2009: THE YEAR OF DISAPPOINTMENT
YOU THOUGHT THESE WERE GREAT.
THEY ARE NOT.
Big Fan. What would happen if you subtracted from The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky's aesthetic gifts and Mickey Rourke's iconic, unforgettable performance? You'd have Big Fan, which painfully substitutes Aronofsky's preternatural sense of editing, composition and cinematic rhythm for The Wrestler scribe Rob Siegel's hapless direction. Even worse is lovable stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt's flailing, failed lead performance. It's not even his fault, he's just completely miscast. Essentially a non-actor, he's not even slightly prepared to overcome playing against type as an inarticulate, blue-collar schmo. Oswalt is a hyper-articulate nerd and he can't pull off portraying someone for whom words don't come easy, a verbally constipated sports fanatic with an opaque inner life who longs to express himself. He just frowns a lot and you can see the "acting" wheels turning as he "struggles" to spit out his constant, "awkward" monologues. Oswalt is a man who can do nothing if not jabber - and he can't hide it, even though that's essentially all that the role requires of him.
Rourke, for all his eccentricities and failures, is a hell of an actor – Aronofsky could've gotten away with doing nothing more than pointing a static camera at him alone in a room. With Big Fan, I was relieved every time a veteran character actor like Kevin Corrigan or Michael Rappaport showed up to relieve Oswalt of some the acting burden. The clichéd, obvious, corny script was the worst thing about The Wrestler, so I'm sure that Siegel would be happy to hear that his script is far from the biggest problem with this damp, amateurish film. He should've just let Aronofsky give it another go and actually learned something by watching him on set this time, rather than creating a work that highlights exactly how little a script ultimately matters.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Nothing to do with Roald Dahl. Fine. Who cares? But animation is a delicate alchemy for which Anderson has no natural capacity. Weirdly, you would think a filmmaker most famous for his meticulous production design would excel in a medium completely under the thumb of the creator’s control, but it should’ve been obvious: if movies like The Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited froze their characters in over-determined tableau and drained the life out of even spirited actors like Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray, what chance did Anderson have of bringing stick figures to life? Also, the hilarious charges of racism had some hilariously faint evidence supporting them.
Where the Wild Things Are. Nothing to do with Maurice Sendak. Fine. Who cares? Gorgeous, though. As with all of Spike Jonze's films, there's just no there, there. He nailed reproducing how children act with no insight whatsoever into how children act. He nailed reproducing a certain imaginative mindset with nothing really to say about it. I am 100% sure he doesn't care – the film feels perfectly realized for what it is trying to accomplish. But it's ultimately trying to accomplish nothing. It's good without being any good whatsoever, perfectly analogous to Transformers 2 or Sherlock Holmes. It probably lacks even the depth and intelligence of those films; although, again, I don't think Jonze had any intentions to depth or intelligence. It's a pointless little lark. It's fine. Who cares?
Star Trek. Why does this film have passionate fans? Fights in space and a cocky young man who learns to get his ego in check and harness his Amazing Natural Ability to lead a group of mismatched misfits. There's a cold intellectual. A wacky foreigner. A cold, intellectual foreigner. Space fights and star battles. I'm no aficionado, but I understand the purists who said, "If it's going to be nothing like Star Trek, why call it Star Trek?" And I think we can all agree that James T. Kirk: Space Fighter would've been a much better title, anyways. Or least call it Han Solo: The Early Years because the film's philosophy of "big dumb action set-pieces + a cocky young space fighter – nerdy sci-fi thought experiments = hit (and sequels)" has way more in common with Star Wars than the original t.v. show or any of its countless spin-offs. But people really love this movie. It seems almost impossible that something so bland and by the book (completely unlike its brash young hero, space fighter James Tiberius Kirk) could inspire such a burning hot intensity of devotion, but I guess people just love John Cho that much. I know I do.
The Hangover. I just didn't find it funny. It's cool, no hard feelings. I didn't laugh even once. That's my only concern here, folks. But didn't it make you sad to see a movie with such a failure of imagination? It's like your dad's concept of "totally crazee!!"
Movie: Las Vegas!
Audience: Dude, I heard what happens there has to stay there!
Movie: Yup. Got drunk. Strip club.
Audience: And then what?
Movie: I married a stripper!
Audience: No shit? Like on a sitcom?
Audience: That’s pretty crazy? Did you stay in one of those fancy hotels they have in Las Vegas? Did you gamble?
Movie: Yes and yes! It was like Rainman when we gambled. We were all like "Oh no YES!" when he won a big hand.
Movie: And then we stole something?
Movie: A tiger! Mike Tyson's tiger!
Audience: I've heard of Mike Tyson! There have been some late night monologists having a bit of fun at his expense for the last 25 years or so. I hear he is quite crazy, indeed!
Movie: But wait! Get this: Mike Tyson + totally cheesy 80's song!
Audience: Hmm. I have also heard that the 80's were totally cheesy and its pop cultural products are very silly in retrospect.
Movie: And then Japanese mafia. Stolen police cars. Mistaken identities with this one black drug dealer. Taser'd in police training.
Audience: Stolen police cars? Mafia? This all sounds a little unlikely. It feels like you are forcing things a little bit, trying too hard to be crazy. Maybe you should go back to being more like a sitcom.
Movie: Ok. This one guy had a shrewish, emasculating girlfriend who hated fart jokes and wanted to drink wine. What a bitch - she didn't even want him to steal a tiger! Then the dude still got married but we had to drive there really fast but it's all cool.
Audience: I like Zack Galifianakis.
Movie: Yeah, he's cool.
Quick-thinking Executive: He’s the break-out star of tomorrow! Adam Sandler and Chris Farley rolled into one!!!
Audience: Interesting. I would definitely pay to see him in some sort of a film about an elite hamster squad.
Paranormal Activity. Really? This sort of thing still works on people? Faux documentaries where nothing happens, except for a few grainy figures lurking just on the edge of the frame? And doors... opening. It's such a snooze.
District 9. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the heck out of this one. It just makes absolutely no sense narratively, politically or intellectually. Which means it is exactly as good as Predator. If you think that McTieran's tale scales the heights of cinema and deserves some status as a Canonized Classic, too, then I really can't argue with you. I suppose the only difference is that District 9 took on the trappings of deeper, complex meaning when it would've been better off completely eschewing the obvious and confounding resemblances to Apartheid-era South Africa. Allegories (especially about sticky, tricky subjects like race) almost invariably collapse if the artist employing one has the good sense to make a rousing, effective film and, fortunately, Neill Blomkamp has that good sense. It doesn't mean District 9 is bad. It is not. It is kinda awesome. But it is also a load of horseshit. Entertaining horseshit.
THE WORST DEVELOPMENT OF 2009
I begin to dislike Werner Herzog.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, the rogue film school.
I'm sure Herzog would admit that his pointless if likable remake of Abel Ferrara's passionately rendered mess, Bad Lieutenant, is essentially one big stupid joke. It's a good enough joke, but I hate that he had to ruin the transcendent ending of Stroszek by having it forever associated with the retarded "shoot him again, his soul's still dancing" break-dancing scene in Port of Call. Woody Guthrie's harmonica tune used to always make me think, "No one can stop the dancing chicken" and remind me of one of most original, beautiful, heart-breaking and strange endings ever put on film. Now it also makes me think of a groan-inducing gag in a Nicholas Cage movie. The fact that Herzog recycled bits of his previous work throughout Port of Call makes me feel like he's either run out of ideas (Rescue Dawn supports that theory) or he doesn't care about debasing his past (Rescue Dawn supports that theory.)
My Son My Son ranks among the worst movies I have ever seen and it almost feels like Herzog has lost totally the ability to summon up the ecstatic truths that made his previous work so essential. Along with Port of Call, My Son My Son reeks of a filmmaker trying too hard: trying too hard to be weird, to be distinctive, to find beauty where others miss it, to be "crazy." It's almost as though Herzog has suddenly become an offensive caricature of "Herzog," a minstrel show version of what was once beautiful and passionate: all bullshit about emus, "weirdo" leading men, narrative sloppiness, strangeness for strangeness sake. My Son My Son has one truly Herzogian moment in Calgary's +15 enclosed sidewalks, but the films otherwise almost exclusively consist of moments, characters and scenes I'd like to forget exist. Between the two films, your two choices are stupid (Port of Call) or incompetent (My Son My Son): take your pick.
To top it all off, he formed the "Rogue Film School," which plays like a P.T. Barnum-esque put-on way more than a real idea. The embarrassing press release reads like a crass charlatan selling the idea of "Werner Herzog, Rebel Truth-Seeker!" to easily duped suckers willing to pay top dollar to (no doubt) act as P.A.'s on a couple film shoots:
"The Rogue Film School is not for the faint-hearted. It is for those who have travelled on foot, who have worked as bouncers in sex clubs or as wardens in a lunatic asylum, for those who are willing to learn about lock-picking or forging shooting permits in countries not favouring their projects. In short: it is for those who have a sense for poetry. For those who are pilgrims. For those who can tell a story to four-year-old children and hold their attention. For those who have a fire burning within. For those who have a dream. Censorship will be enforced. There will be no talk of shamans, of yoga classes, nutritional values, herbal teas, discovering your Boundaries and Inner Growth."
It's like a cheap knock-off version of his philosophies being hawked as though his identity could be purchased, not forged in the fires of the wilderness and war-zones. I mean, it's so freakin' disingenuous: he obviously doesn't think anyone who served as a "warden in a lunatic asylum" is going to apply for this. He's not going to teach anyone how to pick a lock. It's clearly playing to a gleeful audience of pasty film nerds who swallow this sort of bullshit hook line and sinker, as though "Herzog's Ecstatic Truth" is a brand for sale at sketchy retailers in your neighborhood. I truly believe Herzog has made some of the cinema's most essential and memorable films, he is unrivaled in his accomplishments as a cinematic explorer uncovering and documenting unimagined landscapes, unrivaled in his pilgrimages and mortal risks, unrivaled in his passion for discovering obscure truths. It's sad to see him flailing haplessly like this. It's even worse to think he might really be the blowhard and fraud the current evidence makes him out to be.
The Most Insanely Overrated Movie of All Time:
The Hurt Locker.
Worst character name:
Needy Lesnicki (Jennifer's Body.)
The "Local Hero Award" for the overrated "underrated movie" of the Year:
My Biggest Mistake:
How did I blow catching The Final Destination? It would've been in 3 dimensions!
The Stupidest Thing I've Ever Seen:
Avatar. I'm not saying I hated it but "Unobtanium?" The singing, swaying "be-in" by the tree of life (doesn't Matrix Reloaded get constantly slammed for having the exact same scene)? The Stanford t-shirt? This movie is the stupidest thing I've ever seen.
Strangest Film of the Year:
Observe and Report. Seth Rogen and Jody Hill were serious: they didn't want to make Paul Blart, they wanted to make Taxi Driver. I think it's fair to be surprised that their mall cop movie is a deeply unpleasant, virtually joke-free examination of a borderline-psychotic loser. I would say that I love this movie, but what on Earth is there to like about it?
The "It's a Knock-Off Award" for the best eponymous theme-song:
The "Wish they had gotten the Adrien Brody in The Thin Red Line treatment Award" for the actor who did the most to ruin their movie:
Malin Ackerman in Watchmen. (Incidentally, I never realized until recently that she plays Freakshow's wife in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. I've always thought she's the worst thing about that movie as well.)
For the Museum of AmerIndie style:
Acting comeback nobody asked for:
Kim Bassinger (The Informers, The Burning Plain – two giant pieces of shit, incidentally.)
The Windmill Movie.
Hotel for Dogs.
Title that doesn't even make any sense because it's not even a pun:
All About Steve.
How do you botch a movie with this title?!:
I Defy you to remember these movies:
These films starred famous people and got real theatrical releases in hundreds of theaters and the chances are you have no idea what they are. I had the honor of seeing each of them in a nearly empty theater.
State of Play
My One and Only
The Boys are Back
The "I Think I Love My Wife Award" for a film just good enough to make you disappointed about how bad it really is:
Star for whom it most easy to root for their failure:
Robert Pattison (Little Ashes, Twilight: New Moon.)
Stop casting John Travolta as a villain. No one in the history of the universe has ever been scared of John Travolta or upset by the crazy lengths to which he might go:
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3.
You know what? Maybe you should just stop casting John Travolta in movies altogether:
The inaugural "Vera Farmiga in Orphan Award" for a genuinely great performance in a genuinely ridiculous film:
Vera Farmiga in Orphan.
Can everyone stop trying to convince me Ricky Gervais is anything other than a middling hack?:
The Invention of Lying.
The "Monica Potter Award" for a bland, charmless actress Hollywood insists on forcing on a largely indifferent public:
Kristen Bell (Couples Retreat, Astroboy, Serious Moonlight, Fanboys, the upcoming When in Rome.)
The "Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons Award" for giving it your all, even though you probably shouldn't have:
Jason Statham in Crank 2.
The "Robert Redford Award" for coasting on an over-inflated reputation developed decades ago:
Pedro Almodovar for Broken Embraces, another nothing of movie from world cinema's inexplicable darling. Penelope Cruz, however, remains a luminescent angel beyond reproach.
Movie I Can't Honestly Believe anyone watched from beginning to end without interruption:
Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR by Jonas Mekas.
Worst case of futro in a movie:
An elite hamster squad.
Or the floating chunk of unobtainium on Giovanni Ribisi's desk in Avatar.
The “Van Helsing Award” for wonderful, beautiful awfulness:
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.
(ok, ok I'll admit that I really think that Avatar deserves the award.)
Best Short Film:
SCIENCE IS FICTION: THE FILMS OF JEAN PANLEVE
TREASURES IV: AMERICAN AVANT-GARDE FILM 1947-1986
SIMON OF THE DESERT
PIGS, PIMPS & PROSTITUTES: 3 FILMS BY SHOHEI IMAMURA
A CHRISTMAS TALE
MY FAVORITE MOMENTS IN LE CINEMA 2009
The extended wordless sequence beneath the surface of the ocean that opens Ponyo.
They chat up the waitress. Somers Town.
The kid walking on the railing of the bridge and his eerie explanation for his self-endangerment. The White Ribbon.
The MMA fans don't get what they expect in the cage match. Bruno.
"There's no such constellation!" Willem Dafoe's oddball (but accurate) prouncement is one of the reasons you really should give Anti-Christ a chance.
For an almost imperceptible moment, Nicholas Duvauchelle becomes a wolf. White Material.
The look on Vero's face as her assistant wraps her in a dentist's smock. The Headless Woman.
À la John Cena's Marine, Che ignores a direct order to wait for backup and takes the city his own damn self.
"Polar bears cover their noses before they pounce on a seal. How do polar bears know their noses are black? Did they look in the water one day, see their reflection and say, 'Man, I'd be invisible if it wasn't for that thing.'" Deep thoughts from The Informant!
"You have to understand that fucking pussy is virgin shit, ok?" The World's Greatest Dad has a kid. And he's a fag.
"He fucked the IRS." Soul Kitchen.
"Jamais KO." Isaach de Bankolé's tattoo in White Material.
"To the breaka, breaka dawn!" and Nicholas Cage emerging from behind the door shaving himself with an electric razor. I'm only human: who can resist Cage altogether in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?
The smile on Vondie Curtis Hall's face when he presents the evidentiary crack-pipe to The Bad Lieutenant.
And ok, Eva Mendes and her substantial beauty is always worth a mention. She's a crushing mix of sweet and hot in the Port of Call.
Mike Patton's amazing, anarchic score for Crank 2 almost makes me remember of that piece of garbage fondly.
The Big Fan tries to articulate to his mother why he doesn't want to life everyone else wants for him.
Ever the inglorious bastard, Eli Roth totally beats that guy's head in with a baseball bat and that shit is totally fucking awesome – that's exactly what I would!
Ponyo enlarges the miniature boat.
The perpetually underutilized Timothy Olyphant's cagey, pitch-perfect performance in The Perfect Getaway.
Gummed by an old lady and the geyser of a nosebleed. Drag Me to Hell.
The youngest of the minister's family offers his bird, now fully nurtured back to health, as a replacement for peepsie. The White Ribbon.
Rivaled only by Strozsek's heist, the office robbery in Soul Kitchen is a masterpiece of criminal incompetence.
Seth Rogen shoots the streaker. That's that. Observe and Report.
Going down the up escalator in the +15. My Son My Son, What Have Ye Done.
The brothers bust each others' chops and the charming interplay of all three kids in the lead roles. The Hole.
The guerillas are ambushed in a small town in the wrong half of Bolivia. Che.
Isabelle Huppert recognizes the armed men demanding toll money and, terrifyingly, isn't afraid to tell them so. White Material.
The Informant's internal monologue begins to break down. He can longer keep straight what he's even supposed to be thinking.
Downstairs, the enraged steward, moments after beating his son, explains to his wife what has happened. From upstairs, there is the faint sound of a whistle. The White Ribbon.
The last of the murderous child rebels escapes into the horizon across an empty field. White Material.
"Rewind the tape! That's Genovauva! She was dead! What is she doing there? She was dead!" The dying mother sees something in the wedding video that deeply disturbs her. The Headless Woman.
"I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone." World's Greatest Dad.
Best sequence of the year:
In less than fifteen minutes, a montage traces a lifetime of love between mismatched outcasts and then breaks the heart of everyone in the audience. The opening to Up!
- christopher funderburg, january 2010
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