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Summer’s Best In Film

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The great tragedy of summer is that it must end. And, fortunately for millions of tired moms and dads, that ending draws near.

Thus far, summer 2009 has been as event driven as usual. Big budget movies like the most recent Harry Potter installment, a Transformers sequel, and a Star Trek re-boot were, not surprisingly, among the most successful films at the box office. Wolverine was granted his own franchise and Christian Bale survived his well documented on-set melt down to lead another Terminator film to a good-enough if not spectacular showing in theaters. And what would summer popcorn taste like without Johnny, Denzel, Bruce, or Tom (not Cruise) nearby?

As always, the titles of bad comedies littered theater marquees while the faces of Hollywood’s most gleaming starlets dazzled behind poster glass in malls nationwide. Will Ferrel visited the Land of the Lost to disastrous results while Jack Black traveled back in time to Year One. Ben Stiller spent another Night at the Museum while, once again, Sacha Baron Cohen made fools of as many people as he could, himself mercifully included. Yet again, Judd Apatow managed to gather a star studded list of Hollywood’s most widely recognized comedians in Funny People, a film perhaps a bit too serious and bit too pointed for much of America.

Per usual, a number of animated films were released to great commotion, absurd sales, and, in at least one deserving case (you can probably guess the one), wide acclaim. If only the other animation studios were capable of living up to incredible and ever-growing standard that Pixar has set. The new Ice Age and Monsters vs. Aliens tried but really didn’t have a chance. The bar has been set too high in recent years.

Indie films still riding on the wave of summer 2007 success Once received, made a valiant attempt at becoming relevant at the box-office – to moderate results. Away With Me, while perhaps relatively representative of the age, was certainly going to appeal to a limited demographic, while one of the summer’s most pleasant surprises, (500) Days of Summer has shone brightly but modestly despite an overwhelming amount of hipness. The modern war flick made a rare appearance in the summer indie genre in Kathryn Bigelow’s marvelous and painful The Hurt Locker – a film that is worth remembering come Oscar season. While Rien Johnson collaborated with an endearing group of talented, experienced actors to create one of the season’s most fascinating films, The Brothers Bloom, and for those who were able to see it a little foreign film called Summer Hours was a luxurious breath of fresh air.

Yes, there is no other season that compares to the sheer volume of available films. But which are the best? Which films were actually worth spending 20 bucks to see? Which films put all that money and star power to good use, to create something lasting, meaningful, and iconic?

Well, here are my choices for the five best films of summer 2009:

5. THE HURT LOCKER – (my review) The first great film about the war in Iraq, Kathryn Bigelow’s visceral, agonizing, poetic film avoids most, if not all, the pitfalls so common to modern war movies. There is no political agenda here, no propaganda. As I wrote in my review, like most war films its about camaraderie, courage, fear, and death. But most importantly, The Hurt Locker is a film about living, about the men whose job it is to keep others alive and the dangerous job that living is.

4. PUBLIC ENEMIES – This Johnny Depp starred, Michael Mann directed period piece feels like a companion to the recent Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Its a riveting adventure story and an enthralling character study: at times tragic and heartbreaking, at others breathtaking, Public Enemies examines the nature of myth, the consequences of legend, and even the modern filmgoers attraction to the badguy. The cast, led of course by Depp, Christian Bale, and Marion Cottilard, is fantastic and the period design was luxurious. Not typical summer fare per se, but far from obscure.

3. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER – Yes, its born of the relationship between modern hipsterdom and modern narrative structure, but this is a film that is abundantly exciting. It has great writing and great acting, great pathos, great music, great visuals, and a great scene in Ikea. This is a film that declares itself a “film about love” not a love story. They’re right and this is why its so good. It’s about why we love and why loving well is hard – nearly impossible sometimes. It is indeed one of the great surprise gems of the summer.

2. UP – Okay, not such a surprise. Pixar follows up 2008’s resoundingly successful sci-fi epic, Wall-E, with a poignant and romantic (in the varying definitions of the term) adventure film. Up is a film about relationships of all kinds and about why we need to be in them. Its about time and its passing, about youth and its passing away, about dreams – fulfilled or otherwise. And, as Pixar’s films seem to be consistently be, its one of the most moving, visually arresting, and meaningful films you will see this, or any, year. It reminds us that, as CS Lewis wrote, we must always look “further up and further in.”

1. THE BROTHERS BLOOM – Rien Johnson’s hilarious, meta-approach to the traditional con film took me totally by surprise. Starring Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel Weisz, its the tale of two con-men brothers whose adventures are first written out by one brother then acted, or rather lived, out by the other. Eventually the second brother decides he wants to live an “unwritten life” and takes off on his own. What follows is one caper after another that utterly subverts any preconceived notions you may have about the genre. Somewhat reminiscent of last year’s fabulous In Bruges, its laugh-out-loud funny and tremendously clever. For viewers in love with the art and nature of storytelling The Brother’s Bloom is a must-see this fall.

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