Not that I’m lamenting the state of cinema in 2009; given that Hollywood studios systematically backload their release schedules more than the Yankees back-loaded Derek Jeter’s contract, it’s only fair to assume that the best of the year have yet to come (in my Top 10 list of 2008, eight of the 10 selections were released in the latter half of the year). Nor am I denying that I’ve already watched a fair number of perfectly decent movies this year; in fact, of the 28 films I’ve seen in theatres thus far, I at least enjoyed roughly two-thirds them. But with apologies to entertaining, well-made fare such as The Brothers Bloom, Coraline, The Hangover, I Love You, Man, The Soloist, Star Trek, and State of Play (sadly, I’ve yet to see The Hurt Locker), none of those perfectly respectable films dazzled me enough to warrant a Must-See label.
Unlike these three. When I say that the following three films are Must-See, I mean that literally: You must see these films. Until you do, your life will be incomplete. I am a happier, more fulfilled human being for having experienced these movies. And that’s that.
(Note: The jury is still deliberating on whether Michael Mann’s Public Enemies is a Must-See film. We intend to return a verdict following our second viewing of the picture. Thank you for your patience.)
3. Up. I know what you want to ask, so I’ll just get it out of the way now: No, Pixar’s Up is not as good as Wall-E. Please don’t mistake me, however; my feelings on this matter say far more about my unadulterated love for Wall-E than they do about my heartfelt enthusiasm for Up. A light, fanciful, consistently pleasing, often breathtaking adventure film, Up solidifies Pixar’s position (not that it needed any fortification, but no matter) as the preeminent animation studio in the movie business. As Pixar pictures go, Up is fairly conventional (well, insofar as a movie about a grizzled widower traveling to South America by way of a flying house can be termed conventional), but it is nevertheless a delight. With well-rounded (or in Carl Frederickson’s case, well-squared) characters, a suspenseful plot, dialogue that veers from dependably funny to downright uproarious, and vibrant, beautifully textured animation, Up is a prime example of everything a major Hollywood production can be.
I should also note that the first 15 minutes of Up are, quite simply, transcendent. It’s almost unfair because the majesty of the movie’s first quarter-hour can tempt viewers into the perception that the remainder of the film is inferior, even if that remainder is beautiful, funny, and just damn good. But the introduction simply operates on another plane. The projectionist could have set fire to the reels 15 minutes in, and I still would have received my money’s worth.
2. Adventureland. It’s almost odd that I felt such a personal connection to Adventureland, Greg Mottola’s quiet, sneakily great coming-of-age dramedy. It’s not like my late-adolescent life mirrored that of James Brennan, portrayed perfectly in the film by Jesse Eisenberg (soon to be a household name if there’s any justice in the world). Sure, I get the whole “nerdy Jewish kid is incredibly horny and awkward around girls” thing, but I never smoked pot, never suffered through a degrading summer job, and never had anywhere near the success James manages when working women. But the emotional truths revealed in Adventureland are universal, and Mottola’s screenplay relays them with effortlessness and nimble wit, as do his lead actors. Eisenberg continues to refine the quirky personality he first authored in Roger Dodger into a youth of both vulnerable innocence and world-wise intelligence, while Kristen Stewart has proven to be an actress who can say a great deal while speaking very little – the exquisite hesitancy and self-doubt she displays in Adventureland is heart-wrenching. Here is a movie that appears unassuming only to establish itself as a cornerstone of its amorphous genre. And shame on all of you for not seeing it in theatres when you had the chance.
(Seriously, $16 million at the box office for something this great? Meanwhile, motherfucking Monsters vs. Aliens is making a push for $200 million domestic gross. I give up.)
1. Duplicity. Just pure pleasure. An unapologetically slick exercise of unparalleled elegance, Duplicity is coy, wry, and shamefully self-indulgent. It is also utterly exhilarating. One would think that a playful spy flick – Non-linear storytelling! Double-crosses! MI6 vs. CIA! – with such a self-aware spin would reduce itself to something wispy and ephemeral, but that would discount writer-director Tony Gilroy’s unimpeachable command. Ruthlessly formal yet impossibly breezy, Duplicity keeps viewers engaged (dare I say breathless?) by combining a light, jovial air with calculated, precision filmmaking. Gilroy composes every shot with nuance and care, and his screenplay coils and snaps, but his sense of atmosphere is so enchanting that there is no dogged, film-school air about the proceedings. The chemistry between Julia Roberts (in her sexiest performance since Pretty Woman) and Clive Owen (who is, let’s face it, sexy in everything) positively crackles, and the terrifically complicated plot teases the viewer with gradual revelations only to double back on itself for another surprise. The result is an invigorating motion picture, one that pleases without shame. Here’s a movie that made me happy that movies exist.
One other note: Gilroy, for my money, seems to be the American answer to Britain’s Joe Wright, a man whose first two movies – the captivating Pride & Prejudice and the devastating Atonement – immediately granted him status as an auteur. After 15 years as a screenwriter, Gilroy’s directorial debut was Michael Clayton, one of the most perfect movies I have ever seen. Now we have Duplicity. I, for one, cannot wait to see what he has in store for us next.