In the past, I’ve been a bit skeptical of this kind of thinking. I’ve felt that that if we are really aware of how we are experiencing a movie, then we would view the experience in absolute terms, and not in relation to our expectations. I’ve learned to appreciate how expectations can matter.
My top movies of 2009, in order:
1. District 9
I wasn’t even going to see this, as it seemed too science fiction-y for me, but I love the way it grounded the science fiction in real life. I very much enjoyed watching the flawed but sympathetic protagonist, Wikus, a government bureaucrat who is appointed to head up the effort of evicting the aliens from Johannesburg. He’s like a South African Michael Scott. The political allegory managed to be completely obvious but also, somehow, still smart and nuanced — an area where “Avatar” could have used a lesson.
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
An incredibly fun ride with inventive, hilarious visuals. I love many of the Pixar and Dreamworks movies, but it’s great to see a completely different way to do an animated comedy, one that's in the voice of a distinctive indie director.
3. The Blind Side
I loved the book when I listened to it on CD in the car, but I heard the movie was way sappier. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Somehow, in my mind, I managed to keep this in a different category from, say, “Up in the Air,” which is a more savvy, liberal, 2010 movie. “The Blind Side” has more of a charming naivete to it. This partitioning allowed me to forgive the few “I haven’t changed him, he’s changed me”-type lines and get lost in the film’s warm glow. It’s amazing how much drama there is in a depiction of charity. It’s amazing how good it makes you feel, and that goodness, surprisingly, feels earned. This movie had no villains. The only exception was the NCAA woman questioning Michael, and though that sequence felt a bit like a contrived, 11th-hour conflict, it did raise interesting questions about whether other families other than the Tuohys would have motives that were less pure. In a way, it felt like the perfect cap to the movie, as it showed that yes, there are people in this world who are just good.
4. Up in the Air
A very solid, enjoyable movie that was even a bit moving at times, though it didn’t blow me away. I especially liked the scenes with Anna Kendrick, with George Clooney teaching her about the business and about relationships, and the sequence where the three of them go to the party.
Very moving, and not as depressing as you would think. What I’ll remember the most isn’t the incest or the verbal abuse but Precious just walking around Harlem with her backpack — because when you’re this protagonist and all this horrible stuff happens to you, what do you do? You just go on with your life, and walk around like everyone else, I suppose, trying to press on. That's the idea that I found most compelling. I also enjoyed the teaching scenes. As with “The Blind Side,” it’s heartwarming to watch good deeds.
6. The Hurt Locker
This movie was quite gripping, of course, though I expected it to be more so. Perhaps what detracted from my experience was the film's episodic nature -- even though each bomb provided excitement in and of itself, it didn’t feel like the bomb scenes all worked together to build toward a final climax. Perhaps that’s why the section when Jeremy Renner’s character went home and stood in the grocery store, unsure of what to do, was so compelling, since that’s really what the movie was building toward. Sure, the veteran missing the excitement of war and unable to handle the mind-numbing suburbia is a cliché we’ve seen before, but this was a pretty convincing portrayal of that situation. It’s similar to “Friday Night Lights,” in which people experience this incredibly special, exciting situation for a few fleeting years and then worry that the rest of their lives won't measure up.
7. The Hangover
I appreciated the novel concept, the constant surprises, Zach Galifinakis, and a lot of funny moments. I expected the ending to be more impressive — something that tied everything together in a way that made you go “wow.” But the photos at the end were the saving grace — without those, I don’t think this would have made my list.
8. Public Enemies
I don’t remember much about the specifics of this movie but I remember it as a fun, exciting ride and not as self-indulgent as some of Michael Mann’s other movies.
9. Funny People
I thought this was a great idea for a comedy, and a lot of the scenes and much of the standup was very funny. I thought the problem with the much-maligned final act is that it tried to pack too much in. I thought it was fine that Adam Sandler went to try to win Leslie Mann back. But the plot kept turning a bit too quickly — she loves Adam Sandler, but then she really loves Eric Bana, and back and forth again —without time to build up to those turns.
10. Inglourious Basterds
I think of Tarantino as a brash, shoot-em-up director but what I had forgotten about his style were the long, drawn-out scenes that have no gunfire but are odd, uncomfortable, and incredibly suspenseful. The opening scene and the scene in the bar both qualified. I felt the ending went a little overboard with all the killing, and one of the murders that was particularly egregious (I won’t give it away) was depicted in such a way that it appeared to be an argument for the beauty of death, a cliche that I cannot get behind.
Honorable mention: next on the list would be “Bruno,” “A Prophet,” “Crazy Heart,” and “Sherlock Holmes.” I haven’t yet seen “Invictus” or “An Education” and I suspect they might contend.
Overrated: “The Informant!” I felt was trying to be a comedy but it wasn’t funny enough, and there wasn’t enough drama left over for me to enjoy it. I was glad I saw “The White Ribbon” but I thought it was a slog, even after I realized it was about Nazism. “In the Loop” I thought was intriguing and amusing but I hardly laughed at all. The “Avatar” visuals were impressive but not mind-blowing, and the story lost me after Sigourney Weaver’s first appearance, when she started complaining about how dumb Sam Worthington’s character was, and I also disliked all the Pocohontas clichés.