Waitsel’s Best Movies of 2009

Grab your popcorn and drink and let’s talk.

It’s that time of year, when everybody and their brother publishes a “Best of 2009” movie list. It’s really becoming annoying. What makes my list different, I hope, is that I try to have a certain amount of objectivity and discernment about it. Just because I personally like certain aspects of a film or certain actors that are in it isn’t enough to include it on my list: the film has to have some major redeeming values; which, today, is becoming increasingly more difficult to find. But, there are still some good movies out there, and I hope at some point there will be more. Among the values I look for are artistic merit; spiritual, cultural and historical relevance; humanity; and just plain good story-telling.

I apologize for the length of this article, but it contains a lot of information I think you will find interesting. After my list of the nine movies I liked best from 2009, I offer my comments on six films I was supposed to like but didn’t, ten films to look forward to in 2010, and some reflections on the film industry in general. So, here we go.

Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

BEST DRAMA / MOST INSPIRING – The Blind Side – 5-Star Masterpiece

If you don’t see any other film from 2009, you have to see this one. Not only is it good drama and even inspiring, Sandra Bullock (The Proposal, Crash, Miss Congeniality) is to die for. She plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a real-life, very high-mainteance, incredibly focused, tenacious wife, mother and interior designer, living a very wealthy lifestyle with her family in Memphis, Tennessee. One fateful rainy night, the family meets and decides to help a young, homeless black student from their children’s private Christian school. He is Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), future All-American and first round NFL draft pick; but at the time, an introverted, poor student with only two qualities that might possibly help him to become a football player: his size and his protective instincts. Leigh Anne, with the help of husband Sean (Tim McGraw), son S.J. (Jae Head) and daughter Collins (Lily Collins), along with coach Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon), help Michael to see his potential and use it to become, not only a talented football player, but a good student and an honorable man. So that, by the end of the film, he has coaches from all over the South vying for his recruitment.

This is a true story, based on the book by Michael Lewis (The Blind Side: Evolution Of A Game), and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Alamo, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, A Perfect World), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Lewis. Country music recording artist Tim McGraw is enjoyable as good-natured husband Sean, and also does the soundtrack. But Sandra Bullock steals the film. I know how good she is because I grew up in a Southern family with interior designers, and they’re all high-maintenance, focused and tenacious like that. What makes Bullock’s character extraordinary is the courage, heart and vision she adds to those qualities. But she never smiles… until the end of the film, and it’s a classic moment. Another terrific scene is when the coaches from different universities are looking at a video of Oher blocking an opposing player that has been antagonizing him all game, and pushing him all the way down the field, into the end zone and over the fence. That’s just one of the many times you’ll laugh and cry simultaneously. This movie makes me glad there is still a movie industry.

PG-13

Best Thriller 2009

BEST THRILLER – Inglourious Basterds – 5 Stars

Screenwriter-director Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) is a somewhat disturbing person, as are his films, which tend toward what I would call “black drama” – in the same way that the films of the Coen brothers tend toward black comedy. But Tarantino’s films are incredibly interesting both visually and for their stories, which, like the Coens’ films, are filled with some very interesting characters. In this case, the Inglourious Basterds is a group of fictional American soldiers, led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), that is terrorizing the Nazis in France during WWII by brutally killing and scalping them Indian style. (This is not a film for weak stomachs.) If the group does let one go, they carve a swastika in his forehead so everyone will know, after the war, what he was.

This is what I call a “pagan” film, which is one that is unabashedly non-Christian. Like the movie 300, it glorifies things that the Bible condemns – in this case, vengeance and violence. But it is so well done, and so interesting, that I think it’s permissible to overlook Tarantino’s excesses for the moment in order to appreciate his craftsmanship. Young directors could learn much from him about how to create riveting scenes, characters and even set pieces. Tarantino likes to create vignettes, which means that each scene can stand on its own, even though, together, they tell a compelling story. His vision seems to come from comic books and graphic novels rather than reality. The art direction and photography are so graphic and so saturated with color that they add to the intensity of the action.

Some of the more vulnerable characters are memorable – like Perrier LaPadite, a French dairy farmer, played by Denis Menochet, who pretty much steals one of the early scenes with his understated but poignant performance. The German Colonel Hans Landa – known as “the Hunter” because of his ability to track down Jews, and portrayed superbly by Christoph Waltz – fenagles LaPadite into disclosing that a family of Jews is hiding beneath his house. Or Shosanna, the only member of that family that escapes annihilation by Waltz’s men. She flees to Paris and becomes the owner of a cinema that figures prominently in the story. She is played wonderfully by Melanie Laurent.

Daniel Bruhl is effective as Fredrick Zoller, a German officer that becomes infatuated with Shosanna. Besides Colonel Hans Landa, most of the Nazis are little more than caricatures, except for Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress-turned-spy, played by Diane Kruger, who dominates the best scene in the film – a meeting in a rathskeller that turns into a Mexican standoff and will have you on the edge of your seat. As a matter of fact, most of the movie will. Except for the overly graphic violence and the brutality of certain scenes, Inglourious Basterds is a glorious suspense thriller that even Alfred Hitchcock would admire.

Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality.

Sam Worthington as Jake in James Cameron's Avatar

BEST ACTION / MOST INNOVATIVE – Avatar – 5-Star Masterpiece

I don’t know all the details, but at some point, James Cameron (Titanic, Aliens, Terminator) and Pixar were both considering doing a film based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, a series of science fiction novels that followed his Tarzan series. For whatever reason, Cameron decided instead to do an anti-capitalist, New Age picture that is vaguely inspired by the novels; while Pixar opted to do a faithful adaptation of the series, the first of which is due to come out in 2012. One reason the series has not been attempted before is because the technology hasn’t been available to create the weird creatures that populate Burroughs’ version of Mars, which he calls Barsoom. Both Cameron’s film Avatar, and the upcoming Pixar film, utilize a seamless combination of digital animation and live action, as well as state-of-the-art 3D technology.

Avatar is a visual and cinematic masterpiece, with eye-popping scenery and special effects. The story, on the other hand, is a bit worn. One younger viewer compared it to Pocahontas – the big, bad white conquistadors invading the innocent natives’ pristine jungle. That may make for a politically correct tale in an age gone mad over “green,” but it doesn’t add up if you think about it too much. Nevertheless, Avatar is a very entertaining film, and one that breaks ground for future innovations.

While art direction and special effects are the obvious stars, Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation), turns in a strong performance as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine that scientists can transform, virtually, into a creature called an avatar, so that he resembles and can interact with the beings that populate the moon Pandora, where the story takes place. Also good is Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Vantage Point) as Neytiri, a native with whom Sully falls in love. Sigourney Weaver also stars as Dr. Grace Augustine, one of the scientists testing the new avatar technology.

What I think Cameron did was to merge the stories of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, and then give them a New Age, politically correct twist to cash in on the global warming frenzy. But Burroughs was anything but New Age and political. His novels are right at the center of the pulp fiction, action-adventure genre – full of violence and love-making – that early 20th Century American males ate up – which is the antithesis of what Cameron has come up with. Nevertheless, I like most aspects of Cameron’s vision and how he has used the technology. The film has a wonder to it that one does not easily forget.

PG-13

Eric Bana as Nero in Star Trek: The Future Begins

2nd BEST ACTION – Star Trek: The Future Begins – 5 Stars

Ever since Gene Roddenberry came up with the original Star Trek television show, there have been fans of the captain and crew of the Starship Enterprise, and they seem to multiply with every new film based on the series. This latest is obviously the start of a whole new series (hence the subtitle), that goes all the way back to when the crew first formed. Fans of the TV show will love comparing these new, young Enterprise crew members with their originals. There are enough of the hallmark idiosyncrasies sprinkled throughout to give even a casual fan delight.

My favorite character, though, is not one of the crew members of the Enterprise, but Eric Bana as the Romulan leader, Nero. His has the advantage of being a new character, which he uses very well. The crew members, on the other hand, have the burden of filling the shoes of those very famous predecessors, which is not easy. The one that does it most successfully, I think, is Karl Urban as Dr. “Bones” McCoy. The others have issues that are partly their fault, but also partly that of the writers and director. To find out what some of those issues are, and to see some fabulous photos of the cast, go to my full review. Overall, though, I think Star Trek: the Future Begins is very entertaining and should make a sustaining series.

PG-13

Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams in Sherlock Holmes

3rd BEST ACTION – Sherlock Holmes – 4 Stars

The new Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as the great detective, and Jude Law as his sidekick, Dr. Watson, is enjoyable, but hardly the characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The fact that there were five (count them – five!) writers on this film may explain part of the problem. Then there’s director Guy Richie, who’s typical film is the likes of RocknRolla. Rather than Sir Arthur’s stories, which are very much grounded in pre-Edwardian thinking and culture, what we’re given is a cross between Sherlock Holmes and The Wild, Wild West. And instead of the cerebral, hunter-clad mystery-solver, we’re offered a slovenly rake that engages in fisticuffs as often as James West. I wonder at what the filmmakers were thinking.

While Downey is interesting, certainly, he is no Holmes. (Or, perhaps I should say, no Basil Rathbone.) Law as Dr. Watson, on the other hand, is quite convincing and the greatest asset to the film. He would almost have made a better Homes. I think this is an example of miscast actors, as well as miscast vision. Other disappointments include the plot, which is completely far-fetched and dark, as the antagonists involve themselves in world domination through Satanism (!!!). And the flashback technique used to make sure we notice all the clues Holmes uncovers is clever once, but becomes redundant with overuse. The weakest part of the film is the ending: a fight between Holmes and Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong, on a broken down bridge that is so obviously CGI, the whole scene seems fake – not good for a climax.

Some of the better aspects of the film are that it is fun, and highly entertaining. I mean, how can a film about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson not be entertaining if it’s done halfway right? There’s just something about a detective sleuthing around the fog-laden streets of London. And Robert Downey, Jr. does bring a lot to the table – it’s just not a lot of Sherlock Holmes. Then there’s the attractive third protagonist, Rachel McAdams, who adds to the Wild, Wild West feel. In spite of its weaknesses, Sherlock Holmes is enjoyable; but the series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce is still the best.

PG-13

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie And Julia

BEST COMEDY – Julie And Julia – 4 Stars

I’ve never seen a movie about food I didn’t like: Ratatoulli, Babette’s Feast, Chocolat. Watching people who know what they’re doing prepare food is entertaining – thus the popularity of the Food Network. But before there was a Food Network, there was Julia Child, who taught America to cook though her book, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, her cooking school, and her very popular TV show. Julie And Julia is a double tale about how Julia Child got started cooking, which is humorous in itself; but also about a young woman named Julie, who wants to be like her. So Julie decides to cook all the recipes in Julia’s cookbook over the course of a year, and to blog about her experiences on the Internet. This may sound tame, but it is quite an experience, and almost costs Julie her marriage and even her sanity.

The film is based on two real life stories: Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life In France; and Julie And Julia by Julie Powell. And about two real life couples: Meryl Streep is a hoot as Julia Child, with Stanley Tucci playing her understanding husband, Paul; and Amy Adams is good as aspiring cook and writer Julie Powell, with Chris Messina playing her patient husband, Eric. The film jumps back and forth between Julia’s life in France as the wife of a diplomat (?), and Julie’s life in New York as a government worker. The scenes in France are fascinating. The New York story is fun and funny and lends a human element to a story that might otherwise seem artificial. What’s amazing is how cooking leads to so many romantic moments! It’s good fun.

PG-13

Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal

BEST ROMANCE – The Proposal – 4 Stars

Sandra Bullock was a hot commodity in 2009. This is a very attractive comedy, with locations in New York and Alaska; a terrific cast in Ryan Reynolds (Wolverine, Definitely Maybe, Van Wilder), Mary Steenburgen (Four Christmases, Back To The Future Part III), Craig T. Nelson (The Incredibles, Coach), and Betty White (The Golden Girls, The Mary Tyler Moore Show); and a pretty good script. A couple that starts out hating each other and ends up loving each other is a good formula, as some of the most famous comedies – like The Philadelphia Story – and even dramas – such as Gone With The Wind – prove. In this case, Bullock is Reynold’s slave-driver publishing boss, whom everyone fears and loathes, but Reynolds especially. When it looks like Bullock is going to be deported back to Canada because of an immigration problem, she blackmails Reynolds into marrying her, in spite of their age difference. Things really heat up when he takes her home to Alaska to meet his family, with an immigration official hot on their trail.

I’ll never understand why comedy writers and directors always include at least one tasteless scene in their films. In this case, it’s the performance by local male stripper Ramone, played by Oscar Nunez. It’s as if they want to make sure we realize that they don’t respect us, so they give us a scene that you would have to be trailer trash to appreciate. Then there’s the obligatory skin scene, which in this case involves the totally unbelievable coincidence of both Bullock and Reynolds being naked, slamming into each other, and ending up on the floor together. Of course, they still hate each other at this point, so they’re not supposed to like it. And finally, as a tribute to bad TV, we have a bizarre scene with Betty White in the middle of the woods dressed in Indian garb, chanting to Mother Nature, with Sandra Bullock contributing to the ceremony by singing and dancing to the dirty lyrics of a rap song. In spite of these idiotic inclusions, this is a very likable film, primarily because, what’s not to like about Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

PG-13

Russell and Carl in Pixar's Up

BEST FAMILY FILM – Up – 5 Stars

I thought Up was cute and funny, as all Pixar films are; but I had a harder time enjoying this style of animation than some of the others. It’s very stylized in a blocky sort of way, which probably appeals to young kids. Also, the characters are more odd, I think, than in previous films. I really enjoyed the sequence on Carl’s early relationship with his wife, and how he ended up living in that little house in the middle of high rise office buildings by himself. I liked the contrast between Boy Scout Russell and crotchety old Carl – again, an odd pairing. When the dogs arrive on the scene, that is really when the story gets good. For me, they are the real stars, and the dog jokes are hilarious. But my favorite part? The balloons. I love that gigantic bunch of balloons that lift the house off its foundation and carry it to South America. What a concept! For my full review of this Pixar hit, go here.

G

Lord Save Us From Your Followers

BEST DOCUMENTARY – Lord, Save Us From Your Followers – 4 Stars

This film was somewhat controversial, but who cares. It’s about why the Gospel of Love is dividing America. It starts out with street interviews by filmmaker Dan Merchant dressed in a white jump suit covered in bumper stickers with Christian and anti-Christian slogans. As people talk, you get the impression that Christians don’t have a good reputation among unbelievers. Then Merchant interviews some famous politicians and political pundits, like Al Franken. There’s a game show in which Christians and non-Christians show their knowledge of each other’s culture – the Christians fail miserably. Finally, we hear from some real Christians, like Bono, and are taken to some places where Christians really are making a difference: like Africa, New Orleans and Portland. There is a stark contrast between the name-calling and finger-pointing in the first half of the film, and the good works in the second. For my full review of this very interesting documentary, go here.

PG-13

Other Films

Public Enemies is a fairly well-done period piece about John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) and other Depression Era gangsters, and how FBI Chief Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) helps to bring about their demise. Decent drama and action by director Michael Mann, but it’s hard to get close to the characters, and Depp is just okay in this role. 3-4 Stars. Rated R for violence and language.

The Hurt Locker is almost a docudrama about a bomb squad in Iraq; but specifically one soldier named SFC William James (Jeremy Renner), and his delusional take on life and his job. Slanted, anti-war and almost anti-military, I felt this film by director Kathryn Bigelow was almost an insult to our men and women in uniform. It is fascinating for the first hour as you watch these men do their very dangerous work in a very hostile environment; but then it becomes tedious and almost boring as they get drunk and beat the hell out of each other on their time off. 3 Stars. Rated R for violence and language.

The Hangover has a great premise – waking up the morning after with all kinds of evidence as to what happened the night before, but no memory – which the trailers capitalized on. But what’s in the trailers is about all there is in the film. It’s a great premise, but it fails to deliver, so we end up with one very predictable, very dumb movie. Which is why it’s so popular. Basically, the film validates irresponsible behavior as long as you can prove that you were high. Two things I can say that are good about this film: that is one cute baby; and Bradley Cooper is a cut above the rest of the cast. 3 Stars. Rated R for sex, drugs and language.

Terminator Salvation is the weakest of all the Terminator films, with one exception: Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright – he is terrific. He’s even better in Avatar. And this year, he stars in Clash Of The Titans. Something to anticipate. Besides Wright, the film is pretty much just a lot of noise and special effects that don’t add up to much. Even Christian Bale is the weakest I’ve seen him. It’s almost as if he knows Wright is stealing the film away from him, and there’s nothing he can do about it. 3 Stars

State Of Play is not a bad film; it’s just that there are so many other political thrillers about reporters that are so much better: All The President’s Men and The Insider (starring Russell Crowe), to name two. While Russell Crowe never gives a bad performance, this is probably one of his weakest. There’s just not a lot there, scriptwise. Ben Affleck doesn’t bring much to the party. Nor does director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King Of Scotland). So, it’s all pretty much on Crowe’s shoulders; and he does what he can, but it’s not enough. 3 Stars.

Duplicity is a weak imitation of Oceans Eleven, with a couple standing in for the eleven, and duplicity clouding the waters at every turn. You’re never really sure what is going on because you can’t trust anyone, including writer-director Tony Gilroy. And you know the worst of it? I hate to say it, but Julia Roberts, one of my all-time favorite actresses, is starting to look a little worse for wear. I first noticed it in Oceans Eleven. I think she needs to start thinking about playing characters other than sexy, glamorous types. And Clive Owen is not a lot better. Any way you look at it, this is one weak film. 2-3 Stars.

Disappointments

Gerard Butler continues to make really bad choices on material. The Gamer was basically trash contrived for video game players that have destroyed most of their brain cells. Law Abiding Citizen is a mean-spirited revenge film that wallows in violence. The Ugly Truth is basically an ugly comedy with very little appeal. Butler seems to be willing to take any assignment, unlike Russell Crowe, who is very selective. You reap what you sow. In spite of Crowe’s unpopular antics, he is going to end up as the best screen actor of the early 21st Century; and in spite of Butler’s overwhelming popularity, he is going to end up as one of the worst, if he’s not careful.

Walden Media has forsaken their commitment to quality films for families, as far as I’m concerned. They seem to be more interested in producing study materials to go along with their films than films that are worth studying. I mean, come on: Tooth Fairy? How in the world does that movie fit their vision of film as literature? I don’t get it. You would think that they’d get tired of mediocrity and use all that money to produce something good once in awhile. Oh, yeah – there’s another Chronicles Of Narnia film due out this year: Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. Well, I guess that’s something.

Still the Best

Pixar is still the King of Filmdom. And I don’t see that changing any time soon. The John Carter Of Mars series will be a challenge, on many levels, not the least of which being that it is outside their usual genre. It is almost adult material, so it will probably be rated PG-13. But I can’t see any reason why it won’t have their usual quality and integrity, and should take both animation and 3D technology through the roof. Definitely something to look forward to.

Russell Crowe is still the best actor, and this year we get to see him in a cinematic standard: Robin Hood. It will be another larger-than-life role like Gladiator and Master And Commander, and I can’t wait.

What to Look Forward to in 2010

Iron Man 2 – The first was terrific, and coming off Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey, Jr. should be as hot as ever.

Alice In Wonderland – This should be a major triumph for Johnny Depp. What better character for him than the Mad Hatter?

Tron: Legacy – I liked the 1982 Tron film by Disney that starred Jeff Bridges, though it was not very popular with either critics or public. I’d like to see the story redeem itself. Bridges is in this one as well.

The A-Team – A very popular 1980s TV show hits the Big Screen. I just hope it leaves some of its dumbness behind. Liam Neeson plays the George Peppard character. Also stars Bradley Cooper (The Hangover), Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Phantom Of The Opera) and Jessica Biel (The Illusionist).

Clash Of The Titans – Boy, Hollywood is trying to bring back the 80s. Very popular Ray Harryhausen special effects film from 1981 gets a rebirth, staring Sam Worthington (Avatar, Terminator Salvation) as Perseus and Liam Neeson as Zeus.

Robin Hood – After Kevin Costner’s failed 1991 attempt, it’s time this classic was given its due, and who better to fill the role than Russell Crowe. Crowe will do justice to the bandit of Sherwood Forest, and with Ridley Scott directing and producing after several failures of his own (A Good Year, Kingdom Of Heaven), he’s due for another success like Gladiator. Scott is also producing The A-Team.

Toy Story 3 – The Pixar classic that started it all. What a treat!

Inception – A sci-fi thriller from Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ken Watanabe and Marion Cotillard.

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 – Now that the producers finally have a director on board that understands the material – I’m talking about David Yates (Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince) – and how to visualize it, these last two Harry Potter films should be good and – if they’re anything like the last book – exciting.

The Red Baron – From what I’ve seen of the previews, this looks pretty good. The cast are basically unknowns.

What’s Missing

What’s missing in movies today that movies in the past possessed in spades is charm, which is one of the qualities that endears an audience to a film and gives it longevity. Special effects have mowed down all other qualities in film, and it’s time to get back to what made films in the past great. Only an empty-headed, technology-crazed society would think that special effects are enough. Charm is a quality that both characters and story need if a film is to become a classic and survive from generation to generation. It is a quality that a society needs if it is to survive. Charm is the quality that marks all Pixar pictures. What better endorsement do you need than that?

Another quality that is missing from most films today is grace. Fortunately, it does appear occasionally, as it did this year in The Blind Side. When a film has grace, audiences love it and realize there is something different about that film. It’s a quality that you can’t get enough of, and it makes you want what the characters in the film have. It’s God’s fingerprint on a film.

Another missing quality is discretion, which is the better part of valor. Directors today want to show everything. They don’t leave anything to the imagination. That is not good artistry, nor is it good humanity. A woman in clothes is sexier than one that’s naked because it creates mystery and makes one wonder. Once she’s exposed, the mystery’s gone and so is the wonder. By showing everything, directors today are raising an ante that future directors cannot possibly meet. There will eventually be a point at which a director will not be able to show any more nudity, any more violence, any more realism. At that point, movies will degenerate into something more perverse, or disintegrate entirely. It’s time to get back to discretion in film, and life.

Do you realize that while the Motion Picture Production Code was in effect, which was from 1934 to 1968, the greatest films that have ever been made – the films we today call “classics” – were produced? 1939, the year when the Code was at its height, has been called the greatest year of cinema. More classic films were produced that year than in any year since. Today, there is no Code. Producers can make anything they like, and they are churning out the trash as fast as they can… and people are buying it.

There’s something to be said for discipline. Having restraint makes one more creative. If you can do anything, you will, and it will be the same old anything that everyone else is doing. I’d like to see us get back to a Production Code in this country. I think it would give us better films. But it will take the American public demanding it of our government. It was the threat of government intervention that got the Motion Picture Association of America to come up with the Code the first time. It can happen again if we make it happen.

Waitsel Smith

Waitsel Smith, January 29, 2010

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Text © 2010 Waitsel Smith. Photographs © 2009 respective movie studios. All Rights Reserved.

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