The Ten Best Netflix Gems of 2009
Tomorrow, we’ll be unveiling our Ten Best Films of 2009, but before then — as we did last year — we’d like to focus your attention to ten movies of a different ilk. They’re not what we consider the ten best of the year, but when you’re adding titles to your Netflix queue or picking up something from Redbox on your home, the best movie is not always the one you want to see. You might simply prefer some light entertainment, a little escapist fun, or something silly and frothy, but that won’t cause permanent brain damage. I despite it when people suggest that you should turn your brain off and just enjoy a movie — as if there were a goddamn switch on the thing — but I do often enjoy a movie that doesn’t tax the already deteriorating intellect too much.
A movie doesn’t have to be an awards contender for us to appreciate it — sometimes a film feels specifically designed for movie night with your sister or your family or a Friday night alone with ice cream and wine. These movies aren’t blockbusters, they’re not particularly intelligent or sophisticated, and they’re not DVDs most people would necessarily buy. But at the same time, they’re not bad movies; they’re not embarrassing or atrocious or laughable. They’re rentals. On Demand movies, part of your Blockbuster nights, or flicks you dial up on your Netflix queues for Thursday nights when the snow outside is a foot thick and there’s nothing but reruns on.
Coraline: Eyes are the windows to the soul, or so we’ve been told countless times. Sometimes, however, we cannot trust even our own eyes, for looks can often be deceiving. This disturbing duality forms the basis for Coraline, a spooky film with an ominous “be careful what you wish for” tagline that sets the tone for the cautionary tale within. Simultaneously anxiety-inducing and affecting, Coraline is an exquisitely attractive film that never achieves its visuals at the expense of the story itself. This seemingly impossible feat occurs through an astonishingly effective collaboration between Neil Gaiman, author of the 2002 horror novella, and director-screenwriter Henry Selick. So much could have gone wrong on the way to the big screen in the hands of a lesser director, but Selick has achieved the fairly tenuous balance between his own craftsmanship and Gaiman’s work. This total integration took seven bloody years to achieve, and the result is an achingly gorgeous film, crafted in diligent detail and accompanied by Bruno Coulais’ deathly beautiful score. Much like the film’s 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
Drag Me to Hell: Corpse vomit? Sign me up, you curmudgeonly old bitch. Forget Spider-Man 3. Hell, forget the Spider-Man series and For Love of the Game while you’re at it. Drag Me to Hell represents a complete return to form for Sam Raimi, who hasn’t made a movie this good since he kicked Ashley J. Williams to the curb. Take an adult diaper, folks, because when DMTH isn’t making you piss yourself with laughter, it’ll be scaring the shit out of you, which makes for an awfully messy movie-going experience. But it’s worth a few Depends undergarments and half a pack of wet wipes. And only a director as talented as Raimi could force a series of X-Rated exclamations out of you while you’re watching a PG-13 movie. — Dustin Rowles
The Hangover: The Hangover, director Todd Phillips’ mostly hilarious comedy about a capital-L, capital-W Lost Weekend, is a lot like that car. Fortunately, Phillips has a getaway driver’s lead foot. The movie has a huge, growling heart, and when Phillips punches it in the straight-aways, The Hangover turns into a rumbling, red-eyed demon of a comedy. As long as Phillips doesn’t slow down, The Hangover grooves along like a racecar, but occasionally the story requires a plot transition or a quiet, character-driven moment, and in those moments the movie’s ferocious momentum threatens to leak away. It’s hard to say why that happens, as the characters are engaging and the plot wildly entertaining, but the lulls are infrequent and don’t detract significantly from a hugely entertaining experience. — Ted Boynton
I Love You, Man: The comedy of discomfort is a mainstay of film and television, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to pull off. Successfully crafting a likable character and then putting him or her through an emotional wringer of self-loathing, doubt, and alienation often makes for some really painful viewing unless there’s a balance of what could be called heart. John Hamburg — who wrote Meet the Parents and the sequel Meet the Fockers, as well as writing and directing Along Came Polly — has a track record of bad comedies revolving around a bland male character played by Ben Stiller who just absolutely hates himself and is willing to prostrate himself at the feet of his girlfriend/job/the whims of the universe because he feels he must. Those movies’ awkward moments were rendered unwatchable because of the bored hatred the characters flung at one another even as the movies themselves pretended to be lighthearted or honest. But Hamburg has finally made a great comedy, and he figured out how to do it: Basically, stop making the lead(s) such an unlikable jackass, and turn his awkwardness into a character trait born of earnestness instead of a tic born of desperation. I Love You, Man is a hilarious, breezy comedy that coasts on the sheer chemistry of its leads, but it’s also less abrasive to the soul simply because, for the first time, Hamburg’s heroes are allowed to be energetic without being manic, and clumsy without being punished. There’s a genuine sweetness to the film, and though Hamburg doesn’t reinvent the modern comedy, it’s nevertheless a major step in the right direction. — Daniel Carlson
Paranormal Activity: Paranormal Activity cannot help but be compared to The Blair Witch Project. It was made on whatever is less than a shoestring (a sockthread?) for just $11,000, by Oren Peli, a video game designer with no previous film experience of any kind. Cast a handful of unknowns, make them film themselves with a single camera, pretend that the film is actual found footage, do the production work yourself on your computer, and all of a sudden you’ve done made yourself a real live movie. Most of the time this process results in something that looks like the amateur film project it really is, but every once and a while it just plain works. When the director holds up his end of the proceedings and manages to luck out with unknown actors who can nevertheless carry the film, the end result is a film like Paranormal Activity. — Steven Wilson
The Proposal: While the chemistry between Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds pulls you in, it’s Betty White that closes the deal, takes your money, and fucks your husband. White is gold, y’all. She’s not the one-dimensional foul-mouthed rapping Granny we’ve all grown accustomed to: She’s a solid source of comedy in the film, but as the 90-year-old Grammy, she’s also the no-nonsense heart of the movie.The Proposal is not likely to win over anyone opposed to romantic comedies — it borrows every rom-com convention in the book (Joseph M. Caracciolo’s Five Steps to a Financially Successful Romantic Comedy), but director Anne Fletcher (the risible 27 Dresses) makes the smartest choice she’s capable of: She lets the script and her cast do all the work. It’s formulaic as hell, but The Proposal is the rare film that works the formula instead of letting the formula work it. — Dustin Rowles
Taken: Pierre Morel, of District 13 fame, has just released his second directorial effort. Like District 13, Taken is a meditation on the immigrant question wrapped in a gut-thumping actioner. Like District 13, Taken throws a lot of sweet sweet thrills at us that can’t distract us from the subtext, for better or worse. And blimey, is that subtext — and dialogue — ham-fisted and poorly written (sorry, co-writer Luc Besson). Taken contains one of the most painful set-ups I’ve ever sat through — it’s Plot for Dummies delivered through Syrup of Exposition that’s spoonfed to us like a pack of waiting ninnies. The whole thing is mindlessly propagandic (not an oxymoron after all), and the editing in the fight and chase scenes is Bourne Ultimatum beserker-esque, and decent actors come off looking like amateurs, but all in all it’s not the worst action movie I’ve seen. It’s cobbled out of clichés, and it’s ridiculous (but not over-the-top ridiculous enough to excuse it), and it will probably wind up on the wrong side of politics, à la Dirty Harry, but it can’t be totally dismissed, either, because its tension and its star, Liam Neeson, grease its clunking mechanisms enough to get it operational. — Ranylt Richildis
State of Play: Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play is an engrossing adult thriller, but it’s also notable for making its hero a bitter old newspaperman struggling to come to grips with new media. The screenplay from Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray — a pretty solid threesome — is in many ways a throwback to old-school political thrillers where the journalist gets at the truth with a mix of shoe leather and blind luck, but it’s also forward-thinking in its attempts to examine the crumbling print news industry and the ethical gray area between selling out and selling papers. Some of the most interesting moral questions in the film arise not out of situations involving reporters and their sources but the internal struggle between one man trying to get a story out and the incoming corporate ownership that only wants to grow their bottom line. Based on a BBC miniseries from 2003, State of Play is a solidly built, well-cast suspense story that works exactly as well as it ought to, which is to say, it’s a competent film that gets its job done without making a mess. — Daniel Carlson
Where the Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is a dark, melancholic film. At times playful, at other times profound, it’s also often aimless and slow, building toward an achy and complicated emotional wallop far heavier than anything Maurice Sendak ever envisioned in his ten-sentence storybook. Nevertheless, it’s a magnificent, unconventional art film, captivating, beautifully shot, and layered with emotional bruises, a dark fairytale that’s likely to appeal to fans of Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers (who co-write the script) alike. — Dustin Rowles
Zombieland: Zombie wood, people. Spend 90 minutes in Zombieland, and you will walk out with an all-out pound-a-stranger up against a hospital wall zombie erection. And you will ride that wood until there’s hair in your teeth, blood on the wall, and it’s time to consult a doctor because your four hours are over, motherfucker, and you’re still sporting a full-on zombie chubby. Zombieland is that good, and in an era when the zombie subgenre has been pricked, poked, gouged, and pulled in every iteration, sometimes it’s nice to go back to basics: It’s not about pet zombies, or Nazi zombies, zombie porn, or capturing zombies on camera for the YouTube masses. Neither is it about fast zombies, slow zombies, smart zombies or dumb zombies. A good zombie movie — and nothing has approached Zombieland in pure goodness since Shaun of the Dead — is about killing zombies, plain and goddamn simple. In Zombieland, director Ruben Fleishcher is in the zombie-killin’ business. And business is boomin’. — Dustin Rowles