Speaking as a fan of writer-director Wes Anderson (except for his ride off the rails in "The Life Aquatic"), Fantastic Mr. Fox (9.5) is some of his best work to date, second only to "The Darjeeling Limited" (which others did not appreciate quite as much as I did). Who could have guessed that his quirky, self-conscious dialogue would sound so genuine and natural coming out of the mouths of scruffy animal puppets voiced by the likes of George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Jason Schwartzman? Here Anderson, his co-writer Noah Baumbach, and a team of skillful designers and animators have lovingly conceived a world in which each character is so authentically who he or she is that it is not only funny and whimsical but also inspiring. Pure delight.
Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire (10) is currently in contention with "Bright Star" for my number 1 film of 2009. Its story of a pregnant, illiterate teenager whose soul and body and life are very nearly destroyed by horrific abuse and poverty and agonizing disregard and neglect is nearly impossible to tell because it is so painful and requires more attention than most people can stand to give such a tale. And yet, if you can spare your heart and attention for 109 minutes, you will never be the same. Director Lee Daniels and a fine cast, including a remarkably truthful Mariah Carey and comedian Mo'Nique (who deserves an Oscar for her betrayal of a mother with a diseased soul) have performed miracles here, and props to Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry for putting their money and influence behind the film. The story's parallels with my own childhood (which was not so physically horrific but contained similar emotional elements that I have always found difficult to explain) were so subtly and convincingly captured that the film, for me, embodied one of the core principles that has kept me sane: You shall know the truth and, somehow, the truth shall make you free.
"Up in the Air" (8) isn't in that league, but is still a delight. George Clooney is perfect as a corporate hatchetman who has carefully constructed for himself a life free of attachments, except to the goal of acquiring a record-shattering number of frequent flyer miles. He meets his match (both as an actor and as a character) in a fellow traveler played by the marvelous Vera Farmiga (the psychologist in"The Departed") and stumbles into just the mid-life crisis he thought his choices would spare him. The film has its finger on the pulse of an American culture bowed by economic woes and, in its depiction of Clooney's relationship with a young female upstart whose strategy for firing via videoconference threatens to transform Clooney's work life forever, aptly portrays generational conflicts whose implications are just now beginning to come to light. Though the film doesn't go deep in its struggle with ultimate questions, it does ring true. I loved it.