This was the first year in a while that I found it somewhat difficult to narrow down the movies I really liked to ten. While the current awards season is circulating around the same types of movies as usual, I felt there was a lot of great genre work released this year. Another year full of great animation is no surprise, those films have enjoyed a great run over the last deacde. Horror, on the other hand, has spent a lot of the last 10 years in the gutter, but two great films this year bring a promise of redemption. Bring in some comedy, documentary and science fiction standouts, and you get the picture. There's a lot more out there than drama. Read on for some examples.
10. 500 Days of Summer
At first glance, it looks like another example of the quirky "indie" romance that's been run into the ground over the years. However, this film is actually a thoughtful deconstruction of that tired "goofy dream girl redeems self-absorbed loner" plotline. Sure, the two lead characters may initally bond over their mutual interest in hipster British pop music, but that doesn't make much of a difference when they find out they are incompatible in big ways. Joseph Gordon-Levitt digs deep, and casting Zooey Deschanel (who has already cornered the market on the "innocently attractive but deeply damaged girl with bangs" character) was genius.
9. The Hurt Locker
This may wind up being the definitive film dealing with the Iraq War, just as All Quiet on the Western Front is for World War I and Saving Private Ryan is for World War II (Vietnam is harder to pin down, lots of contenders). The storyline eschews politics, but this haunting, existential film still drives home the human cost of war. I can also guarantee you've never seen a battle scene like the nail-biting sniper duel about halfway through. Director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd deliver gorgeous visuals throughout, and the ending is an absolute knockout.
8. Drag Me To Hell
A fun horror movie enhanced by Sam Raimi's signature zaniness, Drag Me To Hell is a hugely entertaining watch. That itself is satisfying, but the extensive subtext has become the basis for all sorts of alternate interpretations hatched in the months since it hit theaters. For example, Allison Lohman's bank clerk character never eats...every time she's about to, something crazy happens. We are treated to glimpses of her unhappy childhood as an overweight teen...are the horrific occurences brought on by the trauma of anexoria mixed with guilt about causing a poor old woman (the great Lorna Raver) to lose her home? The discussions will continue. This film is in the same league as psychological classics like Repulsion.
7. The Hangover
Nothing quite like that lighter-than-air feeling of coming out of a movie where you laughed, laughed and laughed some more. Perhaps the only comedy of the last couple of years not featuring Paul Rudd, Steve Carell or Seth Rogen, The Hangover felt like an instant classic. Take an ingenious premise (trying to piece together an insane night in Vegas that the cast is too wasted to remember) and recruit a great cast of up and coming comedians, and the result winds up being quite good. Even Mike Tyson came off well, just don't steal his tiger or interrupt him when he's air-drumming "In the Air Tonight."
Tim Burton's name may have been on The Nightmare Before Christmas, but a lot of the credit for that film's success belonged to its director, Henry Selick. His follow-up, Coraline, is a whimsical treat. The title character is dealing with all the anxieties of adolescence - she just moved to a new home, she has an odd name everyone pronounces incorrectly, her parents are too busy to pay attention to her, and she has no idea how to deal with the weird kid next door. When she comes across an alternate world, it's Selick's chance to show off his mastery of stop-motion animation. This is a great kids' film that doesn't condescend.
What is it that makes zombies and comedy mesh together so well? I'm not sure, but Zombieland is right up there with Shaun of the Dead in terms of delivering both laughs and thrills. Two hours of nonstop fun, featuring a great cast (led by the superb Woody Harrelson) and as a bonus, easily the best opening credits of the year. Not only that, we finally get a zombie movie where (spoiler alert?) you don't have to watch a wounded character eventually become a threat. Should flesh-eating zombies take over the world at some point...remember your cardio.
4. Paranormal Activity
If enough people in Hollywood take seriously the lessons that made Paranormal Activity a record-breaking smash, director Oren Peli and his cast and crew may go down in history as the people who saved horror from its current purgatory of derivative torture films and pointless remakes of past classics. The story of a young couple haunted by a malevolent presence is a breath of fresh air, relying on old-fashioned suspense and technical creativity. They only had $11,000 to work with, after all. The first true horror masterpiece in quite some time.
3. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
Metal on Metal, it's what I--whoops, got distracted. For me, this documentary was the surprise of the year. Metal, perhaps music's most misunderstood genre, got a surprising amount of attention from documentarians this year, but the most illuminating, hilarious and heartwarming of them was the story of a band who was there in the genre's early days but found themselves kicked to the curb as fellow acts like Metallica took off. Some of the band's members went their separate ways, but singer/guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner never gave up. Here's hoping their comeback continues.
The Pixar formula becomes more familiar with each film, but it's hard to complain when the results are always this spectacular. Up is almost too moving, and the early montage which chronicles the long relationship between a married couple with no dialogue whatsoever has already become legendary. With its gorgeous visuals, beautiful score, great voice acting (especially Ed Asner), this movie continues Pixar's streak, which grows more impressive with each passing year.
1. District 9
It had about 25 percent of Avatar's budget but twice the dramatic impact. This innovative epic sets South Africa as the location for man's first brush with alien life, and the terrific visual effects augment the story instead of standing in for it. Directed by Neill Blompkamp (with a financial assist from Peter Jackson), District 9 has it all - timely social/political satire, edge of your seat action, creative cinematography and editing, an emotional undercurrent that builds right to the finale, and plenty of that intangible thing called movie magic. It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Thanks to the change in Academy Award rules (10 nominees rather than 5), this film actually has a shot at the title. If it finds itself among the nominees, that new rule will have done what it was supposed to do. If not...well, you'll be hearing about it from me, that's for sure. Either way, this movie is great.
Honorable Mentions: Sin Nombre, Ponyo, I Love You Man, Where the Wild Things Are