2009: THE YEAR OF DISAPPOINTMENT
BRUNO THE ROAD SUMMER HOURS LA DANSE THE PARIS OPERA BALLET
DRAG ME TO HELL DUPLICITY THE INFORMANT! PONYO
UP! WORLD'S GREATEST DAD SOMERS TOWN SOUL KITCHEN
THE TIME THAT REMAINS THE HOLE
There you go. My other favorite movies of the year. The problem is: I don't feel passionately about any of them, so to call them "favorites" is kinda misleading. Two of them ranked among my biggest disappointments of the year (Up! and Ponyo), even if I more or less liked them. The films on this list reached a level of successes ranging mainly from "better than I expected" to "pretty good" and I wouldn't rush to the defense of any of them – I'd have to hem and haw a little bit while I sorted out just actually what it is I liked about them and how much.
In short, a terrible year for movies and the worst in quite some time, 2009 leaves me more than a little depressed as a movie-goer. Never has my list of favorites been so much a compilation of things about which I am equally conflicted and indifferent.
On top of that, an almost complete absence of enjoyably terrible b-movies, ambitious near-misses and reliably awesome Hollywood Blockbusters meant that the margins of my "positive film-going experience" notebook are almost completely blank. Should I really bother to take the time to mention that I thought Fast and Furious was the second best of an agreeably idiotic series when there's only a title or two that I enjoyed on a comparable level. Obssessed? Orphan? You're just going to get them wrong impression if I go grasping at straws. And I feel you and I should try to be honest, ok? This year, I'm foregoing the B-Movie Round-Up, normally my favorite thing to write for the review.
Summer Hours, Duplicity and The Road were all fine, although if you told me they sucked and I was wrong to like them, I certainly wouldn't argue. All three directors delivered to the height of their talent and that’s not necessarily a good thing – they seem to have hit their ceiling, as opposed to having reached a new level and expanded the possibilities for their future. The same can probably be said for Sacha Baron Cohen, although I truthfully think the cap on his talent is far higher than John Hillcoat or Tony Gilroy. I disagree with the idea that Bruno produced diminishing returns for cinema's most daring agent provocateur – in many ways, it's far better than Borat – but a shtick is a shtick and a single knife can only cut so deeply.
I had a great time with Drag Me to Hell, but it doesn't amount to much beyond a feature-length E.C. Comics movie – I can't imagine ever setting aside the time to watch it again. The Informant! really worked for me (way more than the stillborn Girlfriend Experience and the irritating, pre-fab product at its center, Sasha Grey), but Che stole the whole show as far as Soderbergh goes this year. Sort of a spiritual companion to Raimi's goofy twist-delivery system, The Informant! was a one-joke premise: an exceptionally well-told and entertaining joke, to be sure, but I probably don't ever need to hear it again. Ditto for World's Greatest Dad, which confirms the idea that Bobcat Goldwaith can mix combustible elements like puerile characters, razor-sharp humor and bittersweet pathos with an exceptional deftness, but the film absolutely runs out of momentum and ideas right after it should be getting down to business.
La Danse is characteristically hypnotic and fascinating. Fred Wiseman has the knack: he knows how to entrance an audience and his latest, about some World Famous Ballet Company, is an unlikely enchantment on the order of his other marathon films with subjects that in the hands of any other filmmaker would cause my eyes to glaze over. I'm not sure what it says about me that I find top-flight ballet to be far less compelling than a tiny town in Maine or the projects in Chicago, but it's ultimately the prancing and dancing (and far not enough mincing) that leaves this one pretty far down on my list of favorite Wiseman films. I'm just saying I'd rather see monkeys getting jerked off or grisly, stomach-churning examinations of cow slaughter – what's so weird about that?
I have a great deal of affection for Shane Meadows' Somers Town, which was (as every critic is required to note) like the first twenty minutes of This is England expanded to feature length. Meadows has a lot more talent for detailing the rhythms of friendship and hanging out than for building something like a big picture and Somers Town plays exactly to his strengths in that way. On the other hand, there's not a whole of a lot to this enjoyable little film - it's the sort of thing that too much praise would crush. But, I really do want to praise it. The film is insubstantial, but I’' give the best possible spin to that characterization: I'm not sure I'd want anything changed about this movie because its pleasures are so small and simple. It's a zone in which I'd love to see Meadows stay and expand on, even if I admittedly don't have a clear idea about what that would mean.
Soul Kitchen, from the great Fatih Akin, is a stupid crowd-pleasing comedy about how food and sex and music are totally the best things in the world. I essentially agree with the sentiment, but this movie is pretty lame compared to Akin's astounding previous efforts The Edge of Heaven and Head-On. It's really fun and when Udo Kier chokes on button it's all but impossible not to cheer, but still: Akin shouldn't be wasting his time on this sort of junk. Errol Morris' talents were wasted as a private detective; Nabakov's talents were wasted as a lepidopterist; Akin's a gourmet, we don’t need him to unwrap Twinkies for us. Conversely, the studios need to renew their faith in Joe Dante: he should be making exactly this kind of junk, so give him a proper budget for crazy 3-D effects, for shit's sake. Dante's campfire tale of a strange inter-dimensional portal in the basement of a suburban house only really flags in the last 20 minutes when budget constraints make everything cheesy and under-realized. Truthfully, every set-piece is similarly hampered; but The Hole, a near-miss considered in its totality, still mixes a whole boatload of traditional Dante ingeniousness and virtuosity with genuinely likable child actors and a loose, unpredictable sense of fun and danger.
As I mentioned, Ponyo and Up! failed to meet my justifiably GIGANTIC standards for the only Japanese filmmaker that could reasonable be considered better than Kurosawa and the greatest American filmmaking team of the past 40 years, respectively. I understand that Ponyo was intended for very small children and somewhat of a creative purification for Miyazaki, but amid its cluttered and spastic plot, it was just too kiddie-ish and twee for me. I felt like a 10 year old watching Nick Jr. I simply wasn't the target demographic and forcing things would've been weird and creepy. That movie's for babies and I am not a baby. After the stunning prologue to Up!, the film steadily wore me down because of two things I would have never expected from Pixar: flat, cookie-cutter characters and failed, flailing quirkiness. The fat kid, the uninteresting villain, the annoying old man, the Road Runner-y bird – it was a tough cast to endure, slopped liberally with failed idiosyncracy. Porco Rosso and Cars are the only things keeping these films from being the least of both Miyazaki and Pixar's output.
Finally, I'll mention Elie Sulieman's wacky pseudo-autobiography, The Time That Remains. My relationship to Sulieman's Divine Intervention follow-up could stand-in for how a felt about film on the whole this year: it would be unfair to disregard it altogether, I just basically don't care one way or the other about it. Idiosyncratic and accomplished, frequently heartfelt and always thoughtful, Sulieman once again applies his silent comedy sensibility to the most incongruous of subjects (Arabs in Israel). It's not surprising that diligently aping the shticky-est of styles would result in a film as frequently undermined as it as elevated by its unconventional approach. Keaton and Chaplin, his obvious inspirations, shamelessly played to their audiences and Sulieman can't escape that cloying quality of his chosen aesthetic. On the one hand, it's refreshing in the context of dour, self-righteous and propagandistic works that dominate the cinematic landscape of the Middle East; on the other, it's too damn cutesy, too much of a gimmick for it to have real impact – it's only as good as the sum of its gags. They're good gags, but what can I say: I'm not sold.
2009: I'm not sold.
2009 U.S. releases that I saw last year and wrote about on my favorites list then:
35 RHUMS STILL WALKING ME AND ORSON WELLES TOKYO SONATA
THE ONLY BAD MOVIE THAT MATTERS
John Cribbs and Christopher Funderburg both wrote eeriely similar essays about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds for their Year in Review write-ups. Part of the extreme similarity reults from the fact they had discussed the movie with each other quite a bit before writing about it, part of it comes the fact that they were both treated to the same asinine Tarantino quote that serves as the spine of both essays, part of it's just coincidence. To read John's streamlined, succinct 1,300 word version, click here. If you're more in the mood to see the same points really driven into the ground, click here for Christopher's 4,400 word take.
(IN A YEAR JAM-PACKED WITH 'EM)
12 Rounds. The director of Die Hard 2 remakes Die Hard 3 starring rappin' wrestler turned Marine, the beefcake Matt Damon, the man who put spinners on the championship belt, the man most likely to disobey a direct order (!!!), John Cena. What happened? Cena (whose resemblance to a beefy Matt Damon cannot be understated) gives it his all, but the whole thing is such a snooze that I literally fell asleep. John, Pfriender and I watched at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square as part of my bachelor party. And I fell asleep. At 10:00. My wife is unbelievably beautiful and awesome, so that almost makes up for 12 Rounds. Almost. Renny Harlan, you broke my heart! This should've combined the majesty of musculature on display in Cliffhanger with yippee-kay-yi-yay! motherfuckery of Dying Harder and, maybe, I'm just saying, maybe, there could have even been a way to work in some super-intelligent sharks. I'm just saying. Instead, I get some Irish dude forcing Cena to run around saving janitors and pulling fire alarms and whatnot. Cena should've bitten through some dude's leg and then suplexed him through the roof of a meth lab – Shane Black could've written the script! Hollywood, what the hell happened to you? We used to be tight. Now it's like I don't even know you anymore.
Push. You see, there are pushers and sneezers and lookers and tasters and they're all employed by big sinister corporations locked in a struggle for world domination and you know. That sort of thing. If I'm remembering it correctly, there are people in this movie who can smell the past. That can't be, right, can it? Clearly, a big part of my problem is which films I make the mistake of thinking there might be any sliver of a chance of me enjoying. I like low-big-budget, half-formed-high-concept films and enjoy Chris Evans, so what gives? The movie is just so stupid. It doesn't make any sense. Honestly, it's hard to imagine how this movie ended up the way it is if they weren't intentionally trying to make a stupid movie that makes absolutely sense - but what kind of a strategy is that? Also, there are people that scream and it breaks glass and fish go flopping around out of their aquariums and next thing you know people are slipping on the fucking fish and the dudes keep screaming and guys ears and eyes are bleeding. They made that boring! Any word on if they're going to complete the trilogy?
Ponyo. I didn't really mean to insult Porco Rosso earlier, it's predictably visually stunning - just really amazing to look at - but there's just nothing to it. It's fluffier than fluff – it's a 30 minute short padded out to feature length and it feels very much like it. A gorgeous and essentially likable movie just happens to be the worst Miyazaki has ever made.
Up!. I did really mean to insult Cars.
Crank 2: High Voltage. I liked Crank but thought its filmmakers were almost certainly the type of Howard Stern-adoring jackasses who think they're totally outrageous for talking about strippers and porno. Crank 2 overflows with "Holy shit, dude, we should have the Chinese guy say 'Beef with broccy!' – those uptight PC jerks will shit! And we'll have David Carradine play him in yellow-face!" type humor that's already been run into the ground by South Park and Carlos Mencia. "And we'll have the one guy be, like, a leather-daddy! That will be fucking hilarious! Everyone will call him fag or a faggot or a fruit because, you know what? We just don't give a fuck! We're totally outrageous!" Statham is pretty amazing in it (especially in the shock collar scene), but the "cutting edge" humor is ten years behind the times: Kaiju jokes were tired back when the Beastie Boys killed them with the Intergalactic video in 1998.
Public Enemies. Michael Mann is more than the shallow stylist his critics make him out to be, right? There’s something going here, so that when his signature style fails him (as it does so decisively in Public Enemies) that there’s some point to watching his films? Convince me, Eric Pfriender, convince me.
(continues on next page with THE INEXPLICABLY ADORED films, a batch of AWARDS and the MOST MEMORABLE FILM MOMENTS of 2009)
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