My Top Films from 2009


1. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, South Africa): An excellent scifi/action picture that challenges Star Trek as the best film of the year so far. The entire film is done like a documentary that follows the life of Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a minor bureaucrat put in charge of relocating a colony of alien crustaceans whose massive mother ship "moored" itself over Johannesburg twenty years ago then shut down, leaving its inhabitants starving to death. The kindly humans set up a Soweto-like colony for the "prawns", which quickly descends into squalor and crime. A Nigerian militia has settled in the colony to trade the aliens' favourite cuisine, cat food, for their powerful hand weapons that will only work when in contact with alien DNA. Wikus works for MNU, an insidious corporation trying to figure out how to get the alien weapons to function. Mystery is piled on top of mystery, some of them not being resolved at the end of the film. The special effects are great: both the mother ship and the aliens themselves look entirely natural. In the second half of the film we also get a bit of a buddy picture, when  Wikus turns against MNU with the help of a prawn ally, along with a gritty and realistic pitched battle. The prawns being a metaphor for blacks under apartheid is made obvious early in the movies when we hear several young black men expressing the opinion that the prawns should be sent back home. 10/10


2. Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, USA): Moore finally takes on the elephant in the room where he made all his other documentaries from Roger and Me on (indeed, this film directly references Roger): the big kahuna itself, the capitalist system. This film is more world-weary that his smart-alecky earlier efforts, taking dead aim at an economic system that failed the world in the recent recession (and many times before). He moves his audience to the brink of tears with sad tales of mortgage foreclosures and out-of-work families who have been abandoned, for the most part, by callous cash nexus of American capitalism. Two little-known facts stood out in this film: the practise by mega-corps like Walmart to buy life insurance for certain employers hoping to collect the premiums from their "dead peasants" if they die (their term, not Moore's), and even more shockingly Franklin Roosevelt's draft of a second Bill of Rights written shortly before his death that sounded like the platform of the NDP waffle (it included the right to a decent job, among other things). American plutocrats come across as little better than criminals in Moore's film. Not as entertaining as his earlier efforts, but more full of truths. 9/10


3. The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, USA): A slightly surreal movie about the con-men brothers Stephen and Bloom (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody) who try to con rich heiress Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz) for their last big score. They're assisted by their Japanese explosive expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi), who is silent for almost the entire film, Harpo to the brother's Groucho and Chico. Similar in spirit to Wes Anderson's films, much of the film's humour comes out of a dialectic between the quirkiness of the four main characters (with a pinch added by Robbie Coltrane's "Belgian" curator) and the impossibly convoluted con that Stephen has dreamt up. Added to this is the fact that Stephen is a lover of modern literature - even their names are redolent of James Joyce - and constructs his cons as epic adventures, which draws the formerly closeted Penelope into travelling to Prague, Montenegro, Mexico and St. Petersburg. But Bloom falls in love with Penelope, with unexpected complications. The fact that Bloom's hideaway is on an island off the coast of Montenegro, not far from Odysseus's old digs on Ithaca, gives another clue that we are dealing with men of many wiles. Yet all in all Weisz steals the show as the enigmatic Penelope, an "epileptic photographer" who can mimic any hobby after a bit of practise, include the grift. All Bloom wants is an "unscripted life", but Penelope shows him that maybe there is nothing outside the text, and that's just fine if it's well written. 8.5/10


4. Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, USA): Abram's retooling of the classic SFTV series jams as much action into two hours as he can, with some spectacular visual effects. The characters from the classic series are all young again: we meet most of them just as they graduate from Starfleet Academy, and Kirk much younger than that. Abrams' choice of actors is by and large solid, with special mentions going to Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike, Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy, Zachary Quinto as Spock, and Simon Pegg as Scotty (despite the fact that he doesn't show up until half way through the film). Urban's McCoy is perhaps the most interesting in that he makes the good doctor out to be both a minor action hero and a mentor for Kirk. There are just enough references to character traits and events from the original series to keep hardcore Trekkies satisfied, including green Orion women, Sulu's penchant for fencing, and Kirk's devil-may-care attitude. Abrams gives us substantial background stories on most of the canonical crew from the original series that don't really violate Star Trek continuity. But he also throws in a few genuine shocks that won't keep all the traditional fans happy. He makes a nice distinction between the clean, high-tech bridges of the Star Fleet ships and the much grimier holds, engine rooms, and other spaces on the Federation and Romulan ships: gone are the spic-and-span interiors of The Next Generation and Voyager. I would make two critiques of what is otherwise a fine reboot of the franchise: one, the time travel story at the heart of the film is a bit hackneyed, and full of paradoxes that the screenwriters wink at but don't resolve; second, the film moves at a brisk pace, offering few opportunities for moments of philosophical reflection and debate, which have always been at the heart of all the successful Trek stories. They're there, but they slip by so quickly that they're hard to notice. If this is Abram's Star Trek I, we can only wait with baited breath for his Wrath of Khan. 8.5/10

5. Avatar (James Cameron, USA): Technically a masterpiece, and responsible for the revival of 3D movie making, Cameron’s film is about the efforts of a mining company to exploit the mineral resources of the planet Pandora against the wishes of the Naboo, the local species of 9-foot tall blue humanoids. The planet is a garden of Eden, though with its own quota of giant and dangerous predators. Our warrior hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), along with a group of scientists, plug themselves into “avatars”, tank-grown clones of the Naboo that they can control via computer interfaces, in order to negotiate with the locals. Most of the movie was created using CGI technology, including the use of motion-capture suits for the Naboo themselves. The plot itself isn’t as impressive as the computerized images: it’s basically a cowboy-and-Indian movie with the Naboo playing the role of Dances with Wolves-style eco-warriors whose spiritualized Gaia hypothesis that the people and the land is one turns out to be literally true. There’s a love story in there too as Jake engages in a bit of inter-species tentacle touching with Zoe Saldana’s Naboo princess Neytiri. The mercenary soldiers protecting the company’s colony are gung ho stereotypes straight out of military-themed video games like Call of Duty. What is surprising here is the conclusion, which as the last person in North America to see the film I’m sure won’t be a spoiler to anyone reading this: the “cowboys/American military” lose, the “Indians” win! This might explain why it lost out to The Hurt Locker in the race for Best Picture Oscar. 8.2/10

6. Two Lovers (James Gray, USA): A rainy day of a film starring Joaquin Phoenix as a psychologically troubled young man named Leonard Kraditor who survives a suicide attempt to live with his parents and work in his father's dry-cleaning business. They introduce him to the charming and stable Sandra Cohen (Vinessa Shaw), who he eventually has an affair with, but refuses to commit to because he's in love with his unstable pill-popping neighbour Michelle Rausch (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is just as emotionally troubled as he is. The problem is that she doesn't love him, and is involved with a married man (Elias Koteas). All the principals play very their roles very naturalistically: there's no car chases, special effects, or ridiculous plot turns, only everyday life. It's set in Brighton Beach, a section of New York with a strong Russian-Jewish community, which Leonard seems to be rebelling against by lusting after the uber-blonde Michelle. There's also a subtext based on the technology of observation and communication: Leonard is an amateur photographer who can see Michelle's apartment from his rear window (shades of Hitchcock), snapping a few photos of her from his bedroom. He talks to her and texts her on his cell phone, narcissistically at her beck and call whenever she has an emotional "crisis". On the other hand, the more traditional Sandra uses only a land line, actually making plans in advance and sticking to them. The ending is neither trite nor unbelievable. 8/10


7. An Education (Lone Scherfig, England): A coming-of-age story starring new talent Carey Mulligan as Jenny, a teenager in early 60s London, itself just about to "come of age" with the rise of the counter-culture and the rock bands of the British Invasion. Young Jenny becomes involved with a suave American named David (Peter Sarsgaard), who shows her the night life of the metropolis while slowing revealing a few dark secrets. Wonderfully evocative of the times, Mulligan's Jenny is no weakling, but self-possessed if a bit naive. In this grey period just before London became for a time the cultural capital of the English-speaking world, Jenny is fascinated by French music, films and philosophy, casually thumbing through Camus as her school chums gab about cute boys. Alfred Molina puts in a good turn as her protective father who, again out of step with the times, insists on Jenny getting a real education. 8/10


8. Bruno (Larry Charles, UK/USA): Sacha Baron Cohen's latest assault on delicate sensibilities features the odyssey of a faux gay Austrian fashion journalist named Bruno to find wealth and fame in America. Though perhaps not quite as outrageous as Borat, relying more on wit than shock, Bruno still manages to shock us a few times with its overt attempt to challenge American homophobia, notably when Cohen takes on the easy target of the American Christian Right, and when Bruno winds up at a swinger's party where he encounters a very aggressive dominatrix. Bruno's attempt to solve problems in the Middle East were priceless. There's even a bit of a message here: that the culture of celebrity is ultimately vacuous. 8/10


9. Watchmen (Zack Snyder, USA): A valiant attempt to film the unfilmable: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel about the decline and fall of the superhero myth in eighties America. Ironically, the opening segment of Snyder's film, set to the music of Dylans' "The Times They Are a Changin'", is brilliant: it's a montage of events from the Golden and Silver Ages of superherodom as envisaged by the graphic novel mixed in with real-world events and leaders: Dr. Manhattan meeting JFK, Castro and Khrushchev reviewing troops in Red Square, the death of Dollar Bill when his cape gets caught in a door. The rest of the film doesn't live up to this opening: the investigation of Edward Blake's murder by Rorschach is good but not great, though the later prison break scene with Nite Owl and Laurie coming to the rescue is very well done. For the most part Snynder stuck religiously to the graphic novel, though with some exceptions: gone are the Black Freighter parallel narrative, the two Bernies (except in one brief scene), and most of the minor characters associated with Veidt's plan (e.g. Hira Manisha and Max Shea). And Veidt himself isn't as fully developed as in the novel, and his motivations are muddy at best. As for the actors, they're good but not great, perhaps a bit too young in a few cases, though Jackie Earle Haley does a nice job personifying Rorschach. What's really missing from the film is the ethical debate surrounding Veidt's plan to stop a coming nuclear war: Synder omits the penultimate page from the graphic novel where Veidt asks Manhattan if he was right to do what he did, and Jon replies "nothing ever ends Adrian", leaving the reader with a deep sense of moral ambiguity. And I must say that Synder's shift of Veidt's plan to unify the world from staging a phony alien attack to blaming Dr. Manhattan was pointless and didn't make sense: Moore's point was that sometimes enemies need a mutual enemy they both fear to unite, but in the context of the film Dr. Manhattan makes no sense as such a mutual enemy. Further, there's simply too much going on in the book to fit into a two-and-half hour movie: to do it justice, Snyder should have broken it down into three substantial films. But Hollywood would, no doubt, have balked. Oh well. 7.5/10


10. Flame & Citron (Ole Christian Madsen, Denmark): An interesting, realistic take on the efforts of the Danish resistance to cause problems for their Nazi occupiers during World War II, focusing on two partisans: the cold killer Flame, and his phlegmatic comrade Citron. The Germans aren't as stereotyped as usual in Madsen's film, while the Danish resistance is pictured as riddled with internal dissension and not a little corruption. Yet in the end both Flame and Citron wind up as romantic heroes, and the Nazis as brutal occupiers. Further, we get as sense of how little Denmark was a special case among the countries occupied by the Nazis, managing to sneak out almost all their Jews to neighboring Sweden. Gritty and nuanced. 7.5/10


11. Moon (Duncan Jones, Britain): Basically a one-man show starring Sam Rockwell as a contract worker named Sam Bell stuck on a lunar mining station for three years. He's there with only GERTY, an AI robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, to mine Helium-3, vital to Earth's energy needs. A return to hard science fiction, Moon uses realistic looking sets and strong acting to show Sam as he slowly becomes aware of his true reality. With hints of 2001 and Outland, Jones' film is really an existentialist parable and perhaps a critique of corporate capitalism: the corporation which sent him there intends to use him up until he's "finished" (I'm avoiding spoilers!). He's a bit like a space-age Robinson Crusoe, with only GERTY for his man Friday. And no bumpy-headed aliens or monoliths, though there are some hallucinations. 7/10


12. Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow, USA): Bruce Willis stars in this scifi/action film about a future society where the vast majority of human beings live out their lives through "surrogates", more-or-less perfect androids remotely plugged into their nervous systems while they stay at home on high-tech couches. Someone is using a new weapon to kill both surrogates and their hosts at the same time, and cop Willis has to hunt them down. Add a morally bankrupt mega-corporation, a distant wife, and a dead son to the mix, and you get a fairly strong mystery with a scifi edge. The film doesn't go very far in exploring the obvious sexual purposes such surrogates would be used for (see Caprica for a more realistic picture of virtual life), nor does it explain why some people choose cleaned-up versions of their own bodies for their android selves (like Willis), while others choose radically different bodies (even switching sex). The actors generally do a good job of flattening out their performances when portraying the surrogates. Seeing the surrogates as a metaphor for video games, social networking, and the Internet as a whole is an obvious interpretation. 7/10


13. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, USA): A somewhat grimier and more down-to-earth film than the X-Men trilogy that tells the story of Wolverine's origins going all the way back to the North West Territories in 1845, through his service as an American soldier in several wars, finally to his disenchantment with being a special operative and retirement to the Rockies with a women he thinks loves him. But his old boss Stryker won't leave him along; neither will his excessively violent brother Victor AKA Sabertooth. The film visits several locations in North America as Wolverine first tries to lay low then get revenge on Stryker, including New Orleans, where we finally meet Gambit in a card game in a shady saloon. There's lots of action and some good character development, though it doesn't have to bright four-colour comics feel of Bryan Singer's two X-films. Some Canadian content with Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, Taylor Kitsch as Gambit, and of course Wolverine himself. 6.5/10