Stuart Rachels

2009 Movie Round-Up

Top 10 Flicks of 2009 (in order)

In discussing these movies, I won't give anything away. I'll say less than the trailers do.

2009 was a mediocre year for mainstream moviegoing. However, I eventually discovered ten great films from 2009. The Hurt Locker and Food, Inc. are from 2008, even though they got nominated for 2009 Oscars. They opened in Canada in 2008 (but in the U.S. in 2009). The Hurt Locker and Food, Inc. were #9 and #10 on my 2008 list .

1. Up

Up is an animated film from Pixar about an old man who embarks on a great adventure. The first ten minutes are among the most moving in movie history. They could, for example, make Mitt Romney shed a plastic tear, if only his schedule of grooming and lying left time for entertainment. But Up is mostly an action-adventure story, with talking animals, near-death escapes, and a pudgy, freckle-faced boy who joins the old man's quest.

2009 was an off year for movies, but Up fully deserves a top spot. So far it has grossed $293 million. Up is thus my highest-grossing movie-of-the-year since The Fugitive, which grossed $184 million in 1993. (In real dollars, $184 in 1993 might be more or less than $293 in 2009, depending on which measure you use.)

2. Black Dynamite

This is a spoof of 1970s "blaxpoitation" films (Shaft [1971], Superfly [1972], Dolemite [1975], etc.). As with Airplane! (1980), the jokes are silly, funny, and so fast in coming that it's hard to catch them all. You don't need to see any of the 1970s movies before seeing it (any more than you need to see Airport '77 before seeing Airplane!). But if you're inspired to check them out, I recommend The Human Tornado (1976), which is the second Dolemite movie.

Michael Jai White wrote Black Dynamite and played Black Dynamite. White has gotten a lot of work over the years, but I wasn't aware of him until now. The IMDb says that he wrote and starred in another 2009 movie, Three Bullets. I am eager to see it, but as of now (2/25/10), I don't know how I can.

3. Drag Me to Hell

This is the scariest movie I've ever seen. In the old days, horror movies looked fake; today, the classic horror movies look campy. Drag Me to Hell, however, looks real. One moment, nothing is happening, and then the next moment, supernatural forces of evil explode all over the screen. Sam Raimi, who also made the Spider-Man movies, has saved the horror genre from self-parody.

A license plate in the movie reads 99951. Why? Because, turned upside-down, it reads IS666. Think about it!

4. Solitary Man

Michael Douglas plays a charming, arrogant, wealthy, playboy businessman (creative casting, eh?) who is not as young, rich and successful as he once was. Michael Douglas is great, as is the all-star cast beneath him: Susan Sarandon, Jenna Fischer, Danny DeVito, Jessie Eisenberg, and Mary-Louise Parker.

I saw this film in an art house in Atlanta--it never came to the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham area, where I live. In its first year, it grossed under $3 million. Why did Millenium Films bury an excellent Michael Douglas movie with a stellar supporting cast? Maybe the test audiences thought it was too well written.

5. Adventureland

Adventureland is a slice-of-life movie set in an amusement park in Pittsburgh during the summer of 1987. It is a coming-of-age story, though its characters are in their early 20s, not in their teens. (When do Americans come of age, anyway?) Jessie Eisenberg plays the main character, James, who reluctantly gets a summer job in the park. At times, James' naivety in dealing with other people frustrated me, but I was probably the same way at his age, if not now. Also, there's a girl involved.

The movie was filmed in Pittsburgh at Kennywood Park. Only two amusement parks in the country were suitable for filming, because only two "historical" parks remain (meaning: parks that look like they did in the 1980s). I am biased in assessing this movie. I have nostalgia for the summer of 1987, which came between high school and college for me. My friend Cayce Moore especially liked this movie. Cayce is in prison, and 1987 was the last year he was free. So, to him, this film looks like the world he remembers.

Adventureland came out in the spring. Thus, it got no Oscar nominations. The usual story.

By the way, does anyone else confuse Jessie Eisenberg and Michael Cera? I would like to see them together.

6. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

This documentary is about the great man who secretly photocopied thousands of pages of classified government documents in 1971 and handed them over to The New York Times. Those documents, the Pentagon Papers, exposed the Vietnam War for what it was: a mass slaughter of imperialist origin that officially began when Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin and that escalated because Johnson and Nixon didn't want to lose, and because everyone in government, it seems, shared a simpleton's worldview according to which the Cold War must dominate every aspect of international politics.

Daniel Ellsberg is truly admirable. He put himself at great risk by disseminating the documents--he could've gotten over 100 years in prison. And, unlike Mark Felt (Deep Throat), he had not been sleighted by the Nixon administration. Rather, Ellsberg had been an analyst at the Rand Corporation, doing well as a policy wonk insider. But then, one day, he heard some student protesters speak, and he was so moved that he went to a nearby bathroom and cried his eyes out for more than an hour. After that, he went on a mission, making himself a spy among his own friends. It is rare to see people in such difficult circumstance behave so well for the right reasons.

7. The Informant!

In this true story, Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a whistle-blower at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). But Whitacre turns out to be a very different kind of informant than Daniel Ellsberg.

The Informant! is a drama, but it's also very funny. I'm now a Matt Damon fan; he should've been nominated for Best Actor. Did you know, by the way, that Matt Damon was in Mystic Pizza (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989)?

1-7 on my list are clearly better than 8-10.

8. A Serious Man

Please, God, let me outlive the Coen Brothers, so I can see all their movies. When Siskel and Ebert reviewed Fargo (1996), they said they liked the fact that it was set in a definite time and place. The same is true of A Serious Man: it is set in a Jewish community in some Midwestern suburbs in the 1960s. The main character, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is mild-mannered--he's an unpretentious Barton Fink--and he remains passive even as his life unravels.

There are only six or seven Coen brothers movies that I like more than this one. The Coens' last film, Burn After Reading (2008), had a budget of $37 million, grossed $60 million, and included some big stars. This movie had a budget of $7 million, grossed $9 million, and had no big stars. Why the difference? Presumably because A Serious Man is too Jewish. Someone probably thought that all the rabbis, yarmulkes, and Hebrew-school scenes wouldn't play well at the box office. I'm glad the Coen brothers made the film anyway.

9. Star Trek

This is a mainstream action movie, not a nerdy science fiction film--which explains how it could gross $258 million. My Trekkie friends say that it remains true to the Star Trek story. New actors do a great job portraying the young Kirk, the young Spock, and their supporting crew of Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura. The film looks spectacular. Don't watch it on a laptop.

According to the IMDb, Matt Damon wanted to play Kirk, but he was rejected for being too old. Leonard Nimoy had a cameo, which I enjoyed. Nimoy hadn't been on the big screen since Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).

10. Observe and Report

Once in awhile, I like a dumb comedy. In 2006, one of my favorite movies was Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny. In Observe and Report, Seth Rogen plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a mall cop who takes his job too seriously. At times, Barnhardt's incompetent intensity irritates a real cop played by Ray Liotta. I didn't enjoy watching Liotta, whose character struck me as unpleasant; that was the movie's only downside for me.

One scene in the movie, which I won't describe, might strike some people as morally offensive. I don't know whether the scene is morally offensive, but rightly or wrongly, I found it funny. Warner Bros. asked the production team to create a "lighter, softer" version of the film, but the edgier version got released because test audiences preferred it.

Honorable Mentions: Outrage (discussed below); An Education (also discussed below); and Crazy Heart. In Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges plays a washed-up alcoholic country singer. For a few minutes, it reminded me of The Wrestler (2008), but it's not as bleak.

For people who eat pork, I recommend the HBO documentary, Death on a Factory Farm. (For people who don't eat pork, I recommend continuing not to eat pork.) For boxing fans, I recommend Facing Ali (2009), a documentary that recaps Muhammad Ali's career by showing the usual fight footage along with recent interview clips of Ali's rivals. In Facing Ali, everyone interviewed seem grateful to have been part of Ali's show. Even Smokin' Joe Frazier says nice things. In the past, Frazier boasted that his punches gave Ali Parkinson's Disease.

About Outrage:

This is a documentary about gay closeted Republicans, some of whom are virulently anti-gay. Closeted politicians, it seems, come down especially hard on homosexuals in order to prove they're straight. Pretty sickening, 7th-grade stuff, but these self-hating queers have a lot of power in Washington.

This is Kirby Dick's first movie since This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006). Outrage has a social point, but it mostly serves up the lower pleasure of telling us about other people's sex lives. The Republicans outed by Dick include Florida governor Charlie Crist and former New York City mayor Ed Koch. (Okay, Koch is a Democrat, but any Democrat who supported Bush in 2004 is a closeted Republican to me.) Incidentally, when I was 18 and played Garry Kasparov in the Russian Tea Room in Manhattan, I was invited to meet Koch in the mayor's mansion the next morning. I declined because I wanted to sleep in.

I especially enjoyed the interview clips in Outrage with openly gay congressman Barney Frank. He is one of my favorite politicians.

The Nominees for Best Picture

The Academy chose a bad year to increase the number of nominees from five to ten. I haven't seen Avatar or Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire. My friends told me almost in one voice that Avatar gets an A+ for its appearance, a C for its script, and a B+ overall. It looks great, they say, but it's dumb.

The Blind Side

This is a nice movie about a woman who brings a poor black teenager into her home because he has nowhere else to go. Sandra Bullock does a great job as the woman. [She won the Oscar for Best Actress, as it turns out.] The movie is too much like an after-school special to merit an Oscar, but I did like it.

District 9

This is a good-looking movie about aliens who come to earth. In a twist, the aliens don't come charging out of their spacecraft with ray guns; instead, they are ill and malnourished and need our help. The humans, in turn, confine them to a slum called "District 9." The movie-makers used a real slum in South Africa for the shooting.

This movie wasn't bad, but not enough happens. An aliens movie that combined CGI technology with a good script would be awesome.

An Education (one of my runner up's)

This is a coming-of-age story about an English girl in the 1960s who has planned to go to Oxford but now becomes immersed in the exhilarating world of a wealthy man twice her age. Peter Saarsgard plays the man, and I spent half the movie marveling at his English accent, which sounded good to me.

This movie suffers from the usual, harmless defect that an adult plays a teenager: 22-year-old Carey Mulligan plays 16-year-old Jenny Mellor. Movies can get away with older actors playing teenagers so long as the movies are pitched to adults: a teenager knows the difference between a 16 year old and 22 year old. If you haven't walked down a high school hallway recently, it's amazing: the students look really, really young. They don't look like their cinematic counterparts.

The Hurt Locker (which won)

I'll repeat what I wrote last year, when The Hurt Locker was #9 on my list: This may be the most realistic war movie I've seen. It's about an American bomb-defusing unit in Iraq. There are many tense moments. There's not much plot, but when the movie is over, you think, "Yep, I'll bet that's what Iraq was like." If you want a taste of why I dislike old movies, compare this one to The Great Escape (1963), a movie in which American POWs during WWII taunt their German captors and seem to be running the camp.

(Oh, I did hear later that The Hurt Locker was unrealistic in certain ways--that, for example, robotics would be used more often than humans in defusing or blowing up bombs. Oh well. It's still realistic for a movie.)

Inglourious Basterds

A great disappointment. Quentin Tarantino has not written a first-rate script since Jackie Brown in 1997. Since then, he's done the Kill Bill movies--almost no storyline--as well as half of Grindhouse (2007)--again, no real storyline--and now this. Inglourious Basterds is about a plot to kill Hitler by blowing him up in a theater while he watches the premier of a movie. The story is fictitious. At times, the film is funny; at other times, it's slow, and it goes on for 2 hours and 33 minutes. At first, I liked it. But by the end, the movie seemed like Tarantino himself: immature. The bright spot was Brad Pitt's comic character. If Pitt had gotten more screen time, I might have liked the movie a lot.

A Serious Man (reviewed above)

Not worth an Oscar, but maybe the nomination will help Joel and Ethan get more scratch for their next film.

Up (reviewed above)

This is my Best Picture, but it won't win, because it also got nominated for Best Animated Feature. People don't want to vote for the same movie in two categories.

Up in the Air

George Clooney's charm carries this movie a pretty good ways. Clooney plays a businessman who spends all his time in airports and hotel rooms. He likes living that way, and he finds a beautiful woman who is just like him. In the end, I didn't love the movie because I thought that Clooney's character was shallow and uninteresting (even though Clooney's performance was excellent). Also, one important moment in the movie felt unmotivated to me--those who saw the film will probably know what I mean.