Five Favorite Movies of 2009 … and My Top 25 picks of the Decade

I realize I might be rather late in posting this kind of list, but I figure since it’s technically still the first month of the year, I think I can get away with it. No? Oh well, I don’t live by your rules! 🙂

I can’t judge whether 2009 is a good or bad year for movies, as I haven’t really been paying so close attention to previous years prior to this blog. However, I think it’s safe to say that though it’s not exactly the ‘most stellar’ year in movie history, quite a few movies released last year made 2009 a pretty memorable one.

Anyhoo, I titled this post ‘favorite’ because this kind of list is personal in nature, so I didn’t want to say ‘best of’ because these might not necessarily be the most excellent quality or ‘perfect’ cinematic pieces, but for one reason or another, they either made a big impression on me or were hugely entertaining despite their flaws.

So with that in mind, I give you my Top Five Favorites of 2009:

  1. Avatar
    The movie that dethroned Cameron’s previously unbeatable Titanic is still going strong in its seventh straight week. I’m in the camp that totally dig this movie, though when I first saw it at Avatar day, I wasn’t sure how successful it was going to be given the somewhat poor reactions to its first trailer. But Avatar lives up to the hype in a big way. Its visuals is so mind-blowing spectacular it gave me such an immersive cinematic ride like no other, and it’s one of those rare movies that’s still rewarding in its second viewing, which is really no small feat. As for the story? Well, it’s not as ‘original’ as one expect, but it’s quite an engaging one. As to those criticism that call the storyline ‘loathsome,’ MadHatter says it best: hogwash! I guess it’s easy to criticize other people’s work, but seriously, those naysayers should ask themselves, given the opportunity, would they actually be able to top this one?
    ….
  2. District 9
    Looking back, I’m still quite surprised how much I enjoyed this movie and the impression it left me days after. Truthfully, I wasn’t anticipating to see this movie, I only saw one trailer and didn’t know much about it, but the highly-favorable reviews intrigued me and so I went. Suffice to say, I was impressed by the innovative way this story was told, and especially by newcomer Sharlto Copley’s bravura performance. Despite being quite squeamish, I wasn’t too disturbed by the gritty and stomach-churning scenes as they served the story and the payoff was worthwhile. This was by far one of the most memorable movies I’ve seen in a while and the ending left me wanting more. As I said in my review, it’s such a distinctly moving, poignant and provocative film that makes you ponder long after the end credits roll.
  3. (500) Days of Summer
    This movie was embraced by critics and average moviegoers alike and it’s easy to see why. I’ve long believed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a fantastic young actor, but his performance here again reached a pinnacle in his already impressive body of work. The credit doesn’t belong entirely to Gordon-Levitt though, as first-time director Marc Webb is also to be praised for making an anti rom-com with such an innovative and refreshing story-telling style. The clever and witty script, combined with memorably quirky and vividly surreal scenes, makes the love story of a regular guy so deeply affecting and real. Though I said in my review that I wasn’t as excited about Zooey Deschanel, I still have to commend her for portraying Summer with a certain depth and novelty that’s as far away from a caricature desirable ‘it’ girl that’s ubiquitous in Hollywood.
  4. Watchmen
    I’m a sucker for superhero movies and am a fan of Zack Snyder’s style ever since 300, but Watchmen is not your typical superhero ‘good guys’ with savior-complex. Sure they wear costumes, but these ‘heroes’ are as flawed as they are vulnerable (well except for Dr. Manhattan with his god-like powers), and definitely not the kind of characters kids should aspire to. Despite being too violent and raunchy for my taste — not to mention bizarre (or even retarded as one of my friends call it) — this movie is memorable for its spectacular visuals, as well as terrific performances from the cast, most notably Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s The Comedian, Patrick Wilson as Night Owl Jr. and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Snyder jam-packed it with breathtaking and edgy scenes, creative camera angles, and one of the coolest opening sequences ever. Beneath the wildly exhilarating madness though, the story is thought-provoking and surprisingly deep. As this article says, “Who watches the watchmen?  In this sense, this is less a theoretical pondering and more a deeply profound political philosophical question… [it] is not about the super heroes at all.  It is about us.  Can our self governance actually work?  Has it worked?  Does it work?” It perhaps raises more questions than it answers, especially for someone like me who isn’t familiar with Alan Moore’s graphic novel it’s based on, but it’s still a bold and inspired piece of work that makes for an extraordinary and riveting movie-going experience.
    ….
  5. Up in the Air
    A gem of a movie, director Jason Reitman takes a subject so pertinent in today’s society and creates a story that’s deeply engaging and wonderful to watch. The movie’s ‘CGI’ comes in the form of kudos-worthy performances of his three main actors: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. I feel even more compelled to say that the two female characters are as instrumental in the movie’s success as Clooney’s was. The incredibly smart script spits out witty dialog that offers a perfect blend between tragic and humor, whilst the quieter moments still speak volumes. The opening scenes where we see Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham’s travel routine (packing, going through security, etc.) are fascinating and takes the audience in who this man is and what matters to him. I overheard someone explaining the plot of this movie recently where he said ‘it’s a movie about someone who goes on firing people‘ and I winced at such oversimplification. This movie is definitely much more than that, and much deeper than even its marketing campaign makes it out to be (as a romantic comedy of sorts). I like movies that make me ponder about them long after it’s over. Up in the Air unquestionably delivers in that regard, and then some.

Honorable mentions:

  • The Young Victoria
  • Law Abiding Citizen
  • The Blindside

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And looking back, here are Twenty-Five Favorites of the Decade (2000 – 20009, in order of release):

  1. Chicken Run (2000)
  2. Moulin Rouge (2001)
  3. Finding Nemo (2003)
  4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
  5. Phantom of the Opera (2004)
  6. Hotel Rwanda (2004)
  7. Unbreakable (2004)
  8. Batman Begins (2005)
  9. Casino Royale (2006)
  10. Dear Frankie (2005)
  11. Gladiator (2005)
  12. Children of Men (2006)
  13. The Painted Veil (2006)
  14. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
  15. Stranger than Fiction (2006)
  16. 300 (2007)
  17. Atonement (2007)
  18. Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
  19. The Visitor (2007)
  20. 3:10 to Yuma (2007)
  21. Bella (2008)
  22. The Dark Knight (2008)
  23. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
  24. District 9 (2009)
  25. Avatar (2009)

What A-list Actors Can Learn from Sharlto Copley

Copley at Comic Con

District 9 is one of those powerful movies that stays with me long after I saw it (check out my review of the movie). For the most part, it’s Copley’s performance that makes the film work for me. Sure, the documentary style technique and all that technical stuff blew me away at first, but once I started watching, it’s the actor’s performance that get me immersed in the film. When I relate to the character or get affected by it—whether you love it or hate it—that’s when a movie becomes an ‘experience’ instead of a mere spectacle.

Which brings me to newbie Sharlto Copley, the South African actor who’s never acted in a movie before other than the blink-and-you-miss-it involvement in Neill Blomkamp’s Alive in Jo’burg’s short film. I just watched several interviews with this guy where he’s still pretty much coming to grasp with his new-found fame. The fascinating part is that he never intended to be famous, he just happen to be thrust in front of the camera because the his friend Blomkamp thought he could do the part of Wikus Van De Merwe. Blomkamp might as well be a casting agent ’cause he was right on the money. I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing that role, from the dweeb-ish bureaucrat to the desperate hunted man trying to survive, Sharlto was downright convincing. Put someone like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Will Smith and this movie just won’t work as well, as it frequently becomes more about them the ‘celebrity’ instead of the story they’re telling. In fact, these A-listers can learn a thing or two from this novice actor.

Here are three random things that came to my mind:

1. He acted from the heart
The fact that this project is a labor of love between him and his director friend Blomkamp, Sharlto’s involvement in the whole film making process is from the heart. He wants the film to succeed not for his reputation’s sake but because he cares about the project. His immersion goes beyond what the script requires him to do, but he breathed all the nitty-gritty of the movie in and out that he becomes that character. In fact, instead of simply delivering lines, most of his acting was ‘improv,’ as he intuitively followed what he said ‘the beat that Neill wanted to capture for a particular scene,’ which makes for a real and authentic performance unlike anything I’ve seen in a long while.

But the acting side of the work—because it’s improv, I’m not sitting there the night before going, “Okay, so should I say this scene like this? Should I say the line this way?” and trying to work at it. I’d just show up and go. So that’s very stress-free, in a sense.— A.V. Club Interview

“I just am that character, to be honest, in that situation. And with a film like this that was done so realistically, it often felt like we were shooting a documentary. It felt so ridiculously realistic that it was easy. I just found it a very natural thing. I don’t have any technique or thing I’m thinking about. It’s like, ‘Well, either that is the character, or no, it’s not.” — A.V. Club Interview

2. He wasn’t in it for fame
Unlike most actors, Sharlto’s been a successful producer and businessman before getting this gig. His performance is almost devoid of ego or self-consciousness because he has nothing to prove, he was simply serving the vision that Blomkamp has for the film. He’s not worried if he’d ever get another job again after this, which makes for a refreshingly unaffected, almost uninhibited performance that’s captivating to behold.

I do have the advantage in that I don’t really mind what happens. If I don’t act again, then it’s okay, fine. — A.V. Club Interview

That side of the business doesn’t really interest me, like getting attention or stroking my ego or whatever, like I’m a real filmmaker-at-heart kind of a person. I normally am behind the camera actually, so I didn’t have aspirations of “I want to be a famous,” but I’ve always done characters my whole life just for fun. — Ain’t It Cool Interview

3. He is no primadonna
It’s nice to hear when an actor isn’t complaining about doing his job. A lot of movie stars got (over)paid millions of dollars and then whine in interviews about the grueling shoot, how stressful it was, blah blah blah. Isn’t that why you got paid the big bucks for? The crew members’ jobs are most likely just as strenuous, but they make a fraction of their salary. I haven’t seen this much dedication from an actor. Even among seasoned thespians, I could only think of a couple of people with equal passion: Christian Bale for the Machinist and Daniel Day-Lewis in just about everything. It’s as if he applied JFK’s famous line with his ‘it’s not what the movie can do for me, but what I can do for the movie‘ attitude. He plays a huge part in the movie’s success, yet nary of self-importance in sight in all of his interviews I’ve read/watched. It’s cool to hear that an actor acknowledge that his craft also depends on the people he works with on set, and how some way they help him nail a great scene.

“…when as an actor, everybody is just doing everything for you to make that space for you to bring that moment…” — ScreenCrave.com interview on YouTube

Here’s wishing for a lasting acting career for Mr. Copley. I’m sure he’ll be around for more District 9 follow-ups, but I hope he’d try other things, too. IMO, he’d be great in a drama or comedy, just so long as he keeps it real and not be buoyed by doing pedestrian blockbusters (whatever you do, just stay away from Michael Bay!). If he continues to turn out even half of what he brought in his debut, I’d surely keep watching.


Copley and Blomkamp are teaming up again in another sci-fi movie Elysium, also starring Jodie Foster and Matt Damon, scheduled for release in 2013. This time he’s playing the villain.


So what are your thoughts on District 9 or Sharlto Copley? Let’s hear it!

It’s inevitable, District 9 sequel chatter has begun

Please put your scrawl here ...
Please put your scrawl here ...

Death and taxes aren’t the only things certain when it comes to the movie industry. Sequel is a sure bet as soon as a flick recoups at least the same amount it takes to produce. So now that District 9 already made more than its modest 30 million budget, it’s no surprise the sequel buzz has started swirling. Heck, the buzz was already so high even before the movie even opened. At the San Diego Comic Con last month, after Peter Jackson had only previewed the movie for the first time, people were already asking him about its future. Wisely, he said he would rather wait how the movie does and go from there.

Now, I’m torn with this. I REALLY like this movie that it should almost be left as it is. Sequels rarely do justice to the original, and a lot of flicks hardly ever merit a follow up. But by the same token, the movie also left me curious to see more of this new world, or mythology if you will, that Neill Blomkamp has created. Do I even dare to call this the next Star Wars? I wouldn’t go there as I for one wouldn’t want any George Lucas groupies to be all over me like a ton of bricks. But one thing I can assuredly say is that District 9 ends in such a way that made a lot of moviegoers go, ‘now what?’ So it seems that although the film makers weren’t exactly planning for District 10, or whatever else they’d end up calling it, they weren’t opposed to it, either. It also didn’t hurt the fact that, according to actor Sharlto Copley, the very nature of the production — its improvisatory dialogue, the filmmakers’ decision to shoot tons of material and see what developed — left nearly enough video on the cutting room floor for another installment. “There were a lot of exciting avenues to want to go down and you really [have to fit it all] into a small block of time,” he said.

Thus, with so many angles and back stories Blomkamp can explore and the biggest question will be which one should he take?

The folks at Cinema Blend has crafted some interesting ideas. For those who haven’t seen the movie, I’d rather you skip it as it contains some major spoilers. I personally don’t have a preference as to a specific angle, but just like Batman 3, I’d only be interested if the original brain behind the terrific film—in that case Chris Nolan—were involved. Similarly, Blomkamp has done something really special with District 9, and Cinema Blend’s writer Josh Tyler nailed it here with his suggestion of what NOT to do: Please, Mr. Blomkamp don’t go Hollywood. You’re going to get a bigger budget for the sequel, a much bigger budget I’ll wager. Don’t turn it down. Use it. Use it to make something even bigger and better. Spend it on special effects and wicked cool sets. Don’t use it to buy yourself an over the top sports car, move to LA, and turn the thing over to Hollywood’s never ending cadre of mega-producers. We don’t need to see Sharlto Copley replaced by Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. You don’t have to bring in Jada Pinkett Smith to be Wikus’s sassy, tough as nails sidekick. Don’t step back into a supervising role and allow Michael Bay to take over. For that matter don’t even go to Hollywood. Stay in New Zealand, with Peter Jackson, and make your film.

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Well, I guess I’ll just keep an eye on this one and see what they’ll do. Whatever route they’d take, I’m somewhat rest-assured by Peter Jackson’s response to MTV news in regards to the sequel buzz:

“I believe movies should come from the heart, and if there’s any sequel or continuation of District 9, it should only be because there’s a good idea involved, not because it’s a money-making venture,”

For that reason alone, it’s all the more imperative that nobody else should helm any follow-up to this soon-to-be-a-classic scifi flick.

Flixchatter Review: District 9

District 9

It’s nearly eleven hours since I saw the movie and its effect lingers with me still. I haven’t been this blown away by something I saw at the movies since The Dark Knight last year. Just like that blockbuster, I can say this with confidence, BELIEVE THE HYPE.

But unlike the caped crusader tale, District 9 was an original story, based on first-time director Neill Blomkamp’s documentary-style extraterrestrial- on-earth short story Alive in Jo’burg. When I first saw the trailer a few months ago in a theater, I quickly dismissed it as some weird sci-fi flick probably way too out there for my taste, even though the name Peter Jackson did piqued my interest, having loved The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Then the buzz started to really hit and the more I read and heard about it, the more I intrigued I was by it. Buoyed by the promise of originality, edge-of-your-seat sequences and unusual film-making style, I went to see it with a pretty high expectation. Suffice it to say, I didn’t leave the theater disappointed. In fact, it was quite a spectacle, just as I hope it would be.

The film grabbed my attention right from the beginning—with documentary-style and realistic hand-held camerawork—and didn’t let go. We’re told from various ‘interviews’ with experts and insiders of the present day, that an alien mother ship arrived on earth 20 years ago but somehow ran out of fuel, leaving it stalled hovering above the city of Johannesburg. When the military finally went up there to find out what’s going on, they discovered a whole bunch of alien creatures stuck in the ship in malnourished and destitute condition. The government then set up an area called District 9 to quarantine over a million of these crustacean creatures—derogatorily called ‘prawns’ by humans—that resembles a slum like nothing you’ve ever seen. I read Roger Ebert’s review in which he called these aliens disgusting, and boy was he right, but what blew my mind was how realistic they look and in a bizarre way, how I came to eventually see them as more than repulsive.

The ‘hero’ of the movie didn’t start out like one, in fact, he was so much an unlikely protagonist that made his transformation to one all the more affecting. Wikus van der Merwe is nothing but a careerist in a bureaucratic Multi-National United (MNU), a private company assigned to control the chaotic population of the aliens. His boss—who happens to be his own father in-law—assigns him to lead the tremendous project of moving these aliens to a different quarter. Of course, this is more than mere ‘population control,’ there’s a pretty obvious agenda here involving the highly-advanced alien weaponry that only the aliens themselves can operate it. That’s all I’m going to say, as it’s best for you to find out for yourself why that matters.

The action pretty much starts as soon as Wikus gets infected by an alien liquid whilst on a mission to deliver the eviction notices to the aliens. It’s actually quite comical when he goes around knocking on doors and ask the aliens to put their ‘scrawl’ on a piece of paper. What I don’t get is, why in the world would these people go into such a filthy and uncharted area without so much as a glove or mask! I mean, you’d be hard-pressed not to get infected. In any case, Wikus goes from a leader all jovial and gleeful to being a ruthlessly hunted man. Now, Wikus isn’t exactly a moral man, but he’s almost saintly compared to the military people who merely sees these aliens as mere disposable objects to be exploited and would do anything to them in order to get what they’re looking for. Let’s just say Wikus finds this out the harsh way when they see what has happened to him.

Newcomer South African actor Sharlto Copley is excellent in his debut film, as the tragic character Wikus he provides the emotional core of the film as he takes us along for the out of this world ride of his life. Strangely enough, his unlikely alien cohort, Christoper Johnson (yep, that’s the crustacean’s name), also delivers some of the film’s touching and tearjerker scenes. He’s probably the most noble character in the entire film, and his interaction with his young son is just like a human father to a human son. It’s not such a novelty idea for filmmakers to make the audience care for the aliens, but this film took it further in that at the end of the film, I have more sympathy for him than for some of the humans depicted here. And eventually, so does Wikus. It’s as if he finds his humanity as he struggles to keep it. The best part is, it’s such a believable and seamless transformation, not simply because the script says so and we’re blatantly told to accept it.

This movie is billed as an action sci-fi, and it is. But it works just as well as a psychological drama and a political allegory about racism and immigration still prevalent in the world today. Yet this movie isn’t preachy, Blomkamp merely presents things as they are, well as they might have been I should say. Jackson’s company Weta Digital did an amazing job in creating this gritty and realistic-looking world, it truly felt real, it’s as if I just finished watching real news footage of an actual event.

This isn’t a film for everyone though, and definitely not for the faint of hearts. I had trepidation going in as I’m very squeamish about stuff, but even with all the brutal violence, filth and often stomach-churning scenes, the payoff is greater that makes the whole experience worthwhile. I’m so glad to have seen such a bravura piece of cinema that’s so rarely found today. It’s not without flaws, but overall it’s such a distinctly moving, poignant and provocative film that makes you ponder long after the end credits roll. It sure left me wonder as I left the cinema, if such an event were to happen in our world today, how would we react?

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Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts.