Saturday, January 2, 2010

Maggie's Top 10 Gen X Films of 2009

For the purpose of this list I am confining my choices to the new release films the store got in this year, and further representing my picks as the best of a few top genres.

Horror -- Grace

If you're looking for an action-packed fun-ride, Drag Me To Hell and Trick 'r Treat will be more up your alley. Grace isn't the kind of horror flick you show in a party setting. But in the realism of its scope, and the subtlety of the questions it asks, it is damn good. Madeline Madison's unborn child dies in a car accident that also kills her husband, but her midwife and former lover, Patricia Lang, supports her decision to carry the dead fetus to term. After a “natural” birth, the form of which is so much at odds with her mother-in-law's militant adherence to mainstream medicine, Madeline tries to will her dead child alive... and it works. The only drawback is that the child has a tendency to stink of rotting flesh, emanate flies, reject milk, and crave blood. Otherwise, she's everything a mother could ask for — and Madeline will do whatever it takes to keep her “alive.”

Suspense -- Paranormal Activity

This is a film that should rightly make other directors feel ashamed to be blowing huge chunks of their operating budgets on excess special effects. Shot on a shoe-string budget in the director's home with a cast of four, Paranormal Activity goes wonderfully back to basics by building a tense premise on character development, simple tricks, misdirection, and a superb use of sound and lighting. The story follows a young couple, Katie and Micah, who intend to use Micah's fancy-shmancy new camera see if there's anything to the supernatural presence Katie is convinced has been following her since she was a girl. Presented solely as “found footage,” this film documents their realization that there is indeed something in the house – but when Katie wants outside help to remove it, Micah becomes a more assertive “master of his home,” ultimately entering into a pissing contest with the demon that ends... well, on a note that still leaves me jumpy when I'm home alone.

Buddy Comedy -- The Hangover

In the age of Seth Rogen, buddy comedies have decidedly fixated on underachievers (Superbad, Pineapple Express, Role Models, Observe & Report) but every now and then a movie still surprises me by being about adults. Doing stupid things, heck yes! But as adults, with all the hilariously conflicting responsibility sets therein. When Seth Rogen in Observe & Report kisses a girl who just puked, because he's more than willing to take what he can get from the hottest woman at his mall, fine, there will always be an audience for that: But when a bachelor party in Vegas turns out to be so spectacular that the wedding party wakes with short-term amnesia the morning after, having lost the groom and finding a tiger in their bathroom, a baby in the closet, and Mike Tyson at the piano instead? See, that shit's funny.

Romantic Comedy -- (500) Days of Summer

The female-lead equivalent of this film, He's Just Not That Into You, came out at the end of 2008, but for whatever reason this more recent effort is far superior. In it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the awkward Tom Hansen, who for 500 days is absolutely in the throes of love for one Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). So many romantic comedies operate on the principle that persistence is everything in relationships; far fewer ever point out that where this persistence is applied matters more. At the beginning of this film, Tom informs the audience that this is not a love story: True. But the pat Hollywood ending softens the film's harshest lesson – namely, that the one we love may not forever love us back – by giving hope for the future to those who learn to let go of the past, the present, or that which never was.

Documentary -- Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Some films make you question why anyone ever bothers making up stories, when so much fact is suffused with tragedy of a magnitude beyond coherent response. This documentary is such a film. When Andrew Bagby was murdered by his disturbed ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner, childhood friend Kurt Kuenne decided to make a tribute film. When Turner claimed in court that she was pregnant with Andrew's child, and the post-birth testing proved this to be true, Kuenne turned his tribute film into a letter to Zachary about his father. To this end, Kuenne travelled all over the road map of Andrew's life, collecting stories from people who had known him well. His movie, Kuenne thought, was nearing its close when he hit Newfoundland, where instead of being sent straight to prison for her crime Turner had escaped deportation and maintained custody of little Zachary, forcing Andrew's parents to move from the U.S. to fight, over a long period of time demanding their regular, peaceable exposure to Andrew's killer, for primary guardianship. But Kuenne would soon discover he was nowhere near finished making his film. What unfolds next is truly an emotional horror beyond words.

Science Fiction -- Star Trek

First and foremost, the real tragedy is that the best hard sci-fi of the year, Moon, isn't around yet.

That said, I had to laugh when fellow die-hard Trekkies protested that this monolithic film, made lovingly from start to finish, besmirched the good name of Star Trek: The Original Series with its space opera intimations. Sword fights? Giant motherships that can destroy worlds? Astropolitical conflicts that are, dare I say, astronomical in scope? This isn't the stuff of serious sci-fi, the die-hards cried: And Star Trek was always serious bid'ness! Really, Trekkies. Was that before or after “Spock's Brain”? Yes, Star Trek (the new movie) is sleek. It's polished. The crew looks great, the CGI is wonderful, the plot is sprawling yet coherent. All our favourites are reanimated in top form, with the best performances coming from Karl Urban, whom you know as Bones before he even says a word; Scotty, played by the equally playful Simon Pegg; and Anton Yelchin as a memorable Chekhov. Even the new Kirk, Chris Pine, is exemplary despite the terrible shadow of William Shatner weighing on him in spirit; and despite the literal presence of Leonard Nimoy in the film, Zachary Quinto is likewise able to develop a strong personalized reading of their shared character. My one slight quibble for the film is an entirely... illogical development in the story of Uhura (Zoe Saldana), but otherwise, let's be honest: This is the film Trekkies wish they'd had first. Now we can all enjoy it – so please do!

Superhero/Action -- Watchmen: Ultimate Cut

I should be saying Inglourious Basterds, but I strongly suspect that stunning film will appear in other lists, while this summer sensation is likely to end up forgotten. Putting aside a sound-track that was hit-or-miss enough that Leonard Cohen soon after entreated people to stop remaking “Hallelujah” for a while, Watchmen is a strong contender for best graphic novel adaptation to date (When the Wind Blows aside, of course). Yes, films operate in a different medium, and therefore one's primary expectation should not be adherence to the original book (and thank goodness for that, because they changed the ending, shifted the speaking parts of some very crucial lines, and scaled back one side of a key character). But the amount to which they did adhere to the feel of the book was impressive. At two distinct points in the film — a failed sex scene and a bathroom murder — I could vividly recall the pages of the book itself, so close was the cinematography and pacing to the original panels. Some will say the feel of the movie over-emphasizes a dark, gritty aesthetic more reminiscent of Frank Miller adaptations: there may be some truth to that. And many acting performances are disappointingly stiff (though thankfully, not Rorschach's). But there is nonetheless a great deal of the story's initial intelligence imbued well on screen — and for that alone, it's worth your while.

Family Friendly -- Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death

I know I'm going to be thought an unfeeling grinch for putting anything above UP, which so powerfully evinces a lot of adult depth in the first, strong half; but something about Wallace and Gromit, a British stop-motion animation series involving the cheese-loving, Inspector-Gadget-esque Wallace and his far more sensible dog, Gromit, seems to me far better at encapsulating the flood of adult concepts that infiltrate a child's exposure to the world. In this one especially, a PG version of So I Married An Axe-Murderer, Gromit's inability to communicate his concerns when Wallace takes up a romantic relationship with baker-murdering Piella Bakewood strongly resonates with a lot of children's own feelings of helplessness, or even abject frustration, when parents make important decisions without consulting them. There are a couple implied slaps from Piella to her poor dog, Fluffles, of which parents should take cautionary note if they'd prefer to avoid violence altogether; but otherwise Cruella de Vil is far more frightening than anything this short film trumps up, so until Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox make it to our video section, few films at Gen X give older children more emotional space to explore the tougher stuff in life.

Drama -- It's a tie!

The Class

Yes this is in French with subtitles. Please don't let that turn you off: This award- and festival-winning piece about a culturally diverse classroom in a difficult Parisian neighbourhood, and the extraordinary tensions these social intersections bring to the teachers' attempts at order and discipline (and maybe then a little education), makes truly profound observations about the growing disconnect between institution and student. Most films about teaching diverse classrooms, or classrooms of inner city youth, cop out to endings where the teachers manage to make important, last-minute differences, but Francois Begaudeau, playing a version of himself off a semi-autobiographical book about his teaching career, makes no such cheery appeal: rather, he implicates himself in a scenario that fully highlights how small the real victories are for many teachers – and how great the many failures.

The Necessities of Life

Yes, this film is in three languages – English, French, and Inuktitut. Yes, there are subtitles. Again, please don't let that, or the intimidating French title, Ce qu'il faut pour vivre, scare you off. This is an extraordinary film — perhaps more so because it's good and Canadian — about an Inuit man named Tivii (Nata Ungalaaq, award-winning protagonist from Atanarjuat) diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1952, and sent from his remote Arctic home to a Quebec hospital, where he discovers what it means to feel more alone with the white people than lost out on the land. This strongly atmospheric film perfectly contrasts the landscapes of contemporary society with those the undeveloped north, and questions the isolation of us all. I'm telling you, this is the kind of film that makes Canadian cinema look good.

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