In terms of cinema, 2009 can best be described as bipolar, reaching awe-inspiring highs (Star Trek, Inglorious Basterds) as well as embarrassing lows (The Pink Panther 2, The Twilight Saga: New Moon) and calling me at three in the morning to tell me I’m a horrible person and it’ll be my fault if it harms itself while I’m gone to Europe. Anyway, here are four films that, to me, embody the best and worst of this tumultuous year.
The Best of the Year:
Up in the Air (2009)
As you might expect, there was a lot of talk in 2009 about the worldwide recession but little in terms of actual insight. This makes Up in the Air one of the most important comedies of its time. Deceptively entertaining and devoid of the sort of pandering sensationalism found in Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), Jason Reitman’s bittersweet tale of a man (George Clooney) who fires people for a living makes a poignant argument about the current financial crisis, blaming the whole mess on a shifting corporate culture.
Don’t let the soulful performances fool you. Up in the Air is as shrewd in its satire as Reitman’s first feature, Thank You for Smoking (2005). The difference is its humanity. Consider the lead’s subtle expression when a pilot (Sam Elliott) tells him the airline values his loyalty, the way he asks not with words but with a wounded glance, “Does anyone else?” There’s more truth in that scripted sequence than in any of Michael Moore’s bombastic tirades.
Another defining aspect of 2009 is the resurgence of the 3D gimmick, as films like The Final Destination and, to a lesser extent, Avatar threw plot and character out the window in favour of showy visual effects. Peter Docter and Bob Peterson’s Up, about an elderly man who takes his house to the skies, stands out for putting as much care in its story as it does its visual effects. When critics and fans call Carl Fredricksen (Edward Asner) a three-dimensional character, they’re not referring to polarised light.
By the way, I’m well aware of the coincidence (it’s not irony) of my top picks having such similar titles. While I’m loath to add pun to injury by using the word “elevated” in reference to Up, I must confess few movies have made me reflect on the way life defies expectation with as much poetry as this animated fable. In fact, I challenge anyone to remain indifferent during its opening sequence, a silent montage depicting the full scope of a life-long romance in all its mundane splendour.
The One You May Have Missed:
The Brothers Bloom (2008)
Though it technically made the festival circuit a year prior, I’m including Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom on my 2009 list because it opened wide, and I use the term loosely, last spring. The offbeat comedy tells of two life-long swindlers on their final caper: one (Mark Ruffalo) believes he’s devised the ultimate hustle; the other (Adrien Brody) has fallen in love with their eccentric mark (Rachel Weisz). Don’t let the familiar premise fool you. In accordance with the genre, nothing is as it appears.
In fact, when the protagonists muse about the perfect con, which is to say, “one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted”, they’re really discussing the intricacies of storytelling and the role of fiction in our own life narratives. The subtext may seem a bit literary, but it’s what makes the film so charming. Well, that and the elder Bloom’s sidekick, Bang Bang, who can best be described as a silent-era cartoon trapped in a talkie world. Kikuchi Rinko’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.
The One That Broke New Ground:
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
Relax. I’m not holding Mecha-Optimus as any sort of achievement in digital effects, so please put down your Na’vi lances and “I love James Cameron” torches. You see, 2009 featured the final casualties of the writers’ strike, demonstrating time and again the importance of a second draft with dregs like X-Men Origins: Wolverine and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. However, only one motion picture truly captured what fiction would be like without writers, and that’s Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
See if you can make sense of the premise: Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) must defeat the Fallen (Tony Todd) because “only a Prime can kill a Prime”, and they’re the only two left, but he’s soon killed by a bunch of generic non-Prime Decepticons, forcing Sam (Shia Labeouf) to find the Matrix of Power using his mystical ability to solve extraterrestrial equations. If you still don’t think the movie’s reached uncharted levels of incoherence, add jive-talking aliens, pot brownies, Transformer farts, and giant robot testicles.