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Great And Not-So-Great Movies...

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
December 31, 2009 3:02 AM
7 Comments
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At year’s end it’s traditional to look back and make Ten Best Lists. The problem is that in the flurry of award season—and its attendant hype—one tends to forget how many mediocre films have come and gone, or how many months there seemed to be nothing worth going out to see. I wish I could forget suffering through Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for two and a half miserable hours, but that’s another story.

This was not an outstanding year for moviegoing. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some excellent work,

but most of the year-end lists I see are filled with good films, not great ones. The only titles I would refer to as great this year are Up in the Air, Up, and three imports, the remarkable District 9, the Chilean film The Maid and Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces (which, I’m sorry to see, is getting very little attention despite a sensational performance by Penélope Cruz. I fear that its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, has succumbed to awards fever and is paying more attention to other entries.) I also liked Olivier Assayas’ quietly profound Summer Hours, and the outrageous political saga from Italy, Il Divo.

Casting a wider net, I was very fond of An Education, Coco Before Chanel, The Hurt Locker, and even some mainstream Hollywood fare like Star Trek, The Hangover, The Proposal, and the spectacular musical Nine. Another of my favorite films this year was Steven Soderbergh’s loopy The Informant!, with a wonderful performance by Matt Damon.

As usual, some of my favorites were smaller, offbeat titles: James Gray’s Two Lovers, with Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a revelatory Vinessa Shaw; The Messenger, with great performances from Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, directed and co-written by Oren Moverman; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic; and such worthwhile indies as Goodbye Solo, Trucker, Sin Nombre, Sunshine Cleaning, Julia (with a go-for-broke performance by Tilda Swinton), In the Loop, Five Minutes of Heaven, and Bobcat Goldthwait’s fine black comedy World’s Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams. I wish more people had paid attention to that movie, as well as Nicolas Cage’s sensational work in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Some of the best acting I saw in 2009 took place in films I’m less than wild about. Watching Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci in Julie & Julia was a rare treat, even though the film was less than perfect. Helen Mirren is being trumpeted for award consideration for her work in The Last Station, and indeed she is great; so is her costar Christopher Plummer. The film, about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, starts out well but drops the ball and goes on far too long. (I’m told that Plummer is being shoehorned into the Supporting Actor category, which is absurd: the movie is about Leo Tolstoy, and he plays Tolstoy!) I loved watching Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and Jeff Bridges as weather-beaten country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Michael Sheen is marvelous as an obsessive football coach in The Damned United. I loved all three leading performances—by Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, and Alice Krige—in one of the most underrated films of the year, Skin, from South Africa.

Perhaps the finest performance I saw in 2009 was honored back in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Catalina Saavedra plays the title role in Sebastián Silva’s The Maid. While the film itself took home the Grand Jury Prize, Saavedra was voted a “Special Jury Prize” for her amazing portrayal of a woman whose inner thoughts and peculiar behavior make her one of the most fascinating characters of the year.

The one real distinction 2009 can claim is the high-water mark set by animation. An imposing array of feature films from around the world showed that animation can be a highly personal medium, capable of embracing a wide variety of approaches and techniques. Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Ponyo, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and The Princess and the Frog constitute an honor roll that should make live-action writers and directors jealous. And any year with that many good cartoons can’t be all bad.

 

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7 Comments

  • jason | March 24, 2010 8:47 AMReply

    Kinda sad to see Red Cliff getting no mention considering the lack of Epic historical films last year, though alot of critcs seem to be dismissing it as well.

  • spike | January 26, 2010 3:22 AMReply

    These are all great movies, but I think "Funny People" was one of 2009's better movies that kind of just slipped in and out.

    Judd Apatow never really gets his name in there with great modern directors, but he's consistantly good at what he does: making people laugh.

  • Clint H. | January 10, 2010 5:07 AMReply

    Interesting opinions. Here are my top 5 favorite movies of the year:

    1. Avatar (despite some problems...)
    2.Transformers 2 (Hey, this is MY opinion, isn't it?)
    3.The Princess And The Frog (I wish Disney makes more films like this.)
    4. Up (Another bulls-eye from Pixar.)
    5. A Christmas Carol (Suprisingly not bad...)

    But those are my opinions. You have yours, I have mine.

  • David Fujinaka | January 5, 2010 8:29 AMReply

    Leonard,
    Hoping you don't have to sit through a Michael Bay film in 2010.

    David

  • Trevor | January 3, 2010 2:05 AMReply

    My favourite movie of 2009 was:

    ( 500 ) Days of Summer

  • John L Matthew | January 2, 2010 8:57 AMReply

    Dear Leonard: As a soon to be 84 year old "fan" of yours I'm rather sorry you have moved! Before everything was easy to get to & your sincere, sensible & far reaching reviews with the emphasis on people & unnoticed gems were always a delightful education on what movies could & should be! Bless you! Let's hope this new website setlles down fast. Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting & talking with you when you made a trip here to Toronto to "plug" your annual book at The Bay store. You signed my copy of the Disney Films book of yours. Boy, how animation has grown since & hopefully it may soon dominate the Awards??? "Snow White" was far too long ago now! Nice to be able to thank you for all you are doing on behalf of films & the filmakers yyumeet & get to know! Cheers, John.

  • Jason | December 31, 2009 7:15 AMReply

    I just want to say I'm glad I didn't see Inglorious Basters mentioned. I didn't hate the film or anything, but I don't think it deserved the praise it got (especially not a 'Best Film' Golden Glode nomination).

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