Before I get to my obligatory 'best films of the year' list, I'd like to take a moment to run down a list of films that are worthy of mention outside of the very best of the year. Some of these films are great pictures that missed the top-ten. Some are surprisingly good pictures that would otherwise have no business on a 'best of' list. Some are simply movies that I felt like pointing out for one reason or another. Enjoy...
A movie that, against all odds, actually turned out to be entertaining and genuinely good. Sure, the special effects were almost comical in their overwhelming scenes of world-ending carnage. Yes, we once again had to suffer through a 'distant father learns to be a better parent and wins his family back' yarn. But we also had lead roles for such national treasures as Oliver Platt and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Plus we had compelling supporting work from Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, and Danny Glover. While I could take or leave the $260 million Earth-crushing disaster scenes, I found myself actually enjoying 2012 as, of all things, an acting treat. It's not a great movie, but it's a surprisingly entertaining, co mpelling, and engaging b-movie disaster romp that does its genre proud.
The plot is basically a hybrid of Die Hard With a Vengeance and Speed (the pacing and structure is identical to the latter), but this remains a refreshingly old-school action-adventure picture. The stunts are solid, the plot is compelling, the set-pieces are suspenseful and engaging, and the characters are just interesting enough to merit our attention. John Cena is a decent-enough adequate action hero, but Aidan Gillen (Shanghai Knights) makes a fine villain and Brian J. White (I Can Do Bad All By Myself) makes a surprisingly sympathetic best friend/partner. And, most refreshingly from Renny Harlin (the guy who crashed a plane in Die Hard 2 and shot up an entire room full of innocent bystanders in Long Kiss Goodnight), the violence is just subdued enough so that there is genuine suspense over whether lives will be lost at any given moment. Sure, the film loses momentum at the very end, just like its above-noted predecessors, but 12 Rounds is just the sort of action picture that they just don't make anymore.
The Blind Side
I don't know how much of the story is actually truthful, and I don't care. This refreshingly low-key heart-warmer works as a wonderfully entertaining fictional story. Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron make a solidly deadpan comic duo, and the film works because it is just as much Michael Oher's story as it is Leigh Anne Tuohy's. The picture rarely descends into schmaltz and Bullock refuses to let the fictional version of Tuohy come off as either too brash or too saintly (she really doesn't have a big speech or big scene). If the film's astounding success is indeed due to the film's Christian fanbase, then let's welcome this most Veggie Tales-ish Christian fable. At the end of the day, The Blind Side is just a darn good movie that is a pretty much perfect version of what it wants to be.
This chiller is the best direct-to-DVD horror film ever made, and it's probably the best 'evil children' movie of all time too. What makes it so horrifying is the mundane cause of the carnage, and the unsettling question of whether you would or could slaughter your own child to save your own life. Lean, mean, well-acted, and sharply directed, this is a genuinely terrifying horror film no matter where it first premiered.
Prachya Pinkaew's follow up to The Protector has a relatively stupid plot and unremarkable acting. But it has some of the most elaborate and painful martial arts sequences I've ever seen, including a climactic shop-house showdown that is absolutely the best fight sequence of the year, if not the decade.
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
There is such a thing as getting points for 'giving the audience what they came for'. You want 110 minutes of colorful GI Joes and colorful Cobra minions killing the holy hell out of each other, with the kind of over-the-top carnage and wanton violence that you imagined with your own action figures when you were nine-years old? That's exactly what you get with this inexplicably despised Stephen Summers picture. It's not art, and the climax falls apart, but those first ninety-minutes deliver exactly what a GI Joe movie should be. The critical massacre of this one is akin to stabbing someone in the gut and complaining when they bleed all over your carpet.
While it's a little too long and its morality is a bit icky, no one can deny the sheer artistry of Quentin Tarantino's critical and commercial comeback. What's most amazing is how Christoph Waltz, as a deviously charming Nazi commander, takes all of Tarantino's worst dialogue vices and turns them into razor-sharp weapons of suspense and tension. The film overall is merely good, but there are many many great moments within.
A flawed and sometimes messy film about a very messed up life, this one easily skirts uncomfortable questions about racial, gender, and class stereotypes by explicitly setting out to tell the singular story of a single human life. It also contains several wonderful performances, from everyone to Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique to Paula Patton and Mariah Carrey. It is not the be all-end all for movies about the poverty in inner-city, but its greatest strength is that it never tries to be.
The Princess and the Frog
That this wasn't the best theatrical cartoon of the year just tells you what a great year this was for animation. This glorious 2D-revival is an absolute blast, with fantastic hand-drawn animation, wonderful voice work from professional voice actors, and a delicious glance at 1930s New Orleans. Those that couldn't see past their race-tinted glasses ('oh no, it's about a black girl... and she's poor!') missed a scrumptiously good fairy tale that also showcases Keith David as one of Disney's very best villains (there is a climactic plot turn that's probably the biggest shocker of the year). It's not a Disney movie about a black princess. It's a Disney movie about a young woman who happens to be black. And it's a terrific bit of family entertainment.
The only thing rarer than a franchise that actually makes it to six movies is a franchise where the sixth film is actually the best of the series. This astounding comeback film for the struggling series regains its footing by returning to its roots. By putting Tobin Bell back on the center stage, using the health insurance industry as an antithesis for John Kramer's philosophy, and actually creating tension and suspense in each Jigsaw trap, this sixth entry improves on every prior entry. Saw VI is the best Saw film yet, and stands on its own as a bloody-good horror film.
Scooby Doo: The Mystery Begins
This direct-to-cable reboot of the live-action Scooby Doo franchise is every bit the Batman Begins to the previous films' Batman Forever/Batman & Robin sensibilities. With sharp writing, likable and plausible characters, and a back-to-basics approach, this is probably the best Scooby Doo movie we will ever see.
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
Why, you ask, is this not on my list of the year's worst films? Well, by any normal measure it would be. But I have a suspicion that Chris Klein's over-the-top work as Detective Charlie Nash may be some kind of genius. Is he merely giving a lousy performance in a bad movie, or is he pulling some kind of brilliant post-modern riff on every bad 1980s cop movie? I'm not sure, but every moment that he is onscreen is alive with powerful waves of awesome stupid.
Where the Wild Things Are
'Everybody hurts' in Spike Jonze's bruising adaptation of the classic children's story. This one just missed my ten-best list, but I imagine it will age very well over the next decade or so. This is a staggeringly emotional journey that is both completely tuned to the minds of children and completely over their heads. I have my issues with the second act, but the set-up and the finale are pitch-perfect. There are moments in the end that are just heartrendingly profound.
This direct-to-DVD animated origin story renders the eventual live-action movie null and void. Sorry folks, we've already got our epic, thrilling, and staggeringly cool Wonder Woman movie. With astoundingly violent mass-battle scenes, an angry feminist streak, and more than enough humor to compensate for both, this is easily the best of the DC Animated Universe movies thus far.
World's Greatest Dad
The previews went out of their way to hide the narrative of this Bobcat Goldthwait comedy, so I won't go into any details here. Easily Robin Williams' best movie in ages, this gem is a sharply critical satire of society's need to... sorry no spoilers. Let's just say that when you realize where this movie is going, you'll wonder why no one every made a movie about it until now.
OK, coming in the next day or two, we'll get to the actual 'favorite movies of 2009'.