Nate’s Anticipated Year-End Round-Up: 2009’s Good, Bad, Ugly, and Whatever
Here we are yet again with startling regularity. The year 2009 in film is now one for the record books, and as a whole I’d have to ay that it was marginally better than the previous year. As per usual, I tried my darndest to see as many movies as I could to give a fair and balanced opinion on the highs and lows of the previous calendar cycle. I hope you enjoy my annual ulcer-inducing look back at all the ink I spilled over one of my life’s passions. And just remember, I see the awful films so you don’t have to.
PART ONE: THE 10 BEST AND WORST FILMS OF 2009
I started a new tradition last year when I compiled a second draft of my Best of the Year list 365 days after the fact. Every year I usually miss out on some notable movies and have to play catch up, and I’ve seen about 120 movies from the year 2008 now. So before we look in depth at the year that was 2009, let me momentarily rehash the previous year.
Revised Best Movies of 2008 list:
10) Tropic Thunder (previously 7)
9) Let the Right One In (previously 8)
8) Doubt (previously 6)
7) Waltz with Bashir (unranked)
6) Synecdoche, New York (unranked)
5) The Wrestler (no change)
4) The Dark Knight (no change)
3) Reprise (no change)
2) Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (no change)
1) WALL-E (no change)
And to celebrate the close of a decade of cinema, I thought it’d be nice for me to synthesize my 700-soemthing film reviews from those ten years into a manageable, and no less fashionable, Best of the Decade list. But before I unveil my ten beauties, I would like to share an incident that I was privy to witness. The scene is verbatim how I witnessed it way back in 1999, though for whatever dubious reason I had forgotten this memory until this exact moment. Here goes.
A teenager listens to Third Eye Blind on his CD player in 1999. Suddenly a bright light flashes and a man materializes into the bedroom.
TEEN: Whoa, who are you, dude?
MAN: I have come from the distant future in 2010.
TEEN: Wow, ten years. Do we have a flying cars yet?
TEEN: Jet packs?
TEEN: Sex robots?
MAN: We’re working on it. In the future there will be many startling changes.
TEEN: Like what in this lame sex-robot-less world?
MAN: Look, I told you we’re working on it. Okay, well, for starters … Julia Roberts will win an Oscar for Best Actress.
TEEN: That’s not totally surprising. She’s America’s sweetheart and was already nominated before. I could see that as a reasonable scenario.
MAN: Fine. Reese Witherspoon and Jamie Foxx will both win Oscars as well.
TEEN: The guy from Booty Call? The chick from Fear? I mean, they’re all right actors so maybe if the right role came along. Did you ever see Twilight?
MAN: Oh, don’t even get me started on Twilight…
TEEN: Why? Do people in the future still talk about a 1998 movie starring Paul Newman called Twilight where Reese Witherspoon goes topless?
MAN: Really? She goes topless? I’ll have to stream that in my Netflix que.
TEEN: The what in the what in the what now?
MAN: Never mind. Don’t worry, you’re still many years away from sparkly vampires who do nothing but pout. Anyway, you know Charlize Theron, the actress?
TEEN: As opposed to Charlize Theron, the dentist? She’s been in a few things.
MAN: Well say hello to your Best Actress winner for 2003.
TEEN: What? You’re kidding. She’s never shown any potential close to that before.
MAN: I know, right? Tell me about it. Though now you only get a limited time to see her boobs. She may flash ‘em at the drop of a hat in early 2000s, but once they get that Oscar it’s like she’s wearing a burka. Same thing happened with Halle Berry. She hasn’t done nudity since she won Best Actress in 2001.
TEEN: Okay, hold up, now you’re pulling my leg. There’s no way the woman whose career highlights include B.A.P.S. and The Rich Man’s Wife could get an Oscar. Her finest moment of acting may be as femme fatale Miss Stone in that god-awful live-action Flinstones movie. Sheesh. Let me ask you something, space man.
TEEN: In this nightmare future, has every capable actor been murdered? Are the only eligible actors left those making a mockery of the memory of old Hollywood?
MAN: Well, in 2006 a loser from a national karaoke reality TV show wins an Oscar.
TEEN: For singing?
MAN: No. For acting.
TEEN: Reality TV?
MAN: Consider yourself fortunate. Enjoy the remaining days before TV has people eating animal testicles for money and a chance to date Tila Tequila.
TEEN: Next thing you’ll tell me is that some unfunny comedian like Mo’Nique will be an Oscar shoo-in, or that Sandra Bullock, the star of many pratfall romantic comedies, will be a frontrunner.
There is a sustained moment of awkward silence.
TEEN: Get out, get out, get out of my life! If this is the future I don’t want to live to see this woeful time! Goodbye cruel future existence.
The teen leaps out of his bedroom and plummets to his death.
MAN: At least you were spared The Matrix sequels. Now to find and kill Sarah Conner.
Dear reader, that teenager was ME! Are your minds sufficiently blown?
Nate’s Best of the 2000s Decade List
12) Donnie Darko
11) Hedwig and the Angry Inch
8) Lost in Translation
6) Spirited Away
5) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
3) Moulin Rouge!
2) Requiem for a Dream
1) City of God
And now on with the show…
BEST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
10) Star Trek
This was a hard choice that went down to the wire. I really loved the blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite but in the end the Star Trek reboot won out. The newest Star Trek does more than put a new coat of paint on an old franchise. This movie boldly goes where none of the Trek movies have gone before — turning reverent geek culture into a grand populist entertainment smash. J.J. Abrams does more than hit the restart button. He has made a Star Trek that manages to be respectfully reverent but at the same time plays along to the mainstream visual sensibilities of modern cinema. It’s fun without being campy, reverent without being slavish, and this Trek never forgets to entertain from the opening assault on a starship to the Michael Giacchino’s closing credits score. J.J. Abrams is a geek’s best friend. He understands geek culture, and yet the man is able to take genre concepts and make them easily accessible to the unconverted while still making a finished product that is respectful, playful, and awesome. Abrams is an expert on the pop culture catalogue, and he knows how to make genuinely entertaining productions that succeed on brains as well as brawn. This is an enjoyable rush of sci-fi escapism. The Star Trek series was always deeply hopeful and humanistic, believing in the best for humanity and that man, in cooperation, could achieve greatness. I think further escapades with this cast and Abrams at the helm could reach greatness. For now, I’ll be happy with this rollicking first entry into a franchise that seemed adrift in space.
9) In the Loop
This is one of those movies that are so sharp, so bristling with intelligence, that you practically need to have a remote control glued to your mitt so that you can rewind and catch all the jokes. I turned the subtitles on myself just to make sure I could get everything. This British comedy is a wicked satire of the miscommunication and blunders that lead the U.S. and Britain into declaring war on a Middle Eastern country. There are some topical jabs but so much of the humor comes from the fractious character interaction; there is a real joy to watching these larger-than-life personalities clash over the course of two nations. It’s fascinating and biting and plays out like a more profane version of The West Wing. The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, with special notice going to My Girls’ Anna Chlumsky all grown up and perfect with comic timing, and Peter Capaldi as the fearsome, fire-breathing British Director of Communications who can split an epithet like nobody’s business. You might expect his head to burst twith how apoplectic he can get. This may be the most quotable comedy in years; every line of this screenplay is gold. There are Hollywood comedies that would kill for just one or two of the choice lines here, but In the Loop is chock full of the funny. It’s a machine gun spray of comedy. Something this scathing and this brilliant doesn’t come along every day.
8) The Cove
I never really wanted to watch the documentary, The Cove, and judging by its anemic box-office gross, I wasn’t the only one. A movie about dolphin slaughter felt like it was going to be a hard chunk of medicine, and I can’t really blame anybody who read about this acclaimed Sundance doc and said, “You know, I don’t feel like spending eight bucks to watch dolphins get harpooned to death.” I can’t argue with that and it was with great trepidation that I put the DVD into my player, hiding behind a blanket, dreading the animal cruelty and self-righteousness that would soon wait. And then a funny thing happened. In the first five minutes I really got into the movie, my nervous tension disappeared, and I was captivated by one of the best-edited and most thrilling movies of the year. What hooked me was that The Cove is structured like a real-life espionage thriller. Psihoyos and his technical crew wanted to go the legal route but were blocked by opposing forces. So he assembles a team of experts to infiltrate the Taiji cove and document what exactly is going on there. The Cove builds a compelling, if one-sided, case condemning the ongoing actions of Taiji, Japan and the greater government. The conspiracy unfolds layer by layer and the movie ends up rallying others to action. It’s strange to say that a documentary about killing dolphins is one of the most gripping thrillers of the year, but there it is. This is an impeccably crafted opinion piece with a dash of espionage excitement. The movie is indignant, yes, but refrains from being self-righteous or condescending. At no point did I feel beaten over the head with some activist propaganda, though the film is clearly one-sided.
7) 500 Days of Summer
It doesn’t take long before you realize that 500 Days of Summer is a different kind of romantic comedy. In fact, to slap that genre title onto it does a disservice. I’ve watched plenty of romantic comedies (a notable rise in viewership since getting married in 2006), and the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy exists in a world not our own. It is a sitcom world where people blurt out their feelings, interact in bizarre manners, and get into wacky hijinks and contrived misunderstandings. These tales also exist in “movie world”; 500 Days of Summer, on the other hand, is refreshingly recognizable. Granted the characters still have fantastic if slightly off kilter jobs (Tom works as a writer of greeting cards), and the characters live in fabulous and gigantic apartments. Excusing those contextual quirks, the movie is upfront about its intention. “This is a story of boy meets girl,” a narrator intones, “but it is not a love story.” 500 Days of Summer manages to be breezy, moving, delightful, perceptive, charming, and just a great time at the movies. Summer isn’t the villain of the piece but her own woman, and she can be fickle and frustrating but she is not cruel or indifferent. Tom is desperately in search for his “one true love” but he’s playing by a checklist he’s drawn up from movies, TV, and love songs. All of this could have been sticky and formulaic (in fact, the dynamic vaguely resembles the characters from the abysmal Ugly Truth), but the filmmakers and the talented actors make the movie feel honest and relatable. No matter your current romantic situation, 500 Days of Summer is a slick antidote to Hollywood’s rom-com factory line.
There will be large portions of people that will refuse to give a movie like Humpday a chance simply because of its premise: two guys plotting to have sex. It’s not a dirty movie by any means, nor does it get graphic with details or conversations. But the movie exactingly explores the uncomfortable relationships men have with expressions of romance. Humpday is also extremely funny in that pained, awkward sensibility, and I challenge the squeamish to give this charming indie a shot at love. Humpday is an insightful, perceptive little character study that feels real and honest, while at the same time the movie doesn’t allow sexual politics to become the headline. The movie remembers to be funny, often, and any discomfort is worth it. Humpday explodes male sexual insecurities better than any film since 1997’s Chasing Amy. What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story. Writer/director Lynn Shelton has fashioned a scenario that is hilarious but also subtlety heartfelt; many films deal with the “bromance” of heterosexual love, but Shelton pushes it to the limit. There is commentary below the surface; however, Humpday can be entirely enjoyed as a surface-level comedy of an awkward heterosexual showdown.
5) A Serious Man
This will not be a movie for everyone, especially considering 90 percent of the laughs come from one man’s unrelenting misery. Larry (Michael Stuhlberg, terrific) isn’t exactly the deepest character, making it spotty to emotionally invest in his troubles. However, I found him to be an everyman cipher allowing the audience a safe entry point into the Coen spectacle of doom. The Coen brothers have always been technical marvels, but they seem to have raised their inconsiderable talents at the close of this decade. No Country for Old Men was a genre masterpiece, Burn After Reading was an entertaining farce, but perhaps A Serious Man is the most lasting picture. How do we explain bad things and bad things happening to people striving to be serious men and women in the world? I’m not sure if the Coens have an answer or even think the answer is important. I think their viewpoint is to enjoy the ride and laugh while you can. To the Coens, Larry is the modern-day equivalent of Job, befalling misery and looking heavenward to ask, “Why me?” He could easily be any one of us. In the face of turmoil, it feels like the Coens prescription is to laugh, the only way to remain sane in this world. And so we do laugh, dubiously, and this is how we cope with life and its ongoing uncertainty.
4) Up in the Air
Up in the Air is the kind of movie that slyly sneaks up on you. This charming comedy is much like George Clooney’s character, a man paid by cowardly bosses to fire their employees. He’s so good at his job that his skills appear effortless, but at the same time he can take heavy subject matter and make you feel better and thankful afterwards. The topical backdrop of corporate downsizing and layoffs could produce plenty of easy pathos, but Up in the Air works expertly on several layers; it’s a brisk, clever comedy with revealing repartee; it’s an adult romance that blissfully lets them behave like mature adults; and it’s a moving character piece about people realizing what they have gained and lost due to their lifestyle choices. When Clooney is fighting back tears from a crushing disappointment over being overlooked to walk his sister down the aisle, it may be the most compactly perfect moment of acting in his career. Throughout director Jason Reitman’s script (he co-wrote the adaptation of Walter Kirn’s 2001 novel), the human element is debated in our technological age. Clooney’s young cohort (Anna Kendrick) wants to simplify by firing people over the Internet. What is the cost of losing our human connection? Reitman doesn’t resort to a stolid happy ending, which is somewhat of a relief. The movie doesn’t present easy answers or pretend that life can be tied up with a bow. Up in the Air is a bristling comedy with an understated emotional current running alongside. It’s racking up tons of awards and deserves many of them, though I won’t stoop to saying this is the best film of 2009. However, Reitman has delivered another deeply entertaining, charismatic, and involving comedy that sprinkles in potent human drama.
3) Inglourious Basterds
This is, after all …. a Tarantino movie. That means there is talking. Lots of talking, but it’s great, glourious talking with deep undercurrents of menace. The movie boils down to about six set pieces and most of that time involves long, drawn out conversations where the tension percolates underneath the surface. The characters play a cat-and-mouse game of deception, and the conversation transforms into a slow fuse waiting to go off. A tremendous amount is going on, you just have to look beneath the surface, lie in wait, and luxuriate in the simmering tension that Tarantino plays like a pro. This isn’t any sentimental, well-meaning, reflective war movie. This is war Tarantino style and a celebration of war movies in general. Cinema becomes the weapon we win the war with. When Tarantino deviates sharply from the known historical timeline, it feels within reason given the cracked mirror world he’s created. There are those that bemoan that Tarantino is wasting away his remarkable talents on such low-rent enterprises. He is too caught up in genre filmmaking, they claim. He needs to go back to his earlier audacious works, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, films of startling intelligence and playfulness. He needs to stop making collages of movies and go back to making real movies, they cry. Ingloruious Basterds will not please these critics. This is a verbose deconstruction of war movies that runs over 150 minutes and mostly involves characters seated and chatting. It will clearly not be for everyone, especially those sold into thinking Basterds was going to be a more graphic version of The Dirty Dozen. This movie is more Cinema Paradiso than The Dirty Dozen. If Tarantino wants to keep making high-gloss genre goofs, that’s fine with me as long as the end results are as creative and entertaining as this movie. Who else is going to make a World War II fantasy with excellent use of David Bowie’s song “Cat People”? No one makes movies like Tarantino. I rest my case.
2) District 9
The sleeper hit of the summer, District 9 is an intelligent, and rather obvious, apartheid metaphor, and a grandly executed action thriller with a strong moral compass. Aliens crammed into ghettos and being mistreated and abused? Sounds like Alien Nation to those with longer memories, however, writer/director Neill Blomkamp forges a docu-drama that manages to be bristling with ethical questions and kick-ass action. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in all the excitement, so much so that I was trying to will the characters onscreen to take certain precautions. Blomkamp manages to take shots at some easy targets, like shady corporations and mercenaries, but that doesn’t make the movie any less affecting. The movie belongs to actor Sharlto Copley, who begins the film as a dithering bureaucrat and ends as a truly unlikely action hero, and you buy every single step of this man’s satisfying emotional arc. While the Academy is picky when it comes to genre films, Copley deserves Oscar consideration; I haven’t seen a more compelling performance by an actor all year. The special effects are astounding, and they were accomplished on a scant budget of 30 million, which is probably what Transformers 2 spent on one explosion. District 9makes you feel that movies can still surprise you, as long as we have visionary, intelligent life working outside the studio system.
And the best film of 2009 is…..
The Hurt Locker exists in a frighteningly believable world. This isn’t a movie about explosions but about the extinguishing of explosions. It follows the Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit, tasked with detecting and detonating bombs and other improvised incendiary explosives (IED) in the field of combat. You will not be restless for loud “booms” while watching The Hurt Locker. In fact, you will be on pins and needles hoping that you never hear another loud “boom.” Director Kathryn Bigalow is masterful at setting up the geography of the set piece, ratcheting up the suspense, adding organic obstacles and complications, and then makes sure with her camera and editing that an audience knows exactly what’s happening to whom for every minute that ticks off the clock. Watching James snip open the crude stitching and dig inside the chest cavity, if we didn’t know then we know now, Bigelow has made sure that The Hurt Locker is the most emotionally resonating contemporary war film in memory. The Hurt Locker is an action movie on a very human scale. Your mind will race through all these possibilities because Bigelow teases out her action sequences to an unbearably taut level. The audience cares about these soldiers and wants to see them make it back home (we’re informed how many days Delta Company has left on their tour throughout the film), which Bigelow uses to her advantage at every turn. What happens matters. My nerves were frayed during several sequences. There is no preaching to be found here. The Hurt Locker could just have easily taken place during other wars, though the current Iraq War allows for added cultural dissonance (Is the central goal of bomb-defusing a metaphor for our conflict in the region?). This is a film that transcends politics and genre.
Honorable mention: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, World’s Greatest Dad, Crazy Heart, Black Dynamite
Previous Best Pictures of the Year: 2008: WALL-E
2006: United 93
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2003: Lost in Translation
2002: (tie) City of God, Spirited Away
2001: Moulin Rouge!
2000: Requiem for a Dream
1999: American Beauty
WORST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
10) Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is an obnoxious block-headed mess that feels like it’s being made up as it goes along. It’s sensory overload without a lick of sense, clarity, wit, and general entertainment. This sequel takes everything that was good about the first Transformers film and undermines it, and it takes everything that was awful and magnifies that awfulness. The first Transformers movie was fun. This is just work to sit through. Apologists will try and rationalize their disappointment, decrying anyone who hoped for something more than a big dumb summer blockbuster about rock’em, sock’em robots. Bay wants to show you everything and as a result you rarely get a chance to process little in this movie. There is absolutely nothing more than meets the eye here. It’s all arbitrary and tedious and it goes on for what feels like an eternity. It’ll make a gazillion dollars at the box office but will anyone remember a single moment from this exhausting junk? Make sure to bring the earplugs and aspirin in abundance.
9) Final Destination 4
I felt that this franchise was creatively exhausted after the third film in 2006, and I see no reason to change that opinion. The fourth film has the added feature of being in 3-D, which means you get the luxury of having entrails exploding in your face. Regardless, the cruelly elaborate deaths are the draw. This is a horror movie built from the inside out, finding the thinnest of tissue to connect all the gory gross-out moments. A documentary set in writer’s room for a Final Destination movie would be more interesting than the finished product. The film does, literarily, the bare minimum just to move the plot along to the next fiendish death trap (this flick has a franchise record 11 death sequences). At one point, a character says, “Don’t make fun, but we Google-ed ‘premonitions,'” and then they explain the rules of the series like somebody handed them a manual. Later, the teens celebrate because they think they broke death’s chain, and I’m yelling at the screen, “That hasn’t worked for three movies, you stupid kids!” They’re all running through the same worn-out patterns that the audience already knows by heart. The big question is whether the gruesome death sequences deliver the goods. Flaming escalators and killer car washes? Clever or desperate, you be the judge. For me, the fun of this franchise was killed long ago when it gave over to the cynical bloodlust of its target audience. Since
8) Year One
This is a slapdash comedy that’s too toothless to be satire and too dumb to be witty. Jack Black and Michael Cera play a pair of banished cavemen who stroll through various episodes from the Old Testament, like Cain and Abel and a circumcision-crazed Abraham, before settling in for a wild time at Sodom. This uninspired riff on the Bible rarely lands any laughs. The comedic aim of the film is extremely low; the scatological humor consists of farting peasants, bestiality, eating poop, urinating on your face, genital mutilation, and lots and lots of pedophilic jokes. Year One (of what exactly?) is a big step back for co-writer/director Harold Ramis and a general waste of everyone’s time and talent. Black and Cera do have an interesting and playful ying-yang chemistry but they have so little to do given the rambling, episodic nature of the plot. The characters make anachronistic pop culture references or talk in self-aware circles, the celebrity cameos do little, and the jokes lack any lasting momentum. Somewhere Ramis wants to make statements about religion and faith but the flick is too timid to do anything, so the movie limps to a finish with its lame “be your own chosen one” message. This is a prehistoric comedy with rocks in its head.
7) My Sister’s Keeper
The movie strikes one false, heavy-handed note after another. There is rarely a moment that feels authentic or genuine; everything comes across as powerfully manipulative and cloying and contrived and like a tuneless melodrama. Things are cranked to such a high degree of overkill. I swear to you that, no joke, at least seventy percent of the scenes in this movie involve somebody crying. People don’t argue, they flail and shout until they go hoarse. There is nothing subtle to be found here. I didn’t feel emotionally invested in these characters and one of them is a freaking teenage girl suffering with cancer! My Sister’s Keeper is supposed to be one of those moving, heart-tugging episodes that allows us all to re-evaluate life. The movie, in actuality, is a maudlin and overstuffed melodrama (cancer kids, dysfunctional families, court disputes, secret schemes, last wishes, etc.) that is so poorly executed that it manages to make Lifetime movies look like grand art. This is an adaptation that alternates between syrupy music montages and falling anvils. The director grounds down all the tricky ethical questions and tortured feelings down into simplistic soap opera gunk. Nothing feels genuine or honest, everything comes across as incredibly forced and contrived, and enough with the music montages. Hitting the soundtrack button does not erase screenwriting deficiencies. My Sister’s Keeper is a malformed, overwrought, clunkily insensitive excuse to empty audience tear ducts. I suppose indiscriminate fans of the weepie genre will find the material forgivable, though fans of Jodi Picoult’s novel will find the changes to be unforgivable. I like my emotions to be earned and not strangled to death.
6) New Moon
I can precisely indicate where everything goes wrong for the abysmal New Moon — the character of Bella Swan. For the majority of this sequel, I didn’t just detest and dislike her I downright hated her. I hated her. I understand her appeal to the millions of Meyer’s literary acolytes, but man does she come across as a self-centered, casually cruel, messed up girl who spends most of her time being whiny, mopey, and sulky. It’s not just that she has a guy interested in her, it’s the absurd notion that every man cannot get enough of this sullen gal. As presented in New Moon, Bella is such a dour and lifeless personality. I cannot see whatsoever why she is worth such effort. I’m really on Team Bella Deserves to be Alone. What also sinks New Moon is how it repeats the same plot from Twilight. Once again Bella feels alone, she finds comfort in a boy that says they can’t be together, this intrigues her and pushes her into action, she’s warned of danger, and then finally she settles in with a pseudo relationship with a supernatural stud who makes blanket promises like “I’ll always protect you,” and, “I’ll never let anything happen to you.” It’s not complex folks; Meyer is just feeding pre-teen girls their fantasy of a male romantic interest. Because of this repetitious plot structure, very little of substance happens during the overlong 130 minutes of New Moon. The plot is a shadow of the first film, and the main character is annoying and hard to sympathize with, there’s so little of consequence that happens, it’s way too long, and, oh yeah, did I mention how much I disliked Bella Swan? At this point, the Twilight franchise is a juggernaut that cannot be contained and the Twi-hards will find the movie to be catnip, swooning at the visualized male sex objects. For anyone outside the cult of Twilight, the movie version of New Moon will fail to communicate the appeal of the series. The movie feels bloodless. Twilight is like a tedious soap opera scrubbed clean of teenage hormones. I think I’ll stick with HBO’s True Blood, a more nuanced, adult, sexy, and just plain fun series following vampire-human love. Bella could learn plenty from Sookie Stackhouse.
5) The Ugly Truth
So what is the ugly truth of The Ugly Truth? I suppose if you’re a woman, you better not be successful, talented, smart, or slightly overweight. And your dating failures are completely your own fault. And you better be willing to put out or at least dress a little provocatively. And don’t expect your man to change any of his ways, simply lower your standards. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the concluding wisdom from our trio of female screenwriters. Heigl and Butler squander their talents in such a charmless battle of the sexes cartoon. There’s little in the way of wit or insight or even properly executed comedic payoffs. The Ugly Truth needs to be atoned for. It’s rarely funny and it’s insulting and unflattering to both sexes. It exists squarely in the world of exaggerated male fantasy, peculiar for a genre defined by female wish fulfillment. The jokes recycle the same lousy observations about the differences between men and women. Men want sex. Women want relationships. Men are cretins. Women are crazy. Men like boobies. Blah, blah, blah. This time there’s just more bad language. There’s nothing truly adult here, either in wisdom or comedy. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy. At my screening, there was a family who brought their adolescent kids with them. I could hear pre-teen giggling at the more slapstick-heavy jokes and heard lots of questions whenever something sexual was discussed. At one point, Heigl covers the eyes of a child and says, “This is not for kids,” and I guess that family finally got the message because they left shortly after. Except this movie isn’t intended for anybody. Everyone in the theater should have followed suit.
4) 12 Rounds
This action flick bankrolled by World Wrestling Entertainment is an empty and aggravating movie. John Cena is not an actor, like at all. The famous pro wrestler has a face that looks to be chiseled from granite. The villain is totally non-threatening in every capacity. He acts like an impish teenager instead of a devilish rogue. The villainous MO is a shameless rip-off of Die Hard with a Vengeance. I repeat: a rip-off of the third freaking Die Hard movie, which isn’t terrific anyway. Every little game, every little round, is a puzzle that leads to the next puzzle, and Cena must figure it all out before his time runs out. And it’s all an elaborate ruse to distract the police so that our bad guy can pose as a Federal Reserve moneyman and steal from a bank, more or less just like Die Hard with a Vengeance. The director is Renny Harlin, whose last watch-able movie involved super intelligent psycho killer sharks. His action choreography relies all too heavily on ridiculously tired action tropes, like having Cena leap hundreds of feet from a helicopter to land safely in a rooftop pool. The erratic camerawork does no favors, aping the visual style of better movies. Even Harlin himself has done everything here before and better. 12 Rounds is a classic example of a cookie-cutter, brainless, preposterous, and uninventive action movie that typifies the Hollywood assembly line. It’s ludicrous from start to finish and your eyes will glaze over from watching such stolid action scenes without a hint of creative impulse.
3) Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li
It’s not every day that Jean Claude Van Damme gets some marginal level of redemption. The original 1994 Street Fighter film took the classic arcade fighting game and took it as seriously as possible, which meant it was incredibly silly. For a movie about streets and fighting, well there’s a clear shortage of the latter. Much of the movie is structured around Chun-Li (Kristen Kreuk) conducting her own private investigation and achieving some level of inner peace. The Legend of Chun-Li has zero respect for the intelligence of its audience. It has flashbacks to flashbacks that just aired minutes earlier. How hard would it have been to just actually base a Street Fighter movie on a fighting tournament? The script saddles her with great amounts of pointless voice over, to the point that half of her performance is listlessly explaining what is literally happening on screen. Kreuk is a dead-eyed robot in this movie; she displays some glimpses of human emotion, like sadness and rage, but they never feel remotely credible, like someone who only knows the definitions of emotions and not proper application. Readers know that I am skeptical and dismissive about the prospect of a good movie ever being born from a video game adaptation. Games call for interactivity and movies passivity. But if you’re going to make a movie called Street Fighter than stick to the script. This borefest wants to be a gangland drama with a tacked-on buddy cop side plot. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is an awful work partially redeemed from the sheer amount of unintentional hilarity. Kreuk is extremely miscast as a warrior woman. The acting is bad, the direction is bad, the writing is bad, and Chris Klein tries to outdo them all in badness, and I admire the chap for trying something different in an admittedly abysmal movie.
2) Baby on Board
This is such a loathsome comedy that you feel the actors compelling you to put them out of their collective misery. It’s Heather Graham’s second pregnancy comedy in two years, except in 2008’s Miss Conception she wanted to get pregnant. Has Graham become the new face of the ticking biological clock? Graham is a perfume exec who gets in the family way. And how do we reveal this big news? By extended farts and projectile vomit. Stay classy. Instead of approaching an impending baby seriously, the film uses the pregnancy as an inane romantic comedy wedge. Graham’s hubby (Jerry O’Connell) doesn’t think it’s his because he “double bags it.” She thinks he’s a cheater. Their misunderstandings are predicated on the idea that nobody ever stops to say anything that might clear the air. This stuff is beyond sitcom level contrivance. Then the film becomes a battle of the sexes debacle as neither side wants to give in and leave the home, so we’re treated to a montage that zooms through EIGHT MONTHS of pregnancy. This is a comedy with no real feel for pacing, tone, setup, or context. The actors crank it up like they’re bouncing around in a farce, when this is really just a witlessly vulgar Knocked Up knock-off. The director (by the guy who made a movie trying to go on a date with Drew Barrymore) doesn’t so much deliver the jokes as pronounce them dead. This is a vacuum of funny with awful jokes, awful acting, awful attempts at being bawdy, and an even worse sentimental transformation at the end. This is without a doubt one of the most disastrous, abominable comedies of late and should have been terminated at the early script stage. Watch the trailer and spare yourself the agony. Even the trailer can’t help but indulge in a fart joke. The trailer, for god’s sakes.
And the worst film of 2009 is…….
In a year with semi-respectable Uwe Boll movies and no annual effort by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, this spot was definitely up for grabs until I saw this low-budget crapfest. When I say that this movie is awful, I really mean it with all sincerity. This movie is so awful, so off-the-charts painful to watch that there is not an ounce of derisive fun to be had. After Last Season does not fall into that coveted category of “so bad it’s good,” no, this movie is simply disastrously, regrettably, incomprehensibly bad. I would not recommend it to my friends or enemies. From a plot standpoint, there’s about 15 minutes of stuff stretched out to a short but far too long length of 93 minutes. The rest of the script isn’t filled with intriguing character dynamics or challenging drama. It’s almost completely built from non-related scenes with non-identified characters having frivolous conversations about nothing. The general range of acting goes from impassive monotone to somewhat less impassive monotone. It’s the acting equivalent of rounding up random people at the bus station and hoping for a miracle. From a technical standpoint, After Last Season is an abysmal entry. It fails not just because of its lack of funds (which were approximately 4.95 million more than Paranormal Activity) but it fails because writer/director Mark Region lacks any filmmaking ability whatsoever. Sure, apparently the man was able to pose actors, have them recite lines, and keep the cameras running, but I expect more from my movies than the same criteria I have for family vacation videos. Region’s directorial style is, ostensibly, to have no discernible visual sensibility at all. What truly shocks me is that After Last Season got a theatrical release over the likes of thousands of other movies fighting for a release. Yes, this only played on four screens in four different cities, but how does anybody justify After Last Season even being in the same consideration of cinematic art? I am faint to even refer to this as a movie. It almost seems like a social experiment with disturbing psychological implications. After Last Season isn’t a movie so much as an endurance test of how much pointless garbage a person can consume before they relentlessly cry, “Enough! You have officially destroyed my soul!” I never thought I’d say these words, but After Last Season makes The Room look competent. Your apology letter is in the mail, Tommy Wiseau.
Dishonorable mention: Post Grad, Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past, My Life in Ruins
Previous Worst Pictures of the Year: 2008: Meet the Spartans/Disaster Movie
2007: Epic Movie
2006: Grandma’s Boy
2005: Alone in the Dark
2004: The Forgotten
2001: Freddy Got Fingered
2000: Battlefield Earth
1999: The Mod Squad
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: Gomorrah, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Drag Me to Hell, The Invention of Lying, The Men Who Stare at Goats
Worst titles of the year: The International,The Haunting in Connecticut, Lymelife, Fighting, The Final Destination, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel
Titles that could be confused with porn: Donkey Punch, I Love You, Man, The Soloist, Spread, Five Minutes of Heaven, Jennifer’s Body, The Box
Best Place to Explain?: Precious: Based Upon the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (wait, I’m confused still)
Don’t Get Confused Now: Up, What Goes Up, Up in the Air, 9, Nine, District 9, A Single Man, A Serious Man, The Answer Man, No Impact Man
Sign of Apocalypse: Uwe Boll Actually Makes a Semi-Good Movie: Tunnel Rats is a resounding achievement for the talents of reviled filmmaker Uwe Boll. It cannot even be passive-aggressively complimented as being “competent.” No, this is actually a halfway good movie that has some unsettling moments amid the suspense and chaos. The underground tunnel sequences manage to find an eerie intensity and are the best part about the movie. The movie never really feels fully realistic but at the same time it eschews being campy. It’s not as nearly as serious and artistically daring as the pinnacle Vietnam War flicks, but then again the movie is also better than plenty of other recent war films that have the tendency to either be jingoistic or fetishize the brutality of war. In a twist of fate, Boll is actually developing a first-person shooter video game based upon his Tunnel Rats movie. The man who takes video game properties and makes crummy movies out of them has now made a decent-to-somewhat-good movie and developed a video game from it. Now it’s only a matter of time before Boll adapts the game into another crummy movie.
Avatar =: Dances with Wolves in space.
The Best 10 Minutes of 2009: The shootout in the Guggenheim Museum in The International. How much does one fantastic sequence count? Can it save an otherwise so-so movie? This is the case with The International, a plodding conspiracy thriller that is shockingly action-free sans two sequences. One sequence is a lackluster foot chase that serves as a frustrating anticlimactic climax. The other is a gripping shootout inside the Guggenheim museum in New York City between Clive Owen and some mercenaries. It is a fantastic piece of action cinema, expertly handled so that the geography is clear, the stakes get more fraught, and the twists and turns arise naturally. It feels like something out of one of the Bourne movies except with extra firepower. It is a terrific ten-minute sequence; the trouble is that is comes at about minute 70 and there isn’t much worth watching afterwards. Take my advice: zip to the 70-minute mark and enjoy what you can.
Runner-up: Bill Murray appears in Zombieland; Black Dynamite vs. Richard Nixon in a kung-fu battle, Black Dynamite
Best Film I Saw in 2009 (that wasn’t released in 2009): Synecdoche, New York.
The King Solomon Award for Movies That Would Benefit by Being Cut in Half: Julie & Julia and Away We Go. Get rid of the narcissistic Julie Powell blogs stuff and give me more Julia Child in France! Get rid of the trips to see the cartoon versions of awful parenting so that we can spend more time with the drama!
Numbers Discrepancy Part 1: Let’s get this out of the way. The world isn’t going to end in 2012 no matter what chaos occurs in the movie 2012. Well, it might, but it won’t be because the Mayans said so. Because truth be told, the Mayans didn’t say anything about the world ending. The Mayan calendar exists in large circular amounts of time, and the largest period of time is called a bactun. An epoch, 13 bactun, will be coming to en end somewhere around December 21, 2012, but this in no way is a signal for the end of days. It just means that one cycle of time has come full circle and we begin anew. This is entirely a Western invention. If you learn nothing else from this review, know that the world will be fine come 2012. At least in this regard. Who knows about nuclear holocaust, biological warfare, religious fanatics bringing about the end of days, Sarah Palin running for president. The world could still end, but don’t blame the Mayans. They’re already dead anyway. They didn’t see that one coming, either.
Numbers Discrepancy Part 2: In Knowing, Nicolas Cage finds a paper filled with hundreds of numbers buried in a time capsule. The numbers are possible predictions of disasters, with dates, times, and death tolls. I have no idea which set of numbers the code is going with. For example, it lists a set number of deaths for the 2004 tsunami that killed over 250,000 people. But with such a massive event, how do we calculate the dead? There could be loads of people missing and presumed killed by the tsunami. Do people that die as a result of injuries count as direct victims, or are they victims of infection? My point is either the number code is going by the reported estimate on the news or has the exact number, which would be different than what the estimate was in the press. Either way, it presents a mild discrepancy for Cage.
“No Duh” Award: Food Inc.
Biggest Disappointment: Funny People. In the end, Funny People just isn’t that funny. There aren’t any particularly clever comedic setups, the characters don’t get many chances to be humorous even as comedians, and the movie just goes slack during its uncomfortable and uneven second half. I feel that the salutations that Funny People is “more challenging” and “serious” are unwarranted. This is certainly a different movie but is it any more serious than navigating the uncertainty and awkwardness of an unplanned pregnancy or beginning sexuality at middle age? I don’t think so. I saw this movie while I was on vacation in the Outer Banks. On our car ride back to our beach house, my wife and I got into a car accident. We were both physically fine but her little Ford Focus was totaled. I will now forever associate Funny People with a car accident.
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2009: The expected response is probably Avatar, given the hype regarding its immersive 3-D technology and plethora of face-melting special effects, but I’m going to say District 9 is the winner. By the end of that apartheid allegory, I was pumping my fist and shouting with enthusiasm.
Be Careful What You Wish For Award: Watchmen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (how does the most interesting X-Men have the lamest back story?), a PG-rated Fame remake, and Where the Wild Things Are … now as a depressing look into the unrelenting hell of childhood!
Best Worst Actor: Chris Klein in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Klein plays Interpol agent Charlie Nash who is conducting a parallel investigation into Bison’s Bangkok activities. He’s partnered up with a local gangland homicide detective (Moon Bloodgood) who takes extra care to showcase her cleavage thanks to work outfits with plunging necklines. Klein is awful to a powerful degree but here’s the thing — I’m fairly certain it’s one hundred percent intentional. Being a conosoire of trashy cinema, I feel that I’ve adopted the skill of being able to deduce when an actor is hopelessly serious or just goofing off. Klein comes across like a self-aware man; he knows this is a crummy movie with crummy dialogue, so he’s going to have as much fun as possible. His performance is all forced swagger, from the way he constantly swivels his head to the way he cannot purposely walk in a straight line. He overemphasizes lines, chewing over the faux hardboiled detective talk and spitting it out in a singsong delivery. He grimaces and furrows his brow, widens his eyes to comical levels, and when he crouches in a gunfight the man spreads his legs as far apart so that he looks like he could have effectively doubled as a backup dancer in an MC Hammer music video. It’s obvious that Klein has given a staggering performance, but the observant will note that this is not an inept performance. This man knows exactly the kind of movie he’s in.
Runner-up: Sasha Grey, actual porn star, as an emotionally flat call girl in The Girlfriend Experience. Actually, in this instance, she’s not good, it’s just that the director found a way to work around her poor, disaffected acting ability.
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2009: Transformers Heaven. Seriously, an afterlife for machines and Shia gets to take a detour there?How does a dead human end up going to robot heaven anyway? Sounds like a mix-up at the processing plant. Does that mean there’s a robot God? Was robot God created by our God? Is there a robot Devil? Does director Michael Bay do the work of the robot Devil?
Runner-up: Adamanatium bullets in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Nobody thinks about shooting through the eye cavity to get around unbreakable bones?
Best Onscreen Death: Hitler finally gets it, Ingloruious Basterds. This was sixty years in the making.
Biggest Trend: The Death of Feminism Part 872. I’m not asking that every romantic comedy be a manifesto for women’s rights, but it seemed like the rom-com output for 2009 was trying its hardest to make women look like feeble, highly emotional, illogical, shrewish idiots. In Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, all of these women somehow manage to fall head over heels in love for a guy who willingly goes through women likes changes of underwear. It makes all the women comes across as emotionally needy, insecure, vapid bubbleheads who will sacrifice everything, including self-respect and dignity, to get a taste of Matthew McConaughey’s back sweat. I’ve already written about how loathsome The Ugly Truth treats both sexes. Bride Wars was like wedding porn. My Life in Ruins told us that a woman could not be happy unless she got herself a man. All About Steve featured Sandra Bullock as a psychologically deranged stalker and expected it to be endearing because it was Sandra Bullock. Even the women in The Hangover are either vicious, soul-sucking shrews or exploitative whores. It’s not exactly an enlightened atmosphere but then again The Hangover is a vulgar comedy set in Sin City. The nicest female character is portrayed by Heather Graham (Boogie Nights) as a breastfeeding prostitute. I’m not asking for every comedy to be written from a feministic standpoint, but it’s disconcerting when the women in a comedy only get to be the jokes instead of being in on the jokes.
Best Villain: Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds. Like previous years, this one wasn’t close and the winner will likely also grab a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.German actor Waltz plays the infamous “Jew Hunter” and he is astounding to watch; he enlivens every moment onscreen and won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. Landa is an extremely intelligent and polite inquisitor. He comes across almost like a diabolical S.S. version of Colombo: he’s three steps ahead, feigns ignorance, circles his prey, and finally strikes after mentally tearing down the suspect. Waltz is practically giddy in some sequences, enthusiastic for such sick endeavors. He likes to screw with people and make them nervous. And yet, thanks to the wily brilliance and magnetism of Waltz, you develop a perverse appreciation for the man. Despite the horrors he is responsible for, you may actually find yourself liking Landa.
Runner’s-up: “Hoofed Invisible Leg-Grabbing Demon” in Paranormal Activity that caused my wife to get no sleep; Robin Williams’s repulsive son, World’s Greatest Dad;
Best in-the-movie-meta Summation: During the middle of a mean prank in Observe & Report, a police officer walks out of hiding and says, “I thought this would be funny but it’s really just sad.” My thoughts exactly on this misfire.
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2009: Oliver Platt’s entire lispy, pedophilic, grotesque character in the caveman comedy dud, Year One.
Runner-up: Odette Yustman’s cotton undied ass being the main focus of the poster for The Unborn.
(Non-Transformers) Movie Heaven: Since most of the story for The Lovely Bones is told after her death, and because Susie died when she was a blossoming teenager, apparently she’s doomed to live the rest of her quasi-afterlife in that awkward visage. Imagine being a 14-year-old for eternity, and the only clothes you have to wear are ugly mustard-colored corduroy pants? That sounds more like hell than heaven. So Susie gets to interact in an afterlife built upon the mind of a teenager, which means that the afterlife involves pretending to be on magazine covers and dancing to disco music (again, heaven … or hell?). I know that Jackson was asking for trouble by even attempting to interpret the ethereal, but his candy-colored version of Susie’s afterlife comes across like a bright, shiny doctor’s waiting room (“God will be with you in just a few minutes. Please enjoy our magazine selection in the meantime.”).
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies, and I invite readers to check them out at PictureShowPundits.com for further details.A — 500 Days of Summer The Cove District 9 Humpday The Hurt Locker In the Loop Inglourious Basterds A Serious Man Up in the Air A- — Black Dynamite Coraline Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs Crazy Heart Drag Me to Hell Earth An Education Gomorrah Sin Nombre Star Trek World’s Greatest Dad Zmbieland B+ — Anvil! The Story of Anvil! Avatar Away We Go Brothers Bloom Confessions of a Shopaholic The Fantastic Mr. Fox Goodbye Solo The Invention of Lying Moon Paranormal Activity Sugar Up B — 2012 17 Again Adam Big Fan The Blind Side Duplicity Every Little Step Food Inc. I Love You, Man Julie & Julia Knowing Land of the Lost The Proposal Skin State of Play Taken Time Traveler’s Wife Trumbo Watchmen B- — The Answer Man The Box Capitalism: A Love Story Extract Harry Potter 6 Public Enemies A Single Man Sunshine Cleaning Where the Wild Things Are C+ — Funny People G.I. Joe The Girlfriend Experience Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 He’s Just Not That Into You Paul Blart: Mall Cop Sherlock Holmes Terminator: Salvation Tunnel Rats C — 9 Angles and Demons Bride Wars Bruno A Christmas Carol Couples Retreat The Education of Charlie Banks Fame Far Cry I Love You, Beth Cooper Last Chance Harvey The Lovely Bones New in Town Observe and Report Obsessed The Taking of Pelham 123 The Unborn X-Men Origins: Wolverine C- — Final Destination 4 Ghosts of Girlfriends Past My Life in Ruins My Sister’s Keeper Transformers 2 Year One D+ — New Moon The Ugly Truth D — 12 Rounds Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li D- — Baby on Board F — After Last Season
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