Thursday, December 31, 2009

Movie Ranking 2009

In case anyone gives a damn, here's an arrangement of the 66 movies from 2009 I saw this year, listed from best to worst.

You may think this ranking represents mere opinion, but that's not true because I've quantized everything with a little help from my hundred-point scale. So obviously you're wrong.

Here's the list!

SCORE / MOVIE

93 / An Education
88 / Watchmen
87 / Zombieland
86 / Adventureland
85 / The International
85 / Knowing
84 / The Hurt Locker
82 / The Hangover
80 / The Twilight Saga: New Moon
77 / Paranormal Activity
75 / Whatever Works
74 / Tyson
73 / (500) Days of Summer
72 / Up in the Air
72 / Drag Me to Hell
72 / Ninja Assassin
72 / Extract
72 / Paper Heart
71 / 2012
70 / Jennifer's Body
68 / Public Enemies
68 / Fired Up
66 / It's Complicated
66 / Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans
65 / Two Lovers
64 / Obsessed
63 / Inglourious Basterds
62 / The Proposal
62 / The Fantastic Mr. Fox
58 / The Men Who Stare at Goats
58 / Moon
57 / GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra
57 / Bruno
56 / The Blind Side
56 / It Might Get Loud
56 / A Perfect Getaway
54 / Fast & Furious
54 / Sunshine Cleaning
51 / The Soloist
48 / Sorority Row
46 / Pandorum
46 / Sherlock Holmes
44 / Orphan
42 / Avatar
42 / The Invention of Lying
42 / Observe and Report
38 / Whiteout
36 / Surrogates
35 / Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
33 / Land of the Lost
32 / Friday the 13th
22 / District 9
22 / Crank: High Voltage
22 / The Final Destination
22 / Duplicity
21 / Terminator: Salvation
19 / Wolverine
19 / I Love You, Man
19 / Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
18 / Star Trek
18 / State of Play
18 / The Box
17 / Confessions of a Shopaholic
14 / Street Fighter 2: The Legend of Chun-Li
12 / The Girlfriend Experience
12 / Echelon Conspiracy

It's Complicated

Conventional wisdom says you've got to make movies for teenagers.

Conventional wisdom's mostly right. But "mostly" is a qualifier large enough for writer/director Nancy Myers to have made a career of.

As a writer, she broke in with "Private Benjamin" way back in 1980. She went on to write a handful of typical 80's comedies like "Jumpin' Jack Flash" before doing something interesting.

She aged.

More remarkably, her writing aged with her, and more remarkably still, it only made her more successful.

1991 was the turning point when she wrote "Father of the Bride," the Steve Martin starrer aimed at -- gasp -- middle-aged folks with grown children of their own.

And we all know those people don't see movies.

But they saw that one. And they saw her directorial debut in 1998, "The Parent Trap," a remake of a 1961 movie that baby boomer audiences -- and, evidently, Myers, a boomer herself (born in '49) -- remembered fondly.

They saw her next writer/director effort too, the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt comedy "What Women Want," and they saw the one after that, the Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson comedy "Something's Gotta Give."

Now Myers has written and directed "It's Complicated," a story of sectagenarian divorce and reunion starring Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep.

Streep is our protagonist. She runs a french bakery, has three darling young adult children and one darling child-in-law (played by John Krasinski of "The Office.") These children are the offspring of both Streep and Baldwin, who split up ten years prior.

Our story begins with Streep and Baldwin crossing paths at a family function.

Because they don't just cross paths. They "cross paths," if you take my meaning.

The catch is, Baldwin is married to thirty-something sex bomb Lake Bell. The other catch is, he's not the most noble guy in the world. Even at fifty-eight, the Alec Baldwin character is a bad boy, proving that women's attraction to bad boys never really goes away.

Further complicating things is the presence of Steve Martin, a nice guy architect who presses suit with Streep in all the right ways. Naturally he loses out to Baldwin's sleazy advances.

But there's lots of twists and turns and some great set pieces, some of which feature lots of alarming nudity from Alec Baldwin.

Overall, "It's Complicated" is a good movie. It's funny, it's familiar and despite the moral complexity the movie dabbles in, it has a kind heart.

I hope that doesn't sound condescending, but the truth is, you baby boomers are getting old. And the world's a different place than it used to be.

If Nancy Myers doesn't give up this relationship nonsense and start writing about robot wars and boy wizards, I worry for her future.

Nahhhhhhh...

She'll be all right.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 66/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 62/100

How Impressed I Am by Nancy Myers' Career: 93/100

(thanks to Joni Gaughan for getting me to see this movie)

(Happy New Year's, everyone.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Three different screenwriters took separate passes on "Sherlock Holmes," each of whom made enough of a contribution to get an individual writing credit. One of these writers, and one of the movie's producers, also got separate story credit.

And then there's Guy Ritchie, the stylish director of all those British crime flicks, who certainly brought his own artistic sensibility to the process.

All in all, there were a lot of cooks in the "Sherlock Holmes" kitchen, and the end result reflects that.

The movie is pulled in several different directions as it tries to encompass Doctor Watson's imminent marriage, the reappearance of Holmes' old girlfriend, and the machinations of a seemingly supernatural threat to London.

The movie opens with an engaging action sequence in which our boy Holmes stops the dastardly Lord Blackwood -- who hardly had a chance in life with that name -- from performing another ritualistic human sacrifice.

Lord Blackwood is sentenced to the gallows and duly hanged. But, like the Nazarean on whose birthday "Sherlock Holmes" opened, Blackwood's death proves temporary.

The mystery of Lord Blackwood's apparent return from the grave, while initially intriguing, grows overly complicated fast, and Holmes' investigation descends into a drily procedural march from point a to point b to point c.

There's a reason the mystery genre has vanished from the big screen. Its stories are too intellectual. Feature audiences crave raw, throbbing emotion, and while there's some of that in "Holmes," especially in the opening hour, it's not enough. The fear and the fun and even the humor all fade away after awhile.

Part of the problem is the boring villain, Lord Blackwood. He's a cardboard cutout lacking any personal grudge against Holmes -- or vice versa -- so we're left waiting for Professor Moriarty in the sequel.

Also, Blackwood's plan for world domination is unusually stupid. It would never have worked even without Holmes' intervention. (Spoiler: it involves fooling the world into thinking he is a devilish sorcerer through the power of illusion, and then ruling everyone through fear. Yep. That'll work.)

This is not to say "Sherlock Holmes" is a complete failure. There's more to a movie, after all, than the script. (I intend to erase that sentence in a few days so it does not enter the archives.)

Robert Downey Jr. is such a superb match for Holmes -- a fun, physical, modernized Holmes -- that he carries the movie for a good forty-five minutes before the weight of the story puts a damper on things.

Jude Law is also good as Doctor Watson, and the fact that the heart of the story revolves around the Holmes-Watson relationship is just as it should be. Rachel McAdams is fine as the attractive Irene Adler, but the real romance is the platonic one between Holmes and Watson.

The characters are in place and the tone has been figured out. All Sherlock needs now is a really good story and the game will be... aw shucks, what's the word...?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 46/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 48/100

Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar

Good James Cameron Movies:

-The Terminator
-Aliens
-The Abyss
-Terminator 2
-Titanic

Bad James Cameron Movies:

-True Lies
-Avatar

Don't take it out on me. I'm just the messenger.

The message is: "Avatar" is a 3-D movie with a 2-D story and 2-D characters.

We can start with what's good about the movie. The expressiveness of computer-generated facial features has come a long way. There's no sign of The Polar Express "dead eye" syndrome. The central alien creatures of the film, the Na'vi, look convincingly real. And that's a huge accomplishment.

Now to the bad...

The special effects try too hard to please. The distant moon Pandora ends up looking fake because everything on it resembles the most incredibly beautiful oil painting you've ever seen. There's not a single spot on the whole planet that DOESN'T look like a post card, and that's not how we're trained to see nature. You have to contrast beauty with ugliness or beauty loses its effect. On Pandora, everything is beautiful, so nothing is.

Also, the third dimension is fine, but it doesn't add much to the viewing experience. A good or bad cinematographer still makes all the difference to how a film looks. As much as they would like, the studios can't 3-D their way past the necessity for creative visualization. And "Avatar" is only mediocre in terms of (virtual) cinematography.

And then there's the story.

For the first hour, it's jarring how clumsy the exposition is. Cameron has imagined in minute detail the world of Pandora and the human avatar program that allows us to visit it. He is determined that we absorb every last bit of it.

The result is a monotonous voice-over and at least one character (Norman) whose sole purpose is to tell us things. Ironically, this most visual of movies does a lot more telling than showing.

If you're not familiar with the plot, it's "Dance With Wolves" in space. And while it's fine to model your story on a forerunner, the beat-for-beat copying of the 1990 best picture winner becomes ridiculous at times.

In fact, the alien Na'vi are so obviously modeled on Native Americans that it reduces the strangeness and scope of our supposedly interplanetary journey. The Na'vi might be blue-skinned and inhumanly tall, but they ARE Native Americans, right down to the war whoops, tribal councils and bows and arrows.

"Avatar" only deviates from "Dances With Wolves" in the quality of the storytelling. Where the characters in "Wolves" were layered and complex, "Avatar" is full of stereotypes. The greedy corporate point man, the trigger-happy military captain, the curious scientist, the nature-loving aborigines. You know everything you need to know about these characters the moment you lay eyes on them.

A love story between our avatar-ed human and a Na'vi princess plays out in the most conventional, formulaic way possible, and fails to engage the emotions. The entire movie fails to engage the emotions at almost every point.

"Avatar" looks kind of neat. After five minutes that wears off. But you've got two hours and thirty-one minutes to go.

Good luck with that.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 42/100 (lots and lots of work went into the technical aspects)

How Much I Enjoyed: 30/100

Friday, December 11, 2009

Up in the Air

This is a good movie with some glaring flaws.

They come late, so it's easy to think you're in the presence of greatness -- or at least excellence -- for quite some time.

"Up in the Air" is the story of a business traveler played by George Clooney. His business is firing people. Business, of course, is good.

Firing people entails flying all over the country. In fact, it entails spending much more time on the road than at home. And that doesn't bother Clooney at all. His home is the road. The road in the sky.

Clooney spends so much time flying that he's closing in on ten million air miles. Only six other people in commercial air travel history have ever logged ten million miles. He wants to be person number seven.

His life develops two complications. The first is that he meets a fellow business traveler of the sexy, slinky variety. She is Vera Farmiga. They meet in an airport lounge and bond over a comparison of their elite customer travel perks.

This is a complication because Clooney normally tries to remain emotionally aloof. His heart is always in transit, like his body. But sexy and slinky is also smart and funny. Soon our boy George is in love.

The second complication is the appearance of a young, brash co-worker played by Anna Kendrick.

Kendrick's eager ambition manifests itself in a proposal to do away with face-to-face firings. She creates a business plan which will turn the entire company's operations virtual. This will save money on travel, but it will rob Clooney of the only home he's ever had. Not to mention any chance at those air miles.

So Clooney protests.

To make a longish story shortish, Clooney gets put in charge of showing Kendrick the ropes, of taking her on the road and giving her some on-the-job experience. This creates a terrific dynamic because the two characters are opposites. Experience versus immaturity, cynicism versus idealism, caution versus recklessness.

And here's the deal: this relationship IS the movie.

Let's pause for a note directed at storytellers everywhere (my humble self included): any time you can tell a love story WITHOUT the physical love, you should go for it. The results are often superlative.

In "Up in the Air," the relationship between Clooney and Kendrick works because there is no sexual tension. At one point Clooney overhears Kendrick telling her boyfriend she doesn't even think about Clooney in "that way." Why? Because "he's olllld."

In the absence of sexual agendas, what develops between Clooney and Kendrick is something much better than a romantic attachment. What develops is a human attachment.

The occasional presence of love interest Vera Formiga only adds spice. The best scene in the movie takes place when Clooney and Farmiga try to console Kendrick after her boyfriend dumps her. They draw on their considerable life experience to put the pain of a broken heart in perspective for their young friend, but Kendrick is hard to persuade. Instead of accepting their wisdom, she ends up dishing out a sequence of hilariously unintentional insults.

It's a sweet scene. It's funny. And it's real.

So you can imagine my consternation when Anna Kendrick vanishes from the last thirty minutes of the film.

And then Vera Farmiga turns into... well, someone other than what we thought she was. Someone a lot more like Tiger Woods.

Before we know it, the movie flies off the tracks. Or crashes into a mountain. Whatever the appropriate analogy is.

After setting up a transformation from traveling loner to man who learns the joys of home and hearth, the movie does Clooney's character -- and the audience -- a disservice by leaving him curiously unchanged.

He ends the movie alone, up in the air, just where he started. The only difference is that he's gone from being perfectly satisfied with his life to feeling empty and purposeless.

To me this reeked suspiciously of Oscar-hunting. Everyone knows the shortest road to Oscar gold is the sad ending.

It's too bad, too, because it's not in the DNA of "Up in the Air" to be depressing. All the twists and turns that unfold at the end feel out of place.

As a result, the movie reminds me of last year's "The Reader." Like that artistically minded also-ran, "Up in the Air" is blessed with a strong central premise, a great central relationship and some excellent stretches, but ultimately becomes a pointless venture that does not resonate.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 72/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 71/100

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Well, "Fantastic" is pushing it.

He's a better-than-average Mr. Fox. How's that? He's a pretty good Mr. Fox.

Mr. Fox, of course, is the main character in the new Wes Anderson film based on the Roald Dahl children's book. George Clooney provides the voice of the eponymous fox.

It's an animated affair, using stop-motion photography. This doesn't always work but the results are good here. The film has a quirky look in keeping with the tone of the story.

Said story is about not just Mr. Fox but his entire family. He has a wife, a son called Ash and a visiting nephew by the name of Kristofferson. They live in a spacious tree within sight of three bustling chicken farms.

And that's the rub, for the sly Mr. Fox likes nothing more than to steal chickens from maximum-security pens. This high-risk activity puts him at odds with his wife, who wants to raise their son in peace and safety.

Mr. Fox ends up doing as he pleases, as husbands are wont to do, and endangers not only his family but the entire local animal community when he inspires the three farmers to band together in an effort to eradicate the poaching fox.

Thus we are treated to a theme of selfishness versus self-sacrifice, which is perfectly fine. Unfortunately it doesn't mesh with the theme of self-worth in the subplot, which concerns Ash's feelings of inadequacy vis a vis his high-achieving cousin Kristofferson.

Furthermore, Mr. Fox's transformation from a thrill-seeker to a contented family man (fox?) is unconvincing, since we only ever see him in the grips of a pressing emergency, which is the opposite of the quiet domesticity he claims, at the end, to embrace. Alas, it's very easy to imagine Mr. Fox feeling another yen for chickens a couple years after the events of the movie.

If you can't tell, I definitely take the movie as an allegory for adultery. Which makes the cursory resolution of theme all the more disappointing. We could use a good insight into the apparent hopelessness of human fidelity. Or even an expression of anguish in the face of it. We get neither here.

Bereft of thematic coherence, emotional heft or noteworthy insight into human nature, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" is reduced to a pleasant adventure had by talking animals.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

But director Wes Anderson gave us "Rushmore" once upon a time. Since then, he has been an auteur in search of a story. His quirky style is undimmed, but eventually style alone starts to pale.

It's hard not to feel that a stop-action chase movie peopled with furry creatures is a subconscious attempt by Anderson to avoid the hard grapple with substance every artist of a certain caliber is obligated to engage.

I wish Anderson would stop dodging that responsibility and start grappling. What movie-goers in every generation want and need is something hard and honest, and it doesn't matter if it's delivered by people or animals.

But it must be delivered.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 62/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 57/100