Top 5: Robert Downey, Jr.

So The Avengers — one of the most highly anticipated movies in recent years — comes out today. Judging only by the trailers and promos, it does not look very good at all and I remain indifferent to even seeing Joss Whedon’s Marvel Comics early summer blockbuster, even if it does co-star the stunning Scarlett Johansson. The film also marks the return of the character of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) played by none other than 47 year-old Robert Downey, Jr., one of America’s most talented, if not complex actors of his generation.

His resume is a long and impressive one, appearing in films for pretty much his entire life – since age 5 actually, when he had a role in his father’s film Pound. If you blinked, you missed his stint on TV’s Saturday Night Live in 1985. He is usually associated with the 80’s “Brat Pack” gang for appearing in movies like Pretty in Pink, Tuff Turf, and The Pick-Up Artist – though I never really put him in that group. Of course he has had his troubles with the law and his drug addictions have been well-documented and publicized. But he has still managed to come out in the most spectacular of fashions – with 2008 bringing him to rock star/blockbuster status. Things were going so well for Downey that he even made it on The Time 100, Time magazine’s list of the most influential people in the world. Makes the word ‘comeback’ sound like a ridiculous understatement. In fact, his popularity seems to be growing the last few years. Anyway, with the release of The Avengers, I thought it would be a fitting time to list what I find to be Robert Downey, Jr.’s Top 5 performances thus far. As always, these are not a list of the best films he has been in – I am strictly looking at performance:

5. Zodiac (2007)

I have no problems with saying I did not enjoy this film, despite my admiration for director David Fincher and its appearance on a multitude of Top 10 lists of that year. I had problems with the script and its dreary pacing. Plus, as I’ve said before, it’s always a bit sad and painful to watch poor Jake try his heart out to less than adequate results. Having said that, I cannot deny Downey’s impressive performance here in which he plays newspaper crime reporter Paul Avery who begins to share information with a political cartoonist, as the two try to decode letters that have been sent to the paper by who they believe to be the Zodiac Killer. Downey almost always plays characters with tremendous egos with little humility and there is no exception here. But it is his performance that kept me (at least somewhat) interested. His sarcastic sense of humor helps this otherwise bleak film and he manages to wear the style and mannerisms of a beat reporter in effortless fashion.

4. Tropic Thunder (2008)

You may laugh at and mock me, but I don’t care. If I had a vote, it would have gone to Downey over the late Heath Ledger (I know – blasphemy!) for playing five-time Oscar-winning Australian Kirk Lazarus in this intelligent and amazingly funny Ben Stiller comedy. I know his casting here raised some eyebrows initially, but Downey does comedy extremely well, partly because he plays it completely straight. His Lazarus gets a pigmentation alteration surgery to play a black sergeant in a Vietnam film. What makes it even funnier is that, because he is such a dedicated Method actor, he refuses to break character while filming and only speaks in “Black English.” As Stiller’s acting rival, Downey is nothing short of hysterical. A brave role for him to take on and he was rewarded with his 2nd Oscar nomination for doing so (which, as we all know, he should have won). You see? Going full retard, can pay off Robert!

3. Less Than Zero (1987)

A very 1980’s look at the culture of the spoiled and the young in Los Angeles based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. The film surely has its many flaws and looks pretty dated by today’s standards, but one shining light in it is Downey’s performance as Julian, a young drug addict disintegrating before our very eyes. The movie’s portrait of drug use does seem genuine and at times, downright scary. The same can be said of what Downey does here….his commendable knack for making you laugh one moment and feel incredible sadness the next is clearly on display in this film that really cemented him as a true player in Hollywood. He played some great supporting roles before this (Back to School, Weird Science) and made the most of his screen time. But this truly made him legit and opened everyone’s eyes. Today, when people think of this movie, they first think of Downey’s harrowing and intense work. It should also be noted that it is so easy to fall into the hole of going over-the-top when playing such a character (as many often do)…but I see a lot of subtlety in his work here.

2. Iron Man (2008)

When I first learned that Downey would be starring as a superhero in Jon Favreau’s mega-blockbuster, I thought it a very peculiar casting choice to say the very least. I just didn’t see it — and I am sure many others felt the very same way. But after years of being very successful in film and TV, this is where Mr. Downey hit gold. Now it’s next-to impossible to think of Tony Stark and not picture the the brash Thespian. Tony Stark is an ego-maniac, and we love him anyway. He is eccentric, brilliant, self-promoting, cocky, sarcastic, and courageous. Downey is a master at playing these quirky and gregarious characters – but what makes him so special is that he is also able to show us the vulnerable and the frightened. Whoever thought of casting him at the center of the Hollywood heavyweight surely has more foresight than me. The first Iron Man flick worked in so many ways (unlike the obligatory sequel which was weighed down by an unfocused script), and Downey was indeed a huge part of that. He said of landing the role: “I prepared for the screen test so feverishly that I literally made it impossible for anybody to do a better job.” Whatever he did worked — and he has brought life to one of the more fascinating superheroes to come to the silver screen.

1. Chaplin (1992)

This selection is a no-brainer for me, even with Downey’s many great performances. You can count the number of geniuses who have worked in film on one, perhaps two hands — and Charles Chaplin is indeed one of them. Talk about enormous shoes to fill. Richard Attenborough’s movie left a lot to be desired, but you can’t say that about Downey and his efforts…he gives a tour de force performance and unlike anything he had ever done to that point. Of the project, Downey stated it was, “The biggest humiliation I’ve ever experienced. It was like winning the lottery, then going to prison. I realized that nothing that had worked for me before was going to work here.”  Downey does a brilliant job at not only nailing the monumental moments, but also, at capturing the tiniest of Chaplin’s nuances. He received his first Oscar nomination for his work here and solidified his stature as a leading man. Watch the video below — it is the magical (albeit fictional) moment when Chaplin experiences a life-changing epiphany and creates one of film’s most iconic characters – The Little Tramp. It is a wonder to watch and it gives you just a small glimmer of the masterful work Downey does here. Watch his eyes, his body language, the brows…it’s remarkable work. His best to date, in my opinion. But with the roll he is on, there is no telling what he’ll come up with next.

A quick P.S. — I loved Mr. Downey’s work in Short Cuts, Natural Born Killers, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and especially Wonder Boys…but as always, 5 slots goes by way too quickly.

Peter Eramo’s Open Letter to Tom Cruise

It has been widely reported that Tom Cruise is in talks with Paramount Pictures and MTV Films to reprise his role as the foul-mouthed, hip-hop loving Les Grossman (from Ben Stiller’s hilarious 2008 film, Tropic Thunder). However, it won’t be in another scene-stealing supporting role but rather, a movie revolving around the Grossman character — Les Grossman’s own movie. I absolutely loved Tropic Thunder (voting it the #1 comedy of the decade in a recent list published on this website) and feel that Cruise’s performance in it helped make it the great success that it was. When I read about this possibility, I became worried. I’m not usually one for writing letters to actors at all, but I feel it my professional duty as a writer of film and tremendous fan of the fictional role to write one now. The reputation of Grossman is at stake! So here is my letter to Tom Cruise:

 

Dear Mr. Cruise:

First, I would like to start by telling you that I have enjoyed so much of your work over the years and think you have created some of the most memorable film roles in the past 20+ years. Growing up, I remember loving your work in Risky Business, opposite the legendary Paul Newman in The Color of Money, and yes, I even enjoyed Cocktail immensely (still proudly ranking high in my favorite “guilty pleasure” films of all-time). I thought you were quite brilliant in Rain Man and gave a moving and unforgettable performance in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July.  I thought your superb work as Frank Mackey in P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia was daring and courageous, helping to make it the masterpiece that it is. And of course, as you know by now, you stole the show in Tropic Thunder, showing us your funny side by playing the now famously vile, money-hungry, vulgar movie executive Les Grossman. Your resume is certainly an impressive one and still, you remain one of America’s most bankable stars. What I have always found so impressive is how you’ve always managed to balance your enormous celebrity, while at the same time, apply yourself to your craft as an actor in such demanding roles and working for some of our most talented filmmakers (Kubrick, Spielberg, Redford, Levinson, et al). Though you are one of Hollywood’s biggest “movie stars” you still manage to push yourself as an actor and I certainly admire that. With that said, I feel that, in the wake of your recent appearance on the MTV Movie Awards and your ongoing discussions concerning the “Untitled Les Grossman Project,” I need to voice my tremendous concern to you at this time.

I understand all of the reasons you might have for wanting to actually go through with starring in such a vehicle — well, money for starters. It’s almost always about the money (didn’t you have to scream that loudly into a phone once to Cuba Gooding, Jr.?). I understand that if you are planning on gunning for that Oscar which has eluded you thus far, that starring in such a raucous comedy gives you the ability to show everyone your range. Also, playing the Les Grossman character helps to continue to build massive goodwill with the movie-going public who may remember you jumping on Oprah’s couch like a sophomoric wild man and knocking Brooke Shields down a couple of pegs because you don’t believe that people should be taking prescription medication as it goes against what you personally may believe in. I also understand that many simply like seeing you having fun at your own expense. I get all of that. And yet, I still think it’s a terrible idea.

Spin-offs, for the most part, usually suck. There are too many examples of the failures (U.S. Marshals, The Scorpion King, Beauty Shop, etc.) and very few, if any, that can be called good movies. Les Grossman had, what? Ten minutes of screen time in Tropic Thunder? Maybe 15 minutes at most. That was the perfect amount. It left us wanting more. It still keeps us wanting more, which is why it’s so damn good. The old comedian’s adage is to “Leave them wanting more.”  Starring in a full-length film revolving around Grossman will only kill it. It will turn into a “Saturday Night Live” sketch which is funny for 4 minutes and turn into a terrible 100 minutes of disappointment (see just about any SNL skit-turned-movie). What also made Les Grossman such a great screen character was the element of surprise. When it was playing in theatres, very few even knew that you were even in it, let alone heard of such a character. I know when I saw it, I was completely taken by surprise and I loved every minute of it. Now, that surprise factor is completely gone only to be replaced by high expectations that most likely cannot be met.

To put it simply, making such a movie would be overkill. And as a big fan of your work (despite having to sit through Far and Away and Days of Thunder), I feel that you are better than that and have so much more to offer to your fans. You already make the big money, so it can’t just be about the financial reward here. You can make that money doing just about any other film. Don’t kill the Golden Goose, Mr. Cruise…it was great for the small part it played in Stiller’s wonderful comedy and will always be remembered. A full-length feature will only hurt the legacy of the character that you brought to remarkable life.

Thank you for reading this. I hope you have a very successful opening weekend with your new film. If you need any further career advice, then I’m always here…you know where to find me.

Yours Truly,

Peter Eramo, Jr.

Peter Eramo’s “Top 25 Comedies of the Decade”: The Finale!

              

OK, here it finally is…the last part of my “Top 25 Comedy Films of the Decade” (2000-2009) list!!! The final five films are as follows:

#5. Wonder Boys (dir. Curtis Hanson)

A chaotic mid-life crisis joy ride, if there ever was one. Carnegie Mellon professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is just one small crisis away from having a complete nervous breakdown. In the course of one weekend, we are introduced to all of the highly unusual characters that make up his harried life – his third wife leaves him, his girlfriend, the Chancellor (Frances McDormand, always so damned good) is pregnant, and his editor Terry (Robert Downey, Jr.) arrives on the scene, peeking and probing, waiting for Grady’s book that has been in the works for over seven years. Talk about writer’s block! Actually, the manuscript is over 2,600 pages long. Add to this the advancements of one of his female students and James Leer (Tobey Maguire), another of Grady’s students who is something of a literary prodigy on top of being a pathological liar and kleptomaniac. Oh yeah, James also shoots the Chancellor’s dog in the midst of all the confusion. It all looked so much easier seven years ago when Grady’s first novel was a sensation and he was, well, a “wonder boy.” What the hell happened to this guy? 

Wonder Boys” is not only one of the finest comedies of the decade, but one of the better films to come out period. Michael Douglas gives what I think may be his finest performance (not at all hyperbole). He is completely natural throughout. He doesn’t look for any laughs…he plays it straight and the laughs simply come. His chemistry with the impressive cast that surrounds him is pitch-perfect, creating a real-life character in this slice-of-life film – a character who we have great sympathy for and laugh at simultaneously. As his agent who is desperate for his client’s new work, Robert Downey, Jr. turns in yet another complex and quirky performance. Tobey Maguire is very funny too as the clearly troubled young writer. His pairing with Tripp makes for a nice father/son combination here. Steve Kloves does a masterful job at adapting from the Michael Chabon novel — very real characters caught in highly compromising situations. This movie is a true winner – smart, impulsive, sweet and really, really funny.

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

One of my Top films of 2009, without question — for its intelligent script, non-stop laughs, and terrific cast. Absolute entertainment. The film is set in an illusory 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 without snub noses. 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 describes what Heaven is truly like. He’s just making it up as he goes along, but everyone within earshot 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. In its vision and scope, I was constantly reminded of the better films of Albert Brooks and Woody Allen throughout. Gervais gives an endearing, hilarious performance 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 and excellent supporting work from Rob Lowe, Tina Fey, and Jonah Hill. Gervais is certainly making a name for himself here in the States (see “Ghost Town” too)— I only hope that people begin to recognize that this is a major force in comedy now. And not only is this one downright hilarious movie, but on top of that, it has a heart to match.

#3. Wedding Crashers (dir. David Dobkin)

John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) are best of friends, business partners, and above all, self-confirmed womanizers. They make a habit out of crashing weddings and taking full advantage of all the romance in the air by bedding a gullible, beautiful hottie looking for her slice of the love pie. They even have their own long list of rules to abide by (Rule #1: Never Leave a Fellow Crasher Behind) and as the film begins, the anticipation is in the air because wedding season is just about here.

Chances are you’ve seen this movie already, if not once, then several times. All I know is that if I happen to catch it playing on TV, I can’t take it off. It’s too friggin’ funny and has some wonderful performances in it. Brash, sarcastic, foul, derisive, Vaughn is in top comedic form (“Tattoo on the lower back? Might as well be a bullseye”). His rapport with Wilson is a very strong one and we immediately buy into how close they are as well as when the two have their little break up. How the two scope out, then pounce on their prey is great fun to watch. They’re con men. But they’re not looking for money. They just want to get laid and never see the woman again. That is, until John meets Claire Cleary (Rachel McAdams) at a family wedding as the wedding season is drawing to a close. He is instantly smitten with Claire, who happens to be the daughter of the very influential Treasury Secretary William Cleary (Christopher Walken) and breaks every rule in his Crasher Rulebook in trying to win her heart by attending a weekend party at the Cleary family compound (and dragging his reluctant friend with him). The funny just gets funnier during the weekend with an incredible cast of characters. Walken plays it straight for the most part, but is still such a joy to watch and his relationship with his loving daughter Claire is a very endearing one. Who steals the show here is the dazzling Isla Fisher, who plays Claire’s seemingly unbalanced, sex-crazed sister who falls hard for Jeremy. How Vaughn reacts to and deals with the maniacal Fisher (“I’ll find you!”) makes for some of the funniest moments in the film. Keir O’Donnell plays the son of the renowned politician and is completely creepy, yet we just feel so bad for him. Again, the scenes he has with Vaughn are a riot. Bradley Cooper makes a great bad guy here who we simply cannot stand and Will Ferrell’s mythic Chazz is a great surprise (“hey Mom! Can we get some meatloaf??!!”).

Overall, the general plot is nothing so very new — but it somehow manages to feel fresh and original. It is certainly great entertainment and funny from start to finish. On top of all the laughs, there is also a sweet love story that, although fairly predictable, is still kind of nice to watch. But most of all, it’s a story about friendship — and that resonates throughout. It’s really very hard not to like this one. Without a doubt the funniest film of 2005, and among the funniest in years.

#2. In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)

I am a tremendous fan of Martin McDonagh’s work as a writer for the stage and think he is one of the very best playwrights to come out in recent years. He already won an Oscar for his short film “Six Shooter” and with “In Bruges,” he makes a phenomenally impressive debut as a feature-length writer/director. McDonagh has a real knack for making violence and brutality outrageously funny and this one is quirky as hell, dark and funny…it simply blew me away.

What holds the film together is the friendship between Ray and Ken, two Irish hitmen. The chemistry between Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson is authentic and pleasing to watch as there’s so much going on between the two polar opposites. Farrell’s Ray is young, brash and wants to live it up, while Ken is much more reserved…he is a quiet philosopher and thinks with his upstairs head as opposed to his partner-in-crime, who thinks with the other. But Ray is suicidal and on edge, struggling to come to terms with a previous assignment that went terribly wrong.  They are stuck in the Belgium city of Bruges – sent their by their insane mob Harry Waters (played with delicious cartoon madness by Ralph Fiennes). Because Ray bungled the job, he orders Ken to kill his close associate. So why are they in Bruges? Because Harry, for some reason known only to him, thinks that Bruges is the most magical, heavenly place on earth and wants Ray to see it before he has him killed.

How Ray and Ken deal with being trapped in this city is great fun. Ken wants to see the sights and take it all in, while Ray is just bored to tears. He meets Chloe, who happens to be a thief and a drug dealer, selling drugs to a film crew that is shooting in the city. He then gets mixed up with a Canadian tourist and yes, Chloe’s boyfriend. The film has a terrific pace to it and never lets up. The comedy is in the situations that McDonagh places his characters in and their reactions to everything that goes on around them. McDonagh also has a wonderful ear for dialogue and comedic repartee. It gets pretty violent at times, but you are laughing the whole way through. I remember ranking this the 3rd best film of 2008 and I haven’t met one person who saw this movie that didn’t like it. It’s simply a great film with terrific comedic performances.

#1. Tropic Thunder (dir. Ben Stiller)

In creating this list, I continued to run through each of the comedies I had seen during 2000-2009, and there was not one film I could point out that I thought was funnier or more daring than Ben Stiller’s comedic triumph, “Tropic Thunder.” From its very opening (the hilarious phony movie trailers) til its closing credits (the classic dance sequence done by Tom Cruise as his wonderfully off-putting, foul-mouthed and somewhat nauseating Les Grossman), this film had me rolling. The casting is flawless, the performances all stellar, and the screenplay is satiric, smart and yes, thankfully politically incorrect.

The film follows 5 Hollywood actors as they set out to make the greatest war movie ever made. At the center of this eclectic group is Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, who is  in desperate need of a comeback movie (especially after the joke of a movie that was “Simple Jack“). Robert Downey, Jr. plays multiple Oscar winner and master Australian Thespian (“I don’t drop character till I done the DVD commentary”), Kirk Lazarus who is notorious for always crawling in the skin of the characters he plays and, in playing an African-American soldier here, does so quite literally by undergoing a skin pigmentation process to turn his skin black. He is a wonderful foil to Stiller’s Speedman and their bonding throughout the film — from clashing on the set to true acting colleagues is a fine course to watch. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a modern-day Fatty Arbuckle who stars in toilet-humor comedies and has a severe drug problem. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson round out the platoon, but both do not fall to wayside next to the more well-known comedians. A disheveled Nick Nolte (is there any other kind?) plays the man who wrote the book that the crew is set to film. An honored war veteran and American hero with a big secret, Nolte’s Four Leaf Tayback has hooks for arms and a no-bullshit code of conduct. Steve Coogan plays the man directing the “Tropic Thunder” project and is at a complete loss as to how to handle his star-laden cast. His inspired speech to his cast in the jungle as they set off for the unknown is a great one – before he happens to step on a landmine and his body is splayed across the fields in every which way. In two cameo supporting roles, Matthew McConaughey (who I normally cannot bear to watch) and Tom Cruise simply rock! McConaughey plays Tugg’s agent and closest friend who will do anything for his longtime client. His phone chats with a distant Speedman who is slowly losing his mind while imprisoned by natives are a riot as is his desperate search to get his man a damn Tivo! Cruise steals each scene he is in and I give him full credit for letting it all hang out and just committing to this vile character 100% (“Look, fuckstick, I’m incredibly busy. So why don’t you get the hell out of here before I snap your dick off and jam it into your ass!”). I can’t remember a funnier closing credits than right here. Those moves, those hips, that chest hair! PLAY-AAA!!!

I loved watching all the varied characters do their thing. I loved all of the racial jokes, actor jokes, drug jokes, and yes, the mentally challenged jokes and I credit Ben Stiller for not caving in to public pressure and keeping it all in. I had read that when Downey was offered the role and told what his role would entail, that he thought Stiller was absolutely insane. That usually means you are onto something, and after seeing this film a handful of times, he was. Watching Jack Black tied to a tree and bribing his cast members with oral sex in exchange for drugs is hilarious. On top of that, Downey’s ‘Full retard’ bit is complete insanity. The entire movie is peppered with truly funny lines. Stiller has created a complex, raunchy, intelligent comedy and his direction is spot on. This was a bold and challenging project to be sure, and could have easily gone wrong in so many ways. In Stiller’s capable hands though, he makes what I thought was the funniest damn movie of the decade. Here’s a little Les Grossman for ya:

HONORARY MENTIONS

As I stated in the previous part of this list, there were so many funny comedies that came out during 2000-2009 (much to my surprise). And I had initially started with a Top 10 List, but it just kept growing larger and larger….I finally had to draw the line at 25. In any case, here are some very funny, well-made movies that I truly enjoyed, but did not make the cut. I wish there was room for them all…

Year of the Dog                                                   
Thumbsucker                                                  
Lars & the Real Girl
State and Main
(500) Days of Summer                                 
Bad Santa
Baadasssss!
Team America: World Police                    
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Over the Hedge
Stranger Than Fiction                                   
The Hangover
O’ Brother, Where art Thou?
Keeping the Faith
I Love You, Man
Roger Dodger
Borat
Ghost World
Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Ghost Town

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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