Looking back over 2009, it occurs to me that this might have been a pretty big year for movies.
You might not think it at first -- there weren't any really huge cinematic achievements aside from James Cameron's "Avatar," and that was more a technical triumph than one of storytelling or filmmaking.
It was, however, a pretty successful year for movies, and that is the key. 2009 appears to have spawned more new franchises than any year that I can remember. Just like any year, last year had it's share of sequels, but the number of "firsts" is off the charts. The previously mentioned "Avatar," as well as "District 9," "The Hangover," "Sherlock Holmes," "Taken," "G.I. Joe," and "Zombieland" are all virtually assured sequels. Movies that seem like sequels themselves, but are really complete series reboots like "Wolverine" and "Star Trek" also have follow-ups in the pipeline. Even films as varied as "2012," "Inglorious Basterds," and "Julie & Julia" have generated spin-off and prequel discussions.
As is the custom in Hollywood, some of the previous projects will eventually fall through, but the sheer number of solid money-makers that came out of Tinseltown this year is encouraging -- not because these films will generate sequel upon sequel, likely fading in quality as they do, but because there was the courage among the big studios to try new things. Hopefully that is a trend that will continue.
Now, without further ado, are my picks for the 10 best and 10 worst films of the year, in no particular order unless you count alphabetical.
"(500) Days of Summer"
I generally like a good romantic comedy, but too often these films are so married to the formula that you can almost mouth the dialogue along with the actors. Not so with the brilliantly quirky "(500) Days of Summer," which describes itself almost immediately as "not a love story." Of course it really is, but as told in a fragmented, augmented style, it careens us through the often hilarious and frequently heartbreaking 500-day affair between poor frustrated Tom and the genuinely eccentric object of his affection, Summer Finn. Never cloying, and despite the highly stylized narrative, rarely false in tone, "(500) Days" succeeds in keeping you guessing, even though the narrator reveals the ending in the first five minutes.
I really, really enjoyed this film, to the point that my wife has now banned me from what she calls "Ava-talk." Also, "Ava-trivia" is out. What makes this movie great is not just the amazing special effects -- and they are spectacular -- or the compelling story, but it is the world itself that director James Cameron has created. So fabulously detailed and beautifully imagined is the planet Pandora, that discussion groups, books, and various other programs has sprung up discussing everything from the science of "Avatar" to the social and religious implications inherent within. Looks like it's not just my house -- "Ava-talk" is sweeping the nation.
"The Brothers Bloom"
Sadly, this quirky little fable about con-artist brothers appeared and disappeared from theaters this summer with barely a blip on the radar. I happened to catch it at a little art theater in Oregon, and I'm glad I did. "Bloom" tells the sweet, and highly imaginative story of Stephen and his younger brother Bloom who spin confidence games that have far more in common with fine literature than common theft. When the two run across Penelope, beautiful, strange, and fabulously wealthy, they think they've hit upon the con of the decade. But just who's conning who? The acting in this film, with Mark Ruffalo, Adrien Brody, and Rachel Weisz, is flat out perfect.
Finally a science fiction action movie that is completely unique. "District 9," though produced by Peter Jackson and marketed aggressively, kind of came out of nowhere, surprising critics and audiences alike. The gritty tale of a population of stranded aliens in a refugee camp in South Africa is obviously meant to suggest Apartheid, but just when you might think it's pseudo-documentary style would turn preachy and trite, "District 9" morphs into a no-holds barred action thriller with amazing effects, surprising characters and real emotion. If rookie director Neil Blomkamp can maintain the quality, "District 10" should be a no-brainer.
"Julie & Julia"
Under normal circumstances, a movie like "Julie & Julia," though undeniably fun, wouldn't make the "Best Of" list. The story of a young woman trying to find herself by cooking her way through Julia Child's cookbook would be cute at best if it weren't for a beautiful performance by Meryl Streep as Child herself. One half of the movie takes place in 1950s France, centering on Julia and her struggle to become a classic French chef. It's funny, sweet, and features Streep at her best, taking what could easily have been a caricature and turning it into something award-worthy.
This re-envisioning of the classic British sleuth looked to be little more than an excuse for explosions and witty banter, but in the hands of two such talented actors as Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law it transcends the genre. Smart, funny, and thrilling, "Holmes" is an unabashed popcorn mystery that manages to make anything by Dan Brown look stodgy in comparison.
"Star Trek" was probably my favorite movie of the year. It's exciting, amazing to look at, and so completely reinvigorates a dying franchise that it might as well be a complete standalone film. J.J. Abrams has managed to take all the silly soap opera stuff out of "Trek" and in its place put characters you can truly connect with again. His smartest move: creating a story that exists in a new timeline from the old "Trek." Anything goes, and the purists can't say a word. Plan on seeing this stellar cast manning the U.S.S. Enterprise for years to come.
Pixar once again delivers the goods with this, their most mature tale to date. The story of a recently widowed old man trying to fulfill a promise he made to his wife is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. That the promise involves his flying their home to South America, laden with thousands of helium balloons and one chubby little 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer means the film is also hilarious and a fantasically creative vision.
"Where the Wild Things Are"
For every moment of joy in "Up!" there is at least one moment of withering melancholy in Spike Jonze's desperately sad adaptation of the classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are." This movie, though spectacularly acted and directed, with some of the most subtle computer effects I've ever seen, is not one I'll probably want to watch again. The honest and warm sense of relief you feel at the end of the movie is hard won, and the loneliness of the first two-thirds is almost too much to sit through. A beautiful movie, but not one for kids, despite what you might think.
"Inglorious Basterds" and "Watchmen"
These two films are my runners-up, and I think they both suffer from the same problem. Tarantino's blood-soaked WWII fantasy and Zack Snyder's amazingly faithful adaptation of the classic graphic novel are each brilliant in their own way. "Basterds" is written so sharply that the razor's edge between funny and horrifying is apt to cut you without your even realizing what's happened. And the visuals in "Watchmen" are extraordinary, bringing the comic page to life unlike anything we've seen before. But both films are too ambitious, overloading themselves with plot, characters, and the auteurs' signature styles, until they begin to teeter precariously. Neither falls, but they come too close for comfort.
"Angels & Demons"
Wow. What a disappointment. Though not technically an awful movie, this film proves once again that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks are just the wrong duo to adapt Dan Brown's silly, yet engaging thrillers. Here we see Hanks, as sciento-historian Robert Langdon, conducting a running tour of the Vatican's tourist hotspots, all the while ducking bullets and burning cardinals.
"Drag Me to Hell"
This was another huge disappointment for me, especially after all I'd heard about director Sam Raimi's triumphant return to the horror genre. As a horror movie, "Hell" was just too stupid to take seriously, and as a comedy, too short on actual laughs. The ending was kind of clever, but not enough to make up for the hour-and-a-half of goo jokes and ridiculous screaming gypsies that preceded it.
Slamming this movie kind of feels like trashing a high school theater production -- sad, but appropriate considering the movie's about a performing arts high school. "Fame" is trying, and its heart is in the right place, but after a while the atrocious dialogue just begins to weigh on you. Add to that the fact that it's almost impossible to tell any of the dozen or so characters apart. "Fame" takes place over the course of four years, but somehow I doubt any of these kids are going to live forever, let alone learn how to fly.
I know a lot of you will disagree with me on this film, and had I not stayed for the credits, I might feel differently. I doubt there's anything that could have made me like it as a whole, but there were a few genuinely funny parts and the conceit -- that four friends embark on a wild night in Vegas, only to wake up the next morning in complete disarray, forced to piece it all together in order to find a missing friend -- has potential at least. But the "payoff" the snapshot reveals at the end of the film as the credits roll are just sad and depressing, and finally simply pornographic.
I just felt dirty after I left the theater. Doesn't that sound like fun?
If Meryl Streep wowed me into including "Julie & Julia" on my top ten, she failed to do the same for "It's Complicated," a whiny diatribe about baby boomers with too much time and money and no real problems.
Alec Baldwin doesn't embarrass himself, but he certainly shouldn't win any awards for his performance as a man trying to win back the wife he divorced years before. With the film's odd pairing of an over-60 female niche audience and gratuitous pot smoking hijinks, my wife and I felt simultaneously too young and too old for this movie.
"New Moon: The Twilight Saga"
Saga? Really? The doe-eyed vampire lover Bella Swan returns for another two-plus hours of moping and mooning in this second film of the ongoing series. This time around swooning teenage girls are treated to more than just hunky Edward's glittery abs. "New Moon" reveals that the previously scrawny Jacob has gone all Charles Atlas due to some kind of weird werewolf puberty. I'd complain about the shoddy special effects, but really, the greatest effect of all is how the studio has conned a generation of girls into shelling out their hard-earned babysitting money for this schlock.
"The Time Traveler's Wife"
I know time travel stories are inherently confusing, but the filmmakers, and possibly the novelist herself, has gone out of their way to make "The Time Traveler's Wife" completely and utterly incomprehensible. This might have been OK if this tale of boy meets man meets girl meets woman meets older man had all come together in the end, but instead it just gets more and more convoluted until it collapses in a pile pure preposterousness.
"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"
I could not have imagined that "Transformers 2" could possibly be worse than "Transformers," but that just shows how I underestimate the odiousness of Michael Bay. This movie was bizarre amalgam of juvenile humor, bad dialogue, an overly complicated plot, and some of the more tasteless characters I've seen in years. That this film is the highest grossing of the year makes me weep for the future. There's no chance we're going to avoid a "Transformers 3."
"Whiteout," an action thriller set in the harsh landscape of Antarctica, came and went so fast you'd almost never know it was there. I imagine that has something to do with the fact that the movie is neither thrilling or particularly action-packed. It might have helped had the antagonist and the protagonist been actually identifiable during their thrilling action scenes, but when you're fighting outside in the snow, one dark parka looks just like another.
"Observe & Report" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop"
These movies are not runners-up, as they are both terrible, but I thought it odd that a year with so many fresh ideas would yield not one but two lame mall cop movies. "Paul Blart" is completely idiotic, though simply in a poorly written, family comedy kind of way -- inoffensive in every way except artistically. "Observe and Report" is the polar opposite, employing skilled actors and a passably skilled director to make a "comedy" so depressing and depraved that I was aghast. The worst part is, I think the people involved actually thought what they were making was hilarious.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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