Best of ’09/Pre-Academy Awards Analysis

This will be a lengthy article.  Since the Oscars air on Sunday night, it’s about time I get my list of the year’s best films up on here, as well as look over many of the current nominees contending this weekend.  I’ll start with my favorite films of 2009.

1. District 9 (Director: Neill Blomkamp)
(4 Nominations: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Visual Effects)
A few years ago, production was set to begin on the $135 million  ‘Halo’ movie based on the popular video game to be produced by Peter Jackson.  He wanted his younger protege Neill Blomkamp to direct, but Fox Studios got cold feet and bailed on the project in the middle of pre-production.  Bouncing back quickly, Blomkamp returned to an old short-film he directed and decided to make a feature-length movie out of his original concept under a modest budget of $30 million.  How ‘Halo’ may have turned out, we will never know, but I bet Fox execs are still shaking their heads after the man’s enormous success.  ‘District 9’ is a flat-out masterpiece in every regard, surpassing even high expectations amongst the great hype surrounding it. The movie is socially conscience with something to say, generating strong and interesting conflict in its approach to the age-old alien invasion film. The movie also looks incredible (modest budget or not), is unbelievably intense and has hardcore action in it to boot. All the right elements combine to make the best, most ambitious and engrossing movie of the year.  It’s a thrill to see this get a Best Picture nomination.

2. Avatar (Director: James Cameron)
(9 Nominations: Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Visual Effects,     Sound, Sound Editing, Original Score)
You want a game-changing, eye-popping thrill-ride ala ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Terminator 2’ and ‘Jurassic Park’? Here it is.  James Cameron returns to cinema with the most technically-impressive film to this day. As an immersing 3D package, ‘Avatar’ is a terrifically engaging and beautiful film. The story is very familiar, but the themes are universal and ongoing. This is a film about sheer spectacle, and it achieves everything it sets out to do. Will it plays as well at home? I don’t know. But on the big screen in 3D, it is one of the greatest movie-going experiences of all time, and what the cinema was made for.

3. 500 Days of Summer (Director: Marc Webb)
This movie really caught me off-guard. Marc Webb has directed one of the best films of 2009 by far, a very interpersonal and understanding ‘romance’ without a hint of mundane cliche to bog it down.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the best young actors out there, and Zooey Deschanel compliments him every step of the way.  I didn’t quite know which direction this movie was going, but it was funny, effective, and truthful. This is the date movie of the year, and the past few years.

4. Up in the Air (Director: Jason Reitman)
(6 Nominations: Picture, Actor (Clooney), Director, Supporting Actress (Vera Farmiga),
Supporting Actress (Anna Kendrick), Adapted Screenplay)
Jason Reitman is officially a brilliant filmmaker. After “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno,” he delivers the year’s most timely film, and it couldn’t be more thought-provoking, darkly funny, challenging and heartbreaking. George Clooney has one of his best roles to date–able to evoke both disdain and sympathy within a brisk 2 hours. “Up in the Air” is a brilliant, airy, intelligent, and tragic film well worth seeing.

5. Moon (Director: Duncan Jones)
“Moon” represents brilliant science-fiction, plain and simple.  This is a complex, slow-moving character drama built entirely on countless themes ranging from the nature of man to morality. Sam Rockwell’s performance matches the quality of the script. “Moon” really is one of the best, most original, and though-provoking pieces of cinema to come out in 2009–and what a year it has been for sci-fi.

6. Inglourious Basterds (Director: Quentin Tarantino)
(8 Nominations: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Cristoph Waltz), Original Screenplay,
Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing)
Tarantino’s latest is a heck of a ride for his fans, probably his best work since ‘Pulp Fiction.’  The cast is universally excellent for the exception of the Eli Roth bits. Watch out for Christoph Waltz as the central villain–his menacing, slithering performance is guaranteed to get him instant recognition and Oscar glory. As a whole, ‘Basterds’ is a bit hit-and-miss, but mostly an awesome, violent, bloody, hilarious, history-rewriting event of a movie that should not be missed.

7. Star Trek (Director: J.J. Abrhams)
(4 Nominations: Makeup, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Editing)
“Star Trek” is one definite crowd-pleaser. It’s smothered with action, humor, strong actors, and has been gifted with a fun, if sometimes complicated, storyline. Somehow the filmmakers have managed to take what the franchise used to be, keep all the familiar elements and make them refreshing–and ultimately pretty darn cool. This Enterprise trip works best when the actors really carry their weight, and they’re usually spot-on in making “Trek” accessible, funny, crisp, and thrilling.

8. The Hurt Locker (Director: Kathryn Bigelow)
(9 Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Jeremy Renner), Original Screenplay, Editing,
Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing, Original Score)
Kathryn Bigelow directs one of the most upfront and honest war films of the past decade.  There’s thrilling suspense and some raw emotion within this machine, but there’s nothing robotic or showy about it– look at the flakiness and self-importance that hindered “Stop Loss.” This is an action-thriller-drama that gets it right, without ever waving its arms your face, shying away from overacting and most of the usual syrup. Simple, straightforward, and real–“The Hurt Locker” is very good.

9. Up (Directors: Bob Peterson and Pete Docter)
(5 Nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay, Animated Feature, Sound Editing, Original
Pixar’s “Up” is truly delightful, a gorgeous-looking film with a lot of heart and tenderness. I didn’t find it to be as amiable, sharp or quietly intelligent as last year’s “Wall-E”, but I did enjoy its gargantuan scale of adventure, and its lead character Carl. With “Up,” Pixar again proves they are light-years ahead of the game with a bold story, memorable characters, and truckloads of imagination. The film also contains the year’s best and most heartbreaking scene: a montage of Carl and his wife’s relationship.  No other film this year has more heart than “Up.”

10. The Informant! (Director: Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh hasn’t made a movie this good in quite awhile, probably not since his first outing with the ‘Ocean’ crew almost nine years ago (yeah, I was a big fan).  This film is a superbly entertaining comedic drama highlighting an excellent performance from Matt Damon, which is quite sad because this is one of his best performances by far, and the Academy instead gave him a nomination for his forgettable role in “Invictus.”  With all its wit and twisty plot, “The Informant!” has that casual, fun flow of “Catch Me if You Can” and should not be missed.

Honorable Mention:
The Road
(Director: John Hillcoat)
Based on the famous Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) novel, this is a tremendously dark film–do not dismiss it as slow and uneventful. ‘The Road’ is an experience of a movie–a hauntingly beautiful one that depicts the end of the world not through movie studio executive eyes, but through a realistic, heartbreaking, and horrific approach. This is an intense movie featuring two excellent performances from Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, both of whom capture an authentic desperation and emotional resonance with their characters.  Of all the post-apocalyptic flicks out there recently, this is the one that will be remembered.

Some other Academy Award Nominees to brush up on:

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (B+)
(6 Nominations: Picture, Director (Lee Daniels), Actress (Gabourey Sidibe), Supporting     Actress (Mo’Nique), Adapted Screenplay, Editing)
“Precious” is one of the hardest movies to sit through.  There is a very small light at the end of this vast dark tunnel, and taken as a sincere film featuring all-too-real performances from its cast, the movie works as a message for anyone suffering under the hand of abuse. Director Lee Daniels has made a hard-hitting film that only sporadically becomes distracted by music video numbers taking place in Precious’ world, scenes that pull us out of the drama. Otherwise, this is an effective film.

A Serious Man (B+) (2 Nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay)
“A Serious Man” is another solid flick for the Coen Brothers.  In fact, the movie is at times quite brilliant, darkly and sneakily funny, but other times extremely odd. I guess that’s their trademark. Michael Stuhlbarg is extraordinary here and handles the material well, taking on a role likely suited to Ben Stiller in a more mainstream film. The Coen’s are too smart for that kind of commonplace shenanigan, and  they elevate “A Serious Man” to a seriously funny, somewhat whacked movie.

The Blind Side (B) (2 Nominations: Picture, Actress: Sandra Bullock)
Sandra Bullock commands your attention while newcomer Quinton Aaron grabs your heart in this sappy inspirational movie about family, hope, motherhood and football.  You know exactly where this melodrama is heading, but you want to go along anyway.  The Capra-esque vibe is infectious, and these two actors are an unstoppable force even in such manufactured studio formula (even though it is based on a real-life story).

An Education (B)
(3 Nominations: Picture, Actress (Carey Mulligan), Adapted Screenplay)
“An Education” is a light drama that goes exactly where you know it will go.  Carey Mulligan, well deserving of her Oscar nomination, scores huge with her role, and everything else is adequate.  The movies depicts its era well, but “An Education” doesn’t feel like a Best Picture nominee.  It’s another coming-of-age tale, and it’s fine and all, but it’s not as great as it has been hailed outside of Mulligan’s performance.

Nine (B+)
(4 Nominations: Supporting Actress (Penelope Cruz), Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Song)
Rob Marshall’s ‘Nine’ adaptation is a whirlwind of energy, excitement, and beauty. Critics may have turned their back on it, and it may have become the biggest flop of 2009, but that’s too bad because, while uneven, the movie is enormously entertaining featuring an endless line of talented performances. Without the odd Kate Hudson number, “Nine” is otherwise a fantastic kick-back and enjoy musical–far better than the recent “Mamma Mia!’ and ‘Fame,’ and one of the most gorgeous movies of ’09.

The Messenger (B)
(2 Nominations: Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson), Original Screenplay)
The entire cast shines in yet another anti-war film this year that actually works. Following in the footsteps of ‘The Hurt Locker,’ “The Messenger” is a heartbreaking war film that tells the other side of the coin–the men informing the families of their fellow fallen soldiers. While sometimes a bit melodramatic, “The Messenger” is more often than not a touching and authentic film from beginning to end.  I’m happy to see Woody Harrelson score an Oscar nomination for his work here.

Invictus (B)
(2 Nominations: Actor (Morgan Freeman), Supporting Actor: Matt Damon)
Clint Eastwood makes great movies, and ‘Invictus’ happens to be a good movie aspiring for greatness. There’s something very Hallmark about this Nelson Mandela/Rugby film. It’s meant to inspire and get people off their feet, but I felt as though much of the importance at heart went skimmed over. Morgan Freeman is great here–but it’s to no surprise, and Matt Damon is fine, but hasn’t much to do. In the end, I was left admiring a project I had little investment in.

Crazy Heart (B-)
(3 Nominations: Actor (Jeff Bridges), Supporting Actress (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Original Song)
Jeff Bridges turns in a praise-worthy performance in a run-of-the-mill Oscar bait movie if ever there was one.  This is this year’s ‘The Wrestler,’ but ‘Crazy Heart’ isn’t as impacting. The relationships and plot developments are by-the-numbers. It’s a satisfactory movie with all the trappings of alcohol abuse and relational dysfunction with a country music backdrop. The film will be remembered solely as the vehicle for which the Academy paid Jeff Bridges his due, and nothing more.

Julie & Julia (B-) (Nomination: Best Actress–Meryl Streep)
I’m not the intended audience for “Julie and Julia,” so to my surprise it was satisfactory.  Other viewers may find it dull or rich or entertaining–it’s a lot of everything. Perhaps that’s because it’s a very light film, very warm and airy.  Meryl Streep is excellent in it, and Amy Adams is likable.  Would I watch it again? No, it didn’t interest me much, but the movie is well-made.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (B+) (1 Nomination: Cinematography)
The movies continue to impress. ‘The Half Blood Prince’ is less action, more explanation–but man is this a thick, layered and increasingly intense story. Lord Voldemort, despite his absence in this one, is the center of all the chaos and looming darkness. I enjoyed more humor being salted over this film (the dating, relationships, etc.), but also so much development in the plot this time, even if it has to end abruptly to pave way for the last two-part movie. This is a triumphant chapter.

Sherlock Holmes (C+) (2 Nominations: Art Direction, Original Score)
Robert Downey, Jr. has recently jump-started his career again, and so it’s a pleasure to see him swashbuckling his way through this fast and often funny adventure film. My problem with the film: Guy Ritchie. He takes a lot of directorial nods from his “Rock N Rolla” and “Snatch” to deliver a confusing, almost uninteresting narrative. With that said, the action and comedy deliver for the most part, and for that reason “Holmes” will be a fun time for most, you will just wonder what’s going on.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (C+) (1 Nomination: Sound)
Yes, even those morphing bots (a huge box-office success before ‘Avatar’ made it shrink in comparison) in a movie everyone seems to have went to see but hated with a passion, get a little Oscar love this year.  I can’t hate on the film as much as many simply because most of us fanboys are forgetting that the first film was an undeniably fun, goofy thrill-ride.  “Transformers 2” starts off pretty well. It’s well-paced, humorous (for the exception of those racist bots), the action is solid, the effects are great, and it kept me involved. I totally thought critics had lost their minds at first. Then somehow the characters zap into Egypt and things fall apart. The plot takes a major dive and the final battle becomes too long and not engaging like the first film.

Oscar Predictions:
If there’s one thing that we know about this Sunday night, is that the awards should be spread around quite a bit.  Otherwise, the year appears to be pretty predictible with perhaps the only real surprise being the showdown between ex-married couple Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron. It’s likely that the two will trade off Best Picture and Best Director, but which way will they swing?  Technically, Cameron is a director like none other.  The whole world he created in Avatar existed in his mind, and he waited fourteen years to get the technology caught to bring his vision to life.  On the other hand, Bigelow stayed low-key and brought arguably the grittiest action film of the year to the screen, totally defying the playing field in a man’s world of bullets and explosions.  Her war film “The Hurt Locker” makes Michael Bay look like a pansy in comparison.  Well, Cameron has earned his Oscar for ‘Titanic’, and ‘Hurt Locker’ only grossed a measly $12 million, which would make it the lowest grossing film to win an Oscar by a wide margin. “Avatar” is the biggest movie of all time.  I’ll give Bigelow her award for Best Director, and give audience favorite “Avatar” the win for Best Picture.

Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Best Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique, Precious
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Best Picture: Avatar

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