Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Best Movies Viewed in 2009—Lots of “Must-Sees!”

Holy cow! I’ve been awarded something!
(Thanks “When Is Evil Cool?”! You rule!)
I’ll follow through with the awards requirements shortly!

How the heck does anyone have the audacity to come up with annual “Best Of” lists?

Have they really seen every film released that year?

Well, The National Film Board of Ivanlandia certainly hasn’t seen every flick that was released in 2009—we can only judge on what we’ve seen.

And y’know what? Most of the really good films we saw this year were not released this year.

And some of them we’ve seen plenty of times already.

And most of these were watched on DVD, not in a theater….

Here are the best films that I saw in 2009.
No, they are certainly not all films released in 2009—hardly!

These are the ones I saw—and wrote something about.
(And as usual, most of the photos accompanying this entry are related to the films in at best a subconscious way. Except when I actually use stills or posters from the movie in question. )

Some of these flicks I’ve seen before, but I only got around to writing about them/reassessing them in 2009.

A lot of the reviews below are cut & pasted from my Netflix reviews, with some tweaks, but I’ve left a lot of the hyperbolism in.

But 2009 was the first time I wrote about these movies!

Interestingly, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and director Michael Ritchie appear on the list twice, and each with a film epitomizing their careers and one that was atypical of it…

And there won’t be a Worst We Saw in 2009 List—
if The National Film Board hated the movie enough to write it up, that is enough…
(yes, we saw Avatar, and Slumdog Millionaire in 2009—and HATED them.)

Let’s start with
Special Faves of 2009—
movies I was so happy at discovering
that I wondered how I’d managed to survive so long without them!

Billy Budd (1962)
Directed and produced by Peter Ustinov
Screenplay by Peter Ustinov & DeWitt Bodeen (with Robert Rossen, uncredited)
Based on the novella "Billy Budd, Foretopman" in Billy Budd, and Other Prose Pieces by Herman Melville, and the play Billy Budd by Louis O. Coxe and Robert Chapman
Cinematography by Robert Krasker
B&W, 123 min.
Cast: Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Terence Stamp,

Fantastic cinemascope photography, a sensitive and perceptive script and subtle direction combined with some of the best acting you'll ever see
make Billy Budd an almost perfect film.

Ultimately, the flick is so tragic (law comes before justice), that it's completely heartbreaking. I dare you not to tear up at Billy's last line.

You cannot tell that this is Stamp's first film, he's that good, but Robert Ryan steals the show as the twisted sadist Claggart ("It's a world of gliding monsters"), a man so conflicted, he seeks his own destruction—
and finds it with the beautiful Billy.
This movie is a must-see.

The Super-State uses cyborg-TVs to control the population in the future, and now one is in the present and ruining philosophy professor Hans Conreid’s life, in the awesome and totally-uber-low-budget
The Twonky (1953)
Covered here

Ivan’s Childhood (1963)
(A.K.A. My Name Is Ivan)

Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Screenplay by Vladimir Bogomolov and Mikhail Papava
Based on the short story, “Ivan,” by Vladimir Bogomolov
Cinematography by Vadim Yusov
Cast: Nikolai Burlyayev (as Ivan), Valentin Zubkov, Yevgeni Zharikov
B&W, 97 min.

A beautiful and brutal film about lost youth that is also a very original and intense war movie, with perhaps the saddest ending ever.

Once you’re done watching this movie, you’ll be glad the Red Army clobbered the Nazis so harshly.

Everything works well together in this film: the acting (especially haunted Ivan), the script, the direction, the cinematography and so on. A must-see.

Finally released to DVD,
Don Siegel’s awesome


[covered here]
is a schizoid-a-riffic blast of noir nihilism—with a commentary track by crime author James Ellroy that’ll scorch your ears

For All Mankind (1989)
Directed by Al Reinert
Produced by Al Reinert, Fred Miller, Betsy Broyles Breier, Ben Young Mason
Music by Brian Eno
Edited by Susan Korda
80 min.

Using a lot of previously unseen footage, For All Mankind is a beautiful and stunning interpretation of the Apollo moon landing program, a must-see for anyone interested in genuine space exploration (as opposed to fantasy films set in “space”).

The film has a very informative commentary that provides some excellent food for thought:
As Gene Cernan says on it, since they have been to another planet, you could consider the astronauts as extraterrestrials now.

By the way, when you think about it, this might be perhaps the most expensive movie ever made.

Some Came Running (1959)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Produced by Sol C. Siegel
Screenplay by John Patrick and Arthur Sheekman
Based on the novel by James Jones
Cinematography by William H. Daniels
Cast: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley MacLaine, Martha Hyer, Arthur Kennedy
137 min.

This sumptuously detailed attack on bourgeois hypocrisy and pretensions is set in motion when Sinatra’s bitter author and ex-soldier inadvertently returns to his hometown, trailed by fun-loving floozy Shirley MacLaine (who delivers a stellar performance).

Considered persona non grata by “polite society,” Sinatra befriends gambler Dean Martin (who steals every scene he’s in), but also starts a doomed romance with the creative writing teacher he has asked to look at his latest story.

Although hardly “feel good,” this movie is great: The cast is perfect, the script is mature and intelligent, and the widescreen camerawork is excellent.
I’m shocked it took me so long to discover Some Came Running.

BTW, Some Came Running is one of
Otto Mannix’s faves, and he leant me his DVD so I could take forever before watching it. Thanks!

One of the only films that notorious curmudgeon H.L. Mencken liked,
Lili (1953)
is an incredibly heartwarming movie—why isn’t this MGM hit on DVD yet?
Covered here

And now,
the rest of
The Best Movies We Saw in 2009

Nightmare Alley (1947)
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Screenplay by Jules Furthman
Based on the novel by William Lindsay Gresham
Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell
B&W, 110 min.

Even with the tacked-on, "happy" ending, Nightmare Alley is a perfect movie, with some brilliant sleaze.
Still holds up, great deliciously nasty stuff.
Oh yeah, I know what a geek is…

Finally released on DVD in 2009,
Charles Bronson & Jill Ireland’s delicious comedy,
From Noon Till Three (1976)
was ahead of its time
Covered here

Funny Games in Corporate Spain:
The Method (2005)
Covered here

Land of the Lost (2009)
Directed by Brad Silberling
Screenplay by Chris Henchy and Dennis McNichols
Based on the television series created by Sid and Marty Krofft
Cast: Will Ferrell, Anna Friel, Danny McBride
102 min.

Personally, I think this film would’ve been better received had it been titled “National Lampoon’s Land of the Lost” – then audiences would have expected the poop & boob jokes, and all the absurdist sexual behavior.
Oh, well.

As is, this is a movie that goes great with a six-pack or other intoxicants.
Land of the Lost is a wonderfully perverse tribute to the old show that true believers will probably hate.

But it I think it’s a continuation of the stoner aesthetic that helped create the original Sid & Marty Krofft series.

The flick is essentially a weird remake of Wizard of Oz, with elements of Moby Dick and Beneath the Planet of the Apes thrown in—
all of which is stapled-gunned to Will Ferrell and Danny McBride’s take on a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movie or an Abbott & Costello comedy: low-brow, goofball humor that gets very “meta” often.

McBride brings the most consistent laughs as the audience surrogate (“That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen! Don’t tell me you weren’t impressed!”), but I’m also a fan of Ferrell’s man-child personas, so he was a kick for me, too.

And I am a total sucker for some expensive breathlessly paced, special effects-laden action flicks, which this is a subset of.

Land of the Lost is uneven, certainly, but delivers enough weirdness and gutbusting laughs that I rather like how they’ve smutted-up the old show.
Heck, the flick should’ve been kinkier!

BTW, The director’s commentary is actually very good, full of weird info: did you know that the original TV show’s banjo theme was inspired by the banjo in Deliverance? Weird.
And that the giant crab that shows up halfway through the flick was a deliberate tribute to Harryhausen’s crab in the much more serious Mysterious Island? Nice.
And the bell in the cave was inspired by one of director Brad Silberling’s favorite films: the already mentioned Ivan’s Childhood. Wuzzah?!?
The commentary is worth a listen.

Unceremoniously dumped by its studio,
Trick ’R Treat (2008)
Deserves to be discovered and made a cult movie—
Heavily influenced by EC Comics,
it’s a flick that most certainly will enter the Halloween rental rotation
in The United Provinces of Ivanlandia
Covered here

A sequel to Dirty Harry that really isn’t a Dirty Harry movie,
Magnum Force (1973)
pits a Barry Goldwater Republican against Neoconservatives
Covered here

Marty (1955)
Directed by Delbert Mann
Screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky, based on his story
Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle (uncredited)
Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Frank Sutton
94 min.

A look at a world of lonely people too frightened to buck the status quo and one “fat, ugly little man” who can see that his and his friends’ lives are going nowhere, Marty is still an incredibly moving film, thanks to Borgnine’s knockout performance, Paddy Chayefsky’s script and the crisp cinematography (a sort of combo documentary/noir style).

Rightly considered a classic, Marty is a must-see that still holds up more than 50 years later.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Sin About His Father (2008)
Written and directed by Kurt Kuenne
95 min.

Probably the most heartbreaking movie ever--and one that will make you very angry--but by focusing on Andrew Bagby's parents, this documentary becomes an incredibly life-affirming film. Excellent.

Smile (1975)
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Jerry Belson
Cast: Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon, Geoffrey Lewis, Annette O’Toole
113 min.

A rare movie that’s worth catching—
and for such a spot-on satire of beauty pageants and the people behind them, it’s pretty amazing how even-handed Smile treats its characters.

One year after Smile, director Michael Ritchie helmed The Bad News Bears, and like that flick, this one takes a skewed look at suburban American obsessions, albeit in a larger, more multi-layered Altmanesque manner.

The cast of Smile is great, most of them cast against type (Bruce Dern and Geoffrey Lewis in a comedy?!?)
but most of the praise should go to writer Jerry Belson (who also developed The Odd Couple into a TV show).

Belson’s managed to squeeze a lot of details and insight into his screenplay.
A prime moment is when one contestant tells another that since boys get paid to play sports, why shouldn’t the girls get money for being pretty?

“But maybe boys shouldn’t be getting money to make touchdowns,” says the other contestant.

One of the best cinematic adaptations of a Donald Westlake/Richard Stark book:
The Outfit (1972)
Covered here

Up (2009)
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Screenplay by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Based on a story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Thomas McCarthy
Cast: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer
96 min.

A fantastic achievement, Up is the first movie in a long time to genuinely move me and melt my cold, cold heart.

No matter how absurd or offbeat the plot might be (cranky old man with a flying house, stowaway fat kid and talking dogs just to start), it has a core of tenderness that makes the hilarity and excitement even more powerful.

And it’s not like I’m some sort of Pixar cheerleader:
While I do love The Incredibles, I haven’t seen Cars (and don’t intend to), didn’t really like Ratatouille, and Wall-E left me a little cold.

But Up is magnificent and unique--a must-see.

Cliff Robertson is obsessed with getting the men who killed his father (who was probably a drunk anyway) in
Sam Fuller’s finally-released-to-DVD must-see
Underworld USA (1961)
Covered here

2012 (2009)
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Roland Emmerich & Harald Kloser
Cast: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Oliver Platt and a lot of people dying
158 min.

A must-see for disaster movie fans:
Roland Emmerich rightfully wears Irwin Allen’s “Master of Disaster” crown now.

Some might regard it as distasteful, but I think it’s awesome that the message of this flick - that only the super-rich will survive doomsday –
is incredibly subversive,
and really leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

And I think that’s great.
Let’s face it, if you don’t have bread, you’re doomed, apocalypse or not.

That’s why 2012 is filled with so many excruciatingly crafted scenes of massive destruction showing us the “tiny” details of so many individuals dying.
And this flick has a death toll of about six billion!

The only way this bitter message can go down easy is by being wrapped up in the goofy “family coming back together” storyline with John Cusack,
which does provide the opportunity for some excellent ground level effects sequences
(but also a lame joke at the end).
But despite all that, the flick’s worth seeing to see everything blow up.

Now, when is either the 1973 or 2006 version of The Submersion of Japan coming to American DVD? (Or can someone point me in the right direction?)

Michaels Ritchie and Caine’s
The Island (1980)
Covered here

It has to be seen to be believed—
Don Knott’s mind-roasting
The Love God? (1969)
Covered here

Zizek! (2005)
Directed by Astra Taylor
Editor and Sound Recordist Laura Hanna
Cinematography by Martina Radwan and Jesse Epstein
Animation by Molly Schwartz
Cast: Slavoj Žižek
71 min.

Slavoj Žižek is the professor we all wish we’d had.

Okay, let’s get one thing out of the way: If you’re not interested in the new paths of contemporary philosophy, why would you rent this? You wouldn't.

But if you are interested, Žižek! is a lively, almost exhilarating introduction to “philosophy’s wild man” and his theories.

This flick is excellent brain food and requires serious concentration, but it’s worth it.

And kudos to director Astra Taylor for keeping this film short. Seventy minutes is plenty of time to deal with such dense topics and such a crazy man.

BTW, watching this with the subtitles on would be a good idea: Žižek’s got a THICK accent.

Bronson’s tight-lipped Indian pre-dates John Rambo by more than a decade as he tricks a posse to their doom:
Chato’s Land (1972)
Covered here

Pigs & Battleships (1961)
Directed by Shohei Imamura
Screenplay by Hisashi Yamauchi
Cast: Jitsuko Yoshimura, Yoko Minamida
B&W, 108 min.

Pigs & Battleships is an angry film, not just at the Americans, but at the Japanese as well, and its visual style heightens this intensity.

This film’s incredible photography highlights the miserable slum existence of the low-level yakuza and the prostitutes that live and scheme in the squalor outside of an American naval base in post-war Japan.

Pigs & Battleships is very recommended, with great acting, a good script and an awesome last 20 minutes, as greed and betrayal force anarchy to break out in the red-light district.

However, this movie might be best appreciated by those with at least some familiarity with post-war Japanese history, as well as at least a little knowledge about how the yakuza work.

Thirst (2009),
the director of Oldboy
just keeps getting better
Covered here

One of the greatest biker movies ever made, the
Stone (1974)
has finally been given a US release
Covered here

Honorable mentions
It seems like everybody loves being hurt:
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Covered here

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
Directed, produced, edited, designed and animated by Nina Paley
Screenplay by Nina Paley
Based on the book The Ramayana by Valmiki
82 min.

Sita Sings the Blues is a movie to be savored.

Richly detailed and beautiful to watch, the film is also wonderfully smart and inventive, bubbling with ideas as it retells/reinterprets an ancient Indian legend of unrequited unconditional love.

Responsible for every creative and technical detail (except music), director Nina Paley is truly an auteur and deserves praise for this fine work.

BTW, Sita Sings the Blues would be a fabulous double-feature with Yellow Submarine!

Monsters From the Id (2009)
Directed by David Gargani
71 min.

A bittersweet ode to the age of labcoat veneration, Monsters From the Id reminds us of when the scientist always saved the day.

This highly recommended documentary intersperses clips from dozens of 1950s sci-fi flicks with interviews from a handful of scientists, engineers and scholars, and addresses the glum topic of the declining interest in science education in the US in a surprisingly upbeat and engaging manner.

Despite the obvious low budgets of some of the films featured, Monsters From the Id never takes the attitude that it is better or smarter than the film clips it uses, and steadfastly refuses to plunge into “snark.”

Director David Gargani has fashioned his footage wisely, and instead focuses on the dreams and sense of wonder these flicks inspired--and could inspire again.

No release date yet, mainly due to expensive rights issues for the footage used.

The most evil city in the USA—
The Phenix City Story (1955)
Covered here

Not so much as western as a dark comedy that skewers politics in America:
Kirk Douglas’
Posse (1975)
Covered here

A fave of the creators of The Venture Bros.,
The Eiger Sanction (1975)
is Clint Eastwood’s insane anti-spy movie that succeeds because of its incredible mountaineering footage
Covered here


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