There’s one thing that’s certain about the year 2009 – the general public’s stronger embrace of film as both an outlet for entertainment and an art form. When both Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire can be labeled as box office hits, one can easily deduct that all ends of the film making spectrum can yield financial success, and as films like Nine and Pirate Radio demonstrated, financial failure. The question then becomes, how much of 2009’s record-setting box office is based on the quality of the releases, and how much of it is due to successful marketing campaigns, or other external influences like the economy? It is a difficult one to answer, but one thing is true – 2009 was a much better year for film than ’08 or ’07 quality-wise. Filmmakers like David Yates (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and Joe Wright (The Soloist) were not afraid of breaking out of the expected mainstream mold within their films. While the tried-and-true blockbuster formula reaped rewards for filmmakers like JJ Abrams and James Cameron, it was refreshing to see novel ideas like the visual sound sequence in The Soloist become culturally accepted staples, embraced and unquestioned by the general public. Does it also say something about us as an audience that we now gravitate away from the cliches so well established within the past decade, and demand more originality and risk in the films we watch? It certainly seems that way. For we know that the greater the risk the greater the reward, and if films like (500) Days of Summer and Antichrist are any indication, filmmakers are aggressively going after those rewards by pulling out all the stops and all the tricks they have up their sleeve, careless of the fact that the smattering of ideas that may show up in the final product may turn away most audience members. In my humble opinion that carelessness is something that is required in good art. Some of the best moments of cinema in 2009 were pretentious over-indulgent moments, during which filmmakers, from Neill Blomkamp (District 9) to Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom), elected to fearlessly show potentially ridiculous sequences in their full glory, simply because they believed in them. It is that type of fearless filmmaking that I judged most favorably. People often ask me why I’ve been so indifferent to the box office behemoth that was The Blind Side and the answer is simple: director/writer John Lee Hancock decided to stick to a storytelling formula that brought nothing new to the sports drama. Every film, no matter what its quality, adds something to the genre it is a part of, if it can be pigeon-holed in a specific one, but The Blind Side represents a vacuum lacking creativity, originality and love for the craft, instead choosing to become a melodramatic weep-fest that isn’t afraid to throw away the poignancy and importance of the story its based on. Of course, to say that Hancock is the only filmmaker guilty of missing the point in 2009 would be widely untrue. Others like Michael Bay, Paul Weitz, and Marcus Nispel, to name just a fraction of previously-successful filmmakers succumbing to mediocrity, were also reluctant to add anything new to the respective genres their films represented.
Which brings me to the reason I do this every year – to attempt to single out films that are worth the money spent on tickets or DVDs as ones the readers of this blog should see, and to advise the reader to keep away from the most unworthy ones. To that end, I hope you enjoy reading the rest of this post as much as I did writing it, and feel free to leave a comment. I will respond to all voiced opinions, whether they are favorable or not. Before I get to the lists though, as usual, here are the annual:
Most Overrated Film: Star Trek
Most Underrated Film: My Sister’s Keeper
Most Boring Good Movie: The Road
Most Exciting Bad Movie: Jennifer’s Body
Most Beautiful Movie: Avatar
Ugliest Movie: Halloween II
Best Horror: The Fourth Kind
Best Comedy: (500) Days of Summer
Best Animation: Waltz with Bashir
The Average Movie: Duplicity
These are quiet simply the worst films of the past year. I can’t recommend you view any of these films unless you are serious about your masochism, or you feel like you’ve had a pretty good month and want to balance it out with some negativity. The films are rated out of ****. The titles link to the respective films’ IMDB entries.
Dis-Honorable Mentions: Bride Wars, Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Girlfriend Experience, Land of the Lost, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
10. The Stepfather (dir. Nelson McCormick) (*) – Seeing The Stepfather was the least exciting film-related moment of 2009 for me. Since it is a remake of a film I had seen before (the 1987 Terry O’Quinn starrer), I already knew what was going to happen, but I still expected there to be some mystery, some cleverness or creativity, something to keep me in my seat! While the film isn’t a shot-by-shot remake a la Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (2008), it is even less exciting then that example, because the filmmakers have decided to almost clinically capture this story, lazily sticking to the blandest color pallets, line deliveries, and camera angles. The Stepfather is a lifeless film – a vacuum of unoriginal material that leaves its viewer incredulous as to how boring the art form can get.
9. The Strip (dir. Jameel Khan) (*) – I may be one of at most 50 people (all Chicagoans) to have seen this rarity which plays like a Kevin Smith film by way of Jay Chandrasekhar. Yet, director Jameel Khan’s film lacks the comedic bite that both of those filmmakers incorporate into their films. The Strip is simply a safe, uneventful PG-13 film lacking any characters, situations or ideas that the audience can feel good about connecting to. The only thing worse than the film’s lethargic beginning, is its third act attempt at inspiration, not because this is a bad idea, but because it is as badly put together as the rest of the film. It’s almost like tricking the audience into believing that this film was actually worth it, and slapping them in the face for being so accepting of its flaws and open to actually liking it. What a tease!
8. New in Town (dir. Jonas Elmer) (*) – I have been a defendant of Renee Zellweger’s for the longest time, simply because she is undoubtedly a great actress. With New in Town she has shown most of my arguments to be unfounded. This film isn’t a mere blemish on her relatively consistent career – it is an unprecedented, incomparable piece of shit that makes me question her integrity and her ability as an actress. Who in their right mind would have read this morbidly one-note, flagrantly offensive script without wincing at the possibility of it actually becoming a film one day? But it’s not just the script that is terrible, the directing by hack Jonas Elmer, the acting by the whole cast (not even making an exception for JK Simmons) and the high school grade production values, all come together to make this a film that its creators should be ashamed of.
7. I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (dir. Bob Gosse) (*) – I am usually not one to condemn a film simply due to its relentless cynicism – Requiem for a Dream is one of my favorites after all. But Bob Gosse’s ‘comedy’ I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell is really something special. It is an autobiographical tale of one Tucker Max – a horrible human being from what I could discern, who goes around making people miserable so as to feel better about himself. Having not read the book the film is based on I can’t really judge Max based on anything but this film, and this film makes him look like a sociopathic, love-deprived, hate-filled excuse of a human being. And get this – the film actually wants us to like him. In fact, the people that it portrays as the ‘bad guys’ in the film are so much easier to connect with, because they actually exhibit humanity, unlike the ‘hero’ of the story who does everything in his power to destroy it.
6. Dragonball: Evolution (dir. James Wong) (*) – Remember the days when James Wong made merely average movies like Final Destination and The One? Those days are long gone. With Dragonball: Evolution Wong has, I’m afraid, shown the real limits of his ‘talent’. I had the unique experience of viewing this film without having seen a single episode of the popular Anime it’s based on – “Dragonball Z“, but from what I hear it is very unfaithful to the source material. But who cares? Even if it “Dragonball Z” fans had told me that it stayed true to the series I would have hated the film nonetheless. It’s juvenile to a fault, the fight scenes in The Pink Panther 2 were better choreographed, and the acting is the worst of the year. But I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet – the special effects. I say if you don’t have the budget for special effects, don’t include any. Just make it a gritty action film if you must. Unfortunately, Wong thinks different. The film is full of colorful but(t) ugly sprites that are stand-ins for the fireballs and dragons that populated the original series. Hey, I just thought of a reason why we should celebrate this movie! It might end Wong’s filmmaking career. Now that is a good thought.
5. Miss March (dir. Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore) (1/2) – I don’t know where these two guys came from. I hope they never make another movie. I think that pretty much sums it up.
4. Old Dogs (dir. Walt Becker) (1/2) – I’m not sure that this is the send-off that Bernie Mac deserves. Yet, it is fitting that his swan song is the best part of this train wreck of a movie. Worst part: Seth Green. Though I let out a forced laugh when he got kicked in the balls, because that’s how I feel about this talentless hack. Or maybe the worst part is Robin Williams in a role he continuously finds himself signing up to play. For every great performance like 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad there seem to be six like this one. Or maybe the worst part is that all of this talent (not including Seth Green of course) couldn’t come up with one — NOT ONE — single funny joke, situation, anything that would help an audience member realize he or she is actually watching a comedy, not a depressing study of the lengths actors would go for a quick paycheck.
3. All About Steve (dir. Phil Traill) (1/2) – Sandra Bullock was in three bad movies in 2009, but this one easily takes the cake. For those of you who were quick to fall in love with her after seeing The Proposal and The Blind Side (heck, even I’m guilty of liking her slightly more after her efforts in Crash, The Lake House, and Infamous) All About Steve must have been a much-needed awakening to who the real Sandra Bullock is. She is an annoying, talentless, over-hyped ‘actress’ getting by on her looks who can’t emote to save her life. Even porntstar Sasha Grey showed more emotion in that vapid Soderbergh piece The Girlfriend Experience. In fact, I am willing to go out of my way here and say that the only reason All About Steve is in the bottom 10 of 2009 is because of Bullock’s involvement. A different actress would have at least played her batshit-crazy role for laughs, but Bullock is too self-important to be laughed at. She would be happy to know I didn’t laugh at her throughout the running time of this film, not even a slight chuckle.
2. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (dir. Betty Thomas) (1/2) – What is more annoying than Sandra Bullock? Admittedly, few things are, but they can all be found in this film. Namely: David Cross, Jason Lee, and chipmunk voices. Those three factors put together made this film one for the record books. I still cannot believe I didn’t walk out of this film at the 10 minute mark when I had gotten so fed up with the chipmunks that I felt my head was going to explode from their over zealously squeaky delivery of some of the worst humor written in the history of cinema. This is the first movie to ever make me cover my ears, not because it was loud, but because I just wanted those voices to stop. I prayed for them to stop with tears in my eyes and when the credits finally started rolling I ran out of the theater so fast, people thought there was a fire. If you want an experience similar to this one, see this film.
1. Transylmania (dir. David Hillenbrand and Scott Hillenbrand) (none) – Spoof films must be really hard to do right, because this is the third year in a row that a spoof has appeared in my bottom 5. Transylmania spoofs the recent trendy vampire films. I guess I should chalk this up as yet another reason I want to meet Stephanie Meyer in person. I want to thank her for inspiring the filmmakers behind this piece, and I also want to ask her if she plans on going to Heaven, cause I think Satan has reserved a special seat for her in Hell. That last sentence made me smile. Transylmania has turned me into a psychopath.
But enough negativity…
The following is a list of the 10 best film of 2009. While this is a more mainstream list than last year’s, it contains a couple of films that may not be as familiar, and may need to be searched out in order to be enjoyed. But a film does not always need to be a high-budget, popular motion picture in order to reward its viewers, and this list proves that. The films are rated out of ****. The titles link back to the respective films’ IMDB entry.
Honorable Mentions (alphabetical): Brothers, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, The Road, Up and Up in the Air
10. A Christmas Carol (dir. Robert Zemeckis) (***1/2) – How can a film based on the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” still be able to surprise, excite, and please its audience if it is the 55th (!) version of the story to be adapted to the big or small screen? Simply – by making it faithful-to-a-fault, with beautifully rendered visuals, and a central performance that represents Scrooge’s demeanor which fluctuates between over-the-top and understated from one moment to the next. Well, actually it isn’t that simple, but filmmaking pioneer Robert Zemeckis takes on that challenge and succeeds on all counts. Zemeckis uses the latest in motion capture technology to infuse life into the story that it has frequently lacked in the past. But A Christmas Carol is not just a special effects spectacle. Its best parts, in fact, are the low-key happenings in Scrooge’s journey that Zemeckis pulls off so skillfully and seamlessly, that they represent some of the best pieces of filmmaking of the year. Case in point: in one scene Scrooge looks out the window of his house and sees all the condemned ghosts walking the streets in misery and regret. It is a sequence that has never been pulled-off in an adaptation of the story in the past, but in this film it fits so well, that one wonders why it wasn’t included in previous versions. Maybe it is the simple fact that Zemeckis is the most talented filmmaker to tackle the story yet, and the only one fearless enough to attempt this sequence. But Zemeckis demonstrates his fearlessness in another way – by making this a film for adults rather than strictly children. Most of the film’s dialogue, with lines lifted straight out of the book, is written in the olde English style Dickens used, and may turn off some younger viewers. In my opinion, this presents itself as an opportunity for kids to identify the time period of the story through more than just its setting, but also its authentic characters. In that way and many others, Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol is the most resourceful, authentic, and visually pleasing adaptation of the classic novel ever released.
9. Sherlock Holmes (dir. Guy Ritchie) (***1/2) – First things first – this film is not for the purists of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous stories of detective Sherlock Holmes. Director Guy Ritchie and screenwriters Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg have removed most of Doyle’s sleuthing material and themes in favor of action-laden, but still clever sequences involving the titular character and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson. While this may seem like it’s a recipe for disaster, it turns out to be just what this character needs. Ritchie is comfortable in this area, as his skills fit nicely within the action-comedy movie mold. But just like he did with Snatch, Ritchie doesn’t abandon characterization, instead offering us teasing glimpses into Holmes’s intelligence, Watson’s quick wit, and Irene Adler’s (played wonderfully by Rachel MsAdams) sexuality. Ritchie has a good cast that helps elevate the film beyond just being the first entry in an action franchise. A game Robert Downey Jr. makes Holmes instantly likable and approachable, something Doyle’s character lacked, and Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood is actually pretty creepy and a match for Holmes and Watson in both intelligence and skill. Also he is one of the best villains of the year, with a good mysterious side which keeps the detective (and audience) guessing until the end. This is certainly one of Ritchie’s best films, and it shows his commitment to making an entertaining mainstream action film. He also throws in some wit and cleverness that make the film enjoyable for people of all ages.
8. Coraline (dir. Henry Selick) (***1/2) – Written and directed by the great Henry Selick based on the book by the equally great, or maybe greater Neil Gaiman, Coraline is the best film of its kind since The Nightmare Before Christmas. Selick has always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. Most of the credit and recognition for his acclaimed The Nightmare Before Christmas went to producer Tim Burton, while most of the blame for James and the Giant Peach not living up to expectations went to Selick. Since then, Burton and Selick have gone their separate ways in stop-motion animation. Burton’s entry was the forgettable, sleep-inducing The Corpse Bride; Coraline is Selick’s answer. It’s placement on the list should indicate to the reader that Selick has shown up his pal Burton in every way possible. While it’s frustrating to still see people say things like “Oh, I thought this was directed by Tim Burton” regarding Coraline, come Oscar time Selick will get his just recognition. The film is a nightmarish scenario in which the titular character is bored and frustrated with her parents, so she slips into an alternate world which coincides with the real one. At first it seems so much better, as her new counterfeit mother is so much more fun and does everything her real mother refused to do for her. Unfortunately, this turns out to be too good to be true. Selick’s film is frightening and disturbing, with some images that may never leave my mind, at least not willingly, but it is one that children must seek out. The message of the film is valuable and the way Selick warns his viewers of the terrible consequences of seeking out a non-existent better life are forceful and effective. Coraline affects the viewer on a visceral level previously unseen in animation targeted at children, and it deserves as much recognition as it can possibly get.
7. My Sister’s Keeper (dir. Nick Cassavetes) (***1/2) – It is easy to label Nick Cassavetes’ latest as a manipulative, unfair film that has only one goal – to make its audience cry, and in fact many have. But it is not an easy bandwagon for me to jump on. For a story about a child inflicted with cancer, and the decisions her sister Anna must make as to whether to help her sister or not by donating her kidney, it is surprisingly light-handed and is never manipulative. The book the film is based on asks many questions, and the film keeps them intact. The most troubling of these questions is if it is worth it for Anna to donate a kidney to the sick sister Kate, if her chances to live even after the transplant would be as low as they are before the transplant? Most filmmakers would skip over this uncomfortable thought, but Cassavetes makes it the film’s centerpiece. Still, he dodges heavy handedness and melodrama, instead favoring scenes in which the interactions between the characters themselves, create the emotions that the viewer will feel while watching it. That is until the end when all the characters, including some supporting ones, realize how their lives are also filled with life-and-death choices similar to the ones the main family in the film must struggle all the time. One then realizes that we are all linked by the choices we make, that our individual suffering is the suffering of those around us and society as a whole. It is a profound message that few filmmakers would be able to pull-off, but Casavettes has yet again gone above and beyond, and made this fearless workmanlike effort the most touching films of the year.
6. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb) (***1/2) – Billed as an anti-love story, (500) Days of Summer may be the Annie Hall of this century. The story of a man hopelessly falling in love with a woman who does not feel the same way is one that I found very easy to connect with, and it helps that it is so deftly directed by Marc Webb and wonderfully acted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as the two love interests. The main reason why this film is a success is the subtlety with which the story is told. There is substance in a single glance exchanged between the two leads that can never be replaced with a scene of dialogue. Webb shows up more accomplished directors like Judd Apatow by utilizing the film’s aesthetic in highlighting its strong thematic elements. Webb’s success is surprising, and some of the sequences he includes in the film, especially near the end are jarring in both appearance and meaning. But Webb never loses his audience simply because, no matter how many fantastical ideas are thrown at the screen, the central relationship remains real and palpable. The film grounds the idea of love, yet still portrays it as something that is very difficult to obtain. But it is the fact that we need love in order to live any type of fulfilled life that is truly what’s most heartbreaking about this film.
5. Crazy Heart (dir. Scott Cooper) (***1/2) – The best acting performance of the year belongs to Jeff Bridges as broken down country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart – the best biopic to hit the screen in more than a decade. What’s most amazing about the film is how well director Scott Moore is able to keep up with Bridges, and how well Bridges’s surroundings and supporting actors hold up in light of his presence. What sets the film apart from other biopics is the way it isn’t afraid to show the complete destruction of its character without flinching, the way it touches us through mere lines of dialogue not director or actor showmanship moments, the way the film’s slow, weary pace actually adds to the drama, and the way the songs themselves have the ability to touch us and are not seen by the filmmakers as just a collection of greatest hits that they wanted to insert into the film. It is a simple film at first glance, but its emotional complexity comes through with repeat viewers (though I’ve only seen it twice, I plan on seeing it again very soon). Even though it is a small film, it’s not an indie, because it doesn’t attempt what independent films frequently do – insert various metaphoric, abstract scenes that seemingly don’t fit within the story unless one makes an out-of-left field connection to something totally unrelated. No, this story is straightforward, and all the more powerful for it. At the end of the film we stop thinking of the character as Jeff Bridges but as Bad Blake and one has to have a heart of stone to not shed a tear for him.
4. The Cove (dir. Louise Psihoyos) (***1/2) – Surely, the most important film of 2009, The Cove is a documentary that follows a group of environmental activists who attempt to stop Japanese fishermen from killing hundreds of dolphins per year off the coast of Taiji. Not only are the actions of the Japanese abusive to the animals, but they are also dangerous to humanity, since they supply markets with mercury-tainted dolphin meat. The greatest meat-consumption activists on the planet wouldn’t be able to defend the fishermen’s actions. Heck, even they know they can’t, so they have surrounded the cove within which they operate with a barbed wire fence to keep their operation hidden from society. Not that this can stop former dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry and a group of fellow animal activists from doing everything in their power, including risking their own well-being to thwart the criminals’ continuous unlawful, immoral, an inhumane actions. Even those turned off by animal activism will not be able to deny that the passion behind their efforts, the real emotions they feel toward the animals, and the full investment of themselves, both physically and mentally, into saving the dolphins from suffering, is genuine. The Cove has the potential to be a mainstream success, at least on DVD, since it subject and the way it is explored, in aesthetic and thematic terms, create a motion picture worth buying by anyone who loves animals just a little bit.
3. Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman) (***1/2) – A mix between a documentary and a fictitious war film, the animated Waltz with Bashir is thankfully as complex in its ideas, as it is in the way it mixes genres. It certainly makes for compelling cinema, as it tells the of the dreams of soldiers who participated in the Lebanese war with Israel. Since these dreams are not exact accounts, the film is filled with fantastical elements and scenes that seem out of place for a war film. But what are seemingly scenes that cause the viewer to distance him or herself from the characters, actually does the opposite. Folman’s gets us as close to seeing the conflict the way the soldiers saw it as possible. We are not seeing a ‘mostly true’ account of something that probably happened during the war, but a truthful retelling of what the soldiers saw in their dreams, word-for-word. Folman incorporates an animation style that is similar to rotoscoping in the way it looks, but no actual footage was shot for the movie. Instead all the scenes were drawn, after which flash-type animation was applied to create the finished effect. This film was in production for four years, but the goal of Folman was not for it to become a financial success, instead he simply hoped it would serve as a film that highlights the atrocities and complexities of war. Message movies don’t get any more honest then this.
2. Invictus (dir. Clint Eastwood) (****) – I would call this film The Blind Side done right, but that would severely diminish director Clint Eastwood’s newest masterpiece. It tells of Nelson Mandela’s attemt to unite South Africa by reviving the national rugby team and have it represent all of the country, not just one particular race. The film isn’t a biopic of Mandela, though great insights into his political ideas are given by the filmmakers. Instead, it mostly focuses on the rugby team’s efforts to improve over its less than impressive previous seasons. Led by Captain Pienaar (a surprisingly honest Matt Damon), the underdogs of the rugby league try their best to better themselves using the inspiration Mandela gives them. This may be Eastwood’s most straight-forward work in its telling, but it is chock-full of metaphors. One can see the effort of the rugby team as paralleling that of Mandela as he tried to unite the nation. For Mandela recognized the danger of corrupt African governments, that filled white South Africans with hopelessness and fear, and through the formation of the rugby team led by a white South African, he sent a signal that he is not a victim of racial favoritism, but is in fact the president of all South Africans. But even if one does not get this from watching the film, it still remains extremely effective. Eastwood is not only able to pull-off great performances from all of his actors, he is also able to handle the rugby matches with a surprising deftness which makes this sport look interesting even for the uninitiated. The end of this film is uplifting, because the lack of politicizing makes its message widely applicable to all countries, not just South Africa. If you want to feel inspired to do better in the way you relate to people, or if you just want to feel a jolt of emotional uplift, see this film.
1. Avatar (dir. James Cameron) (****) – A step in the right direction for modern cinema, Avatar is the most easily digestible science fiction film since Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Sure, many sci-fi films have come out in the intervening 18 years, but Avatar simply takes the cake, because Cameron doesn’t settle for technological innovation alone, nice as that is, but instead infuses the film with a forceful anti-war, pro-environment message that is surprisingly pertinent in the modern day. Cameron is unafraid of endearing us to the humanoid beings living on Pandora, and fearlessly makes us hate the actual humans that invade the humanoid planet in favor of financial rewards. The political message is loud and unsubtle, but Cameron wouldn’t have it any other way. What’s most surprising is that Cameron has retained his eye for beauty in the years since Titanic, as Avatar contains some of the most beautiful images ever put on the big screen. It seems like just when all the surprises and tricks up Cameron’s sleeve have been spent, another incomparably beautiful moment materializes to wow us into submission. To me Avatar represents what cinema is really about – an art form to be appreciated from a distance for its beauty, but also connected with personally. Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri and Sam Worthington’s Jake allow us to do the latter, because they are not short-changed by Cameron. He never betrays his characters, even the villains, by not providing characterization, even if he doesn’t allow the viewer to pick sides. The reason Avatar tops this list is because it demonstrates the sheer power of every aspect of cinema that it employs, and the beauty that results from that utilization.
Later in the month I will be posting the Top 50 of the last decade (in parts, of course) so look forward to that.
Thanks for reading!