Sunday, January 31, 2010

Everybody's a Critic, Part III: Another Year at the Movies, Honorable Mentions and Docs

Most years, I’m good for seeing about 75–100 new releases in the theater, with a handful of revival/repertory screenings and another dozen or so on DVD. This year, try as I might, I only saw 50 new features on the big screen.

Not even averaging one film per week represents an all-time low for me as an adult. While I certainly could have forced myself to engage more, the year was oddly uninspiring for long stretches, although there were some really compelling movies released this year, as well as some highly encouraging commercial success stories.

As for the movies themselves...

HONORABLE MENTIONS (ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

(500) Days of Summer: Romantic comedies can be deadly, but this one avoided just about all of the genre pitfalls and delivered a sweet three-act tale of the arc of a relationship (highlighted by some beautiful downtown Los Angeles photography), with affecting performances by indie icons Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.

The Hangover: Call me biased (I work on the TV side of the studio that released it), but The Hangover is the perfect summer buddy flick. Bradley Cooper established himself as a star, Ken Jeong added to his string of priceless high-energy comedy cameos, and Zach Galifianakis walks off with the picture. Oh, I almost forgot: Mike Tyson sings Phil Collins. Seriously.

The Informant!: Steven Soderbergh is probably one of the most talented artists on the planet, writing, producing, shooting and editing more than 20 films since his stunning arrival with Sex, Lies and Videotape back in 1989. As iconoclastic as they come, Soderbergh seems equally at home crafting crowd-pleasing major-studio fare, experimenting with no-budget digital productions and also trying to find that elusive middle: making films within the studio system that challenge audiences and bear the distinctive stamp of a substantive artist at work. I don't always find myself loving what he delivers, but I never want to miss one of his effots. The Informant! is, at once, many things: a biting satire about corporate greed, a dark comedy about human nature, and -- in Soderbergh's hands -- a whopper of a bizarre tale about a quasi-whistleblower at agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland. I'm still not convinced this movie works on all levels, and the story is so bizarre as to be completely unbelievable at times (although most of it, apparently, is true), but Matt Damon is priceless as crook/hero/villain Mark Whitacre. Not everyone will care for this, and if you're expecting a straightforward take akin to Michael Mann's incredible The Insider, look elsewhere. But if offbeat and lacerating is your taste, this might be for you.
The International: Clive Owen stars in this globe-trotting thriller as an Interpol agent who teams up with Naomi Watt's New York assistant district attorney to investigate an all-powerful international bank that is mixed up in arms dealing, laundering money and overthrowing politically inconvenient governments. Armin Mueller-Stahl is in it, too. If that's not enough, it's got one of the all-time great shootout scenes, set in New York's Guggenheim Museum, painstakingly recreated on a sound stage so as to, you know, damage up the masterpieces and such. Great fun.
Public Enemies: I regard Michael Mann as one of the best filmmakrs of the last 30 years, so the release of any new picture of his takes on event status in my mind. As I wrote last summer when I saw the first trailer for the film: "Michael Mann directing Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in a period drama about John Dillinger? Fughedaboudit. Expectations couldn't be higher." I think my hopes for the film may have been elevated in such a way that they exceeded the grasp of any mortal's artistry, but the movie is still very strong, with a rugged star turn by Depp and strong supporting work by Marion Cotillard as the object of Dillinger's affection and Stephen Lang as a lawman on his trail.

Up: I confess to seeing only half of Pixar's theatrical output over the years, even though I fully understand the argument that while their movies are kid- and family-friendly, they also offer rich rewards for adults. I'm not philosophically opposed to animated features -- trust me, I've been waiting in vain for more than 20 years for Warner Bros., Disney, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis to make a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit -- but they aren't normally top of my list. That said, I finally saw Up in its third or fourth week of release, and it was wonderful. Now, did I completely love all of it? No. But that opening half-hour was truly heartbreaking, as was the ending. Damn you, Pixar!

Whatever Works: Larry David is great in the Woody Allen role in this comic farce also starring Evan Rachel Wood and Patricia Clarkson. This continues a nice run of form by writer/director Allen, including Vicki Cristina Barcelona, my favorite movie of 2008; Cassandra’s Dream, a highly underrated 2007 thriller; and Match Point, from 2005. (Feel free to overlook 2006’s Scoop.)

DOCUMENTARIES

Art & Copy: A more inspiring movie about creativity and expression (with not just a little dollop of message manipulation and image manufacturing thrown in) you will not find. If you work in media or communications -- in any fashion -- this is a must-see film.

It Might Get Loud: Jack White, U2’s the Edge and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page give witness to why all we might really need in life are three chords and the truth.

The Way We Get By: A group of citizens in Maine gather at all hours of the day and night at Bangor International Airport to make sure that members of our armed services who are either (1) flying out to duty overseas or are (2) returning to the United States from serving abroad always have someone there to wish them good luck or welcome them home. Selfless, beautiful stuff.

Next up ... some day ... my 10 favorites of 2009 ... to be continued ...