The Six Best Films of the First Half of 2009
It's the first week of July, which means that half of 2009 has already escaped us. It's generally the half of the year with the biggest blockbusters, but also the half with the least number of great films, since the awards contenders are usually held until the fourth quarter. Nevertheless, there have been seven remarkable films so far this year, and although only one or two will likely be considered for Academy recognition (even with 10 best picture nominees), all seven may be worthy of our Top Ten of the Year. These just weren't movies that were good for the spring and summer, they were out-goddamn-standing flicks, period, and unlikely to escape our memory during the rush up to the end of the year.
So, here you go: The six best films of 2009 so far, not including Up for the same reason that Oprah took herself out of Emmy consideration.
Adventureland: If the humor in director Greg Mottola's Superbad was largely credited to writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, then surely Mottola deserves accolades for taking all those dick jokes and giving them a sturdier than expected emotional context; like it or not, there's a kind of gritty sweetness to the way the core male relationship played out in that film, and it's that kind of emotional truth that Mottola brings in spades to Adventureland. Directing from his own screenplay, Mottola creates a film that's funny without being wacky and sweet without being saccharine, and he manages to perfectly capture that glistening moment right between youth and whatever comes next. The film is a heartbreaking, bittersweet coming-of-age story born of Mottola's own experiences working summer jobs, but it's broad enough to resonate as more than just a comedy about (post-)teens. It couldn't be further from Superbad in tone or execution -- for just starters, no one's pants are at any point stained with menstrual blood -- but it's that film's direct descendant in emotional honesty and its filmmaker's decision to mature just like his characters. -- Daniel Carlson
Away We Go: For whatever else critics and readers made of it, Dave Eggers' soaring memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a beautiful monument to its own creation. The story's specificity and timeliness rooted it firmly within a certain generation -- Eggers was 30 years old when the book hit shelves in 2000 -- even as the humor and pathos made the narrative resonant on a broader level. Eggers, whose credits also run to short stories and novels, has now branched out into screenwriting, co-writing Spike Jonze's forthcoming Where the Wild Things Are with the director and penning Away We Go with wife Vendela Vida for director Sam Mendes. The Jonze film makes sense even on a theoretical level: Eggers, who lost his parents to cancer, knows what it is to inhabit a dark and strange childhood. But Away We Go is a genuine treasure for being an original story that wonderfully, grandly, joyously weaves together the disparate strands of what could be called Eggers' worldview into a warm and moving tapestry. Mendes' skillful direction and grace at handling a story of modern families is a perfect match for Eggers and Vida's wondering and wandering journey through America to find a place to call home. To say the film is staggering genius would be overselling it, but it's a heartbreaking work in the best of ways. -- DC
The Brothers Bloom: Whatever magical ability Wes Anderson once had to mesh well-crafted, supremely acted films with heart-bump, pitter-patter, soul-tug whimsy may have left him in 2001, but the spirit of Anderson's first three films has been transplanted into the talent of Rian Johnson. In tone and aesthetic, The Brothers Bloom is the spiritual successor to The Royal Tenenbaums, but it's less wink/nudge, less precocious, less satisfied with its own sense of cleverness, and even more novelistic in its approach. It possess the same heightened sense of reality, though; the same offbeat sensibility, and the same fairy-tale quality that Tenenbaums radiated, only The Brothers Bloom is the sort of fairy tale you might hear Ricky Jay recite to distract you from a 90-minute sleight of hand trick. And it'd work, too; so engrossed would you be in the tale of The Brothers Bloom that Jay could empty your bank accounts, unload all the contents of your house, and steal your wife without your notice. -- Dustin Rowles
Coraline: This is an achingly gorgeous film, crafted in diligent detail and accompanied by Bruno Coulais' deathly beautiful score. Much like the heroine herself, Coraline is clever and inquisitive but more than slightly surly at times. Actually, a good measure of the third act comes with quite a bit of scariness for children under ten years. Coraline may come with a PG-rating, but this is really more of a PG² sort of movie. Don't be surprised if, after watching this film, you awaken with a nightmarish start, only to discover that a whimpering child is attempting to climb into your bed in the middle of the night. Whew. -- Agent Bedhead
The Hurt Locker: I usually avoid including a particular viewing experience with a film review, since it's unfair and dangerous to start behaving like one has any great bearing on the other. But one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a film is the acknowledgment that it's still replaying itself in the deeper recesses of your mind, and since seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker three months ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival, I have only grown more affected by its tale. It's a perfectly paced action film that never resorts to gimmickry to convey suspense; it's a character-based war drama that avoids the easy stereotypes of soldiers and their relationships; and it's an expertly observed story about the current war that eschews partisanship just as it also does any kind of lazy moralizing or appearances of objectivity. In other words, the film doesn't purport to rise above politics while quietly damning the leaders. It truly is about the characters and their stories, allowing the atrocities of war and the path of history to speak for themselves. The Hurt Locker is arresting both emotionally and aesthetically, and it's the first great film to arise from the wreckage of the Iraq War. -- DC
Star Trek: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek accomplishes the impossible: It reboots an entire film franchise even while honoring the spirit of its beginnings, and it breathes new and heated life into a series grown stale. The director reteams with writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; the same team also crafted the fantastically done Mission: Impossible III, and Orci and Kurtzman's writing and producing credits include "Alias" and "Fringe." They've created something wonderful in Star Trek: a fast-paced, breathless space opera, crammed with action, humor, and heart. Of the original film series, only the second and sixth entries -- The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country -- stand up as legitimately good films, thanks to director Nicholas Meyer's emphasis on character conflict and dramatic action. Abrams and crew take a cue from those films but go light-years further and faster, upping the number of action sequences but also marrying them to an intriguing story. It's easily one of the most fun films to hit theaters in some time, and the perfect summer blockbuster. --DC