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The Year in Movies 2009

The good, the bad And the ugly

While the news media sometimes gets a well deserved public spanking for playing with the truth, movies really indulged in re-orchestrating history this year.

And in some cases, films touching on the same historical topic could have just as well been viewed from alternate realities. Take District 9’s South Africa descended into dismal social anarchy, in contrast to the kiss-and-make-up racial politics of Clint Eastwood’s take on apartheid, Invictus. Or Kathryn Bigelow still seemingly sparring with her long-hibernating famed ex, James Cameron, incidentally juxtaposing her thrill-a-minute U.S. imperialist war porn, The Hurt Locker, with former spouse’s anti-U.S. military subversive animated shockfest, Avatar.

In any case, while male characters continued romancing starry-eyed babes young enough to be their granddaughters on screen, as in Crazy Heart and Antichrist, one female (Robin Wright Penn) did manage to escape that sour sexist label “cougar” in The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, while breezily bypassing her faithless geriatric spouse (Alan Arkin) for younger model, Keanu Reeves.


But once again this year, it seems impossible to figure out what’s Good and Bad about movies, without considering three categories instead of two, along with the Ugly stuff that made it into the theaters. In other words, films that may look great but feel awful, and even creepy. Kind of like a horrible person decked out in elegant designer duds. Then there are a few Odds & Ends boutique categories worthy of mention too. So here goes.

The Good: Alfre Woodard and Nicole Beharie in Samuel Goldwyn Films’ <i>American Violet</i>.

The Good: Alfre Woodard and Nicole Beharie in Samuel Goldwyn Films’ American Violet.

The Good

AMERICAN VIOLET: In no way a Disney extravaganza, though Walt Disney happens to be the great uncle of American Violet director Tim Disney, this raw and heart-wrenching film uncovers the sort of discomforting, concealed history that is more likely to make its way to the big screen than the news headlines these days. Young African American actress Nicole Beharie is radiant in her first starring role, based on the actual case of Regina Kelly, a Texas waitress and struggling single mother, who along with many of the African American youth residing in her low-income housing project, is framed and swept up in a fake drug raid, but ultimately triumphs.

AVATAR: Futuristic identity theft meets anti-U.S. imperialist military mutiny in James Cameron’s long gestating revolutionary vision of a better world minus superpower greed, corruption and genocide. Though the accent on innovatively awesome high-tech fantasy visuals tends to allow the mystique to preempt the subversive message. But nobody seems to be noticing anyway, what with that make-believe, anything-goes alternate sci-fi screen universe.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS: A glorious rude mix and match of subtitles, Nazi scalps, guerrilla cinema and blood-soaked subterranean French cellar saloon shootouts, the film is a vintage Tarantino Western European western. And a literally explosive finale titled “Revenge of the Giant Face” featuring, of all things, a female war movie hero (Melanie Laurent), elevates Tarantino into fresh territory as a maturing filmmaker who has lots of surprisingly profound stuff to say, when the mood strikes him.

THE MESSENGER: This richly conceived powerhouse military drama about life and death is ultimately about the search for a sense of family, whether in peace or war, and what binds humans together despite the most unendurable horrors at hand. A kind of male bonding road movie about damaged soldiers assigned to deliver news to families at their doorsteps about the death of loved ones as casualties of war, The Messenger, with its own muted yet implosive brutal psychological intensity, may have more to convey about the toll of warfare, emotionally and otherwise, than combat in the heat of battle.

UP IN THE AIR: A sharply honed script that doesn’t mince words, while sticking it to George Clooney’s servile corporate hit man. Along with the genius move of hiring real people who’ve actually been fired to play workers screwed by Clooney’s outsourced specialist pink slipping workers for big business, so that they don’t have to, proving that you don’t have to be an actor to both dazzle and devastate audiences in a movie.

The Bad: Jennifer Garner, Matthew McConaughey and Daniel Sunjata in New Line Cinema’s <i>Ghosts of Girlfriends Past</i>.

The Bad: Jennifer Garner, Matthew McConaughey and Daniel Sunjata in New Line Cinema’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

The Bad

GHOSTS OF GIRLFRIENDS PAST: A sex addiction revenge comedy with some quickie laughs that retool the basics of A Christmas Carol, but comes off instead like a commitment-challenged Scrooge on Viagra. Miscast in the extreme is laid-back Matthew McConaughey, whose character believes action in movies refers to the sex scenes. And what’s with the PG-13 rating? Is this meant as a manual for underage two-timers in training?

THE INFORMERS: A weird cry for help courtesy of Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), probing wasted L.A. youth without adult supervision in sight, The Informers eavesdrops on the mostly trust-fund patrician, perpetually high lowlifes ferociously into doing the wrong thing on a daily basis in 1980s L.A. Well, actually one protagonist does the right thing. But only after stuck in pause for a week or so, as an accessory to child sex slave racketeering. So much for socially redemptive second thoughts in a movie.

SPREAD: Ashton Kutcher’s stud for sale does a glum gigolo making sex look like awfully hard work, while his current high price tag prey Anne Heche checks into a hospital for genital rejuvenation (don’t ask). A soft porn cinematic peep show in family values clothing, and even more calculating in lame seduction of movie audiences than Kutcher’s perpetually underwhelmed and underwhelming crafty predator.

YEAR ONE: Jack Black’s village idiot-turned-moronic messiah tries to hunt and gather copious hairy bodied babes who really know how to stroke their spears. While a shackled and endlessly whining Michael Cera pees upside-down through his collar.

The Ugly: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe in Lars von Trier’s <i>Antichrist</i>.

The Ugly: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

The Ugly

ANTICHRIST: A self-flagellating sado-masochistic matrimonial weepie employing arty gore and dubious therapeutic kinky when not satanic sex remedies. Willem Dafoe, in the course of this perverse psychodrama, transforms from New Age sexorcist into a deranged hubby with homicidal tendencies, as rambling, pointless small talk aims for mystically trendy. We only hope no animals or human genitals were harmed in the making of this movie.

THE HANGOVER: A beyond-crude guy movie about grown males who run away from home while in pursuit of living out their vice fantasy daydreams. The raunchy humor is never in short supply, but the intermittent tastelessness just about spoils all the fun. Like, is it really a barrel of laughs when one of them on the sex-offender registry performs, let’s just say, manual libidinous moves on an infant, even if he’s just pretending? And sorry, joking about the Holocaust and naked octogenarians, or playing “Hot Potato” with a used condom as a leisure time activity, just doesn’t add up to a blast at the movies.

PRECIOUS: Baby Mama Dearest minus the coat hangers and Hollywood mansion, this bad parenting ghetto horror movie boasts exceptional performances, but is social pornography at its worst, festering in racial self-loathing and class contempt, while oblivious to a system that ignores its neediest. And one of a number of subliminal anti-choice movies this year, including Disgrace, that promote the incest and gang rape motherhood option versus abortion.

Jock Watch: Best Sports Movies

Move over, The Blind Side and Invictus….

BIG FAN: A Taxi Driver-style moody yarn about your basic Big Apple bottom feeder schlemiel moping his way through existence, the movie touches on the darker side of sports geekdom and living life as a spectator sport through others. Written and directed by Robert Siegel, who also penned the brilliant and brutal The Wrestler last year, Big Fan stars Comedy Central standup Patton Oswalt as a Verrazano Bridge booth attendant still living with Mom and obsessing day and night about his favorite football team, the New York Giants.

SUGAR: A more bitter than sweet tale told with uncommon sensitivity and uncanny scrutiny of race and class about exploited immigrant ball players in a game that has evolved into ruthless baseball capitalism. It stands in stark contrast to Hollywood sports movies like The Blind Side, and their celebration of star power and those who make it, while rarely pausing to examine the many more who are discarded, exploited, and more often than not ultimately destroyed human beings.

Worst Full-Frontal Male Nudity

OBSERVE AND REPORT: Randy Gambill’s deviant comedic flabby mall flasher.

Best Movie Line

ME AND ORSON WELLES: Welles (Christian McKay) flipping out over water damage in his theater on opening night: “That’s all we need, critics with wet asses!”

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