I didn't go to the movies enough this year. Little more behind than usual. Made a huge effort to see everything at Oscar season, and then wandered under the big tent poles for the rest of the year. Missed Precious, Up In The Air, etc., but I'll report on them if I see it's worth it. Until then, time to briefly summarize 2009. A good year:
This movie was a surprise from start to finish. It doesn't merely devolve into an action film at the end (a common reductive statement from Ebes and others, whenever there's gun-play at the end of a film). I have never seen a film that was this much a mix of Close Encounters and Cronenberg. It works very hard at being unpleasant, and succeeds. Apartheid references notwithstanding, it actually takes a bit of effort to root for these creatures, as they are truly unpleasant. That right there speaks to how deeply unusual, uncompromising and challenging this film really is. And it was a popular success, too. Really, that's marvelous.
James Cameron's first film in twelve years is a lot of things. It is visually startling, ethical, fiery and passionate. It is also at times awkward and overbearing, and it is never, ever subtle. But you know what? On the one hand, it has a jaw dropping first hour, where the visual effects and stakes-setting are handled only the way Cameron can handle them. And then it allows itself to get caught up in its story without worrying about dazzling us every two seconds. It emerges as one of the most overtly anti-imperialist, anti-war, anti-invasion, pro-green movies to ever reach this wide an audience. And if some of it falls a little flat or some if it could've been more fluid, I'm willing to let those things go, because I saw sights I've never seen before, and was delighted and amazed many times. It's an audacious film. And perhaps, when there are still apparently people who don't believe we invaded Iraq for oil resources, indeed people who don't understand that sort of thing is the root cause of nearly all war, perhaps a bluntness, a lack of subtlety, is called for. Just a thought.
The Hurt Locker
It's as great as they say. Terrific lead role. Excellent, flawless direction. The most suspenseful film of the year. You need to see it.
Great film. Too loud for Patrick Stewart ("things are generally too loud, these days"). Too many lense flares. Or maybe not enough. Wonderful, funny, gripping. And that opening sequence has never ceased to give me goose bumps. It's touching, and, like the rest of the film, builds on a generous knowledge of Star Trek, and rewards you for it. It's a great movie that shows up already a friend to you. Here's hoping they build on this and make a Star Trek II worthy of Star Trek II.
Classic. Creepy. Show it to kids. They deserve to get scared this good.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenenbaums, it's essentially that kind of movie only there's a stop-motion animated cartoon playing atop the audio. Funny, inventive, dark, and is further proof of Anderson's versatility within his so-called limitations. Scorsese has made the same three films his entire career. Anderson may be on to his second kind of film, and this one maybe feels like a departure in some ways. Few filmmakers have made a world with this kind of texture, eccentricity and life (just wait for the scene in the cider-cellar. Absolutely beautiful artistry). And it's about the funniest film you'll see for a good long time.
Where The Wild Things Are
I love this film. Love it love it. It is a classic film, and it will be embraced, just you watch. It is the most experimental children's film released in the United States. Period. It is moody and surreal, dadaism for the youngins (except it will confuse their parents much more). It's richly funny and inventive, filled to the brim with sight-gags and unexpected twists. Its visual, directorial artistry is unprecedented. We have with us the first real Spike Jonze film. I hope he gets to make hundreds more. The rhythm of this film, the ending, the subtle, emotional pull of it, was bound to go over some people's heads. No doubt the mealy-mouthed, average, padded-safety net of a parent wouldn't be able to get it. And it's not too scary. Feh. Just take your little shitheads to see the flatulent 3D guinea pigs or whatever, then.
A Serious Man
Great, original Coen brothers flick. Indelible, merciless and riotously hilarious. Every scene is perfect. Since it played in three theaters nationally, be sure to rent it.
Pixar's best since Finding Nemo. I love this more than anything they've done, Wall-E included. A lot of you won't be with me on that, but I can't think of a film with this kind of story, aimed at children, ever. It's a loving ode to reclaiming dreams, an adult and tragic tale of learning to accept what you can't change, and cherish the memory of what you've lost. It's also a rip-roaring adventure film with a hilarious, brilliantly revealed MacGuffin. And it's just one of the most dazzling visual experiences ever divined by Pixar, which is to say its title refers to where this film sits in the visual pantheon: very nearly above everything else. And if you are not sobbing your fucking eyes out at about the twenty minute mark, you really must have that wretched thumping coal deposit in your chest examined.
Here's a film that people argue about, but as far as I'm concerned, it should be easy for film lovers to figure out. To be disappointed that this isn't Quentin's Dirty Dozen is to be churlish and close-minded. Why do you want that, anyway? Why weren't you as enthralled as I was with a flick about a Jewish girl escaping an evil (brilliantly acted) "Jew-Hunter", only to craft the destruction of the twentieth century's greatest evil through a plan inspired by a seductive love of film?
The "heroes" of the film are not the Basterds, maybe because Tarantino senses how dubious it is to portray them as heroes in the first place. Instead, our heroes are Soshanna and her black lover, Pabst and the fires of God's wrathful justice (which, Soshanna, in a cloud of smoke and fury, gets to personify in one powerful visual masterstroke, solidifying this as a goddamned masterpiece, at the end)
I've almost left out the badass English film critic and theorist who doubles as a spy in Act II. And the awe-inspiring bar-scene with the King Kong speech. I can't wait to watch this one twenty more times. Be thankful for Quentin, people. God.
Honorable mention goes to Funny People, which deserved more attention, it really was quite good. Also to Knowing, a film which had it starred Rufus Sewell instead of you-know-who, might have been given a fairer shake by all of you.
Grand Folly award must also go to Zach Snyder's adaptation of Watchmen, a work of lovingly crafted, powerful obtuseness. It at times feels as though Dr. Manhattan has directed the film, but I still can't think of any big-budget movie more curious about determinism and physics than this one. It's a mind-expanding, consciousness-raising film, perhaps because it hewed as close as it did to Moore's original master-plan. It is flawed. It doesn't quite get Ozymandias right, though I don't believe that's entirely down on Matthew Goode. Malin Akerman is bad, but I'm not sure how her character could be all that good. And the Nite-Owl love making could well be excised from the graphic novel, not just the movie.
Still, Rorschach's, and Dr. Manhattan's parts (heheheh) of this story are simply awe-inspring. Really heady stuff, just unlike anything else I've seen in recent films. Gods and monsters, battling it out, that's what you get here. I think we really should be more open to how individual films are paced and orchestrated. This was an exceptional, albeit flawed film, and I believe its greatness outweighs its weaknesses. Some of it is truly breathtaking. How often does that even happen for a minute?