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Betsy Sharkey's best films of 2009 so far

As summer ebbs, a critic takes stock of the year's movies -- and finds standouts in surprising genres.

August 30, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

In August, a film critic's mind and body seem to deflate. All of the energy that infused January, when 12 months of cinematic possibility stood before us, filled with the promise of stories that would surprise, filmmakers who would find new fields of vision, performances that would be unforgettable, special effects that would stretch the imagination -- that energy is scarcely to be found.

As summer ends, the truth is most of us are weary, trying not to be too worn down by the legions of the ordinary, the mediocre and the downright dreadful that have filled the screen and so many hours of our days and nights. Especially not with the prime cut of the movie year around the corner.

So before the feast of fall begins, it's worth a glance back at 2009 to remember those films that moved us, made us laugh deeply, think broadly, love hopelessly, cry woefully. Some may never win awards -- there will be other lists for that later -- still, these are a few of my favorites.

To the filmmakers who built a better blockbuster, my thanks. By this time each year , we're awash in the hyper-realities of action films, with their hyperventilating heroes and hyper-ridiculous plots. Though there's always hope, action epics are one of the last places I expect much more than the dust and debris of a thousand explosions.

But then, J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" blew in and blew me away. Brawn took a back seat (entertainment did not), as battles, both internal and external, were won on wit and wits. Between a cocky Chris Pine as a young James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto's conflicted young Spock, we witnessed an intellectual wrestling match as finely wrought as any Socratic debate.

Then, this month, Neill Blomkamp's inventive "District 9" began hovering above the collective consciousness like that massive spaceship suspended over Johannesburg in this very grown-up thriller in sci-fi clothing.

The aliens here are at our mercy. We confine them in a squalid ghetto. And despite the spaceship, which would imply an intelligent life form, they are dismissed as idiots. The film deconstructs issues of race, culture and class inside a terrific tale of crustacean-like creatures from a distant world.

Both films look to be critical and financial successes. Could it be that all it takes to up the action payback is to smarten them up?

Animation's very good year began for me with the darkly rendered "Coraline," Henry Selick's eerie, be-careful-what-you-wish-for fantasy of childhood. For perhaps the first time, 3-D didn't feel a gimmick. With Coraline and her blue hair and the garden that blooms under the moon, the entirety of Selick's creation floated in front of us.

But it was with the balloon flight of "Up" that animation soared.

We have become a niche world, everything tightly tailored to one group or another. In the face of that, "Up" threw open its generous heart and invited grown-ups, children, cynics, innocents, beauties and beasts inside its brightly colored illusion.

Few films lift you out of the ordinary so completely that reality truly slips away. But that was "Up's" gift, as a giant bouquet of balloons carried off a house and a life weighted down by the past and took the rest of us with it. The animation was gorgeous, the execution meticulous, the story unexpected.

A coming of age as much for the 78-year-old grouch, Carl, as for the roly-poly 7-year-old Wilderness Scout Russell, "Up" took us to a place of dreams fulfilled, not as imagined or even hoped for, but as they should be.

But then, how to tell a story of a real life that transports us without the balloons? If you're French New Wave auteur Agnes Varda, the answer is beaches, specifically the ones found in her extraordinary documentary "The Beaches of Agnes."

In this cinematic musing on her first 80 years, Varda lets reality take flight as she sets out not so much to remember, but to re-imagine all those years and all that work, much of it re-created in the most whimsical ways on the various beaches that have been the staging grounds for her life. A woman in a world dominated by men, legends really, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Eric Rohmer among them, she lets us in on the very good time she's had of it.

It's been a complicated life, though, and no easy task for the filmmaker to make it as accessible for those who know her work well (those who remember the first time they saw "Cleo From 5 to 7") as for those who don't know it at all.

Yet that is what Varda has magically managed as she reflects on her loves, including the great one -- director Jacques Demy -- and her children and their children, and her legacy, whatever that might be. It is a full life served up in slices, like cake, over tea. We see not just Varda but also the mind of Varda at work, and that is rich indeed.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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