10 Critics’ Thoughts on 10 Coen Brothers Films

Master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are the subject of a summer-long retrospective at AFI (now through September 5th) featuring many of their greatest works. The film family over at Brightest Young Things (myself included) thought this provided a great reason to write briefly about our most favorite Coen Brothers films. I had to get the jump on Barton Fink. But 9 other great BYT film writers posted their own personal thoughts about other films in the great Coen Oeuvre. I made sure to add a link to that below, complete with a listing of writers and the films chosen. Hope you enjoy — and feel free to comment and tell us what YOUR favorite Coen Brothers movie is!

MY THOUGHTS ON BARTON FINK (1991)

Though it may be their least accessible film for a mainstream audience, Barton Fink remains my favorite Coen Brothers film to date. Not only do I never get tired watching their 4th feature film, but I manage to capture something new or add a new piece to the puzzle with each viewing. Set in 1941, the film stars John Turturro (one of our most underrated actors) as the title character — a Clifford Odets-like playwright who writes for “the common man” and is now the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success reels him in and Barton now finds himself in the surreal and forsaken Hotel Earle, a hellish west coast hotel where he must begin work on a screenplay for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But things don’t go so smoothly for Barton as he suddenly experiences a horrible case of writer’s block. On top of this, he must deal with constant visits from Charlie Meadows (John Goodman in a towering performance), his chatty and ominous neighbor.

Feeling the pressure to produce, Barton seeks producer Ben Geisler (a hilarious Tony Shalhoub) for advice and is instructed to seek the counsel from a fellow writer. Barton obeys and meets with famed novelist (and drunk) W.P. “Bill” Mayhew (John Mahoney), a character mirrored after William Faulkner who Barton initially has tremendous admiration for. Barton later calls on Mayhew’s secretary (Judy Davis) and asks her to visit him at the hotel for more help. When he wakes up the following morning to the ubiquitous sound of the room’s mosquito, Barton finds the woman dead in his bed. And so the fun begins.

The Coen Brothers are masters at ambiguity. They rarely serve up all the answers to their viewers on a silver platter, which is one of the reasons why I admire their work so much. They constantly challenge their audiences and let you put the pieces together for yourself. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941 here. The exquisite art direction (especially in the contrast of the Hotel Earle and the luxurious surroundings of the Hollywood elite) by Dennis Gassner is stunning to take in and Carter Burwell’s haunting score adds to the foreboding mood. And as we have come to expect (now 20 years after the release of Barton Fink), the cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins is splendid. Barton Fink is a haunting and yes, oftentimes funny film filled with quirky characters and picth-perfect dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers works. Turturro is mesmerizing as the troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Their scenes together are a pleasure to watch and absorb. The supporting cast is no less impressive – they are fittingly cast and a marvel to watch. The film takes a strong look at the culture of Hollywood and entertainment as well as the process of writing. It is also laden with symbolism throughout (though the Coens have always denied most of it).

I vividly recall seeing this movie in the theater when it was first released in 1991 when I was a student at New York University. I went with two close friends who lived in Long Island at the time. They took the train in to see it with me, as we were already huge fans of the Coen Brothers and couldn’t wait to see their new flick. I distinctly remember the overall feeling of disappointment upon leaving the theater, with my friend Chris saying what a tremendous waste of a train trip it was — that we had just witnessed pretentious garbage. I didn’t love it, I must admit. But i was certainly intrigued by it and I told my film-loving friend, “We missed something…we didn’t get it.” Barton Fink is certainly not the film for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’ to be sure. It isn’t the film I would inaugurate someone unfamiliar with their impressive canon of work. It may not be their strongest work, but after that initial screening, it quickly became my most favorite. At the risk of hyperbole, I think the Coen Brothers are without a doubt the finest American filmmakers working today, creating one remarkable film after the next with astonishing continuity. If you’re a fan — and you have yet to see this early work, get ready to be challenged and watch this perplexing, rioutous, dark, and fascinating film.

Click HERE to see the full article by the film staff at Brightest Young Things. Each writer gives his/her personal thoughts on a Coen Brothers film of their choosing.

The 10 Movies Chosen Are:

The Big Lebowski by Logan Donaldson
Fargo by Erin Holmes
The Hudsucker Proxy by Svetlana Legetic
Intolerable Cruelty by Alan Zilberman
Miller’s Crossing by Peter Heyneman
O’ Brother Where Art Thou? by Andrew Bucket
Raising Arizona by John Foster
A Serious Man by Zach Goldbaum
“Tuileries” by William Albeque
Barton Fink by moi

The Top 5 Coen Brothers Films…So Far

I am not one for hyperbole, especially when it comes to my assessment of films. I won’t write it if I don’t fully believe in what it is I am pontificating. That said, as I was walking out of the move theater this weekend to see the remake of True Grit, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Are there any better American filmmakers working today than Joel and Ethan Coen?” I am of course aware of heavyweights such as Coppola, Scorsese, Lynch, Eastwood, and Spielberg (to name a few), but since their impressive debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, all they have done is repeatedly churn out stylized, profound and highly entertaining works on a consistent basis that is quite uncanny. I am sure the most ardent of Coen Brothers fans can even excuse the much more commercially targeted Intolerable Cruelty, as I do. The only other director who I see as coming close to this ridiculously high batting average is the brilliant P.T. Anderson, but I will reserve judgment until he builds more of a resume. True Grit marks the 15th feature film for Joel and Ethan Coen and it surely did not disappoint. More on that terrific film in a later post. First, since coming to the realization of where the Coen Brothers stand at present, I thought I’d celebrate this earth-shattering epiphany with what I view their Top 5 films to be. With so many good ones, this was pretty tough to put in order. Also, if you can think of another director who releases one brilliant work after another for as long as they have, I would love to hear it!

5. A Serious Man (2009)

This slot could have easily been reserved for Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men or even their latest, True Grit. But I was so taken aback with this oeuvre (rightly deserving of its Oscar nom for ‘Best Picture’) for its tremendous profundity, dark wit, and waters yet unchartered by the master filmmakers. To me, this is their most personal, most mature work to date. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a Midwestern professor of mathematics who is used to solving formulas and equations with ease. But he is left helpless when, bit by bit, coincidental events take hold of his life which is slipping through his fingers. Stuhlbarg was robbed of a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar nomination and his work here is extraordinary. Richard Kind plays his brother, Uncle Arthur and brings a great deal of empathy to the role. Fred Melamed is a joy to watch as Sy – the man who steals Larry’s wife away from him. The screenplay is taut and insightful, the mood, ominous throughout. Again, the Coen Brothers don’t serve up all the answers for you on a silver platter – they challenge their audience, letting you solve the puzzle on your own. I was glad to see the filmmakers tackle on such issues as God, faith, the Jewish religion, fate and karma in such a forward manner. This film is unlike any other they have ever done –a bold project to be sure, though the Coen Brothers never seem to shy away from new challenges and new frontiers. A small gem of a film that stays with you long after the end credits roll.

4. The Big Lebowski (1998)

I’m not sure what to say here except when I first saw the film, I never would have guessed the enormous cult following and staying power that this ridiculous comedy would endure. Like most Coen Brothers films, this one gets better with additional viewings. Many of their dramas have a lot of comedic elements and humorous nuances, but this one (like the very funny Raising Arizona), is straight up funny, bordering on the farcical. With “The Dude,” Jeff Bridges creates a character that will surely go down as one of the most comical in film history. Bridges makes it all look so effortless, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not a brilliant performance. Like his Almighty rug, this Dude ties the movie together. John Goodman is loud, maniacal, and uproarious. Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman add more laughs – and John Turturro, with about 5 minutes of screen time, steals the show as The Jesus, the master bowler who will fuck you any day of the week. I also love Sam Elliott as The Stranger, the film’s narrator…perfect voice for it. The pacing of the film in non-stop and it’s one absurd incident after another, one insane line after the next. You sit back, and go along for the ride. It is pure Coen Brothers comedy – and there was no way I could omit it from this prestigious Top 5.

3. Fargo (1996)

I vividly recall the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert proclaiming this to be their #1 film of 1996, stating that this was the reason they went to the movies – that this was one of the finest American films to be released in that decade. Though the Coen Brothers were already critical darlings for a few years, this one seemed to put them over the top, garnering a number of Oscar noms, while taking home two. One of the many things that the Coen Brothers are brilliant at is giving the viewer a sense of time and place. Fargo is the perfect example of this. As a wanna-be writer, I would love to be a fly on the wall to study and see how the two writers go through the process of writing their scripts because their framework and dialogue is so masterful. The script here is what every writer should strive for, capturing the characters and their regional vernacular so exquisitely. The film is bloody, dark, funny, and at times, quite touching. The score also plays a pivotal role (which is true of just about any of their films) and depicts the mood perfectly. The unbelievably talented Frances McDormand shines here as Marge Gunderson, the pregnant police officer. But it is William H. Macy’s incompetent car salesman that sets the wheels in motion. Everything falls apart for poor Jerry Lundegaard and so many others pay the heavy consequences. In many ways, the film remind’s me of David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece, Blue Velvet – exploring the dark and violent side of suburban America. An outstanding piece of filmmaking — considered by most critics to be their signature work and has already gone down as one of the finest films ever made.

2. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

When I think of finest screenplays written, I always think of this masterful mobster flick. The dialogue cracks, sizzles and keeps coming at you at a fever pitch – so authentic to the prohibition era that it is set in – and oh so very smart (“take your flunky and dangle”). As is the case with all of their films, the Coen Brothers get wonderful performances from their impressive ensemble that includes Albert Finney, Marcia Gay Harden, Jon Polito (again), and J.E. Freeman. Gabriel Byrne is perfectly cast and the wise-cracking poetry just oozes from his lips like honey. As the film’s nucleus, Byrne holds it all together – he is strong, witty and merciful. And it should be to no one’s surprise that John Turturro as Bernie Bernbaum rocks the house. It constantly amazes me how much Turturro adds to the supporting roles he plays (see Film #4). The climatic scene where Byrne’s Tom Reagan takes Turturro out to the middle of the woods (Miller’s Crossing) to shoot him dead is riveting and always has me on the edge of my seat. It is wonderful work and Turturro doesn’t hold back one tiny bit. One of their more violent films, Miller’s Crossing is beautifully shot and the costume design and art direction are without flaws. It also keeps you on your toes – who is double-crossing who? Who is working for who? Who is going to get rubbed out next? I know we all think of The Godfather trilogy and Goodfellas when we think of cinema’s greatest mobster flicks, but this deserves to be strongly placed in the Top 5. And that, my friends, is the rumpus!

1. Barton Fink (1991)

This one is a no-brainer for me. This haunting (oftentimes funny) film has always fascinated and entertained me, while never losing tread on the wheels with many repeat viewings. In fact, I seem to catch something new each time. John Turturro, one of our most underrated actors, takes the lead here as a New York playwright who suddenly becomes the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success and money reels him in and Barton now finds himself in a hellish west coast hotel writing a motion picture about a wrestler. John Goodman is brilliant as his ominous neighbor, Charlie Meadows. Turturro is mesmerizing as the often-troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Judy Davis and Jon Polito turn in outstanding performances as well. The film is filled with quirky characters and dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers’ works. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941. Exquisite art direction, a haunting score and superb cinematography – the film never caves in and gives you all the answers. It challenges its audience and forces you to figure it out, which I admire and appreciate. Not a movie for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’, to be sure. But a brilliant film — perhaps their closest to a masterpiece yet. Then again, perhaps it is.

In my estimation, these are some of the finest films made in the past 25 years — and they don’t show any signs of slowing down or fading out. The Coen Brothers are master storytellers who seem to do just about everything right — and to this one film buff, have no equal in the industry at present.

The Top 10 Films of 2009 Ranked by Peter Eramo


2009 was a relatively weak year for films. Unfortunately, I don’t get paid to be a film critic (not yet anyway) so I don’t see eveything that comes out. Though I did manage to view 125+ films for the year — I try and stay away from the “safe bets” guaranteed to be crap like “The Proposal” or “The Land of the Lost” or “The Ugly Truth” and focus on the ones that look as if they are worth my time and money. There was not a stand-out phenomenal film this past year…no modern-day classic to speak of. Hopefully, 2010 brings us a better crop in the months ahead.

In any case, here is my list of the Top 10 films from 2009, complete with a list of honorable mentions that are also all solid films. At the bottom of each post is a link to view the official trailers in case you’d like to give it a peek. Give it a read, and as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject…what do you feel I omitted, what film am I nuts for including, where was I actually (dare I say) right on the money?

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson)

Featuring the voices of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Michael Gambon, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, among others, this was certainly the best animated film of the year, without a doubt. And don’t give me “Up”…please. Based on the story by Roald Dahl, this film was pure enjoyment to watch — as well as being uproariously funny. For a full review on this film, click on this link.

9. Sunshine Cleaning (dir. Christine Jeffs)

A charming, poignant and offbeat indie film from the producers behind the Cinderella film, “Little Miss Sunshine.” This film revolves around the relationship between Rose (Amy Adams) and Norah (Emily Blunt), two sisters who are leading completely unfulfilling lives — but manage to set up shop and start their own business…crime-scene clean-up! Once upon a time, Amy had her whole future ahead of her when she was a popular cheerleader in high school dating the star football player. Now she is a single mom with a young son and though she still sees that same football player (Steve Zahn), it is nothing more than an illicit, thankless affair since he has married another.

The film focuses on Amy putting her foot down and getting her life in order, but it also does a terrific job at exploring the relationship between the two diverse sisters. Emily Blunt (who is just adorable to watch anywhere, anytime) is incredibly effective here — the hard-as-nails, pot-smoking aunt on the outside, but underneath, we see that she is simply vulnerable and frightened. Alan Arkin is great (no shocker) as their dad and his scenes with his precocious grandson are very humorous. Though it is not laugh-out-loud funny, there are some terribly funny moments here, especially as the gals start going out on jobs cleaning up shackled homes of people who have just committed suicide. When Rose is asked by one of her friends (who apparently has actually made something of her life) if she actually likes her grotesque job, she responds, quite philosophically, somewhat appropos: “Yeah. I do. We come into people’s lives when they have experienced something profound – and sad. And they’ve lost somebody. And the circumstances, they’re always different. But that’s the same. And we help. In some small way, we help.” A bittersweet film, with a genuine and effective script and authentic performances all-around, this one was too enjoyable for me not to include here.
*To watch the trailer for “Sunshine Cleaning,” click here

8. A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

I’m not sure I would recommend this film to someone unfamiliar with the ouevre of the brilliant work of the Coen brothers, but to me, it surely ranks as one of their stronger films and is most similar in style and tone to their masterpiece, “Barton Fink.” It is certainly their most universal — and most Jewish film to date. Not a full-out comedy like “The Big Lebowski” or “Raising Arizona,” but filled with much of the dark humor that has been a staple in nearly all of their films. This is a very mature, intelligent work with skilled art direction, use of music, and a helluva image to use as the film’s final shot. No big stars in this film at all, which I think was a bold, smart choice. Rarely do these guys make a wrong turn (well, there was “Intolerable Cruelty,” but so what…one bad turn).

The film is set in 1967 and revolves around the relatively simple life of college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg). He lives in a world of formulas and certainty, but many times, the world around us doesn’t follow rules or certainty. Ironically, he teaches the Theory of Uncertainty, but really doesn’t grasp its concepts beyond the mathematics. His whole world is coming down around him and he merely seeks answers as to why and the film focuses on Gopnik trying to cope with all the chaos that is swarming around him.

Amazing performances by a relatively unknown cast. Michael Stuhlbarg was certainly snubbed of a Best Actor Oscar nomination here as the film is all on his shoulders and he does a wonderful job as our modern-day Job. Richard Kind is great as Larry’s bizarre brother, and Fred Melamud plays Sy, the man who is having an affair with Larry’s wife. Melamud is perfect casting here…a seemingly perfect gentleman on the surface, but what a slimeball this guy is! A top-notch screenplay and careful, astute direction (as always), I cannot wait to give this movie another viewing. Like all of the films made by the Coen Brothers, there is always something new to catch and one gains a greater appreciation for the movie as a whole. A clever, dark, and honest film.
*To watch the trailer for “A Serious Man,” click here

7. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb)

Viewers of this film are warned even before the credits even roll that “This is Not A Love Story,” so those who may enjoy the typical formulated, predictable romantic-comedies (can anyone say Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Sandra Bullock) may be disappointed here. It tells the story of Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he reflects back on his relationship with Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The fresh and creative script jumps us back and forth in time through the (500) days of their bi-polar relationship and director Marc Webb uses some amusing techniques (split screens, animation, a hokey/cute musical dance number set to Hall & Oates) throughout to show the viewers how Tom is experiencing things. He is head over heels in love with the quirky and independent Summer – Tom fully believes that she is the one. The only problem is that Summer doesn’t believe in long relationships or in love – she feels that life will always get in the way. Tom seeks advice and guidance from his two best friends, but most of all from his little sister Rachel (Chloe Moretz).

Despite the forewarning we are given, “(500) Days of Summer” is love story. There is no way around it. It may not be the typical love story — or follow the conventional “love story” plot devices, but this is a wonderful departure from all of that and that is what makes this film a breath of fresh air. Gordon-Levitt (excellent in “The Lookout“) is very natural here, very soft-spoken as Tom, the greeting card writer who aspires to become an architecht — and who is desperately trying to win over the woman he loves so passionately. Deschanel is a joy to watch. She is not your typical leading lady at all, but there is something about her that keeps your eyes glued to her every move. She’s got that hypnotic sing-song voice and of course, is lovely to look at – we can see and understand why Tom is bitten so hard here. Their chemistry here seemed very natural throughout. I could not believe the film was snubbed of all Oscar categories, especially for Original Screenplay. But it remains one of the stronger, more creative romantic-comedies (too bad guys…it is one) in recent years and surely one of 2009’s very best.
*To watch the trailer for “(500) Days of Summer,” click here

6. Watchmen (dir. Zack Snyder)

I could not believe how much I enjoyed and how overly impressed I was with this unique superhero film. I am not a reader of graphic novels and knew nothing about this particular one written by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, so I went in completely blind. Unlike most films of its genre, “The Watchmen” is highly stylized, dark, and cynical, containing much more material for adults than teens (in themes, graphic violence and sex/nudity). What I also enjoyed (and was surprised by, quite frankly) was the moral questions that the film raises and tries to answer. I enjoyed this film more than “The Dark Knight” and almost any other superhero film I have seen.

The film is set in an alternative 1985, with Richard Nixon in his fourth term as U.S. president, the Cold War raging on and superheroes are banned from using their powers despite the constant threat of a nuclear war. After one of the masked members of the Watchmen group is murdered, an investigation (initiated by the memorable Rorschach character) follows and with it, a far deeper plot that the heroes must combat.

The film is so beautifully stylized, with tremendous visual effects and art direction. How this film wasn’t nominated in a handful of the technical Oscar categories still escapes me. And though it is high in budget, there still has a feel of art-house in it. The soundtrack is phenomenal, as it cleverly incorporates some classic rock tunes by Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Janis Joplin, among others. Jackie Earle Haley steals the show as Rorschach, but Billy Crudup (Dr. Manhattan), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl) and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) are all great here. I remember before its release, a film-blogging friend was a bit worried about the movie because he absolutely loved the graphic novel and was a loyal follower of it. He was so overly impressed with it, I think he went at least 8 times in the theatre to screen it. He told me how faithful it was to the novel and that it far exceeded any expectations he had going in…and this is from a guy who is an avid follower of the literature. Again, I went in “blind” and loved it as well.
*To watch the trailer for “Watchmen,” click here

5. Das Weisse Band or The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke)

A magnificent cinematic achievement, “The White Ribbon” takes place in a small, rural town in Germany during 1913-1914. reminiscient of Bergman’s masterpiece “Fanny and Alexander” in some ways,Haneke’s film explores the darkness of man and foreshadows the darkness of what is to come in Germany in the years that follow. A number of peculiar, horrific crimes/acts occur in this small village and the mystery abounds as to who is responsible for them. But Haneke is not concerned with solving this mystery as much as he is trying to illustrate the brutality that exists in both adults and children. Filmed in gorgeous black-and-white, the white ribbon of the title suggests an innocence which has been lost and possibly the looming apparition of facsism; the small community, an analogy for a world on the brink of war.

The performances here are extraordinary. Though the pacing may be slow to some, it is a riveting drama exploring character and the hypocrisy of domestic and religious values. Yes, there are moments that are rather difficult to watch (in the best way possible), but they surely serve a greater purpose. Haunting, profound, potent and altogether human, “The White Ribbon” is a triumph of a film.
*To watch a trailer for “The White Ribbon,” click here

4. The Invention of Lying (dir. Ricky Gervais & Matthew Robinson)

You’re probably laughing at me right now, wondering why in the world is this film included here, let alone ranked so high on the list itself. Is it a higher cinematic achievement than “The White Ribbon” or “A Serious Man“? Probably not, I would agree. But my reasoning here is quite simple — pure enjoyment! Comedies are always overshadowed by their big brothers – the more serious dramas and “arthouse” films on these kinds of Top 10 lists. I did not want to fall victim to that. But that is not the only reason I include this film. It was just too damn funny, too damn smart and too damn fine a film.

The film is set in a world where no one has ever told a lie. That is, until Mark Bellison, a writer who is about to be fired (Ricky Gervais), creates one on the spur of the moment for personal gain. Mark is overweight, under-successful, short and comes from a poor gene pool. He is in love with Anna (Jennifer Garner) who is way out of his league as she is looking for the perfect mate with ideal genes to create perfect, good-looking children. Of course Mark begins to take advantage of his discovery little by little until one day, the hospital staff overhear him speaking to his mother on her deathbed as he desribes what Heaven is truly like. Everyone believes him of course and Mark not only becomes famous, but a prophet of the people as well.

What Gervais and Robinson have created here is one of the better comedies I have seen in years (although “Tropic Thunder” is right up there as well). I was constantly reminded of the better films of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen throughout. Gervais gives an endearing, hilarious performance here and manages to also include his own personal opinions on God, religion, love and the backwards priorities of our society. An entirely original film, I was blown away at how funny and clever it was. The film also features some great cameo appearances (which I won’t spoil here) and execllent supporting work from Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Gervais is certainly making a name for himself here in the States — I only hope that people begin to recognize that this is a major force in comedy right now — not only is this one downright hilarious, but on top of that, has a heart to match.
*To watch the trailer for “Invention of Lying” click here

3. Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Well, one thing is for certain…this film is unlike any other war film you have ever seen. That’s for damn sure. The film reeks of Tarantino dialogue, plot twists, homages to the spaghetti westerns and French New Wave cinema — as well as the dark humor that has been a trademark of his since his debut with “Reservoir Dogs.” I went in really not wanting to like it (as I’m not the biggest fan of his), but I could not deny what an excellent film he helmed here.

We are in Nazi-occupied France during World War II and a platoon of Jewish American soldiers are enlisted to spread fear throughout Hitler’s Third Reich…they have one mission — to kill and skin the heads of us many Nazis as they possibly can. The Basterds are headed by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Southern American with a thick accent and passion for killing Nazis. The other part of the film focuses on Jewish refugee Shosanna Dreyfus (a very impressive Melanie Laurent), who is plotting her revenge several years later after witnessing the slaughtering of her family. The first scene of the film itself (a long, fascinating scene) keeps you glued to the edge of your seat…Tarantino does a brilliant job of building the suspense here with effective use of editing, exceptional dialogue and the masterful performance of Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa) who steals the film and has created one of film’s very best villains, wholly deserving of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar win. Waltz is unbelievable and is at his most evil when there is a smile across his face.

There is hardly a dull moment here and when you are thinking one thing is going to happen, you find that you are wrong and something else does. Pitt is fine here with his deadpan delivery and is actually quite funny. Great use of color, set design and photography, this is a film that builds from the very first scene and never lets up. Yes, it is not at all historically accurate, but Tarantino knows that and he also knows his business is to entertain….he does that here in spades.
*To watch the trailer for “Inglourious Basterds” click here

2. Up in the Air (dir. Jason Reitman)

An American film that does such an interesting, on-the-mark job of conveying modern American values and the historical unemployment recession that has fallen on us these recent years. Jason Reitman wrote/directed the utterly brilliant “Thank You for Smoking” and the tad over-rated “Juno,” but rebounds nicely with this superb script which makes for a highly pleasing film and one of the year’s very best.

Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) job is to fire people from theirs. He spends nearly his entire life living out of a suitcase, going from airport to airport and hotel to hotel – and he loves every minute of it. He has almost no connections in his life – not even his family. The firm takes on young Natalie (Anna Kendrink) who has come up with a method of firing these poor schleps via video conferencing, thereby threatening Ryan’s way of living — his way of being. He takes her under his tutelage on one of his cross-country firing sprees and as the brash Natalie begins to see the actual pain and suffering she is causing real people with real families, Ryan is beinning to discover a lot more about himself. Along the way, we follow the relationship between Ryan and Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate traveler. The two try and meet up as often as their schedules will allow and Ryan begins to feel that perhaps he may want more from Alex than just sex in a different hotel room each time.

The script in itself is a great achievement. I’m still angered that it did not capture the Best Original Screenplay Oscar as it most certainly deserved it. The performances, all solid. Clooney is perfect as Ryan Bingham – he is confident, charming, quick-witted and at times, vulnerable…in other words, he does his “Clooney thing” – he can do this in his sleep. Vera Farmiga is wonderful here and in one scene in particular (she’s in her car alone), you just want to smack her. Jason Bateman also has a strong supporting role as Bingham’s boss – a clever bit of casting here. “Up in the Air” is a timely film, a well-made film and most of all, a very, very enjoyable film. Reitman is really building up quite a nice resume here and I am anxious to see what he gives us next.
*to watch the trailer for “Up in the Air” click here

1. District 9 (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

I am in no way a science-fiction film. But it is so much more than that. I was not expecting to enjoy this movie as much as I did and though it came out relatively early in 2009, it never lost its ranking as what I perceived as the best motion picture of the year. The onset of the film has an authentic docu-drama look and feel to it, but as the film builds, it morphs into sci-fi character drama and finally, a police thriller. And all the while, it never loses its sense of realism, nor do we ever not believe in any of the characters or their choices.

An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions in Johannesburg — a refugee-camp where humans refer to them as “prawns” as they exploit and abuse these creatures since they arrived on Earth in 1982. Now it is 2010 and Multi-National United, a munitions corporation is forcing the eviction of these aliens from District 9 to a new camp. The man in charge of the operation is Wilus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley). At first quite clumsy and a somewhat silly authoritative figure, van der Merwe is suddenly exposed to a strange alien chemical and must now rely on his new prawn friends to save his own life as his human family and friends begin to turn on him.

The analogies in the film (apartheid, Guantanamo Bay) are evident, but it doesn’t hit you over the head or insult the viewer. The relatively unknown Copley gives an outstanding performance here and the visual effects are top-notch even though it’s not technically a high-budget film. What makes “District 9” such a remarkable film is its excellent work of character, its sense of authenticity, crisp editing, great action sequences (especially the last 20 minutes or so) and the way it makes you sympathize and feel for the aliens. The very last shot in itself is a memorable, chilling one. A powerful, intelligent, and moving film on a whole. This is Blomkamp’s first major film (produced by Peter Jackson) and he has delivered a near-masterpiece of a film that I think will be remembered for years to come…the best to come out in 2009!
*to watch the trailer for “District 9” click here.

HIGHLY HONORABLE MENTIONS
Though they did not crack the Top 10 list, here is a brief listing of some other excellent films that came out last year that I would surely recommend. They are, in no particular order:

Sin Nombre (dir. Cary Fukunaga)
Funny People (dir. Judd Apatow)
The Cove (dir. Louie Psihoyos)
Julia (dir. Erick Zonca)
Management (dir. Stephen Belber)
The Road (dir. John Hillcoat)
The Last Station (dir. Michael Hoffman)
Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper)
The Great Buck Howard (dir. Sean McGinly)

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