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The Best Films of 2009

The Best Films of 2009 (photo)

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Matt Singer: We entered 2009 with a new president who promised to bring our country hope. But looking back at the year in film, I don’t see a lot of hope; I see a lot of grief and despair. Oh sure, the box office charts were dominated by your now-typical assortment of franchises, spin-offs, reboots and sequels — a major cause of grief and despair for some — but you also had enough apocalypse movies to fill a book on Biblical prophecy. Even some of the obligatory superheroes got dark: the world (spoiler alert!) doesn’t end in “Watchmen,” but it comes awfully close.

There was an air of doom in certain quarters of the film industry this year too, as the effects of the bad economy rippled through everything from festival attendance to the shriveling ranks of working film critics. Examining my own list of the year’s best, I find that most were stories about people struggling with loss, like the husband in my #4 film, or the trio of siblings in my #2 film (too bad Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” was moved to next year, on the basis of the early reviews, it looks like it would have fit in perfectly). I also see a lot of films on my list about waiting: waiting for success that never comes (my #5 film), or for the end of a tour of duty in Iraq (#6), or for the moment when a demon will come and drags your eternal soul to hell (#3). The bleak mood may have also contributed to it being a fine year for dark comedies, including two outstanding films on my list.

I’ve read lots of complaints that 2009 was a mediocre year for movies, but people who tend to complain about that sort of thing say that every year, no matter how many good movies there are. All I know is trying to pick just ten favorites out of all the worthy films felt tougher this year than it has in the four previous I’ve been at IFC. To me, that feels like a reason to hope. Without further ado:

12202009_crank2.jpg10. “Crank: High Voltage”

Chev Chelios, the protagonist of the “Crank” series, is the perfect action hero. In each film, he’s saddled with a physical impairment that forces him to remain in a constant state of excitement. For Chelios, and for the audience of action films, boredom equals death. This time around, Triad gangsters steal Chelios’ heart and he has to get it back while keeping his artificial ticker pumping by blasting it with jolts of electricity. Subversive genre twists and clever metaphors abound: we follow a hero who is literally heartless on a quest for bigger and bigger electrical shocks while directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor try to jolt the audience with bigger and bigger shocks of their own, provoking viewers with a nonstop barrage of offensive humor, frenetic imagery, outrageous violence, and narrative non-sequiturs. Not all the jokes land, but you have to admire Neveldine/Taylor’s willingness to push the boundaries of bad taste and conventional visual storytelling. (The DIY duo shot much of the film themselves on cameras you can get at Best Buy.) They’re kind of action heroes themselves: blazing a bloody path into uncharted territory.

12202009_whiteribbon2.jpg9. “The White Ribbon”

Speaking of shocking, after films like “Caché,” “Funny Games,” and his latest, “The White Ribbon,” it may be time to anoint Michael Haneke as “The Master of Shock,” in much the same way Hitchcock earned the moniker “The Master of Suspense.” Certainly no other current director is as good as Haneke at blindsiding an audience with an unsuspected jolt of terror. You can tell when it’s one of his movies as much by what’s on the screen as by the noises the people watching them make; just listen for the moments when everyone in the theater collectively gasps for breath. Beyond its beautiful, austere cinematography by Christian Berger and its chilling portrait of a small German town’s self-destruction in the years leading up to World War I, “The White Ribbon” boasts several images so shocking that that they will haunt you for days, and weeks, and beyond.

12202009_intheloop.jpg8. “In the Loop”

“War is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.” That sentiment, originally expressed by General Jack D. Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” is illustrated with uproarious and terrifying results in Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” a film worthy of comparison to “Strangelove” and its pitch black political satire. In depressingly believable fashion, “In the Loop” shows how careerism, infighting, and general stupidity, can send the world spiraling into an unnecessary war. The film sounds like a didactic bummer, which is what it would have been Iannucci hadn’t packed it with rapid-fire jokes, many of them highly quotable. (I’d share some, but my word count is making things difficult difficult lemon difficult.) The documentary-style visuals and madcap energy of the film’s screwball finale gave “In the Loop” a sense of immediacy and urgency that most “important” films about the war in Iraq lacked. Clearly, a work of filmmakers with plenty of strategic thought.

12202009_headless3.jpg7. “The Headless Woman”

Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” boasted an ingenious visual style, one that put the viewer right inside its lead character’s foggy headspace. Verónica (an appealingly enigmatic María Onetto) runs over something, or maybe someone, on a deserted road and never stops to find out what. For the rest of the movie, Martel evokes Verónica’s emotional disconnection from everyone around her, framing her in the foreground of images that are otherwise blurred by shallow focus. As Verónica stares off into the murky distance, and her friends and loved ones close ranks around her, insisting she’s done nothing wrong while covering up any proof that could implicate her, we come to share her twin drives: curiosity about the full details of the accident and fear about the dark truth of her actions.

12202009_hurtlocker4.jpg6. “The Hurt Locker”

Most of us would not be able to withstand the pressure, much less the technical challenges, of diffusing a single bomb. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) has done it more than 800 times. The power of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” isn’t that it makes us wish we could do what he does, but that we come to some understanding of why James does. While James Cameron dominated headlines with his latest biggest movie in history, his ex-wife Bigelow beat him at his own game with a smarter, leaner movie about life in wartime against an insurgency. And like Bigelow’s “Point Break,” “The Hurt Locker” is both a well-executed thriller and an insightful character study about men with an uncontrollable compulsion for reckless thrill seeking. The movie opens with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges that reads “War is a drug.” So are movies as good as this one.

12202009_anvil.jpg5. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”

Life isn’t fair. In a world where celebrities are made overnight for singing poorly on reality television shows, talented guys like Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner of the Canadian metal band Anvil have been toiling in obscurity for 25 years. They inspired a generation of rock bands who appear in the film to sing their virtues, but they still spend their days making ends meet working construction and catering jobs and their nights playing gigs in dive bars. Now middle-aged with families to support, they should have given up their dreams of stardom long ago. Thank God they didn’t because the result of that stubborn, and maybe even borderline stupid, determination was this heartbreaking and heartwarming documentary, a moving story about the power of perseverance and friendship. Director Sacha Gervasi, a screenwriter turned first-time filmmaker was an Anvil roadie in the 1980s, and it shows in the finished product. Only a documentarian with a personal connection to his subjects could have crafted a film this affectionate, candid, and insightful.

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Face Melting Cameos

The 10 Most Metal Pop Culture Cameos

Glenn Danzig drops by Portlandia tonight at 10P on IFC.

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Glenn Danzig rocks harder than granite. In his 60 years, he’s mastered punk with The Misfits, slayed metal with the eponymous Danzig, and generally melted faces with the force of his voice. And thanks to Fred and Carrie, he’s now stopping by tonight’s brand new Portlandia so we can finally get to see what “Evil Elvis” is like when he hits the beach. To celebrate his appearance, we put together our favorite metal moments from pop culture, from the sublime to the absurd.

10. Cannibal Corpse meets Ace Ventura

Back in the ’90s,  Cannibal Corpse was just a small time band from Upstate New York, plying their death metal wares wherever they could find a crowd, when a call from Jim Carry transformed their lives. Turns out the actor was a fan, and wanted them for a cameo in his new movie, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The band had a European tour coming up, and were wary of being made fun of, so they turned it down. Thankfully, the rubber-faced In Living Color vet wouldn’t take no for an answer, proving that you don’t need to have a lot of fans, just the right ones.


9. AC/DC in Private Parts

Howard Stern’s autobiographical film, based on his book of the same name, followed his rise in the world of radio and pop culture. For a man surrounded by naked ladies and adoring fans, it’s hard to track the exact moment he made it. But rocking out with AC/DC in the middle of Central Park, as throngs of fans clamor to get a piece of you, seems like it comes pretty close. You can actually see Stern go from hit host to radio god in this clip, as “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts in the background.


8. Judas Priest meets The Simpsons

When you want to blast a bunch of peace-loving hippies out on their asses, you’re going to need some death metal. At least, that’s what the folks at The Simpsons thought when they set up this cameo from the metal gods. Unfortunately, thanks to a hearty online backlash, the writers of the classic series were soon informed that Judas Priest, while many things, are not in fact “death metal.” This led to the most Simpson-esque apology ever. Rock on, Bartman. Rock on.


7. Anthrax on Married…With Children

What do you get when Married…with Children spoofs My Dinner With Andre, substituting the erudite playwrights for a band so metal they piss rust? Well, for starters, a lot of headbanging, property destruction and blown eardrums. And much like everything else in life, Al seems to have missed the fun.


6. Motorhead rocks out on The Young Ones

The Young Ones didn’t just premiere on BBC2 in 1982 — it kicked the doors down to a new way of doing comedy. A full-on assault on the staid state of sitcoms, the show brought a punk rock vibe to the tired format, and in the process helped jumpstart a comedy revolution. For instance, where an old sitcom would just cut from one scene to the next, The Young Ones choose to have Lemmy and his crew deliver a raw version of “Ace of Spades.” The general attitude seemed to be, you don’t like this? Well, then F— you!


5. Red and Kitty Meet Kiss on That ’70s Show

Carsey-Werner Productions

Carsey-Werner Productions

Long before they were banished to playing arena football games, Kiss was the hottest ticket in rock. The gang from That ’70s Show got to live out every ’70s teen’s dream when they were set loose backstage at a Kiss concert, taking full advantage of groupies, ganja and hard rock.


4. Ronnie James Dio in Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (NSFW, people!)

What does a young boy do when he was born to rock, and the world won’t let him? What tight compadre does he pray to for guidance and some sweet licks? If you’re a young Jables, half of “the world’s most awesome band,” you bow your head to Ronnie James Dio, aka the guy who freaking taught the world how to do the “Metal Horns.” Never before has a rock god been so literal than in this clip that turns it up to eleven.


3. Ozzy Osbourne in Trick or Treat

It’s hard to tell if Ozzy was trying his hardest here, or just didn’t give a flying f–k. What is clear is that, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Ozzy’s approach to acting seems to lean more heavily on Jack Daniels than sense memory, and yet seeing the slurry English rocker play a sex-obsessed televangelist is so ridiculous, he gets a free pass. Taking part in the cult horror Trick or Treat, Ozzy proves that he makes things better just by showing up. Because that’s exactly what he did here. Showed up. And it rocks.


2. Glenn Danzig on Portlandia

Danzig seems to be coming out of a self imposed exile these days. He just signed with a record company, and his appearance on Portlandia is reminding everyone how kick ass he truly is. Who else but “The Other Man in Black” could help Portland’s resident goths figure out what to wear to the beach? Carrie Brownstein called Danzig “amazing,” and he called Fred “a genius,” so this was a rare love fest for the progenitor of horror punk.


1. Alice Cooper in Wayne’s World

It’s surprising, sure, but for a scene that contains no music whatsoever, it’s probably the most famous metal moment in the history of film. When Alice Cooper informed Wayne and Garth that Milwaukee is actually pronounced “Milly-way-kay” back in 1992, he created one of the most famous scenes in comedy history. What’s more metal than that? Much like Wayne and Garth, we truly are not worthy.

Chart: The Season of “Man”-ly Movies

Chart: The Season of “Man”-ly Movies (photo)

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The movies are typically a male-dominated medium, but things have been even more man-ly than usual lately. You can’t throw a rock at the theater these days without hitting a marquee advertising a movie with the word “Man” in the title. (Not that we’re encouraging you throw rocks in movie theaters, mind you. Merely a figure of speech.)

By our count, there have been at least eight different “Man”-ly movies this year, and at least one more high profile one coming in 2010. How can anyone be expected to tell any of the “men” apart, especially when so many of them wear the glossy sheen of Oscar bait? They can’t, which is why we threw together this diagram to clear up any confusion and help you pick the right “Man” to suit your movie needs.

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The Year of Apolitical Cinema?

The Year of Apolitical Cinema? (photo)

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In 1989, Spike Lee picked up a trashcan and hurled it into the front window of Sal’s Pizzeria, stirring chaos in Bed-Stuy and sending movie audiences into a tizzy about race relations in America. That same year, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma were reopening heated debates about Vietnam (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “Casualties of War”), while Steven Soderbergh and Peter Greenaway were making us squirm by challenging conventional moral codes (“sex, lies and videotape,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”). Jump ahead 20 years: today’s watercooler cinema holds nary an ounce of subversive content. On the contrary, the most talked-about upscale American films of the year uphold such conservative myths as the sanctity of family and community.

Much has already been written about the reactionary elements of Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which, despite its confrontational scenes of rape, parental abuse and fried pig’s feet, ultimately ends up just another triumphant afterschool story of social uplift and the power of a benevolent society. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently wrote, the conclusion of “Precious,” “fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption,” allowing them to ignore “the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.”

Now comes Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” entering the conversation with similar buzz, following its rapturous reception at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The “Juno” director manages the same clever ideological reversal as in his previous cinema: Take an edgy character, insert crisis of conscience and watch all that anti-establishment chutzpah fall away into a reification of all-American suburban ideals.

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Nowhere Men

Nowhere Men (photo)

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Remember that warm and fuzzy montage at the opening of “Love Actually,” where Heathrow Airport is the scene of dozens of reunions, with lovers, parents and children, siblings and old friends running into each other’s arms and sharing their affection for each other?

Those are not the friendly skies that Ryan Bingham travels in “Up in the Air”. For Bingham, portrayed brilliantly by George Clooney, airports, hotels and rent-a-car counters are his world, and it’s a world that allows him to avoid getting too close to anyone. Bingham’s business is firing people on behalf of managers who can’t face their own soon-to-be-axed employees, and business is booming. So while Bingham technically lives in a spartan apartment in Omaha, his real home is what novelist Walter Kirn called “Airworld” in his novel of the same name, upon which the film is based.

A seasoned pro at corporate travel, Bingham is a Zen master; the way he removes his laptop and shoes for airport security before briskly putting everything back in its place feels like a combination of choreography and time-efficiency training. There’s not an Admirals Club he can’t whisk his way into with the right card, nor a line at a Hilton or a Hertz he must endure. His motto? “The slower we go, the faster we die.” He’s got few possessions, fewer emotional entanglements, and his one goal in life is to reach ten million frequent flyer miles. So, naturally, Ryan Bingham is about to discover that he’s actually got a heart, in the process of getting it broken.

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Danny McBride, That Funny Dude From That Movie

Danny McBride, That Funny Dude From That Movie (photo)

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Actor and sometime screenwriter Danny McBride has risen to the top of Hollywood’s comedy food chain, having handily stolen scenes from Ben Stiller (“Tropic Thunder”) and Will Ferrell (“Land of the Lost”), and become the headliner of his own series as washed-up baseballer Kenny Powers on HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,” a series he helped conceive. McBride’s success is deserved, though he certainly gets by with a little help from his friends. Long before he was the “thug life”-lovin’ drug supplier in director David Gordon Green‘s “Pineapple Express,” he served as a second unit director on Green’s 2000 arthouse breakthrough “George Washington.” And he wouldn’t have had a cameo in Jody Hill‘s “Observe and Report” if he hadn’t co-wrote and starred in Hill’s indie cult fave “The Foot Fist Way” as a renegade Taekwondo instructor who beats up kids.

Momentarily ditching his usual partners in crime, McBride can next be seen in “Up in the Air,” an Oscar-buzzing new dramedy from “Juno” director Jason Reitman. Based on Walter Kirn’s novel, the film stars George Clooney as a contractor who gets hired to fire corporate employees around the country, and whose chief passion in life is racking up ten million airline miles. In a brief but memorable role, McBride plays Clooney’s brother-in-law to be, a reluctant groom who must be talked down from the proverbial ledge just before his own wedding. By phone, McBride and I spoke about his worst airplane experience, getting away with murder in Hollywood and how his hair is comparable to a famous thespian’s nose.

You’ve probably spent a lot more time in airports and on planes since your career took off, no pun intended. Do you find any pleasure in the mundane processes of travel?

You know, I don’t mind time on a plane. For however long the trip is, people can’t reach you, you don’t have to deal with shit, and you can just sleep and read. I love that. I hate going to airports, though. I don’t really find much satisfaction in going through security.

What’s the worst traveling experience you’ve ever had?

Me and my fiancée tried to fly our cats from Los Angeles to our home in Virginia. It was a fucking nightmare. One of the cats doesn’t like flying at all, so we took him to the vet and he gave us these tranquilizers. All it did was turn him into a drunk monster. He was making these weird growls I’d never heard him do before. Cats have that weird third eyelid that comes out from the middle — that was out. It was horrifying. We threw him out the window.

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