By Jeffrey Overstreet
20. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams): Reinventing Star Trek, J. J. Abrams proves that he knows how to build an adventure movie that will last. What is more, he knows why the Star Trek films have always seemed disposable.
You can serve up standard-setting digital animation, but if you lack a script that sparks and smokes, and an ensemble cast with chemistry that commands our attention, your movie will evaporate when the credits roll.
At first I was aggravated by obvious plot holes, and I started to get snarky. Then I saw it again, and again, and had more fun each time. Every scene is infused with contagious enthusiasm and a love for the genre. Even the goofy guys in rubber alien suits are used to great effect. It’s so colorful, lively, and funny that it accomplished something I’d thought impossible: It made me eager to see future Star Trek movies.
19. Duplicity (Tony Gilroy): I thought Julia Roberts had disappeared, leaving only layers of makeup and collagen lip injections behind. But the real Roberts shows up in Duplicity, reminding me that she really is a natural leading lady. And her chemistry with Clive Owen is combustible.
Roberts and Owen play competitive super-spies whose fierce battle of wits is complicated by—what a surprise!—love. As the warring corporate CEOs who hire them, Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson go over the (balding) top. But that’s all part of the fun in this enthusiastic genre film.
There’s that word again—enthusiasm. Like Star Trek, Duplicity embraces its genre conventions and reminds us why the formula became popular in the first place. For all of its commentary on corporate enmity, it’s a romance at heart, asking whether love is even possible in a competitive marketplace. And it proves that Hollywood can still deliver classy, excess-free movies that engage the grey matter as much as the eyes.
18. The Maid (Sebastián Silva): The most delightfully unpredictable film I saw all year came from Chile.
Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) is a 41-year-old maid who has served an upper class family for decades. But the teenagers have grown old enough to contend with her, and she’s begun to suffer fainting spells. She’s losing her grip on order.
So, when the family begins hiring “extra help,” Raquel feels threatened and conspires to scare new maids away. Her attempts to regain solitary control are audacious, frightful, and hilarious. And yet, it becomes clear there’s more than jealousy at the root of her wicked strategies.
What follows is a story told with great tenderness and insight. Silva could easily have steered us to some shocking, tragic end. But the conclusion is as memorable for its modesty as for how very true it feels.
17. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani): Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane)—Goobye Solo’s main character—is the opposite of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.
Solo’s an African immigrant driving a cab in New York who brings life-changing optimism to every situation. Where disappointments drove Bickle to violence, Solo takes every dispiriting discovery as a challenge.
His latest fare, a tight-lipped grouch named William (Red West) who looks like Richard Farnsworth’s mean-spirited twin, is a challenge indeed. Solo’s determination to connect with this prickly old codger leads to a startling request: William wants help with what may be a plan for suicide.
In another director’s hands, this would have become a sentimental American take on Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry. But Rahmani captures characters and environments that feel authentic, and a story that is both heartbreaking and hopeful.
16. Moon (Duncan Jones): Sam Rockwell is brilliant in a demanding solo performance as Sam Bell, a man who lives alone on the moon harvesting an energy source for earthlings. He connects with his wife and daughter by video, and chats with the smiley android Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).
I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say—there’s a nasty surprise waiting for Sam, and it’s going to mess with his mind.
Jones clearly reveres the thoughtful, low-budget, sparsely decorated, 1970s science fiction like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Moon earned a flurry of comparisons to Silent Running. But it has a tension and a particular ethical inquiry all its own.
15. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson): There are so many reasons to marvel at The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Imagine the endless hours of tedious work that went into this feature-length stop-animation film. It’s confounding to see how Anderson applied his peculiar aesthetic idiosyncrasies to this form, making a film that looks and feels just like his live-action comedies.
Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic story seems to suggest that we accept our beastly tendencies. We are animals after all, right?
But I can’t get too worked up about that, because the form of the film is a triumph of childlike imagination. There’s something magical about figures crafted by hand that no digitally animated character can duplicate. And the film’s climactic moment, which involves a big bad wolf, made me laugh a little too loudly for joy.
14. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh): I described this film previously in a Good Letters post and a review at LookingCloser.org, and Laura Good considered it in a Good Letters post as well.
13. Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne): I discussed this film in a previous Good Letters post.
12. Bright Star (Jane Campion): Jane Campion’s celebration of John Keats’ poetry and his romance with Fanny Brawne is as passionate and intelligent a love story as I’ve seen in years. Abbie Cornish makes a radiant Brawne, and the film is a triumph for Campion, who stifles her often-distracting audacity, composing scenes with a delicate, painterly grace.
Here are lovers who go farther than angst and lust. Theirs is a dance of intellects, imaginations, and bodies. They treat each other with dignity and respect, and remember to consider how their relationship affects others.
Keats describes poetry like this: “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it's to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery."
He may as well be talking about this movie.
11. Phoebe in Wonderland (Daniel Barnz): Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is a girl whose mental illness sends her running into fantasy in order to make sense of the world.
But Phoebe in Wonderland is not a “disease movie.” Nor is it a sentimental platitude that Fantasy Can Cure Your Ills. It paints such believable, nuanced portraits of a child, a marriage, and a family that I could hardly believe the film was made in America.
When Phoebe upsets her schoolteachers with shocking obstinacy, her principal lectures her. Her distracted father is pushed to the edge of his patience. And her drama teacher understands her, but she’s not the typical Mary-Poppins savior figure.
But the most memorable character for me is Phoebe’s devoted, oversensitive mother. Felicity Huffman is brilliant as a frustrated writer who puts her ambitions aside in order to help her daughter, bravely resisting the dismissive diagnoses of pop psychology, and struggling to understand if her daughter is sick or merely imaginative.
TOMORROW: Jeffrey’s ten favorite films of 2009.