Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year In Review
2009: The Year Animated Films Ruled A Great Roost

Yes she could: Disney's first African-American character Tiana in "The Princess And The Frog".    Disney Enterprises

By Omar P.L. Moore/
Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up.  Coraline.  9.  The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  A Town Called Panic.  Monsters Vs. Aliens.  Planet 51.  Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.  Ponyo.  The Princess And The Frog.  These were a few of 2009's animated films that so clearly dominated the film year.  Quality was abundant and 2009 wouldn't be the record-breaking success it has been without them.  Some ("Coraline") were classics.  Others were laugh-out loud riots ("A Town Called Panic").  Others still were emotional ("Up"), lavish ("The Princess And The Frog") or sly ("The Fantastic Mr. Fox") but they all made audiences or critics (or both) marvel at their ingenuity. 

And no one didn't mention "Avatar", a milestone accomplishment in visuals if nothing else -- with literally nothing else to propel James Cameron's half-billion dollar millstone of a "story".  Except perhaps, box-office numbers.

The humans did their thing too.  Robin Williams proved to be the world's greatest and lousiest parent in the same year with "World's Greatest Dad" and the decrepit, hands-down worst film of 2009 "Old Dogs".  ("Irene In Time", "Transformers 2", "Obsessed" and "Dance Flick" are all tied with it on the same mantle.  And there's so many others on that ignominious shelf as well, including the dreadfully shrill agony of  "Alvin and The Chipmunks 2"). 

"Julie & Julia"                                                                                               "Paranormal Activity"

Spike Lee showed what artists at work looked like with the riveting documentaries "Kobe Doin' Work" and "Passing Strange", both about artistic skill, life and fever-pitch energy.  Mr. Lee also paid tribute to Michael Jackson with a moving music video, and the late iconic megastar, who sadly passed in June at age 50, got a posthumous spotlight of his own in a beautiful and loving portrait of last performances in "Michael Jackson's This Is It".  In it he managed to playfully insert himself into several old black-and-white movies.  Keith David lent his voice to two wonderful animated films ("Coraline" and "The Princess And The Frog".)

"Kobe Doin' Work"                                                                                         "Passing Strange"

While Lars Von Trier was busy being an "Anti-Christ" and raising all manner of bloody hell, Sasha Baron Cohen was raising a lot more than that in "Brüno".  (Wasn't that Mr. Cohen's brother in the documentary "The Horse Boy"?  If so, this picture of the comedic brother says it all.) 

"The Messenger", the best film of 2009, said it all without speaking much.  The best debut of any director this year belonged to Oren Moverman for that remarkable effort starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, both superb.  Another Oren -- Oren Peli -- got great work from Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, who didn't seem like they were acting at all in the little engine of a $10,000 movie that became a $100 million-plus phenomenon, "Paranormal Activity".  (Ms. Featherston recently confessed to me via Twitter that she "didn't get past the first night scene" when she tried watching the film alone in her apartment at night, and turned it off.)

Fashion designer Tom Ford wasn't far behind Mr. Moverman (or Mr. Peli for that matter) in terms of impressive feature film directing debuts with the terrific "A Single Man", made even better still by the acting job of the year from Colin Firth.  Barry Jenkins made the impressive feature debut film "Medicine For Melancholy", and it had confidence, truth, sadness, joy and authenticity to hold it together. 

"Red Cliff"                                                                                                           "Nine"

Veteran directors made splashes too: Pedro Almodóvar showed he still has it with "Broken Embraces" and that his muse (Penelope Cruz) was still firmly intact both in "Embraces" and in "Nine".  Francis Ford Coppola went indie with "Tetro", while Steven Soderbergh went back and forth between genres and budgets with "The Girlfriend Experience" and "The Informant!", while The Cohen Brothers turned sour but innovative with "A Serious Man".  Woody Allen kept moving with "Whatever Works".

Quentin Tarantino grooved us with the exhilarating romp that was for "Basterds" only.  John Woo went back to his roots and thrived mightily with "Red Cliff".  Clint Eastwood mustered the uninspiring "Invictus" and Werner Herzog had a less than stellar time with "Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans".  Ditto for Tony Scott in "The Taking Of Pelham 123" and Ron Howard in "Angels And Demons", albeit an improvement on "The Da Vinci Code".

"An Education"                                                                                                "The Girlfriend Experience"

In American film women had a poor year -- portrayed like children or brainless blithering idiots, and the scary thing is that many if not all of these films were written or directed by women.  There was the lifeless "It's Complicated", directed by Nancy Meyers -- and even Meryl Streep, Queen Oscar-etta Herself -- couldn't save it from a plunge in common sense as well as her weakly-drawn onscreen character.  The putrid "Bride Wars" (one of the worst of the year) starred Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson and was directed by a man (Gary Winick) who when in New York City during the Tribeca Film Festival in May admitted that about three weeks into filming he knew "Bride Wars" was going to be a terrible film.  How's that for clairvoyance and honesty?

Speaking of which, "The Ugly Truth", written by three women, was painfully bad.  Katherine Heigl dared to appear in it and Gerard Butler (who also starred as a video game slave in "Gamer" and a mass-murdering nut in "Law Abiding Citizen") tried not to.  There were female co-writers of "He's Just Not That Into You", featuring no less than five women (Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connolly, Scarlet Johansson and Drew Barrymore) and one tired cliché after another about romance, dating and desperate women (if not housewives). 

"The Soloist"                                                                                                       "Me And Orson Welles"

Add the empty "Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past", the stale "Motherhood", starring Uma Thurman and directed by Katherine Dieckmann, and Mira Nair's disappointing "Amelia", the titillating but messy "Surveillance" directed by Jennifer Lynch, and you've got a nightmare year for women in 21st century American film.

It was also a nightmare for Gabby Sidibe's title character in "Precious", which wowed audiences and sustained momentum for awards season despite some dubious stereotyping amidst remarkable acting, including the unforgettable Mo'Nique, a shoo-in for Oscar in 2010.  Marion Cotillard made an indelible impression in "Nine" and should also be considered for Oscar in 2010.  Zooey Deschanel turned icy and good in the admirable "(500) Days Of Summer".

"American Violet"                                                                                       "The Blind Side"

And for every bad film headlined or authored by a woman, there were a smattering of very good or decent ones like "American Violet" featuring a great debut by Nicole Beharie (look out for her) and majestic work from Alfre Woodard.  There was "Whip It", Drew Barrymore's directing debut, Christine Jeffs' "Sunshine Cleaning", starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, "Julie & Julia", Nora Ephron's hit film starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.  There was Jennifer Steinman's amazing "Motherland" documentary, Rebecca Miller's impressive "The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee", featuring Robin Wright Penn's best work. 

Catalina Saavedra was amazing in "La Nana" (aka "The Maid").  Zoe Saldana was the object of affection in both "Star Trek" and "Avatar".  Natalie Portman directed a short film in the anthology "New York, I Love You".  Sandra Bullock entertained in a weak "The Blind Side".  Kate Churchill got us to "Enlighten Up!" in her yoga documentary, while Anna Borowitz had us spellbound in the doc-within-a documentary "Forbidden Lie$".  Lone Scherfig triumphed with "An Education".

"The Messenger"                                                                                            "The Fantastic Mr. Fox"

But the biggest triumph for women on the silver screen in 2009 was the direction of a man's story by Kathryn Bigelow, with scintillating camerawork by Barry Ackroyd in "The Hurt Locker".  This year she showed the ladies and men how to direct a taut and suspenseful film of intelligence and great acting.

There were great documentaries like the excellence of "The Cove", "Anvil: The Story Of Anvil", Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" (which should have received a bigger audience), Chris Rock's "Good Hair", "Valentino: The Last Emperor", the seedy and sad "American Swing", the disturbing and too-intimate "Must Read After My Death", the sunny and insightful "Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg", the little-seen "The End Of Poverty" and the memorable "Every Little Step".

And there was a cameo king in 2009 - Jason Bateman - in three films: "State Of Play", "Up In The Air" and "The Invention Of Lying".  He also took center stage in the largely unfunny "Extract" and the nightmarish "Couples Retreat".  Mike Tyson had a close-up in the documentary "Tyson" and a hilarious cameo in "The Hangover".  Woody Harrelson had a cameo in "2012" that was the best thing in an otherwise disastrous film. 

"Coraline"                                                                                                           "Broken Embraces" (Los Abrazos Rotos)

Similarly disastrous were "The Time Travelers' Wife" and "Where The Wild Things Are", two adaptations from books with the deepest gloom and despair one can imagine.  The latter was appreciated by a multitude of film critics.  Yet "The Lovely Bones", an adaptation which has taken an unholy battering from many American film critics, wasn't that bad - although Paramount is holding its wide release back for January - a sign they recognize that Peter "Lord Of The Rings" Jackson's film will probably be going straight to hell in a very speedy hand basket.  There was "Fame" - a remake that flamed out quickly, though not the end of the world as a film.

In 2009 the nines sometimes had it: "Nine" -- in which Kate Hudson finally had her first moment in the sun since "Almost Famous" in that sexy "Cinema Italiano" dance number in Rob Marshall's film -- and the animated films "9" and "$9.99". 

Sometimes the nines didn't have it: the deplorable and racially insulting "District 9". 

"The Maid" (La Nana)                                                                                  "Capitalism: A Love Story"

Then there were gems like "In The Loop", "You, The Living", "Soul Power", "The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus" (Terry Gilliam's marvelous achievement and Heath Ledger's final film, which most will see early in January 2010) and decent films with excellent performances -- "The Road" (Viggo Mortensen), "Me And Orson Welles" (Christian McKay) and "Crazy Heart", for which Jeff Bridges will win an Oscar in 2010 for precisely that combination: excellence in a decent film.  There was "The Soloist", a good film with great work from Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr.  (It will be only a matter of time until Downey's name is finally called by the Academy.) 

Lest I forget, Jamal Woodard and the great Angela Bassett did well in the under-appreciated "Notorious".  James Gray impressed with "Two Lovers", even if Joaquin Phoenix said goodbye to acting with a good performance.  Gwyneth Paltrow also excelled in the film. 

There were films I'd wished I'd seen, such as "Sita Sings The Blues", as well as a host of uncountable others.  There were films I wanted to be good but was disappointed by: Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" and Judd Apatow's "Funny People", the latter spoiled by too many cameos.

I've only scratched the surface of 2009.  The ten best films of 2009 are here, while some solid runners'-up are below, and in order of preference from #11 down to #20:

Broken Embraces  (Los Abrazos Rotos)
Red Cliff

American Violet

Passing Strange

In The Loop

Michael Jackson's This Is It

Anvil: The Story Of Anvil

Must Read After My Death

Capitalism: A Love Story


Here are all The Popcorn Reel reviews of films in 2009 and unscripted YouTube reviews

The only question now is: can 2010 top the memorable big screen year that has just passed??

Read more movie reviews and stories from Omar here.