So a precursor to this list is that as a screenwriter I constantly consume narratives, be it for film or otherwise, in my studies. Because of that I crave originality, which may somewhat bias my preferences towards the weird indie film. That being said, here goes.
Borderline perfect, Pixar’s Up should be taught during mastercourses on Story with a capital S. Proves that traditional three act structure and narrative, executed basically textbook-style, can still have the power to thrill and awe when the pieces are performed so brilliantly. Taking the grumpy old man in typical suburbia and by the end having him fistfighting an archvillain on a blimp while dogs “dogfight” in fighter planes in the surrounding sky, that’s a journey so out-there, so fun and still so very moving. Fantastic work, by the best in the business, animation or otherwise. Pixar has the secret.
2. World’s Greatest Dad
What a pleasant surprise. I had seen some of Bobcat Goldthwait’s previous film (Sleeping Dogs Lie) and the scenario for his new one intrigued me. I didn’t realize what I was getting into. Bobcat takes a simple dark comedy premise (an aspiring writer achieves fame through forging his son’s suicide note) and takes it to dazzling heights. The ludicrous escalation provides satire on religion while Robin William’s father character’s journey towards personal liberation is both darkly hilarious and still emotionally engaging. Even in smaller scenes, such as William’s strangely variable cute nicknames for his teacher girlfriend, Bobcat doesn’t settle for lines of dialogue and character interactions to play out how we expect. This is a deeply original film, and some of the most fun I had all year watching movies.
3. Observe and Report
Speaking of deeply original and most fun, I loved Observe and Report. I don’t give a damn what anybody says, I felt the absurd and extremely offensive moments were totally in keeping with the fascist central character and I applaud Jody Hill for going to the dark places he did and urging us to laugh at them. Rogen is a revelation, and don’t forget Michael Pena’s hilarious turn against-type as a lispy security guard. The finale is jaw-dropping but offers deeper meaning upon analysis (sexuality vs. violence in America). The musical selection is eclectic enough to draw notice, and powers along this crazy, twisted film to its absurd denouement.
4. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
*This was accidentally left off by mistake when I initially published this last
Bad Lieutenant is my kind of movie. Is it a great film if you broke it down in a classical analysis? Probably not. Is it capable of continuously surprising you? Yes. And it does this not out of some simple desire to shock or be different, but from a genuine thematic place. Werner Herzog has said he was looking to investigate the “bliss of evil” and in doing so he takes the neo-noir to an altogether weird place. The bad guy wins. And wins. And wins again.
And the movie is perfectly fine with that being funny. In fact it even embraces it.
That’s rare, and very entertaining.
5. District 9
They don’t make sci-fi movies like District 9 much anymore, which is a damn shame. Providing a subtle enough allegory while still proving entertaining enough as its own story, District 9 reinvented the aliens-on-earth film, and in the process established Neil Blomkamp as a major new talent to watch. Hopefully the higher ups who nixed his Halo project are kicking themselves now, because as the 3rd act showed, Blomkamp knows how to stage thrilling action. The personal journey of Wikus van de Merve was extraordinary and almost inevitable as well, but even though we know it’s coming Blomkamp and Co. still manage to convince us for small moments maybe, just maybe, Wikus won’t turn into that hero we know he will. Great movie.
6. The Hangover
Drama is easy, comedy is hard. So true, as anyone who has tried to write a feature comedy knows. The Hangover definitely relies on shock value for a lot of its laughs, and doesn’t really hold up nearly as well on a second viewing. But seeing this film in a packed theatre is watching comedy magic at work. It really really works, and I missed some of the jokes in the theatre because myself and others were laughing too hard. Creative variations on old character types (Galifianakis’ oddball brother-in-law) and a wild series of events (tigers, Tyson, marriage to strippers, etc.) keep The Hangover flying. Best straight comedy of the year (for best insane dark comedy of the year see World’s Greatest Dad or Observe and Report).
7. Star Trek
Well-reviewed for a reason, Star Trek is a gold-standard model for pacing a modern action tentpole. The energy of the film and its skill at dispensing with exposition and characterization on the fly, with humor and wit, were its real accomplishment. Sure, it looks pretty, too. The action scenes left me wanting more throughout, not in a good way, in a can-you-please-show-me-an-actual-fight way. But because the core work of the film, the Spock-Kirk relationship, was so well-constructed, I didn’t care. J.J. Abrams continues his hot streak.
8. Inglorious Basterds
I’ve never been the biggest Tarantino fan (I don’t like Pulp Fiction) but with Death Proof (great action) and now Inglorious Basterds (great dialogue) as well as myself catching up on Jackie Brown (gem), I’m turning around on that opinion. This film is basically just a really expensive series of dialogue set-pieces, and is a lot closer to being a play than anyone will bother to think about. It’s in these dialogue scenes, crackling with tension, laden with subtext, taking place in multiple languages, that Tarantino shows us what a master writer he can be when he’s not indulging in long-winded nonsense. Terrifically entertaining from start to finish with a star-making performance by the deadly, but giddy, dandy, Christopher Waltz as Hans Landa. Brad Pitt gets an unreasonable amount of comic mileage by sticking his chin out (literally). And Hitler dies! Woohoo!
9. 500 Days of Summer
It’s no small feat to breath fresh air into the romantic comedy, but this film does just that. By shuffling the chronology and breaking traditional format in a few key moments (see the parallel evening shot in split-screen and the impromptu musical number for examples) Summer keeps us on our toes as viewers, though it tells a very timeworn story at its core.
10. Drag Me To Hell
There’s a talking goat. That sort of sums up this movie for me. Campy fun, over-the-top, including the best brawl on film all year (and it was between Alison Lohman and an old gypsy woman). The craziness is nonstop all the way to the bitterly dark (and admittedly a little funny) ending. For my money this is the best Raimi movie in years, over his perfectly fine but ultimately somewhat blah and generic Spider Man films (blasphemy, I know). Best use of projectile vomit all year.