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Arts and Entertainment

The Ten Best Films I Saw in 2009

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This is my third year-end best list for LAist (2007, 2008), and it ain't getting any easier. I could easily list forty films that are worth your time and money, but that would get all sorts of unwieldy and expensive so I'll limit it to the traditional ten. I won't even try to rank them. All I'll say is that each one captured my imagination in a unique way, and each still lingers clearly in my memory. There's a mixture of studio and independent films, documentary and narrative -- in short, something for everyone. If there are any films listed below that you haven't seen, I urge you to spin up your Netflix queue and go add them now. Also, if there's anything you believe I've criminally ommitted, please let me know and I'll be happy to joust with you in the comments.

Happy New Year!


(500) Days of Summer

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How good of a film is (500) Days of Summer? It's so good that I can't even watch it anymore. Here's the thing -- the film tells the story of a romance doomed from the start. He thinks that she is the Girl, while she thinks he is just a guy. Sure, they have fun -- maybe they even love each other for a little while -- but the clock was ticking on this relationship from the first moment. For anyone who has ever had their heart broken by someone who was just wasn't as into it as you were, this film will feel awfully familiar. Maybe too familiar to handle while the wounds are still fresh. Director Marc Webb reveals a Los Angeles that the provincial (e.g. people from the Northeast) don't believe exists, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are perfectly cast as the Earnest Young Man and the Fascinating But Flighty Girl. I'll always think of Ford Street when I see this film.

The rest of the list is after the jump!

An Education

I saw four actors dominate their respective films this year. One of them was Carey Mulligan in Lone Scherfig's An Education. Every moment she is onscreen, you can't steal your eyes away. Even though the story is fairly conventional-- young girl from a traditional family comes of age in 1960s England -- at no point are you ever really sure where the film is going. All you see is Mulligan, and all you do is willingly follow her. Alfred Molina is hilarious as her bumptious father and Peter Saarsgard does his usual solid work as her prospective lothario (Rosamund Pike and Dominic Cooper are equally good as his cohorts), but the film is Mulligan's entirely.

Anvil!: The Story of Anvil!

To anyone who has ever pursued a dream only to give it up because it appeared too elusive to catch, I present the men of Anvil. The film opens with a heavy metal festival from the early 1980s. Virtually every band onstage that day would go on to achieve some measure of glory and fame. Except for one. Anvil. Cut to the present day and Anvil is still chugging along in frigid Canada. Sure the lead singer and guitarist of the band has to deliver food to make ends meet, but he still rocks out whenever a gig can be secured by the band's unstable management. I won't spoil anymore of the film than that -- please see it -- but I will say that the band does eventually secure a little bit of that elusive glory and fame. And it's great (and often hysterical) to watch.

Big River Man

Martin Strel is a man so preposterous that you almost can't believe he is even real. You see, Martin Strel is an environmentalist who draws attention to his cause by swimming the great rivers of the world. That he is obese and usually drunk to some degree -- for he believes that he draws his power from wine -- only adds to the improbability of it all. In Big River Man, Martin decides to swim the entire 3000+ mile length of the Amazon River. You know, the river inhabitied by crocodiles and piranha. Does Martin lose his mind on the journey? Sure. Strip to the nude and run off to hide on an island? Absolutely. Become so exhausted that he almost dies and eventually loses the ability to walk? Yep! But does he swim the entire river? Rent it and see.

The Cove

The Cove may be the most powerful advocacy documentary that I have ever seen. It tells a story so horrifying that it's hard to believe it's actually true. Most of you have probably been to a marine park and seen a dolphin performance of some kind. Do you know where most of those dolphins are caught? There's a small cove in Japan where dolphins are driven into the shallows by what can only be called acoustic terrorism. The prime specimens are picked out by wranglers and shipped off to Sea Worlds around the globe. And the ones who aren't selected? Well, there's another nearby cove where those extra dolphins are herded. To slaughter. The Cove not only tells an amazing and powerful story, it is a thrillingly cinematic film that will have you leaving the theater saddened and angry.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox

Many people deride Wes Anderson's films as being too precious and affected. They take place in "Wes World" it's said -- a surreal and particular universe where everyone is clever and well-dressed and never too terribly emotional. Me -- I love Wes World and while Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stop-motion animated film, it inhabits the same Wes World as Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited. George Clooney puts his stamp on his third great performance of the year, but Wallace Wolodarsky steals the movie as the wonderfully inept Kylie. It would be awesome (and well-deserved) if this film received a Best Oscar nomination for costumes.

In the Loop

Above, I mentioned that I saw four truly great performances this year. One of those was Carey Mulligan. Another was Peter Capaldi in In The Loop. His Malcolm Tucker is rude, bullying, profane -- "The Prince of Fucking Darkness" as he styles himself. Here's a small sample of his brilliant dialogue: "Within your 'purview'? Where do you think you are, some fucking regency costume drama? This is a government department, not some fucking Jane fucking Austen novel! Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock!" The tragic run-up to the Iraq War was clearly, in retrospect, a time dominated by poor decisions. In The Loop does nothing to gloss over the awful and cowardly choices that were made then, but it sure makes them seem fucking funnier.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

I'm still not entirely sure what to make of The Men Who Stare at Goats. I know that some of it is based on true events, but I have no idea as to exactly what. The story is all over the place and nothing ever makes complete sense. That said, I couldn't take my eyes off it. It's weird -- devoutly weird -- but so full of invention and whimsy that it's easy to forgive its occasional lapses. Ewan McGregor seems mostly lost in the film, but his performance is more than made up for by the fantastic turns of George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and a moustache-twirling Kevin Spacey. A mass, expressionistic dance sequence on an Army base may be the most inspired and funniest scene in any film this year.

A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers are the finest filmmakers currently working in America. There's really no argument for me. In A Serious Man they take us to the Jewish suburbs of Minnesota to tell a Job-like story about a man (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose life is collapsing around him. His wife is leaving him for another man (the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant Fred Melamed); he may not get tenure thanks to the machinations of a scheming student; and his brother (Richard Kind) is about to hit bottom. Add in his son's Bar Mitzvah (funniest Bar Mitzah ever recorded on film) and his sexy, nude neighbor and it's amazing that Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik can barely function at all. But he does, even in the face of overwhelming hardship. The final shot of this film is a masterpiece.


Pixar can seemingly do no wrong and with Up they have probably made their best film to date. Following a tearjerker of a beginning, Carl Fredericksen hitches thousands of balloons to his house and sets sail for Paradise Falls in South America. Unexpectedly, a young, annoying stowaway has come along for the ride and the surreal adventure they go on together seals a lifelong bond. Pixar films are always sumptuously animated and cleverly told. Up overflows with both elements and a good deal of loopy humor. Yeah, it's getting a bit old hat to praise Pixar films, but how can you argue with what they produce? It's brilliant stuff.


Above, I mentioned the sterling performances of both Carey Mulligan and Peter Capaldi. In a just world, both will be polishing Oscars in a few months. The other two great performances I saw this year came from movies that missed my top ten, but I still wanted to mention them. Bronson isn't a great movie, but Tom Hardy is great at being Bronson. His performance is so full of violence and insanity that it was hard to tell if he was acting or not. In any case, it's an amazing job that you should seek out. I almost included Inglourious Basterds in this top ten list, but excised it at the last moment. What I won't ignore, though, is the amazing performance by Melanie Laurent. Forget Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz, she is the one who owns this movie.

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