Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Best Written Films of 2009

I’m going to take a quick break from my ongoing analysis of E.T. to give my picks for best-written films from 2009. This turned out to be a pretty good movie year. There maybe weren't any more great movies than in recent years, but it seemed like there were a lot more pretty good movies.

Of course I must make my usual disclaimers. First, these are not necessarily my favorite films, although there is a lot of overlap. Sometimes the final film doesn’t quite live up to the screenplay and sometimes bravura filmmaking can overcome a flawed script.

This year has the biggest example of that in a long time: Avatar (written by James Cameron). I think it may be the most important movie of the year and one of the top five most enjoyable. And the script isn’t actually that bad, it’s just kind of mediocre. But it’s the visuals and spectacle that make the film great, not the writing. Thus it doesn’t make this list.

Also keep in mind that although I see a lot of movies I’m not a professional critic so I don’t see every major release. The candidates are obviously limited to what I’ve seen (some notable 2009 films still on my “to see” list are Precious, Fantastic Mr. Fox and A Serious Man). Anyway, with all that said, here are my top ten:

1) Up – (story by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson & Thomas McCarthy, screenplay by Docter and Peterson) Pixar does it again. I think this is their most emotionally sophisticated and honest movie yet…and the most emotionally sophisticated and honest movie of the year. Plus it’s funny. The characters are complex and original, the story is perfect, the world of the movie is delightful, the twists and turns are unpredictable, and it’s moving and thematically deep. A wonderful script and wonderful movie.

2) Zombieland – (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) A hilarious and original genre spoof, well structured with sharp characters and dialogue. Don’t go expecting a zombie movie. This is much more about the relationships among a quirky band of survivors. If you want to get deep, there’s actually some rich thematic material about the risks of connecting with other human beings. But don’t get deep. This one’s just a lot of fun.

3) (500) Days of Summer – (written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) Takes all the clichés of romantic comedies and makes them fresh, while reminding us why they became clichés in the first place: because they have a basis in the dynamics of real relationships. The characters are wonderfully flawed, real and relatable. Plus, it made me giggle repeatedly.

4) The Hurt Locker – (written by Mark Boal) The directing and performances make this movie absolutely rock, but the script is pretty great, too. Tense from beginning to end, it’s more laudable for its construction of suspense scenes than for the rather thin overall story. Also don’t ignore the excellent character development. If we didn’t care about these guys so much we wouldn’t feel the tension as sharply. This is as pure a visceral experience as movies get.

5) Moon – (story by Duncan Jones, screenplay by Nathan Parker) I really liked this movie, though I think it’s somewhat carried by Sam Rockwell’s amazing performance. The story develops in a tense, interesting way and the concept definitely has a high degree of difficulty. It could have ended up a cheesy, cliché-filled B-movie but they really managed to turn it into something special…starting with the script.

6) Julie and Julia – (screenplay by Nora Ephron) I think this movie was underrated. It was charming, the characters were very rich and I found it continually compelling. The Julie part of the story took some lumps from critics, but I don’t think the Julia part would be that interesting without the modern everywoman counterpoint. And combining the two stories (which come from two different books) must have been a real writing challenge. I think Ms. Ephron found the perfect balance.

7) Up in the Air – (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) This is a charming movie with some nice unexpected twists. The real strength, though, is the complexity of its characters. The light tone and humor help sell some tough thematic ideas. A well-built piece of entertainment with intelligence and heft…all too rare in Hollywood today.

8) District 9 – (screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatcthell) This is a smart, unexpected sci-fi film with some real thought provoking elements. I did have a little problem with the main character. I loved that he wasn’t the typical sci-fi hero, but he was such an uncompromising loser and jerk that I had a hard time rooting for him. Plus, his refusal to seek help for his obvious illness was just one of several implausible character moments. But still one of the freshest and more interesting films of 2009.

9) The Hangover – (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) Not the most profound movie of the year by any stretch but let’s give some love to excellent comedy writing. The set pieces are deftly constructed and it’s chock full of great jokes. Plus, the characters are all nicely distinctive, a must for an ensemble film.

10) Star Trek – (written by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman) A great update of a beloved franchise that was really starting to feel archaic. I loved how the characters stayed true to their origins but were given added depth and dimension. The story is rock solid and action packed. A fine script for a big popcorn movie, another rarity in Hollywood.

There were half a dozen movies that were in contention for the number ten spot, and I want to mention just one of them that didn’t make the cut: Paranormal Activity. It’s a clever script with some surprisingly good character work that used production limitations as an advantage. But I have a sneaking suspicion it won't age well.

That’s the trouble with top 10 lists. Sometimes my opinions change with time and perspective. I noticed this list leans heavily toward movies I’ve seen recently. Is that because a lot of the best movies are released at the end of the year? Or is it because my excitement for them is just fresher? As I look back at my best for 2008, I’m surprised to see The Reader made the list (though it is at number 10). At this point I don’t remember it as being a very good movie at all.

So what does that mean? I guess it means these are, after all, just opinions.

Some meaningless stats about my top ten: Two were written by one credited screenwriter, four by a single team, and four by more than one writing “unit.” On four of the films the director also got some kind of writing credit.

And finally, worst written movie I saw this year: Public Enemies. Strange, it wasn’t an out and out screamer. Either Hollywood didn’t make many really bad movies this year or I did better than usual avoiding them (I did steer clear of Transformers 2). But Public Enemies was pretty bad. One dimensional, tedious, unbelievable (despite being based on a true story), completely unsympathetic characters and just generally pointless. It's pretensions push it to the winner's circle for my worst of the year.


pmottaz said...

I'm with you on "Up" and I've been suurprised that it hasn't been universally accepted in critical top 10s.

Maybe it was weird high expectations. "Up" is to Pixar fans what "No Country" was to fans of the Coen Brothers. Not necessarily their favorite.

Anonymous said...

A rare event to occur in any Top Ten Lists but I totally agree with your choices. Although... No love for Let The Right One In?

Doug Eboch said...

Have not seen Let The Right One In, but it's on my Netfix list!

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