13 February 2010

The best films of 2009 (at long last)

Well, I've finally seen enough movies from last year -- and then some! -- to, I believe, justify a reasonably comprehensive 'best of the year' list. A bit of a twist this year: it'll be a top-17 list instead of a top-10. There was just too much stuff I wanted to talk about from this year, like The Road and Inglourious Basterds as just a few spoilerific examples, for me to be comfortable narrowing it down to just 10. But before you chastise me for such a random, arbitrary number, I have precedent for it in the form of Glenn Kenny.

Regrettable omissions are of course the bane of my existence, and some of the big movies I have not yet had the chance to see from last year that I very much wanted to are Bright Star, A Single Man, Invictus, The White Ribbon (although after the abomination that was Funny Games, my desire to rush out to see another Michael Haneke film has cooled considerably), and Tokyo Sonata. And if I do like any of those to any great degree, I can just tack them on the end of the list here, or label them #10a. or something. Hooray for the flexibility of blogging! And I have seen Avatar, for the record... it just flat-out didn`t make the list. But enough about the caveats. Let's do this thang.

Some sad exclusions (a.k.a. honourable mentions):
The Princess and the Frog
, a charming, beautiful, smart, funny, incredibly successful rejuvenation of the old-school Disney aesthetic.
Drag Me to Hell, Sam Raimi's cheesy-scary-giddily fun throwback to the Evil Dead era.
I Love You, Man, the deliriously funny, sharply observant, enjoyably tender 'bromance' that the scatter-shot The Hangover wanted to be... although I still liked The Hangover a wee bit as well. And it featured a cameo by Rush! (Glee!)
Adventureland, a not-quite-tonally-perfect but lovely and heartfelt movie (with endearing performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Twi-gal Kristen Stewart) that does for the '80s what Dazed and Confused did for the '70s and American Graffiti did for the dawn of the '60s.
The Limits of Control, which was kind of a lot further away from this list than those others, but which deserves as much mention as I can possibly give it for being the most underrated, surprisingly mesmerizing artsy effort of last year.

The list proper:

17. Coraline
Visually eye-popping, dazzling and tense and surreal and scary all at once, this is possibly Henry Selick's most accomplished effort yet. (I can already hear the cries of protest from the die-hard Nightmare Before Christmas fans.) Of course, he's helped greatly by Neil Gaiman, the virtuoso inventor whose book he sublimely adapts here. The animation is as exquisite as the sense of imagination and the emotional impact, and it's all buoyed by a rousing voice cast including Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, and the spookily good John Hodgman -- yep, the PC guy from the Mac ads.

16. Everlasting Moments
A wistful and moving Swedish import far more sturdily built than anything from IKEA. A wonderful, almost Ibsen-like family drama set at the turn-of-the-20th-century, the period setting is exquisitely well captured by director Jan Troell. The film, appropriately enough considering its story is about a woman who gains strength and feminine identity through her experiments with a camera she won in a lottery, often has the burnished look of an old, faded photograph. Troell proves observant, tough, and empathetic in capturing the family's moments together (although I found the father, as character and as performed, a bit bland), as well as those between the camera-toting mother and the kind old owner of the photography shop down the street. An emotional, elegant film with a fantastic, wise lead performance from Maria Heiskanen.

15. Observe and Report
The part of the list where you point fingers and call me crazy. Bah. This is a love-it-or-hate-it film of the highest order, and I'm fully on the love-it side. An all-out, darkly (even bleakly) comedic send-up of Taxi Driver and all-American earnestness, the movie (about a big-dreaming mall cop and a lewd shopping mall flasher and the havoc that results) lets Seth Rogen unleash his angry side, and it looks good on the big lug. Observe and Report also boasts propulsively funny turns from Anna Faris (as a drunken perfume counter bimbo), Ray Liotta (pitch-perfectly hammy as a self-serious cop), and Celia Weston as the mother with all the right advice. Either you go along with its outrageous energy, culminating in a ridiculously violent climax, or you find it repellently offensive. Me, I found it one of the most energetic, pointed, daring comedies of recent memory, more than worthy of comparison to Tropic Thunder or Borat.

14. In the Loop
Speaking of classic comedy, Armando Iannucci's sparkling, effortlessly witty, fast-talking political satire is like The West Wing meets... some kind of crazy, Fawlty Towers-esque British sitcom. Uniformly well-acted from a cast of largely unknown (at least on this side of the pond) British actors and, for good measure, James Gandolfini as a tough-looking, sceptical American general, the movie is briskly entertaining and sharp from beginning to end. Best of all is Peter Capaldi as a foul-mouthed, apoplectic, cell phone-toting PR guy for the British folks in charge.

13. Inglourious Basterds
Another viewing and this likely could have cracked the top-10. As it is, I found it a raucous, slightly imperfect and questionable WWII romp from Quentin Tarantino that was far more blisteringly fun than any film bearing that description has any right being. Brad Pitt is of course the biggest star in this Nazi revenge fantasia-as-meta-cinematic commentary, and he affects an unreasonably entertaining faux-Southern accent as Aldo Raine, who wants his scalps. Even more richly entertaining, though, are Melanie Laurent, radiant, impassioned, and stirring, with a bona fide feminist vivacity, as Shosanna Dreyfus, the only surviving member of a French Jewish family bent on revenge, movie-style, and Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter, so gleefully intense he just about singes the edges of the screen. Tarantino could have laid on the action thick here, and what of it there is is thoroughly fun and engaging, but this is at is core a movie drenched in impossibly well-staged dialogue, whether it be Landa's throat-gripping opening interrogation or a later basement card game scene almost hypnotic in its tension. And of course it all wraps up with a quintessential Tarantino image of cinema as diabolically effective revisionist history, of movies as imagination, emotional conduit, and savior. So sit in the dark and enjoy.

12. Food, Inc.
A comprehensive, sleekly mounted, fitfully engaging, and downright shocking documentary about what we eat and the disparity between what we think it is and what really goes on behind the scenes of its production. Robert Kenner draws upon the research of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan to draw us into some of the deeper corners of the food industry. Most damning of all is Kenner's indictment of Monsanto, which has by now all but monopolized corn production in the US thanks to its patent on genetically modified seeds; but the film covers such a broad spectrum of food-related horrors, from the ground up, and Kenner packs it so full of revealing interviews and startling information, that it will definitely make you think twice about what you eat for your next meal.

11. The Road
Bad timing is really the only reason I can see for this elegant, heartbreaking film not getting its due as a worthy follow-up to that Cormac McCarthy adaptation of 2007, No Country for Old Men -- a startling film, and one of the best of the decade. John Hillcoat, the master of art-directed atmosphere who helmed The Proposition, reaffirms that reputation here: The Road immerses us in a vividly desolate, bleakly stunning, utterly authentic post-apocalyptic landscape. It also achieves a quietly mesmerizing alternation between McCarthy's terse dialogue and mesmerizing silence, punctuated by Nick Cave's haunting piano score. Aesthetically wonderful, the movie also proves once again what a towering actor Viggo Mortensen is while also featuring a great, heartfelt breakout performance from Kodi Smit-McPhee. Despairing enough to be true to McCarthy's work but also honestly emotional and hopeful enough to be moving when it needs to be, this work may be a bit too stuffy/fussy at times to completely live up to the Coen Brothers' masterpiece, but it is still an absolutely stunning post-apocalyptic tragedy.

10. Up
Yet another astonishing animated film in a sterling year for animation. Up is just further proof of Pixar`s seamless genius in telling original stories with emotional weight, witty humour, and increasingly dazzling visual beauty. Starting with a quietly poignant, perceptive, and heart-tugging opening montage of childhood enthusiasm slowly turning to mid-life acceptance and disappointment of dreams dashed, the movie quickly dives into the jubilant tale of cranky old widower and former balloon salesman Carl Fredericksen (wryly voiced by Ed Asner), finally realizing his childhood ambition of flying to mythical Paradise Falls in South America by attaching thousands of balloons to his rickety old house and hitting the skies. Faced with an unexpected stowaway, a friendly talking dog, and a betrayal by his childhood hero (silkily voiced by Christopher Plummer), Up becomes a buoyant tale of both nostalgia and new-found friendships and goals in life. If the humour is a little bit more juvenile and inconsistent than some of Pixar`s best -- like WALL-E or The Incredibles -- it`s still one of the most purely entertaining, colourful, wistful, and profound films of the year.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox
A wildly inventive animated caper that recalls the sheer madcap joy of Wallace & Gromit and allows the notoriously style-oriented director Wes Anderson to more fully and intricately construct his cinematic world, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also smart as, well, a fox. Not just about the wondrously conceived details of its quirky landscape -- the action takes place in a meadow replete with foxes, weasels, moles, and even wolves, railing against the tyranny of local farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean -- or the ingeniously complicated logistics of Mr. Fox`s climactic heist, but about the shrinking expectations of middle age, family, competition, and the little thrills in life that you have to reach out and grab before they disappear. George Clooney, in his other pitch-perfect performance of the year, is appropriately wily and charismatic as Mr. Fox, and the movie is blessed as well with the vocal talents of Meryl Streep as his doubting-yet-loyal wife, and Anderson staples like Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray. A tender, heartfelt family drama, a work of stop-motion art of exquisite, hand-crafted beauty, and also a blissfully entertaining, madcap, high-stakes heist flick all wrapped up in one? I'll be cussed if Anderson doesn't pull all that off and, in the process, arrive at one of his most accomplished efforts yet.

8. District 9
Easily the sci-fi film of the year in a year that boasted stiff competition in the category from such variously dazzling efforts as Star Trek, Moon, and Avatar. This is a boldly original, thoroughly satisfying compilation that combines the pointed social/political satirical implications of an alien spaceship stalling out over Johannesburg, South Africa and being forced by the locals into slum-like townships with intensely involving character study of Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a weaselly corporate stooge involved in the alien relocation who accidentally comes into contact with some DNA-altering alien technology with action scenes as viscerally stirring as anything this year (on a budget that was about as big as the catering cost for Avatar). It also combines an urgent documentary approach with a more fittingly panoramic scale as the stakes and the tensions mount. South African director Neil Blomkamp, with his focused, brainy direction, has delivered an ideal summer-time entertainment, boasting busy and ingenious brain as well as efficiently muscular brawn, not to mention a poignant bit of heart regarding human-alien identification... but subtly, without ever getting as preachy as Avatar. Great, meaty late summer entertainment.

7. (500) Days of Summer
(500) Days of Summer features the sliest romantic comedy gimmick of the year -- telling its story, which unfolds over, of course, 500 days, in iPod Shuffle fashion, with moments of meet-cute, first make-out, first argument, first night of sex, post-break-up despair, playfully seductive IKEA shopping, and the most joyously inspired and random musical number of the years (set to Hall & Oates's "You Make My Dreams") all jostling for our avid attention. That alone puts it head and shoulders above any of the thousands of run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter rom-coms that currently infest the multiplexes. But director Marc Webb does us one better by infusing his movie with a sense of pointed observation about relationships underlined by a rueful and breezily romantic heart. Although on second viewing, I did find the secondary characters as overly cutesy as the film's detractors found, the film succeeds in spite of all this thanks to Webb's balanced staging of romance and melancholia as well as the absolutely wonderful, lived-in performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom, the earnest young hero (with architectural aspirations), and the radiant Zooey Deschanel as Summer, the exquisite, playful, but self-possessed and just-out-of-reach object of his undying affections. Deschanel in particular makes you believe Summer as the girl every man wants, especially (and ironically) when they discover they can't quite have her (or maybe I've just developed a bit of a celebrity crush on Deschanel... entirely possible). (500) Days of Summer is the most blissful and original (anti-)romance of the year, as endearingly quirky and perceptive, in its way, as Annie Hall and with echoes, too, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and, with its brilliant rooftop party scene, a virtuoso rumination on the image and reality of love.

6. Where the Wild Things Are
Beautiful, startlingly original, even breathtakingly moving in its best moments, Where the Wild Things Are is a miraculous, expansive adaptation of a tiny, cherished children's book by Maurice Sendak. Somehow, director Spike Jonze and his co-screenwriter Dave Eggers have crafted a psychologically complex but easy-to-follow, deeply characterized and visually -- even aurally, with the haunting music of Karen O included during the journey -- stunning little fantasy that's also a deep rumination on childhood imagination, fear, anger, and wonder. (Catherine Keener does a good job in a small role as the weary, divorced mother to Max, the real child and wild thing from whose eyes the movie unfolds.) Embodying Max's ideals, figments, worries, and dreams, the Wild Things he comes across after running away from home and boarding a boat to a far-away, subconscious land of make-believe are brought to vivid life. This is due not only to the roughly enchanting costumes and make-up but to the performances of Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, and, especially, James Gandolfini in a towering, scary-sensitive performance as lead Wild Thing Carol. And at the centre of it all, Max Records is a tenderly earnest, natural revelation as our rebellious hero Max. Some found it too depressing -- I admired Jonze's refusal to sugar-coat any of the darker aspects of the story and his simultaneously ringing endorsement for emotional reconciliation at journey's end. Some thought it looked gloomy -- I found the combination of light and dark, dreamy and earthy, in both visual look and emotional tone, to be just about perfect. A bright gem of a children's film that trusts in the intelligence of its audience, both young and old.

5. A Serious Man
Possibly the most audacious, free-wheeling, ambitious-yet-personal film of the year -- a colleague, Nathaniel Tensen, had it right comparing it to last year's Synecdoche, New York. Similarly, this is a film that's initially hard to swallow at points (especially that abrupt, offbeat ending), but that only grows in stature upon further reflection. It's the first film from Joel and Ethan Coen that can be counted as genuinely personal, taking part in a '60s-era, Midwest city like that of their childhood, and dealing explicitly and in complicated fashion with their Jewish roots -- but like many Coen joints, the sense of satire and almost fetishistic surface detail is overwhelming here, almost (but not quite) to the point where it can be called stereotypical. It's also one of the few films that can combine serious Biblical allegory (think the Book of Job) with mundane domestic drama, character study, and quintessentially '60s tropes of pot and rock and roll (a Jefferson Airplane song may feature the key to unraveling the film's mysteries). Finally it combines the Coens' more serious, existential mode (see No Country for Old Men... again) with their outrageously silly social satire mode (the best example being the underrated Burn After Reading) to seamless, rewarding effect.

Bold, fevered, and frankly astonishing, A Serious Man is like nothing else this year. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a mesmerizing, slow-burn performance as harried physics professor Larry Gopnik, a seemingly average, serious man for whom everything seems to be going increasingly wrong -- to the point that he starts suffering from a nightmarish crisis of faith and existence and seeks out Rabbinic intervention. The whole cast does stellar work, in fact, under the controlled direction of the Coens (Richard Kind and Frank Melamed are stand-outs). A rare glimpse at some weighty personal subject matter for the directors, A Serious Man starts off with a humourous but eerie Yiddish parable and spirals down into the existential suburban abyss before ending with a true American apocalyptic vision. Profoundly cool. I suspect it will only prove more daring and effective with subsequent reflection and viewings. (I almost toyed with the idea of it as my #1.) As it is, it is more than worthy of being placed alongside No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Blood Simple as the brothers' best.

4. The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow does a seamless job of placing us in the shoes of someone with an almost impossibly nerve-rattling job with the original, intimate, and constantly intense war movie The Hurt Locker. The film zooms in on the daily ins and outs of a bomb disposal specialist -- knowing which wire to cut; trying to figure out if there are backup bombs and detonators; marching with a heavy, hot explosion-proof suit through sweltering Iraqi city streets into likely death; trying vigourously to disarm an unwilling suicide bomber whose explosives may be timer-activated; and trying to determine whether the guy on the cell phone down the street or up on that rooftop is calling a friend or activating a detonator. And with such focus, she blows stereotypes of war, action, gung-ho patriotism, and masculine cool and camaraderie and careerism right out of the water. Nothing is familiar or comfortable here; the stakes feel viscerally real, and each moment in the film could spell death for the characters. Mark Boal's script, informed from his days out in the battlefield as a journalist, helps make everything appear vividly real. Bigelow proceeds at a deliberate, exacting pace, with each new scene completely, dizzyingly different than the last and yet building on the knowledge and fear of what came before.

As the central daredevil, Col. James, Jeremy Renner memorably employs a charismatic swagger and an almost Zen-like grace under pressure that makes you wonder whether his character is purposefully crazy and reckless or whether his hotheaded nature is the only natural response to this insane line of work. He's brilliantly backed up by Anthony Mackie as his methodical look-out man who begins to question his superior's unorthodox techniques, as well as Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes in a pair of stunning cameos. "War is a drug," we are informed by a title at the beginning of the film, and indeed it is for Col. James -- with all the adrenaline, addictive quality, and vitally real danger that term implies. The Hurt Locker is superbly intense experience. Bigelow works on an intimate emotional and character-driven level as well as a purely exacting logistical level to create an astonishingly intense, immersive, observant, and efficient picture of war as we know it today.

3. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Speaking of gut-punching intimacy, Precious, Lee Daniels's
gritty, heart-wrenching portrait of an obese, nearly silent, constantly berated and down-trodden teen named Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe in a startling break-out performance) is a work of harrowing emotional power and creative juice. Daniels brings us disturbingly close to this morbidly obese inner city teen, so brutalized both emotionally and physically that her face barely registers any expression anymore, on the verge of mental implosion from past horrors, having to raise two babies (both the products of rape at the hands of her own father), and contending with her brutal, insensitive mother (Mo'Nique). Daniels works meticulously, fully developing the details of its central character's life and the slow steps she tries to take towards recovery -- including attending a school for the disadvantaged and speaking with a welfare counselor (a surprisingly good Mariah Carey). But the film remains appropriately merciless and refuses to offer any unearned uplift; it will be a slow, possibly futile journey for Precious. The combination of "real"and "fantasy" footage also wonderfully hooks us in to this girl's real world and her clashing desires, and the cast, especially Sidibe, expressively inexpressive as the title character, and Mo'Nique, absolutely scorching as the girl's damaged, damaging mother, makes you feel the force, despair, and desperation of their respective characters. This is stunning viewing, one of the great character studies of the year, and honestly and artfully heartbreaking as it reveals Precious's totemic, individual struggles to better herself amidst the knotty forces of resentment and near-pathological hostility that keep dragging her back, in a sort of sadomasochistic co-dependence worthy of Samuel Beckett (or at least Tennessee Williams), to her mother and to her unspeakable past.

2. Summer Hours
What a lovely, lovely film this is. Summer Hours is a tender, thoughtful, sun-kissed French ensemble drama from Oliver Assayas that effortlessly arrives at and delivers pinpoint truths about family, generational differences, art, nostalgia, and social roles in an increasingly fractured, globalized world. Centred around the 75th birthday party of a family matriarch Helene (a wonderful Edith Scob), who has devoted her life to maintaining the family's summer home as well as the artistic legacy of her uncle, and subsequent family meetings held to decide what to do with the house and the museum-worthy pieces after Helene passes, Summer Hours is an intelligent, vibrantly realistic, talky, and engrossing family drama. Combine this scenario with pitch-perfect acting from top to bottom (Juliette Binoche as the whip-smart, flighty artist of the family; Charles Berling is the surprisingly sentimental economist and the oldest of the siblings, who doesn't want to part with his mother's relics; Jeremy Regnier is the calculating careerist whose job has taken a surprising turn and will keep him stuck in China; Isabelle Sadoyan is the sweet and loyal servant of the summer house; I could go on...) and lively, spiky streams of dialogue from Assayas's sparkling script and you have a movie that bears comparison not only to last year's stellar Rachel Getting Married, but to the likes of Robert Altman and Jean Renoir (this being a French film, after all). Summer Hours is both timely and poignantly timeless, a movie that expresses how we all live now and an intimately detailed and delightful portrait of these particular quirky, loving, argumentative, bourgeois characters. And as it builds toward its sunny, bittersweet conclusion, as the art gets sold off to museums and the house goes up for sale, we get, in the children and also the teenage grandchildren (just as well-acted as anyone else), a glimpse of the heartbreak that comes with letting go, as much of a thrill and a necessity as it is to move forward.

1. Up in the Air
As Summer Hours proves, sometimes the smallest films can be the most meaningful. Well, as Up in the Air proves, sometimes the most corny-seeming, all-American films can be the most joyous, satisfying surprises. Jason Reitman's effortlessly winning masterpiece (the man keeps getting better, after the auspicious debut of Thank You for Smoking and the sparkling wit and exuberance of Juno) is a half-happy, half-sad, completely entertaining affair that manages to expertly juggle all the balls it tosses so assuredly into the air. It works seamlessly and simultaneously as an uncommonly witty romantic comedy (the script, from Reitman and Sheldon Turner and based on Walter Kirn's novel, is chock full of such nimble, lighter-than-air banter it recalls the glory days of screwball, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn), a down-to-earth, up-to-the-moment tragedy of very real economic distress as it hits home, and an empathetic character study of a man who revels in his facile, rootless, frequent flier habits until he realizes his position in life is just as insecure as those he fires for a living. As Ryan Bingham, the initially happy-go-lucky, smooth operating businessman living in the lap of cookie-cutter hotel-and-rental-car luxury, George Clooney gives his most heartfelt and charming performance to date in a role seemingly custom-tailored for his movie star suaveness. As the story goes on, though, Clooney wisely modulates the bitter with the sweet as he comes to re-evaluate his position in life. It's a feat of movie star acting to get us to sympathize and believe someone like Ryan, and Clooney pulls it off without breaking a sweat. Vera Fermiga and Anna Kendrick, meanwhile, match him note for note as, respectively, a sexy, smart, self-possessed fellow corporate traveler, and a fresh-faced, upstart rival at Ryan's firm who wants to do away with the traveling ax-man system and do it all via computer -- that is, before Ryan takes her on the road and shows her the importance of personal finesse in the business of letting folks go.

Up in the Air never quite white-washes over its hero's faults or shortchanges the poor folks he fires. Reitman and Clooney draw us into Ryan's cushy lifestyle and effectively convey the sleek, systematized charm of it all (and thus its original appeal for Ryan) before showing us how much of an empty shell it has left him and reinforcing what truly matters in life -- family, love, stability. It's a high-wire act of tragicomedy that the movie pulls off wonderfully, approaching real-life seriousness with appropriate heft while remaining honestly humourous throughout. And Up in the Air, besides all that, is deeply attuned to the particular rhythms that bind men and women in today's fast-paced, technology saturated society (Ryan and Alex's flirting over instant message is a playful delight). Its exploration of corporate culture and gender relations is funny, genuine, and touching enough (in its old-school way) to recall Billy Wilder's The Apartment, and Reitman so blithely connects the dots here and works with such a keen eye for humanity in all its joy and despair that his approach can reasonably be called Alexander Payne-esque. Superb, multi-layered entertainment.


The worst films of the year:

The problem with a guy like me making a worst list is that I tend to go out of my way not to see the movies I suspect will actually be the worst of a given year. I gloss over almost all the cookie-cutter, vapid romantic comedy disasters and the dreary, tossed-together horror flicks-of-the-week, and whatever the latest WWE star's latest acting attempt is. Stuff like or Bride Wars or The Ugly Truth or Saw VI or Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, therefore, will not be on this list because I flat-out didn't see nor have any desire to see them. I did see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, however, but since I didn't particularly care for the first one, it didn't quite count as enough of a disappointment to make the list, but it was undoubtedly a titanically ill-conceived, garish effort. Therefore, my worst of the year is hardly comprehensive, and not even that bad on an absolute scale, and most of them are just mediocre and/or disappointments. With that said, here are the films I most regret seeing last year:

5. The Girlfriend Experience
After raves from the likes of Roger Ebert and Owen Gleiberman, critics whose opinions I give a fair amount of weight to, I expected The Girlfriend Experience to be a shoestring-budget Steven Soderbergh marvel along the lines of Bubble. Unfortunately, this was a "small" film in both budget and enjoyment. Exploring the life and times of an upscale Manhattan prostitute (Sasha Gray, the best performance -- and one of the few interesting parts -- of the movie) who promises not only sex but the full "girlfriend experience" and the realistic, high-powered businessmen who tend to employ her, the film wants to get at a sort of verisimilitude with its naturalistic actors and its grainy, shot-on-the-fly digital video aesthetic. Instead, the actors barely leave an impression at all and the wanna-be topical dialogue about the economy comes off as forced and rambling, rather than urgent or real. It all adds up to a depressingly airless, tedious experience. Again, not so much awful as a mediocre, failed experiment.

4. Whatever Works
Woody Allen's latest is a done-to-death, stuck-in-the-past affair about an obnoxiously talky old crank (in this case, an award-winning scientist) and his ridiculously unlikely, incredibly young love interest. The inclusion of Larry David in the lead instead of Allen himself was undoubtedly intended as a breath of fresh air, but it only makes the angry/neurotic tirades that Allen's script is littered with come across as more stale. Evan Rachel Wood, as the Southern belle runaway that David's character hesitantly accepts into his home, affects a thick accent and flamboyant gestures that do little to disguise the fact that her and David have essentially zero chemistry. The inclusion of Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. later on in the film help to leaven this lead balloon affair slightly, but it's ultimately too little-too late. It's like Allen was asked by his producers what he intended for his next film; the title, unfortunately, was his lamely ambivalent response.

3. Taken
Liam Neeson kicking ass and taking names in Paris in a revenge thriller from director Pierre Morel and hip co-screenwriter Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Leon the Professional)? Cool. Or, at least, it should be. However, Neeson manages to be surprisingly flat here, angry without ever being compelling, except for that one intense scene from the trailer where he's on the phone threatening the (as it turns out, fairly cardboard) bad guys who kidnapped his daughter. Morel's attempts to have his action thriller cake and eat it too -- i.e., to make it as energetically stupid as something like The Fast and the Furious and at the same time as serious and compulsively intense as the Bourne series -- result in a confused, muddled, blandly Euro-flavoured affair that is mirthless where it should be low-rent fun.

2. Knowing
The scene of the plane crash over the interstate about a third of the way through Alex Proyas's Knowing is a virtuoso scene of fear, panic, and larger-than-life disaster that is at once urgent and awesomely panoramic. Unfortunately, it's about the only compelling scene in the movie, which gets so bogged down in its own twisty symbolism, numerological fetishism, end-of-the-world portentousness, and askew Nicolas Cage performance that it becomes so murky it's almost opaque. Preposterous rather than mesmerizing or haunting, Knowing is perilously close to a post-The Village M. Night Shyamalan debacle. A true, muddled sci-fi dud.

1. The Lovely Bones
I've already talked a fair bit in my last post about this shockingly overwrought, contrived, and mawkish Peter Jackson misfire. Suffice it to say that Jackson should probably stick to large-scale fantasy adaptations rather than trying to shoehorn special effects from those movies into his smaller-scale novel adaptations where they prove wholly unnecessary and ridiculous. Rarely has '70s hipsterism appeared so laughable as it is embodied here by a wooden Mark Wahlberg as the daughter of a tragically murdered young girl (Saoirse Ronan, one of the few saving graces of the film), and rarely has comic relief proved as excruciating as Susan Sarandon's galloping, boozy brand here. About three movies in one -- a post-death otherworldly fantasia, a story of grief and retribution, and apparently a shrill screwball comedy -- Jackson has the unfortunate luck to have failed at all three of them. Stanley Tucci got an Oscar nomination for his intense performance as the nebbishy neighbour and child murderer, and while he was perhaps the most interesting thing in the movie, even he gets smothered by Jackson's attempts to overdo the emotional impact and stereotypify his characters, obliterating any sense of thematic subtlety the movie might have possessed. Creepy instead of sweet, goofy instead of thrillingly mystical, thud-over-the-head forced instead of genuinely emotional, there's very little that's lovely about these Bones.

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to mention that I hadn't seen The Blind Side before making this list. Having seen it since, I must say that it might have just beat out The Lovely Bones for the title of worst movie of the year. A shockingly mismanaged attempt at square PC uplift at about every turn. Don't know why I'm mentioning it now, but hot damn, I disliked that movie.