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Yikes, it seems that I do this later and later each year. But you can’t rush quality.

So therefore I’m going to rush this a bit. It’s time to reset the site for 2010 but we cannot move forward til I weigh in with my top ten. It’s in the bylaws.

I thought 2009 was a great year for movies and a huge improvement over 2008. The trend seemed to have been fewer great movies each year but more good ones. I’d say that reversed in 2009; plenty of great movies but a smaller collection of merely pretty good ones.

1. Avatar

Say what you will about Dancing With Smurfs, but Avatar creates a world, gives it rules, and sticks to them. It’s a stunning visual achievement with a plot full of heart. Truly epic. I loved this movie.

2. In the Loop

Intensely hilarious, spectacularly vulgar, and cleverly satirical. Government was never so funny. I loved this movie.

3. The Informant!

Winner of Matt Damon of the Year! A simply delightful film that had me giggling and smiling throughout. I loved this movie.

4. Zombieland

Pure, balls out fun. Very clever, very funny, and very entertaining. I loved this movie.

5. An Education

It’s hard to say what I liked best about this film because everything is so right. A simple story with a powerful impact and an astonishing performance from Carey Mulligan. I loved this movie.

6. Up

Hilarious, heart-warming, touching. I loved this movie.

7. Summer Hours

It’s a film with themes and not much else. It’s kind of hard to make it sound appealing: a French matriarch dies and her three dispersed children try to figure out what to do with her estate. I dug its exploration of modern family dynamics. It also takes an interesting look at how we ascribe value to objects and how those values change over time, particularly as we move through our lives and beyond. I’m not talented enough to make it sound interesting but believe me it’s totally fascinating. I loved this movie.

8. Up in the Air

A slice of modern times and an effective look at the disconnected way we live our lives. Effective in characterization and atmosphere more than plot with terrific performances from George Clooney and Vera Farmiga.

9. I Love You, Man

Not as vulgar or spleen-splittingly funny than some of its Apatow produced brethren, but I think it’s a little more loony and genuinely heartfelt. I also know a guy just like the Paul Rudd character so it makes me laugh and laugh.

10. Julie & Julia

The 2009 surprise for me. Just utterly charming. I think it works so well for me because I was able to relate to the Julie character, easing the disparity between the two women’s stories that most people felt.

Some honorable mentions of films that I thought did something special:

Two films that I thought for sure were going to be on this list before I actually wrote it out and found out how many movies I really liked. Moon shows how a fantastic story and a terrific performance can succeed even on a small scale. A sci-fi thriller that will hang around in your head for quite some time. That Sam Rockwell Oscar campaign really should have received some traction… The Invention of Lying takes an interesting premise that could have followed the same path of a half dozen Jim Carrey movies (a man in a world where lies have not been invented!) and takes it in an entirely unexpected direction. Who thought it would turn into a treatise on religion? I found it thought-provoking and funny even if the premise gets stretched a bit by the end.

The Cove, the Oscar winning documentary, looks at a dolphin slaughter that occurs in Japan. For me, the success hinges not on the exposure of the slaughter itself, but the story of that exposure. The lengths these filmmakers go to in order to get their footage rivals any heist film… I know I’ve noted the aspects I dislike about World’s Greatest Dad, but the parts that work are just astonishing. The places this film goes are haunting and memorable… And finally, The Hangover, which made me cry with laughter.

Onwards to Oscar season 2010!

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The following is a post we originally set out to write in February.  Only Adam and I responded to the call, so I never posted it.  But since I ranked Zombieland #1, I figured I’d do so now.  Plus, it’d be a shame to waste something that Adam wrote.

You probably remember, from our wildly popular pre-nomination series, that we mysteriously exempted one film from our discussion the films and performances we’d nominate, if we ruled the Academy.  Well, it just isn’t fair to keep you on the edge of your seats any longer.  We’ll hopefully maybe eventually get to our favorite films of 2009, but so far, one film stands heads and shoulders above everything else (in terms of what the group as a whole thought of it).  It failed to register with the awards circuit, other than than a Critics Choice nomination for Best Comedy Movie.  Granted, comedy films rarely do well with awards, but this film does boast three Oscar nominees, including one actor nominated this year.

Obviously it is clear by now that I’m talking about Zombieland.  Below we are going to advocate for the film to have received a number of Oscar nominations.

Adam:

I couldn’t decide what I liked more about this movie, the writing or directing. I guess it comes down to how much of what I liked about the movie was ordained by the script and what was added in during production & post-production. I would like to believe it was the script, since it was a phenomenal one – much better than most/all of the ones nominated for an Oscar. The rules, the narration, the guest appearance by BM, and, of course, the play-of-the-week-type zombie kills made for an extremely entertaining movie. Add to that a well written and executed (if not entirely fresh) story, with some terrific dialogue and you have a thoroughly enjoyable movie…which apparently makes it immediately ineligible for an Oscar.

Since I chose writing as my focus, I won’t talk about the acting in this movie, but it was actually pretty great as well. I’m sure Jared will more than make up for my lack of treatment with his not-stop praise of one Emma Stone.

Also, in light of the fact that it has been awhile since I actually saw Zombieland, I will now focus on why the Academy proves year-after-year that it is archaic and lacking taste. So, what is it about Zombieland that makes it un-votable? Is it because it is a comedy? That probably factors into it. That it has zombies as its subject matter? That also probably factors into it. But I don’t understand why that detracts from its ability to be a great movie – at least in the Academy’s eyes. They have no problem voting for movies ranging from mediocre to horrible if they fit into the mold of plodding, overly “artistic”, dramas (or period pieces). But give them something the masses might enjoy, or even something new and different, and they completely shut it down. Some may argue: “But look at Avatar. The masses loved that and it is up for a ton of awards.” That’s true, but even Avatar gives the Academy something comfortable to vote on. It’s uses (and doesn’t even attempt to modify) and well-used (and I’ll grant, beloved) story, and relies heavily on CGI. “But CGI is new and different.” No, it’s not. It may have been 15 years ago, but it isn’t anymore. It’s something the Academy can look at and pat themselves on the back for voting on because it is “hip.” They think because they voted for something the masses like, and something that they perceive as “revolutionary” that that absolves them of voting for any other type of fare – that they can continue picking the same (type of) movie over and over again. It is disheartening, and worse, it is destructive. How many more great movies would be made if the few great ones that are put out every year were actually recognized? I mean, really, how many people would like to see more Benjamin Button’s, or Frost/Nixon‘s, or, heaven forbid, more Frozen Rivers?

In our own ranking, Zombieland easily had the highest average score of any movie in the last two years and the second highest score since we started recording – behind Juno. That’s not to say this was any individual’s highest ranked movie, but across the board, we all loved it – and that is saying something given our wide-ranging tastes in movies. Also, of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture, only 4 of them have an average Grouches score above an 8 (out of 10), and one of them doesn’t even break 6. I don’t understand how the Academy can continue to justify voting mediocre movies as “Best Picture of the Year” and still look themselves in the mirror. I look forward to the day when these types of movies are considered the “classics” and are eligible for the recognition they deserve.

Jared:

In all likelihood, Zombieland will be my favorite 2009 film.  In the interest of full disclosure, I did see it at a drive-in, with some of my fellow Grouches, hopped up on an embarrassingly large amount of candy, giving it, perhaps, an unfair advantage.  Still, the film itself is darn close to note-perfect.  It sounds vague, but maybe the film could best be described as “refreshing.”  The film is so different, and so good, that it washes away the bad taste of whatever movie rut I was in, and has me excited again to watch movies.

I could go on, but I’ll stop gushing about the movie and start gushing about one of its actresses, Emma Stone.  Now, again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m madly in love with Emma Stone, perhaps best known (for now) as Jules from Superbad.  I actually have a whole different post in my head about her that I’ll get to someday, but the money line is that…remember in 2008 when The House Bunny came out, and everyone was talking about how Anna Faris was one of the funniest women in Hollywood?  Emma Stone actually stole that movie.  Now, lest you think I’m completely nuts, let me refer you to this recent Vanity Fair cover story.  In case you are too lazy to click, the article details nine women set to rule the upcoming decade.  It includes two of this year’s Oscar nominees (Anna Kendrick and Carey Mulligan), near-nominee Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Evan Rachel Wood (both of whom creep me out a little, I think), Mia Wasikowska, two actresses I’ve probably incoherently raved about before (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Seyfried), and, of course, Emma Stone.

If I had filled out an Oscar ballot, Emma Stone would be at the top for Best Supporting Actress.  Frankly, in this admittedly weak year, she blows the other contenders out of the water, and really, it isn’t very close at all.  And while I never seriously thought she had a shot, the odd thing is that her performance (and her character) have all the hallmarks of an Oscar performance.  She’s a tough, independent woman who repeatedly outsmarts Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg.  She’s stronger than Eisenberg, and has managed to survive on her own, while looking after little sister Abigail Breslin.  Yes, ultimately, she’s the damsel in distress, but doesn’t Oscar still kinda love that?  In my mind, Stone’s Wichita is everything, say, Gyllenhaal’s Jean Craddock is, except a more developed character who faces actual problems.  It is therefore confusing to me that Stone is penalized for being funny as well.  (Not to belittle Ms. Gyllenhaal, in my world she’d already have a statue for Secretary.)

If there is one thing the Academy has never been accused of, it is knowing how to kick back and have a good time.  It is easy to believe that they believe a film must be fraught with Meaning to be Cinema.  Zombieland has no meaning.  Not really.  But I’ve still yet to hear any convincing argument why that should prevent such a zany, goofy, funny, sweet, action-packed, taut, amazing film from receiving recognition.

Thanks to everyone who has followed along.  This exercise took a little longer than I expected, and I shudder to count all the words I wrote, but I’ve enjoyed it every step of the way.

10. Up in the Air

I know Adam has said this movie spoke to him as a business traveler, and while I’m not quite at his level, I did just reach Premier status on United, and I am writing this from the Las Vegas airport on my way to Tulsa, so I think I can empathize a little.  You can read plenty about we thought of this Oscar nominee here.  I actually read the script to this one first, then saw it in theaters with my fellow Grouches, then watched it again in a plane a few months ago.  Side note: I’m not really sure this film sends the message airlines want their passengers receiving, but that’s a different debate.  I’m happy this film was nominated for Best Picture, but in the end, I think it received the exact number of Oscar wins it should have.  The movie did almost everything very well, but I’d hesitate to call it exception on any level.  That’s not really a knock on the film, I don’t think.

9. The Hangover

There was always the chance this breakout hit would get some Oscar love, it was just very very remote.  The film was all over our hopes and wishes posts, both for Best Picture and Best Song.  I’d also humbly submit that Zack Galifinakis should have received some supporting actor consideration.  Not to harp on the same point over and over again, but Matt Damon for Invictus was a stronger performance?  By what standard, exactly?  Anyway, so many things went right here.  The script snapped and popped.  The casting was sublime, with the main characters but also supporting actors like Ken Jeong or Mike Tyson’s cameo.  My only complaint of any real substance was that Heather Graham’s character never gets quite integrated into the film.  But the movie was just as movie watching it a second time as it was the first.  It is hard to choose, but my favorite line may be: “Tigers love pepper….they hate cinnamon.”

8. The Hurt Locker

I gotta say, when I saw this one in theaters with Adam over the summer, I did not think I had just seen the Best Picture winner.  The astounding thing to me is that when you pick it apart, this really isn’t my kind of movie.  The plot, such as it is, doesn’t exactly go anywhere.  Stuff happens, but not for any apparent reason.  But the word I keep over and over again when discussing this film is “taut”.  I was held in rapt attention throughout the movie, regardless of whether anything was going on.  The cast is really really strong here, and probably deserved more awards attention than they received.  Do I think the film is perfect?  No, far from it.  Maybe it wasn’t possible to keep the suspense while having a more coherent plot, but I’m skeptical.  If you are interested, you can read out thoughts on the film here.

7. Star Trek

Adam and I have had some fun ragging on John for not liking this film.  Scorn well-deserved.  In my mind, there’s really only one valid beef with this movie (coming from someone who is pretty well versed with the original and fairly familiar with ST:TNG).  In my mind, the Star Trek franchise was founded on morality plays.  And yeah, maybe it has moved away from that a little over the years, but I think the series was often most effective when it was trying to get a little preachy, and I didn’t see that here.  Otherwise, though, this movie was really really good.  It had action and intrigue and humor and a good story and was sexy and was a note perfect way of rebooting a series.  The sprawling cast was uniformly solid across the board, and the film managed to grab a number of actors whose stars are on the rise.  I’ve seen a few other Chris Pine movies and I’m not sure I would have picked him for Kirk, but I would have been wrong.  Eric Bana maybe needs to step back from heavy drama for a bit, but John Cho, Simon Pegg, Zachary Quinto, Anton Yelchin, Karl Urban, and Zoe Saldana were all great.  I still just can’t see why this missed with anyone.

6. I Love You, Man

That’s  right, Adam.  John and I are teaming up on a comedy where you missed the boat.  Saw this one in theaters and just could not stop laughing out loud.  Saw it again a few months ago after a party and it was still just fantastic.  Even if Brian fell asleep.  Oddly, the writers of this film (Larry Levin and John Hamburg, who also directed) had hands in writing: Dr. Doolittle, Dr. Doolittle 2, Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers, and Zoolander.  A spotty pedigree, perhaps, but sprinkle in some of the Apatow crew, and a little Rush and you get magic.  Paul Rudd trying to say “Slappin’ da bass” with a Jamaican accent.  Or trying to come up with a nickname for Jason Segel.  “I love you, Tyco Brohe”.  Jason Segel doing pretty much anything.  Telling Rashida Jones to return the favor.  “You know what?  I saw Chocolat and it was delightful.”  Thomas Lennon is funny, as is the always solid J.K. Simmons.  Just a really great comedy.

5.  In the Loop

John called the film the “single best written” film of 2009.  And the Grouches pretty much agreed (at least when it came to Oscars).  Obviously, the Britishness was hard to sell on us Americans, but I remain stunned that this film didn’t take DC by storm.  It really is a workplace comedy, where that workplace happens to be the political arena and all that goes on behind the scenes.  The jokes come rapid fire in this fast-paced satire.  And really, the only problem was that often as I was laughing at the last joke, two or three ones whizzed by me.  Peter Capaldi is lights-out fantastic and in a just world he gets and Oscar nom.  Still, I was tickled pink with the writing nomination, because overlooking this film would have been outrageous.  I could be mistaken, but I believe this movie is the second highest ranked one featuring a U of C alum (Anna Chlumsky).  If you haven’t seen this movie, and aren’t turned off by cursing, please do.

4. (500) Days of Summer

Most of our posts on this film were mine, unsurprisingly.  Coming out of the theater with Adam, I would have pegged this one a little lower than 4th overall.  There probably weren’t a whole lot of elite movies this year.  But my expectations were extremely high, and it says something that the film came close to hitting them.  I put Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Best Actress and Best Actor, and I really have no idea how the script missed a screenplay award.  There were plenty of bits big (musical number, the split-screen scene) and small (Yvette Nichole Brown!, the first scene in the elevator) that were pure magic.  The movie probably could have developed the characters a little bit more, maybe lingered on Deschanel a little longer in an effort to flesh her out a touch more.  Also, the opening credits could have not told me Minka Kelly was in it, so that I was thinking about was part she’d play as the movie went on.  I like Clark Gregg, and that was Chloe Moretz as the younger sister and Mr. Christina Hendricks as the friend.  It also had two of my favorite lines of the year.  The opening titles: “The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Especially you Jenny Beckman. Bitch.”  And, Clark Gregg reading a card that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has written: “Roses are red, violets are blue…Fuck you, whore”.

3. District 9

We covered this one a little bit.  I’ve no idea how this one got any Oscar nominations, much less Picture and Adapted Screenplay.  Perhaps voters didn’t see the film, so didn’t realize it was an action flick, instead hearing that was a provoking metaphor on race relations.  It did have a political message, sure, but honestly, I found that mostly irrelevant.  At its heart, this is an action movie with an underlying sadness that is quite touching.  It is an underdog film without a saccharine ending.  It is actually pretty hard to classify this film.  A scifi-action film with a heart shot in a documentary style?  In any case, it was a breath of extremely fresh air, and I can’t say enough positive things about it.

2. Up

John and I gushed about this one some.  Honestly, if you took the opening montage, added however much screen time of just blank space to make it count as a full-length picture, it’d probably still make my top ten.  The scary thing is that the film minus that montage would make it as well.  Like with most Pixar films, this one made me want to cry and laugh.  Was tons of fun, but had a meaning, too.  I don’t think I have the words to describe how amazing this picture really was.  Plus, Ed Asner is a U of c alum.  Oh, and its funny because the squirrel got dead is obviously one of my favorite lines of the year.

1. Zombieland

This one gets its own post, to follow shortly.  But for now, here’s my favorite line from each character;

Little Rock – “No!  She’s only famous when she’s Hannah Montana!  She’s only famous when she’s wearing the wig!”

Wichita [said like Janine from Ghostbusters] – “Hurry!  He’s in the chandelier.”

Tallahassee – “I’m not great at goodbyes, so…that’ll do, pig”

Columbus – “Someone’s ear is in danger of having hair brushed over it.”

The end of the month means top 5 time around these parts. But top fives jive nicely with our “If I Had a Ballot” posts, so I’m mixing them together today! Lucky you!

First, the top 5. I have been on record really enjoying the cinema of 2009, but I had yet to see a film that really knocked my socks off, that had that intangible “wow” factor. Well this month I’ve seen two and they catapult to the top of the list. But every time I see something else I love it gets harder and harder to make these lists!

1. Avatar

2. In the Loop

3. An Education

4. Zombieland

5. Up

Now on to the ballot. I’ve been pretending I’m part of various branches of the Academy and submitting my hypothetical ballots. All branches get to vote for Best Picture. So today I will be a member of, oh let’s say… the Public Relations branch. What a lame branch! Precisely the type of branch I’d belong to.

People say that ranked ballots allow voters to vote honestly and not have to vote strategically. Not true! If you have an interest in several films making the nomination list there is still reason to vote strategically and I will do so below!

It’s also been argued that you should fill out all ten slots on the Best Picture ballot, which apparently some voters have had trouble with. Not true! You should never vote for something you think is undeserving, even if that means only voting for a couple of films. Furthermore, if you have a film very likely to secure a nomination near the top of your ballot, the rest of the slots on your ballot are likely unnecessary. Don’t hurt your little Hollywood brain trying to name ten good films.

My ballot:

1. In the Loop. First place ballots are golden – securing about 3% is probably all that’s necessary for a nomination – and this film needs all the help it can get.

2. Zombieland. For fun.

3. The Informant! Would potentially still be in the running.

4. An Education. Probably the vote that would be cast from this ballot.

5. Up. If #4 has already qualified, this bubble film will probably get the vote from my ballot

6. Avatar. Doesn’t need my help. By the time my vote falls to slot four, it will have long been nominated. If I put it in slot #1 my vote is wasted on a near sure thing. The surplus rule allows votes for a film with overwhelming support to move forward on a proportional basis (e.g. ballots for a film with twice as many votes as needed move on and are worth half a vote), but I want my entire vote to count! But I put it here just in case.

7. Moon

8. Julie & Julia

9. Up in the Air

10. I Love You, Man

Finally, I’ll finish off as is customary with a film that would have made my top five had I seen it earlier in the year: World’s Greatest Dad. What if you were a single father, an awkward high school teacher and struggling author, whose son was a total dick that everyone, including you, disliked? Then what happens if suddenly everyone’s opinion of him changed and only you remember how much of a dick he was? Bobcat Goldthwait(!) directs Robin Williams as this character in an incredibly black comedy.

The first half is wonderful and Williams is terrific. I think it gets a little too zany by the end – it needed to either go even darker or hew a little more back to the realism of the first half – but it’s still quite an original ride.

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