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2009 at the Movies: The Best and the Worst So Far

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The first half of the year is up, so it is the perfect time to look back on 2009's first six months and think about what movies worked, what movies didn't, and which ones failed to live up to their potential. That is what this column is all about. I will share with you what movies you need to see and what you should avoid.

It is funny, as I do not feel this year has been a particularly strong one, but it has still turned out a number of very strong movies. Some of them were completely surprising, at least to me. There is nothing better than going into a movie and being completely surprised by what appears on that big screen. Now, remember that any lists like this are relative and can change on a moment's notice. This is the ordering that fell in line while I was writing, but it could change by the time the end of the year rolls around. Heck, this list could be different tomorrow.

NOTE: To be eligible for this list, I had to see the movie prior to the end of June, making 51 movies eligible (I subtract multiple viewings and 2008 films seen this year). Without further ado, let's take a look at what 2009 has had to offer so far.

Top Ten Movies:

1. Up. Can there be any doubt? Pixar continues to amaze with their films that are triumphs on both a technological and artistic level. The animation is simply first rate, there is no company capable of turning out such great animation. However, it is more than the animation that makes this such a great film. The story of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) drew me in right from the start as he learns that life is what happens while you're making other plans. The film affected me emotionally within the first 15 minutes, which tell the story of Carl's childhood, marriage, and life until the story proper picks up with a grumpy old Carl. The rest of the film follows Carl on the adventure he always wanted, but realizes that there is more to life. It is deceptively simple, yet incredibly moving. It is easily the best film so far this year.

2. Star Trek. Never did I think I would see a truly great Star Trek movie. This movie proved to be enormously entertaining and finely crafted. Yes, you can nitpick it to death, but you can probably do that to just about any film. This is not a big statement movie, you will not learn much, if anything, about the human condition. To that I say, so what? It matters not. This movie successfully creates an alternate universe to the original series while reintroducing us to familiar characters, but with a twist. The story works as an origin story, but is also a thrilling action picture that features a bad guy bent on revenge through time. This is so much more than I could have hoped for.

3. The Brothers Bloom. Here is a con movie that is much more than the con — it is about love, life, the funny things that happen to them. This movie has it all — drama, comedy, action, explosions, and an immense amount of heart. It goes in unexpected directions, and reaches the only conclusion it can. It will have an emotional impact as it ably shifts from the lighthearted to the dark and serious throughout. Writer/director Rian Johnson has knocked another one out of the park. By taking the familiar and putting a unique spin on the elements he has crafted a story that deserves to be seen. Not only that, he has a wonderful visual style with interesting camera angles, transitions, and cuts. His sense of pacing is spot on, and there is never a moment where you are left to get bored. The man has immense talent and I look forward to whatever he has to offer next.

4. Coraline. Henry Selick has crafted a film that transcends what might traditionally be called a kids' film. It is a movie that offers up a dark fantasy nightmare for children that tempers its threat with an empowering heroine. It is a story that anyone can identify with, and is dealt with using an intelligence that does not pander to children nor does it talk down to them. It deals with the material with a maturity that belies the mainstream view of it as a kids' film. It doesn't hurt that the source material is a story by Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Stardust, NeverWhere, Mirrormask).

5. Watchmen. Based on the graphic novel, which was said to be unfilmable, Watchmen arrived amid great hype earlier this year. When you look at it on paper, the plot seems to be a little conventional. Fortunately, the story is much more layered and complex than I am able to do justice here. This is a film that eschews standards of action and character development in favor of developing a world that exists in the gray area between good and evil, where motives and methods play both sides of the fence in the service of what may or may not be the greater good. There are many layers to peel through on the narrative side, but it is also an absolute visual feast. Definitely going to look good on Blu-ray.

6. Knowing. As Knowing unfolded before me, I was drawn deeper into the tale. This is a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It has a delicious, slow-burn quality permeating each frame. You are only given what you need to know, and even then it is barely enough. Knowing forces you to engage, to become involved, but it does so in such a way that you may not even be aware of it at first. On the surface, the story appears to be one that you have seen many times before, and that is part of the brilliance. It is an original story that comes in the guise of the familiar. That is how you get hooked. It is an insidious plot to get in your head and win you over. Don't let Nicolas Cage get between you and this movie, it is fascinating watching him try to figure out the meaning of the numbers.

7. Drag Me to Hell. This movie is a downright blast. It will give you chills, make you jump, make you laugh, and just deliver a good time. You will bear witness to a knock-down, drag out fight taking place entirely in a car, as well as another appearance of Sam Raimi's famous 1973 Buick. This is an energetic jolt to the horror genre and one of the most entertaining films of the year. The story has overtones of Stephen King's Thinner, but it has been put through the Sam Raimi old-school horror wringer and turned into something completely different. Highly recommended.

8. Last House on the Left. Successful in execution, this film works a strong answer to what constitutes much of mainstream horror over the last few years. It brings genuine disturbance to the screen rather than gratuitous blood and guts. It is a film that will bring disgust to the pit of your stomach and produces protagonists you truly want to cheer for as they exact their revenge. Yes, it has a limited audience, and is not what you would call an Oscar film, but that is not gong to stop me from giving it the credit it deserves. This is a successful remake of the Wes Craven exploitation film and was brought to the big screen in an uncompromising way.

9. The Hangover. The Hangover could just as easily become a series of SNL or MadTV sketches, which only exist to get to the next scene. Rather than taking the easy route, we get a script that is written rather than pieced together from the leftovers of other films. It grows and develops as we move along. The plot develops organically, much like the comedy which is allowed to develop organically. This is a seriously funny movie, something I was hoping for but not expecting. I did not see this one coming, and that only works in its favor. This is a very funny film with some good writing and strong performances. It really stands out from the crowd.

10. Is Anybody There? This is a delightful movie. There is a strong sense of reality and it does not feel trapped by the conventions of the formula. Then there are the performances — this is definitely a film to savor. It centers on a young boy whose outlook has been warped by his proximity to the old and dying who finds life in an elderly man who does not see the point in going on. They learn from each other and find a new way to move through their life properly. Michael Caine puts on an absolute acting clinic.

And now, because you didn't ask for it, a peek at what ranked at the bottom of the cinematic pile.

Worst 5:

1. The Informers. Here is the worst movie of the year so far. The characters are all in search of fame, power, wealth, and sex, seemingly valuing greed over all else. Issues arise early when the characters reveal themselves as dull. I had no reason to care. Nothing interesting happened, all of the characters are interchangeable, and forget about trying to keep who is who straight, I couldn't. The Informers almost challenges me not to write about it. Writing about it just may give it more attention than it deserves. As I left the theater I felt nothing, I had no reaction to the content, it wasn't shocking or eye-opening, it was just there serving no purpose.

2. Land of the Lost. This movie has so many problems, the first of which is Will Ferrell, who is utterly annoying throughout. This is a movie based on a Saturday morning children's show re-imagined as fodder for the young teen crowd filled with innuendo and bodily fluid humor. It is uncalled for, not funny, and poorly executed.

3. Street Fighter: Legend of Chun Li. Speaking of poorly executed films, here is another one for you. The story makes no sense, the acting is atrocious, and the fights are nearly non-existent. I should have known better going in, but I went anyway.

4. The Unborn. I wanted to like this movie. The trailer suggests a film that would have genuine scares and a plot that offers actual menace. The final film looks fine, but the tale is not all that interesting, and borderline nonsensical. Better luck next time. Ghostly kids, expository characters, exorcisms, Nazi experiments, disappearing twins, creepy kids, it all adds up to a whole lot of nothing.

5. Fighting. As stories go, there is nothing particularly special, fresh, or new to be found here. There is really not that much to hold onto. Everything is just really mediocre and often boring. The performances are alright but the actors have very little to do. For a film saddled with the unfortunate title of Fighting, there was not nearly enough of it and what there was, was not terribly skilled. It is generally a rather weak film that will fade, disappear, and be forgotten in rather short order.

There are good movies, bad movies and then there are movies filled with potential that fail to deliver the goods. Here are a few of those.

Disappointing 5:

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Sure, the source material was a half-hour toy commercial from the 1980s, but there is still story potential there. They did a great job of realizing the robots in a live action setting, but the story is so poor. They put in all of these comedic bits that are poorly realized and do not belong. If they actually stopped for a minute and thought about a good story this franchise could have become one of the best ever

X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Ever since X2, this franchise has entered a free fall. How could they mess up the most popular mutant of all? Easy — make a boring movie. Throw a bunch of characters at the screen, make a few funny quips, slap some CGI on there and hope for the best. This feels like a movie made by a studio rather than any actual creative talent.

Terminator Salvation. This is the best of the films in this section because it at least tries. The film is littered with good ideas; unfortunately nothing ties them together in any cohesive fashion. The action and effects are fantastic and a couple of the performances are compelling, but oh how I wish the screenplay was better.

Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. The first one was a fun family movie, but the second one has that "movie by committee" feel to it. It is like they just picked a few more random historical figures and just threw them together. There is no real rhyme or reason, it fails to incorporate elements of the original film and many of the performers just appear bored. The primary high note is Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart.

Monsters vs. Aliens. This isn't a bad movie, it is one that just doesn't quite pull it all together. The pacing is off and it seems to drag often. I do like some of the voice performances and the references to '50s-era science fiction, but it isn't quite enough.

And that concludes our first half wrap-up — be sure to check back in January for the full year recap.

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