[1 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It seems to get harder every year. As Tinseltown continues to micromanage the box office down to a dollars and cents science, turning out more product that pure cinematic wonder, coming up with a list of five or - god forbid - ten favorites becomes a Herculean chore. Frankly, we’d rather clean out a few stables or slay some Stymphalian birds than rack our brain making a decision. And 2009 made the situation even more of a struggle. It seemed like the entire season was either front or back loaded, greatness coming at the start or toward the end with very few offerings plodding around somewhere in the middle. Indeed, it seemed like the titles from May to August were either great, or groan-inducing - very few in between.
Still, we sorted through the nearly 50 films we tackled over the last 16 weeks and came up with something like a consensus. Certainly, we didn’t see everything (sorry Moon, Paper Heart, Big Fan, Taking Woodstock, etc.) and there were definitely movies that remained enigmas, needing another viewing (or two) before their lasting value could be calculated. As a result, the lists below feel a bit incomplete. Yes, we got to Final Destination 3D and Halloween II. No, they wouldn’t be making an appearance anywhere today (much to many readers chagrin, surely). Indeed, as with any collection of favorites, it’s all a matter of opinion. Instead of getting snippy about it, why not offer up your own choices. Perhaps your picks are just as debatable.
Instead of going into detail about all 20 films featured, we will simply focus on the Top Five. While we’ll have something to say about picks ‘six through ten’, don’t expect the same amount of praise and/or criticism. It was just that kind of Summer, starting with one of its best “blue humor” comedies.
10. The Hangover
A runaway success that tested so well, the studio was plotting a sequel before the original film hit theaters. As long as it retains Zack Galifianakis in front and Todd Phillips behind the len, we are so there.
9. Away We Go
Sam Mendes is unfairly derided for his cinematic output. SE&L thinks he’s just super, and this lovely little road comedy starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph illustrates why.
8. The Hurt Locker
Katherine Bigelow is back, delivering the kind of suspense and respect the Iraq War film has lacked up until now. With a star-making turn by Jeremy Renner as a gung-ho bombs expert.
7. Ponyo on the Cliffs by the Sea
We knew Hayao Miyazaki was considered a god among animation fanatics, but up until now, our limited purview failed to illustrate why. Now we get it.
6. In the Loop
Ah, the British. Leave it to them to skewer the current state of politics and leave no one - including their own blinkered bureaucrats - safe from satiric harm. A real gem.
5. Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi is back and he’s bucking the PG-13 horror film trend. That’s right, leave it to Mr. Evil Dead himself to save the genre he helped redefined while staying solidly within the studio-friendly MPAA mandate. Many a major macabre name has tempted the 12 and under Fates and come up failure. But with his usual visual flair, directorial expertise, and unrelenting narrative drive, he took a hoary old fright film chestnut - the evil curse on an unsuspecting victim- and turned it into sublime shock spectacle. He can go off and make another trilogy of Spider-man films if he wants, just as long as when he revisits the standard scary movie, he delivers something as demented and delightful as this.
Damn Pixar! When are they ever going to screw up? Every year they announce something that doesn’t seem like it will work - a bunch of talking cars? A father fish desperate to find his son? - and turns it into a work of friggin’ art. Same with the story of Carl Fredricksen, his unlikely friendship with a young boy named Russell, and the old man’s quest to honor his late wife’s last wish. Structured like a typical family film adventure, there is more heart and heroics in this stunning CG masterpiece than in a dozen derivative commercial cartoons. Even better, it proves that Pixar is never to be underestimated. Even when the play fast and loose with reality (a rat who wants to be a chef?), they deliver unlike any other studio in Hollywood.
3. District 9
Peter Jackson can sure pick ‘em. It’s not every day the Lord of the Rings guru gives his name to some upstart production, especially one that could have been his take on the cash cow Halo franchise. Instead, he allowed first timer Neill Blomkamp to extrapolate on his equally powerful 2005 short Alive in Joburg, turning into a formidable sci-fi allegory. Part social commentary, part emotional character study, all wrapped up in WETA’s exceptional special effects, this left turn title fooled audiences who were betting on something akin to Independence Day with a conscience. What they got instead was both triumphant and troubling, an ambiguous narrative that posed as many questions as conquests.
1. (TIE) Inglourious Basterds and Star Trek
In what is perhaps the closest race ever for the Summer’s Best, a title from the second week of the season sits with one from the second to last weekend to bookend what made this particular popcorn season worth while. One is a brilliant deconstruction of the entire old Hollywood war film, with a little post-modern musing thrown in for damn good measure. The other is why we speculate over each May through August rush. Not only did it reinvent and reinvigorate a seemingly stale franchise, it was one of the best bumbling F/X action epics of all time. Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams couldn’t be more dissimilar as directors. One concentrates on dialogue and homages to cinema’s past. The other turns up his nerd-ometer to ‘stun’ and then goes about delivering on what looks like a next to impossible promise.
So why not pick one? Why not differentiate between Basterds’ brilliant rewrite of history and Trek‘s take on all things Roddenberry. The answer, oddly enough, lies in what Tarantino and Abrams attempted. It would have been easy for the former’s film to be nothing more than an ultra-violent Dirty Dozen with Jews getting payback for every part of Hitler’s Final Solution, while the latter could have concocted a heavy handing hero-worshipping saga that did little except regurgitate what obsessives like best about Kirk, Spock, and the gang. Instead, we witness true artistic acumen, invention meshed with undeniable skill, resulting in a multifaceted look at the Great War and a deep, definitive take on a classic TV series. When the end of the year comes, one thing’s for sure - either or both of these films will be bucking for a place in the Top Ten. We’re sure we’ll have the same trouble choosing then as well.
10. The Time Traveler’s Wife
The RomCom goes sci-fi for this tale of love within the cosmic conundrum of the space time continuum. Don’t worry, the movie made about as much sense as that last sentence did.
9. Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian
As unnecessary sequels go, this lame retread truly tried one’s patience. By the time we got to the Lincoln Memorial ‘man in suit’ ending, we couldn’t be bothered to care.
8. The Ugly Truth
Katherine Heigl argued that her role in Knocked Up was sexist. So she decided to improve her feminist lot by making an even worse example of cinematic chauvinism. Makes sense.
Sacha Baron Cohen tried to fool all of the homophobic people some of the time again, and to further corrupt the tired old maxim, he failed. Shame on him - and us, for caring.
6. Next Day Air
An urban comedy that forgot the first rule about big screen laughfests - you’re supposed to include some jokes.
5. A Perfect Getaway
There are some reviews out there that suggest David Twohy did in all on purpose. That he held back on anything exciting or interesting for over an hour before finally offering the patented, if in this case exceptionally poor, thriller plot twist. Then he intentionally took the audience on another 30 minutes of insane psycho rambling, coincidence as action, and brainless bullshit bloodletting. Terrific. So apparently, those of us who were simply bored, who didn’t buy the reveal, and felt the ending was over the top and trashy got it all wrong. We didn’t see Twohy’s visionary take on the type. Thankfully, this is one case of critical blindness we’ll gladly accept - as long as it means not having to revisit this disjointed dreck.
4. Land of the Lost
Sid and Marty Krofft WERE on drugs - no, not when they made their original “60s/‘70s kid vid freak outs. Those adorable bits of TV psychedelia will clearly stand the test of time. No, the aging brothers were clearly tweaking when they said “Yes” to having Will Farrell turn their semi-serious attempt at sci-fi into a ridiculous, raunchy, PG-13 pushing sex farce. Laden with curse words and characters you wouldn’t want to spend a second with, let alone 90 noxious minutes, everything about this attempted update fails to function - the laughs, the effects, even the original premise. Turning favored elements like the Sleestaks and the crystals into plodding plot points was bad enough, but did fun furball Chaka have to become a pervert as well?
3. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Hey Messageboard Nation - why don’t you take all that pent up hate that you have for Rob Zombie and Paul W. S. Anderson and instead aim it at the mediocre mainstream hack who helmed this elephantine waste of space. Michael Bay may have crafted some decent action films in the past, but this is clearly not one of them. Instead of going into the whole “I liked the first Transformers” tale, let’s make one thing perfectly clear - 200% more of what worked initially does not a great film make, especially when you are emphasizing the wrong stuff. Middle-aged sex antics? Racially insensitive robots? A surreal obsession with Megan Fox’s slo-mo skeeziness? If it hadn’t made a mint, the fans would be picking on it - and rightfully so.
2. The Marc Pease Experience
It’s not fair really. For most of you, this title will seem like Sanskrit. For others, it will represent that oddball offering that showed up on one screen in their local Cineplex and was gone before they even knew what it was. Dumped unceremoniously into 10 markets across the country (NY and LA? Nope.) as part of a contractual obligation, this Jason Schwartzman/Ben Stiller flop was so bereft of humor, so lacking in a reason to care, that it virtually changed genres. Advertised as one of those clever, quirky comedies featuring universally identifiable characters, it instead constantly transmogrified into a kind of droll drama. Not surprisingly, neither category succeeded.
1. I Love You, Beth Cooper
In some ways, it wasn’t even close. As bad as Marc Pease and Transformers 2 really were, this movie wins the title of Summer’s worst because of what it managed to do - that is, squander the talents of some otherwise solid people both before and behind the camera. Hayden Panettiere has done better. Paul Rust has done better (see Summer’s Best). Director Chris Columbus handled the first two Harry Potter films, while writer Larry Doyle (who managed to figure out a way to f*ck up the adaptation of his own novel) was with The Simpsons. And yet all of them managed to deliver one of the un-funniest teen comedies EVER. No jokes. No insights. No good.