My Top Ten Lists are usually full of Hard Films with Difficult Themes that deal with Complex Issues. To be honest, though, I like Big Loud Fun Movies, too. But those films are rarely done with the same care and attention reserved for their sad sack cousins. Maybe it’s the economy, but this year Hollywood really brought its escapist A game.
“Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.”
Yes, I know it’s the Second Coming of Filmmaking and we’re all supposed to worship at its 3D altar (and Lord knows it was better than Titanic), but I’m very particular about what I do and don’t love about this film:
Love the fact that Cameron really does create a world that doesn’t just look cool (It’s the Godiva of eye candy) but has aspects that would be just as compelling in a novel. The movie, in fact, often feels like the covers of those old school sci-fi novels come to life. Love that Cameron still knows how to direct the hell out of an action sequence. Love Stephen Lang (also for Men Who Stare at Goats and his five lines in Public Enemies). Love that the screenplay is actually structurally sound, but this is also where we get to what I don’t love.
Don’t love “unobtanium,” even though I now get the reference. Don’t love the pockets of crap dialogue that Cameron could have polished (the scripts for Aliens and Terminator are much, much tighter). Don’t love (and don’t hate) most of the acting and story, which comes off as functional rather than gripping.
There’s a lot of potential here. The concepts he introduces could be taken in a lot of really interesting directions. And maybe that’s the curse of an origin story and he’ll address some of that in the sequel. But for now, it’ll have to settle for being my tenth favorite movie of ’09. Oh, the shame.
“Summary: ears ringing, jaw fractured, three ribs cracked, four broken, diaphragm hemorrhaging. Physical recovery six weeks. Full psychological recovery six months. Ability to spit at back of head neutralized.”
Apparently I’m in the minority on this, but I found Sherlock Holmes to be massively more entertaining than Avatar. Maybe it’s the characters. It’s unfair, perhaps to pit Sam Worthington against Robert Downey Jr, but there it is. Watching him and the underrated Jude Law (trust me, the film does not work without him) navigate 19th century London has more appeal for me than (admittedly pretty) blue people flying around Pandora. And while Guy Ritchie’s exuberant direction may have pissed off some, I feel he incorporates the style of Snatch and Lock, Stock nicely into Holmes’ milieu. Aiding that aesthetic is a charming score by Hans Zimmer that uses what sounds like lo-fi period Irish folk music to enhance what would otherwise be Dramatic Action Orchestral Score #5409. And while I can’t attest to how well the film hews to the characterizations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works (it’s been a while), the principle of deductive reasoning driving Holmes’ methodology is at work in virtually every scene, even the fistfights.
8. Food, Inc.
“A culture that just uses a pig as a pile of protoplasmic inanimate structure, to be manipulated by whatever creative design the human can foist on that critter, will probably view individuals within its community, and other cultures in the community of nations, with the same type of disdain and disrespect and controlling type mentalities.”
This is the iceberg underneath the surface that Morgan Spurlock sits on for 30 days in Super Size Me. An expose of how we get the food we eat ends up being more about what’s wrong with applying corporate efficiency to natural processes than the evils of an unhealthy diet. This Inconvenient Truth for food manufacturing (and that’s really what it is now – manufacture, not farming) brings the disturbing facts about how switching to using corn for everything can lead to E. coli outbreaks and how subsidizing poor eating habits can lead to 1 in 3 children born after 2000 developing early onset diabetes (1 in 2 if they’re minorities). And like An Inconvenient Truth it offers solutions and not just alarmism – even when those solutions involve the cooperation, not the defeat, of big companies. It’s very telling that Walmart comes out looking slightly less creepy than its food conglomerate suppliers for (a) being willing to talk on camera and (b) cutting deals with organic food growers instead of trying to wipe them out.
7. Star Trek
“I like this ship! You know, it’s exciting!”
This is how you do escapism. Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (improbable writers of one of the worst films of ’09, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen – oh, the difference a director can make) faced a Herculean task. Gain the trust of rabidly loyal fans while appealing to a larger audience who could care less. The masterstroke, aside from brilliant casting, was making the plot itself revolve around a reboot. Then all they had to do was infuse every scene, every bit of dialogue with respect, not just for the series (sometimes a lack of respect was required) but for the audience. And aside from one niggling story problem (which on repeated viewings bothers me less and less) they pull it off. Like Khan before it, I could take someone who had never seen Star Trek and say, “Hey, wanna watch a great action movie?”
“Just because she’s likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.”
(500) Days of Summer may not be the first romcom to play fast and loose with chronology but it’s probably the best, thanks to whip-smart dialogue by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber delivered flawlessly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel and brisk direction by Marc Webb (now to helm the Spider-Man reboot. Hmmm.). Rather than use the film’s time shifts as a gimmick to keep us interested in a hackneyed plot, Weber lets them be a lens through which to understand the nooks and crannies of a complex, real, and ultimately doomed relationship between two flawed human beings. We see what time, perspective, and life does to the paths two people take when they become a part of each others lives. And we laugh. A lot.
“There’s always something wrong with these tests. These tests paint a picture of me with no brain. These tests paint a picture of me and my mother, my whole family as less than dumb. Just ugly black grease, need to be wiped away, find a job for.”
Okay, they’re not all gonna be happy-go-lucky. But by getting inside the lives of these characters and not just using them as archetypes, director Lee Daniels and writer Geoffrey Fletcher make this domestic horror story connect with the audience, and not just shock them, all the while touching cleverly and bitingly on issues of race, sexuality, gender, and class. Doesn’t hurt that this is one of those films where every performance is dead on, from the lead, astounding newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, to Lenny Kravitz and his two or three scenes – not to mention a near-unrecognizable Mariah Carey who, in one fell swoop, makes up for Glitter. Of course, the performance that elevates the film from compelling drama to unforgettable experience belongs to Mo’Nique who, in the film’s final moments, fleshes out the true horror at the heart of the tale.
“There’s enough bang in there to blow us all to Jesus. If I’m gonna die, I want to die comfortable.”
This is not a war film. This is not an action film. This is a character study. But it does an excellent job of disguising itself (and performing all the duties of) the first two. You will not find a more tense film, but at the end of the day, this is a movie about why some people actually seek out that tension. A laser-sharp refinement of the high-risk, male-dominated worlds director Kathryn Bigelow explored in Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker, Hurt Locker reveals her as a singular talent, no small thanks to an outstanding script by Mark Boal, bringing visceral texture to the psychological and physical nightmare of urban warfare. More here.
“Now, we’re gonna walk to the falls quickly and quietly with no rap music or flashdancing.”
Just when I thought that Pixar couldn’t get any better, they got better. Up is, in fact, my second favorite Pixar movie of all time (you’ll have to wait for my Top 20 of the 00′s post to see my number one). Nathan Fillion uses the film as a Turing test:
“Robot test #12. Go see Pixar’s UP. If your date doesn’t cry, robot”
I guess I’m not a replicant cos’ I got verklempt more than once during this sweet tale that should have been all cotton candy but was actually prime rib. The first five minutes is some of the most efficient visual storytelling since the opening pan of Rear Window. Not to mention that one of the first shots in Pixar’s first 3D feature is of a boy sitting in a movie theater putting on big-ass goggles. They never stop being smart. But they also never stop having a soul. Oh, and did I mention it’s the funniest Pixar flick since Toy Story 2? Basically, all the things a movie can do, Up does. Admirably.
“You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business; we in the killin’ Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.”
On the surface, Inglourious Basterds is nothing more than one of those exploitation films Quentin Tarantino lauds in Not Quite Hollywood. But underneath that is the first film he’s really made about movies (even though his critics claim he’s been making movies about other movies since day one). It’s not just that a movie theater plays a central role in the plot and that one character’s knowledge of German cinema is key to his involvement; these are simply narrative elements that set up Tarantino’s exploration of the role films (and in a larger sense narratives) play in our perception and reflect on us as an audience. It’s too spoilery to say why, but the climax is more disturbing than fulfilling for this very reason.
But even if you ignore all that, you have some of the best characters Tarantino has ever written and best performances he’s ever elicited (let’s just give you your Oscar now, Mr. Waltz) and perhaps the single best scene he’s ever filmed: The first twenty minutes, which could easily stand on its own as a riveting one act play.
“Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.”
Some films are great because they are timeless (and certainly Up in the Air touches on timeless theme of isolation), but some are great because they so perfectly capture their time. It isn’t just that Up in the Air is about a guy who fires people during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, it’s that his job exists because we live in a world where human connection has been outsourced and industrialized. The faux hospitality Clooney’s Ryan Bingham mocks at the beginning of the film is only a small example of corporate attempts to mimic the qualities of being human. A big deal is made in the film of “loyalty” but that loyalty is manifest in Bingham’s life by his quest for a gajillion frequent flier miles from an airline who will reward him for that loyalty with…wait for it…a meeting with an actual human being.
That peculiarly 00′s angst of technologically facilitated familiarity (an air hostess knowing your name because it comes up on her computer) breeding more isolation, not less, is powerfully captured in this remarkably dark yet unceasingly entertaining character study. Like Hurt Locker, it’s only pretending to belong to a more popular genre. It’s essentially Michael Clayton-as-romcom.
Like Precious, it’s one of those films where every performance, no matter how small (see J.K. Simmons’ two minutes) is dead on. And Clooney does some of his finest work. Uttering hardly a word, he absolutely makes a scene where his assistant (the amazing Anna Kendrick – watch Rocket Science to see what her character was like in high school) bares her soul to his lover (Vera Farmiga) while he looks on – it’s all in his reactions, and it’s perfect.
And Jason Reitman. Holy crap! Homeboy is three for three and only getting better. He showed us he could handle satire in Thank You For Smoking and human drama in Juno and here he basically combines the two into some mash-up greater than the sum of those parts. A truly great film.