Closing out what has been a fantastic decade for cinema, 2009 has had its fair share of ups and downs. It seems like a lifetime ago that film fanatics were getting hot under their proverbial collars for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek but it was these that kick-started 2009’s blockbuster marathon. This year more than any other, it seems that the big, brazen Hollywood blockbuster made a fully-fledged comeback. The likes of Terminator Salvation, Transformers 2, District 9, 2012, the aforementioned Watchmen and Star Trek along with James Cameron’s recent 3D epic Avatar have made 2009 the year of the action blockbuster. Not to mention the addition of another billion dollars to add to the Harry Potter kitty thanks to the Half-Blood Prince. Of course there is much, much more (and many more worthy of mentioning) to discuss when looking at the cinema of 2009. Following in the footsteps of 2007 with the incredibly visceral, arguably modern classics of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood and 2008’s landmark comic-book movie The Dark Knight, 2009 had quite a task to top it.
Pixar once again showed why it’s the alpha male of animation with the endearing and beautifully crafted UP. Whether or not you saw it in 3D, UP, the second feature length film directed by Pete Docter (after the groundbreaking Monsters Inc.) was a film much like last year’s Wall-E, appealing to audiences of all ages with it’s careful and delicate handling of emotional subject matter whilst (excuse the cliché) uplifting and enlightening in it’s climax. The film was also genuinely funny, with visual slapstick comedy for the kids balanced by the darker pessimistic humour for the adults. UP was another testament to the stunning visual possibilities of computer animation whilst remaining a well written, brilliantly told story of love, innocence and friendship.
Still on the subject of animated features, the stop-motion Wes Anderson feature The Fantastic Mr. Fox didn’t disappoint. Typical Screwball humour from Anderson and perfectly cast voices of George Clooney and Meryl Streep make for a frequently hilarious family film. Anderson also does well to stick faithfully to the original Roald Dahl children’s story bringing it to life on the big screen, a long overdue achievement. Despite disappointing revenues at the box office the film has received deserved complimentary reviews and award nominations.
On an entirely different note, it was Kathryn Bigelow’s year to shine as the sleeper hit The Hurt Locker marched into the spotlight in the summer. Cinema hasn’t seen such nail-biting suspense and full on male machismo in years. Following a team of bomb disposal experts in Iraq and inner conflicts between the group as Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), ignoring protocol, goes about things with little regard for his own or anyone else’s safety. It is a film which offers a new and unique outlook on the war on terror with the added bonus of the first-hand experience and expertise of Mark Boal, a journalist who spent months embedded with a real US EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Unit. Performances are effortless and thus believable and action is dispersed amongst the narrative with care not to make it a gratuitous war flick but a though provoking docu-film.
One of the year’s summer blockbusters that came under undeserved fire was director Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. Hailed as the Heat of the depression era, since the film’s inception it was one of the movies-to-see. However, it did not, as many should have guessed, live up to the hype, as films seldom do. It was, despite many critics’ claims though a very solid film. It featured stunning performances from Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard in particular and had poignant relevancy with the country’s social and economic hardship. The film was also the latest in a long line of films to celebrate the underdog and more importantly the criminal valiantly fighting against a higher power. The Assassination of Jesse James did it with beauty and poeticism and American Gangster did it with effortless bravado. In this Johnny Depp does all that adding his own style and swagger, whilst portraying a man torn between his life as America’s most wanted (and the celebrity status that comes with it) and a future love-life. Despite not being the sum of its parts, it is a carefully considered, character piece and another beautifully shot addition to one of America’s greatest living directors, Michael Mann. Furthermore, it proved to its many close competitors that you don’t need handfuls of explosions and CGI special effects to make a good action adventure. A memo’ the likes of Transformers 2, Terminator Salvation and 2012 clearly didn’t receive.
Similarly hyped horror flick Paranormal Activity had audiences and critics alike claiming they had seen the next scariest film of all time. Subjective as this is, Paranormal Activity did more for the independent film business than it did the horror genre. Demonstrating how best to manipulate and suspend an audience in fear, the film managed a commendable number of jumps and scares in light of its miniscule budget. Grossing over $140million from a budget of $15,000 Paranormal Activity has set a world record for the biggest profit made by a feature film. However, owing much to The Blair Witch Project, which stylistically paved the way for Paranormal Activity and lacking in repeat-watching opportunities, it is most likely a film that will be forgotten in years to come.
2009 also saw the contentious issue of 3D reignited. Several films, both good and bad, were ‘presented in digital 3D’ and for some films it made a welcome return. For others however it simply highlighted the fact that no amount of shiny Hollywood foil can cover a complete turkey of a film. This was perhaps most obvious with the third installment of the Ice Age franchise. Dull, misguided and terribly unaware of how brilliant animated features have been in the past couple of years (namely Ratatouille and Wall-E setting the benchmark particularly high), Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, for all it’s efforts was simply a money-spinner. 3D aided it in no way at all, at times pointlessly detracting from the plot of the film entirely, and only worked to leave its hollow plot and characters completely exposed. UP need not have been presented in 3D (it was used to little effect) but at least the crucial elements remained impressive. Monsters vs. Aliens, perhaps Ice Age’s closest rival this summer, did utilise and wow audiences with its 3D tale of Alien warfare on earth. Admittedly lacking somewhat in a succinct and inspiring storyline, the visuals were impressive nonetheless. Avatar, a film I have yet to see, clearly boasts the next generation in the cinematic experience. Maybe it will get right what most have failed to do and incorporate 3D without allowing plot and character to become the victim of it.
The end of the year has thankfully seen some more positive arrivals to our cinema screens. The Coen brothers returned to their low-key, independent style with A Serious Man. The film, set in post-war 1960’s America tells a simple, almost allegorical tale of a Jewish family encountering several life changes in which family values and traditions are brought in question. Tackled in an offbeat yet remarkably common sense fashion the film is a welcome and mindful return to the style of earlier works like Blood Simple and Fargo in which serious subjects are illuminated with dry, dark humour. Made for a mere $7million, pocket change to the $200-$300million films such as 2012 or Avatar, A Serious Man, in keeping things simple achieves maximum effect. December also brought us the wonderfully quaint Where The Wild Things Are in which live action and animation meet seamlessly in creating a rarely seen fairytale of a film. Music from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs interspersed with timely additions from Arcade Fire amongst others is also an unexpected treat.
All in all 2009 has been a year of unexpected highs and disappointing big-budget lows. It has been a year in which time spent at the multiplex might best have been spent at the independent or art cinema and a slight drop in standards after the inimitable class of 2007 and 2008’s films. 2010 is however just over the horizon and with a handful of hotly anticipated releases should be a scorcher. Ones to look out for would certainly be Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Rob Marshall’s Nine, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, the long awaited Toy Story 3 and The Road, another Cormac McCarthy (author of No Country for Old Men) adaptation en route next year is certainly looking promising for cinema.