Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2009

Editor's Note: I apologize for the extreme lateness in publishing this article, but determining my favorite four films for any year is quite an undertaking.

And so we have arrived at last, to the second of what might be many, "Fantastic Four" feature articles. Go here to read the complete first installment.

Not to argue with tradition, here are the opening paragraphs from last year's article...

A common theme among entertainment aficionados is to compile a list of either the best or worst examples of a particular subject. Movie critics have their list of the top 10 movies of the year, while fashion watchdogs have a list of the best and worst-dressed celebrities. Even Maxim, which I like to call "The Essential Guide To Understanding Modern Man" has their own list (The 100 Hottest People).

While my own contributions may not matter much in the long run, a part of trying to stand out against a large landscape of voices is to do something different, especially when it comes to things that I feel passionate about (in this case, movies.) So, in homage to both this "listing" tradition and to my mother's favorite superhero team, I am proud to present to you...

Totoro's Fantastic Four of 2009

#4. Sherlock Holmes
Every performer hoping to get into the business inevitably creates a personal "wish-list" of actors/actresses that he or she would like to work with. For me, one such actor would be Robert Downey Jr. (not much of a surprise, since last year's article contained TWO movies he worked on.) So when it was announced that he would be taking on the role of the classic fictional detective, I was both intrigued and apprehensive. How can an American actor step into one of the most widely-known BRITISH fictional characters of all time?

Very easily, as it turned out. Suffice it to say that Downey's portrayal of the detective succinctly answers the question, "What if Sherlock Holmes (an intelligent yet eccentric cocaine addict) was a REAL person living in Victorian England?" Of course, he had help. There can be no Holmes without Watson, and the consummate Jude Law (Alfie, Closer) plays the role of second-fiddle to perfection. Add to that a taut, well-written script and the tenuous blend of action and comedy provided by director Guy Ritchie (Snatch., Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels) and you have one of my four favorite movies of 2009.

#3. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino is a director whose story I can relate to, in particular his humble beginnings as a video store clerk and his lack of formal cinematic training (but sadly, I do not share his love of grindhouse films.) So, when he announced production of Inglourious Basterds based on a script that he had spent almost a decade writing (and re-writing), I and many other movie fans were waiting in anticipation.

Needless to say, the ten-year wait was justified. From beginning to end, this film was interesting on a purely cinematic level. My favorite character is the sophisticated Hans Landa, the intelligent, devious SS Colonel charged with hunting down runaway Jews in World War II France, played to perfection by Christoph Waltz (the character appears later in the film as the appointed head of security for a film premiere attended by the Nazi high command.) But the hallmark of any Tarantino film is the effortlessly philosophical dialogue, which this film has in spades. One need only watch the first scene to see why Tarantino spent so many years writing this film (and why it's my 3rd favorite film of 2009.)

#2. Up
What can be said about Pixar Animation Studios that hasn't already been said? Despite the well-deserved praise, I noticed that every Pixar film since The Incredibles was actually a gamble to some degree. This film, centered around the struggles of an elderly man trying to accomplish a promise made to his dead wife, was no different. This film faced many of the same obstacles as WALL-E did in terms of trying to rally an audience around an unconventional thread. Can you tell an entertaining story centered around a cranky old curmudgeon?

As was the case with WALL-E, all doubts that I had about this film were washed away about 10 minutes into my first viewing. From beginning to end, Pixar once again delivered an entertaining blend of comedy and action. The various life lessons scattered throughout (including "you're only as young as you feel" and "sometimes the right thing to do isn't the easiest thing to do") were not lost on me and the numerous impressionable minds who viewed the film with me. Combine that with the stellar voice acting talents of Ed Asner (Carl Fredrickson), Jordan Nagai (the hilarious Russell, Wilderness Explorer), Bob Petersen (Doug The Dog) & Christopher Plummer (Charles F. Muntz) and you got my 2nd favorite film of 2009.

#1. Star Trek (2009)
I am a huge Star Trek fan, and I am NOT ashamed to admit it. Since my elementary school days, I have always wanted to boldly go where no one has gone before. (For the record, my favorite Star Trek film is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.) But over the years, I have noticed a steady decline in the quality of Star Trek films. Even though the franchise received a well-needed boost in popularity (and relevance) with Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and the feature film Star Trek: First Contact, I found the next two series and movies, Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005), Star Trek: Insurrection & Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) largely disappointing, making me just about fed-up with all things Trek.

My disappointment was still present when plans were announced for a new Star Trek film. I remained disappointed when Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (who also wrote 2007's Transformers) were announced as writing the script. It was only after hearing that J.J. Abrams (Lost, Alias, Mission Impossible 3, Fringe) was directing the film that my disappointment started to lessen just a bit. I tried to stay spoiler-free all through the production process, until I found myself sitting in the theater.... Will this film restore my faith in something that I have loved (and fallen out of love with) since my childhood?

Short answer: HELL YEAH!
Long answer: From start to finish, I felt five years of disappointment start to drift away... I found myself entertained and entranced by what was not only my favorite Sci-Fi film, but my favorite film of the year, period. After the screening, two things were apparent. Not only did I enjoy a new Star Trek film for the first time in seven years, but I found myself wanting to see what came next...

Well there you have it. My favorite four films of 2009. I hope you have had as much fun reading it as I did writing it, and I look forward to seeing what future films the remainder of this year has to offer!

See you at the movies!

~Totoro (Otaku 5-0 Executive Producer)

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