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The Year in Arts: Movies

It takes double bills to capture the restless year that was

Woody Harrelson is an Army captain who notifies families of soldiers’ deaths in “The Messenger.’’ Woody Harrelson is an Army captain who notifies families of soldiers’ deaths in “The Messenger.’’ (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 27, 2009

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As absurd as it is to read meaning and currency into a slate of films put into production years ago, 2009 was a transitional year at the multiplex and in the greater culture alike. Last year’s dark night at the movies lifted and a kind of pop dialectic seemed underway: Should movies be good, or good for you? The Coen brothers finally got personal (maybe); the family-film genre acquired an artistic soul; after years of unconvincing dramas rooted in America’s overseas entanglements, at least two fictional films suggested the scope of the damage by telling soldiers’ stories in artful close-up.

Stars were born in “An Education’’ (Carey Mulligan) and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire’’ (Gabourey Sidibe), while others stars were laid to rest in “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus’’ (Heath Ledger) and “This Is It’’ (Michael Jackson). The doom and gloom of last year’s Oscar slate will not be repeated, even as a host of new cinematic apocalypses, from “Knowing’’ to “2012’’ to “The Road,’’ have crowded in. Last year, their end-of-days despair would have seemed timely. In 2009, we were more worried about paying the rent.

As in other belt-tightening times, though, movies benefited: annual North American ticket sales crossed $10 billion for the first time this year. In part this was because 3-D finally - after a half century of attempts - arrived as a viable commercial force, bringing with it premium ticket prices. Yet stories, not technology, remain the carrot that lures audiences into the dark. A $300 million science fiction epic called “Avatar’’ may have changed the face of mainstream filmmaking (although good luck getting a woman to go see it), but it was “Paranormal Activity’’, a $15,000 ghost story, that scared the pants off millions.

Between the two, there was room for idiot sensation (“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,’’ with $400 million the top-grossing movie of the year), geriatric empowerment fantasy (the felicities of “Up’’), a raucous Vegas who-did-what (the summer surprise “The Hangover’’), and a grand reintroduction to a beloved pop culture crew (“Star Trek’’).

And that was just among the year’s big moneymakers. Running between the feet of the dinosaurs were heartbreaking and inspiring dramatic visions of immigrants in America (“Amreeka’’ “Goodbye Solo’’), testaments to the enduring power of pop music and the siren call of fame (“Anvil! The Story of Anvil,’’ “It Might Get Loud,’’ “Afghan Star’’), clear-eyed inquisitions into the economics of both hooking (“The Girlfriend Experience’’) and firing people (“Up in the Air’’).

The future of those smaller films remains unsettled, though. Some of the finest movies of 2009 - “Sugar,’’ about a Dominican baseball player in America; “Treeless Mountain,’’ about two abandoned Korean sisters - squeaked out a week at the Kendall Square if they were lucky. Given the collapse of the mini-major studios that served as a necessary pipeline, it may be that challenging cinema will be coming to a YouTube video near you, and nowhere else.

Still, take solace in the fact that weirdness still finds a way to sell: the manic Tarantinoid revisionist history of “Inglourious Basterds,’’ perhaps the most successful misspelled title in movie history, or “Where the Wild Things Are,’’ which perplexed a majority of parents and kids while rendering a minority speechless with tears of moody joy. That we still have a movie industry capable of producing such mass-appeal eccentricities is a good thing. When it’s all “Monsters vs. Aliens’’ and “X-Men Origins’’ at the box office, we will be a poorer culture for it. We may yet.

In putting together a list of the movies in 2009 that mattered to this critic, then, I was struck by the arguments and agreements springing up between different films - the opposing sensibilities, the unexpected concordances. With your indulgence, then, here are nine pairings for an unsettled year, and one troubling movie that won’t let at least one viewer go.

A SERIOUS MAN In which Kafka comes to the suburbs of 1960s Minneapolis with the Torah under his arm and a ruthless gleam in his eye. The Coen brothers’ latest was despised by some as an unrelieved downer, a self-loathing Jewish cartoon, a work of cynicism and cruelty. All of which suggests that if you come to the Bros. expecting tender mercies, you deserve to be sent packing. For those on this movie’s wavelength, “Serious Man’’ is a serious work of dark, devastating comic force, from the opening shtetl parable to the implacable whirlwind that brings the movie slamming to a close. Never before have the Coens brought it home like this, admitting to both their clear-eyed pessimism (we are all doomed, last time I checked) and their abiding fondness for the quixotic animal that is civilized man. A movie utterly lacking in illusions, it still possesses, beneath the mocking laughter, a kind of cosmic compassion. You bet it hurts.

THE HURT LOCKER/THE MESSENGER Two visions of what young American men bring to war and what they bring back home. “Hurt Locker’’ is the more outstandingly crafted of the two, with director Kathryn Bigelow finally reaping deserved praise for her portrait of a US bomb squad in Iraq and the deadpan hotdog (Jeremy Renner) who only feels alive when he’s this close to death. Oren Moverman’s debut film, “The Messenger,’’ also features a galvanizing turn: Ben Foster as a battered young veteran who finds his soul awakening when he’s assigned to a death-notification team. (Woody Harrelson, in a career-peak performance, is his mentor, harder of attitude and softer of nerve.) Taken together, these two films suggest a move beyond Hollywood timidity and knee-jerk political rhetoric to an active interest in the complexities of collateral damage. The shot where Renner, back in the States, blankly confronts an endless supermarket wall of breakfast cereal is one of the great images of the year.

AVATAR/35 SHOTS OF RUM The future of film and its eternal present. You have to see James Cameron’s high-tech labor of love on a big 3-D screen to get why “Avatar’’ matters - trust me, the trailers don’t begin to do this movie justice - and part of the thrill is realizing we’re standing at the threshold of a new digital age bounded only by the human imagination. (Which is why the movie also disappoints: Cameron’s narrative imagination is all too bounded by comic-book clichés and noble-savage nonsense.) “Rum,’’ the 10th feature from France’s Claire Denis concerns a different sort of alien: the melting pot of races living on the fringes of Paris. It’s a wrenching family saga and a quietly blissful romance that’s not about blue Smurfs from another planet but about the people on this planet, at this time - and on a fraction of Cameron’s budget. See “Avatar’’ to witness what films can do, but see “35 Shots of Rum’’ to remind yourself what movies are about.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX/UP Mom and Dad must have been dreadfully confused this year, taking the toddlers to movies that seemed to be safe before the bottom dropped out. I suggest that this is a good thing, since the best fairy tales have always acknowledged the wolves. “Fox,’’ based on a Roald Dahl book, is a handmade film in every sense, from its school-project stop-motion to the uncertain middle-aged bravado of its vulpine hero (voiced by George Clooney). It’s also possibly the best Wes Anderson movie to date; certainly the truest. “Up’’ was a simple, majestic reminder that Pixar at this point can do as it pleases, throwing together cranky old men, egg-shaped Boy Scouts, talking dogs and gooneybirds, and sending the whole thing upward on helium-filled balloons of visual poetry.

UP IN THE AIR/SUMMER HOURS Or: what we owe our families and what they owe us. Like Jason Reitman’s earlier films, “Air’’ shows a glamorously cynical loner foundering on dreams of independence. Clooney’s rootless “termination consultant’’ lives for the Zen nowhere of commercial air travel until the family he has kept at arm’s length brings him - and, to an extent, the movie - down to earth. Yet the craft in the dialogue and the performances (all hail Anna Kendrick) keep “Air’’ aloft. Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours’’ is a sweeter confection with a harsher aftertaste: Three grown siblings (Juliette Binoche among them) deal with their mother’s estate and confront whether the stuff we leave behind has anything to do with the lives we’ve actually led. For anyone who has buried a parent, “Summer Hours’’ is as profound as movies get; “Up in the Air,’’ by contrast, is merely a beautifully written, expertly played pleasure.

BRIGHT STAR/THE LAST STATION What do we want from a historical costume picture? That it whip up a circus of unembarrassed melodrama adorned with gorgeous gowns and hairstyles? Or that it actually samples the rhythms and reasoning of the period in which it’s set? “The Last Station,’’ opening in Boston Jan. 15 and adapted from Jay Parini’s novel about the final days of author Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), is gloriously the former, with Helen Mirren chewing the drapes, the wallpaper, and the extras as the spoiled, pathetic Countess Tolstoy. Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,’’ by comparison, frustrated audiences expecting the same old Merchant-Ivory by telling the love story of poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and seamstress Fanny Brawne (a superb Abbie Cornish) at the slow, unadorned pace of a society of letter-writers. The first film would do Bette Davis proud; the second, Brawne herself.

PRECIOUS/AN EDUCATION Two young girls’ lives, two striking debut performances, and after that the differences say more than the similarities. “An Education’’ is a standard British coming-of-age drama made special by director Lone Scherfig’s eye for emotional detail, Peter Sarsgaard’s slippery charm, and Mulligan’s lovely portrayal of a smart young girl who still manages to outsmart herself. “Precious,’’ by contrast, feels like something rough and new to the movies: a street-corner saga that takes the most marginal girl in the world - black, poor, obese, abused, ill-educated, shut down - and forces us to confront her very real beauty. As Precious, Gabourey Sidibe stakes her claim on the pop consciousness; if the American film industry can’t figure out what to do with her, that’s our failure, not hers.

A SINGLE MAN/BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS Great movie acting withholds. Great movie acting explodes. Choose one. Better yet, take both. Colin Firth’s finely-calibrated performance as a closeted gay man mourning the death of his lover in early-’60s California is a masterpiece of minimalism: Each gesture is a fresh new wound. If this is a working definition of subtlety, Nicolas Cage’s very bad lieutenant in the sequel no one but Werner Herzog thought to ask for is a model of gonzo creativity. Cage’s unhinged gifts - think Robert Downey Jr. with Asperger’s - has been smothered by hits (“National Treasure’’) and multiplex dreck (“Knowing’’). “Bad Lieutenant’’ lets him cut loose for the first time in years, and, Lordy, does the man have fun. Jaws on floor, so do we.

STAR TREK/ANTICHRIST The perfect summer blockbuster and a movie that rejects everything blockbuster cinema stands for. The notion that another “Star Trek’’ movie - an origin story, no less - would give us reason to care about these characters one more time seemed tired and absurd until J.J. Abrams shared his joy in convening a young Kirk, Spock, Bones, et al, for the first time. Yes, it’s pure popcorn, but fully felt and wholly lacking in cynicism - an innocent epic. There’s nothing innocent about “Antichrist,’’ a staggering, at times unforgivable work of pure cinema that seems scraped off the back of Lars von Trier’s skull. A Jungian power struggle between a husband and wife (brave, brave Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), the movie plumbs subterranean depths of experience while retaining the clarity of a fever dream. One film’s the commercial moviemaking impulse made manifest, the other burrows straight for our shared cultural id.

AFGHAN STAR/BIG FAN Two movies about the urge for stardom and the primal need to be noticed. “Afghan Star,’’ one of the best documentaries in a great year, follows the production of an “American Idol’’-style TV show in newly-liberated Afghanistan, with slick male singers and controversial women offering heartbreaking glimpses of where this country wants to go and how far it has to travel. “Big Fan,’’ the first film to be directed by “The Wrestler’’ writer Robert Siegel, takes us to the alien terrain of Staten Island, where a lumpy loser (Patton Oswalt) dials his favorite sports radio station every day until reality decides to call back. Taken together, the two films hint at a world of spectators pressing against the door of celebrity, with the glass just beginning to fracture from the stress.

Honorable Mention: “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,’’ “Burma V-J,’’ “Coraline,’’ “District 9,’’ “Everlasting Moments,’’ “The Girlfriend Experience,’’ “Goodbye Solo,’’ “The Hangover,’’ “Hunger’’ “I Love You, Man,’’ “In the Loop,’’ “Julie & Julia,’’ “Lorna’s Silence,’’ “Moon,’’ “Rudo Y Cursi,’’ “Seraphine,’’ “The Silence Before Bach,’’ “Sugar,’’ “Tetro,’’ “Treeless Mountain,’’ “Tyson,’’ “We Live in Public,’’ “Where the Wild Things Are’’

THE WORST OF 2009

THE LOVELY BONES Peter Jackson demonstrates how not to adapt a beloved best-selling novel: direct the heaven scenes as if they were a kitsch calendar shoot, cut the secondary characters who were the book’s raison d’etre, turn it into a clammy suspense film. A damn shame. (Opens in Boston on Jan. 15)

ALL ABOUT STEVE Sandra Bullock had such a banner year that this turkey - her second of three 2009 movies - has already been swept under the rug. It’s a nearly unwatchable comedy about a small-town oddball, with Bullock acting as if she has to take a 90-minute pee.

NINE A tedious musical bore - extracted from Fellini - that jumps around the screen without ever coming to life. Out of a cast stuffed with pulchritude, only Fergie connects, with the tourist anthem “Be Italian.’’ Director Rob Marshall never met a dance move he couldn’t cut away from.

TRANSFORMERS: THE REVENGE OF THE FALLEN Thirty-two years ago, George Lucas’s “Star Wars’’ reinvented the movies as a playground for adolescent male fantasy. With Michael Bay’s proudly stupid piece of cheese, teen-boy cinema finally hits bottom. Grow up, already.

BRÜNO By unleashing his outré Austrian fashion plate alter ego on the US, Sacha Baron Cohen proves that - surprise - middle Americans feel uncomfortable around flamboyant gay weirdos. Smug and obvious, “Brüno’’ makes “Borat’’ look like a subtle social treatise.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

TY'S LIST
1. 'A Serious Man'
2. 'Avatar'/'35 Shot of Rum'
3. 'Fantastic Mr. Fox'/'Up'
4. 'The Hurt Locker'/'The Messenger'
5. 'Up in the Air'/'Summer Hours'
6. 'Bright Star'/'The Last Station'
7. 'Precious'/'An Education'
8. 'A Single Man'/'Bad Lieutenant'
9. 'Star Trek'/'Antichrist'
10. 'Afghan Star'/'Big Fan'

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