Tuesday, December 29, 2009
My taste in cinema runs toward movies made from the early thirties to the early sixties. This isn't to say that great movies weren't made prior to 1930, nor is it to say that great movies haven't been made after 1964. Every decade has produced great films, and though I haven't researched this next claim I dare say every single year has produced some great films. I do hold the belief, however, that more good movies were made under the old studio system than have been made since it fell apart in the fifties. I'm lucky enough to live in a city that provides monthly access to classic cinema. The AFI in Silver Spring is the kind of movie palace a geek dreams about at night. In the coming months, they'll be having a Jean Arthur Retrospective, a retrospective of British Noir, and an Orson Welles tribute. I'm lucky that I can see these films as they were meant to be seen, as light flickering in the darkness.
So, yes, I'm an old movie partisan, but in an average year I still manage to see about one new film a month at the movie theater. The end of the year seems a good time to look back. This isn't a ranking of 'the best films of 2009' because I have neither the time, money nor inclination to see enough new films to make that call. This is merely a collection of thoughts on the new films I saw this year:
(500) Days of Summer- As a dependable genre, the romantic comedy has nearly been destroyed by hackneyed, marketing-driven interpretation (banality thy name is McConaughey). What makes this a tragedy is that a) we all fall in love, and b) we all like to laugh. The great romantic comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Manhattan, The Princess Bride) are films that endure. Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer might be the best movie about thinking you've found the one, when in fact you haven't, since Woody Allen's Annie Hall. There are big laughs here, and there was more than one moment when I nodded my head as if to say--been there. The whole theater was laughing and nodding their heads been there, and what more can you want out of a movie than the confirmation that we all brave the same emotional waters from time to time? Joshua Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel were my favorite screen couple of the year.
Watchmen- Let me admit up front that I'm not the audience for this movie. A lot of fanboys were predetermined to like this adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel, but it was overlong, gratingly directed, and (for the most part) shoddily acted. Still, I enjoyed the guy with the blue dick and the film noir guy with a shifting mask. Otherwise...
Star Trek- This was more my cup of big budget tea. It wasn't quite the Star Trek I've always had a fondness for (Shatner/Nimoy/Kelley had the precision of a seasoned comedy troupe), but this reboot was a lot of fun. In placing Uhura up front and relegating McCoy to the background, JJ Abrams has reconfigured the emotional center of the myth. It'll be interesting to see where this series goes from here.
Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces)- In this neo-noir from Pedro Almodavar, an old man courts a beautiful young woman who wants to be an actress. He bankrolls a film for her, only to watch as she falls in love her director. The film is a collection of lovingly composed images--and it's a meditation on seeing, being seen, and blindness. Penelope Cruz is positively entrancing as the visual and emotional center of the movie.
Up-I loved this Pixar cartoon about an old man and a kid who float to South America in a house tied to a bunch of balloons. File this one under Sheer Delight. Pixar has changed the landscape of animation, but I think it's a change for the better.
Whatever Works- After the lamentable Scoop, I was convinced Woody Allen shouldn't make any more comedies, but this teaming with Larry David hit me in the funny bone. Not his greatest movie, but it's a fun little second-tier Woody flick. I need to do an Allen piece soon. He's been hit or miss for a while now, but he's one of the most interesting directors we've ever produced in the country.
Public Enemies- This Michael Mann crime caper starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger was probably my biggest disappointment at the movies this year. It's not a terrible movie by any means, but it's curiously lifeless. I hate to speculate on this out loud, but we might (just maybe) have passed the point where Johnny Depp can play plausible human beings.
District 9- This gritty, fascinating sci-fi flick convinced me that special effects have jumped to a level where they could function as more than spectacle. I'm not sure this movie was quite the political metaphor it thought it was, but I'm glad I saw it at the theater. Seeing it on the big screen, I was struck by the recognition that photorealistic special effects, in the service of a real story, could do amazing things. I'm not sure this story was the watershed, but I suspect the watershed is coming. (Note: I haven't seen Avatar. Everything in me is rebelling against the advertising onslaught, and the previews look awful, but I am somewhat interested in seeing how the effects have progressed. Is Avatar the watershed? I may have to bite the bullet and go find out for myself. Maybe.)
Inglourious Basterds- Tarantino roared back after the financial bellyflop of Grindhouse with this World War II Jewish-revenge fantasy. Catharsis? Fascism masquerading as righteousness? Just plain sick? Most of all, it was fun. Featuring great performances and knockout set pieces, it shows that after Kill Bill, Tarantino's mind is on making epics. I have some misgivings about this movie's ultimate message (sadism is sadism no matter how you try to dress it up), but what I don't doubt is the sheer audacity of the director's talent.
The Informant!-Matt Damon and Steven Soderburg teamed up for this dramedy about a corporate whistle blower in Iowa. Not anyone's best film, but Damon continues to show that he's one of our indispensable movie stars, an actor of talent and intellectual curiosity.
The Men Who Stare at Goats- What I said up there about Damon goes double for George Clooney. This was the first of three quirky, interesting projects he made this year. To be honest, it was the least successful of the three. I expected an offbeat comedy. It was offbeat, I guess, but I didn't laugh that much.
Fantastic Mr. Fox- Clooney Part Two. This delightful stop-motion animation movie based on the book by Roald Dahl was a return to form for director Wes Anderson. After The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited, I was starting to wonder if Anderson had lost his way, but Mr. Fox is funny and touching in a way Anderson hasn't approached since The Royal Tenenbaums. Clooney's Mr. Fox is a repentant sinner right out of Anderson's gallery of flawed heroes.
Up In the Air-Clooney Part Three. A man flies around the country firing people at big corporations. He meets two women--one as a coworker, one as a love interest--who challenge him to connect more fully with other people. This film is the kind of smart comedy/drama that Hollywood makes less and less of these days. This past weekend, it debuted at number six at the box office, behind The Blind Side holding firm at number five. So it probably won't make a bunch of money. But it is a hell of an entertaining movie. In the last fifteen years, Clooney has become our most interesting movie star. He's handsome and charming, but he's got a quirky sense of humor and since 1998's Out of Sight he's demonstrated pretty consistent good taste in material. Look over his films: Out of Sight, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Three Kings, Solaris, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, Michael Clayton, Burn After Reading, and now Up In The Air. That is more than a good run of movies, it's a legend-making run of movies. If he quit tomorrow, Clooney has a pretty good chance of emerging as his generation's greatest movie star. Sure, he made the silly Ocean's movies, and the big wave movie, and he was spectacularly bad as Batman. But those exceptions prove the rule. He's amassing a terrific body of work.
Me & Orson Welles- Richard Linklater directed this airy little romp about an aspiring young actor who spends a week in the shadow of Orson Welles. It's a tribute to the talent and magnetism of Welles in the form of Christian McKay's fine performance.
A Serious Man- This was probably the best movie I saw this year. Joel and Ethan Coen, who have had a tremendous decade, top it off with one of their best films yet, a retelling of the story of Job set in the Jewish suburbs of Minnesota. A black-as-sackcloth comedy, it stars Michael Stuhlbarg as a man beset on all sides by misfortune. He looks to his religion for some solace and comfort but finds only God's silence. The Coens are the best directors working today, and the fact that they followed up the commercial successes of No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading with this darkly hilarious look at suffering is a testament to their continuing cinematic value.