Film 2009 – Part I
The Most Cerebral: Moon
Imagine a world where Moon would be the blockbuster and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Leaden would be left languishing, eating its lunar dust. Sadly, we don’t live in such a world but we should probably be grateful that it’s at least a world where films like Moon get made. At the risk of inviting the wrath of cinephiles who might consider this declaration near-blasphemy, director Duncan Jones’ (David Bowie jr.) sophomore entry was a 2001: A Space Odyssey for the 2000s, a film that relied on the exploration of ideas rather than dizzying special effects or non-stop action to deliver the goods. Sam Rockwell (certainly one of Hollywood’s most intriguing – and underappreciated – talents) played the astronaut getting cabin fever of sorts while carrying out experiments on earth’s lone satellite, and Kevin Spacey voiced the HAL-like computer GERTY – all silky-smooth, lilting tones, that were at once seductive and ominous. As the themes of isolation and identity were examined, we were reminded what a cold, indifferent place outer space can be (something that most new sci-fi cinema never addresses), and how relevant that question of life, the universe, and everything, is, especially today. Why would a man agree to be in a position of such despairing loneliness, we wondered, what goes through his head, and his heart? Mercifully, we were told (sort of), but that really was besides the point. In the end, Moon was about giving into the filmic experience of it, not about getting the answer (which could’ve been 42 for all we care), and as an experience, it was a mind-bender that we took to heart. Ground control to Major Tom…
The Most Life-Affirming: Up
Strangely enough, the most up-lifting film of the year, the one that gave us the most warm-and-fuzzies – like being hugged by Santa Claus and Mother Teresa at the same time – started off with the main character losing the love of his life. But it says something for great scripting that we were overwhelmingly moved even though there was barely ten minutes of character establishment preceding that event. And what followed was ninety minutes of sheer animated, cinematic exhilaration. On the face of it, the premise was iffy; who would want to watch the misadventures of Carl, a widowed septuagenarian who smells of prunes, and Russell, a tubby, excitable boy scout who likes to befriend weird winged creatures? But the folks at Pixar wove a tale so full of quirky magic that we completely believed that a house can fly and dogs can talk. The secret lay in the fact that unlike other gag-a-minute animated laugh-a-thons, the creators of Up actually bothered to give the film a heart, and didn’t shy away from depicting the hiccoughs of life – Ellie’s miscarriage, and death, little Russell’s absentee father, aviator Charles Muntz’s disgrace, crazy bird Kevin’s separation from her babies, and, uh, Carl’s dentures. Combine this with Pixar’s trademark eye-popping animation, and you had one amazing ride into the realm of pure, joyous imagination that utterly put to shame the rubbish that usually passes for children’s entertainment in Hollywood. And when you have a cartoon villain who looks like Kirk Douglas and sounds like Christopher Plummer, really, how can you fail?
The One That Made Us Want To Slit Our Wrists: Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire
Yes, traditionally art is supposed to be, among other things, a form of catharsis, and the art of filmmaking has often strived to play that role of making us feel better about our lives by showing us how crappy some other people’s existence can be. But before we can heave a sigh of relief at the end of it and declare ‘well, at least I’m better off than that’, there’s usually two hours’ worth of emotional torture porn to be suffered through, with only a flimsy guarantee that we won’t be tempted to commit hara-kiri before that sunshine-y pay-off in the final act. Such a film typically features a put upon main character that the audience is supposed to identify with, who is put through the seemingly endless fire-and-excrement laden hoops of life, which they inexplicably survive to find some form of redemption. This year’s killer entry was Precious, a film so gut-churningly bleak and depressing that one viewer writing on imdb.com likened it to being bludgeoned repeatedly with a crowbar of sadness. The title character Precious was a (ready for this?) pregnant, illiterate, obese, dirt poor, physically abused, molested 16-year-old with a Down’s Syndrome-afflicted child fathered by her own dad. They probably reasoned that giving her a wooden leg and a scorching case of herpes as well would be taking it a tad too far. The film reportedly had some manner of ‘happy’ ending, but the onset of anhedonia had rendered us incapable of appreciating it.
The One That Gave Us The Most Nightmares: Coraline
Yeah, yeah, we’re well aware that this was supposedly a kiddie movie, but what in Satan’s hell was up with those scary-ass button eyes?! Henry Selick’s masterfully directed stop-motion adaptation of the Nick Gaiman (all hail!) graphic novel, very craftily tapped into not the usual mundane adult dread of the paranormal, but into much deeper-rooted childhood fears, of witches and nasty stepmothers and secret doors that open into deceptively ‘nice’ worlds that then turn around and go ‘Boo!’ Feisty Coraline (voice: Dakota Fanning) thought she’d found a lovely little alternate universe to her own boring one, where the button-eyed versions of her parents were so much cooler than the inattentive ones in her world, and everything was just so much more fun and… sparkly! Of course, in scenarios like these, things are never really as they first appear, and when the secrets behind the door came spilling out, it made for some supremely creepy cinema that gave our inner child the willies. A recent readers’ poll conducted by a leading film magazine on the scariest movie characters of all time saw The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West come out on top, and Coraline only confirmed what that result indicated: that which scared us s***less as children, will still make us poop our pants as adults.
The Most Anti-Climactic: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Some movie franchises are re-booted; others are ass-whipped and dragged through the muck, all the time being hollered at to get moving and get to the finish line. The third movie in the X-Men series, X-Men: The Last Stand (alternate title: X-Men: Pile of Manure) nestled squarely in the latter category. But apparently the geniuses in the suits behind that bit of cinematic travesty hadn’t had enough of flogging the life out of that dead movie horse and figured they could drag it through the said muck for just a little while longer. And so we got Wolverine, a buzz-heavy prequel concerning the backstory of the one X-Men mutant that fans actually did give a damn about, and the one who looked best with his shirt off – Hugh Jackman. But instead of placing even a smidgen of faith in their hero, the suits decided to pad the film with an assembly line of villains and mutants that even Mr. Memory would have trouble keeping track of: Sabretooth, Deadpool, Bolt, Gambit, Wraith, Agent Zero, the Blob, young Cyclops – at the end of it, the title could well have been All Those Weird Guys And The Guy With The Lamb-Chops Who’s P.O-ed All The Time. Hollywood studios would do well to realize that all the CGI hocus pocus on the planet cannot make up for the lack of a quality screenplay, and that when you name the film after its supposed hero, you probably shouldn’t spend the run-time jiggling and poking around with his lackeys.
The One That Made Us Want To Learn Swedish: Let The Right One In
If your idea of a great vampire romance is namby pamby Twilight, then you’d best skip this part, because this delectable offering from Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson was unlike any vampire film you’ve seen before, or are likely to see again. There was no Cullen style brooding and glowering, and no Dracula-esque bodice ripping. What it did have, at the very heart of it, was a haunting, achingly adult love story – between twelve year olds Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and Eli the vampire (Lina Leandersson), the former a bullied, lonely schoolboy, and the latter, in a break from traditional movie blood suckers, not an angst-ridden, sexual monster, but a hunted animal on the run. The two meet in empathy, recognizing that they both suffer from essentially the same disease – alienation – and a tentative friendship/romance ensues. Alfredson painted Stockholm circa 1982 in a chilly, grey palette of breathtaking beauty, that contrasted sharply with the warmth at the story’s core, and the use of the element of the vampire’s persecution as a symbol for the victims/castaways of the impending AIDS epidemic, was subtly but effectively expressed. At the end of it, the title – taken from the vampire mythos that says that the creature of the night can only enter your home if you invite them in – was a beautifully poetic word of advice, about letting the right one in, not only into your home, but also your life, and your heart.
The One That Kept Us On The Edge Of Our Seats: Star Trek
Re-booting dormant or decaying movie franchises has become quite de rigueur in Hollywood lately. The results have varied, from the sublime (The Dark Knight, Casino Royale), to the, umm, not so much (Superman Returns, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Soulless Sequel). So it was with understandable trepidation that we greeted the news of TV’s wonder boy J.J. Abrams’ (Lost) intended redux of Star Trek on the big screen; after all, it had been almost twenty years since the last Star Trek outing with the characters from the original series, and twenty-five since the last halfway decent one (Star Trek IV: The Search For Spock, in 1984). Early buzz on the film was also not terribly encouraging, and rabid Trekkies had a field day foaming and frothing all over the net, baying for Abrams’ blood post-haste. Then the film reached the theatres. And. Oh. My. God. It came in with all phasers set to stun, and blew the nay sayers back to Klingon county, cleaning up at the b.o. along the way. Perhaps most admirable of all, it gave us a cast that, quite astonishingly, made those iconic characters completely their own, making us not miss their equally-iconic original creators – Chris Pine as the young, smart-ass James T. Kirk, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, and especially Heroes villain Zachary Quinto as Spock. You can bet they’ll keep on boldly going.
The Most Pleasant Surprise: Away We Go
Forget those big studio-sanctioned, asinine romantic comedies that Hollywood tries to cram down our throats every year – you know the ones: big name stars meet cute, be quirky, beat about the commitment bush for a few reels, and then end up happily ever yada, yada, yada – ad nauseum. The year’s loveliest rom-com had little by way of (stereo) typical glossy romance, no marquee names in the cast, and commitment phobia was not a major plot point. What it did have was a smart, tart script, endearing, non-grating performances from small-timers John Krasinski and divine Maya Rudolph (one of the lesser known members of Saturday Night Live) as well as the ace supporting cast – Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Melanie Lynskey – and the unexpectedly deft comic sensibility of director Sam Mendes. Yes, the very same Sam Mendes who last year single-handedly obliterated our faith in the institution of marriage and the healing powers of amateur theatre with the brilliant but wholly depressing Revolutionary Road, this year redeemed himself to the romantics with Away We Go. The film did well to do away entirely with the boy-meets-girl premise – we drop in on them in flagrante delicto in the opening scene (no, it is not that kind of film) – Verona (Rudolph) is already pregnant in the first act. Instead, it takes us (and them) on a journey of self-discovery (but in a good, non-new-age kind of way), that’ll come full circle to that age-old truism of finding happiness in your own backyard.