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Movies that Mattered in 2009: For Better or For Worse

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Well-behaved films rarely make history

Blind Pig Wants to Fly/Avatar
What exactly, you might ask, do these two films have in common? Isn’t that just like Film Comment, finding a clever link between a $230 million virtual 3-D epic about blue humanoids and a no-budget Indonesian whatsit likened by its creator to a mosaic “built from shattered pieces of colored glass. Delicate, fragile, beautiful”? Well, guess what? There is no link, and they have absolutely nothing in common. These two wildly divergent items and their attendant circumstances (of inspiration, production, exhibition, etc.) offer a dramatic illustration of the ever-widening gulf between commercial and independent filmmaking. Ten years ago, Abel Ferrara mused that movies would just keep getting “bigger and bigger and smaller and smaller.” He had no idea. The divide between big and small has become so great that they now effectively occupy two distinct realms. In another decade, the mingling of commerce and art will be a distant memory.—Kent Jones

Star Trek/Terminator Salvation
Franchise filmmaking: a pestilence inflicted upon us by soulless corporate groupthink? James Bond, Hope and Crosby’s Road pictures, Japan’s Zatoichi samurai movies, and over 40 Charlie Chan films say otherwise. It’s safe to say that Hollywood’s current obsession with this business model is here to stay, and sure, the results can be ugly: the “reboot” of the Terminator series didn’t take because—well, would you buy a used cyborg from a guy who goes by the name McG, and whose claim to fame is a pair of Charlie’s Angels movies? By contrast, Star Trek is the apotheosis of franchise cinema: genuinely thrilling, top-notch in every respect, and made with real heart, it’s no coincidence that it took J.J. Abrams, a TV guy who truly understands his audience, to re-energize this TV-derived property.—Gavin Smith

The Limits of Control
Like a postmodern Beat the Devil, Jarmusch’s postcard-sized daydream touched on the essentially arbitrary, capricious nature of movies. Evoking the limits of artistic as well as social control, it acknowledged in sly, oddly moving ways the fine cinematic line between meaning and nothingness. The elided plot, stock figures, and crypto-philosophical dialogue were open-ended whims—wandering conceits held together by precise visual tonalities, ambient acting, everyday rituals. Inviting you to read as much or as little into it as you desired, the film was the antithesis of the superego-driven, White Ribbon model of Significance über Alles—an eloquently still travelogue of ephemeral landscapes.—Howard Hampton



Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Like Thelma & Louise, the Western/ road-movie in which sisterhood turned genre upside down, twisting the knickers of the positive-role-model crowd, Precious—a horror movie in which a young woman who sees herself as a monster survives and thrives thanks to the intervention of a disparate bunch of sisters—is the object of a similarly narrow and reactionary attack. What’s on the screen isn’t realism, it’s Precious’s own nightmare, writ gargantuan; how she emerges from it is the stuff of myth, or at least, of the feminist movie of the year.—Amy Taubin

Invictus
it’s easy to imagine alternate versions of this film, each more dutiful than the next. At one time, the story of Nelson Mandela and the Springboks rugby team would have gotten the Attenborough treatment. A little further down the road, it probably would have been listed on IMDb for a couple of years as “Untitled Steven Spielberg Project.” Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, it has been realized by one of our most consistently surprising directors with an ease and grace that are all but unheard of in cinematic chronicles of Official History. What would surely have been yet another excuse for the soon-to-be-extinct Quote Whores to demonstrate their craft turned out to be a deft, quietly observant study of political strategizing. Unsurprisingly, it also turned out to be another Clint Eastwood movie with a lonely old hero and an unlikely younger protégé at its center. And a lovely Clint Eastwood movie at that.—Kent Jones

A Serious Man
An homage to that postwar mid-century interval when Jews felt secure enough to generate multiple literary excoriations of hypocrisy, lampoons of the community, and violent exposures of the American Dream as a cost-values scam at retail prices. For a variety of reasons—the zeitgeist went anti-Zionist, the genre was either played out or circumcised by Woody Allen—there’s been no meaningful Jewish self-critique in decades. Until now, that is, as the Coen Brothers nail Midwestern Reform Judaism to the wall. Not since Philip Roth has anyone in the arts so thoroughly and convincingly eviscerated the rabbinate as just one more manifestation of American charlatanism. When my father was dying, he rallied before slipping into a coma and said, “No rabbis!” A Serious Man explains why.—Harlan Jacobson



Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Okay, so a state-of-the-art digital spectacle in which the entire might of the U.S. military takes on giant extraterrestrial robots bent on Earth’s destruction sounds kinda cool. But the unprecedented level of cooperation and sheer dollar value of the hardware put at the filmmakers’ disposal by all branches of the armed forces effectively makes this sorry sequel a co-production between Hollywood and the Defense Department. Climaxing with a showdown in the Middle East, the film’s wholehearted glorification of the war machine makes it the most expensive military recruitment film of all time, smuggled inside a story inspired by a range of children’s toys—in short, an act of monumental repugnance. Take a bow, Michael Bay: Hollywood’s number-one war enabler.—Gavin Smith

Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are
Two kids movies with a difference, both imaginative expansions (rather than betrayals) of enshrined classics with the under-10 set, both made by card-carrying auteurs who recently turned 40. With the notable exception of the Pixar output, we have been overrun in recent years with market-research-driven horrors, not so much made for children as targeted at them, with “vintage” pop culture references and fart gags slotted in for parents and teenage siblings. That Anderson and Jonze’s movies were lovingly and impeccably crafted came as no more a surprise than the emotional breadth of their respective films. What possibly did come as a surprise to adults and kids unacquainted with the filmmakers’ oeuvres was the distinctive manner with which each film saw childhood as a point on a continuum rather than a neverland of joyful irresponsibility punctuated by the occasional Lesson Learned. If Anderson finally made the better movie, it’s probably because he’s as true to himself as he is to his source material.—Kent Jones

(500) Days of Summer/The Hangover/Paranormal Activity
is it any wonder that, in a year when American women directed more features than ever, the three biggest “surprise” hits predictably pegged the girlfriend as Pure Evil? (500) Days of Summer begins by comically dedicating itself to the director’s “bitch” of an ex, presuming the core audience can relate. The Hangover, a cocktail of hate, is barely even getting buzzed before establishing one bachelor partyer’s significant other as a consummate cunt. And Paranormal’s domestic disturbance is no more supernatural than that of a chick taking possession of “your” house. Note to Marc Webb, Todd Phillips, and Oren Peli: Kathryn Bigelow is a more muscular director than all of you combined.—Rob Nelson

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