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The best (and worst) of 2009.

In case you missed my picks for the best and worst movies of the year…

1. “Brothers.” A brilliant, beautiful, harsh, gut-punching, 21st century war story with Biblical overtones. Some critics said Jim Sheridan’s adaptation of the great Danish film to be too glossy and heavy-handed, but I found it to be just as profound as the original. Either you buy Tobey Maguire’s tightly wound performance or you don’t. I thought his performance was pure truth. A perfectly realized screenplay, intense performances from all the leads, amazing work by the supporting cast, including the two little girls. Reminiscent of classics such as “Coming Home.”

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2. “Up in The Air.” It was just about a coin flip between my first two picks. Jason Reitman’s third film is a nearly flawless blend of comedy and melancholy, with George Clooney in an Oscar-worthy performance. A smart, insightful, of-the-moment film that also touches on universal themes. Reitman smoothly shifts gears from wickedly cynical to flat-out funny to unabashedly sentimental, never striking a wrong note.

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3. “The Hurt Locker.” Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who was embedded with a U.S. bomb-disposal squad in 2004) give us a searing, sometimes unbearably tense depiction of war as a drug. Jeremy Renner has done some fine work before, but he delivers perhaps THE breakout performance of the year as a legendary bomb-squad specialist who is completely comfortable dodging enemy fire while defusing explosives in the most hellish environment imaginable–but utterly lost when he returns home and has to go grocery shopping with his wife. Heartbreaking, thrilling, gritty, sad.

4. “(500) Days of Summer.” A worthy descendant of “Annie Hall,” from the unconventional storytelling techniques (two characters have very different perspectives on the same scene) to the romance that bends and breaks in unexpected ways. Director Marc Webb has fun playing with familiar romantic comedy elements without being condescending. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are immensely appealing, the soundtrack is filled with hipster treasures, and the ending is just perfect. What a sweet and smart film.

5. “Inglourious Basterds.” Brad Pitt is hilariously over-the-top as the (non-Jewish) leader of a band of bloodthirsty Jewish soldiers who engage in the systematic slaughter of Nazis. A spectacular cinematic mash-up that blends elements of spaghetti Westerns, 1940s film noir and movies such as “The Dirty Dozen.” I don’t see how Christoph Waltz doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor for his performance as the Nazi who takes pride in being called “The Jew Hunter.” He owns every scene he’s in.

6. “Up.” Leave it to Pixar (specifically Pete Docter and Bob Peterson) to give us a love story that continues to bloom after one partner has died, not to mention a buddy movie with one buddy about 70 years older than the other. The first 20 minutes of this film, including a montage that seems inspired by “Citizen Kane,” are as heartbreaking as any extended sequence I’ve seen in any film in the last 10 years. Amazing that an animated film with funny-looking squared-off little characters could be so moving. From that point on, “Up” goes from greatness to mere “very goodness,” with Pixar continuing its remarkable winning streak of clever, funny, innovative, visually gorgeous instant classics.

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7. “Avatar.” Yes, I rolled my eyes at the New Age/Mother Earth philosophy, the solemn references to the “Tree of Souls” and all the heavy-handed messages about the Evil Earthlings who could learn a thing or two from the Noble Natives, but is the futuristic-Western plot of “Avatar” that much different from the storyline for “Star Wars”? I don’t think so. The basic story is a 22nd century version of “Dances With Wolves,” but we’re not here for plot, we’re here for the cool-ass CGI/motion capture/movie magic/3D stuff. This is one of the most visually arresting films I’ve ever seen, with James Cameron and an army of technicians filling every inch of the screen with amazing sights and sounds. For two and a half hours, it never disappoints.

8. “Adventureland.” I loved this film. The TV ads and the previews for “Adventureland” emphasized the slapstick stuff, but writer/director Greg Mottola (“Superbad”) actually delivered a fresh take on a coming of age story that’s a lot more than the sum of its trailer parts. “Adventureland” is set in the pre-texting, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era of 1987, when you’d actually have to call a girl’s house and ask her mother if she was home. Kristen Stewart is a lot more appealing here than she is in the “Twilight” movies, and Jessse Eisenberg gives his best performance to date as the boy who falls for her. We meet what appears to be a stock supply of summer-movie characters, but every story plays out in an unexpected fashion. Rent this movie, please.

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9.  “An Education.” Carey Mulligan has a brief shining moment as a young war widow in “Brothers,” but it’s her remarkable work as a 16-year-old schoolgirl in this British period piece that announces the presence of a major young talent. Set in 1961 London, “An Education” benefits from Nick Hornby’s pitch-perfect adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir. Peter Sarsgaard is suitably slick and borderline creepy as the 35ish smooth talker who seduces Mulligan’s Jenny, a whip-smart teenager bursting with enthusiasm for conversation, cigarettes, literature, French films, jazz—and yes, a connection to a man who understands her, unlike those croak-voiced boys who wobble about on their bicycles while trying to get her attention. There’s more than a touch of Audrey Hepburn to Mulligan’s onscreen presence.

10. “The Informant!” One of the most entertaining movies of the year–especially if you get a bigger kick out of a well-delivered line of dialogue than another CGI explosion. I’m not sure why filmgoers didn’t respond to Steven Soderbergh’s offbeat satire, based on true events. (Maybe it’s because it was an offbeat satire, based on true events.) Matt Damon packed on the pounds, sported a cheesy mustache and created one of the most original characters of the year: Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistle blower/compulsive liar who is scary-smart and amazingly dim, sometimes in the same moment.

And the worst, with the worst of the worst being first:

1. “All About Steve.” This entire movie should be put on medication. It’s a creepy, smarmy, utterly charmless and laugh-free comedy, with Sandra Bullock in an astonishingly embarrassing performance as an apparently insane woman stalking Bradley Cooper. With each wrong turn, your jaw drops. If all films were as bad as “All About Steve,” movies would be outlawed.

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2. “The Ugly Truth.” A grotesque sitcom featuring a shrill performance by Katherine Heigl as an uptight producer of a local morning TV show, and a floundering Gerard Butler as a macho pig who becomes an unlikely—VERY unlikely—television star due to his Neanderthal rants about how men are from Mars and he’s just not that into you and—well, you’ve heard it all before. Of all the bad movies that seem to know nothing about how television really works, this is one of the worst. I hated the premise, I hated the execution, I hated the stupid ending—and I was stunned by the tastelessness of the scene in which a little boy plays with a remote control device in a restaurant, unwittingly bringing Heigl to an orgasm because she’s wearing vibrating panties. Good God.

3. “Old Dogs.” When Robin Williams and John Travolta were handed the script for this depressingly lazy and shockingly inept wannabe comedy, they should have called each other and said, “Let’s just go on vacation.” Guys. You’ve got all the money in the world and plenty of talent. Why burn up audience goodwill on insulting garbage like this?

4. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” The first one was big, loud and stupid, but entertaining. The sequel is bigger, louder, stupider and dull beyond belief—and it goes on for two and a half hours, which feel like two and a half days. They’re going to keep making “Transformers” sequels forever, aren’t they? Noooooooooooooooooo please nooooooo!

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5. “2012.” I heard from more than a few moviegoers who thought my reaction to this film was too harsh, given that Roland Emmerich wasn’t trying to do anything more than destroy the world in creative fashion. But I can’t deny how much I loathed every dopey, obnoxiously clichéd moment in this disaster of a disaster film. This is a slick, cynical, occasionally sadistic movie in which cities and human beings are wiped out for our enjoyment, while a bunch of talented actors ham their way to a paycheck. Throughout the viewing experience, I almost sprained my wrist due to checking my watch so many times, praying it was nearly over.

6. “Love Happens.” Yeah, and there’s another four-letter word that happens too. Jennifer Aniston is listless as she repeats a role she’s done a half-dozen times before, Aaron Eckhart is miscast as a sensitive widower-turned-motivational speaker, the script is formulaic, and the big weeper scene takes place on the wrong stage at the wrong time and is executed in excruciatingly heavy-handed fashion. In one of the worst roles in his terrific career, Martin Sheen plays an ex-Marine who has glow-in-the-dark teeth and a perma-tan, despite living in Seattle. Perhaps upon retirement, his character opened a tanning salon/teeth whitening parlor.

7. “Whiteout.” Here’s the problem with staging a prolonged battle between the heroine and the killer in a whiteout—IT’S A WHITEOUT, SO YOU CAN’T SEE ANYTHING. After a cliché-filled setup that plays like a slasher movie at the South Pole, Kate Beckinsale comes parka-to-parka with the mysterious killer who’s been offing folks left and right, but we can’t really tell what’s happening because of all that snow. Nice touch, folks. This movie also contains what might be the most bizarre scene of the year, when Beckinsale shares a tender, teary exchange with father-figure Tom Skeritt—as he prepares to amputate her frostbitten fingers. Sniff, sniff, snip, snip. Yow.

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8. “Fame.” A bland, sanitized, unnecessary and almost instantly forgettable remake. A bland, sanitized, unnecessary and almost instantly forgettable remake. A bland, sanitized, unnecessary and almost instantly forgettable remake. Oh, am I repeating myself? Well, they would have been better off copying the original “Fame” scene by scene and note for note than going forward with this bland, sanitized, unnecessary and almost instantly forgettable remake.

9. “Twilight: New Moon Saga.” I’m not with Team Edward or Team Wolfboy. I’m with Team Give Me a Break. Granted, I’m not the target audience for this melodramatic teen-soap vampy silliness, but still, I was cringing at the stilted performance by Robert Pattinson, the one-note sullenness of Kristen Stewart’s Bella and the shirtless howling antics of the pecs-flexing Taylor Lautner and his fellow werewolves. A plodding saga with long stretches of dullness followed by unimpressive action sequences? Count me out.

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10. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” What a disappointment. Let’s start with a back story that doesn’t really explain the genesis of the Human Can Opener. How can you have an “origins” movie that doesn’t outline the origins? After about a hundred years of fighting in every conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam, Wolverine (who for some reason stops aging just when starts looking like Hugh Jackman) tries to live a normal life with the woman of his dreams, but his brother wants to kill him, and the government wants to turn him into a weapon, and blah blah blah here comes another bland, CGI, PG-13 fight sequence followed by a plot twist we can see coming a mile down the road. This guy’s a lot more interesting as part of the X-Men band than as a solo act.

6 Responses to “The best (and worst) of 2009.”

  1. Nick Says:

    “we’re not here for plot, we’re here for the cool-ass CGI/motion capture/movie magic/3D stuff.”

    How can a paid movie critic write something like this? Absurd.

  2. richard Says:

    Nick:

    Why is that absurd? Some movies are dialogue-driven, some movies are all about the visuals and the special effects. That’s a fundamental truth. “Avatar” isn’t setting box office records because of the storyline. Fans walking out of the theater aren’t saying, “Wow, what an insightful allegory.”

    Hope that answers your question.

    Richard

  3. Bruce Says:

    My Bottom 5 Crapfest of 2009:

    1. Observe and Report – Did this thing actually cost money to make?
    2. Watchmen – Hated every second, it was about as entertaining as my front yard.
    3. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs – Took the kids to this one and dredded every second of it.
    4. Night @ the Museum 2 – I seriously hope they do not make another one of these. Waste of talent!
    5. Transformers 2 – This thing made more noise than a cat in heat. Actually, a cat in heat is more thrilling!

  4. Nick Says:

    Richard,

    My question is, essentially, if the same movie were released by Michael Bay and in June rather than December, would it be on half as many top ten lists? In February you wrote, “With all the CGI tools we have at our disposal, all the digital trickery available, the thing that matters most in 2009 is the thing that matters most 20 or 50 or 100 years ago. You’ve got to have a story to tell,” yet when James Cameron rather than Roland Emmerich makes a visually appealing spectacle complimented and includes a boring, self-congratulatory (to the Academy at least) allegory, you put it in your top ten and write that you don’t care about a plot.

    thanks,
    Nick

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