By Tony Macklin
1. ‘The Hurt Locker’
There was one movie that stood out in bold relief above all the others in 2009; “The Hurt Locker” is that movie. It is a stylish, brilliant film. 2009 was not a memorable year at the movies, but “The Hurt Locker” seems destined to become a classic. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, well may be the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director. She deserves it.
“The Hurt Locker” is not political; it’s a suspenseful, technical marvel that captures the sometimes terrifying experience of a Bomb Disposal Unit under pressure in Baghdad and its environs. Jeremy Renner gives a potent performance as leader of the embattled unit.
The movie succeeds on every level. “The Hurt Locker” was the most gripping experience I had in a movie theater this year. Some viewers have shied away from seeing the movie because of the locale in which it is set and because it appears to be a “war movie.” That may not sound enticing, but it’s a different, more compelling experience from what one might expect.
“The Hurt Locker” has won Best Picture of the Year awards from the Los Angeles critics and the New York critics. But what perhaps is most surprising is how much “The Hurt Locker” seems to appeal to women, a seemingly unlikely audience.
2. ‘Star Trek’
“Star Trek” was one of the two movies this year that I could recommend to almost everybody. “Julie & Julia” was the other one. You don’t have to be a Trekkie (I’m not) to enjoy “Star Trek” immensely. It’s just a good movie. Director J.J. Abrams brings fresh energy to the franchise by going back to the birth of Jim Kirk. Chris Pine is boisterous and appealing as the youthful Kirk, and Zachary Quinto is cool as young Spock. “Star Trek” is inventive, uplifting popular entertainment.
3. ‘Public Enemies’
“Public Enemies” perhaps was the movie that initiated the strongest polar reactions. Some people hated it, but I’m a fan of director Michael Mann and I was on his wavelength.
Many viewers reject a movie when it doesn’t fit their preconceptions; some reviewers do, too. But for me, Mann is a deceptive magician, a perfectionist who creates depth, resonance and provocative ideas. His movies have layers, allusions and piquant social criticism.
In “Public Enemies,” Mann uses the mythic figure of John Dillinger in the 1930s to weave his insightful spell. The movie has graphic novel effects and historical revelations.
It reveals that the legendary “Lady in Red” at the Biograph Theater in Chicago (outside of which Dillinger was shot to death) actually wore orange. And Mann’s inclusion of a clip from the movie “Manhattan Melodrama,” which was playing at the Biograph, is powerfully ironic.
Mann also uses a torture scene, which provides misinformation, in an allusion to the contemporary world of the 21st century. “Public Enemies” is great sustenance for the interpretive viewer.
“Up” is Pixar Animation Studio’s 10th feature, and it’s a good one. A boy and an old curmudgeon soar to heights of animated delight as they fly a balloon to South America and Paradise Falls, the destination for which the old coot’s late wife once yearned. Jordan Nagai and Ed Asner give voice and personality to the odd couple. A bird named Kevin and a dog named Dug enliven the proceedings. “Up” goes way up.
5. ‘Julie & Julia’
“Julie & Julia” has the most infectious performance of the year with Meryl Streep as fabled cook Julia Child. One couldn’t help smiling at her delightful shtick. Director/screenwriter Nora Ephron didn’t give us the ending we may have wanted, because reality didn’t happen that way, but she still created an experience that left us leaving the theater feeling good. That’s a heady accomplishment.
6. ‘District 9’
“District 9” is a ferocious allegory set in South Africa. A massive spaceship has hovered for 20 years over Johannesburg, so the government decides to oust the alien “prawns” to a new restrictive location. Novice actor Sharlto Copley plays a well-meaning, ineffectual bureaucrat who gets caught up in relating to the oppressed. He gets involved in a wicked conflict. Director/writer Neill Blomkamp creates a provocative vision of squalor and escape.
I’m unsure of how audiences in the long run are going to respond to James Cameron’s new odyssey. “Avatar’s” special effects are mesmerizing though redundant. But beneath them beats a very liberal heart. In “Avatar,” Cameron makes a bold, unabashed assault on established attitudes. He promotes a new, green world that cherishes nature against man’s plundering incursions. I can hear the fair and balanced shrieks already. Cameron’s avatar joins Kubrick’s star child as a transforming figure of the future. Will audiences shoot it down or embrace it? With “Avatar,” Cameron bravely bursts toward the future.
8. ‘Pirate Radio’
“Pirate Radio” is a rocking, bobbing tribute to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a free-spirited, kicky romp at sea. Loosely based on actuality, “Pirate Radio” is the tale of a bunch of roguish disc jockeys on a ship off the coast of Britain who play anti-Establishment rock ‘n’ roll for an appreciative public ashore, despite the efforts of the government to prevent and abolish the music.
The cast, composed of first-rate actors, does some lively improvisation amidst the classic music. “Pirate Radio” has one of the best ensembles of the year: Rhys Ifans, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, January Jones, and of course, the inimitable Bill Nighy. Director/writer Richard Curtis is smitten by rock ‘n’ roll, and “Pirate Radio” is his rollicking valentine to it.
9. ‘Crazy Heart’
“Crazy Heart” may be the sleeper of the year. First-time feature director Scott Cooper’s film is graced with a wonderful performance by Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake, an alcoholic country singer struggling to stay on his stumbling feet. Blake is sloppy, disheveled and reckless, but he keeps on singing and playing in tacky venues, bowling alleys and small dives.
A movie about the redemption of a fallen icon has only a few possible outcomes. If it’s not contrived, there are even fewer. Fortunately, “Crazy Heart” is not contrived. It’s human to the end.
Maggie Gyllenhaal effectively plays a single mom who tries to cope with the recalcitrant singer.
10. ‘Paranormal Activity’
This independent film’s budget was $15,000. “Avatar” cost $320 million. “Avatar” cost 21,333 times as much. (I think that’s more than 21,000 times greater, but I’m not sure. “Avatar’s” figures broke my calculator.)
At any rate, “Paranormal Activity” is quite an achievement. It’s an independent movie I greatly admire. What director/writer/bottle washer Oren Peli did is remarkable. On a tiny budget, he made a credible, intriguing, minimalist horror film.
Honcho Steven Spielberg bought the rights to remake the film but decided to release Peli’s version with a few changes. It proved to be a phenomenon. Parsimonious Peli prevailed.
When I consider the 10 films above, I realize 2009 was a pretty good year at the movies. Wasn’t it?
Top 10 Albums
By Brian Washburn
It was the year that ended one of the most bizarre and surprising decades in music. 2009 saw several events that can put a smile on one’s face: the triumphant return of Hova, the uprising of underground bands to mainstream success and events that just make you wonder “what the hell they were thinking” (once again, the Kanye debacle). This year did see the release of several albums that not only solidified the legend for some, but also launched the careers of artists who seem ready to takeover the industry for the next 10 years. Here are this year’s best.
1. Jay-Z, ‘The Blueprint 3’
Hova is back. And when he came back this time, he came back in style and with rhymes destined to bring the rap game back into his court. “The Blueprint 3” puts Jay-Z on a level with Sinatra in the hip-hop genre and is not only one of the best rap albums of the year, but one of the best rap albums of the decade.
2. The Avett Brothers, ‘I and Love and You’
It might be all acoustic. It might be leaning toward the country/bluegrass genre. And it might be a bit depressing at times. But the Avett Brothers 2009 release “I and Love and You” will bring out listeners’ emotions they didn’t even think was possible. The mix of heart crushing and uplifting, cheerful lyrics makes the acoustic melodies work perfectly throughout the entire album. It is the lyrical genius that gets it done in the end though.
3. Kid Cudi, ‘Man on the Moon: The End of Day’
It definitely doesn’t hurt your career when your first single features Kanye West and Common.
4. Phoenix, ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’
Super-catchy riffs, chaotic melodies, thought-provoking lyrics, Phoenix hit this one out of the park. Most in the American music industry might not yet give the French band the credit they deserve, but those in the indie/underground scene have given Phoenix credit for releasing one of the best albums of the year.
5. Drake, ‘So Far Gone EP’
It might only be an EP, but this is all the music industry needs to give them an insight into who is going to be the next big thing. Forget his breakout single “Best I Ever Had,” it’s Drake’s hip-hop and rhyming skills that are going to propel him to superstardom.
6. Silversun Pickups, ‘Swoon’
“Swoon” took the Silversun Pickups from alternative and indie darlings to Grammy nominees for Best New Artist. The album might not have reinvented the group’s sound from their previous efforts, but it took their unique, catchy alt/indie rock and made it more epic and listener friendly.
7. Manchester Orchestra, ‘Everything to Nothing’
2009 saw Manchester Orchestra break past the underground infatuation of their fans and break into more success than the Georgia band probably could have imagined.
8. Brand New, ‘Daisy’
Brand New never wants to be popular. They never want to be on hit radio or on MTV. And with “Daisy,” they won’t be. “Daisy” takes the band’s unique and skillful songwriting and puts more indie into the already rock heavy past.
9. Keri Hilson, ‘In A Perfect World …’
Everybody has to have their guilty pleasures and Miss Keri just happens to be my own personal guilty pleasure of 2009. Her blend of modern hip-hop and diva R&B gives all of her tracks a flow typical of the top divas in the industry.
10. Every Time I Die, ‘New Junk Aesthetic’
Buffalo’s Every Time I Die has never followed the norm when it comes to their southern rock inspired post-hardcore metal. But on their fifth studio album, they blend more of the metal into the southern influence and come out on top with an aggressive and in-your-face album that leaves you bleeding for more … or just bleeding from being hit in the mosh pit.
The Best Graphic Novels
By Nathan Patton
It’s been a sparse year for graphic novels. The recession drove most independent publishers to cut back on the amount of books they were able to market. Experimental and alternative fare got pushed aside for more accessible, mainstream works. Still, there were a few gems, including the graphic novel that’s widely hailed as the best of the decade.
Jeffrey Brown’s “Funny Misshapen Body” didn’t tread a lot of new territory, but it offered a solid, and logical, next step. In the book, Brown chronicles memories from his childhood as he embraces his new role as a father. Brown’s art evolves with each graphic novel, but at a slow pace. But because a large part of the energy in his work is the frantic scribbles and scratches, too much change would detract from the experience.
“Low Moon,” by Jason, however, did offer something new to fans of his work. In his first hardcover, Jason told five stories of varying tones and genres. The trick was to make those disparate stories somehow flow together, and Jason was able to pull it off. The comedy and heartbreak in exactly the right amounts prove Jason to be a skilled storyteller. The best story is also the final story. “You Are Here” tells of an alien abduction that serves as a metaphor for divorce.
But the best graphic novel of the year, and indeed the decade, is David Mazzucchelli’s “Asterios Polyp.” The flawless examination of a cold, unemotional, intellectually superior architect as he tries to understand the alien ways of simple people moves the medium forward, while simultaneously showing the potential graphic novels have had, and often wasted, the last half-century. Mazzucchelli shows himself to be a master at page design, color choice and overall synergy that makes the relationship between words and pictures symbiotic. “Asterios Polyp” is more than just a great graphic novel. It’s a brilliant piece of literature.