The Best and Worst Film of 2009
The film critics of kcactive.com have bought together their list of the good and bad in the film world for 2009. Our readers are, of course, free to agree or disagree.
1. In the Loop
As uncomfortable as the thought might be, the petty feuds and silly games that dominate most offices also exist in the halls of power in Washington and London. While it’s gloomy to think that people can die because their interests took a back seat to a bureaucrat’s ego, Scottish director Armando Ianucci proves it can also be hysterically funny. In the Loop is loaded with unforgettably profane lines (delivered with vein-popping relish by Peter Capaldi) and a sense that right and wrong, or even simple truth, are subordinate to party lines or how well a person can play office politics. It doesn’t matter if all of the yelling and paper shuffling might actually lead to war in the Middle East. The modest production features a cornucopia of terrific performances from James Gandolfini, David Rasche, Mimi Kennedy, Gina McKee and Tom Hollander. In some ways, the big screen doesn’t do the film justice because the heavily accented dialogue is so thick with absurdist wit, it takes repeated viewings to call all of the insanity unfolding. The film also features what may be the most frightening image in any film of the year. No, it’s not any of the critters in Avatar. It’s Peter Capaldi on his cell phone, charging through D.C. like an angry rhino.
2. The Hurt Locker
While there has been a glut of tediously didactic movies dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the public have wisely avoided (does anybody want to remember Lions for Lambs?), The Hurt Locker succeeds by eliminating the pompous speeches and cranking up the adrenaline. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Point Break) is an expert at action, and freshman screenwriter Mark Boal calls upon his experience as a wartime correspondent to create eerily credible characters and situations. Jeremy Renner (Dahmer) plays Sergeant First Class William James, a bomb disposal expert who can’t come down from the rush he gets from disabling IEDs, even if it makes it impossible for him to leave the battlefield or endangers his fellow soldiers. Bigelow and Boal thankfully portray James’ unit as human beings instead of pawns or monsters. As a result the sacrifices that soldiers make on a daily basis become more than a slogan for a bumper sticker.
Pixar’s output has been so consistently smart, charming and just plain good that it gets a little tiresome to praise their latest gem. If only the other studios were that repetitive. Up slavishly carries out this trend by sending a cranky retired balloon salesman Carl (KC-native Edward Asner) and Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer, on a hot air journey to the South American jungle. They discover unique animals and others surprises along the way. While the computer-generated images are typically stunning, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson wisely put most of their energies into making endearing characters and finely structured plots. It’s impossible to watch Up without falling in love with the earnest, if not terribly bright, talking golden retriever Dug (Peterson). While the setup may be fantastic, it’s astonishing how the dogs and other creatures in the film behave like ones in the real world. Even if Pixar films have been redundant in their quality, they’ve also been daring. There’s a heartbreaking, dialogue-free montage that lasts only six minutes but depicts Carl’s long marriage. It should be used as a teaching tool in film schools from now on.
4. Up in the Air
Speaking of annoyingly consistent quality … Jason Reitman’s third film has all the wit of his debut Thank You for Smoking and even demonstrates some maturity. It’s a funny but haunting look at Ryan Bingham (sure Oscar-nominee George Clooney), a man who makes his living downsizing people from their jobs. What makes Ryan fascinating is that he can deliver bad news the way Ella Fitzgerald used to deliver melodies: making familiarly gloomy stories sound sweet and sincere. Because he’s played by Clooney and with a hidden sense of compassion, Ryan can be both awe-inspiring and pathetic. Clooney holds his own against terrific work from Vera Farmiga (The Departed) as a frequent flier whose life parallels Ryan’s and Anna Kendrick as a young efficiency expert who discovers that firing people isn’t as easy as it looks. Reitman consistently avoids cheap shots (we all know getting fired sucks) and looks at his slightly skewed characters with affection. In the end, Up in the Air is more gratifying because it conveys how tough it can be to make a living these days without reminding viewers of the obvious.
5. An Education
There are a lot of stories about girls who’ve been led astray by charming older men, but An Education is refreshing because the young woman in question emerges victorious. Novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) reworks Lynn Barber’s memoir about growing up in early 1960s London into a frequently hilarious look at the prejudices and other foibles of the era. The terrific Carey Mulligan anchors the film as Jenny, a promising high school student who begins having a little too much fun following a suave con artist named David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard). Because David seems cultured and adventurous, Jenny falsely believes he can offer her an exciting life that her staid middle class parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour) cannot. Hornby carefully develops his characters so that we don’t fully understand them till the film is over. Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) imbues An Education with an appropriately droll wit and a vivid sense of the period.
A Single Man, Bright Star, The Cove, Avatar, The Road
1. Super Capers
Perhaps it’s not fair to trash a superhero comedy that was made for less than Tony Stark’s spare parts budget. But since it costs just as much money to rent Iron Man or The Incredibles, the laugh-free Super Capers deserves as much derision as possible. Several veterans of TV superhero shows like Adam West from Batman and Justin Whalin from Lois & Clark pick up some grocery money in this tale of an academy for supers. The “subheroic” humor in Super Capers consists of crummy Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonations, stale James Bond gags and characters that actually yell, “Crap!” before stepping excrement. No, it doesn’t take Superman’s X-ray vision or Dr. Charles Xavier’s ESP to tell that this is a turkey.
2. Fired Up!
I have only one small demand for raunchy comedies: They have to be as funny as they are vulgar. Naming a make-believe college “F.U.” is less witty than some of the wisecracks I’ve heard from real high schoolers. Fired Up! gets off to a horrible start because its makers assume that cheerleading is for wimps who couldn’t make it as football players. Well, at least that’s what the film’s protagonists (Nicholas D'Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen) think. By attending a cheerleading camp instead of football practice, they hope that they’ll score. We’re not talking touchdowns. Because D’Agosto and Olsen are about 30 (and look it), they come off potential candidates for “To Catch a Predator.” In the real world, cheerleaders can get seriously hurt when back flips or pyramids go wrong. Yes, this movie is an insult to cheerleaders, and anyone else with a limited entertainment budget, or a life.
3. Old Dogs
Director Walt Becker, the mastermind behind National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, has actually regressed since his debut film. In that inauspicious start, he featured several gags involving ejaculation. With Old Dogs, he’s moved back to those old favorites: urine and feces. John Travolta (and half of his family) teams up with Robin Williams to wonder where their careers have gone. This tale of old, seemingly confirmed bachelors discovering their paternal sides might have worked if Becker didn’t have such an unappealing mean streak. If you think watching a hand model getting her fingers crushed under the lid of a trunk or a six-year-old getting knocked down by a soccer ball is amusing, I’ve got a room for you. You’ll like it. The walls are made of rubber.
4. The Twilight Saga: New Moon
There’s no suspense wondering which boyfriend will eventually capture the heart of neurotic Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart). Will it be the dull, whiny vampire (the wooden Robert Pattinson) or the dull, shirtless werewolf (Taylor Lautner)? There’s nothing wrong with having a chaste supernatural romance, but a comatose one is unforgivable. The writing hasn’t improved since the last film. Bella seems more like a candidate for an intervention than long term love. It doesn’t help that the special effects are comparable to a ‘90’s arcade game. Perhaps these films might have worked if the characters were believable instead of sparkly.
5. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
I love an explosion three times as much as most moviegoers. This is why I hate most of Michael Bay’s movies. Bay cuts his battle scenes in such a way that it’s difficult to tell who won a skirmish or to even care about its conclusion. As a result, all of the mayhem he presents gets old despite the ear-splitting volume. Fond childhood memories of the ‘80s cartoon series Transformers are replaced by blatant racism. The film’s central conceit is that the Pyramids were actually built by space aliens, not the ancestors of the people who live in Egypt now. There are even appallingly gags from a pair of annoying Autobots (with gold teeth and ghetto slang) and a dog-like Decepticon that humps Megan Fox’s leg. Memo to Bay: Only Robot Chicken can get a way with humping robot scenes.
Miss March, Imagine That, Next Day Air, Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Girlfriend Experience
Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com.