Join us as we give our take on some of the best films and performances of the year in our year end awards in film.
Taken: Liam Neeson kicks ass all the way through his role in the action packed “Taken,” playing a father searching for his abducted daughter in Europe. The film is a well-constructed story that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you follow Neeson, a former spy tracking his daughter who has become a part of a huge international human trafficking ring. The captivating performance by Neeson, coupled with a plotline that moves at breakneck speed, and a story that involves the real-world issue of human trafficking make this film a rare action gem.
The Hangover: Although comedies generally don’t garner the level of respect that dramas do, a big surprise of 2009 was the success of the small budgeted “The Hangover.” A big part of the charm and uniqueness was how the film’s plot unfolds. The film starts off with a group of guys in various compromising scenarios after a bachelor party night in Vegas, then slowly reveals the events to the audience and the characters (who have no memory of the night) simultaneously. The likeable characters and funny scenes are what make the film a lasting one instead of a momentary novelty.
Lovely Bones: Taking the story from a bestselling novel, Peter Jackson has created a moving and memorable film with a solid cast and some of the best performances of the year. Saorise Ronan plays Susie Salmon who narrates the film and walks the audience through her murder and how it affects her family in a profound and touching way. We also see Susie’s journey in the afterlife with beautiful and creative CGI effects. The real powerhouse is Ronan, but there is also a genuine effort by Mark Walhberg, as the father dealing with the loss of his young daughter, and Stanley Tucci as the despicable murderer.
Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino has spent roughly the last 15 years being innovative and groundbreaking in his filmmaking and he continues to do so with his latest effort, “Inglorious Basterds.” Set in WWII, the “Basterds” are a group of Jewish-American soldiers with orders to kill and scalp Nazi’s and who are led by the eccentric and single minded Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).
Winner: Inglourious Basterds
This film has taken Tarantino to another level with its sophistication in storyline and character development, and especially with the depth of connection that the characters have with each other. The characters in this film don’t only have smart and intense dialogue thrown back and forth between them in a typical Tarantino fashion, but they connect in a believably human way that is not always indicative of a Tarantino film. One of the most intense and horrifyingly real scenes of the year is the opening scene of the film where a Nazi officer is searching the home of a French family for a Jewish family in hiding. The script and performances Tarantino draws out of the actors shows how he has the ability to move from outlandish, stylized, and surreal scenarios to stories with human connection, history, and depth to them.
Another Take: Inglourious Basterds: While I was surprised at how solid films such as “The Proposal,” “Gamer,” “Orphan” and even… cough cough, “Bandslam” were in spite of limited attention, they were nowhere near as solid as Tarantino’s take on the B-Movie classic “Inglorious Bastards.” While it bears little to no resemblance to the original film, it’s drenched in pop culture references that will drive cult movie fans crazy. At the same time, the pacing and dialogue is so stellar that you’ll find yourself repeating lines from the film for weeks, ardently remembering the silly performances of Pitt and Roth and the uber charismatic ways of Christoph Waltz. In the end, it’s a modern day classic.
-Patrick Hickey Jr.
Surrogates: This film is so incompetent that even the reunion of Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames isn’t enough to save it. You can tell they take their characters seriously, although not as seriously as the movie takes itself, which is probably more than it has any right to. There has always been a place for satire in sci-fi movies (even a silent relic like “Metropolis” is loaded with it), but the premise of “Surrogates” – people experiencing life through humanoid robots – isn’t strong enough to support any overtones, so its parallels to the culture wars don’t hold any water.
The problem, though, isn’t with the premise, but with the approach. A better film could’ve taken an idea like this and provided it with more foundation and fewer chase scenes, but “Surrogates” seems strangely detached from everything it does. Also, it’s funny that a movie about how technology compromises our existence would employ a bunch of special effects to get its message across.
You can view David Guzman’s review of this film here.
Another Take: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
By now, audiences have caught on that Stephen Sommers is a able to direct the technical aspect of a movie without a problem, however, he doesn’t understand how to direct actors. And after seeing “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” he has proven that he doesn’t know how to read, either. Not one single frame of this film is believable and it makes the original Saturday morning cartoon look like Shakespeare when compared to this drivel.
As an audience member, you will have better ideas on the direction of this picture than Sommers. The potential he has destroyed with a 170 million dollar budget and talented actors such as Dennis Quaid and Joseph Gordon-Levitt will break your heart.
Sadly, up until this moment, Quaid may have starred in some bad movies, but never gave a bad performance. His performance in this picture will have you cringing. However, it isn’t nearly as bad as Channing Tatum, who destroys the character of Captain Duke Hauser, making him seem more like Fred from “Scooby Doo.”
A chilling subplot on the history and rise of Cobra Commander has some brilliant ideas, that if further explored, could have made this picture a thrilling experience, but Sommers even squanders those moments.
This is poor, pitiful filmmaking that deserves to have stayed in the editing room.
Morgan Freeman – Invictus
The trademark stoicism and authenticity that Morgan Freeman brings to every role he plays, is again present in his performance in his latest film “Invictus.” Freeman brings the role of Nelson Mandela to life with the dignified air and powerful subtlety that is conducive to Mandela’s personality. The film follows the true story of Mandela’s release from prison and subsequent attempt to unite South Africa and end Apartheid. Freeman is a must-see in this role that he was born to play.
George Clooney – Up in the Air
George Clooney was on fire in 2009. With a lineup of stellar performances including the voice over in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” and the solid performance in “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” Clooney continues to move onwards and upwards in his career. “Up in the Air” is a timely and relevant story about a man whose job is to give employees of various companies the bad news that they have lost their job. Clooney is at his best here, with a splendid truthfulness and realism in his performance as Ryan Bingham, a man who is looking for some meaning in his life.
Tobey Maguire – Brothers
Amongst all the war movies that have come out since the Iraq conflict began, “Brothers” emerges as the film that delves into the after-effects of the war on relationships and the individual soldier’s psyche. Although Tobey Maguire showed some chops earlier on in his career, the Spiderman movies seemed to have moved him in a different direction. Supported by the outstanding performances of Jake Gyllenhall and Natalie Portman, he turns a new leaf of potential with frightening scenes of raw human anger and emotion as he fights with his inner demons in “Brothers.”
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
Tarantino’s latest crawl out on a limb produced “Inglourious Basterds,” a film which can be seen as his best since “Pulp Fiction” due to its creative story, memorable characters and level of sophistication not yet seen with Tarantino. The efforts of Christoph Waltz in his role as the despicable Colonel Hans Landa pay off as his character is memorable and has a searing evil to him in multiple scenes of the film. In “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino doesn’t have extraneous characters that are evil for evil’s sake; Colonel Hans Landa is a Nazi soldier who is not only following despicable orders but is using his power in opportunistic ways as well. Austrian-born Waltz couldn’t have been a better fit for this role, and gave a bone-chilling performance in a few scenes including one where he is talking with the theater owner who unbeknownst to him is a Jewish woman. Although Waltz is not onscreen as much as a typical main character, his scenes are as memorable and intense as if he was in every scene of the film. We will definitely be seeing more of Waltz in American films and we look forward to more memorable performances.
Brad Pitt for “Inglourious Basterds”
Brad Pitt’s performance in “Inglourious Basterds” is nothing short of amazing. In his portrayal of the southern Lt. Aldo Raine, we see why Pitt is one of the best actors working today. He has started to make a risky career change in picking dark roles that involve unique characters in unusual circumstances, which has been raising the bar of excellence for himself. But maybe the most surprising aspect is how Pitt doesn’t overkill the strangeness of his character, but rather leaves the audience hoping that he has more screen time.
One can even say he will leave an indelible mark with the viewers.
Best Actress- Maggie Gyllenhaal- Crazy Heart. With all of the power that Jeff Bridges brings to “Crazy Heart” in the lead role, you’d think it’d be a struggle for everyone else onboard just to keep up, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s an actress who clearly knows what she’s doing, and she does just as much with her character as Bridges does with his. A great deal of her brilliance here depends on self-control – Gyllenhaal knows how reluctant her character is to confront her feelings about all of the heartbreak she has endured through the years, and she understands that not every moment has to be a tearjerker.
Instead, she gives her performance the humanity it needs to establish a connection with the audience, which is a big advantage in a character study like this. That Bridges will get an Oscar nomination for “Crazy Heart” seems like a sure thing, but with so many other actresses generating acclaim this year (Sandra Bullock and Gabourey Sidibe are enjoying the most buzz), we can only hope that Gyllenhaal gets some attention, too.
Another Take: Saorise Ronan – The Lovely Bones: We first saw Saorise Ronan shine in the role of the confused and vindictive young girl in “Atonement” which she received an Academy Award nomination for. In “The Lovely Bones,” Ronan plays Susie Salmon, a young girl who is murdered in 1970s suburban Pennsylvania. Ronan delivers a heartfelt and heart wrenching performance as a girl who is not only trying to accept her own death and place in the afterlife, but watch as her family struggles to come out of the other side of this tragedy. Ronan has incredible timing in delivery of emotions, a flawless American accent, and piercing blue eyes that can speak volumes. The film deals with the incredibly difficult and sad topic of the death of a child, and Ronan portrays this in a believable which is notable for such a young actress. “The Lovely Bones” showcases Ronan’s talents, and we are sure to hear from her again as she has had the outstanding performance in two excellent films.
Best Animated Movie-
9: Action-packed and full of detail and intrigue, this is a beautiful film that draws you into its world- hook, line and sinker. Seeing how smart the characters are and how they are able to create weapons and other machines to aid them in their battles is an interesting twist and something that shows the film isn’t a rip off of anything else out there. This is even more evident during the scene with Judy Garland playing while our heroes are enjoying a victory, which is a treasure to behold, giving the film a feel similar to the video game, “Fallout 3.”
-Patrick Hickey Jr.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs: While it’s not nearly as solid as anything Pixar has put out over the years, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” is still an animated film that is worth its calorie intake. Far from inducing any type of bloating or heartburn afterward, the film is a 3D treat and a feast for the eyes and totally different from anything else currently in theaters.
-Patrick Hickey Jr.
Ponyo: “Ponyo” is definitely aimed at a younger audience, and can be enjoyed by children as young as five, but because the story is fun and the animation is beautiful, it can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Ponyo as a fish, and then later as a human girl, has a cute factor that kids will love, and she has an impulsive magical nature about her that they are sure to be fascinated with.
Up: On top of being imaginative, “Up” also knows how to be funny. It gets a laugh whenever it has the chance to pull one off and it uses them in a way that makes the story more credible. When it’s discovered that Charles gave talking collars to all of his dogs, it makes you wonder why he’d go through the trouble of giving them different voices. The movie understands that this is kind of silly, and it calls attention to how bizarre these collars are – when Russell makes the mistake of touching the dial Dug has on his, he can’t believe it when the dog starts talking in different languages, but Dug kindly informs him that his collar isn’t a toy: “Hey, would you – (Spanish) – I use that collar – (Japanese) – to talk with. I would be happy if you stop!”
It’s kind of funny that Disney and Pixar chose to release “Up” in 3-D, since the whole point of showing movies that way is to bring them closer to reality. The beauty of films like this one is that they’re not afraid to be imaginative – “Up” is a movie that knows it’s miles away from reality, which gives it the freedom it needs to explore its own universe. Most theaters don’t have 3-D projectors anyway and in that light, there’s no reason that you should find one that does. When it comes to films as fantastic as this one, two dimensions are enough.
That kind of praise is not unusual for Disney and Pixar films, but that shouldn’t suggest that “Up” rests on the laurels of its makers. Actually, it takes a risk by exploring new territory – this is the only movie that they’ve ever done where the characters are normal people and even though it’s hard to approach the mundane at an interesting angle, “Up” sticks ordinary people into extraordinary situations, ones that provide them with all of the adventure they could ever want. Everything they do seems silly and unlikely, but that’s probably why it works.
– David Guzman
Best Documentary- Capitalism: A Love Story: This film is proof positive that Michael Moore, love him or hate him, is the most proactive documentarian around, and that he gives even his most impossible targets a run for their money. Lots of details turn up during his crusade against the evils of capitalism: Once he blew the lid off of dead-peasants insurance, which companies use to make a profit whenever an employee dies, not only were there stories about it on the news, but Rep. Luis Gutiérrez worked on a bill that would protect the middle class from it.
One of the things that make “Capitalism” so incredible is how sensible and uplifting it manages to be, even in the face of subject matter that’s kind of depressing. But Moore’s mission isn’t simply to inspire hope – he pushes everybody in the audience to make their voices heard, and reminds us that our country is whatever we make it. His aim in “Capitalism” looks like a tall order, but then again, his plans to set the health-care industry on its ear with “Sicko” seemed silly, too.
– David Guzman
Best Foreign Movie
Broken Embraces (Spain): Pedro Almodovar, the most important and prolific Spanish filmmaker of the last 20 years, has once again given world cinema a film that is a worthwhile addition to his already exalted reputation. Like his more recent films, “Broken Embraces” also stars his muse of sorts, Oscar winner Penelope Cruz, playing a would-be actress in love with the director. This neo-noir style story, where the present and the past interchange with remarkable ease, also features a film-in-a-film, and a mystery that Almodovar does not seem too much of a hurry to resolve. He seems to be focused on bringing out the best in Cruz, both in terms of her acting abilities and her natural good looks. The viewers will certainly applaud him for this. Fans of Almodovar, however, might find the easy going rhythm of the film a bit of a letdown from his previous, more intense and more emotional works. Still, it deserves to be seen as a pretty good film, but maybe not exactly a great one.
A Prophet (France): French director Jacques Audiard’s latest film, “A Prophet,” about a French-Arab teen and his story of survival in prison was considered good enough to be awarded the Grand Prize of the Jury (basically the second prize) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and that’s never an easy feat. The story follows newcomer Tahar Rahim and the education of sorts that he receives in finding his place in the hierarchy of the inner workings of the French penal system. He becomes a puppet of the Corsican mob in the prison and makes coffee, does laundry and even kills, just so he can get their protection against the other gangs. Audiard switches from a prison film to a thriller throughout with remarkable ease and amazing results. The natural acting of Rahim from his first days in prison, learning to read and write, first plane ride and finally, to his rightful place as a man who now provides the protection, makes this a truly memorable and not be missed experience. If there is a slight flaw here, it might be the running time of two and a half hours.
The White Ribbon (Austria): Austrian film director, Michael Haneke’s latest film, “The White Ribbon”, has been garnering attention and awards like the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Film prize at the European Film Awards, all year. The film, set in a 1913 German village, revolves around an estate of an aristocratic family along with the lives of the pastor, the doctor, the teacher, the laborers and their families that live in its considerable shadow. The seemingly coincidental incidents that befall the villagers threaten to dismantle the natural order of their lives. The villagers, who have no knowledge of the impending destruction coming due to the First World War, do their utmost to hang on to the only way they know how to live. Haneke, whose films have a habit of shocking their viewers, does not disappoint and the end result makes the considerably longish film an absolute must see.
An Education (United Kingdom): Danish director Lone Scherfig’s new film, “An Education,” tells the true story of a 16-year-old London girl’s slow, but sure seduction by a playboy twice her age. The young ingénue, played by the incandescent Carey Mulligan, is ably assisted by Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of her charming, but opportunistic suitor. They are well supported by actors of the caliber of Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson and Olivia Williams. Though the film does a great job of making the uncomfortable coming of age romance a thoroughly charming one, the predictable ending does feel like a bit of a disappointment, even if it was based in reality.
Winner: The White Ribbon: There are quite a few reasons why it is undoubtedly the best foreign film of 2009. The style makes it look more like an Ingmar Bergman type of effort, as it is shot completely in black and white, and the sinister goings-on in the film are given even more credence because of it. The themes of child and sexual abuse, domestic violence, class warfare and uncompromising religious rigidity make it a film that has resonance even today. The title refers to the pastor putting a white ribbon on his rebellious teenage children, so that they are reminded of innocence and purity. The teacher, who is not only the narrator of the film in his old age, but also the conscience, as the events eerily unfold in front of him. The teacher and the viewers unnervingly realize that the line between the people who so violently hold onto their beliefs and their victims has blurred so much, that it is virtually impossible to see anything but shades of grey. It is a film that leaves us with the question of how human beings can behave in such a cold, calculating and callous manner toward each other, and have we really evolved that much since then.
Best Sequel- Not a great year for sequels by any means, especially by the look of these nominees.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: When you’ve produced as many high quality films as the “Harry Potter” series has over the past decade, it’s only fair to expect some type of decline over time. While the newest incarnation of the series, “The Half-Blood Prince,” is still an excellent film, it ends up serving as a tease for the next film, rather than a full-fledged feature that provides a sense of completeness.
Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs: After watching the film, you realize that again, the plot has been put together well and with the voice talents of Ray Romano, Denis Leary, Queen Latifah and John Leguizamo, it’s worth the money and time to see it, especially if you are a fan of the series. The laughs still maintain the type of karmic balance that older viewers will find funny, but there seem to be slightly more geared towards the kiddies this time around. Nevertheless, the movie hasn’t resorted to a Madagascar-esque blend of comedy, giving it more of an edge against the rest of the flicks scheduled to hit reels this summer.
-Patrick Hickey Jr.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon: With more sparkling, more super speed running, and of course more romance, “Twilight: New Moon” offers up piles of deliciously guilty pleasures for the teen and adult fan of monster movies and love stories alike. This second installment of the “Twilight” series includes the characters fans love from the first film and serves them up in a more sophisticated package; including better visual effects, and an expansion of the story of Edward and Bella. Although the “Twilight” films don’t go much deeper than Edward’s hair gel, they are fun and can be enjoyed by anyone who is a fan vampires, and young romance stories.
Winner: The Twilight Saga: New Moon: Stephanie Meyers probably didn’t realize when she penned the Twilight series that it would become the theatrical phenomenon that it has, but her story really lends itself to a fun visual interpretation that combines the always loved monster with the forbidden romance story. Teens and adults with a sense of fun and connection to their younger years can thoroughly enjoy what the story dishes out in a light handed way. “Twilight: New Moon” may not be film as art, but it definitely brings the fun of Meyer’s world of glistening vampires to the big screen.
Worst Rehash- Underworld: Rise of the Lycans: There’s nothing about “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” that’s all that terrible, and as far as bad movies go, 2009 has had worse. Still, even though the “Underworld” franchise has a small but loyal fan base, “Rise of the Lycans” didn’t do much to broaden it. Not that there’s a lot of new ground to break here anyway – sure, the possibilities of a movie franchise with vampires and werewolves are endless, but all the ones in these films want to do is tear each other apart, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for an interesting story.
All we’ve got is a boilerplate tale of forbidden love involving a werewolf servant (Michael Sheen) and a vampire princess (Rhona Mitra), whose regal father (Bill Nighy) would have her killed if he ever found out about them. There are better options at the multiplex, you know – if you only see one movie about warring vampires and werewolves this year, try that new one with Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson. At least they give you more eye candy than Sheen or Nighy.
– David Guzman