5. Crazy Heart
The best acting performance of the year occurs in this understated, authentic film. That performance is by Jeff Bridges, who plays Bad Blake, an aging country singer who has fallen from grace in the music industry. I’m a sucker for sympathetic down-on-their-luck characters almost as much as I am a sucker for films with great, original music. Put those two together, and you can see why I loved this film.
4. An Education
Following my favorite male performance of the year is An Education, which contains my favorite female performance of the year in Carey Mulligan. This film is a classic combination of a great story and great acting—no bells or whistles here. The story succeeds because the characters are so well written that we genuinely feel for them (even the “bad” characters). It was a little difficult at first for me to accept the major premise of the film (Mulligan’s 17 year-old character being in a serious relationship with someone in their mid-30’s), but then I found out it was based on a true story, so bad job by me. The fact that Sandra Bullock is probably going to win best actress for “The Blind Side” over Carey Mulligan is just about sinful.
Beating out Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox in the animated category for me is Coraline, a haunting little stop-motion animation film with heart. I always like movies that take the most basic themes (a child’s relationship with her parents/the family dynamic in general) and find new and exciting (and bizarre, in this case) ways to explore them. It doesn’t pack quite the emotional punch that Up does, but what separates the two for me is the completeness of the writing—all of the characters and subplots bring meaning to the story and make it a well-rounded film, and they are portrayed in such a new, interesting, and eerie way that it’s hard not to appreciate it.
2. The Hurt Locker
The Oscar battle for best picture this year is waged between two camps: The Hurt Locker and Avatar. You can see which side I belong to. This is easily one of my favorite war movies, and easily my favorite movie about the Iraq war. It’s psychological, it’s intense, and it’s everything you want in a war movie that you didn’t know you wanted in a war movie. To illustrate this, let me relay to you a facebook transaction that occurred a few months ago, between C, a friend of mine and J, an avid reader of this blog who actually served in Iraq:
C: “The Hurt Locker was disappointing. The characters went around doing nothing the whole time, it was boring, had no ending, and was pointless.”
J: “hmmm…doing nothing for hours, boredom, and no resolution...yep, pretty much sounds like Iraq.”
This illustrates it perfectly for me. The reason many people probably don’t like it is the same reason that it works, as exemplified above. The only thing I disagree with is that I wasn’t bored at all watching this. The tension level was really high for most of the film, and when it wasn’t a particularly tense moment we were learning something interesting about the psyches of the characters. I also think it’s pretty awesome that a woman (Kathryn Bigelow) directed one of the best war movies to come out in years (rivaling Letters From Iwo Jima for me). Hopefully she will be the first female to take home the Best Director award at this year’s Oscars.
1. Goodbye Solo
So I have a new completely scientific factor to use when judging movies, which I call “The Smile Factor.” It’s something I’ve noticed about myself over the last few years when watching transcendent films: they are so excellent in one way or the other that I can’t help but just grin from ear to ear as I’m watching them, while feeling so lucky inside to have the privilege of watching them. The only films in 2009 that passed my Smile Factor are: Goodbye Solo and…..that’s it. I stated in my snippet for An Education that one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because it was driven by a great story and great acting. That’s how I feel with Goodbye Solo, except multiply it by about 20. It’s the simplest story of a foreign cab driver in Winston-Salem befriending a one of his regular customers, a down-trodden older man. Souleymane Sy Savane gives an incredibly inspiring performance as Solo, a character so warm and charming that it makes you empathize with everything that happens to him. I really hope you will go out and rent this one if you haven’t heard of it before. It’s not for everyone, and I could see how some people could say it drags in some places, but for me it was a reminder of just how good movies can be, and that well-written characters and strong acting will always, always win.