At the end of each year, it’s de rigueur to engage in various forms of “year in review” retrospectives. The media will list the year’s key developments in all sorts of areas – politics, economics, medicine, sports, et. al.
Of all those areas, there’s only one I’m really interested in…film. And the only opinion I’m interested in is…mine. Not that I believe I have any special credentials as a “film critic.” So what? As with wine, I know what I like and that’s all that matters.
And I know that I did not find a whole lot I liked about 2009’s films. Not that I didn’t “enjoy” many films, because I did. But I reserve “like” for those films I’ll buy the DVD so I can see them again. There won’t be much buying from 2009.
I admit I anticipated “liking” a lot of films but I was listening to the hype, which of course is normally not a good thing to pay attention to. In the end, few delivered. Maybe that’s why the Oscar nominations are clustering around a few films such as “Nine” (three nominations) and “Inglorious Basterds” (four nominations) and “Up in the Air (five nominations).
A film that disappointed me is “The Road.” This is easily the most gruelingly depressive film I’ve seen yet. I left the theater exhausted. Even though this post apocalyptic tale of a world with few people left alive and no animals or crops for food embodies my “never surrender” philosophy, it did make me consider that sometimes there is no hope. Starring Viggo Mortensen as a father trying to find safety for his young son, with short roles for Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall, you can’t help but ask the same question at many points in the film: what would I do in this situation?
Would I give limited food to a stranger who is dying anyway? How starving do I have to be before I will kill and eat another person? What would I do to someone who stole what little food I had? This film reinforced my belief that what we call “civilized behavior” is little more than a thin veneer, a luxury possible only because there is no crisis but which will vanish when “normality” is disrupted, as we are seeing in Haiti and as we saw after Katrina. (“The Road” trailer.)
Perhaps the film which disappointed me the most was “Inglourious Basterds.” Tarantino is probably my favorite director. I own both the Kill Bill 1 and Pulp Fiction DVDs. I thought Basterds would be similar to Kill Bill. Not close. Maybe because, unlike Kill Bill, Basterds was not about one person taking justice into their hands for personal satisfaction, although there was an aspect of that.
Fortunately, the film was “stolen” by the SS Col. Hans Landa character. And it isn’t just me who feels this way: Christoph Waltz won “Best Actor” award at Cannes Film Festival for that role and should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor too. The opening scene in which he matter-of-factly convinces a French farmer to disclose the location of a Jewish family he is sheltering is one of the best opening scenes of any film yet. That scene alone is worth the ticket price but unfortunately only a small portion of it is available online.
(But for my “best opening scene” award, check out the beginning of Seven Beauties. Oh, yeah…)
A WW2 film I enjoyed a lot was “Defiance.” Based on the true story of the Bielski partisans in Russia, this films shows that not all Jews were passive in the face of the Nazis. I’m amazed this story stayed in the shadows all these years.
This film is Exhibit 1 when some “intellectual” pontificates that “The historical evidence shows (or does not show) yadda yadda yadda.” My response is: “You are only talking about the known historical evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Another film I enjoyed was Public Enemies. I can’t think of too many Johnny Depp films I’ve disliked since first seeing him in Edward Scissorhands. And given the bad behavior of banks, I gotta like a film about bank robbers. Turnaround is fair play! Marion Cotillard, who plays Johnny Depp’s gal, snagged the film’s only nomination for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. If her name sounds familiar, it’s because the French actress won the 2008 Best Actress Oscar for her role as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” (“Public Enemies” trailer.)
If I had to characterize the year, I’d say it was the year that science fiction came back in a big way. Four films account for that characterization.
One was Star Trek. The “history” of how the Enterprise crew came to serve together was great, even if the plot line about time travel was forgettable. I hope to see this young crew in a few more Star trek movies! (“Star Trek” trailer.)
Then there’s District 9, a film that is more about our world than about aliens. This South African film is ostensibly about an alien ship that appears over, and is stranded, over the country. The aliens (called “prawns”) are rescued and forced to live in a slum called District 9. The segregation of the aliens from humans is an easy metaphor for apartheid in South Africa, which becomes surreal when a black woman says she is glad the aliens are being kept “separate” from humans.
Much of the film’s format is as either a “you are there” live news format or as a documentary with interviews to fill in the background. At another level, the film is a love story. The love between a husband and wife (human) and a father and son (alien). And the bonding between an alien and a human. I believe there’ll be a sequel because the end has no closure. This should have been nominated for something, even if only “Best Foreign Film.” (“District 9” trailer.)
Third is “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” the film Heather Ledger was finishing when he died. Thank goodness they found a work around to complete it without him. A classic morality play which also features lots of eye candy when folks step “behind the mirror” into an inner consciousness. Besides Ledger, there’s Christopher Plummer, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrel and Tom Waits (a charming devil) (“Imaginarium” trailer.)
Of course, I’ve saved the very best for last: I can report that the hype about “Avatar” is all true. A compelling story with a “green” theme that is visually spectacular and literally “transforming,” pay a little extra to see it in 3-D or don‘t bother seeing it at all because you‘ll miss half the film.
If “Avatar” doesn’t win both Best Picture and Best Director, as it did at Golden Globes, then you know the Academy Awards are a joke. The audience, including me, clapped and cheered at the end, something I’ve done few times. I’ll buy the DVD for sure but I wish I could see it in 3-D at home too!
P.S. I’ve finally posted my Vegas trip report.