The Movie Snob’s 2009 Year in Review!

Happy New Year, and welcome to my annual movie round-up. If I saw a movie in the theater in 2009, I consider it fair game for this column, even if it was technically a 2008 release. I saw 62 movies in the theater last year, and these are the most worthy of your attention.

Movie of the Year: My pick is The Hurt Locker, a taut thriller about the Iraq War that has a strong documentary feel to it. The actor who carries the movie, Jeremy Renner, does a heck of a job as a bomb-defusing expert. I think the movie recently came out on DVD, so check it out.

Runner Up: The number 2 spot goes to a 2008 release, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. He should have won the Oscar for his moving portrayal of a washed-up professional wrestler. The scenes in which he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, are especially moving, but the whole movie is excellent.

Best Action/Adventure Flick: And my pick for the 3d best movie I saw this year would be District 9, the out-of-nowhere sci-fi movie about a shantytown of extraterrestrials living outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the clueless bureaucrat whose job is to push all the aliens into an even more remote concentration camp. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel to this one! Honorable mention goes to J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek franchise, even if he rewrote Trek history in the process.

Best Animated Feature: With the caveat that I haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog yet, I’ll go with the obvious choice of Up, in which a grumpy old man ties enough helium balloons to his house to fly all the way to South America. But except for the awesome opening montage that tells the whole story of the man’s life in just a few minutes, I didn’t think Up was really all that great.

Best Comedy: I’ll stretch this category a teensy bit and pick My One and Only, a winsome little movie that is supposedly based on episodes in the life of George Hamilton during his teen years. The redoubtable Renee Zellweger plays George’s mother, a hapless Southern belle searching for love in all the wrong places. I’m probably exaggerating its merits, but I really liked it at the time. Same goes for Management, a romantic comedy starring Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston. It involves a totally impossible romance, but the leads are so likable I just had to like the movie. In the category of crude yet funny, I liked I Love You, Man.

Best Documentary: Let’s go with the obvious choice and pick Disney’s Earth. Who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? I love ’em, and I’ll go ahead and mention Under the Sea 3D as being worthwhile too.

Best Drama: Or maybe it belongs in the comedy category, but either way I really enjoyed Up in the Air starring George Clooney and directed by Jason Reitman. It’s still in the theaters, so get out there and see it! Another movie that straddles the dramedy line is the quirky (500) Days of Summer, starring the quirky yet adorable Zooey Deschanel. While you’re at it, check out the CD she sings on, under the name She & Him. I was also grabbed by the 2008 release The Reader, although I still don’t know quite how I feel about that movie. It’s a strange one.

Best Foreign Film: I don’t think I saw too many foreign films this year, but I liked A Woman in Berlin, about the Russian conquest of Berlin in 1945 as seen through the eyes of one German woman. It was brutal without ever feeling exploitative. I also recommend the book, which I think is still listed as authored by “Anonymous” even though the woman’s identity is known. Another good one was The Class, or Entre les murs, about a French teacher trying to deal with a very fractious and multicultural classroom. Also, Summer Hours, a French movie that’s just a simple little family drama, well-told.

Honorable Mentions: I have a bunch of them. There’s Wendy and Lucy, a little movie about a sad, down-on-her-luck young woman played by Michelle Williams, and her beloved dog. Adventureland is a good little coming-of-age story starring Jesse Eisenberg of Zombieland fame. Moon is a thought-provoking little sci-fi movie. In the Loop is a funny look at the run-up to a fictitious (?) war as seen through the eyes of low-to-mid-level American and British government staffers. The Informant! is a straight movie about a bizarre guy; you just can’t help asking, “Is this really based on a true story? No, really?” Ellen Page scores again in the roller derby movie Whip It. The Coen brothers ask unanswerable questions in A Serious Man. And finally I will mention, based solely on the strength of their visual effects, Disney’s A Christmas Carol and Avatar. See them in 3D, I insist!

First seen on video this year: I haven’t done this before, but I’ll go ahead and recommend a few movies I saw on video this year. The animated feature Bolt is a cute one, about a dog who thinks he has super powers — kind of like a canine Buzz Lightyear. The original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is still surprisingly good, and the 1963 version of The Haunting is still surprisingly scary. I also enjoyed the little-seen Luke Wilson movie Henry Poole Is Here, the classic Western The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck, and the classics From Here to Eternity and To Have and Have Not.

So that’s my 2009 in a nutshell. Please post your comments and voice your own opinions!

My One and Only

New review from The Movie Snob

My One and Only (A-). The Dallas Morning News gave this little independent flick a rave review, so I thought I would check it out. It probably doesn’t really deserve this A-, but I just thoroughly enjoyed it. Supposedly it is loosely based on the life of the preternaturally tanned George Hamilton (Love at First Bite), and the protagonist is George as a 15-year-old back in the 1950s (played by Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower). His dad (Kevin Bacon, X-Men: First Class) is a bandleader, and his mom (Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain) is a Southern lady who is used to being taken care of. But mom gets tired of dad’s tomcatting around, and finally she packs George and his older half-brother Robbie into a car and takes off to start a new life. Basically it’s George’s coming-of-age story as the trio moves from town to town and his mom looks haplessly for a new husband. I’m not saying it’s great art, but I had a good time.

New in Town

New review from The Movie Snob

New in Town (B). Eeep. Yes, I actually enjoyed this featherweight, by-the-numbers romantic comedy that currently has a stellar 29 rating on Metacritic.com. Am I getting soft in my old age? Am I that fond of scrunchy-faced ol’ Renee Zellweger (Miss Potter)? Surely not, but there it is. Renee plays a rising star in some Miami-based corporate conglomerate who gets packed off to Minnesota to fire half the workforce at a food-processing plant. It’s cold there. Everybody talks like the policewoman from Fargo, except for the strapping and available union rep (Harry Connick, Jr., Copycat). Does Renee’s hard-charging executive undergo a change of heart once she’s exposed to these warm-hearted caricatures? Does Trudy Van Uuden want to steal Blanche Gunderson’s prized tapioca recipe? You betcha. I’m not saying this is a great or even a good movie. I’m just saying it made for a pleasant Sunday matinee.

Appaloosa

New review from The Movie Snob

Appaloosa (C+). Ed Harris (The Human Stain) directs and stars in this new Western also featuring Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain). Harris and Mortensen are long-time pardners Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, out riding the range. We soon come to learn that they are lawmen for hire–when a town sprouts up too far from civilization and gets menaced by forces of evil too big for local law enforcement, it hires Virgil and Everett, who are handy with shooting irons and learned everything they know about law enforcement by watching Gene Hackman’s character in Unforgiven. So they get hired by the town of Appaloosa in the New Mexico Territory to deal with a low-down varmint named Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons, Dungeons & Dragons) and his gang. But long about that same time, a pretty little widow-woman named Mrs. French moves to Appaloosa and turns Virgil’s head. Adventures ensue. It is a good-looking movie, and you can almost feel the grit of the blowing dust down the streets of Appaloosa, but the story is just not all that gripping. I didn’t even recognize pasty ol‘ Lance Henriksen, the android Bishop from Aliens, as another gunslinger that Virgil ‘n’ Everett have to deal with.

Leatherheads

Movie review by The Movie Snob.

Leatherheads (D). Well, I was hoping that the stream of bad reviews had so lowered my expectations for this movie that I would enjoy it regardless of its (lack of) quality. Alas, it was not to be. The scene is the Upper Midwest, 1925. Director George Clooney (TV’s ER) also stars as an aging professional football player and hustler who is trying to keep the whole concept of professional football alive in the face of massive public indifference. He sees his chance in the person of Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski, TV’s The Office), a WWI hero and nationally famous footballer for Princeton. He manages to lure Rutherford to play for his team (the Duluth Bulldogs), and attendance soars. But a tough newspaper reporter (Renee Zellweger, Miss Potter) is worming her way into Carter’s life on a tip that his war-hero record is trumped up. The makers of the movie shoot for screwball comedy, but without much success. Zellweger is miscast, and she and Clooney have no chemistry. The inherently likeable Krasinski plays an inherently likeable Rutherford, and when the movie abuses him it makes the movie itself unlikeable. I expected to leave disappointed, but I left actively annoyed.

Movie Snob’s Best of 2007

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Movie Snob’s Best of 2007 column. As usual, the films eligible for consideration and inclusion in this prestigious work of film criticism are those that I saw in a movie theater during calendar year 2007. As usual, this means that a lot of 2006 releases will be included. For the record, I saw 58 movies in theaters in 2007, up from 45 in 2006.

Movie of the Year: It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film —The Lives of Others totally blew me away. Set in Communist East Germany, it is the story of a member of the secret police who is assigned to spy on a playwright. He bugs the playwright’s apartment and spends hours listening to his activities. The playwright starts out a true believer in Communism, but as his faith erodes, so does that of his unseen listener. If you can tolerate subtitles (or know German), rent this movie a.s.a.p.

Best Drama: This was a rich category. Some critics found Amazing Grace, the story of the British parliamentarian who fought and eventually buried the slave trade, too schmaltzy, but I totally enjoyed it. Renee Zellweger impressed again as revered children’s author Beatrix Potter in the charming and moving little film Miss Potter. Into the Wild features lots of great performances, and amazingly got me to sympathize with a protagonist I felt sure I was going to dislike. I have a hard time picking just one, but if forced to choose I would have to give the nod to Into the Wild.

Best Comedy: Like last year’s Little Miss Sunshine, this year’s winner is more of a dramedy, a movie about a serious subject that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Featuring great performances by Ellen Page and Jennifer Garner, among others, the award goes to Juno. First runner-up is Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the send-up of Walk the Line and similar biopics. It made me laugh from beginning to end. I would also cite the French movie The Valet, in which a hapless car parker is suddenly hired to pose as the boyfriend of a supermodel, in order to conceal an affair she is having with a married tycoon. It’s a very enjoyable romp. Honorable mentions to the Will Ferrell movie Blades of Glory and the overly maligned Evan Almighty.

Best Action/Adventure: There wasn’t much competition for category winner The Bourne Ultimatum, which was just as slick and exciting as when it used to be called The Bourne Supremacy. Seriously, I can’t recall a single difference between the two, except in this last one we find out that Jason Bourne was Catholic before he became a government-programmed assassin. Go figure. Children of Men was not as impressive in the thrills department but was far more thought-provoking. Beowulf was a lot of fun, at least in its IMAX 3-D incarnation. That last Pirates of the Caribbean movie wasn’t bad, although it was awfully long.

Best Documentary: I didn’t see very many this year, but in the short list of contenders is an excellent movie. In the Shadow of the Moon is a very interesting look at the Apollo missions, and it features interviews with lots of the mere handful of men who have actually been to the moon. Alas, Neil Armstrong was not among them, and there is only the slightest allusion to the fact that he has apparently become an odd recluse somewhere.

Best Foreign Film: Setting aside my Movie of the Year (and The Valet, which I put in the Comedy section), there were some other foreign flicks that are well worth your time if you can stand subtitles. Actually, the first one has substantial portions in English. After the Wedding is a Danish film, I think, about the unexpected events that befall a Dane who has returned home from his work at an orphanage in India. Very interesting. I also really liked the Penelope Cruz movie Volver, even though I don’t much care for Ms. Cruz herself. Pan’s Labyrinth is compelling, but it is a very dark film. Brace yourself for lots of cruelty if you see it.

Honorable Mentions. I don’t mind a good chick flick from time to time, and two of this year’s honorable mentions fit that category: Becoming Jane, which is about Jane Austen, and The Jane Austen Book Club, which is about, well, you figure it out. Stardust was an interesting attempt to become this decade’s version of The Princess Bride. It doesn’t quite succeed, but it’s a good effort. Babel was a good movie. Did it win the Oscar? I forget, but it was a good movie nonetheless. And last but not least, check out this year’s little movie that could: Once. It’s a sweet indie film about an Irish street musician and a Czech girl that he chances to meet and make some music with. But don’t get the soundtrack. I did and regretted it. Just see the movie.

Miss Potter

New review from The Movie Snob

Miss Potter (A-). Renee Zellweger (Cinderella Man) stars in this biopic about children’s author Beatrix Potter, best known as the creator of Peter Rabbit. According to the movie, at the start of the 20th century Potter was in her 30s, unmarried, and living with her stuffy upper-crust parents in London. She had no friends to speak of, but she had a lively imagination and was an excellent illustrator and watercolorist, specializing in rabbits and farm animals. Something possesses her to try to publish one of her stories, and a publishing firm reluctantly agrees. The junior member of the firm (Ewan McGregor, Jane Got a Gun) is assigned to her project, and the two fall in love. Complications ensue. Sure, the movie is a bit melodramatic, but I enjoy a good melodrama once in a while, and this one is solidly plotted, well acted, and features some great views of the British countryside. Check it out.

Cinderella Man

A review from That Guy Named David:

Cinderella Man (A-)

As the great poets of the late 1980’s Cinderella said, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Well, that’s essentially the theme behind Ron Howard’s newest run at the Best Picture Oscar. Russell Crowe plays boxer Jim Braddock who, along with wife Mae (Renee Zellweger), attempts to keep food on the table and the electricity running in their one-bedroom shack through the early years of the Great Depression. Braddock had, at one time, been a rising contender in the heavyweight/light heavyweight ranks until a series of setbacks relegated him to “washed up” status in the sport at which he had made a good living prior to Black Tuesday and the stock market crash in 1929. The majority of the movie is a profile of Braddock and his wife as they struggle mightily to keep the family together during this tragic time in our nation’s history. However, this general theme is interlaced into the story of Braddock’s determination and drive to make the best out of his second chance in the ring, given to him by longtime manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). The boxing scenes are intense, and the acting was sensational. I even enjoyed Renee Zellweger’s performance (something that I was almost certain would not happen given her last several performances (ex. Cold Mountain)). The movie (and in all likelihood, the Oscar), however, all belongs to Russell Crowe who once again demonstrates why is considered one of the best actors today. I was tired and cranky when I went into the theatre, and I left thinking I had just really enjoyed the previous couple of hours. Very impressive start to the summer movie season. Thanks to Ann C. for the free tickets to the early screening.

Cold Mountain

DVD review from That Guy Named David:

Cold Mountain (B+)

This is the third time I have rented this movie, but for whatever reason, I never got around to watching it the other two times. I probably should have because it was a quality flick and I would have saved about eight bucks. Anyway, I’m sure that most visitors to this board have seen the movie, so I won’t bore you with a summary of the storyline. I was impressed with the performances by all the actors that did not win an Oscar for this movie. In other words, Renee Zellweger was absolutely horrible in her portrayal of Ruby, Nicole Kidman’s live-in after the death of her father. I am pretty sure I cannot point out a finer example of overacting. At first, I thought that it would wear off a little, like Kevin Costner’s British accent in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; however, it was almost as if she got a head of steam as the movie went on and the accent got thicker, the mannerisms became accentuated, and my annoyance level went through the roof. On another note, the movie did a great job of visually portraying the scenes that were eloquently described in the book, and I was impressed with the way that the story moved forward without bogging down considering the length of the movie. I have respect for the movie, as I thought it was entertaining and kept me interested despite having read the book; however, after having Zellweger win for that ridiculous portrayal and DiCaprio nominated for an equally ridiculous portrayal of Howard Hughes, I am quickly losing my respect for the Oscar voters.

Cold Mountain

From the Movie Snob:

Cold Mountain. (B+) I don’t know why, but I was distracted throughout this movie by constantly trying to figure out what had been changed from the book, which I read years ago when it first came out. It is certainly an engaging plot, reminiscent of The Odyssey, in which a wounded Confederate soldier (Jude Law) deserts in 1864 to try to return to the woman he loves in a small rural community in western North Carolina near Cold Mountain. The performances were good, although Nicole Kidman stays a bit too fresh and clean to be entirely believable as a hard-scrabble farm owner with only one helper (Renee Zellweger). I enjoyed it, but it just doesn’t make it into “A” territory.

Chicago; Seabiscuit; Bowling for Columbine; The Hunted

From That Guy Named David:

Chicago (B+)

This grade is the highest possible grade I can attribute to a musical based upon my inherent bias against musicals. So, it should reflect that I thought this one was very well done. Extremely creative writing, and I didn’t want to shoot myself very often when I saw Richard Gere singing. Both Catherine Zeta Jones and Rene Zellweger were tremendous, as was the supporting cast. Very enjoyable (even if it was a musical).

Seabiscuit (B-)

While the self-proclaimed Movie Queen and I have many agreements, I must disagree a bit with her review of this summer’s blockbuster “feel-good” movie. Maybe I had too high of expectations going into the movie, or maybe I ruined it by watching the Discovery Channel’s presentation of “The True Story of Seabiscuit,” but this movie just didn’t live up to the hype for me. I thought the ending was great (as I am a sucker for the Hoosiers/Natural/every other sports movie endings); however, for the first hour, I was not into the movie at all and thought it wasn’t well-developed. The acting by Chris Cooper and William Macy was splendid, as usual, but I still cannot understand the hype with Tobey Maguire. Overall, it was worth the watch, but I wish I hadn’t expected it to be better than it was.

Bowling for Columbine (B+)

I’ll admit being a big fan of Michael Moore ever since the first time I saw Roger & Me (which I still maintain rivals Hoop Dreams as the best documentary I have ever seen). In this documentary, Moore again showed why I am a fan. From the opening sequence showing Moore opening a bank account to get a free gun to when Charlton Heston walks out of their interview in a state of confusion as to what had just occurred, the mix of political statement with wit and humor and social awareness was well-done. I did think that Moore was a bit inconsistent at times in putting forth his message (ex. making a point to illustrate how poverty does not affect gun crimes and then immediately thereafter, telling the story of a “welfare to work” participate whose 6-year old unsupervised child shot and killed a classmate). That being said, someone needs to shine a spotlight on issues that most would like to turn a blind eye to, and if it takes the (albeit extreme) message of Michael Moore to do it to a degree, then so be it.

The Hunted (D-)

So, I make some mistakes every now and then. Who doesn’t? Thinking that an action movie with Tommy Lee Jones and Oscar winner, Benecio Del Toro might be worth the rent was a definitely a mistake. Not entertaining in the least. If you have seen The Fugitive or the other Fugitive, you’ve seen this Tommy Lee Jones character. And I can’t even begin to understand what kind of character Del Toro was playing in this movie. In order to save you the couple of hours in watching the movie, I’ll give you the quick synopsis: Del Toro is GI Joe; Del Toro becomes GI Joe gone crazy and begins killing people hunting him down (for reasons never explained); Jones (former training officer) begins to hunt down Del Toro (hence the name of the movie); Jones finds him; Knife fight; Death. I just saved you $3.00.

Down With Love; The Pianist

From The Movie Snob

Down With Love. (D+) I’m a fan of romantic comedy, but I did not like this movie. Indeed, I found it neither romantic nor humorous. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be; I have never seen any of the 1960’s movies with the likes of Doris Day and Rock Hudson that it supposedly spoofs or parodies or whatever it does to them. The basic premise of the movie was not bad (attractive woman writes best-selling women’s-lib book; attractive cad-about-town sets out to destroy her credibility by making her fall in love with him), but I thought the characters said and did too many things that were unbelievable, even downright bizarre. Which is too bad, because I like Renee Zellweger and have nothing against Ewan MacGregor.

The Pianist. (A) Although this film recently came out on DVD, it is still playing on the big screen at one of our arthouse theaters, and I decided to bite the bullet and see it. I tend to value movies primarily for light escapism, so I generally avoid movies that promise to be hugely depressing, whatever their artistic merits. But not always, and today was the day for The Pianist. It is an engrossing movie about one family, and in particular one member of that family, facing the Holocaust in Warsaw, Poland, and Adrien Brody did indeed give a terrific performance. It’s a 2-and-a-half-hour emotional beating, but a cathartic one. I recommend it.

Chicago

From The Movie Snob.

Chicago. (A) Okay, so everybody’s probably already seen this movie. I saw it last night, for the second time actually, and enjoyed it almost as much as I did the first time. Unfortunately, my enjoyment was hampered by the fact that a tremendous thunderstorm blew through the area in the middle of the movie, and it sounded like the theater was getting pummeled by bowling-ball-sized hail. So for about twenty minutes, all I could think of was my car getting pulverized in the parking lot. But then it subsided, and I managed to focus on the movie again. Until another, smaller storm rolled through. But you’ll be glad to know that the hailstorm sound effects were apparently the result of a poorly-designed roof, because afterwards I found my car wet but none the worse for the wear. As for the movie, I will admit that Catherine Zeta-Jones gave a stronger performance than Renee Zellweger, but I didn’t think she blew Renee off the screen like some critics have said. And although Richard Gere is not much of a singer, I thought his acting and dancing were more than satisfactory.