It’s that time of the year. Hollywood is releasing all of their biggest blockbusters and front runners for February’s Academy Awards ceremony, and critics everywhere are compiling their “best of” and “worst of” the year lists. While December looks like it’s going to be a month full of good films, including the drama Brothers, the musical Nine, the animated The Princess And The Frog, and the action packed Sherlock Holmes, I’ve decided to make a list of my top 5 must-see films of the year thus far. Who knows: maybe by the time Christmas rolls around that list will have changed. But for now, add the following to your Netflix queue. I promise you won’t be disappointed.
New York love stories have the tendency to be very cliché. They usually consist of a small-town boy or girl trying to make his or her way in the big city, and after a series of setbacks, obstacles, and culture shock due to hanging out with a series of Carrie Bradshaws, the newcomers reign over Manhattan as successful Upper West Siders with happy jobs and happy relationships. In Adam, we see a romance unfold between two young, steady working, semi-struggling, artistically tortured New Yorkers. Within the walls of their tiny apartments (unlike the multi-million dollar places depicted on “Friends” or “Gossip Girl”), we see the evolution of a tender romance. These two learn to love one another and deal with the hardships of everything from New York living to handling Adam’s Asperger’s Syndrome and Beth’s emotionally damaged heart. It’s an unusual tale that shows how unconventional love really is. It also offers the more conventional message that loving someone means being able to get through the best and worst times together, with feelings intact and continuously growing stronger, and overcoming the greatest of obstacles, even something as serious as a disorder. This film was not distributed nearly as widely as it should have been, but it is an inspiring and endearing movie that is guaranteed to melt even hearts of stone.
4. Away We Go
It is very rare that a film comes along that manages to evoke hysterical laughter and a tear-jerking response all within its allotted time frame. In Away We Go, John Krasinski (yes, that lanky guy from “The Office”) and Maya Rudolph (of “Saturday Night Live” fame) star as Burt and Verona, a couple in their mid-30’s with a baby on the way and no direction in life. The film follows them as they travel from city to city, trying to find a place to settle down to raise a family. Along the way, they encounter a large ensemble of brilliantly exaggerated characters, including Catherine O’Hara and Jeff Daniels as Burt’s parents, Allison Janney as Verona’s old boss (playing her most hilarious role since 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous), Melanie Lynskey and Chris Messina as old college friends who are raising their own adopted family, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a woman so Zen and free, that she breast feeds her colleague’s five-year-old children. The couple’s journey from place to place teaches them about life, love, each other, and what it takes for them to find their own inner peace as a family. At the end, when they find what their personal definition of “home” is, the couple stirs an undeniable sense of hope and happiness in their audience. Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) and written by Dave Eggers (Where The Wild Things Are), this is an indie gem that truly exemplifies the art of a road trip film done masterfully and tastefully.
3. Sunshine Cleaning
This phenomenal indie dram-edy tells the story of two sisters (played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt), who go into business together cleaning up after crime scenes. The film centers on the struggles which these two women face and their personal journeys, including dealing with single parenthood, sexuality, suicide, nostalgia, and self- discovery, all while trying to remain a happy, functioning family. Supported by a terrific ensemble including Alan Arkin, Steve Zahn, and Cliflton Collins Jr., Sunshine Cleaning exemplifies all the qualities that so much of contemporary cinema lacks, particularly a sense of realism. Everything from the character development to the plot to the dialogue is more than relatable, creating a story that I guarantee you will remember for a long time.
While it should come as no surprise that Adams is fabulous in her heart-wrenching role as a single mother seeking to better her life for the sake of her child, the real star of the film is Blunt. I’ve been a huge supporter of Blunt ever since she captivated me with her charmingly devilish role in The Devil Wears Prada. Many would eagerly burn me at the stake for writing this, but I firmly believe that her performance as the sassily bitchy assistant easily outshone Meryl Streep’s in that film. In the coming months, Blunt will be starring as the heroine in the eagerly anticipated horror re-make The Wolfman alongside Benicio del Torro, and will also be taking on the lead in Young Victoria, a biopic (which is already garnering a significant amount of Oscar buzz) chronicling the love story between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. iIt’s onlya matter of time before Blunt explodes into a household name, and it is refreshing to see a young actress whose talent transcends genres and has allowed her totackle so many different types of characters nearly flawlessly. In Sunshine Cleaning, she proves that not only does she have an incredible range of versatility as an actress, but that she is also truly a driving force who, if given the right opportunities, will be a threat to all the Kate Winslets, Sally Fields, and Meryl Streeps out there for years to come.
2. An Education
Written by Nick Hornby–the genius behind High Fidelity, About A Boy, and the gorgeously written page-turning new novel Juliet, Naked— this quirky little British film is one Hollywood should be very afraid of come time for the Academy Awards. Newcomer Carey Mulligan stars as Jenny, a properly raised bookworm in 1960s suburban London. At sixteen, Jenny sets her sights on being accepted to OxfordUniversity, a dream spoon-fed to her by her father (played splendidly by Alfred Molina). But when one day she meets David Goldman (played by Peter Sarsgaard), a playboy over twice her age, her life is turned inside out. Their love affair takes Jenny on a journey that exposes her to culture, art, good food and alcohol, traveling, and adventure – all forms of vivacity that her suppressed, prim lifestyle never showed her. Now, with a new view of the world, Jenny must decide between the life she has always worked for and the life she learns to love that she never dreamed she could have. While this film could easily rely on clichés to inspire its plot, it has surprising twists that are not only refreshing, but incredibly intelligent and enthralling as well. Featuring a spectacular supporting cast including Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper, and Rosamund Pike, An Education is easily the best European film export of the year, and one that will make you cheer, laugh, and cry all at the same time.
1. 500 Days of Summer
Finally, Hollywood! Thank you for creating a love story without the same recycled plot! I’m so tired of the same old boy meets girl, boy betrays girl, girl forgives boy, boy and girl live happily ever after formula. It’s been done. We’ve all seen How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days. Changing the actors and setting and turning Kate Hudson’s journalist into Sandra Bullock’s book publisher doesn’t mean that you can use the exact same story board and call it The Proposal, marketing it as if it were a different movie.
In 500 Days Of Summer, we know right off the bat that the film’s main couple, Tom and Summer, don’t have a happy ending. In fact, the film circles around Tom’s obsession with the breakup and how he retraces his steps to see what went wrong in the relationship. Tom, the hopeless romantic, believes that Summer, the non-commitment oriented loner with emotional baggage, is the one. The use of flashbacks between “then” and “now,” from when he and Summer were a happy couple to how the breakup effects his life, is a brilliant technique that not only keeps the audience interested and invested, but allows us to fairly see both sides of the story. There is not a single person who can walk out of the movie theater and not strongly relate to either Summer or Tom (or sometimes, due to given circumstances, both). Despite the fact that I’m a gay man, I haven’t had a bigger crush on anyone than Zooey Deschanel in this film in God knows how long. Her sultry voice, intoxicating smile, stunning eyes, hair as dark as Snow White’s, cute hipster-y dresses, and nonchalant attitude about life make it impossible for the audience not to see her through Tom’s eyes and fall completely head over heels for her. And just like it was the ultimate selling point for Tom, when Zooey sings The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” in that already famous elevator scene, my heart skipped a beat and I was ready to propose. Overall, this film is one of the rawest and most honest films about love that has ever come out of Hollywood, because it shows how brutal love can really be– and that, sometimes, people are just not meant to be together, despite all the glitz, glamor and magic they feel. This is a work of art not to be missed, and is by far the best film of 2009, perhaps even of the last few years.
Films that almost made the Top 5:
Where The Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze, this big screen adaptation of the beloved children’s book is one of the most beautifully written and shot films of the year. By no means is it your traditional children’s film because it goes for realism rather than a happy ending. The movie shows that creating scenarios to avoid one’s problems doesn’t in fact solve anything, and instead can often times be harder than dealing with things head on. It’s a message not often depicted on screen for children – which initially turned many critics off to the film. However, it truly is a gorgeous film that is sure to become an instant classic.
New York, I Love You
I’ve always been a sucker for movies consisting of various slightly interwoven stories about groups of unrelated characters going through similar experiences. When Paris, Jet’aime was released a few years ago, I completely fell in love with each of the short films inside of that movie – yes, even the bizarre vampire one. There was no word to describe them other than just simply “beautiful.” So when I heard that the people who made that glorious film were making an American version of it centered in New York, I eagerly checked IMDB weekly to find out when the movie would finally be released. While this film also has some substantial and gorgeous stories, there were a few that dragged, making the overall product far inferior to its’ French predecessor. Standouts include a storyline about a girl in a wheelchair attending a high school prom, and an old couple going on their annual trip to Coney Island to celebrate their anniversary. The film is a crowd pleaser, but it is not one you need to rush to the theater to see.
Julie And Julia
Anyone who walked out of the theater saying they didn’t like this movie was a dirty, rotten liar. There is no way that the combination of Meryl Streep’s elegance and determination as Julia Child and Amy Adams’ charm as the humble Queens inhabitant looking to pursuing her passion—actually, her obsession– for cooking can leave someone unmoved. And anyone who says they felt nothing after this movie is certainly not telling the truth, even if it’s only for the reason that there’s no possibly human way anyone can watch this movie and not get hungry. I know that I went out to Whole Foods the next day and got all the ingredients I needed to attempt to make my own beef bourguignon. If anything, this film is a guaranteed feel-good, fun film that will make both your hearts and your stomachs hungry for more.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Finally, Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book hits the big screen. Directed and adapted to screen by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums), this stop motion film is a clear work of genius. Featuring the vocal talents of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Willem Dafoe, this film version of the adored novel brings the story into the twenty-first century with a perfect ratio of humor and emotion. Just as in Where The Wild Things Are, the movie takes the structure of its short book, and expands on it to create a fantastical world that both stays true to and gives new life to the original text. Because it’s an Anderson film, it’s obviously incredibly quirky, with sharp dialogue and moments of extreme satiric melodrama. The “indie” spin on this tale makes it enjoyable for both children and adults alike, adding structured layers of intellect and wit. Since the entire film is about three farmers trying to kill a chicken-slaughtering fox, many parents have already dubbed the film too dark for their children. However, it’s a gorgeously shot, artistically brilliant, and truly hilarious film that years from now will have people saying “remember when they used to make kid’s movies as well as that?”
True life: We’re in a recession. Talk about the worst possible time to graduate. Nobody is hiring and all those years of unpaid internships that made you feel like Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada mean nothing. Impressive resume … too bad it’s worthless. At this rate, it feels like you need to be a Rhodes Scholar to be one of those dog walkers with eighteen leashes wrapped around your wrists and pooper scoopers in hand in Central Park.
Yes, times are tough. Which is why when I recommend that you spend another $25, you’ll probably just laugh at me. After all, $25 is enough to buy nearly a month’s worth of Ramen noodle dinners. With meals so scarce ever since you moved to the outer boroughs to escape Manhattan’s crazy housing costs (even though you’re still paying over $700 a month and setting your quarters aside for laundry) and every swipe of your debit card triggers anxiety that you might be hit by one more of those god-awful $35 overdraw fees, penny-saving has become your only means of survival in this big bad economy.
However, if you spend $25 on anything this month, spend it on these two items: a ticket to go see Fox Searchlight’s new film 500 Days Of Summer, and its accompanying soundtrack. Reuniting indie darlings Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel (the duo previously appeared together in 2001’s Manic) and directed by newcomer Marc Webb, this unconventional love story is possibly the most honest depiction of a romantic relationship to come out of Hollywood ever. While movies such as The Notebook act as fantasy representations of the love that people long for but seldom truly experience, 500 Days Of Summer serves as a reminder of what love really is, allowing anyone who has ever had his or her heart broken to relate to it.
The film tells the story of Tom (Gordon-Levitt), an aspiring architect who put his dreams on hold to make money as a greeting cards writer. Enter Summer (Deschanel), the woman of his dreams … or so he believes. At the very start of the film, an anonymous narrator brilliantly explains the contrasting characters:
“The boy, Tom, grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met ‘the one.’ This belief stemmed from early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate. The girl, Summer, did not share this belief. Since the disintegration of her parents’ marriage, she’d only loved two things: the first was her long, dark hair. The second was how easily she could cut it off and feel nothing.”
A bit of foreshadowing about Summer’s ability to detach from loved things and loved ones easily? I think so!
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the love between Tom and Summer is one- sided. Summer clearly has strong feelings for Tom as well, no matter how much she tries to use her emotional walls to shield herself from them. This is made most apparent when, after a fight, she comes over to Tom’s apartment to apologize, although she insists they’re “just friends.” Her definition of what a relationship is does not correspond to Tom’s, creating a major dilemma in whatever pending label-less relationship transaction is occurring between the two of them.
What strikes me the most about this film is that it constantly plays off huge differences. Since the characters are polar opposites of one another, they offer a fascinating contrast. The movie jumps forward and backward in time, with the scenes opening up like chapters, each one labeled according to which of the 500 days of Tom’s infatuation for Summer it was. Going back and forth from when the two are a couple to when they have broken up allows the audience to view their “happy” days through a critical lens not often put to use during a romantic film. Knowing that they break up from the very beginning, the viewer can look for signs pointing to their looming downfall that Tom was too blinded by love to see.
The aftermath of a year and a half of a love gone awry is captured beautifully and accurately as the film pans from shots contrasting when Tom was content to when he was miserable and trying to win Summer back. Each scene of pleasure is immediately followed by a scene of pain, providing us with a harshly realistic “before” and “after” portrait of a bruised man. The morning after they have sex for the first time, for example, Tom is on top of the world and even breaks out into a dance sequence to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.” This campy and overly ecstatic scene sharply comes to an end when we see Tom walking out of an elevator in clothes that are clearly tattered and unwashed, with a sullen “I-haven’t-slept-in-two-weeks” look on his face.
Webb also does a fabulous job of making the viewers see Summer through Tom’s eyes. When Tom is describing her to his friends, for instance, it is not him that we see on screen, but rather the specific close-ups of Summer that display the fine details about her that his voiceover describes. A particularly memorable moment is when Tom and Summer first meet and a montage of Summer close-ups occur while Tom daydreams about her “heart shaped birthmark” and “cute laugh.” Later in the film, the same montage is shown except this time we hear Tom’s voice complaining how he hates her “cockroach shaped birthmark” and “annoying laugh.” This shows how neurologically he began to rip apart everything he loved about her in the first place. Even so, the film paints Summer in such a light that it is nearly impossible for audience members not to be in the same boat as Tom and fall in love with her too, making him an even more relatable character – because in some way, we too know what it feels like to long after this woman.
The film received a standing ovation and its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, making clear that it will not soon be forgotten. Similarly, its soundtrack sounds like someone sent in a request to TinyMixTapes.com to create a playlist of music with the ability to change your life. Webb carefully hand selected all the music for the film by what he calls “narrating through lyrics,” which results in a 16-track compilation that when listened to sequence, unfolds the entire film before your eyes.
The heaviest influence on this soundtrack is clearly The Smiths, one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Although they were a band for only a very brief stint (1982 – 1987 to be exact), their influence is undeniable. My personal favorite track of theirs, “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” is actually the song that makes Tom’s character really fall for Summer in the first place. The song is playing loudly from Tom’s headphones while he and Summer are riding in an elevator together, which prompts Summer to comment that Tom has “good taste in music” before she starts singing along. It’s that moment where if it were a cartoon, Tom’s jaw would literally drop to the floor and he’d have to force himself to physically pick it back up.
The soundtrack also features another classic from The Smiths, “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want.” The song’s longing lyrics and melancholy instrumentals are sprinkled throughout the film, emphasizing this haunting tale, which is essentially the story of wanting something out of one’s reach. While the soundtrack does include the original, it also closes with a cover of this song by none other than the lead herself, Zooey Deschanel. Her band, She & Him, a two-man group with monster of folk M.Ward, released one of the most exquisite albums of 2008, so having them cover The Smiths for the film made perfect sense. What makes this new version work is that it is not a carbon copy of the original, but is instead a reworked version of the track. The instrumentals are far simpler, giving the song a raw, stripped down, organic sound to it. Zooey’s vocals have also never seemed so vulnerable, as at one point it truly sounds like she may be crying while singing. It’s an incredibly dark yet beautiful reinterpretation of a song that could easily in itself be the soundtrack to a broken heart.
The Smiths are not the only music legends featured on the album. An often overlooked Simon & Garfunkel track entitled “Bookends” sneaks into the tracklisting between stellar tracks by Regina Spektor (“Hero”) and Wolfmother (“Vagabond”). Clocking in at under one minute and twenty seconds, the song serves as a testament to the genius of this iconic duo. It manages to be both soft and incredibly powerful—and, at the same time, incredibly heart wrenching. The song is also perfectly placed in the film during a pivotal moment of the plot, and it is here that Webb’s “narrating through lyrics” belief truly comes into focus.
Australian newcomers The Temper Trap deliver the catchiest song on the record with “Sweet Disposition,” an uptempo rock track that would have fit perfectly on the soundtrack to the 90’s film Cruel Intentions alongside “Every Me, Every You” by Placebo and “Praise You” by Fatboy Slim. Carla Bruni, the model-turned-singer-turned-wife-of-the-French-president, contributes “Quelqu’un M’a Dit,” an eerie and gloomy song of despair. Although the lyrics are in French, Bruni’s emotions speak louder than words, making the song sound like you’re listening to an aural guidebook to shattered hope. Webb chose this song because since there was such a communication barrier between Tom and Summer, he believed it was only appropriate to select a song that conveyed feelings rather than understandable words. Kudos for the symbolism, my friend.
The album also contains the undoubtedly best song Regina Spektor has recorded thus far, “Us,” from her Soviet Kitsch album. In fact, the piano part in that song inspired the score for the actual film. Also featured is an acoustic cover of The Pixies’ classic “Here Comes Your Man,” performed by Canadian singer/songwriter Meaghan Smith. Her take on the song, like She & Him’s take on The Smiths, is a soothingly fresh homage to the original, again taking something old to make it new again. “Here Comes Your Man” is actually featured twice, as the first time is during a drunken karaoke scene in which Tom gets up on stage to sing in order to impress Summer. Ah, the things we do for attention sometimes.
So, what do you get when you combine a sharply witty and honest screenplay with two of Hollywood’s most gifted young actors and add a soundtrack full of musical gems that will surely land it on numerous “best of 2009” lists at the end of the year? The answer: 500 Days Of Summer. It is hands down the best film of the year – yes, I’m saying “year” because I really doubt anything else will come out in the next five months even half as intelligent and entertaining as this movie. It’s brilliantly acted, phenomenally written and stealthily directed. Once it comes out, it will definitely become a worn-out DVD in my collection from watching it far more than I probably should. The soundtrack completes the unbeatable indie movie-soundtrack trilogy, placing it alongside the Garden State and Juno soundtracks. A great film, out-of this-world music—that’s 500 Days Of Summer. You can’t ask for more bang for your $25.
by.Alex.Nagorski. Like it? Buy the soundtrack here 500 Days Of Summer is currently in theaters