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Brian’s Best/Worst Films of 2009

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The Best Films of 2009

Mexican gang life, the return of Hugo Stiglitz, orchestral synesthesia, cider cellars, Butoh dance, metal on metal, set phasers to stun, a button of death, picks of destiny, and a particular set of skills. These are the best films of 2009.

Star Trek

J.J. Abrams’s rejuvenation of the “Star Trek” brand name is perhaps the single most heroic artistic act of the 2009 film year. Think about where “Trek” stood before last May. Think about the years of rigid canon that pushed the universe into confining corners, the derogatory attitudes aimed towards the uptight fan base, and the general fatigue of the franchise. And then consider what Abrams and his crack production team accomplished: they returned urgency to the material, made known characters vast human (and Vulcan) mysteries again, and treated cartwheeling space adventure with the sort of camera-spinning glee that makes the considerable financial effort of going to the movies worth every single cent. Skillfully assembled, lovingly performed, and blessed with flawless tech credits (not to mention the finest musical score of the year), the picture resuscitated a feeling for “Star Trek” I haven’t felt in over a decade: ravenous hunger for more.

Inglourious Basterds

As Quentin Tarantino a Quentin Tarantino movie can get, “Inglourious Basterds” engaged the filmmaker’s infinite imagination in ways previously unseen. In a ballsy move, Tarantino rewrites WWII history with this valentine to combat films and French cinema culture; a factual liquid paper cover job that opens the door to pristine bouts of breathless dialogue, explosive collisions of violence, and plenty of Tarantino-branded anachronistic daydreaming. “Basterds” stunned audiences and fried spell check programs; it was a frighteningly expansive redecoration of war, brought to lustrous life by Tarantino’s daring, abrasive, and persistently impish ego.

Sin Nombre

A brutal, petrifying saga of Mexican gangs and immigrant endurance, “Sin Nombre” eschewed romanticizing the illegal migrant journey to focus on more intimate, punishing circumstances. “Sin Nombre” is not an easy film to watch, but the insightful characterizations, bleak locations, and horrifying turns of fate are superbly intertwined by director Cary Fukunaga, evoking an unsettlingly intoxicating sense of complex emotions and desperation facing a cruel and unforgiving world. The filmmaking is gripping, the story adeptly pulled taught between dramatic demands and riveting authenticity, and the stirring performances drill right into the soul.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wes Anderson was made for the meticulous, painstaking stop-motion animation process. Bringing his aesthetic fingerprint and neurotic familial bugaboos to an animated realm typically reserved for lightweight family fare, Anderson employed his magic touch to Roald Dahl’s source material, crafting a hilarious, breezy, brain-meltingly creative piece of work. The details throughout “Fantastic” are insane, requiring a good decade of repeated viewing just to catch all the minutiae shoved into the corners. Thankfully, a compelling, refreshingly edgy story and dynamite voice work help to beautifully embroider Anderson’s vision. It’s a dazzling feature film that deserved a far more enthusiastic response than it received at the box office. If there’s any justice in the world, “Fantastic” will become a home video staple for years to come.

Cherry Blossoms

A German film surveying the alienation of life as a widower, “Cherry Blossoms” wasn’t your average, everyday tale of loneliness. Director Doris Dorrie uproots the standard expression of regret by taking matters to Japan, bringing along a startling jab of culture shock to accentuate devastating shock waves of grief and marital guilt. “Cherry Blossoms” is an unwaveringly sensitive, tear-jerking motion picture, but the unexpected urges of behavior sold me wholeheartedly on the film, merging anguish with beautiful spasms of curiosity, not only with a mesmerizing foreign land, but also the depths of the human spirit, funneled through the art of the mysterious, purging Butoh dance.

The Soloist

Initial spin on “The Soloist” compared the picture to the likes of “Radio,” summing up the story as just another idiotic “wonderful whitey” diversion to please suburban audiences. “The Soloist” wasn’t that picture, instead plunging into the dark recesses of a fractured mind, struggling to hold onto some sense of reality with the help of an inquisitive stranger; a relationship that soon blossomed into a unique friendship. While Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx provided stellar work in the lead roles, “The Soloist” was all filmmaker Joe Wright, who elected to infuse the film with more social consciousness than saccharine heart, open to explore a stark side of mental disorder that can’t be cured in 120 minutes. “The Soloist” works in uncompromising ways, trusting in the power of human conduct and the spirituality of orchestral compositions to speak for the characters.

It Might Get Loud

The guitar is king, with subjects none more loyal than Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White. Davis Guggenheim’s reverberating documentary went beyond mere six-string deconstruction to all-out worship, learning how three disparate, masterful musicians found their calling behind such a thunderous instrument. Part friendly conversation, part education, “It Might Get Loud” wielded slack-jawed hero worship masterfully, attaining a special harmony of reverence and shop talk that helped to not only understand the passions of these gifted players, but the heavenly magnitude of the guitar as well.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil

From the outside, a documentary on a struggling heavy metal band might seem unnecessary, perhaps even silly. However, once “Anvil” starts to unfold, revealing idiosyncratic band member personalities and vicious music industry struggles, the film transcends its “Spinal Tap” roots, forming a valuable celebration of feral determination, galloping (at times limping) onward in the face of financial collapse and public humiliation. While there are undoubtedly more respectable, globally-conscious documentaries for inspection, “Anvil” captured a feeling I’ve rarely seen committed to film: optimism, even in the midst of unimaginable failure. The picture is a soulful, never-say-die boost arriving at a time when we all could use the encouragement.

Drag Me to Hell

After spending much of the last decade enabling Spider-Man to keep doing whatever a spider can, filmmaker Sam Raimi took some time off from web-slinging to mold a ghoulish movie that flexed a few of his atrophying genre muscles. A sinister horror extravaganza, “Drag Me to Hell” recharged and unleashed Raimi’s once legendary low-budget mischief, set loose in a demonic humdinger of a terror zone, buttressed by a master class in shock jumps and a disgusting purging of bodily fluids. “Drag Me to Hell” was my favorite horror bonanza of the year, but most importantly, it returned the wildly imaginative Raimi to his genre throne, showing the kids how a proper and properly revolting fright fest should be prepared.

Taken

A lean, deliciously mean thriller from producing guru Luc Besson, “Taken” has all the subtext of a Mentos commercial, but what it does offer is an exhilarating filmgoing experience that trusts the glorious art of simplicity. Using Liam Neeson’s raging performance as its snarling guide, “Taken” embarks on a fabulously entertaining to-do list of jaw-cracking action set-pieces and unmerciful behavior, pitched with exquisite Euro-bruising tension by director Pierre Morel. It’s a perfect paternal protection revenge fantasy, delightfully fat-free and mindful of snappy suspense left turns. Perhaps “Taken” isn’t something suited for the National Film Registry, but for cheap, startlingly efficient thrills, there wasn’t a more enchanting act of steamrolling to be found this year.

Also of note: Up, Must Read After My Death, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ponyo, World’s Greatest Dad, The September Issue, Grace, In the Loop, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, White on Rice, The Damned United, Big Fan, Funny People, Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, and Julie & Julia.

The Worst Films of 2009

The Playboy Mansion, a house on the left, death to Wyoming, elderly teenagers, warm beer, parody blues, Columbus discovers awful, Heigl feminism, Christian horror, and Theta Pi must die. These are the worst films of 2009.

Miss March

What, you’ve never heard of the comedy troupe “The Whitest Kids U’ Know?” Well, a few of the members decided to venture into feature film territory, bringing with them a few cameras, a number of atrocious cast members, and the worst screenplay of the year. A road trip adventure using a visit to the hallowed halls of the Playboy Mansion as the chesty dangled carrot, “Miss March” lunged sadistically for laughs, heaving around fecal gags, harebrained sex jokes, and a facepalm running gag centered on a character with the moniker “Horsedick.MPEG.” It’s not enough that “Miss March” is simply devoid of even a morsel of humor, it positively demands to be toxic, pushing flail-happy actors in front of the camera that have no business in the business and generally carrying on in the most unbearable screen manner imaginable. You’ve never heard of the comedy troupe “The Whitest Kids U’ Know?” There’s a good reason why. Something tells me it’s going to stay that way.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell

An adaptation of author Tucker Max’s “best-selling” novel, “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” is a film drenched head to toe in misogyny. I knew that going into the movie, had the seat buckled and everything, but the picture shocked me with its vicious attitude toward the fairer sex, pushing an agenda of pure, uncut hate under the nauseating guise of a freewheeling fist-bump, frat-boy comedy. The feature is soul-flatteningly revolting every step of the way and unreasonably fixated on the humiliation of women, while boasting the sort of cardboard-and-flashlight production value one might find on a “Survivor” audition tape. And if all the “He-Man Woman Haters Club” shtick doesn’t wear you down to tears of boredom (and possible self-castration, just to maintain any sort of comfortable distance from these ghoulish male “heroes”), the film climaxes with an extended diarrhea emergency sequence. Tucker Max hates us all.

I Love You, Beth Cooper

Six months after suffering through “I Love You, Beth Cooper,” it continues to stun me that this trainwreck was directed by Chris Columbus. Chris Columbus! Well, off days do occur and mistakes happen to everyone. It’s just a shame Columbus channeled so much energy and time into this nitwit teen comedy. Sure, jagged shards of slapstick that made Columbus an ‘80’s screenwriting legend are on vivid display throughout the film, they’re just not as amusingly mounted or brightly performed. A sour, abortive endeavor at meaningful adolescent farce, “I Love You, Beth Cooper” was infuriatingly grabby and tirelessly moronic, just not the good kind of moronic. It’s more the “end it now, lord” type, where every minute watching the film feels like an eternity.

Fired Up!

Another teen-centric comedy lands on the worst-of list, only here the smart-aleck adolescents are played by a pair of repugnant 30-year-old actors. Not as much mean-spirited as it was excruciatingly humorless (OK, it was mean-spirited too), “Fired Up!” also had the misfortune of being a cheerleader comedy at a time when the genre has already coughed up every possible variation of underdog triumph. Not only was the film decidedly laugh-free, it tendered perhaps the most clichéd script of the year. “Fired Up!” was an easy film to loathe, yet impossible to forget. No matter how hard I try.

The Last House on the Left

There was an arch pitch of doom to the “The Last House on the Left” remake that swerved it away from an undemanding serving of backwoods intensity, refocusing the nervous energy toward despicable and lazy shock value. It’s one thing to be unsettled, but this update of Wes Craven’s 1972 oddball cult classic felt the need to punish the viewer with repetitive images of bodily violation, including a needlessly extended, grab-the-Purell depiction of rape. The original film was hardly a jaunt to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” but it had a certain glaze of social commentary to it that made sense of the indescribable ultraviolence. This second helping of fetid rage revels in ugliness for no tangible reason, served up by a team of actors incapable of conveying any sort of compelling menace without spewing chunks of ham. Coin-rubbing genre opportunism never felt so utterly contemptible.

Sorority Row

Horror film stupidity found a fertile breeding ground in “Sorority Row,” only this slasher snoozer had the ear-bursting novelty of casting an armada of squealing actresses to assist in selling the tedious hysteria. Expectedly brainless, but stunningly strident, this (of course) remake went soft on the chills and hardcore with the inanity, inducing headaches and quaking urges to sprint from the theater early as it went about its business slicing apart co-eds, encouraging dreadful amounts of overacting.

Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Now here’s an eleventh-hour entry on the worst-of list, fitted for a slot due to its hateful attitude toward Midwestern culture and beaming spotlight on an unbearably screeching performance from Sarah Jessica Parker. Perhaps one or the other is tolerable, but both? I’d rather endure an evening of MTV programming. From start to finish, “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” drags its insufferable, bloated self around, offering characters of insignificant emotional value, mean-spirited jokes aimed at a state (Wyoming) that doesn’t deserve the beating, and furthers the cinematic obsolescence of Hugh Grant, who appears to have officially given up on life during the course of this film. The fact that this grueling picture contains no laughs whatsoever is the least of its problems.

C Me Dance

It’s easy-peasy to knock a Christian film to the ground; most are so overwrought and devoid of artistic merit, it’s almost cruel to single them out. “C Me Dance” deserves all the negative attention it can attract. A no-budget melodrama concerning a grating teen girl facing off against Satan and cancer (just one of those days I suppose), the picture is an overwhelmingly amateurish jumble, coasting on the film’s pure biblical messages to reach out to the forgiving core demographic. Thankfully, the faithful didn’t line up at theaters. Heck, I’m not sure anyone knew this was in theaters. Atrociously written and directed, with agonizing acting that digs up the corpse of Lee Strasberg and beats it silly with a shovel, “C Me Dance” (the title alone induces dry heaves) is a wacky disaster of a movie. Made to service God, the picture perverts the very privilege of creation.

Stan Helsing

The best compliment I could pay “Stan Helsing” would be that it isn’t the work of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Otherwise, this horror film spoof is a patience tester of the highest order, arranging a series of moldy, witless jokes to roast a genre that already does a fine job of self-immolation as it is. A fixation on poo-poo and pee-pee gags makes matters even more insufferable. “Stan Helsing” doesn’t land a single joke, eggs on a cast of ruthlessly unfunny people (I’m looking your way Steve Howey), and selects a topic that scores of filmmakers have already plundered. Need more reason to stay miles away from this tripe? The filmmakers, to avoid multiple lawsuits, altered the names of the rampaging horror icons here, rechristening them as Needlehead, Lucky, Pleatherface, Fweddy, Mason, and Michael Criers.

The Ugly Truth

Katherine Heigl seems like a fine human being, but her choices for leading roles have been abysmal. “The Ugly Truth” is a routine offering of wet-blanket romantic comedy hogwash, low on swoon and stingy with laughs, easily dismissed as a misfire for what seems to be a talented actress. However, “Ugly Truth” wasn’t exactly a harmless date night distraction, but something unexpectedly insidious when the layers were ultimately peeled back, revealing a weirdly misogynistic and uncomfortably crude tone to the writing, often mistaking hate for irreverence. Teeming with unlikable characters, ludicrous declarations of attraction, and a disturbing attitude toward romantic submission (e.g. ladies, you’re nothing without a man), “Ugly” earned its title wholeheartedly. Katherine Heigl should be ashamed of herself.

Also of note: Old Dogs, Push, Transylmania, My Life in Ruins, Gamer, Serious Moonlight, All About Steve, Crank: High Voltage, Madea Goes to Jail, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Jennifer’s Body, Couples Retreat, New in Town, Fighting, and 12 Rounds.

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