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Top Ten Movies of 2009

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Finally. The top ten list. And not in order. (Well, except for the top three.) After that, it's a free for all and stop counting and... where is Mike Tyson? He graces the almost there. So, once again, here's my top ten of 2009 -- an interesting year for movies. And no, I haven't seen Avatar yet. I've seen Antichrist...

Inglourious Basterds

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Though critics either praise or denigrate Quentin Tarantino's obsessive, swirling-with-references motion picture amour as the core to his pictures -- their very pulsating, battered and bloody heart -- it's not that simple. Truly. Even as he amped up the references  fifty fold by Kill Bill, a stunning mélange of spaghetti western, giallo, Kung Fu and more, something had shifted by the naughts for the controversial auteur, something deeper, something more personal. Death Proof aside, nearly gone were the Royale With Cheese speeches, or the Buddy Holly waiters,  and in came a kind of filmmaking that sat on the precipice of mad hatter, movie love insanity, making the director even more culturally significant, artistic, and surprisingly, powerfully mysterious. Inglourious Basterds is the crowning achievement for QT's newer phase, a World War II picture that's a gorgeous, hilarious, uber- violent, brilliantly acted (Christoph Waltz is a revelation), genre-blending gut puncher, that, indeed, scalps a whole lot of "Gnatzies" (as Brad Pitt's hillbilly Aldo Raine memorably intones), but also shunts the viewer into the German film industry under Goebbels and the struggles of an escaped French Jewish woman (Mélanie Laurent) who survives by, naturally, running an independent movie theater.  Basterds may have angered those who found QT's fantastical revisionism offensive, but really, he was being honest. You want pulpy Nazi hunting set to the music from "White Lightning?" You got it. You want to feel the complexity of how we process that violence? You got that as well.  Historical, personal, empathetic, vigilant, erotic (yes, erotic, never for one second does QT think we're not gonna get our rocks off here), Basterds is an aesthetic and thematic wonder. Filmmaking that doesn't just break the rules by daring to be old fashioned and modern all at once, but filmmaking from another dimension.  A work of visceral, violent, voluptuous beauty, QT roared and he rampaged, and we left the theater like Beatrix Kiddo:  with "bloody satisfaction."

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

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With his un-hinged, gloriously debauched, hilarious, and uniquely gorgeous Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog is dazzlingly in synch with his subject --  the portrait of a man, a crooked cop (a brilliant Nicolas Cage) rotting and raving in a decimated land.  That's post-Katrina New Orleans, a place that well covers Herzogian themes -- the violence, the beauty, the destruction of nature, the iguanas, and the warped passion of a fanatical man. Cage's Terence McDonagh -- drug impaired, dishonest, abusive, and yet, often kind and certainly conflicted is a jangly, imbalanced creature of inspired madness. What's brilliant here is that Herzog, not one to create a standard police procedural, places Cage in something like that:  there's a an internal affairs investigation, a murder mystery and strangely sweet complications with a prostitute (Eva Mendes) and a drug dealer (Xzibit). There's also gambling and drug addiction, inappropriate pat-downs, lucky crack pipes and relations with his impaired dad and stepmother, that recalled a Flannery O'Connor story or Rip Torn visiting his pill addicted mother in the brilliantly brave Payday. And like Mr. Torn, Cage is absolutely fearless in his approach to character. Throw out all the rules and just be. Be crazy.  But be real. He's true to his own style -- that of Nicolas Cage -- but Herzog must cast magical spells on actors because as the movie goes along, Cage begins to resemble a Nosferatu or an Aguirre -- he even walks with a slight hunchback. And then, he tops it by throwing in some giggling Richard Widmark Tommy Udo and snarling Edward G. Robinson Little Caesar. It's a diabolically mythical performance.  To describe his rhythms and humor and in the end, his humanity isn't easy -- Cage is almost musical in his approach, and he stirs mysterious,  complicated emotions that will yes, make many people laugh. At him, with him, and with the very things that make him laugh. When we are looking at iguanas from the perspective of the animal and the perspective of drugged out Cage considering the animal, the hallucinatory power borders on hilarious and yet, remains honestly poetic (it reminded me a bit of the chicken at the end of Stroszek). Which comes to the question: what kind of movie is Bad Lieutenant? It's a noir, it's a comedy, it's a character study, it's a southern gothic, it's a police story. Yes, it's all those things. But really, it's a Herzog picture. Real, unreal, maddening, inspiring and utterly sincere.

Antichrist

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Under-the-skin psycho sexual genital smashing sensory overload good stuff. A movie that makes your heart and soul bleed. I don't know what Lars Von Trier was up to (well, wait a second, I do know what he was up to...I think), but it's quite possible he reads my diary. As I have stated, this is a movie I have a hard time writing about -- it's personal. All I can do is attach how much more I wanted to talk about it.

Observe and Report

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Where have all the Travis Bickles gone? Quick answer -- the shopping mall.  And if you got behind (me Satan), or rather, director writer Jody Hill's subversive, hilarious, weirdly poignant and almost horrifyingly timely Observe and Report, you'll see Travis, not only as a power-hungry security guard in the form of a schlubbier Seth Rogen, but also as a regular Joe consumer. He might be traversing the food court or staring at the ice skaters in the center rink or wondering if he can afford a flat-screen TV while making his mortgage payment, but he's there, facing down all of that cheaply made fast food, recycled air and overpriced merchandise. He's killing time and, to become even more of a downer here, he's killing his soul. Yes, he's killing his soul at...Cinnabon. It's funny and yet it's not. It's heartbreakingly sad. And weirdly joyful (especially in a heroin moment. That's right, a shooting-up heroin moment). It was also one of the bravest, most underrated movies of the year. One day it will be considered a classic.

A Serious Man

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When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joys within you dies, don't you want to somebody to love? Yes, you do. And you want answers. Lots of answers. Why is all of this happening? To me? But you won't find them -- definitive answers, anyway. You'll find a lot more questions. This is just part of the power and mystery to the Coen Brother's personal, spiritual, grim, funny, wonderfully acted masterstroke A Serious Man. The key? It's like the Korean father says: "Accept the mystery." The last shot is one of the most hauntingly beautiful of the year.

The Road

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The Road got beat up because it wasn't Hollywood enough. It was pretentious. It was too much like the novel, but without the interior nuances of the Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed book. Nothing happened. That's not true. Plenty happens. Perhaps I'm taken with a starving father and son navigating their way through a post apocalyptic landscape, enduring their own fears and emotions and inner demons, and not to mention cannibals, but The Road(directed by John Hillcoat) was one of the most powerful and beautiful movies I saw all year.  Viggo Mortensen, wounded, vulnerable, tough and tender is a heartbreaking vision of walking life and death. He so fits into the wasteland (perfectly grim and strangely spectacular), that he feels an organic part of this ragged, twisted wilderness. Though the singer never graces the movie, I could hear Ralph Stanley's beautifully broken voice echoing "O Death" throughout every frame. That's a potent experience.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

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This is a Wes Anderson movie. And I'm not surprised by this, as some are, merely because he went into the realm of old school, stop motion animation. Mr. Anderson likes things old school. He likes the feel of  a rotary phone, he likes the crack and pop of a vinyl record, he likes natty suits, and he likes foxes -- be them animals voiced by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Bill Murray, or a fur jacket sad Margot Tenenbaum would pass through her closet before settling on that iconic mink coat. The devil and the heart are in the details here -- those meticulous, gorgeous details Anderson suffers grief for (it's his signature -- and it's beautiful and I won't hear another word about it) -- details that aren't shallow, but emotional. You can feel love in every frame of film, in every musical cue, in every painting on the wall -- and sometimes a powerful aesthetic is more moving than an actor breaking down on screen. Taking the Roald Dahl classic, Anderson crafted a bittersweet movie that, like Dahl, understands not only the complexity and joy of this idea -- we are not always sweetness and light -- even if we're charming -- we're often destructive and filled with varied feelings we can't easily come to terms with. And yet, sometimes you have to accept that your tail might not grow back. And that's OK.

Broken Embraces

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For some reason Pedro Almodóvar's moving, vibrant, beautifully acted Broken Embracesgets the admiration, the "Oh Penny and Pedro" gushing but then, not enough love. Why is this? The perfectly modulated melodrama, the gorgeousness, particularly regarding creativity (and cinema) is a complicated, funny, mature, deep and moving work. And his muse, the transcendent Penelope Cruz is absolutely brilliant.

The Hurt Locker

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Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker(written with screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal) is a heart-stopping, tense, at time, beautiful and touching movie about men in war, and one that puts the audience right in the action. Following three very different American soldiers (Jeremy Renner's James, Anthony Mackie's Sanborn, and Brian Geraghty's Owen) during their last few weeks in Iraq, the picture focuses primarily on Renner's James, a master detonator/adrenaline junkie whom we follow through the movie on the edge of our seat, observing him do his job --detonating bombs and trying hard not to blow up into a million pieces. Taut, yet messy, The Hurt Locker, entertains while it maddens. Told from the soldier's point of view, it never preaches but still, we're left with the feeling that, yes, we're proud of these guys and their intelligence and bravery regarding their their job, but please, can they just go home? And yet, as experimental, modern and low budget as the picture is, it feels more like a classic war picture, not making an obvious statement for or against the war, but actually allowing the audience the intelligence to consider this for themselves . A perilous, entertaining thriller and a bold, thought-provoking war film.

Thirst

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Park Chan-wook's Thirst was more than its sensational subject matter, and that can't be easy. The hero is, after all, a Roman Catholic priest and a vampire. Like Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, it's a horror movie, of sorts, with lots of blood and crazy killings, but it's also a weirdly beautiful movie about mad love, sex, and family. The great Sang-hyun (so terrific in in Bong Joon-ho's The Host) is the suffering  Priest and he gives a tender, touching, funny, human, searching performance filled with sexual lust, guilt and a believable desire to do the right thing -- even with this especially troublesome affliction.  Once the mousy Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin) enters the picture and he falls for this sweet woman, the movie turns into a domestic drama of epic proportions. Mousy no more, Kim becomes a powerhouse of murder, mayhem and blood lust. Again, like Antichrist, Thirst seems a bit terrified by female sexuality, but then, strangely fascinated and exalted by it as well. The result shows how interesting women can be -- even if sometimes horrifying -- and then, ultimately, sympathetic towards the struggle between man and woman and...blood. Real blood. So much blood this year. 

Also there: Tetro, World's Greatest Dad, Watchmen, Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, The International, Tyson, Orphan

Did not see but certain it would make my list: 35 Shots of Rum

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.