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Archive for February, 2010

My Top 10 of 2009: The Year of the Blue CGI People

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 26, 2010

Greetings and salutations, everyone! It’s that time of year again. Time for my annual Top 10 list of my personal favorite movies of the year. Before we get into that, let’s talk a little bit about what’s been going on in my film-obsessed world. I know some people keep wondering why the hell I don’t post more. Myself included at times. This is generally where the second half of my online moniker comes in, as I am notoriously unreliable when it comes to anything approaching responsibility. But this time I have a good excuse for my prolonged absence.

Without getting too far into it, let’s just say that for a couple of months there I had a serious transportation problem. Through no fault of my own, I might add. So it became a little difficult to write about movies when I couldn’t even go to the goddamn movies! The situation has finally been rectified and hopefully I won’t have to deal with it again. But sadly, I don’t live in an area where one can simply walk everywhere or take public transportation to get wherever one wants to go. So, I wound up missing quite a few films that I really wanted to see (including films that could have conceivably made my Top 10) because of this, and I’ve spent the past month or so trying to catch up on as many as I possibly could. But hey, I managed to see Ninja Assassin, so it’s OK. Don’t laugh. I actually enjoyed Ninja Assassin. You won’t see it on my Top 10 though. Even I’m not that delusional. (Seriously though, best ninja movie ever.)

During this “time off”, I came to a decision that’s been brewing for quite some time now. I’m not one to make New Year’s resolutions generally, but I have decided that I am giving up on one specific genre, now and forever: romantic comedies. I’m sorry, I hate to be prejudicial and biased, but I’m done with this shit. I can’t do it any more. I know I’ve covered this subject before, so I won’t go on about it, but I just turned 40 and I don’t have time for this kind of crap any more. I am sick to death of watching pretty people fall in love in the most unrealistic ways. With all the films that are easily available now – foreign films, indies, documentaries, classics and obscurities – there just isn’t enough room in my life for movies I know I’m going to dislike. I don’t think I’ve genuinely enjoyed one of these films since Meg Ryan stopped doing them, and nothing I’ve seen since has convinced me to continue spending time on them. They’re shallow, superficial, formulaic and they foster completely unrealistic expectations in people. The days of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant are long, long gone. I’ve held on for as long as I could, but I really can’t muster the will to sit through another one of these godawful pieces of shit. Life is too short. There will be exceptions, of course: I will only watch them if they’re French, made by Woody Allen, or they’re a Judd Apatow-type thing that guys can watch too without wanting to slice their wrists open. Otherwise, I’m done with it. I give up (and in case you’re wondering, yes, this absolves me from any obligation to see When in Rome). Over and done with.

I also want to let everyone know that I will not be doing a Best of the Decade list, as so many film writers have recently done. I’m not a compulsive list-maker by nature, and such an undertaking would be ultimately pointless. Christ, who even remembers what the best films of the year 2000 were? That was 10 years ago, man! I don’t keep records of this stuff. For me, the process of being a film fanatic is more fluid than that – it’s a constantly evolving experience. It’s not about keeping track of what I saw every single year of my existence. The best film I saw last year might be a film made in 1947 that I watched on Turner Classic Movies. Or some obscure foreign film from a few years ago that I rented from Netflix. My point being, it’s not all about what I saw in a theater in any particular year. I do a Top 10 list more for my own amusement, and maybe to draw attention to some overlooked favorites, than to make some grand statement like “these were the 10 best films of 2003, damn it!” But to try to sum up an entire decade? No thanks. Too much work. And a lot has changed in the industry in the past 10 years – it takes time and perspective to look back on a decade of film with any kind of clarity. Think of it this way: in the year 2000, M. Night Shyamalan was considered a talented and promising filmmaker. Things are not the same as they once were.

As usual, I will also not be doing a Worst of the Year list. Because I don’t get paid for this, I generally don’t see 10 films in a theater that I really hate in any given year. Some things you just know to avoid. I didn’t see Transformers, GI Joe or 2012, so I can’t rant about any of those. And I wouldn’t sit through Alvin & the Chipmunks with a gun pointed at my head. In fact, I only saw 3 2009 films in theaters that I really, really hated: the previously discussed Terminator Salvation (see review), Alex Proyas’ completely insane and ridiculous Knowing, and Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, a film for people who thought Knowing was too subtle and logical. The fact that the last two films were made by extremely talented directors whose films I generally admire just shows you how off the mark they were. Bones may actually be the worst of the three, just because my expectations for it were so much higher than the others, and it let me down even more than the other two. It’s naïve, manipulative spiritual hooey that would be too overwrought and absurd for the Lifetime Movie Network. Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci is quite over-the-top as the all-too-obviously disturbed child-killer, and the narration is just excruciatingly awful (I thought my head was going to explode after the 50th time the girl says “my murderer”). Not to mention the wacky “let’s clean the house” montage reminiscent of a Chris Columbus movie that seems especially inappropriate given the subject matter of a murdered child, obsessed dad and creepy murderer. My jaw literally dropped. It’s funny that the studio tried to sell this to the teen Twilight crowd, but then they’re probably the only audiences capable of swallowing this nonsense. What they should do is sell it as an intentionally bad movie to the midnight crowd, like Showgirls or Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then they’d clean up. I’m sure Jackson will rebound from this, but that faith doesn’t make The Lovely Bones any less torturous to watch.

I’ve decided that this year I’m not going to list all the films I didn’t manage to see for whatever reason, as I’ve done in years past. I don’t know that anyone cares really, and I think it just makes the Top 10 list seem arbitrary, like “these are the best films that actually played near me, that I liked enough to put on a Top 10 list”. You know what? I’ve decided that it’s not my fault that the studios aren’t smart enough to open most of their best films in my area. I don’t care any more. The way I see it now, if you want your film to be considered for my list, open the damn thing wide enough for me to see it, or release it on DVD by the end of January. I’m not going to wait until April to make out my Top 10 list of the year! As far as I’m concerned, my list is my list, and if I wasn’t able to see a film by January 31st, it’s disqualified. If that’s unfair, too fucking bad. There were several films by talented directors that I really wanted to see this year, and didn’t get to through no fault of my own. That’s not fair to me or to all the other film lovers who live in middle America. I shouldn’t have to move to see the latest Coen Brothers or Almodovar or even Woody Allen film. It’s not like I live in Podunk, Alabama or something! Give me a break, man. And how about this for the theater chains: if you show a trailer or hang up a poster for a certain film in your theater, how about eventually booking the fucking film! Because if you’re advertising a film, people naturally think that it will show there at some point. I’m not blaming the managers, because they often don’t have control over what films show in their theaters, but whoever’s in charge of booking films for the chains need to consider that not everyone in America wants to suffer through Michael Bay’s Giant Shiny Boxes Fight Each Other 2. Just saying.

So that’s that. Before we get to the Top 10 list though, let’s talk a little about some critically acclaimed films that I did get to see that didn’t make it, and why. These are not “runner-ups” by any means; they are simply films that you’ll see on many other critics’ Best of the Year lists, but not mine. It’s more of a Year in Review kind of thing. Some of these are Oscar-nominated, which means I’m apparently in the minority on them. Oh well. Popularity is not necessarily a measure of quality in my book, so there you have it. So let’s get started:

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker – I’ve already discussed this film in a previous column, so I won’t spend too much space on it. I just truly, honestly don’t think it’s all that great. To me, it’s this year’s Crash frankly, and I don’t mean the Cronenberg film. I really wish someone would explain to me why they love it so much, because all anybody says is that it’s “powerful” and “intense” but they never explain why they found it that way. I think it’s a serious case of groupthink on the critics’ part – “oh, everyone else champions this film, so I should too or I’ll look like a dick.” Again, it’s not a horrible movie, and if Bigelow and company pick up some Oscars – fine. I don’t hold grudges about these things. I may not agree, but it’s no sweat off my nose. Let me ask you this – does anyone watch Gandhi or Chariots of Fire now? No one I know. But those were Best Picture winners too. I can’t wait to see what happens when the non-critics finally see this and wonder what the big deal was. As far as Iraq War movies go, I thought In the Valley of Elah was a much more powerful drama, and The Kingdom was more intense and action-packed. Plus those movies were actually about the war, not just set there. So what is the big fucking deal about this one? I just don’t see it. They might as well have nominated Renny Harlin’s 12 Rounds. But hey, don’t let me stop you all from following the crowd. Wait, isn’t that how the war got started in the first place?

Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air – I really liked the first 2/3 of this movie. I thought it was a sharp, witty and intelligent piece of work. Then for the final third, Reitman turns it into Brett Ratner’s The Family Man and lost me completely. Think about this: Reitman spends most of the movie making the case for the Ryan Bingham character, making us sympathize with and understand a person who some of us might otherwise find loathsome. Then he turns around and says, “you know what, he really is an asshole, isn’t he?” Sorry, didn’t buy it. I thought the case he made for Bingham was so much more convincing than the case he made against him. Guess what, Ivan Reitman’s privileged son – just because a person doesn’t subscribe to the traditional wife/kids/white picket fence dogma doesn’t make him an asshole. And guys like Ryan Bingham never second-guess themselves or their choices. If we’re to believe this movie’s point of view, none of us should ever leave our hometowns, get professional jobs, or stay single past the age of 30. We should all just stay in the places we were born, get shitty jobs that we hate, marry the first person we have sex with and pop out 4 or 5 kids who will grow up to be just as miserable as we are. Utter nonsense. Not everyone wants that kind of life or is cut out for it. And it’s knowing who we are and what we want that makes us “grown-ups”, not subscribing to an outdated Leave It to Beaver view of life. Not only that, but people like Bingham tend to make for horrible spouses and parents. So let’s not encourage them to do it, shall we? Having said that, I did think the cast was very good, and there’s some terrific writing in that first 2/3rds. But it takes a turn I just can’t get behind as a thinking human being. A movie with balls, like Reitman’s own Thank You for Smoking, would let Ryan Bingham defend his choices to the end and make us agree with him. Up in the Air becomes just another corporate, conservative cop-out.

Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer – Here’s another movie that I was totally with right up until the end… and then they totally blow it. I’ve never seen a film that so accurately portrays how frustrating and infuriating dating a female can be. Every guy I know starts out like Tom, hopeful and naïve, and then they put themselves through the wringer (willingly, I might add) until they finally realize what they’re doing to themselves and start living on their own terms. But I guess Tom just needs his heart broken a few more times before he gets it, because he apparently learned nothing from the experience. There’s a lot of great stuff in this movie (the Hall & Oates dance scene is absolutely classic), really good performances, strong writing, great choice of music (beware of any girl who loves The Smiths)… and then I walked out wanting to strangle Tom to death before he was foolish enough to do it all over again. Who knows, maybe it works out better this time, but given how puppy-dog crazy in love Tom gets… you have to expect he’ll be crushed yet again. The ending is so not what the rest of the movie is, that it’s like a swift kick in the balls. You know those movies that suddenly have shitty endings out of the blue? This is the opposite – a smart and cynical movie that ends with a bullshit Garry Marshall happy ending. Sorry, no. Worth seeing, if you cut off the last 5 minutes.

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus – Well, going against the majority once again, I actually really liked this movie and thought it was Clint’s best since Million Dollar Baby. I thought it was a fascinating story and loved Morgan Freeman’s performance as Nelson Mandela. Some critics apparently don’t get that this isn’t the life story of Mandela – it’s a specific story of how he encouraged the rugby team to win the World Cup in order to help unify the races in South Africa. If you want Mandela’s life story, it’s been told several times already in film and literature. I find it hard to believe that people are ignorant of that story at this point, but I guess some are. Anyway, this is what the movie is and I thought it worked very well for the most part. Where it lost me was with the actual portrayal of the rugby games, never bothering to explain what the rules are or how the game is played, so that when the important “big game” comes, it’s hard to follow what the hell’s going on. Not all of us are big rugby fans! Up until that point though, I was really into it and actually found it that rare thing – a truly inspirational sports movie.

Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are – My sister actually saw this movie and nailed it in three words (something I can rarely do myself) – “Monsters with problems”. Seriously, this has to be the most depressing children’s film ever made. This is why we don’t listen to other people’s therapy sessions. God. Shut up already!

OK, so that covers that stuff. Without further ado, let’s get to the Top 10. And keep in mind that this is a list of personal favorites. As is any such list, no matter how pretentious the creator of the list pretends to be. These are the 10 films that kicked my ass the most in 2009. Your mileage may vary.

10) Star Trek – yes, there were plenty of more intellectual and challenging films I could have put on this list. But sometimes you have to go with your heart, and my heart just loved the hell out of J.J. Abrams’ reinvention of the classic sci-fi franchise. Never mind that they managed to make Trek fun again (and it’s been decades), the important thing is that Abrams and company brought back the characters we love. Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, Uhura – these characters are Star Trek, and nothing since has ever come close. This is exactly the kick in the ass the franchise needed, and I can’t wait to see more.

9) Bruno – say what you will about Sacha Baron Cohen, the guy has balls of steel. Not many people would follow up a smash hit like Borat with a comedy about exposing homophobia, but Cohen did just that. He was smart enough to know that he couldn’t be subtle about it –he had to confront these people with their worst nightmare, take all the stereotypes and go way beyond them to get a reaction. And boy, did he ever accomplish that goal. As hysterically funny as Bruno is, it’s also scarier than any horror movie this year. The audience in the cage-match scene is just frightening, and the worst part is that I know people like that. I’m not friends with them, but I know them. This is America in 2009? Jesus Christ. Isn’t it time for people to get past the whole gay thing already? Some guys like to fuck other guys. Get over it already. It’s going to be difficult for Baron Cohen to top this, and maybe he shouldn’t even try. The fact that a major studio financed and released this in theaters across America may be his biggest prank of all. Bruno is edgy, it’s progressive, it’s outrageous, and it’s probably the film people needed to see most this past year.

8) Watchmen – what if super heroes existed in the real, corrupt, venal, fucked-up world we live in? What kind of crazy shit would go down? Would things get better, or would they get much, much worse? That’s the basic question posed by Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the graphic novel, and the answer isn’t pretty. It’s gritty, very R-rated, incredibly violent, profane and sexual. In other words, it’s everything we’re not used to in superhero films, and it’s also an astounding piece of cinema. We’ll probably never see anything like it again, at least if Hollywood has its way. I’ve never read the graphic novel, and I understand some fanboys are upset by the movie, but fanboys are always upset about something. As a film, I think it works tremendously well, and it’s probably as faithful to the source material as any movie could possibly be. So quit your bitching and enjoy this incredible, complex and brilliant film for what it is. I think I’ll have trouble taking any other superhero movie seriously ever again after seeing this. That’s probably a good thing.

7) Away We Go – Sam Mendes’ wonderful comedy about a couple who are lucky enough to have real love, what love should be, and so often isn’t. Extremely well written, funny and genuinely touching, and proof that Maya Rudolph should be a movie star. Beyond that, John Krasinski (The Office) kills on the big screen for the first time ever. It’s so nice to see people in a film who genuinely love and support each other (and do so in a convincing way), rather than what we usually see in bullshit romantic comedies, which is people trying to scam each other. This is what it should be like. There’s more genuine heart and humanity in any single minute of Away We Go than there is in the entirety of Up in the Air. An underrated gem that hopefully people are discovering on DVD.

6) Public Enemies – why oh why did Universal release Michael Mann’s excellent period gangster film in the middle of summer? I can’t answer that one, but I can say that this is a terrific film that deserves better than it’s gotten. It’s a fascinating story told with Mann’s usual confidence and skill behind the camera, filled with excellent character actors doing their thing, and a great lead performance from Johnny Depp. Plus Mann makes it relevant to our times (for those who missed the point, Mann is comparing the brutal tactics of the FBI to those of the corrupt Bush-Cheney administration – everybody get it now?) So what’s not to like? Give me an awesome Michael Mann gangster film over a crappy Michael Bay fighting-robot movie any time. I guess I’m funny that way.

5) In the Loop – the one film on this list that I saw on DVD, rather than in a theater, and it’s a testament to how good it is that it ranks so high. This insanely brilliant British comedy just might be the smartest and funniest political satire since Dr. Strangelove. Not exaggerating even a little. An excellent cast of British and American actors play politicos gathering, debating and generally going nuts in the lead-up to an invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. And it’s hysterical. Whip-smart dialogue, vicious insults, extremely creative profanities, lots of movie references for the film geeks (not giving any away here) and just pure, unadulterated madness. Director/co-writer Armando Ianucci (clearly a mad genius) isn’t out to teach you anything, just make you laugh at the complete absurdity of it all. Which he does incredibly well. This is just drop-dead, laugh-till-your-sides-hurt funny. You want to know how funny this movie is? OK, I’ll tell you – Anna Chlumsky is in it! Yes, the girl from the My Girl movies. And she’s hilarious! I’m not kidding, Anna Chlumsky is an absolute riot. If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will. If there was a funnier movie than this released in 2009, I sure as hell don’t know what it is. If you have any sense of humor at all, see this movie.

4) The Road – and now for something completely different, John Hillcoat’s excellent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel (which I haven’t read) was way too dark and intense for some people. I get that. This isn’t the fun apocalypse, with zombies and bikers with Mohawks. Oh no. This is the apocalypse you pray never happens; just nightmarish and bleak fucking Hell on Earth. But it’s done so incredibly well that I found it absolutely riveting stuff. And it’s not about the darkness so much as it is about finding a tiny sliver of hope within it. Which is far from easy. I know the Weinsteins didn’t push this film on the Academy, but if there were any justice, this film would be getting all the acclaim The Hurt Locker is sucking up, and Viggo Mortensen would be a front-runner for Best Actor. Well worth seeing, if you can take it.

3) Avatar – how do you argue with the talent of James Cameron? Why would you want to? I was as skeptical as anybody, but I think we’ve all learned never to underestimate the man. He might be a total prick, but he can definitely back it up. Avatar turned out to be everything he promised us it would be, but better than being a game-changer and a giant leap forward in cinema technology, it’s also one terrific movie. That’s nothing to sneeze at. Sure, you can nitpick about little things, but with a movie like this, I find that it’s about whether or not you believe in the world that’s been created (at least for those 2-plus hours in the theater). If a fictional world gets more convincing than Cameron’s Pandora, I haven’t seen it. Many have quibbled with the logic (why didn’t the company just nuke the planet from space?) and the dialogue (“eat your eyes like jujubes”? Really?), but who cares? It’s obviously meant to be a fable, and it works as exactly that. It’s the experience that matters, and the message that you take from it if you’re so inclined. As far as I’m concerned, Cameron knocks all the other blockbuster directors’ dicks in the dirt. Bay? McG? Ratner? Please watch this film and learn how it’s done. Avatar is the only film on the list I’ve seen twice – once in 2D (don’t ask why) and once in 3D, and absolutely loved it both times. I’m not one of those freaks who actually want to live on Pandora, but it’s a hell of a place to visit. And between this and Public Enemies, this is clearly Stephen Lang’s comeback year. Great character actor, nice to see him kicking ass.

2) Up – does anyone doubt that Pixar is making pure art at this point? I absolutely don’t. An animated film about an old man and a fat kid flying around in a house carried away by balloons shouldn’t be a Great Film, but Up absolutely is that. Director Pete Doctor didn’t quite blow me away the way Andrew Stanton did with WALL-E, but he came damn close. Anyone who didn’t tear up a little during this truly has no soul. Plus it’s funny as hell and just a great time at the movies. What more do you want?

And my favorite film of 2009 is:

Inglorious Basterds –A brilliant, blistering piece of pure cinema, and Quentin Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction (not that I haven’t enjoyed everything in between). QT’s drunk on cinema and storytelling once again, and the audience is the beneficiary. His WWII epic is more than we expected, a sprawling tale full of rich, enjoyable characters, wonderful dialogue and drop-dead brilliant scenes. I can’t imagine not loving the hell out of this. Perfectly cast (Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, BJ Novak, Til Schweiger, and yes even Eli freakin’ Roth), beautifully written, gorgeously shot, and entertaining as hell. Love everything about it, including the voice-over by Sam Jackson and the phone cameo by Harvey Keitel, the music, the humor; everything just works like a motherfucker! And of course, the QT haters came out once again, and again they just don’t get it. His inspiration may have been from other films, but he used it to create something unmistakably Tarantino. I’m looking forward to buying the DVD and watching it again very soon. Can’t wait! For people who really love film, Inglorious Basterds was the cinema event of 2009.

So there you have it. That was the best of the year for me. Since I’ve already gone on quite long enough, I’ll wrap it up here. I’m looking forward to all of the cinematic treats that 2010 has to offer us. Enjoy – I know I will!

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