Posted by: David Stewart | January 2, 2010

Movie Picks of 2009

My favorite movies of 2009. So many animated and genre films this year were great, leading commentators to wonder aloud if our society is trying to provide an escape from the Great Recession. But many provoked me to examine my heart and ask some deep questions about my place in the bigger story of life.

  1. Ponyo – Hiyao Miyazaki, the Walt Disney of Japan, concocts another magical movie fairytale using the old tech of hand-drawn animation. A little fish falls in love with a human and wishes herself into being a girl. I loved the exquisite care to show little details of the regular life of Japanese people without feeling the need to dumb it down or explain it. It’s strange, and doesn’t explain everything, like many of life’s experiences. And that sushi you had for dinner might have had higher aspirations.
  2. Coraline – Of all the movies shot in Portland which take place in Oregon, this must be the finest of the year. The creative geniuses at LAIKA (and bit of financing from Nike’s Phil Knight) use the classic tech of stop motion animation and it often makes you wonder, “how did they do that?”  Be careful what you wish for because it may not be what your heart truly needs. But, like Dorothy we may learn “there’s no place like home!”
  3. Where the Wild Things Are – It’s risky to take a magical childhood classic loved by millions and attempt to make it into a movie that could be loved as much. Spike Jonze makes the attempt. It’s wooly ride which works on many levels, both as a simple romp and as a fleshing-out of the inner mind of a child. Risky, but terrific. Our hearts long to be wild, but at what cost?
  4. Moon – A gem of a story and a terrific solo performance by Sam Rockwell. To look at the technology on film, it could have been made 20 years ago. But it delivers a satisfying and memorable story as it plays with our notions of reality. Who are we really? Is there a bigger story that we are a part of, that we don’t yet know about?
  5. Avatar – the story may be totally derivative and the characters thin, but the visuals make this a movie like no other. A fully realized alien world and totally immersive experience. James Cameron has set the bar high for the synthesized realities of the movies.
  6. Princess and the Frog – New Orleans sights and citizens, jazz and gumbo. Dreams really can come true if you put in the work. But what if you take it to extremes and assume that you must be a workaholic to achieve anything? Perhaps this is the most thought-provoking concept of this wonderful hand-drawn animated tale.
  7. The Soloist – Spend any amount of time in a downtown area and you will see them: paranoid schizophrenics, often mumbling to themselves or shouting. A person like you or I, but I often want to avoid them rather than reach out and learn their story. This is the true story of someone who risked reaching out and loving. Will we risk and love the unlovable?
  8. Star Trek – It redefines a story and characters which would seem dead or untouchable. The film looks wonderful and romps energetically but JJ Abrams isn’t skilled enough at space fiction to create a true master work. It’s good, but not great.
  9. Monsters vs Aliens -  Big, 3D and creative. I loved the female empowerment story and the comic destruction of San Francisco. In any other year, this would have been a stand-out success and a great milestone for Dreamworks. Unfortunately, it got crowded out by too many other 3D computer-animated extravaganzas.

Not so good:

  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – I admit, I never read the books. The previous film in the series (Order of the Phoenix) was better at portraying Harry as a now gangly and alienated youth entangled in political intrigues beyond. “Half-Blood” doesn’t risk as much or engage as deeply.
  • Watchmen – Fans of the graphic novel probably loved its faithful rendering in celluloid. But these loser superheroes just didn’t work for me. If the blue and glowing naked guy is all powerful, how can there be a real story? What possible conflict could he not solve with a single brain wave?
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