The movie year has reached the halfway mark – which, in terms of the Oscar and most critics’ year-end 10-best lists, means it hasn’t even started.
But I always find it instructive to use July 1 to ask this question: If the movie year were to end right now – like the baseball season of 1994 – what would be on my top-10 list?
Or, ignoring that hypothetical, another question: How many of the films on a top-10 list for the year’s first half will survive to make it to year-end lists? Or receive Oscar nominations – even in a year when the Academy has made the chuckleheaded decision to water down the best-picture category by expanding to 10 nominees?
So here’s my list – the best films of the first half of 2009:
10. “Watchmen”: Derided by any number of critics who simply could not plug in to director Zack Snyder’s rich visual approach, this comic-book movie masterfully adapted a tricky, digressive graphic novel into a dark, provocative viewing experience that told a rich story about the nature of and need for heroes.
9. “The Hangover”: A great movie? No – but absolutely the funniest film of the year’s first half. This is how you make a raunchily hilarious movie – by crossing the line. And then crossing another one. And another. Special kudos to Ed Helms for huge comedic balls and a killer lack of vanity.
8. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”: There are serious nonfiction films that choke you up. But this one, a portrait of a not-quite-has-been heavy metal band whose leaders fruitlessly pursued stardom for decades, not only made you laugh but had you rooting for them to finally catch a break. Which they did, thanks to the efforts of this affectionate film.
7. “Departures”: Oscar-winner as best foreign film, this affecting Japanese film looked at the creative impulse from an unusual angle: that of a former cellist, forced to take a job with an undertaker that becomes as artistically fulfilling as playing music. Beautifully shot and scored, it blended humor with deep emotion in unexpected ways.
6. “Two Lovers”: Director James Grey used Joaquin Phoenix in a new way, drawing a layered and moving performance from him as a man torn between two women. The set-up seemed familiar but Grey infused it with more raw emotion than seemed possible, with Phoenix gripping as an emotionally unstable guy who puts the nice, available girl on hold to pursue the unattainable one (Gwyneth Paltrow).
5. “Duplicity”: The year’s most complex, entertaining and tricky puzzle of a motion picture. It featured a deliciously convoluted script by director Tony Gilroy that actually forced you to pay attention to figure out who was screwing who. Then he put Julia Roberts and Clive Owen at the center of it as people who might be lovers, might be antagonists – but were never less than intriguing. Plus he had the always entertaining Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti as a pair of paranoid corporate titans who are at each other’s throats. A pure delight that, unfortunately, ran into the buzzsaw of the public’s growing attention-deficit.
4. “Food, Inc.”: Don’t make post-film dinner plans because this one will kill your appetite, even as it opens your eyes. It manages to pack a ton of information into a documentary that also compels your interest and inflames your righteous indignation. It also makes corn seem like the scariest plant on the planet. All those food companies that say they’re bringing you the best, the freshest, the most nutritious? Guess what – they’re killing you.
3. “Tyson”: I know very few people who think of former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson as a redeemable character. But this fascinating documentary, by director James Toback, almost makes him seem so. Toback offered insight into Tyson’s meteoric rise and confused, chaotic career by letting Tyson tell his own story, illustrated only with fight excerpts and other news footage. Tyson is startlingly, even appallingly, candid about his problems – with money, with women, with maturity in general. Yet you come away feeling for the guy.
2. “Up”: It’s the Pixar magic once again, in a movie that was as much for adults as kids. Yes, it’s just a computer-animated comedy about an old man who flies his house away with a bunch of balloons. But it’s also about pursuing dreams that have been too long deferred, about absent fathers and choosing heroes. Plus it’s awfully funny, particularly when the talking dogs show up.
1. “The Hurt Locker”: Director Kathryn Bigelow captures the life of an adrenaline junkie who happens to be a soldier whose job is defusing improvised explosive devices on the streets of war-torn Iraq. If this film doesn’t make a star out of everyman-actor Jeremy Renner, there is no justice. How can this crushingly suspenseful film not have the legs to still shine bright at the end of the year?
Runners-up: “Star Trek,” “State of Play,” “Adventureland,” “Julia.”