As you will note, I am entitling this grouping of posts, "Top Experiences" because I understand that one guy with very specific tastes cannot truly see or judge the quality of every piece of culture for any year, even if he is a pretty discerning film watcher or music listener. It is impossible to properly judge the movie of the year, unless he is paid to see each and every film (and actually sees them). Of course, sometimes it is impossible to judge which is better between such disparate genres as we saw in 2007 (is Ratatouille superior to There Will be Blood? Is No Country for Old Men better made or more artful than The Bourne Ultimatum? How can one compare The Diving Bell and The Butterfly to Knocked Up or King of Kong? They are each singularly brilliant, but radically different usages of lighting, script, camera and editing equipment). To be sure bias creeps in, as it does with music (my specialty), drink, literature and food. I fully acknowledge this while still assuming my superior opinion on most things.
The top experience is even more apropos when speaking of films. Unlike music or television, I am unable to experience everything put out within that calendar year. If I live in any city not named New York or Los Angeles, many of the best films of the year will not be seen until January or February, so I am unable to judge, as a Tampanian movies like The Messenger, A Serious Man or Crazy Heart. If I take my task as an unpaid critic with less than 100 readers seriously I cannot compile my list until I have seen at least what is available for the year, which is why I am running to the Redbox and Blockbuster for last minute screenings and trying to schedule times to see Up in the Air and Avatar before the year runs out. Still, since I am not a professional I do not have to feel any guilt that I have not built up the intestinal fortitude to sit through Precious or The Road (I will, but not yet. I am still recovering from Dexter’s season finale).
But since this is about experience, I am comfortable with my present list. it is all about how these films affected me. It is why my #1 is #1. It is the best film of the year, plus it is entertaining and a great film experience. It is also why Zombieland makes my list. Sure, it is not one of the best films of the year, but it is one of the best film experiences of the year (same with The Hangover). So, here is the list.
20. Away We Go- First of all, I must admit my disdain for Sam Mendes, the director of this flick. The maker of a number of overrated pieces of supercilious treacle, I only ventured into this experience because I love my wife and like Dave Eggars, the writer. I enjoyed it, even though it was mired in cliché and stereotypes in a way James Cameron would have been embarrassed by. Very seldom am I drawn to a film that is so flawed and has such an arrogance of the natural superiority of its main characters to all others that orbit around them in a film. It was enjoyable because Kristi and I saw ourselves throughout the film and the acting is top notch.
19. It Might Get Loud- While I would have picked Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead or Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine over Jack White, I will not fault the filmmaker for his oversight of my generation (I guess there is about 15-16 years between each guitarist). I love watching these guys talking about the craft of music making and letting us in the creative process more than Behind The Music ever did.
18. Star Trek- Compared to most reviewers and fans, I had major problems with the film, finding it terribly flawed and a little too enamored with its own special effects. However, Chris Pine captures Capt. Kirk with such ease that even Shatner could not do, even though he created the role. I felt it was a disservice to Zachary Quinto, the new Spock, to have him share time with Leonard Nimoy. It was a reminder that Quinto was playing Spock, while Nimoy is Spock. The plot was convoluted and broke cardinal SciFi/ time travel rules, but it was terribly entertaining when it wasn't trying to impress you.
17. Ponyo- The prettiest animated film of the year.
16. Food, Inc.- Not an enjoyable experience to watch America's animals, food and people(consumers and producers/ farmers) treated with such disregard by major corporations, but enlightening even to those of us that have been involved in the fight for a number of years. The interview with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms is worth the price of the DVD.
15. (500) Days of Summer- I hate rom coms and did find a few too many avoidable clichés apparent, but it is fresh and I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a force to be reckoned with for years to come. I think his time with John Lithgow on 3rd Rock was instrumental to his maturity as an actor at such a young age.
14. Coraline- There were a lot of really good animated films for adults this year, huh? I like that.
13. Zombieland- It is basically the same film as The Road, but funnier. It was no Shaun of the Dead, but this was the second most fun thing to sit through in a theater after #3. The performances were pitch perfect, especially Woody Harrelson and the "cameo that cannot be named." Do not dismiss this flick, especially if you have an even slightly demented sense of humor. The zombies are really just a conceit for a Road-Based Buddy Comedy.
12. Sugar- Second best "little" movie of the year, Sugar catches you off guard and becomes the ant-sports film, throwing aside classic clichés of movies like Blindside, the Rookie and Remember the Titans, going for universal and realism instead. I applaud a sports film that sports fans and non fans can enjoy and think on. It is the ying for a perfect chick flick's yang.
11. Avatar- Dumb plot. Imbecilic dialog. Too preachy. Very ,very cool.
10. Inglourious Basterds- Did I spell it right? Not the masterpiece Tarantino promised us and still well short of Pulp Fiction, but it is a Top 3 by him and he is finally showing a bit (just a bit) of maturity, holding back on some of his excesses for to move the story forward. I had hoped this would be much better and the ending did leave me terribly cold (the last act in general). That said, the acting is top notch with the most appealingly repulsive Nazi since Schindler's List.
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox- A slight disappointment due to my love of Wes Anderson, but still masterful. What have we learned from Anderson's children's flick? What we already knew. Anderson's visual sense and framing of shots has found its perfect format. Each of Anderson's films feels a bit animated, so this is a natural progression for him. The highlight of the film is the use of "cuss' for actual cuss words, as in "clustercuss" which should become the word of the year.
8. Up!- I don't think the guys at Pixar like girls (they have never had one as a lead), but they seem to like really old men and talking dogs (best talking dogs in a film ever- is there an Oscar for this?). The opening scene is my kind of melancholy, like what Watchmen was trying to accomplish with its opener (but ultimately failing at), telling an entire history in depth in under 5 minutes with little dialog. Our kids liked it, but less than us. When is Pixar gonna admit they make adult movies and hand us something PG-13 or R?
7. Where the Wild things Are- You either "get" this movie or you don't. There seems to be little in between. If you don't "get it" don't worry. It is more about how you look at the world than intelligence or taste. Very seldom have I seen such an original vision from a "mainstream" movie, fully realized and unlike anything else I have seen. It deserves an extra star or two for that alone. I loved the performances, especially Max and visually it is the most stunning work I have seen since There Will be Blood. It better get the Oscar for Cinematography or at least a nomination. Plus, as the parent of kids around Max's age, this movie (which is NOT a kids movie- too long and existential), I feel confident that I have never seen another film EMBODY a 9 year old boy so perfectly.
6. In the Loop- I start giggling when I think of this movie. It has the most inventive use of offensive language ever. Imagine Oscar Wilde with a potty mouth. The plot centers around England drumming up ‘intelligence” to enter an international conflict at the behest of the United States in the early 21st Century, but the country to be invaded, the Prime Minister and The President don’t matter. What matter is the inanity of the main characters and the insults hurled at them by the Prime Minister’s Director of Communication. Brilliant!
5. District 9- Wow! I am sure this is what it felt like to watch The Terminator in 1984, before it was The Terminator, you know when it was just a movie by an unknown director coming out of nowhere to blow people away. This is what science fiction was built for (and only the 2nd best scifi flick of the year), to ask big questions and to have really cool special effects. This is everything Transformers and the like are not. It is in the same league as the original Matrix and a half step below Star Wars as an action sci fi.
4. The Hangover- The funniest film I have seen in years and the most fun I have had in a theater in ages, even if I could have done without the final credits. I laughed so much I missed crucial scenes. I hope with 10 movies nominated for best film, the Oscars get brave and nominate it. In fact, I will assure you it will be nominated for screenplay.
3. Moon- This could be the long lost sister to the film Gattaca, asking the most basic question of all, "what makes us human?" with a sense of melancholic humanism that has been lost among the blow-em-up action that masquerades as Science Fiction in modern cinema. The perpetually underrated Sam Rockwell mines the depths of his psyche in a role reminiscent of Tom Hanks inCastaway only far superior in carrying a movie with no other actors onscreen, with Kevin Spacey playing the role of "Wilson' as the creepiest computer this side of Hal from 2001. This is the little film that could and should be seen (like Once 2 years ago).
2. Up In The Air- I am so predictable with my top 2. Huh? As Dennis Green, former coach of the Cardinals kind of said, "It is what we thought it is."
1. The Hurt Locker- The critics that are calling it the best of the year are not exaggerating. I am sure, even after seeing everything else on my list, it will not fall below 2 or 3. The tension builds in the first 5 minutes and never relents in this movie that takes us into the heart of the adrenaline addiction many soldiers experience. It takes no sides on war issues (which I appreciate), instead taking us into the darkness and light that makes up a soldier's life, why a young man would risk his life and that of his buddies, and how hard it is to fit into a nice society once you have been taught to live on the edge in wartime. Jeremy Renner is scary good as the leader of a bomb squad in Iraq circa 2004 and Kathryn Bigelow's direction better get serious love at Oscar time. She has done something many men have not been able to do, take us to Iraq and back without making us feel dirty or preached at. Don't be scared though. This movie does not sensationalize war or bloody the screen. It is more Jarhead with heightened anxiety and less Platoon, Private Ryan or Flags of Our Fathers which fits the war being fought.