Why I am ever surprised at how good Steven Soderbergh’s films are is beyond me.
Up in the Air (Paramount Pictures)
Up in the Air has the fortune of being released during the recession we are currently experiencing, which many are attributing to its success. However, if you really watch the film not for the depictions of how people react when being told they are losing their jobs but for the way the characters interact, it’s clear that this film would have connected with audiences no matter the state of the economy when it was released. Jason Reitman has become one of the most talented directors working today and we can only hope he and George Clooney continue to make films together; theirs is a perfect partnership. The film is about people being fired, on the surface, but much deeper it is about loneliness and desperation for a connection even when you don’t know you’re looking for it. By far, Up in the Air is the best film released in 2009 and will, I expect, one day be included as one of the great American films.
Inglourious Basterds (The Weinstein Company)
Quentin Tarantino spent over a decade kicking around the backstories for the characters that would eventually inhabit the alternate version of history that is Inglourious Basterds. The only way the film could be any better is if Tarantino had expanded and released the film as a mini-series, as was his original intention. The film, like so much of Tarantino’s work, is homage to cinema even though he set out to make a straight war film. His love of cinema is pervasive through all of his work and we as viewers are just lucky we get to witness the catharsis that is the result of each film.
A Serious Man (Focus Features)
The Coen Brothers are known for being reticent to discuss their filmmaking style or craft and are notorious for giving one- or two-word answers about their work, but with A Serious Man, every question we need to know is answered in the film. This is, by far, the brothers’ most mature and personal original script. Much has been made about the message of the film: does it advocate atheism or, conversely, is it a clear tale about the importance of maintaining trust in a higher power? I guarantee each viewer will have a different opinion, which is a hallmark of a good film and the frequent result of the Coen Brothers’ work.
(500) Days of Summer (Fox Searchlight)
If for no other reason than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s fantastic performance, every dedicated film enthusiast should see (500) Days of Summer. It is a perfect example of why independent film will never die. With a split-screen storytelling, nonlinear action and even a musical number, the film is just not something that most mainstream audiences will ever fully appreciate. Marc Webb has taken an inventive and clever script and turned it into one of the most original films in recent memory. Anyone who has ever been in love will immediately identify with the journey the film’s protagonist takes as he relives what he thinks was the greatest relationship of his life.
Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros.)
Though definitely not a film for children, Where the Wild Things Are was by far the most magical and imaginative films to come out this year. Spike Jonze, who is one of the most talented visual artists working today, has taken a short children’s story and expanded it into an epic story of the thoughts and fears we all experience when we are young and the world rarely makes sense. Jonze’s genius combination of giant creature suits and CGI facial expressions make the Wild Things scary and real and unlike anything that’s been done before. This is a film that only one director should have made and we are lucky that he did.
District 9 (TriStar Pictures)
District 9 is a wonderful example of how a film can be groundbreaking without a massive budget or an A-list director. Neill Blomkamp is clearly a talented filmmaker with tons of success in his future. District 9 is a science-fiction movie by default only because of the nature of the plot, but shouldn’t be brushed off as a genre film of any kind. It is a one-of-a-kind adventure that can be enjoyed by anyone, with a message that will resonate no matter who is watching it.
The Informant! (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Why I am ever surprised at how good Steven Soderbergh’s films are is beyond me. But every time I watch his work I am always caught off guard at how he can reinvent his style and abilities with each film he makes. Ostensibly, The Informant! is a slapstick comedy with an extremely narcissistic and egomaniacal character at the center (Matt Damon, in the best performance of his career). Soderbergh surprises the audience by flipping the tables in the third act and turning the despicable Mark Whitacre into a human being we can almost feel sorry for. Almost. That’s the magic of Soderbergh.
The Cove (Roadside Attractions)
No other film this year made me gasp as frequently or fill me with as much emotion as The Cove, a documentary about the abhorrent dolphin slaughters taking place in Japan and the government-backed (and condoned) cover-up. This is a film that will stick with me for a long time and will forever change how I view SeaWorld and any organization that keeps animals in captivity.
The Girlfriend Experience (Magnolia Pictures)
Before The Informant! hit theaters, Steven Soderbergh released one of his smaller digital films that perfectly captures the emotions and worries of Americans at the end of the first decade of the new century. Sasha Grey, an adult film star, gives a surprisingly moving performance as a high-class escort in The Girlfriend Experience, one of the most risky films to come out in years. Soderbergh was taking a chance not so much in the film’s topic (prostitution, an overused storyline), but in his choice to focus on almost exclusively on human relationships, almost completely ignoring the sex that is most times involved. The film is also difficult to follow at times on first viewing simply because there are no stars, except Grey, to recognize. Upon further viewings, however, Soderbergh’s true mastery of filmmaking is apparent and the audience is left completely satisfied.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight)
This year was an amazing year for the auteurs (Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Eastwood) that we were fortunate enough to experience Wes Anderson’s excruciatingly detailed labor of love Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson has raised the bar of stop-motion animation from here on out as well as animation in general for the performances he elicits from his actors. In the live action world, a Wes Anderson film is easy to spot with its hipster soundtrack and costume design and simple camerawork. Now, with the world of animation conquered, it’s clear Anderson can make any medium his own. | Matthew F. Newlin