Up until the last sixty days of the year or so, 2009 had been a somewhat weak year for film. People asked me what I could recommend and I could not give a strong recommendation for any film. Again the film industry was saving its best for the end of the year in the hopes the better films would be too recent to be forgotten. I suspect the most remembered film of the year will be THE HURT LOCKER, and a good film it is too, but it seems to me to be suspenseful action with not enough character. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS gloried in the absurdity of its story, but the story was more exercises in style. I cannot wholeheartedly recommend either. But in the last two months I saw a few films that I really can recommend.
I am a little surprised that three of the ten films are animated. Animation is becoming a very large part of the film industry.
The real title of this film is the unwieldy PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL BY SAPPHIRE. When I first saw a bit of the film I decided I definitely wanted to see it but expected few other people would. That shows how little I know. It is showing up on several top ten lists. I felt for the characters just seeing a clip of the film. This is definitely a feel-bad/feel-good film in the tradition of Charles Dickens. The girl named Precious has a lot more wrong with her life than being saddled with a silly name. She is an obese black teenager who is tormented by her fellow students, by her mother, and even by strangers on the street. Precious's mother is a human monster. Toward the end of the film you get to understand the mother a little more so you see why she does what she does, but she is never likable. That is a hard balance to hit. Precious, who is years older than others in her grade, is sent out of school to a special learning center. There a teacher is able to show her that she has some value. That makes the film sound a little trite, but it is very human. Very fine performances by both Gabourey Sidibe in the title role and Mo'Nique as her mother. Rating: +3
2. FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Wes Anderson brings us a thoroughly delightful animated film. With wit, grace, and charm we get the story of a fox trying to evade three nasty farmers who are trying to kill him. But the animal characters are written very human and at the same time very funny, and they are made real by an all-star cast of familiar voices. Add a bunch of clever movie references and we get a lot of film for the price of a ticket. Wes Anderson humor generally does not work for me. Nor do Roald Dahl fantasies. But together they work magic. This film is obviously stop-motion without the perfection of CGI and even that works well for the film. Rating: +3 (Up-rated from my review rating of low +3)
3. UP IN THE AIR
George Clooney who has had a fairly successful 2009--killing chickens and staring goats to death--rounds out the year as another suave character who flies around the country passing the bad news to people fired by their bosses. Jason Reitman co-writes and directs with a style as smooth and assured as Clooney's. Eventually the film is about good choices and bad, about independence and commitment. Costars Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick hold their own playing opposite Clooney. This is just a very polished production. The acting is first rate but even the photography is just about perfect. Rating: low +3
4. SLEEP DEALER
This could easily be the best Mexican science fiction film ever made. It is a very believable look at what the future may be like all over the world. It takes place somewhere around twenty years in the future when people can connect directly to computers through jacks in their arms. But this is anything but a polished future. We meet Memo who lives in a village where the people have been fenced off from their water supply and are made to purchase their water. The Draconian laws are enforced by high technology and warplanes. To earn money Memo becomes a laborer for a corporation in the US. Robots do the actual work, but Mexican laborers who never leave their country control them. Labor can be exported without the inconvenience of actually bringing the laborers bodies to the US. Memo hooks up with a woman who sells her dreams electronically. In the end the case may be a little overstated, but it still is a powerful view of a believable future. Rating: low +3
5. THE MESSENGER
The Iraq War film that seems to be getting the best critical response is HURT LOCKER. I found this quiet drama more affecting and the characters more real and believable. Sgt. Will Montgomery (played by Ben Foster), wounded in Iraq, is sent stateside for the last three months his enlistment. He draws one of the most unpleasant jobs. He has to go to the families of soldiers killed in the war and inform them of their loss. He is taken under the wing of a captain who has never been in combat, but specializes in breaking bad news. Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) shows Montgomery the ropes with rules like never allowing himself to care about the bereaved. But the job is slowly killing Stone and Montgomery starts to care too much for one of the widows he informed. Rating: low +3
Certainly UP is one of Pixar's best films to date. The reason is not that it has some of their best animation, though that arguably is true. FANTASTIC MR. FOX uses much older technology, but is at least on a par. Pixar's story values may be improving even faster than their animation. UP is a story with genuine pathos on themes of loss and of unfulfilled dreams. All this mixes with an adventure story that builds to an action climax. Kids will love this film, but some of the notes of UP will definitely resonate with adults. The bittersweet prolog really works to make this film unique. Unfortunately, most of the story virtues are in the first half of the film. The film heads toward a rather prosaic action finale. Those are just OK, but the prolog is one of Pixar's best sequences and is genuinely moving. Rating: high +2
7. THE STONING OF SORAYA M
This is a harrowing true story set in Iran. An Iranian woman becomes "inconvenient" for her husband. He wants to trade her for a younger wife and so frames her for adultery. He connives to have her found guilty and sentenced to death, and then knowing she is innocent participates in her execution. We see the stoning in horrific detail. The story is simple and compelling and the title leaves no doubt where the story is going. THE KITE RUNNER also involves a stoning, but knowing of a stoning is not as terrible as being shown one. In a few unnecessary places this film has a little irrelevant dramatic action, but the core story is very strong. This is a powerful film for those willing to see its extreme violence. Rating: high +2 8. SITA SINGS THE BLUES
Nina Paley interweaves her own story of her relationship with her lover (husband?) with a parallel story from the Indian epic poem, the Ramayana. Paley emphasizes the relationship of Rama and his wife Sita. Each layer of the story seems to have its own animation style and the narration, apparently done by shadow puppets, is apparently informal and very funny. Sita sings out her sadness in the voice of 1920s blues singer Annette Hanshaw. The film is charming on many levels. It may be running on PBS stations, but it can be downloaded for free. You will not see it at the Academy Awards because the commercial use of Hanshaw's music is apparently copyright infringement. But it is well worth downloading and watching. Rating: high +2
9. RED CLIFF
John Woo tells the story of the famous Battle of Red Cliff in this fictionalized version. In China in A.D. 208 General Cao Cao gets permission from the Emperor to lead a ruthless campaign against the armies of two warlords. The warlords band together to fight back. John Woo fills the action-filled war story with plenty of spectacle, much of it generated digitally. This is a 150-minute Western release edited down from 300-minute Chinese release. It reputedly has most of the action but not so much of the back-story. The action never goes as over-the-top as it does in Woo's Hong Kong films, but it certainly is never dull. Rating: high +2
10. THE BURNING PLAIN
This is as much a puzzle as it is a story. As with his 21 GRAMS, writer-director Guillermo Arriaga shuffles his story lines so the film jumps around in time. THE BURNING PLAIN challenges the viewer to piece together a story involving three generations of women and an apparent murder. Kim Bassinger and Charleze Theron play mother and daughter caught up in heavy emotions. It is not clear the shuffling really improves the film, but allows Arriaga to give the film real impact having the key scene at the very end. Rating: high +2
That's it. I did have one more high +2 film. I am of a minority who was quite impressed with the science fiction film KNOWING. It is not easy to shock me and this film did have one moment of genuine shock. And after QUATERMASS AND THE PIT I really like films that give scientific explanations for non-scientific belief systems. This film gives interesting rational explanations to both scientific and religious phenomena. And it really kept me wondering where the film was going. And once it got there it had the courage of its convictions. It is a very unusual film.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2010 Mark R. Leeper