At the Movies in 2009 with Seven Days' Film Critics
Movie Review Overview
Sam Rockwell in Moon
RICK KISONAK: So, the Academy has doubled the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10 this year. Apparently someone felt that 2009 gave us an unprecedented glut of classics. Either that or they thought the awards broadcast just hasn’t been running quite long enough — who can say? I don’t know about you, but the past 12 months haven’t exactly left me with the impression we’ve entered the dawn of a new cinematic golden age. I mean, it was great that Eddie Murphy kept it to one movie, but, aside from that, I’d call it a fairly so-so year overall, wouldn’t you?
MARGOT HARRISON: If the larger field of nominees gives some quirkier, less Oscar-bait-y films a chance, I’m all for it. But I agree that this year’s cinematic pickings were lean. On the plus side, we’ve seen a bunch of kids’ and animated films — Up, Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline — that adults could love, too. And one Iraq war drama that was actually good. Mainly, though, I suspect 2009 will be remembered as the Year of Sports Movies That Purport to Teach Us Racial Harmony Through Refereed Violence.
Most Stellar Performance
RK: A tie (no, not between Morgan Freeman and Sandra Bullock). Two actors absolutely blew me away. One of my favorite films of the year is the UK production Bronson. Tom Hardy is bloody mesmerizing as the title character in the true story of Britain’s most violent prisoner. Charlotte Gainsbourg gives one of the bravest, no-holds-barred performances I’ve ever witnessed as a mother who loses her child and then her mind in Lars von Trier’s gorgeous and unnerving Antichrist.
MH: In a somewhat lighter vein, I nominate Sam Rockwell for Moon. A movie about one guy locked in a spaceship interacting mainly with his own clone is an iffy prospect at best — I shudder to think of the hamming some actors would do to fill the space. Rockwell made the moon miner’s plight real, alternately tragic and funny.
Most Annoying Performance
RK: Another tie: the FDA and USDA. Have you caught Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc.? It’s amazing to me that anyone who’s seen this manages to voluntarily set foot in an American supermarket ever again afterward.
MH: Larry David in Whatever Works. I’ve got no problem with Mr. David as an actor or with his character’s titular philosophy of life. But owing to Woody Allen’s stale, long-shelved script, watching this monologue-heavy movie was like spending 90 minutes in the company of a coffee-shop curmudgeon who never admits he’s wrong.
RK: Adventureland, Away We Go, Couples Retreat, Funny People, The Hangover and Up in the Air all have their moments, but I found the English satire In the Loop far and away the funniest film of the year. Who knew the run-up to the Iraq war was such a laugh riot behind the scenes?
MH: I didn’t think it was literally about Iraq, but maybe the joke’s on me. Anyway, seconded. This was a year of wobbly, failed politico-cultural satires (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Informant!). The Brits proved they can deliver the real deal. And, by the way, I also want to mention The Invention of Lying — set in the U.S.A., but essentially another bone-dry, misanthropic English satire from the creator of “The Office.”
RK: Year One. As a writer and director, Harold Ramis has given us some of the finest comedies of modern times — from Caddyshack and Animal House to Stripes and Groundhog Day. Unfortunately, his latest is set in prehistoric times, evidently well before the invention of humor.
MH: Land of the Lost. It’s possible Will Ferrell’s big misstep will be regarded someday as an inspired, absurdist stoner comedy. Certain scenes are so dumb they transcend dumbness. But to get through the bad stretches, its fans will have to watch it seriously baked.
RK: For me, this wasn’t even close: The Informant! With every new project, it’s become increasingly difficult to believe that Steven Soderbergh is the same filmmaker who snagged Oscar nods for Traffic and Erin Brockovich in the same year. If The Good German (2006) and Che (2008) hinted at the director’s artistic struggle, this lame caper comedy about a mental case clueing the FBI in to his company’s price-fixing practices blows the whistle on it loud and clear.
MH: You know, Rick, I expected to like The Informant! better than you did, but I have to second this pick, too. Is Soderbergh so removed from everyday midwestern suburban life that he finds it inherently hilarious? While the Marvin Hamlisch score is a kitsch gem by itself, it’s a distracting stylistic fillip on a story that might, told straight, have been fascinating.
RK: That Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell can sing. With a little songwriting help from T-Bone Burnett, they make the soundtrack for Crazy Heart one of the few I’d pay good money for if the studio hadn’t already sent it to me for free. Don’t you just love award-season perks?
MH: An even bigger surprise: Colin Farrell’s name appears well below the title of that film. But my pick for this category is Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’ve never been crazy about animation or the twee sensibility of Wes Anderson, but I love them together. With his obsessive attention to detail, Anderson captured the look of a classic picture book and combined it with self-deprecating adult humor. If he made all his future movies with puppets, I’d be first in line.
Most Unnecessary Horror Remake
RK: My God, there are so many to choose from. What a baffling trend. You don’t see remake after remake of comedies or animated films or sci-fi movies or works in most any other genre simply because a few decades have gone by since the original came out. Why are horror movies remade like clockwork?
In any event, I’d have to go with The Stepfather. Joseph Ruben’s 1987 version featured a brilliantly creepy Terry O’Quinn in the title role. Which, I guess, was good practice for the brilliantly creepy work he does these days as John Locke on “Lost.” Something tells me we won’t be discussing highlights of Dylan Walsh’s career 20 years from now.
MH: Hey, Dylan Walsh did decent work on “Nip/Tuck”!
Anyway, it’s a crowded field, but I pick The Last House on the Left. The original was made on a shoestring — a real grindhouse flick. It’s like remaking Paranormal Activity with $30 million and a CGI demon: When you lose the shot-in-my-backyard quality, you lose the film. All that’s left in this case is a nasty revenge fantasy involving improper use of a microwave.
Best Reason to Give It a Rest Already With Movies Based on Comic Books, Video Games or Toys
RK: There’s just something so wrong about the name Hasbro showing up in a movie’s credits. As with horror remakes, there may be nothing we can do to stop the madness, though. Even a picture as 100 percent free of redeeming artistic value as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra makes way too much money (more than $300 million worldwide, believe it or not) for studios to be able to resist.
MH: Watchmen. Not because it was awful — it wasn’t. But audiences across America brought the kids to this R-rated movie based on a cerebral cult comic and came away baffled, warning their friends to stay away. The take-home message for Hollywood execs: America isn’t ready for a comic-book-based movie with sex, blood and moral ambiguities. But giant CGI robots smashing each other while Megan Fox prances around in a tank top is box-office gold.
Most Inexplicable Hit
RK: The original Night at the Museum (2006) took place in the American Museum of Natural History. This year’s sequel is set in the galleries of the Smithsonian. Together, these two frantic, pandering productions could easily outfit a third repository: the Museum of Stupid Movie Clichés. But that didn’t keep it from generating $177 million domestically, making it the 10th biggest hit of 2009. (You think that’s crazy — G.I. Joe is number 13!)
MH: I want to take on number one on this year’s hit list: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Though I don’t share the love, I get why The Blind Side made big bucks. Same with the Twilight movies and Taken. All those flicks are well-crafted efforts to please moviegoers who are not the usual target market: 18-to-34-year-old males. What I can’t understand is why Michael Bay’s CGI purée, poor storytelling, cynical jingoism and corny dialogue appeal across all demographics.
Most Inexplicable Flop
RK: No shortage of these: Of the top 150 movies released this year, Away We Go was 128th at the box office, Woody Allen’s Whatever Works 141st, Moon 143rd and the aforementioned Food, Inc., 146th. But the real head scratcher is The Hurt Locker. How many of this year’s movies earned higher praise (a rare 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes)? And yet it’s earned a meager $12 million and ranks an inexplicable 118th.
MH: I also pick The Hurt Locker — not because of its critical acclaim but because this is a frickin’ action movie. Yes, it’s about the Iraq war. And it’s got more genuine excitement than Public Enemies and 2012 put together. On the flip side, I’m glad audiences embraced District 9, another documentary-style film about a humanitarian disaster in a grimy urban setting. I guess the fact that it was science fiction made it less “depressing.”
Best Omen of Civilization’s Impending Downfall
RK: Mike Judge has lost the ability to make us laugh. Ten years after turning out the immortal workplace comedy Office Space, the writer-director revisited the genre this summer and handed in an exercise in pointlessness whose dailies should’ve had Miramax handing him a pink slip. Easily the most disappointing movie of the season, Extract is, more significantly, the biggest letdown of its esteemed creator’s career. After all, we’re talking about the man who masterminded not just the above-mentioned live-action classic but also 2006’s Idiocracy and such animated milestones as “Beavis and Butt-Head” and the recently abdicated “King of the Hill.” Shaquille O’Neal can’t not be large. Jack Nicholson can’t not be cool. Before seeing his latest film, I never would have imagined Mike Judge could not be funny, but he proved me wrong for an uninspired, feeble-minded 90 minutes. The world is not such a laugh-packed place that we can afford to lose a guy like this.
And then, of course, there’s all the blowback from the producers and fans of Anvil! The Story of Anvil over the Academy’s failure to include the film on its short list for Best Documentary.They’re pushing for it to be eligible for Best Picture. If you’ve actually seen the movie, you’ve got to find the fact that more than four or five people are involved in this furor a tad scary.
MH. The plague of colons on marquees. You may think I’m joking, or that this is a trivial matter. No. As American waistlines, credit-card debts and landfills balloon, so, too, do American movie titles. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs; Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian; G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and even the informative Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire — I’m looking at you. How can we expect our youth to learn to write concise, memorable prose when the films aimed at them have titles like Underworld: Rise of the Lycans? Filmmakers and marketers, please try to follow the salutary examples of Up and Taken.
And, while I’m at it, the possessive titles (Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Tyler Perry’s Tyler Perry in a Fat Suit Making You Laugh) need to go. If this keeps up, in 2019 we could be buying tickets for Michael Bay’s Ice Age: Creationism Confirmed by the Epic 3-D Battle of Human vs. T. Rex, With Additional Dialogue by James Cameron, Creator of ‘The Terminator,’ and Product Placement From Apple.
Eddie Murphy Award for Total Sellout by a Talented Comic
RK: Had Lenny Bruce been born a quarter-century later, what do you think the chances are he’d have wound up making paycheck movies like Bicentennial Man, Death to Smoochy, RV, the Night at the Museums and this year’s new low, Old Dogs? It’s sad to watch a comic as gifted as Robin Williams let his career become a joke.
MH: Will Ferrell in Land of the Lost stands out, and Danny McBride managed to jump in that fetid pool, as well. I don’t really know what Simon (Shaun of the Dead) Pegg was doing as Scotty in Star Trek, other than earning a paycheck, but at least he was funny.
Best Movie With No Movie Stars
RK: Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo told one of the most deeply moving, completely unpredictable stories of 2009 and didn’t have a famous face within a mile of it. The closest any of the cast came to celebrity: Costar Red West went to high school with Elvis.
Worst Movie With an All-Star Cast
RK: Well, a number of movies I’ve already mentioned would fit this bill. But, just to keep things fresh, let’s point the finger at Angels & Demons, Ron Howard’s ungodly sequel to The Da Vinci Code. Let’s see: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård and Armin Mueller-Stahl, for starters. How’s that for star power? Not enough to keep it from being one of the summer’s stinkiest releases. Talk about holy crap.
MH: The Men Who Stare at Goats. Now, I’m not saying it’s an awful movie. I laughed a few times, because George Clooney and Kevin Spacey are funny men. But if you filmed this rambling script with equally talented no-name actors, I can guarantee the result would go straight to DVD. Also, Ewan McGregor is usurping Jude Law’s title as Never-Met-a-Script-I-Didn’t-Like Guy.
Best Documentary or Fact-Based Film
MH: I wouldn’t bet against The Cove, but advocacy documentaries aren’t for me. I prefer movies that explore their real-life subjects in exhaustive detail and leave us to draw our own conclusions. That’s why I liked The Baader Meinhof Complex from Germany, which delved into the roots of a famous case of domestic terrorism and illuminated the strange mix of utopianism, bullying and paranoia that fueled the Red Army Faction in the ’70s.
Best Movie Vermonters Probably Won’t Get to See Until 2010
RK: The bad news is, the list is long. The good news is, there’s lots of great stuff on the way — Antichrist, A Single Man, Broken Embraces, Bronson, Crazy Heart, The Damned United, The Lovely Bones, The Messenger and The White Ribbon, among many, many others.
MH: I’ve only seen one of those movies myself. But I’m hoping Lars von Trier’s Antichrist makes it to theaters and causes a stir. It has a (not so fantastic) fox announcing that “Chaos reigns.” What else do you need to know?
Also, I think Vermont needs to see Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage turn Abel Ferrara’s cult film about a coked-up cop into a franchise with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I don’t even mind the colon in the title because it goes with the insanity of the whole endeavor.
RK: For me it didn’t get any worse than Year One. How the talents of Harold Ramis, Jack Black and Michael Cera combined to produce such a staggering lack of laughs still boggles my mind.
MH: There are so many bad movies. But each year I ask myself: Which movie was bad enough to be remembered? Which movie had enough misguided moments to generate a viral YouTube montage like Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man? Which movie entered “so bad it’s good” territory? This year the award goes to Richard KellyThe Box, which proves conclusively that the Donnie Darko auteur is pulling his metaphysics out of his posterior. It is, however, worth catching for the sheer number of WTF elements, starting with Cameron Diaz’s “Southern” accent.
RK: The Road. What can I say — great book, great adaptation, great directing, great visuals and great performances. This was as great as it got at the movies for me this year.
MH: I admit I wasn’t mesmerized by A Serious Man while I watched it. It’s a strange, disjointed film that pulls you in with its great soundtrack and cinematography and then pours buckets of cold water on your head. But I can’t stop thinking about it. Some say the Coens are just messing with us again, but I think they’ve finally come into their own. And who else would give you a chance to argue with your friends about whether Grace Slick qualifies as the voice of the Almighty?