Best Films of 2009
by Del Harvey
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Quite a few very good films came out in 2009, I am happy to say. And at the same time there were a number of absolutely abysmal efforts. When I consider what might have driven studio executives and independent filmmakers to have made some of their choices, I cannot get away from the idea that money was a driving force behind these decisions.
By way of example, in December there were two films released which were supposed to receive consideration for Academy contention. One was Up In The Air and the other was It’s Complicated. While the acting in both was, at times, very good, the writing and the director’s choices were simply confusing. Up In The Air rolls along quite competently for the first 90-odd minutes, the characters well developed and the eventual twists adequate enough to support the storyline. Then the film simply peters out and flops around at the end, offering up no solid resolutions to the character’s question (the arc) or that of the original storyline. There is no payoff. It is student filmmaking at its worst and a complete and utter betrayal of the audience’s trust. And yet I have talked to any number of young people who think this is perfectly okay. There is a lesson to be learned here, but that is another rant altogether.
In It’s Complicated, presented as a comedy in preview trailers, we are instead exposed to a horrible conundrum, a mash-up which cannot make up its mind whether it should be a comedy or a drama. Director Nancy Myers has been cranking out similar “comedies” over the past decade and beyond - The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, The Parent Trap, Father of the Bride I and II, Baby Boom, etc. - yet somehow she is able to get an all-star cast to line up for whatever her next project might be. This one is atrocious. Aimed at the Baby Boomer generation, it’s like a teen angst film set to full Bi-Polar mode; one moment it’s serious, the next it’s all for laughs. It is bad enough watching an individual suffer with split personality disorder; it is quite something else to watch a film go through the same trauma.
The worst part of all of this is that there are big name actors and nicely coiffed sets in both films, but in each it appears as though the production budget guided the entire effort. Example 1: In It’s Complicated there are a series of scenes between Meryl Streep and her three best girlfriends in the world. They all take place in one location at different times in the story. But we never see any of these girlfriends outside of these bracketed scenes. That’s a budget and time constriction choice. Example 2: In Up In The Air we have a number of scenes which are shot in specific airports and a certain time of the year; the number of big name cast members has been reduced drastically for these scenes so that the filmmakers might contain cost and budget.
In other words, it appears that the big studios have, in many cases, adapted an independent attitude towards big budget filmmaking. These are only two such examples from the year, but it sure smells to me like there are serious money problems in Hollywood. And they are driving the stories which are getting made, and more specifically, how they are getting made. Sure, there are exceptions (Sherlock Holmes, Transformers 2, etc.), but those are the “sure money” investments. From where I sit, most film executives are too unsure of what comprises a good film these days to know one when they read it.
But, enough of my ranting. On with the best films of the year, from my perspective.
TIE: 9. The Lovely Bones and Murder (Saat yan faan)
In Chow Hin Yeung Roy’s Murderer, self-assured Police Chief Inspector Ling (Aaron Kwok) is happily married with an adopted 5-year-old son. Ling is investigating a string of murders by a cold-blooded serial killer. The film begins with a homicide attempt on Ling’s fellow inspector, Tai, in which Ling emerges unscathed, except for a minor concussion. His fellow colleagues are fast becoming wary of Ling’s potential involvement. Complicating matters is the fact that Ling suffered memory loss during the incident and cannot recall the events leading to Tai’s attempted murder. What is so amazing about this film is the risk it takes in revealing the killer, and the success with which it pulls off a truly remarkable bit of subterfuge. Look for some U.S. filmmaker to pick this up and remake it in the next year or two.
8. District 9
7. Banlieue 13 - Ultimatum
6. Julie and Julia
5. Five Minutes of Heaven
4. The Proposal
3. TIE: The Burning Plain and Trucker
In Trucker, Michelle Monaghan seems to have figured out Charlize Theron’s formula for picking an Oscar nominated acting role and uses it to push her career to A-list status where quality films are concerned. Already a star in her own right for roles in films such as Gone, Baby Gone and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Ms. Monaghan shows off her chops in this role - with amazing similarities to Theron’s role in The Burning Plain - as a dysfunctional mother who struggles to accept love not only from others but also to learn to give it to her own son. Diane Ford (Monaghan), a vivacious and successful independent truck driver, leads a carefree life of long-haul trucking, one night stands and all-night drinking with Runner (Nathan Fillion) until the evening her estranged 11-year-old son, Peter (Jimmy Bennett) is unexpectedly dropped at her door. Peter hasn’t seen his mother since he was a baby and wants to live with Diane as little as she wants him, but they are stuck with each other - at least for now, while his father Len (Benjamin Bratt) is in the hospital. Burdened with this new responsibility and seeing the life of freedom she’s fought for now jeopardized, Diane steps reluctantly into her past and looks sidelong at an uncharted future that is not as simple or straightforward as she had once believed possible.
2. La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet
1. The Young Victoria
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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