By David Ferguson
Greetings again from the darkness. My “big” announcement (at the risk of sounding narcissistic) is that I have just started a blog for my movie comments. Feel free to keep up with my movie meanderings at www.moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com Please understand that the blog is in its early stages and (I hope) will improve throughout the year. At some point, years of film comments will be moved onto the site and categorized. Already, you can see my “Best of” lists from the past few years. If you enjoy it, please register for email notifications and pass it along to another film lover!
UP was the theme for 2009. The box office was up to record levels, Up from Pixar/Disney raised the bar for animation, Up in the Air was a film for grown-ups about being a grown-up, and Avatar woke up the world!
The $10.6 billion in domestic box office revenue proved people were flocking to theaters! Avatar is well on its way to passing Titanic as the all-time champ, and could hit the $2 billion mark worldwide. Maybe James Cameron was right when he said “I’m the King of the World”.
What made for the record-setting year was not any one instant classic, but rather three distinct categories:
1. the next installation in a successful series’ (Transformers, Harry Potter, Twilight, Star Trek, Alvin, Ice Age, X-Men, Night at the Museum, Terminator)
2. films that attracted wider than expected audiences (Avatar, Up, The Blind Side, Sherlock Holmes, Public Enemies,)
3. big surprises (The Hangover, Inglourious Basterds, Paranormal Activity, The Proposal, Paul Blart: Mall Cop)
As always, my passion for a good story told with visual style is what keeps me addicted to this medium. While 2009 may not have delivered many timeless classics, any year that features new releases from Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers and Pedro Almodovar is alright by me. Throw in great performances by Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep and it must be considered a pretty decent year in film.
A brief recap of my movie quirks: I am not a “normal” movie watcher. Watching movies is a participation sport for me. I avoid reading reviews prior to seeing a movie and my pet peeve is a preview that shows and/or tells too much. It is unusual for me to really enjoy a movie unless I get caught up in the story (Avatar is an exception). As an art form, movies are perfect for disagreements, debates and discussions … each of which I thoroughly enjoy. Lastly, I don’t always follow the mainstream, these ARE NOT my Oscar predictions, and I don’t take it personally when someone’s taste in movies is diametrically opposed to mine.
Here are my TOP 2009 FILMS, listed in order (with condensed comments):
1. AN EDUCATION
2009 was a slow and torturous year for lovers of indie films … the good ones were quite rare. That may help explain my fascination and total buy-in of this film based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. Accomplished Dane director Lone Scherfig takes the screenplay from Nick Hornby (High Fidelity) and turns it into a rather beautiful coming of age – romantic tragedy, plus some.
Carey Mulligan shoots into instant movie stardom with her performance as Jenny … the dedicated student and quietly lusting-for-life daughter of bombastic know-it-all Alfred Molina, and the quietly desperate Cara Seymour (Hell-cat Maggie in Gangs of New York). Jenny’s head gets spun around by Peter Sarsgaard, the slick talker (15 + yrs her senior) in the fancy sports car, who rescues her from a driving rainstorm and drops her right in the middle of a fairy tale life of concerts, art, shopping and fancy restaurants. Jenny falls hard.
Her new life leaks back into her all-girls school where the headmistress (Emma Thompson) and English teacher (a spinster-looking Olivia Williams) caution her against throwing away her future at Oxford, yet are unable to answer Jenny’s basic question … “What’s it all been for?”. Really good stuff when the viewer keeps the timeline of the film in context. It’s not 2009, but rather 1961 … young ladies just didn’t ask those questions. And older women certainly had no answers!
So many terrific moments and situations are complimented by amazing acting and very good writing. Molina’s transformation is fascinating. He begins as the dad who wants the top education so his daughter will have options in life. Then, as with his daughter, he gets caught up the charm and fast lane of the worldly Sarsgaard character. This one certainly struck a chord with me.
2. UP IN THE AIR
With Juno and Thank You for Not Smoking, writer/director Jason Reitman has proven himself to be not just a terrific filmmaker, but also one with real insight into people and society. His commentary is based on putting people in real situations and having us recognize these moments for what they truly mean.
Full disclosure – I am not a big George Clooney fan. While I recognize his appeal to the masses, I usually only appreciate him when he steps out of the Clooney role and into something messy (Syriana). In this film, he does a pretty good job of removing his tongue from his cheek and playing the role with the necessary head-on approach it requires. His scenes with Vera Farmiga are extremely well written and acted; but it’s his scenes with Anna Kendrick that make this film something special.
Ms. Kendrick delivers a turn that provides the emotional depth and link to the audience. My favorite scene is with the three leads discussing their ever-changing life dreams. When Ms. Farmiga goes through her wish list, Ms. Kendrick looks at her as if she’s from another planet. As they say, youth is wasted on the young.
So many insightful moments about everything from loneliness to independence to loyalty to belonging … all mixed with the harsh realities of the business world at a time when everyone lives in fear of losing their job. Watching these people (many real lifers) talk about the pain and humiliation of losing a job that is so intertwined with their being is just excruciating. Thanks to Mr. Reitman for delivering yet another film with bite … something to chew on and appreciate.
3. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers are whom I depend to always deliver a unique film-going experience. Creativity of itself is not sufficient … but when combined with a love and mastery of film-making, more often than not we are treated to something special. QT certainly delivers that with the Basterds.
I found Chapter One (of Five) to be a mini-spaghetti western film short replete with perfect music, anticipation, stare downs, word play, a shoot-out and ultimate escape. Christoph Waltz immediately seizes his role as Col Landa and never lets go. He envisions himself, not as the “Jew Hunter” (a moniker he relishes, nonetheless) but rather as a super sleuth in line with Sherlock Holmes (hence the pipe!).
Chapter Two introduces us to the titular Basterds led by Lt Aldo Raine – Brad Pitt as the hillbilly ring leader of the Dirty Dozen-type band of Nah-Zee killers. Pitt’s exaggerated jaw and outlandish accent, coupled with his QT-penned dialogue, makes for one frightening cartoon character on a singular mission. And at the same time, it is a real hoot! The multiple story lines begin to intermingle in a fabulously intricate tavern scene. The dialogue and approach to this remind a bit of Reservoir Dogs, but with the subtle facial gestures and multi-lingual word play, it goes to a whole different level.
The finale in the Cinema Paradiso (not really, but it was the first thing I thought of) is well paced and delivers a fabulous ending of dramatic violent intimacy in the projector room, and flamboyant special effects in the main theatre. Let’s just say Lincoln’s last night at the theatre ended better than this fictitious sign-off for Hitler and Goebbel.
While this one is not quite at the level of Pulp Fiction, it is purely a cinematic marvel. Definitely not the most accurate “history” lesson, though a bit of message sneaks in. But more importantly, the message of cinematic adoration can’t be missed.
4. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
The narrator warns us upfront … “this is not a love story”. Still, being so preconditioned by Hollywood, that directive merely floated around in my head until near the end of the film when I realized it was perfectly accurate.
Joseph Gordon-Levit and Zooey Deschanel are the leads and each brings a certain quirkiness and sensitivity to their roles. Watching them grow as a couple just never quite clicks for the viewer the way it does for JGL’s character. He buys in hook, line and sinker and believes his destiny for love is being fulfilled by Summer (Zooey).
Director Marc Webb (who will direct the next Spider-Man movie) throws a bit of everything at us – just to prove this is not a traditional love story. We get the fun of memory blender – flashbacks like Day 488, Day 2, Day 159 – well you get the point. That is how most of us remember anyway: non-linear. We also get a hysterical musical number in the park, a black & white Bergmanesque dramatization, and a leading man whose poetic musings are limited to his writing quips for a greeting card company. Oh, he also takes love advice from his 11 year old soccer-playing sister (Chloe Moretz), but wisely declines most of it from his best friend played by sexist, drunken (and funny) co-worker, Geoffrey Arend.
What I really like about the film is that it is different, yet very realistic. So often our “dream” girl is just not quite a fit, yet she and the next guy are just right. Doesn’t seem fair, but in reality, it is not only fair, but perfectly just. And remember, there is always another season … maybe Autumn?
Another crackling collaboration of Pixar and Disney, and as expected, it is touching, funny, thrilling and amazing to watch. A slight step below Toy Story just because it is not quite as ground-breaking … though the story is even better.
While I love technology and effects, I am first and foremost a story guy when it comes to movies. This has as good of story as any film you will see. My only caution is that it seems geared towards grown-ups, not kids. The montage of Carl and Ellie growing old together is without dialogue and will probably bore some kids. Parents certainly won’t be bored; however, as it will resonate with most anyone over age 40 who hasn’t taken time to chase their childhood dreams.
This film is a barrage of color and eccentric characters, and can even be a bit frightening at times. Still, the key to this one are the stories and quests of the elderly Mr. Fredrickson and the young Russell, trying to earn his badge of honor. From the beginning, Disney has always had a finger on the pulse of youngsters. Here, we aren’t given the usual Hollywood garbage of brainiac kids who make the adults look stupid. Instead we are given an earnest, pudgy, slightly goofy kid just trying to get his parents to take note.
Special kudos to Ed Asner for bringing Mr. Fredrickson to life … in good times and bad. He never goes overboard and is quite often absolutely perfect. Christopher Plummer has a limited role as bad guy Charles Muntz. Or is he really so bad? Cast aside by society, he has spent his life searching for redemption. Make sure parents and grandparents take in this one. All will be entertained, delighted and moved.
6. A SERIOUS MAN
For me, any new Coen Brothers film is like the biggest Christmas present … the fun is in the unwrapping. And WOW, does this one have many layers of wrapping paper! Seemingly based on the Book of Job, this is by far the most personal and intimate film in the Coen catalog. It contains a good deal of autobiographical details from their childhood, though of course, there is much much more. Be forewarned: there is massive Jewish stuff in this one. Not the overwhelming religious part and not the punch-line part … it is the real life details.
Won’t give much away on this one but there are no shortage of fascinating scenes and images to dissect and discuss. Can our actions bring the wrath of God or as the quote suggests, should we just accept, with simplicity, the happenings in our life? Ethan and Joel do a superb job of casting fine actors that we recognize, yet who lack stardom. There is no Javier Bardem here. Instead Michael Stuhlburg is spot on as the everyman trying to do the right things in life, yet carries a huge burden when things begin to go wrong … and it just won’t stop.
One of my favorite characters in the film is Sy Abelman, played with the warmest panache by Fred Melamed. The way he “comforts” Gropnik (Stuhlberg) is sincere, yet creepy and annoying. Richard Kind is quite different as the Uncle who is always in the bathroom and George Wyner is the absolute worst story telling Rabbi in history.
This one combines religion, family life, relationships, lust, teenage rebellion, grown-up responsibility and just about any other topic you’d like to throw in. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, this one would be a disaster. In the able hands of the Coen Brothers and cinematographer Roger Deakins, it is a near masterpiece.
This is an extremely interesting first feature from writer/director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie). The issue I often have with sci-fi is its lack of humanity. Ironic and humorous to me that this one is loaded with humanity and emotions and psyche, yet it is centered around human cloning!
Sam Rockwell is outstanding as the poor guy “sentenced” to 3 years of isolation on the other side of the moon in order to deliver energy back to earth. Of course, we (and he) find out that 3 year time period has significant meaning for Sam and others on his career path.
Prefer not to discuss any more about the film than that, but will say it does a very good job of examining isolation and a full spectrum of other human emotions … not to mention the scientific possibilities that may be on the horizon. Lastly, the voice of GERTY is provided by Kevin Spacey. There aren’t too many other voices that would give me LESS confidence that things are going to be alright!
8. BROKEN EMBRACES
I have no qualms in admitting that I worship Pedro Almodovar as a filmmaker. His films have made me laugh (Volver), think (Talk to Her) and have yanked me out of my comfort zone (Bad Education). With Broken Embraces, the maestro has so many nuances and details brewing below his always stunning surface that I found myself really working to assemble the pieces as the film went along.
His fabulous muse, Penelope Cruz, is back and in full splendor. Pedro has always had a talent for exciting and fully developed female characters and here, both Ms. Cruz and Blanca Portillo are absolutely fascinating. The male lead is Mateo, a film director played by Lluis Homar. I won’t try to simplify the multi-faceted relationship and story lines other than to say this is a touch noir, with revenge, jealousy, obsession and of course, love – both full display and unrequited.
Sadly, many Americans will skip this one because of subtitles, but I hope it finds an audience on DVD. From a visual perspective, the color red abounds here … passion or blood? That’s the big question. There are many wonderful scenes that feature beautiful shots from Pedro, as well as some of the best dialogue he has ever written. From a film-making perspective, this one deserves multiple viewings – and will get it from me!
9. EVERLASTING MOMENTS
The best word I can come up to describe this fine film is humanistic. Everything about director Jan Troell‘s (The Emigrants) approach is based on the affect or reaction of the individual, very human, characters.
Maria Heiskanen as Maria Larsson is fascinating … in the most grounded, heartfelt style I have seen. She reminds of Imelda Staunton in her ability to sell grace and dignity despite all obstacles. This is not a film about some character’s ability to make headlines. Rather it is one woman’s battle for independence for herself and stability and safety for her seven children.
We may question why Maria insists on remaining with her violent-when-drunk husband, but she takes her father’s counsel to honor her vows very seriously. She battles through much for her family but the true joy in the story comes from her awakening with a Contessa camera, courtesy of Sebastian Pederson (played well by Jesper Christensen). She discovers a god given talent and eye for photography.
This is a long film, but so realistically presented that it just compels the viewer to join in. Sadly, it won’t find much of an audience in the U.S., but it is excellent film-making and a very rewarding journey.
10. THE HURT LOCKER
Add another to the list of jobs I hope to never have … Bomb Tech. Sure Keanu Reeves made it look like fun while drooling over Sandra Bullock in Speed, but here director Kathryn Bigelow (former Mrs. James Cameron) shows us a closer look at what really goes on with these guys – deep inside the war.
Jeremy Renner is stunning as the “show no fear” bomb tech who understands his job, thrives on his job, and ultimately needs his job. Renner’s talent was obvious when he played the sleazy rapist in North Country, but here you just can’t take your eyes off of him.
Bigelow (somehow, the same who directed Keanu and Swayze in Point Break) delivers excruciatingly intense drama. There were times I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t blink. I was frozen and glued to the action.
Not many movies kill off the likes of Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, but duty is the star of the film. And while that is the strength, it is also the film’s weakness. Character development and story lines are pretty much non-existent other than the obvious thrill seeker, dedicated soldier, dumb white trash, etc. Those are more stereotypes than characters, but it doesn’t prevent this from being a very intense film to watch.
Special Category: Film Spectacle
*** Avatar ***
Any lover of movies has been anxiously awaiting this “next film” from James Cameron. If you have lost track of time, it’s actually been 12 years since Cameron’s Titanic became the ultimate mega-box office champion. Finally, people can stop asking him what he’s been up to!
This is a very difficult movie to review or critique, so here is how I will describe it: it is a Film spectacle … I mean that in a good way. The release of Avatar was an event similar to Star Wars or even The Exorcist. Much anticipation for seeing something we had never before seen on screen!
The star of the film is not the actors, and certainly not the script, but rather the technology and special effects. If possible, see it in 3-D, the way Mr. Cameron meant for it to be seen. Some segments are breathtaking in beauty and creativity and splashes of color. I was fascinated by Pandora, the planet where most of the action takes place. The plant life, creatures and inhabitants are truly a new world from the mind of Cameron and crew. Wow.
On the downside, the story is ho-hum at best and downright cheesy and preachy in more than a few scenes. Fans will easily pick out the influence of Cameron’s Aliens, The Abyss, the Terminator series … heck, even the song over the credits reminds of Celine Dion’s claim to fame.
In a year of terrific, accessible sci-fi (Moon, Star Trek, Avatar), this one comes up short on story, but makes up for it with awe-inspiring imagery and visuals and sound.
2009 films for your NetFlix list:
Adam – quirky, touching character study based on a guy with Asperger’s
Bright Star – indie film on the romance of poet John Keats and Fannie Brawne
Crazy Heart – great performance by Jeff Bridges
Drag Me to Hell – the year’s best horror film
Every Little Step – documentary on the latest production of “A Chorus Line”
The Hangover – raunchy comedy from Vegas
Is Anybody Out There? – insight into a home for the elderly with Michael Caine
Public Enemies – slick John Dillinger gangster flick with Johnny Depp
Sherlock Holmes – raging interpretation of the classic detective with Robert Downey, Jr.
Sin Nombre – captivating indie following a trek from Mexico to U.S.
Star Trek – updated, high tech version with tomorrow’s stars
Sunshine Cleaning – odd com-dram with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt
Sugar – indie film about major league dreams for Cuban ball players
Watchmen – nice version of the graphic novels
OLDIE BUT GOODIE
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton
Based on the novel by Robert Nathan, this classic is fun on so many levels. It is for the hopeless romantic in all of us, but also has some interesting twists in the story. Jennifer Jones passed away in 2009 and this is probably her best known film. She is just so energetic and hypnotic … enjoy every nuance of her performance. There are some other fun facts associated with this film – it also stars Ethel Barrymore and Lillian Gish, two long-time institutions of stage and film. And the list of “uncredited” is amazing: Nancy Davis (future Nancy Reagan), Anne Francis, Nancy Olson (later, Sunset Blvd), and an ice-skating Brian Keith (future Uncle Bill from “Family Affair”).
See you on the blog … www.moviereviewsfromthedark.wordpress.com