In the future, 2009 will be better known as the last year of the twenty-first century's inaugural decade than for any of the films released within that twelve-month span. There were a handful of great motion pictures from this writer's perspective, but few that were unequivocally well-received, and even fewer still that can be pinpointed as classics-in-the-making. Perhaps the blame has to do with 2008's infamous writers' strike, which led to studios greenlighting projects not ready to go before the camera. Or, perhaps 2009 just wasn't a lucky year in the land of moviemaking, Hollywood and beyond.
January through Apriltypically a landfill for pictures not big enough for the summer or prestigious enough for the fallbirthed three entries in my ultimate end-of-the-year top ten list, but two of them never played on more than one U.S. screen at a time during their releases, and the other one received criminally unfair scathing reviews. Clearly, I was in the minority on that one. By comparison, the year's opening four months bred five of my bottom-ten selections. The May-through-August season was a little better, arguably stronger than the autumn, with only three worst entries and four best. Still, only one big-budget summer tentpole lived up to the hype; the rest of the blockbusters were largely soulless and of the been-there-seen-that variety. Finally, September through December was filled with seemingly can't-miss prospects, but time and again they either were merely good, if flawed, or outright failures, with only a few exceptions. December, especially, was a dispiriting month of Oscar hopefuls that crashed and burned.
In keeping with the format of my annual "The Year in Review" essay, this year's will be identical. First, I call attention to the best performances of the year (ultimate winner colored red). Next up are my choices for the most overrated and underrated of 2008's crop. And, last, we arrive at my lists for the absolute best and worst motion pictures of the year, with a little explanation for good measure. With 2009 over and a new decade before us, I can't wait to see what cinematic surprises the new year may have in store.
The Best Performances of 2009
(my pick for the absolute best is indicated in red)
"The Hangover," directed by Todd Phillips, was the highest-grossing comedy of the year, earning an astonishing $277-million in U.S. receipts. Its appeal, however, was completely lost upon me. The premise, wherein a group of pals try to retrace their steps and locate the groom after a wild, drunken bachelor party in Las Vegas, held comic possibilities, but they never arrived. Humor is surely subjective, and the smug, crass, juvenile theatrics of the male characters and portrayal of all of the females as hookers and grating harpies turned me off from minute one. Raunchy but never clever, raucous but superficial, "The Hangover" was so out of touch with its own humanity that amusement was virtually nonexistent. This was one road trip definitely not worth taking.
"The Informers," directed by Gregor Jordan, came and went in most theaters in a matter of a week, poorly marketed and brutally beaten by the majority of critics. Their claim that the film, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, was shallow proved that they missed the point entirely. Altmanesque in style but Lynchian in feel, "The Informers" is predominately set in the rich-glitz squalor of excess-fueled 1983 Los Angeles, depicting a dystopian society of miserable, wayward lost spirits who do as they please and have money to burn, but are without any idea how to connect in healthy human ways with those around them. Not everyone on display is a bad personfew innately arebut their souls have been deadened by a heartless, consumer-driven lifestyle that has stripped them of everything but their impossibly good looks. With a speckless production design, a terrific soundtrack, and a superb ensemble cast that included Jon Foster, Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Winona Ryder, Amber Heard, and the late Brad Renfro, the picture interweaved a devastating tapestry of sexual promiscuity and disaffection set at a specific historical moment in time when everything was about to change.
Bride Wars Lifelong best friends (a slumming-it Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson) unknowingly plan their weddings for the very same day and, instead of acting like mature adults and rescheduling, turn to back-stabbing and sabotage. "Bride Wars" is about people you wouldn't want to know in your real life, and would never want to see onscreen. The plot they are involved in is deeply flawed and unforgivable, based around an idiotic conflict that, were the film set within an approximation of reality, could be solved in a matter of seconds. Instead, the viewer is treated like an imbecile, and the 90-minute running time is but a parade of grade school-level behavior and desperate comedy that isn't funny, only mean-spirited.
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans The third time was far from a charm and not even the star attraction of the previous films (Kate Beckinsale) bothered to show up in "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," a low-rent, fraction-of-the-cost prequel. Muddy-looking, undistinguished, and frustratingly minimal in scope, the picture fails at being a tragic romance and fails all the more as a genre pic. Filmed on chintzy soundstages and saddled with cheap special effects and heinous werewolf designs, "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans" offers nothing to please anyone. It's laggard, unappealing, and emotionally comatose.
All About Steve Sandra Bullock is usually a joy to watch, but not even her all was enough to save "All About Steve," a lethargic, nonsensical, absolutely cadaverous non-romantic comedy about a socially unhinged crossword constructer who stalks a news cameraman across the country and ends up stuck in a mine shaft with an endangered deaf child. Huh? Whatever Bullock was thinking when she signed on for this project and agreed to produce it is anyone's guess. Watching her lisp, rant and rave her way through the unperformable role of Mary Horowitz is embarrassing to witness, the admittedly great-looking 45-year-old actress forced to revert to acting like an awkward, overcaffeinated schoolgirl. That Mary is not a teenager or even a twenty-something turns the proceedings into a depressing study in mental instability. That her troubles are swept aside and she is treated, no joke, like a deity by the end was the last straw in a movie as phony as it was deplorable.
Invictus Every director as prolific and typically reliable as Clint Eastwood is bound to have an off-day, but "Invictus" was so alarmingly amateurish and insultingly simplistic it is as if a first-time, no-talent helmer chose "Clint Eastwood" as his pseudonym. The true story of Nelson Mandela's (Morgan Freeman) plan to end tensions and unite South Africa by way of the country's rugby team winning the 1995 World Cup, the film is so shameless in its all-encompassing goals to inspire and pull the heartstrings that it ends up doing neither. Instead, "Invictus" makes a mockery of itself, generating laughs where there shouldn't be any and turning truth into a soppy, naively displayed "Can't-We-All-Just-Get-Along" plea for racial harmony and acceptance. The only thing authentic about this film is its sheer sap-induced egotism.
I Love You, Man Appallingly unfunny and about as charming as a natural disaster, "I Love You, Man" is concerned with nothing other than aping the formula of Judd Apatow's canon of filmmaking and producing credits. Writer-director John Hamburg fails miserably, not only at his concoction of bawdy humor mixed with more serious undercurrents, but at his very attempt at making a movie, period. How can the viewer possibly connect with characters who are this far away from relatable human beings? Each one either belongs on a different planet or simply mugs in front of the camera like a preening, ultra-obnoxious talent show contestant with no discernible gift to show off. The lot of them are at the mercy of a lame story, a lamer script, and no payoff to any of it. Indeed, so bland, weightless and utterly forgettable is "I Love You, Man" on virtually every level that one starts to assume he or she is hallucinating rather than watching an actual movie.
Dragonball: Evolution A few times each year, a movie comes along that makes the viewer just want to shake his or her head in disbelief at the ineptitude that has found its way to the screen. To be a fly on the Styrofoam boulders used during the shooting of "Dragonball: Evolution" must have been quite the juicy entertainment. Based on the Japanese manga by Akira Toriyama, "Dragonball: Evolution" is amazing in its badness, an action-fantasy hodgepodge of cringe-inducing writing, flat and dreary camerawork, stick-drawn characters, laughable sets that look about as realistic as the ones used in Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space," cheaper-than-cheap greenscreen work, and CGI so chintzy it wouldn't have passed muster in 1989. Eight months after being released, does anyone else even remember this film's existence?
G-Force The worst release from Walt Disney Pictures since the decade-old "Inspector Gadget," to describe this chaotic, charmless, pop culture-centric product as completely and utterly excruciating is almost too kind a criticism to bestow upon what amounts to a kid-friendly version of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." By "kid-friendly," I simply mean made with children in mind, most preferably those already in need of a full lobotomy. Hoyt Yeatman Jr., an Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor making what amounts to his directorial debut, would be best to stick to what he knows in the future (and what he knows certainly has nothing to do with helming a motion picture). Which is worse: eating a plateful of rodent droppings or sitting through the soul-devouring vacuum of "G-Force" a second time? It's a toss-up. Both prospects could put a person's gag reflex into overdrive.
Next Day Air A crime comedy wherein laughs are nowhere in sight and each character is more hateful than the last, "Next Day Air" is reprehensible trash that had no business showing up on a theatrical marquee. The film's behind-the-scenes teamamong them, laughably-named music video director Benny Boom, first-time (and hopefully last-time) screenwriter Blair Cobbs, and cinematographer David A. Armstrongexude nary a hint of talent or pizzazz. Truth be told, they barely seem to know what they are doing at all. While a creative camera angle or some snappy dialogue might have helped to ease the monotony, it is just as well that the film has neither. With no one to care about, nothing to learn, and no place to go, the miserable plot just sits there and rots. Only the deadly serious finale where almost the whole cast gets blown away is satisfying; by that point, they all deserved their ugly fates.
Duplicity With "Duplicity," the infamous sophomore slump hit writer-director Tony Gilroy (2007's "Michael Clayton") with the force of a giant meteorite barreling below the surface of the planet and making contact with the earth's crust. A caper without intrigue and a romance without humanity, this disastrously wasteful star vehicle starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen manages quite the feat by both crushing the viewer's soul and devouring their spirit in two hours flat. The "too-cool-for-school" stylizationswatch out for zooming split screensmight work to compliment better material, but here its only purpose is to try and create a distraction from the picture's gross superficiality. If that weren't enough, the glacial pacing and utterly insufferable stick figure characters put up quite an argument for the preferable entertainment value of watching paint dry. With the level of talent in front of and behind the camera, there simply was no excuse for "Duplicity" to be as irredeemable as it was.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen When deciding upon the absolutely worst motion picture to see the light of day in 2009, there was no competition. A presold summer blockbuster that takes a $200-million budget and uses it to make the cinematic equivalent of a truck-stop toilet that hasn't been cleaned in a matter of weeks, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is putrid, offensive and life-sucking. The expense is up on the screen in an orgy of almost nonstop CGI effects, but it looks as if not a penny has been spent on a dignified screenplay, an acting coach, a cohesive editor, or a capable director who knows the difference between mounting truly thrilling, suspenseful, energetic, awe-inspiring action set-pieces and disorganized, joyless, empty bombasts of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Michael Bay is the worst of A-list filmmaking hacks, a man who loses himself in pompous flash and cash, narrows in on shameless product-placement and militaristic propaganda, and sexually massages himself with his own grossly inflated ego without spending a moment's thought on the overall sense and quality of what he is prematurely ejaculating onto the screen. 2007's "Transformers" had many of the same deficient characteristics, but this easily inferior sequel is also cynical and distasteful in a way that could churn stomachs.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince As Harry Potter (impeccably played by Daniel Radcliffe) grows up and matures and his fated impending battle against Lord Voldemort intensifies, so, too, does this masterfully rich series based on the books by J.K. Rowling. The sixth entry, directed by David Yates, is certainly the best yet, a chillingly great combination of coming-of-age drama and fantasy-thriller that plays like a Greek tragedy in the epic tradition. A grim, thunderous game-changer in many ways, breathless suspense and a lingering genuine scariness reach crescendos that only the very best horror movies can attest to. The culminating sacrifices that follow (one central character dies at the wand of another) are superbly brought to full dramatic fruition. From this point on, for the survivors, nothing will ever be the same again.
Lifelines A major new force to the indie cinema world has arrived in the form of first-time writer-director-producer Rob Margolies. Shot over eleven days on a budget of just $250,000, "Lifelines" is not only better than the vast majority of studio pictures that get released each year, but it is also so assuredly shot, astutely written and powerfully performed that it makes the act of making a movie look deceptively easy. Unexpectedly funny as well as emotionally impacting in its authenticity, this familial drama, led by the undervalued Jane Adams in an Oscar-worthy performance, may have only received limited theatrical distribution way back in April, but it deserves to be sought out. "Lifelines" may be small in budget, but its scope in bravely and accurately depicting the ins and outs of a family in immediate crisis is incalculably huge.
The Informers Accurately recalling the hair, fashion, music and pop-culture of early-'80s Los Angeles without turning it into an excuse for campiness, "The Informers" is aesthetically pretty, subjectively ugly, and emotionally incisive, leaving one dismayed and rattled at the empty human shells on display and the reality that these people, in their own way, do exist. Rewarding in countless ways and never less than enthralling, the picture celebrates the passing of a not-so-innocent era and mourns the victims left in its wake. For those few who are aware of the superficiality of their surroundings, all they can do is sit back, aghast at a cycle of gross societal alienation they have no control over.
Drag Me to Hell With the down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred sensibilities of his earlier "Evil Dead" work and with the painterly style, feel, and suspense of no less than Alfred Hitchcock, Sam Raimi's "Drag Me to Hell" was as marvelous as the theatrically-released horror genre got in 2009. Pitting a young, naive loan officer (Alison Lohman) against an old, curse-spouting gypsy (Lorna Raver) who doesn't take kindly to being shamed, the film is devilish fun from start to finish, at once terrifying and so entertaining it ought to be a crime. The goosebump-inducing excitement rubs off on the audience, burned many times recently by wimpy PG-13 supernatural fare that don't have a clue how to tell a story, build characters, and still give the viewer something to scream about. "Drag Me to Hell" succeeds at doing all three of these things while carving out a place for itself in the pantheon of classic modern horror films. It's that good.
Up in the Air Centering around a less than admirable professioncareer corporate downsizing"Up in the Air" manages a close-to-impossible task: it listens, and shows deep compassion, for each one of its characters, embracing their positive qualities and their flaws. Writer-director Jason Reitman, along with co-writer Sheldon Turner, have created a slice-of-life that is humane, caring, and only overtly sentimental when the honesty of a situation calls for it. As comes with the territory of such a job, the film can also be painful and ruthless, pulling no punches as it considers the immense emotional strain placed on both the victims being given the boot and those that are faced with breaking the news to them. George Clooney delivers perhaps his most accomplished performance to date as Ryan Bingham, a terminally single man who lives his life on the road and likes it that way, and Anna Kendrick is a scene-stealer as an overeager college graduate whose modern ideas involving the company's procedures threaten Ryan's very livelihood. Fictional characters though they are, there is such an aching intimacy and resounding spontaneity to them that they seem real. It is bittersweet to have to say good-bye.
Away We Go Gorgeously lyrical in every way, "Away We Go" tells of a loving couple (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski), about to have a baby, who decide to travel the country in hopes of finding the right place for them to settle down and raise a family. Comedic and episodic, soulful and touching, simple and sneakily wise, the picture, directed by Sam Mendes, presents a vision of life full of all the quirks, nuances, disappointments and happy surprises that come along with it. With singer-composer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch's glorious sounds leading the way like a musical roadmap, "Away We Go" packs a wallop without once feeling like it is trying too hard. Surrounded by a colorful supporting cast that includes Allison Janney, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Catherine O'Hara, Jeff Daniels, Melanie Lynskey, and Chris Messina, lead actors Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski are the steadfast glue that hold the rest of the colorful film down on planet earth. Their relationship is as genuine and romantic as any this year. A joy of a movie, as loose, comfortable and lived-in as an old, reliable blanket.
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire A character study of a downtrodden, illiterate Harlem teen (Gabourey Sidibe), pregnant for the second time by her own deadbeat father, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is a stunner of a drama, as important and enlightening as it is devastatingly unsentimental. Tough to take yet enrapturing, unyieldingly disturbing yet inspiring in director Lee Daniels' point-of-view that a person's journey toward becoming a stronger person while bettering themselves is not out of reach or too late for anyone. Topped off by two remarkable performances from newcomer Gabourey Sidibe and Oscar-bound Mo'Nique, horrifying as Precious' abusive monster of a mother, "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is a rarefied beauty, an innately human story that offers inspiration without sap, fleeting hope without contrivance, ultimate redemption with sincerity.
Where the Wild Things Are As far from a pandering kid movie or a paint-by-numbers adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book as one could get, "Where the Wild Things Are" is something of a modern miracle. The road to the big screen has been a rocky one for this ambitious project, with filmmaker Spike Jonze and distributor Warner Bros. Pictures clashing for a time over a final product that wasn't nearly as cutesy and cookie-cutter as the studio envisioned. Why a Hollywood production company would second-guess an artist of his caliber is anyone's guess, but, fortunately, Jonze persevered with his one-of-a-kind vision of precisely what it is like to be nine years old and vulnerable to the world. Bold and cinematic, at once wondrously epic yet achingly intimate and honest, "Where the Wild Things Are" has what it takes to touch and enchant generations of audiences at pretty much every age level. Touting it as this century's answer to 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" would not be flagrant hyperbole.
Must Read After My Death Shortly after 89-year-old grandmother Allis' death in 2001, filmmaker Morgan Dews came upon a staggering archive of audio diaries, transcripts and dictaphone letters that she and the rest of her family had kept throughout the 1960s. Listening to them revealed a piece of his grandmother's life that he had never been made privy to. Integrating these startling tapes with a collage of typically upbeat photographs and home movies, Dews weaves together a chilling, devastating portrait of a family whose happy-go-lucky facade masks six lives in a state of unbearable turmoil and decay. "Must Read After My Death" is a mesmerizing documentary, the year's most powerful, a masterwork of layered storytelling, varying points-of-view, and thought-provoking inferences that speak just as loudly as the silences in the recordings and the words unspoken. In compiling all of the recordings and home movies and editing them into a 73-minute narrative, Dews has created an eye-openingly brilliant tapestry that manages to dig beneath the surface of the 1960s' answer to the American Dream and reveal the grim, desperate underbelly that lurked just out of sight.
Inglourious Basterds No matter how many distaff imitators there may be, no filmmaker working today comes close to writing or directing like Quentin Tarantino, a trailblazing auteur who shows a distinct passion for his projects and an appropriate reverence for the art form. Although he only works sparingly, the long waits in between are well worth it. Like a masterpiece of a novel you don't want to end yet can't help but devour, "Inglourious Basterds" is fierce, fascinating, literate, ballsy, shocking, whimsical, devastating, brazenly inventive, and nothing less than wholly hypnotic. Divided into five chaptersa further contribution to its sumptuously erudite feelthe film is ecstasy for movie lovers, not only to soak up a piece of history that has been wickedly, some might say idealistically, revised, but also to lounge within the words and personalities of characters that have been lusciously, painstakingly created. In a year when there were a fair share of fine films, but few truly great ones, this one tore across the screen like it had something to prove. By the end, one didn't know whether to scream or cheer, or do both. "Inglourious Basterds" stands tall as 2009's most enduring and unforgettable achievement.