hamburg)
This story about male bonding is also a close examination of love and friendship and where the two intertwine and drift apart. The film is full of memorable catch-phrases, one-liners, and gags all bought to you by an large ensemble cast (led by Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, and Rashida Jones... all of whom you find it hard to dislike in most of their roles). The only movie that came close to this level of original comedy was The Hangover but I gravitated towards the deeper relationship examinations that I Love You Man allows the audience to experience. I still recommend both, if I was just forced to pick one, Rudd slapping the bass wins out.
6. Coraline (dir. Henry Selick)
This adaptation of Neil Gaiman's children's book is turned into a superior film version that uses the story (Gaiman also wrote the screenplay) to reveal this offbeat psychological study of being a "have" vs. a "have not." The protagonist of Coraline wishes for something better but only until she experiences that her life could be worse does she beg for this unconscious forgiveness (which is obviously true for most people, we don't realize how spoiled we are until we compare ourselves to the impoverished or repressed). This film is one of the few that should be watched in 3-D as the effect creates depth and doesn't just act as a way to shock or surprise the viewer.
5. Precious (dir. Lee Daniels)
Gabourey Sidibe plays Precious as this grim and depressed girl who has nothing to say. If you were to pass her on the sidewalk you wouldn't care much about any of her dilemmas. Daniels, Sidibe, and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher connect us to this poor abused girl who is the victim of despair in the inner-city. Mo'Nique gives my favorite performance of the year as Precious's abusive mother who when asked to justify her abuse (and I might add, the abuse scenes are very difficult to watch) she delivers this monologue that actually made me tear up and begin to cry. It's one of the most powerful and perhaps realistic experiences movie-goers will have this year.
4. Up (dir. Pete Doctor)
In a banner year for animation, Pixar's Up is about a man (voiced by Ed Asner) who needs adventure and friendship to remember the excitement brought on by the woman he lost. The film actually has multiple themes which leads me to realize that Pixar seems to understand storytelling so well that it amazes me how this decade (with Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and now Up) that Pixar has become the leading animation studio. They are known for making films that are equally appealing to adults as they are to children and now with Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird planning on making live action films, they've bred a new generation of filmmakers as well.
3. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
The most entertaining film of the year is a dazzling vision of a fictional account of World War II in which a "Dirty Dozen"-style team of American soldiers bring down the Nazi regime with the help of a Jewish French girl (Melanie Laurent) looking for vengeance against those who destroyed her family. Filled with well-written dialogue and a variety of colorful characters, the star of the film is Christoph Waltz as Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa, an evil genius that is as charming as he is deadly (he's like a combination of Bardem's Anton Chigurh and Ledger's The Joker, and with Waltz poised to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, it seems that the best supporting roles are being written for the villains).
2. The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
The Hurt Locker follows Jeremy Renner as a man who serves his country by being the brightest bomb defusing expert in the U.S. army. During a memorable scene where he takes off his bomb suit (so that if he dies, he'll "die comfortably") we get a glimpse of a character that is hooked on adrenaline. We've seen these characters before but never like this. Never in a story that has no politics but just functions as an examination of how we as humans deal with war. The film is arguably the most intense and exciting film this year aside from District 9, but The Hurt Locker should also be noted as the first film to understand the struggles of the modern soldier who at this very moment could be deciding whether to cut the red wire or the blue wire. The rest of the cast is also superb.
1. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)
This film is many things but mainly it's a smart character study, a witty comedy, and a look at the tough social and economic times we live in. Clooney (with his usual old-school Hollywood charm) stars as Ryan Bingham, a lonely man who just flies around the country to fire people from their jobs. He doesn't have much of a home or a friend but he soon discovers two women that ground him both professionally and personally. Personally there is Vera Farmiga's character whose relationship leads to this tragic reveal but professionally there is Anna Kendrick's character who makes Bingham realize why we as human beings need to be grounded to something. This performance is second only to Clooney's character of Michael Clayton but it still establishes the actor as more than just a rugged face for the tabloids as he proves many a skeptic wrong time and time again.