Sunday, December 13, 2009

Film feature: Hap's top 10 films of 2009

Gabourey Sidibe in Precious.

By Hap Erstein

As a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association as well as the Florida Film Critics Circle, I have spent the last few weeks watching new movies about to be released that the studios made available either at special screenings or -- even better -- on “For Your Consideration” DVDs that arrived at my home almost daily by FedEx or UPS.

Why? Because we vote on year-end awards, so the studios want to make sure we have seen their best 2009 releases and even some of their marginal product. (The Proposal? Sherlock Holmes?)

Anyway, here is a look at my SEFCA ballot, which is due in at noon today, as a way of wrapping up the year in film.

10 Best Films of 2009

1. Up in the Air -- Director/co-writer Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) again delivers a smart comedy about a frequent flier points-obsessed executive who travels the country firing people. The film is up-to-the-minute in putting a face on our economic woes and playing it for laughs.

2. Nine -- An artful film adaptation of the Broadway musical based on Federico Fellini’s, about an Italian movie director with writer’s block, featuring a masterful lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, a bevy of Oscar-winning women and direction by Ron Marshall (Chicago) that is full of Fellini-esque touches.

3. (500) Days of Summer -- An inventive romantic comedy that stands the genre on its ear with a anti-chronological structure and an ending that is anything but the Hollywood norm. Marc Webb announces himself as a director to reckon with and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel just might be the new Tracy and Hepburn.

Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man.

4. A Serious Man -- The Coen Brothers turn their cameras on their own ethnic heritage in a wry fable about a hapless math professor (the deadpan Michael Stuhlbarg) who is a contemporary version of Job, suffering through all manner of tribulations for which his local rabbis offer no usable help or comfort.

5. Every Little Step -- A documentary on the history of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Chorus Line and the auditions for the recent Broadway revival. The result illustrates the show’s theme of what these “gypsy” dancers go through for their profession, and the competition for these coveted roles feels likea television reality show.

6. Precious -- The movies have never dealt with a character quite like the morbidly obese, illiterate, sexually abused and pregnant again African-American woman played by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, whose dead-end life eventually gains a glimmer of hope. Director Lee Daniels never blinks from the harshness of this story and stand-up comic Mo’Nique astonishes as Precious’s out-of-control mom.

7. Avatar -- Director-writer James Cameron proves there is life after Titanic with this eye-popping, effects-heavy science fiction tale of the far-off planet Pandora, where an American space mission heads in search of valuable minerals, raping the environment and warring against a blue-skinned race to do so. The story is simplistic, but the visuals are jaw-dropping.

8. Tetro -- It is hard not to root for a return to top form for director-writer Francis Coppola, who spins a tale -- his first original script since 1974’s The Conversation -- of two brothers reunited in Buenos Aires, where the older one has relocated for mysterious reasons. Forced to self-finance his film, Coppola’s simple, but mesmerizing storytelling puts him back in control.

A scene from The Princess and the Frog.

9. The Princess and the Frog -- Just as hand-drawn animation is being declared dead, knocked off by the wonders of computer-generated 3-D, Disney studios reaches back in time to create an exquisitely retro feature with a solid screenplay about an African-American heroine in pre-Katrina New Orleans who kisses a frog, without the desired results. And it is a very effective musical, thanks to the score by Randy Newman.

10. The Road -- Bottomlessly bleak is this apocalyptic tale based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel about a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son who walk the land past desolate, deserted vistas, trying to survive, but for what reason? Not your basic escapist fare, but muscular filmmaking by director John Hillcoat.


1. George Clooney, Up in the Air

2. Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine

3. Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man


1. Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

2. Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

3. Carey Mulligan, An Education


1. Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

2. Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones

3. Christian McKay, Me & Orson Welles


1. Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air

2. Marion Cotillard, Nine

3. Mo’Nique, Precious


1. Jason Reitman, Up in the Air

2. Ron Marshall, Nine

3. The Coen Brothers, A Serious Man


1. Summer Hours

2. Coco Before Chanel

3. Hello, Goodbye


1. Every Little Step

2. Herb & Dorothy

3. Yoo Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg


1. The Princess and the Frog

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox

3. Up

Next week, after the ballots have been totaled, I will report on the Association’s collective choices, to show how far outside the critical mainstream I am.

Anna Kendrick and George Clooney in Up in the Air.

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