Monday, February 01, 2010

2009 at the Movies

Kont Diga

What soared, what sank, what amazed, what stank.

It’s that time of the year again. The blockbusters of last summer seem like ancient history, unless we’re revisiting them after finding the DVD in our Christmas stocking. The trailers for next summer’s extravaganzas have already been seen countless times online and in theatres, and we the eternally unsatisfied audience already have something to look forward to. And over in tinsel-town, it’s award season.

2009 seemed like a great year at the movies, although I seem to remember thinking that nearly every year. As the rest of the world buckled under the financial strains of recession, the movie industry still managed to turn in some impressive box-office figures, with similar attendance figures to other years, and a few broken records too. Maybe cutting back on your expenses doesn’t mean you have to cut down on trips to the cinema. Maybe two hours of jaw-dropping escapism for a few euro is something that no scrooge can deem excessive. Or maybe there were just so many great films to choose from.

Late entries

Ironically, some of the most anticipated films of 2009 have yet to reach our cinemas. In what has become a clear trend, many of the more ‘serious’ or respectable films, at least on paper, get released as late as possible in the year, so as to make the most of the award season. Between December and March every newspaper, critic society, website and magazine sums up the best of the year, and the season of back patting culminates in the Academy Awards, which this year will be held on the 7th of March. With so many films to choose from, studios seem to rely heavily on short-term memory, and they hope that whoever votes for awards will have their film fresh in their mind. The financial benefits are also clear, and films released late in the year often have their nominations or awards emblazoned on the promotional posters to attract viewers.

Technically, to enter the running for the upcoming Oscars, your film must have been released during the calendar year 2009. So some of the entries are released in a handful of cinemas around Christmas time, get shown to a few critics, and then let the award buzz build before being unleashed on the public during January or February. So as in previous years, we can expect some big names to hit our screens during the next couple of months.

This time last year

Last winter was no exception, and in the run up to the Oscars we were being transported to Mumbai to play game shows, or to New Orleans to watch Brad Pitt get rid of wrinkles. Within weeks of the Oscars, however, we were treated to the first major release of 2009 – Watchmen. An ambitious adaptation of the complex and revered graphic novel, the film had moments of sheer genius (the opening credits, for example) and was both spectacular and dark, as befitting the source material. It proved successful, albeit with a select audience, and got the year off to a great start. The low seasons trudged along with some spy seduction from Julia Roberts and Clive Owen (Duplicity) and yet another earth-saving intervention from Nicholas Cage (Knowing).

A few films were released without too much fanfare, and made poor box-office returns, but are definitely worth catching in the comfort of your home. The Boat that Rocked was one, and it has now been confusingly re-edited, re-marketed and re-packaged as Pirate Radio. Another hidden gem was the offbeat comedy I Love You, Man, which took the latest trend of ‘bro-mantic comedies’ to a whole new level. Monsters vs. Aliens was also big in the laugh department, and it started off what would turn out to be a landmark year for 3D films.

May

Just as winter has evolved into award season over in Hollywood, May has gained a reputation as the start of the blockbuster season. Ever since Jaws established the summer blockbuster notion, film studios have rushed to book key dates in May to release their money-spinning special effects bonanzas. This year was no exception, and the first box-office behemoth to hit the screens was the X-Men spin-off focusing on Wolverine. Next up was the reboot of the Star Trek franchise, which brought a fresh lick of paint to the sci-fi franchise, and reached out beyond their usual audience.

The computer-generated St. Peter’s Square was possibly the main star of the frenetic Rome treasure-hunt Angels and Demons, which was an adequate and enjoyable adaptation of the Dan Brown novel, released just in time to drum up even more hype for his next book. And to further prove that franchises are the best way to make money these days, the manic month of May was rounded off by two more sequels – Terminator: Salvation and Night at the Museum 2: the Battle of the Smithsonian.

Summer Loving

May ushered in the summer season, but the main attractions were still to come. As worldwide box-office tallies stand at the end of 2009, the three most successful films of the year are Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Ice-Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (more sequels, please note). All three were released back in the summer months, and despite varying quality (I personally thought that Ice Age was average, and Transformers was a complete mess) they drew the crowds, and will undoubtedly draw them again when the next sequel is released. Avatar, however, is now hot on their heels, and may eventually turn out to be the biggest earner released in 2009, which seems justified, given the quality of the films in question.

A few non-franchise films tried to take on the big names during the summer, and there were great films on offer for all tastes, including the gangster epic Public Enemies and the tearjerker My Sister’s Keeper. But the clear surprise of the summer was the superb The Hangover. Coming out of nowhere, with no A-list cast or crew and not an exactly original idea, the film was possibly the most enjoyable two hours of the entire summer, and now stands cheekily amongst the top ten releases of the year. The summer had its flops too, most notably Brüno, which fell far short of Borat in every department.

Two to watch

Just as summer was winding down, two films burst onto the scene, clicking with audiences and critics alike, and breathing even more fresh air into the sequel-saturated summer. The first, from an unknown director and cast, was the amazing District 9, which under all the effects had the backbone of a great story, and remains one of the best films of the year. The second, from a director who needs no introduction, was the irreverent, polished and wonderful Inglourious Basterds,

Everything about Tarantino’s latest offering stands out amongst the year’s other releases. The man continues to wield his own particular brand of cinema, and Basterds was packed with his usual articulate acting, exciting imagery and vintage score selections. This was probably the earliest release of the year that is taking a serious swipe at the awards, and it seems that the intervening months haven’t caused viewers to forget the great acting of Christoph Waltz and other highpoints of the film.

Back to school

As tends to happen every summer, it ended, and we all had to eventually pack away our suntan lotion and linen tops as the days grew shorter and the blockbusters grew fewer. But summer 2009 had a few treats left, and here in Malta we had September releases for the unusual Funny People. An often-confusing mix between drama and comedy, the film showcases Adam Sandler and the writing talents of director Judd Apatow, and is as hard to digest as it is hard to forget. The Time Traveller’s Wife had captivated me as a book, during a swine-flu enforced week of quarantine leave in August, but the film sadly struggled to capture the book’s spark.

Another oddly disappointing September release was The Soloist, which had all the ingredients for a heart-tugging masterpiece, but seemed to flounder without going anywhere. Action figures made the leap to the big screen with the new G. I. Joe offering, which provided a post-summer dose of world destruction, and made enough money for us to reasonably expect a sequel sometime soon. The end of summer also brought the announcement regarding This is it, the culmination of the media frenzy surrounding Michael Jackson’s untimely death. Originally viewed as yet another way to make money out of his death, the film is however a fitting eulogy, and shows a surprisingly fit and in control Jackson during the final stages of rehearsal for his string of concerts. If the rehearsal footage is anything to go by, the world missed out on quite a show.

Local flavour

October saw the premiere of a completely Maltese production – Kont Diġa. Tackling the conflicting emotions of a young man returning to Malta after a period abroad, the film easily stands above most other local productions seen to date. The concept and plot are maybe a bit too thin to support a full-length feature film, but the film boasts high production values, and has an impressive style and aesthetic. We can only hope that there’s more where that came from.

And speaking of flavour, the most hunger-inducing film of the year was definitely Julie & Julia, a light and tasty true story about a young woman working her way through a book of Julia Child’s recipes. Meryl Streep amazes once more as she transforms into the towering American celebrity cook, and her role has ensured that the film is remembered during these award months. Another light and delightful film was the offbeat romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, which is built upon one of the best screenplays of the year, and is a refreshing change of pace from the other love stories that moisten our screens.

Gearing up for the holidays

As Christmas lights went up, and temperatures fell (well, not in Malta), the local cinemas started showing films that would last into the holidays and make some extra business thanks to the festive season. The main Christmas-themed film of the year was A Christmas Carol, a retelling of the timeless tale by director Robert Zemeckis, with Jim Carrey as Scrooge. Made with the same (slightly weird) realistic animation as The Polar Express and Beowulf, the film contains all the ingredients for a holiday family outing.

Rather less uplifting, but nonetheless far more successful in terms of numbers, were the two films that dominated the screen in the run-up to Christmas (or rather, the run-up to Avatar). 2012 is yet another apocalyptic disaster movie from the team behind Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow, and might make for amusing viewing in two years’ time. Close behind in the box-office charts (at the time of writing), lies the second chapter in the girly vampire Twilight saga – New Moon. It appears that the critical lashing that the film received upon release was no deterrent for the franchise’s hordes of teenage fans, and we can expect the third and penultimate instalment, Eclipse this summer.

The third dimension

By the time Santa was loading his sleigh, however, there was only one film that was making headlines. Avatar was burdened with immense expectations, coming as it did from James Cameron, who made Titanic, Terminator 2 and Aliens, but it managed to live up to them and drive everyone into 3D cinemas over the holidays. As I mentioned above, Monsters vs. Aliens was the first of a series of 3D films to gain success in 2009, and the new ‘RealD’ format seems to be catching on like wildfire after gaining favour with Disney, Pixar, and directors like Cameron.

Another appetising 3D caper was released back in September, and the title tells you all you need to know about how much fun the filmmakers had with the plot and visuals. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was surprisingly good, especially when viewed in 3D with burgers flying towards your face. Less zany, but equally fun and polished, was this year’s Disney/Pixar offering – Up. Wonderful in every aspect, it followed an ageing widower on an improbable journey to Angel’s Falls in Venezuela, and once again made excellent use of the new 3D technology to give us viewers a feast of colour and beauty. But Avatar remains distinctive in its complete 3D immersion of the viewer in an alien world, populated by computer-generated characters and scenery, but incredibly realistic. It has already dominated the Christmas box-office (despite strong competition from the entertaining Sherlock Holmes and Alvin and the Chipmunks: the Squeakuel), and will undoubtedly feature prominently in the awards season.

What’s next?

The big names that will reach Malta’s screens in early 2010, but which will probably get an Oscar boost come March are mostly character-driven dramas which rely more on acting and writing than special effects and bombast. Morgan Freeman must probably fancy his chances of an acting nod for his portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s biopic Invictus. If he does get nominated, he’ll most likely be up against George Clooney, who is getting lots of acclaim for his starring role in Up in the Air. The book was an insightful look into a man with a whole new means of escapism – collecting air miles and living out of a suitcase, and I hope the film is as good, which it apparently is.

The Lovely Bones also makes a late appearance, and is another film adaptation of a great book, this time about a young girl who watches her family deal with her disappearance, from the heavens. Expectations are high, especially considering the names behind the project – Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who adapted The Lord of the Rings flawlessly. Lots of big names team up in the musical Nine, a vibrant celebration of Italian culture, and another successful screen adaptation of a stage musical. Daniel Day Lewis stars as a troubled Italian film director, and numerous female stars portray the various women in his life. There will be nominations.

Best Pictures

This year, for whatever reason, there will be ten best picture nominees, as opposed to the previous five. The other categories remain unchanged, but this will let more films get in with a chance of the big prize. Hopefully one of the ten will be Up, and my personal favourite would have to be Inglourious Basterds. Other less-known films that are being billed as potential nominees are the riveting war drama The Hurt Locker, which caused me to let my food go cold on a recent flight, and is directed by James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow, and An Education, which was penned by Nick Hornby and is about a young girl torn between pursing her studies at Oxford or pursuing her dreams in Paris.

Ultimately, though, awards aren’t everything, as I’m sure the investors of Transformers 2 know very well. The one film that seems to have what it takes to be the best of 2009 both in terms of audience numbers and award recognition is Avatar, but at the time of writing it’s still too early to tell. Last year’s omission of The Dark Knight from all the major award categories was ample proof that sometimes awards fail to reflect what the rest of the world thought about the year’s films.

Coming soon

Looking beyond March, however, yields yet another packed year of appetising offerings. Tim Burton finds a tale as crazy as his vision in Alice in Wonderland, and the recent resurgence of sword and sandals films gives us a modern retelling of Clash of the Titans, which hopefully won’t be drowned in special effects to the detriment of the story. Summer will once again regale us with big name sequels – Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, Sex and the City 2, Toy Story 3 and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse; but there are a few interesting non-sequels too – Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and a big-screen version of The A-Team. Then, just as summer starts to wane, we can look forward to what promises to be the mother of all action movies – The Expendables. Conceived by Sylvester Stallone as an over-the-top throwback to the steroid-based action films of the 80s, the film boasts a casts that reads like a Top Ten list of action heroes – Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jet Li, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren and Steve ‘Stone Cold’ Austin , as well as Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts. Definitely worth a look, no matter how cheesy.

But the 2010 box-office champ will most probably be Harry Potter yet again, as the first half of Deathly Hallows is unleashed in November, with the ending in sight. It might have to struggle against the next Chronicles of Narnia film over the holiday period, but I doubt that will dent the huge numbers that have flocked to see every Harry Potter film to date. The movie business is alive and well, and next year should prove to be no different. Hopefully more non-Hollywood films will manage to get wide releases, since there are loads of hidden gems in European cinema and elsewhere, and hopefully the upward trend of 3D will continue, making our trips to the darkened cinema all the more magical.

 

(This article appeared in the February issue of Vida magazine)

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