District 9 (2009) - Really enjoyed this one. My favorite thing about it is the casting and characterization of the lead, Wikus. He's such an unlikely hero, and not in the traditional predictable Hollywood way. This actor is a complete unknown, he looks and acts like a simple-minded but well-intentioned nerd. His superficial appearance, for one thing, is something you'd never see in another Hollywood action movie. He's small of stature, has a goofy mustache, and combs his hair the way I did for most of my life. Personality-wise, the movie establishes very early on that he probably only has his job because of his father-in-law, and he's not very forceful or confrontational, which makes you all the more nervous for him when he sets out to evict the violent and unpredictable residents of District 9. (A friend of mine said that as he was watching the movie he kept waiting for Wikus to get killed and the real protagonist to show up.) As you watch him progress through the movie, you begin to love him and really root for him, and it demonstrates great strength on the part of the actor and the director for bringing this about.
Beyond Wikus, the documentary style that moves to traditional story-telling works, the action is great (though gory - them's a lot of folks explodin'), and the characters of Christopher and his son work surprisingly well, given the limitations of the aliens' design. Oh, and the robotic suit? RAD. It also seems set up for a sequel (even the obvious sequel name of District 10 makes perfect sense given the events of the movie).
The Hurt Locker (2009) - Another one I was able to catch thanks to Shane. This is a hard one to nail, for me. As I was watching I could see all these potential paths the story could have gone down, but never did. There were lots of little details that turned out to be unused for the overall narrative. At one point we see the main character Sgt. James has been collecting signature pieces of the bombs he's defused. Later he discovers a child's body that has been used to create a "body bomb." Still further on in the movie he and his team decide that a particularly nasty carbomb wasn't a suicide bomb, and that the perpetrators must be nearby. We've also seen suspicious people at nearly every bomb site, people who are never addressed again. Each of these elements could have added up to a showdown between a villainous expert bomb-maker and Sgt. James, the reckless but talented and intuition-based bomb defuser, a la Blown Away or Speed. But they don't. These are just pieces of James' life. A picture of the last days of their groups deployment in Iraq. The film is structured more like a documentary than a standard narrative. The pieces don't add up to a plot, they add up to a character.
Even then, James is not an open book. I didn't quite get him, not even at the end when Shane reminded me of the movie's opening quotation: "War is a drug." We get a sense of him, and of the other characters, but they're not sharply defined by a descriptive piece of dialogue. The sense is that James enjoys being good at his work. He likes his teammates. And he relates and works best in that environment. When he gets home, he comes off as purposeless. We believe that he loves his wife and son, but in a distant way, and he doesn't quite know how to relate to them. Earlier, when we see him rather recklessly head off-base into an Iraqi city to find whoever is responsible for the body-bomb, we come to realize that the movie isn't painting him as some thousand-yard-stare, gung-ho warrior who loves combat for combat's sake. He's a man who cares about human life, even if he handles his own and the lives of his teammates a too loosely. He's an interesting and complex character, and the movie doesn't cheat to paint him that way.
The pacing of the movie is also unique. Again, in a conventional action movie, you could predict the beats as they come. There are several points in Hurt Locker where you think you know what's going to happen. But the scenes are cut in an unconventional manner. They are often edited so that the falling action and relief after each big tense moment are cut off. You are suddenly back on base. The feeling is like falling through the sky without a parachute, and when a parachute suddenly appears in front of you, you are teleported to the ground. You don't get to enjoy the relief, it's passed over.
By the way, the tension and action scenes are very entertaining, even if you are digging your nails into the armrest. Besides the many IED disarming segments, there's a great sniping scene when the team runs across some friendly bounty hunters in the middle of the desert. (An interesting aspect to the war that I haven't seen touched on anywhere else.)
I've been trying to figure out the message of the movie. I'm not sure if it has one. It seemed content to dwell on a few characters. The Iraq setting is almost incidental. It provides a really unique setting and vocation for the character, and it's about war (albeit a very different aspect of war from your typical war movie), but you wouldn't really call it a war movie. Or maybe you would, and we just haven't adjusted as movie-goers to the new reality that is modern warfare.
Ironic note: Kathryn Bigelow directed Point Break, the source of many of the action cliches discussed in Hot Fuzz. She has now directed The Hurt Locker, an action movie that avoids all the ones I can think of. Rather than being full of meaningless fake (fireball) explosions, all the explosions are very consequential.