January 29, 2010

The Year in Review: 2009

This recap of the 2009 movie year comes too little and too late. I haven't seen A Single Man yet, nor some other small movies I've been hearing about like Me and Orson Welles, and Moon, as well as some big ones like Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Those reviews are forthcoming, hence this will be a two-part essay. I've been looking back at what I have seen, attempting to assess the movies honestly. Trying to honestly assess movies is harder and harder. I generally always find my opinion of a movie goes down a little bit after I've had time to think about it. I'm experiencing that now with my initially positive review of Adam. I suppose reading the remarks of critics can affect your interpretations of a movie, but the more I thought about Adam in relation to my increasing irritation with everything about the dreadful 500 Days of Summer, the more I realize that they both fall into this persistent new (10 years old-ish) category of trendy-indies. Adam is a little better than 500 Days of Summer. Away We Go is in the same boat.

Away We Go did have some interesting things to say, of course, about our disconnectedness from the worlds we live in, but was a road-trip movie the best way to go about making that statement? We saw from the point-of-view of the main characters that everyone they knew was wacko and unable to be honest about their lives, but ultimately the protagonists traded one form of isolation for another. In going back to the girlfriend's childhood home, it seemed to intimate a refuge where insanity and disconnectedness wouldn't be able to prosper or seep in. That seems unrealistic. 

The big movies are clunkier than ever, self-indulgent in their clunkiness like Sherlock Holmes, which is maddeningly frustrating because of the immense possibilities when working with that character. The small movies are self-indulgent in their nothingness. Even the ones that are interesting on some level like Adam and Away We Go: ultimately you leave wondering what the point of it all was. With Sherlock Holmes, you're just relieved that the damned thing is over and done with after two-and-half hours already. It's a crime how non-interesting of a mystery it all was, particularly when the producers have the temerity to make it a retread of the it's-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it cliche that haunts all superhero movies and most thrillers of late.

Whether or not it's become a crime to have a good time at the movies seems an arbitrary point to make given that movies like Night at the Museum and the Twilight films, and Transfomers, are raking in so much money. I think Pauline Kael was right. We don't demand much of movies anymore, especially because we've been bred on television. I can't be a hypocrite and ignore the fact that I enjoy television as much as anyone, but it's hard not to recognize the mindlessness of what we choose to be entertained by.

The best times I had at the movies in 2009 were the fun ones, not the important ones. Star Trek didn't demand much of a non-fan like me, and I think that's the real success story of that movie. It made Star Trek accessible to the non-Trekkies. Whether or not the die-hard fans liked it is a question I can't answer. I also liked the acting in The Proposal, especially because Betty White is so deliciously naughty. The movie, however, was just another romantic comedy, offering nothing fresh except its  casting, particularly since the female lead is ten years older than the male (usually the only time we get extreme age differences it's the man who's older than the woman, such as almost every Audrey Hepburn movie ever made, where her male counterpart is old enough to be her grandfather). In The Proposal, the same old tropes were there, but we enjoyed it a little more because it was Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, both fun actors.

Of course, Sandra's big tour de force this year, The Blind Side, has raked in lots of money. It was genuinely entertaining and she was genuinely good in that movie, but I doubt it will be honored with many if any Academy Awards. Ironically, The Blind Side achieved something delightfully reminiscent of a trick: the marketing people presented it as a football movie and pulled a fast one on fans of the genre who were treated instead to a glossier form of Lifetime docudramas with enough cute sentimentalism and Sandra's sexy Memphis accent, ballsy forcefulness, and blonde extensions, to make it rise above the usual trite stuff.

Russell Crowe, desperately seeking svelteness, did a good job in the political newspaper thriller State of Play, a throwback to the older political newspaper thrillers with a very modern sensibility. I'm currently on the fence about Rachel McAdams. I liked her pluckiness in State of Play much more than in Sherlock.

Amy Adams turned in a pair of engaging performances in Julie and Julia (the most "tasteful" film of 2009) and Sunshine Cleaning. The latter is a much better movie than Julie..., which was entertaining but mercilessly overlong, and as I said before, seemed somewhat stilted, though not completely unenjoyable, throughout Meryl Streep's half of the film. Adams brought a much-needed feeling of vivacity to that movie. I hope we're done with all these intercutting storyline movies like Crash and The Hours. It's turning into standard fare at best and a bad gimmick at worst.

Up in the Air was in many ways a breath of fresh air. George Clooney was on solid ground in a part that really made you wonder how much of it was acting and how much was reality, and the genius of that movie is that Clooney's character is such a likeably selfish person that we're genuinely shocked and sad for him when he's the one who gets his heart broken.

The most fun I had last year at the movies was Zombieland. It wasn't perfect. Sometimes you forgot you were watching a movie about zombies (perhaps a credit to the movie for some viewers and a deficiency for others), but it was fun, and Woody Harrelson was at his insane best. Zombieland was exuberantly American--a sort of cowboys and Indians zombie flick-- just as Shaun of the Dead was exuberantly British in its deadpan affection; both represent the best of the zombie influx of the last ten years for sheer freshness, energy, and excitement.

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