Picks of the Flicks

Posted December 30, 2009 in Film

It’s New Year’s, and a film critic’s thoughts turn to taming a year of disasters, pleasures and pleasurable disasters into a tidy list (preferably ranked) valuable only for starting arguments*. But sometimes the films that really capture a year aren’t good. They might be, but they might be rotten—or worse, mediocre. Of the 342 flicks of 2009, which ones deserve to be put in a time capsule for future archaeologists seeking to understand the last twelve months of this unnamed decade?

2008’s time capsule was full of downers. I was sure 2009 would be brighter. After all, the first thing FDR told Hollywood when he took over the White House was to stop making gangster pictures and flood the screen with that silvery moppet Shirley Temple. But the zeitgeist still doesn’t feel like dancing. (At least not to missteps like Nine.) In 2009, movies bunted. Everyone bit their tongues and shipped out fluff—much of it, surprisingly delightful. Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek were hoots that contented themselves with being perfect buckets of popcorn. Drag Me to Hell and The Hangover were great pop surprises, but there’s little to say about either once the broken glass settles. Romantic comedies like He’s Just Not That Into You, All About Steve, The Proposal and The Ugly Truth were manic on one too many Merlots (and their respective mixed messages were: Avoid him! Stalk him! Be yourself! No, be a Dude!) Even in our prestige period pieces, long a safe harbor for filmmakers who wanted to couch their political anger in costuming, nothing was said in Public Enemies and Taking Woodstock besides, “Check out these sweet jackets!” And at times, it felt like the whole point of Julie & Julia was to make today’s people feel guilty for not living half a century ago in France. If 2009 is memorable for anything, it will be animation—this was the first year Pixar had serious rivals and the competition bettered everyone from Up to Coraline to the under-estimated genius of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. But there’re still plenty of curiosities to fill 2009’s capsule. Let’s get packing.

We Live In Public

Fifteen years ago, Internet pioneer Josh Harris invented web television, but dial-up was too slow to care. This chilling documentary on the sociopathic wunderkind was filmed in the late ’90s, but we’ve only now caught up to him enough to recognize his threat. Harris presaged Facebook by filling a bunker with exhibitionists and his loft with cameras. Then in 2000, he broke down and went offline. But he’ll be back, and this time we need to hear him out.

Up In the Air

What’s that sound? Silence. There was an eerie calmness in 2009’s approach to economic and social collapse. Not a soul was mad as hell. Instead, in this damn fine Clooney picture and other dark-hued comedies like Away We Go, Management and Extract, we saw a nation that’s emotionally homeless, spiritually unemployed and morbidly resigned. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and they feel . . . fine?

Food, Inc.

At least we can control what we eat. And this documentary was ready to tell us what we shouldn’t—in short, anything with a label longer than five ingredients. Americans’ food obsession continued to wriggle into new corners of paranoia. Sure, our tomatoes were organic, but were they shipped from Peru? And in The Cove, the fear went trans-Pacific as one wedge of this very good film tried to warn Japanese parents that their kids’ school lunches weren’t patriotic whale meat but mercury-poisoned dolphin.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It

Those who long attested his innocence (or at worst, his twisted confusion) thought that the only silver lining in the Boy King’s shock death was that he was once more remembered as a star, not a punch line. Still, all were alarmed that this hasty rehearsal film might show a legend drugged and in decline. What a joy to see him spry and alert. And what a loss, now felt a second time.

The Princess and the Frog

Step One: Make a film starring a black heroine. Step Two: Make it good. Check and check. But we’re still waiting for Step Three: Make enough of them so that each good film with a black heroine doesn’t get greeted with the breathless media circus given a unicorn. See also: Precious.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Observe and Report

Here’s a snapshot of the American psyche in 2009. Make a decent, if dumb flick about a sweetheart and get written off as a comedy for kids and saps. Make a hostile flick that fumbles its own jokes and get deemed smart—even if no one’s laughing, or even happy to watch. I don’t always side with the dollars, but I’m glad Blart sold six times the tickets.

The Men Who Stare At Goats

The funniest thing about this more-true-than-not comedy about psychic spies in the U.S. military is that after its release—and even after audiences had seen it—people still couldn’t believe it was true. It was. (Read Guardian reporter Jon Ronson’s nonfiction book of the same name.) The flick was unjustly written off as a nonsense romp, proving that nearly seven years into the Iraq War, we still don’t know a thing about the people invested in it.

Zombieland and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant

Both of these films were fine. I don’t regret a second I spent watching them. But if I have to watch one more zombie or vampire movie in 2010, heads are going to roll. Bring back killer animals! (Piranha 3D, please don’t suck.)

Battle for Terra

You know what the biggest obstacle to peace is? Those darn humans. Somebody’s sure wracked with guilt because in 2009, pretty much every time one alien blasted another with a laser, the villain was yours truly, Homo sapiens. Oddly, the lesson was directed at kids, who might have asked their parents some tough questions after Battle for Terra or Planet 51 or the similarly cynical Astro Boy, if they had bothered to see them. And with Avatar, adults also got to stay after class, presumably to write “I will not pillage and destroy other lands for gain” on the chalkboard.


Speaking of which, what isn’t in Avatar? Politics: check. Environmentalism: check. Non-specific and safe spirituality: check. Hot chicks: check. James Cameron’s shock-and-awe graphics: check. (Like T2, filmmakers will be trying to catch up with him for the next decade.) Lots of films nailed one of these. Some, even two. Even Gamer and Surrogates shared its Freudian fascination with slipping into another man’s skin. But there’s only one giant looming over 2009’s landscape, and even if he isn’t perfect, he’ll keep elbowing other films aside to introduce himself to new moviegoers for years to come.

*You, the Living; World’s Greatest Dad; The White Ribbon; We Live in Public; Up in the Air; Up; The Men Who Stare at Goats; In the Loop; Humpday; (500) Days of Summer.


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