2009 in Review @ the Movies

In 1996, I started writing about movies, doing little 100 word writeups for a reader section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I got my first of these published in the AJC in 1997 (by the time the feature ended in 2000, 62 had been published). In ‘97-’98, my mother and I toyed with the idea of doing our own review book, entitled “Why Is the Rabbit Wearing Sunglasses?” (Anyone who’s seen the old ratings posters will know what that means.) In 1999, I started my first review e-list.

Has it really been 10 years already? More importantly, how did that not register with me earlier? Ten years later, the e-list is still going strong, and the site is getting stronger. From fan commentaries recorded by my buddies and I to my new “A Movie a Week” blog to Atlanta area concert reviews, as well as updates on my own creative endeavors, I’ve turn Sonic Cinema into a labor of love not unlike how I envisioned it back in 2000.

This year, my reviews have been coming fast and furious. Most of the Yahoo commentaries are now online, both at Sonic Cinema as well as Zarban.com, which is a database for such efforts web-wide. And I’ve somehow found time to do a weekly review column entitled, well, “A Movie a Week.” Between multiplex hits and art house gems, I’ve also found a way to help those filmmakers who- like me- just want to get their art out there. In 2006, I received my first filmmaker request for a review. The next two years, I got two such requests per year.

This year, the floodgates opened up. Over 20 films from do-it-yourself filmmakers found their way into my moviewatching schedule (26 to be exact), and most every one of them had something to offer, and made an impression. As you’ll see in the lists below, this year would’ve been considerably less without them. Their budgets may have been small, but their ideas were anything but. And, if after reading about them, you are interested in watching the offbeat and enduring likes of “Cookies & Cream,” “Zorg and Andy,” “Don’t Shoot the Pharmacist!,” “Uptown,” and “Knuckle Draggers,” let me know and I’ll point you in the right direction…or set up a movie party if you’re nearby. :)

The format is the same as previous years, so I’ll let you get to it. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of films I haven’t seen- no “Nine,” “Moon,” “In the Loop,” “The Lovely Bones,” or “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (the latter two are January wide releases). No “Invictus,” “Broken Embraces,” “A Single Man,” “The Blind Side,” or “Crazy Heart.” But the following is based on the 160-plus films I did see this year. Find these films, watch them, and let some truly original cinematic voices take you places you never thought you’d go. Enjoy!!

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com
www.myspace.com/brianskutle
www.myspace.com/cinemanouveau

To see Brian’s picks for the best films of the decade, check out his blog here.

Brian’s Top Ten Films of 2009

1. “Red Cliff” (Directed by John Woo)- Six years after his Hollywood career stalled out with the Ben Affleck-starrer “Paycheck,” Hong Kong action master Woo has finally returned to the States, this time with a condensed version of his two-part, five-hour Chinese epic about the famous Battle of Red Cliff, which took place during the Han Dynasty in 208 A.D. The result is a staggering accomplishment comparable to the likes of “Lord of the Rings” and Kurosawa; a couple of the transitions in the 2 1/2 hour U.S. version are jarring, but Woo is in absolute command of his craft as a filmmaker and- more importantly- a storyteller, as Tony Leung (his “Hard-Boiled” star) and Takeshi Kaneshiro create another Wooian portrait of male bonding and character duality as they fend off the massive army of Zhang Fengyi’s ruthless Prime Minister Cao Cao, who has his own agenda during the battle. Mindblowing in its’ detail and design, I started counting down the days until its’ DVD release (which will include both versions) immediately as I left the theatre.

2. “Up” (Directed by Pete Doctor)- Over the past 10 years, Pixar has perfected the formula of comedy and pathos that have made their CG-animated films more than mere entertainments. They’ve come a long way over the past decade (not that they had that far to go). The same can be said for co-writer/director Doctor, whose 2001 film “Monsters Inc” is my “least favorite” Pixar offering, but whose “Up” is a thing of beauty, a heartwarming and unquestionably emotional work that is probably the studio’s most profound film to date (and that’s saying something after “Wall-E”). The story of an old man’s adventure to make his late wife’s wishes come true, and take their house together to the lost land of Paradise Falls, “Up” is one of Pixar’s most emotional films. From Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score to Ed Asner’s weary gruffness to Bob Peterson’s hilarious Dug and the studio’s continued artistry visually (their use of 3-D may not be flashy, but it does help ground the film emotionally), “Up” is another display of artistic perfection from a studio that seems overrun by an embarassment of riches.

3. “Precious” (Directed by Lee Daniels)- As the producer of films like “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman,” Lee Daniels wasn’t afraid of tackling bold material. In his second film as director, he takes Sapphire’s novel “Push” and turns it into harsh, hopeful poetry, with Gabourey Sidibe an absolute revelation as Clarieece “Precious” Jones, whose home life is a wreck, and her self-worth is below zero until she is given a chance at an alternative school in 1980s Harlem. I could go on, but it’s best to just see the film for yourself.

4. ”(500) Days of Summer” (Directed by Marc Webb)- Every guy’s had that one girl. The one that’s exasperating as she is extraordinary, as fun as she is flighty. The one that wins your heart the moment you see her, and tears it out as easily when it’s over. How rare to find that sort of range in modern movie romances. Rarer still is the intelligence and emotional truth revealed in the performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel that make this inventive romantic dramedy come alive.

5. “Knowing” (Directed by Alex Proyas)- With his sixth film (his fifth to get released in the U.S.), director Alex Proyas- five years after a reportedly rough experience with Fox on “I, Robot”- has found a bold medium between his characteristically smart storytelling savvy and a more-commercial brand of filmmaking, teaming up with Nicolas Cage on a thriller that puts the debate between science and religion in unexpected and original ways when Cage’s son is given a key to potential world disasters when a time capsule is opened at his school. Proyas’ perfectionism can’t hide the coincidence in the story, but his visual eye- aided by Marco Beltrami’s jangling score- propels the narrative (and Cage’s wired performance) into unnerving situations that, like his 1998 masterpiece “Dark City,” has surprises up until the very end. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another five years for him to get behind the camera again, but if films like these are what we can expect from him, I know film will be better for his patience.

6. “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans” (Directed by Werner Herzog)- Werner Herzog has never been one to shy away from risks. I mean, he collaborated with Klaus Kinski for crying out loud. He’s also shown people who take themselves to the limits of the world (“Grizzly Men,” “Encounters at the End of the World”) and risk personal ruin in the real world. In his latest, he takes on a reworking of a 1992 classic with Harvey Keitel starring modern wildman Nicolas Cage as a New Orleans lieutenant whose addiction to chaos doesn’t get in the way of trying to solve a brutal murder. Actually, it does. But I’ll let Cage a Herzog- a mad match made in movie heaven- take you on that unnerving and brutally funny journey themselves.

7. “The Road” (Directed by John Hillcoat)- A man and his son, survivors of essentially the end of the world, walk in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Their destination? The sea. But the beauty of John Hillcoat’s haunting and powerful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is that he takes this simple story (and familiar setting) and makes something genuinely original out of it as Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee try to hold onto their humanity in a world that can’t be trusted anymore.

8. “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” (Directed by Kenny Ortega)- This wasn’t how it was supposed to end for Michael Jackson. Or maybe it was. In the months prior to his much-anticipated return to the stage after a decade of turmoil and tabloid gossip, the King of Pop worked hard to make sure he was ready for the task. Unfortunately, on June 25, his dream comeback ended suddenly, and a world mourned the end of an era. Thankfully, Jackson’s co-creator for the concerts to come (who directed the “High School Musical” films) had 120 hours of footage of rehearsals, interviews, auditions in the can. After much thought, this heartbreaking and brilliant document was the result. The result brings our focus back on what we all forgot about Jackson in the last 15 years of his life…on stage, in his art, there was no one else like him. Watching him perform some of his best songs- even in rehearsal- in preparation for the concert that never happened is a beautiful gift for his fans. This isn’t about the controversies of his life; this is about the love he had for his art.

9. “Drag Me to Hell” (Directed by Sam Raimi)- After the mega-budgeted thrills of his record-breaking “Spider-Man” trilogy, Sam Raimi returns to down-and-dirty horror on the cheap when a loan officer (Alison Lohman) denies an extension to a old woman who puts a curse on her, leading to some truly Raimi-esque blending of scares and macabre comedy. It’s a hard combo to get right, but the director of the “Evil Dead” trilogy still has the midas touch to nail it, and have us squirming in our seats if we aren’t rolling in the aisles.

10. “Paper Heart” (Directed by Nicholas Jasenovec)- All I really knew about comedian/musician Charlyne Yi before this was that she was in “Knocked Up.” But as this beautifully quirky docucomedy shows, she’s so much more than that. Here, she starts out on a journey to see what love is to different people. But when she meets up with Michael Cera, everything she thinks about the subject starts to change when they go from strangers to much, much more. It’s difficult to describe the wonder and pleasure of this 88 minute gem in so brief a time, so let me just say that Yi and Cera are fresh, funny and touching in a real-life romantic comedy that Hollywood could never come up with on their own.

Eleventh Place: As always, there were a lot of quite good films that didn’t quite make the cut for the final 10. That doesn’t make them any less noteworthy (Hell, they could make a deserving Top 10 by themselves). Among the “runners-up” for my top 10 are: “Star Trek”, J.J. Abrams’ superbly entertaining revamp on Gene Rodenberry’s sci-fi icon; “The Cove”, a landmark documentary about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan- the subjects’ attempts to catch on film the atrocities are as suspenseful as they are heartbreaking; “Up in the Air”, Jason Reitman’s brutally truthful dramedy about a professional “firer” who gradually realizes what he’s been missing out of life; “The Invention of Lying”, Ricky Gervais’ sly and boldly funny satire of a world where the literal truth has gotten in the way of emotional truth, until one man finds that lying has a place in the world; “The Informant!”, Steven Soderbergh’s darkly funny take on a businessman (a never-better Matt Damon) and his tragic-outrageous swindle of the company he worked for; “Drawing With Chalk”, a superb little indie drama about two friends who have to face reality when their passions start to get in the way; “Coraline”, the latest piece of stop-motion magic from “Nightmare Before Christmas” director Henry Selick, this time bringing the pain and imagination of Neil Gaiman’s novel to life; “Watchmen”, Zack Snyder’s visionary adaptation of Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel- it was met with indecision when it came out, but repeat viewings show a “Blade Runner” type classic in the making; “The Hurt Locker”, Katherine Bigelow’s tense and tough look at bomb teams in Iraq; “Avatar”, James Cameron’s epic adventure that changes what’s possible in movies and filmmaking; “Away We Go”, with Maya Rudolph and John Krazinski hitting the road to find a place of their own under the watchful eye of Sam Mendes; “Diary of a Bad Lad”, a knockout faux-documentary/crime drama about a British gangster and the filmmaker who gets more than he bargained for while exploring the criminal underworld; “Goodbye Solo”, a superbly acted and unexpected film about an old man (Red West) who hires a cabbie (Souleymane Sy Savane) for a one-way trip, but gets something as unexpected as the viewer gets while watching it; “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, David Yates’ full-blooded thriller based on the sixth book in J.K. Rowling’s wizard franchise- Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Michael Gambon have put meat and bones into their characters that matches the visual wonders onscreen; “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, Wes Anderson’s delightful and original take on Roald Dahl’s children’s classic that takes stop-motion animation into a sly, superb direction; “Tyson”, James Toback’s uncompromising portrait of “Iron” Mike Tyson, as told by the one-time boxing champ with honesty that hits as hard as he once hit his opponents; “Ponyo”, another beautifully-animated fantasy from Hayao Miyazaki about children whose innocence gives way to courage and coming of age; “District 9”, Neill Bloomkamp’s original and thematically brutal sci-fi thriller about aliens in a South African slum and a political bureaucrat whose contact with them leads to some harsh truths about mankind; “The Messenger”, a tough and powerful look at the humanity that sometimes gets lost (and is often found) when loved ones lose someone, from the point of view of the people who have to deliver the news when men and women die in combat; “The Open Door”, a teen supernatural thriller that’s original, creepy and uncompromised by formula where it counts the most; “Food, Inc.”, a disturbing and important documentary about what’s really going on in the food industry; “Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries- Part 1”, a killer-good black comedy spin on the modern vamp-craze with familial blood-sucker that bites as much as the fanged kind; “Where the Wild Things Are”, Spike Jonze’s sad, poetic take on the childhood classic that is anything but a simple fable of growing up; “Zorg and Andy”, a goofy and hilarious indie comedy about phallic statues and ancient occults that is like a Matt Groening cartoon done in live-action; “Paranormal Activity”, Oren Peli’s inventive “found-footage” thriller that creeped the Hell out of me when the lights went out; “Night for Day”, a New York vampire thriller about a musician whose curse keeps him up at night…literally (I’ll take this over “Twilight” any day of the week); “Knuckle Draggers”, which is like a guy-centric “He’s Just Not That Into You,” but less Hollywood schmaltz & more indie honest about the way guys and girls interact; “The Last Lullaby”, an engrossing crime thriller with a never-better Tom Sizemore as a hitman who gets in too deep during one particular job; “A Christmas Carol”, with Robert Zemeckis’ ever-refining mo-cap magic bringing new life to Dickens’ classic tale, with Jim Carrey is a physical and emotional tour de force; “Public Enemies”, Michael Mann’s engrossing epic about John Dillenger, with Johnny Depp in a magnetic performance as the earlier Johnny D., and Christian Bale and Billy Crudup as his match as two of the G-men out to get him; “The Soloist”, Joe Wright’s sentimental and uplifting true story about the unlikely bond a reporter (Robert Downey Jr.) forms with a mentally-unnerved street musician (Jamie Foxx); and “Crossing Over” Wayne Kramer’s thoughtful and well-acted immigration drama that is too predictable to rate with “Traffic,” but rings with greater truth than the racially-charged “Crash”.

Brian’s Favorite Films of 2009

1. “Up” (Pete Doctor)- Both literally and figuratively, Pixar has taken hold of the venerable Disney legacy the past several years, with John Lasseter in charge of the Mouse’s animation department, and his studio churning out hit after hit, each one pushing CG animation into another level of artistic beauty. But that’s not why Pixar is king- it’s always the story, stupid. In telling the story of an old man who finally goes on his adventure, and the young wilderness explorer who helps him, as well as grows up a little in the process, Pixar and co-writer/director Doctor have not only told arguably their most emotional story, but also the one that means the most to me.

2. “The Hangover” (Todd Phillips)- The third highest-grossing live-action comedy of all-time is many things. One thing it isn’t is your average raunch-fest. Todd Phillips puts his main guys through Hell when a bachelor party goes out of control. The boys wake up in a trashed room with a missing tooth, a tiger in the bathroom, a baby in the closet, a cop car in the parking lot, and a lost groom. I don’t know if any individual film has been so absurdly quotable since “Pulp Fiction.” I do know I haven’t had this much fun at a comedy since “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.”

3. ”(500) Days of Summer” (Marc Webb)- It’s hard to fathom anyone finding fresh life in the otherwise lifeless romantic comedy genre. But that’s not what makes this gem from writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and director Marc Webb so exceptional. It’s “Memento”-esque structure is impressive in how it charts the rises and falls in the relationship of Tom and Summer, but let’s face it, without to-the-bone deep performances by the heartbreaking Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the frustrating Zooey Deschanel, this would be just another spin on the same old song and dance.

4. “Knowing” (Alex Proyas)- Alex Proyas brave and brilliant thriller about the ways of the universe may not hold up under close scrutiny per se, but his head-long storytelling (and Nic Cage’s world-weary scientist) propel the film to a doomsday conclusion that will prove impossible for our hero to stop, and unlikely to forget regardless of what you think of the film.

5. “Star Trek” (J.J. Abrams)- Now this is how you do a prequel. We saw flashes of this type of storytelling mastery in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga the past decade, but it generally came from the fresh blood of people who hadn’t spent their lives and careers in the franchise’s thrall (like new Obi-Wan Ewan McGregor, Skywalker mother Natalie Portman, and “Clones Wars” microseries director Genndy Tartakovsky, although John Williams certainly delivered the goods musically). In one film, however, Abrams and his pitch-perfect cast do what Lucas hasn’t been able to do in four films and one TV series- breathe exhilarating new life into an iconic science fiction franchise so that it’ll last long on the screen (big or small) in the new century.

6. “Drag Me to Hell” (Sam Raimi)- Bankers have become the bad guys of late what with the recent economy trials (and bailout of the Wall Streeters who put us in this mess to begin with). So when “Evil Dead” auteur Raimi delivered this story of a loan officer who’s cursed by an old gypsy woman back in May, maybe it was a little too soon for horror to take it to the industry. But watching it six months later, the film- Raimi’s fastest and funniest thriller in decades- is a modern benchmark in a genre of 3-D splatterfests, “why bother?” retreads, and “Saw” queasiness that lives up to every promise of its’ title, not to mention the man who made it.

7. “Cookies & Cream” (Princeton Holt)- I’ve seen a number of films that most people won’t find at a theatre near you. This comes courtesy of the filmmakers who’ve emailed me via Sonic Cinema looking to get their movie reviewed. This beauty, from writer-director Princeton Holt, is one of the roughest technically, but possibly my favorite in general. Jace Nicole plays a college student- and mother of one- who is also an adult online performer. You have to do what you have to do to get by, right? But what happens when it comes to finding Mr. Right? Holt’s smart writing, and Nicole’s sympathetic lead performance, shows the tough choices ahead in a way that’s funny and memorably engaging.

8. “Watchmen” (Zack Snyder)- Has a film divided critics (and geeks) so decisively in recent memory than Snyder’s adaptation of the long-thought “unfilmmable” graphic novel by Alan Moore. Well, the comics icon has given up on Hollywood when it comes to adapting his work, but Snyder gives cynics a startling accomplishment in cinema- a smart, difficult, provocative comic book adaptation. It’s not easy to do in this post-”Dark Knight” and “Sin City” world, but the “300” director does right by his dark, haunting source, and the visionary who- in comic form- used it as a way of maturing comics beyond simple superhero tales of good and evil.

9. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (David Yates)- With it’s sixth film, the filn series of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga has gone into uncharted territory. Apart from the continued maturation of its’ cast under the skilled direction of David Yates, the the franchise has also gotten better as its’ gone along, making the 2-part finale as major an event as the original film in the series was. Kudos to a keen combination of fresh blood and smart continuity. George Lucas should take note should he think about continuing “Star Wars” anytime soon.

10. “Avatar” (James Cameron)- The “Titanic” Oscar-winner’s writing hasn’t improved over the past twelve years, but damn he’s raised the bar visually. I’ve heard some good arguments about parts of the story he tells- like the overall negative view of the military and the unsubtle illusions to modern times- but it’s in the sweep of his storytelling where Cameron succeeds stupendously. The best 3-D we’ve seen yet in live action (“Coraline” still holds the title with “Up” in animation), and a thunderous action film with genuine heart (“Transformers” has nothing on this), Cameron said we wouldn’t have seen anything like it before. Especially in its’ remarkable IMAX 3-D presentation, “Avatar” lived up to his audacious promise.

Other Notable Favorites: Personally, I found this a particularly strong year on the faves front- a lot of movies I can see myself watching over and over in the years to come. Apart from the ten above, others that didn’t quite hit that level of entertainment (but came really dang close) include: “Drawing With Chalk”, one of those “labor of love” indies about life and all its’ complications, only with the harsh ring of truth and an entertaining passion for music; “I Love You, Man”, a rowdy and wild bromance with Paul Rudd finding his male groove thing with Jason Segal; “Red Cliff”, John Woo’s epic saga of the Battle of Red Cliff during the Han Dynasty, which comes vividly and brutally to life in the master filmmakers’ hands; “Michael Jackson’s This Is It”, with the King of Pop giving it his all for a comeback death cut short- thankfully, the film- and the man- lets the musical legacy speak for itself; “The Invention of Lying”, Ricky Gervais’ witty and wickedly entertaining satire in which one man cuts through literal truth to a greater emotional truth; “Uptown”, a New York story of that thin line between friendship and love that men and women sometimes trip over- Brian Ackley’s perceptive writing and the performances by Chris Riquinha and Meissa Hampton ring true every step of the way; “Coraline”, Henry Selick’s creepy-cool stop-motion masterwork based on the haunting fable by Neil Gaiman; “Strictly Sexual”, a low-budget spin on female libidos in overdrive (a la “Sex and the City”) with smart and sexy performances by Amber Benson and Kristen Kerr as friends who hire a couple of newcomers to L.A. to, um, satisfy their needs; “The Open Door”, an independently-made teen genre film that has all of the familiar elements, but none of the trappings of formula when it comes to story and scares; “Two Lovers”, with a never-better Joaquin Phoenix as an emotionally closed-off man who finds himself given two opportunities at love in James Foley’s drama; “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”, which is as big and dumb a movie as we’ve come to expect from “The Mummy’s” Stephen Sommers, but captured the spirit of these Real American Heroes as only a goofy action-adventure can; “Zorg and Andy”, which is as zany as a “Simpsons” episode with the production values of an Ed Wood film- the result is the type of high-concept comedy we don’t see much anymore; “Where the Wild Things Are”, which expands Maurice Sendak’s ten sentence classic into a sometimes-painful, but ultimately heartwarming tale of rites of passage for young Max (the unforgettable Max Records); “Inglourious Basterds”, Quentin Tarantino’s wild, revisionist WWII epic with Brad Pitt as a good ol’ boy out to “kill Nazis”- war’s never been this crazy; “The Girlfriend Experience”, which stars young hard-core icon Sasha Grey as a high-class hooker trying to control the way she runs her business when nothing else is so certain during the economic hardships of ‘08; “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, a family film with visual wonders and verbal intelligence to go with its’ one-of-a-kind style; “Up in the Air”, with a never-better George Clooney as a corporate “axe man” at the point in his life where he might be prepared to let someone in; “Paranormal Activity”, the no-budget ghost story smash that made horror terrifying again; “District 9”, a tale of South African repression when a corporation is brought in to move aliens out of the slums, and into worse conditions that was the summer’s smartest sci-fi thriller; “Night for Day”, which combines vampires with old-school noir in a way that’s sexy, suspenseful, and surprising; and “Knuckle Draggers”, a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that gets guys and their Neanderthal ways right without being mean about it.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order): “2012”; “9”; “Angels & Demons”; “Away We Go”; “Baystate Blues”; “Black Dynamite”; “The Brothers Bloom”; “Brüno”; “Carter.”; “A Christmas Carol”; “The Cross: The Arthur Blessitt Story”; “Cut From Home”; “Diary of a Bad Lad”; “Don’t Shoot the Pharmacist!”; “Friday the 13th”; “Funny People”; “A Good Alibi”; “Goodbye Solo”; “The Haunting in Connecticut”; “The Hurt Locker”; “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”; “I Love You, Beth Cooper”; “The Informant!”; “It’s Complicated”; “The Last Lullaby”; “The Men Who Stare at Goats”; “My Bloody Valentine”; “My Life in Ruins”; “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”; “Observe and Report”; “Pirate Radio”; “Ponyo”; “The Princess and the Frog”; “Public Enemies”; “The Quiet Arrangement”; “Saw VI”; “A Serious Man”; “The Soloist”; “Terminator: Salvation”; “Thicker Than Water: The Vampire Diaries- Part 1”; “Thirst”; “Tokyo!”; “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”; “Zombieland”

Brian’s Favorite Performances of 2009

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, ”(500) Days of Summer”; Zach Galifianakis, “The Hangover”; Ricky Gervais, “The Invention of Lying”; Zooey Deschanel, ”(500) Days of Summer”; Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”; Ed Asner, “Up”; Jace Nicole, “Cookies & Cream”; Jackie Earl Haley, “Watchmen”; Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds”; Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”; Tony Leung, “Red Cliff”; Michael Jai White, “Black Dynamite”; Karl Urban, “Star Trek”; Meissa Hampton, “Uptown”; Amber Benson, “Strictly Sexual”; Woody Harrelson, “Zombieland” & “The Messenger”; Jeremy Renner, “The Hurt Locker”; Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”; Chris Riquinha, “Uptown”; Emma Watson, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”; Alison Lohman, “Drag Me to Hell”; Max Records, “Where the Wild Things Are”; Sam Worthington, “Avatar”; Kristen Kerr, “Strictly Sexual”; Julie Benz, “The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day”; Matt Damon, “The Informant!”; Ewan McGregor, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”; George Clooney, “Up in the Air,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” & “”The Men Who Stare at Goats”; Malin Akerman, “Watchmen”; Tom Sizemore, “The Last Lullaby”; Sasha Grey, “The Girlfriend Experience”; Daniel Radcliffe, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”; Takeshi Kaneshiro, “Red Cliff”; Anna Kendrick, “Up in the Air”; Gwyneth Paltrow, “Two Lovers”; Diane Kruger, “Inglourious Basterds”; Jeff Bridges, “The Men Who Stare at Goats”; Jamie Foxx, “The Soloist”; Robert Downey Jr., “The Soloist”; Paul Rudd, “I Love You, Man”; Jason Segel, “I Love You, Man”; Jim Carrey, “A Christmas Carol”; Viggo Mortensen, “The Road”; Ben Foster, “The Messenger”; Adam Sandler, “Funny People”; Leslie Mann, “Funny People”; Michael Gambon, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”; Willem Dafoe, “Antichrist”; Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Antichrist”; Johnny Depp, “Public Enemies”; Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”; Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Road”.

Brian’s Favorite Music of 2009

What a wonderful, original year for film music! Even scores with source material were a thing of beauty and fun to hear. Of course, that helps when you’re in the hands (and heads) of masters and original voices. The best of those this year was Michael Giacchino, who hit a trifecta of excellence within a month this past summer with his exciting score for “Star Trek”, his lovely musical adventure for Pixar’s “Up”, and the campy delights of “Land of the Lost”. If he isn’t rewarded with an Oscar this year, no TV is safe from my wrath. Still, he wasn’t alone is hitting movie music peaks- the old vet Marvin Hamlisch came up with something fresh and fun for the darkly-comic “The Informant!”, and Bruno Coulais brought a delicate originality to the stop-motion “Coraline”. Tarô Iwashiro wrote a lush and thundering score for the John Woo battle epic “Red Cliff” that matches the masters of old in force and feeling. And I would love to see Oscar love for Adrian Younge for the pitch-perfect sound of his score (and songs) for the Blaxploitation homage “Black Dynamite”, but will voters know it was written now (and more importantly, will it get the push it deserves)?

And these are just the composers and scores that hit my top five. Zack Snyder did a brilliant job of blending period songs with Tyler Bates’ superb electronica score for “Watchmen”, while Spike Jonze found just the right balance between original songs by Karen O. and the Kids and underscore by Carter Burwell (who also did his customarily superb work for the Coens with his score for “A Serious Man”) to get to the sadness and tough themes of his fantasy “Where the Wild Things Are”. “Michael Jackson’s This Is It” was more than just a revealing look at a side of the late icon we’ve never seen, but a celebration of the soulful and sensational music he left behind. On the horror front, Christopher Young flexed his creepiest compositional chops for Sam Raimi’s return to horror “Drag Me to Hell”. Nathan Johnson delivered a quirky and deliciously old-fashioned score for his brother’s “The Brothers Bloom”. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis crafted a quiet and sad musical accompaniment for “The Road. Ben Lovett provided a moody score for the independent thriller “The Last Lullaby”, while Vincent Nigro let jazz and suspense cues tell the story of vampires and the occult in “Night for Day”. Alan Silvestri combined original underscore and Christmas classics to beautiful effect for Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol”. The high seas rebels of radio in “Pirate Radio” delivered a classic playlist of disreputable rock that made the government’s eyes roll. “Drawing With Chalk” had a musical soul that rang true as two friends have to make difficult life decisions. Rolfe Kent continued to invigorate comedic scoring with his sly and wry work for Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air”, while Alexandre Desplat continues to stir things up in the annual Oscar derby with his spry and lively score for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Nicholas Hooper continued to prove himself worthy of the mantle John Williams set up musically with his dark, emotional work for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”. James Horner probably won’t win another Oscar, but his music for “Avatar” provided beautiful accompaniment to the epic adventure Cameron put onscreen. Quentin Tarantino delivered his customary sonic excellence with a soundtrack for “Inglourious Basterds” full of classic Italian film music and a couple of choice pop songs (Bowie’s “Cat Power” stood out strong). And Marco Beltrami continued to prove himself a force in modern film music with his nerve-wracking score for “Knowing”.

Brian’s Worst Films of 2009

Real critics will no doubt howl over the films NOT on my list rather than just accept the ones that are. Hey, everyone’s different. But from the looks of these films, however, somethings never really change. Can you say, ugh?

The F’s:
=“Gamer”- Ok, since evidently P.W. Anderson’s “Death Race” remake last year wasn’t enough in the gratuitous violence as “social commentary” genre, the writers/directors of the “Crank” franchise decided to basically remake “The Running Man,” only going one step further to update it for our virtual world. I get that sometimes actors need to take “paycheck” movies, but Gerard Butler is better than junk like this. And say what you will about “The Running Man,” it made its’ points simply and entertainingly; this is just an ugly mess trying to pass as “gritty.”

=“Miss March”- So, yeah. So guy and girl are in love. They plan on having sex after prom. But guy lands in a coma before he can do the deed. Four years later, guy wakes up. Girl is now Playboy’s Miss March. So guy’s tool of a friend takes him on a road trip to the mansion so he can finally hook up with her. Yeah, the film’s about as fun to watch as it was to write about. It’s sad things like this get made, instead of studios using the money to better use…like a lifetime’s worth of cappuccino’s for the world.

=“Free Style”- The most surprising thing in this coming-of-age underdog sports flick starring “High School Musical’s” Corbin Bleu is that it was released in theatres at all. ‘Nuff said.

=“The Final Destination: Death Trip 3-D”- Here’s why the “Saw” franchise, in its’ sixth film, is still durable and this one (only on film four) had long-ago stalled out. While “Saw” has developed an intricate story arc and compelling morality to go with its’ sadistic violence, these films just go through the motions of setup, kill, last-act twist. Death just seems petty. And the 3-D effects utilized here don’t do anything but make the kills more effective visually. Unfortunately, this movie was a success, meaning we can probably expect another one in 3 years time.

The D’s: This year has seen more than its’ fair share of duds. Although none of these hit the level of disaster of the film’s above, well, they weren’t far off. The worst-of “runners up” includes: “Dance Flick”, another awful “parody” comedy, this time with a new generation of Wayans Brothers trying to be funny- they aren’t; “Pandorum”, an “Alien” style sci-fi thriller that studying that classic’s tricks but provided none of its’ treats, instead just shredding my ears with ridiculously loud sound effects; “Dragonball: Evolution”, which wasted terrific talent like Chow Yun-Fat and James Marsters on supernatural martial arts silliness based on the anime franchise; “Imagine That”, the latest nail in Eddie Murphy’s career coffin, this time as a dad who- wouldn’t you know it- has a hard time relating to his kid; and “Madea Goes to Jail”, which had Tyler Perry is fun form as the hard-to-handle matron, but bogged us down with too much freaking melodrama to be in any way consistent.

Brian’s 10 “Must-See” Films of 2010

1. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part I” (11/19)- This nudges out the film below simply because, well, I don’t quite know what I’m gonna get out of the first part of David Yates’ “Potter” finale. “Part II” will be out in 2011 (a very busy 2011 mind you), but as much as my interest is in seeing how the story ends, it also has to do with how they make the split. Hopefully we’re in store for a “Lord of the Rings”-like accomplishment instead of a “Matrix”-esque letdown. The way Yates brought the franchise to dark and exciting depths in “Order of the Phoenix” and “Half-Blood Prince” has me thinking we’re in store for the former.

2. “Toy Story 3” (6/18)- To be fair to the masters at Pixar, but “Toy Story 3” wasn’t exactly a promising proposition for anyone. The first two classics were perfect, symmetrical bookends thematically and storywise. Scarier still was the prospect of a Pixar-less “TS3” back when Disney and Pixar were looking like they might part ways. Thankfully, they made up, and Pixar took over, bringing on “Little Miss Sunshine” Oscar winner Michael Arndt to write to script, which has Andy’s toys in a panic when- with Andy going off to college- they end up donated to a day care. The trailers so far show immense promise of another Pixar classic, this time with the studio’s long-time editor Lee Unkrich directing. I don’t know if it’ll achieve the greatness of its’ predecessors, but one thing’s for certain- the magicians at Pixar know how to have fun, and make audiences cheer.

3. “Alice in Wonderland” (3/5)- Twenty years after their first collaboration (“Edward Scissorhands”), and three years after their most recent (the stunning “Sweeney Todd”), Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are out to turn another iconic children’s fable on its’ head with this trippy adaptation of Lewis Carrolls’ classic tale. Depp is the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter is the Queen of Hearts, Anne Hathaway is the White Queen, as Burton blends live-action and animation (augmented by 3-D) to make Mia Wasikowska’s Alice late for a very important date. I can’t wait to see what Burton and his Rouge’s Gallery of collaborators have in store for us.

4. “Shutter Island” (2/19)- Originally, this psychological thriller- based on the novel by Dennis Lehane- from Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese was set for an October release, and an Oscar run. Sadly, Paramount didn’t think they had the $$ to pull off a legit marketing & Oscar campaign, so they pushed it back to the typically “dead” month of February. Not a good sign, but the creepy trailer- and an A-list cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earl Haley, Ben Kingsley, and others- point to a box-office winner, and another artistic triumph for Scorsese.

5. “Inception” (7/16)- Christopher Nolan has turned into sort of a modern-day Hitchcock, reinventing the thriller genre for his own devices in films as diverse as “Memento,” “The Prestige,” and “The Dark Knight.” Next summer, he’s primed to take it in yet another direction with this futuristic saga starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a murder mystery that has more up its’ sleeve that we might suspect. Sounds like a pretty interesting way to spend one’s time as we await the next chapter in his “Batman” reinvention.

6. “The Expendables” (8/20)- Admittedly, the story of this action drama is not quite known to me. What is known is that Sylvester Stallone has used the success of his recent resurrection projects “Rocky Balboa” and “Rambo” to put together the ultimate cast of movie tough guys (Mickey Rourke, Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Danny Trejo, Jet Li, Stallone himself as well as his Planet Hollywood cohorts Bruce Willis and the Governator in cameos) for another bout of testosterone overload that could fire up the box-office. That “Buffy” and “Angel” babe Charisma Carpenter- along with the late Brittany Murphy- is in the film as well just raises this film’s temperature with me a little more.

7. “Edge of Darkness” (1/29)- Seeing as though this is the return of Mel Gibson in front of the camera for the first time since 2002’s “Signs,” the title of this thriller seems apt. Mel’s damaged his rep big time in the past few years, between his 2006 DUI and anti-Semetic raving, his estrangement from his wife of over 20 years, as well as his shacking up with (and knocking up) a half-his-age singer, can you say midlife crisis? I’ll be happy when we can start talking about him again as an actor and auteur- maybe this thriller, adapted by “Departed” scribe William Monaghan and “Casino Royale” director Martin Campbell from the latter’s BBC miniseries, will get the ball rolling. The trailer certainly bodes well for this January release. Be on the lookout for Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” as well, which stars Mel as a man with a beaver puppet on his hand that he treats as a real person. Hopefully, Foster and Gibson have another fun treat in store for fans of their chemistry in “Maverick.”

8. “Iron Man 2” (5/7)- Yeah, “The Dark Knight” made more box-office moola, but come on, 2008’s Marvel flagship- as steered by director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr.- made arguably the biggest impression on fans with one of the best origin comic films of all-time. Look for Favs and the never-hotter Downey Jr. to crank things up even more with Mickey Rourke in as Whiplash and Scarlett Johansson rocking it as Black Widow. Terrance Howard is gone as Rhodes sadly, but there are worse replacements than Don Cheadle. If that cast along doesn’t get you stoked about the year’s hottest sequel, I don’t know what will.

9. “Tron Legacy” (12/17)- In the continuing revisionism of modern Hollywood, actually making an honest-to-goodness sequel to an ‘80s movie rather than just remaking it qualifies as originality. In a way, there’s no other sequel coming out next year I’m looking forward to more. “Tron” is an iconic piece of every nerd’s childhood- the groundbreaking use of computers, the Wendy Carlos score, the simply cool premise. Finally, Disney has brought this long-awaited sequel into fruition, in 3-D (and IMAX 3-D) no less. I’ll tell you what- if the entire movie lives up to the potential of the teaser trailer we saw several months ago, it’ll be another great holiday for the “Big Bang” set.

10. “Green Hornet” (12/22)- Here’s the film with the strangest production history…and yet, the most promise of any 2010 film on here because of it. Taking his cue from the cult classic serial hero, Seth Rogan is taking the lead role on in this action adventure, which he’s also writing with “Superbad” and “Pineapple Express” partner Eric Goldberg. Originally, “Kung Fu Hustle” maestro Stephen Chow was going to direct and take on the role of Kato, but creative differences led to his exit in both capacities. In his place at director is “Eternal Sunshine” and “Be Kind Rewind” visionary Michel Gondry, whose previous films don’t even begin to point towards what we’ll get from here. No matter- the combo of Rogan and Gondry is an intriguing one, and with Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, and “Inglourious Basterds’” Christoph Waltz populating this universe, well, at the very least it’ll be another original from Gondry.

Other 2010 titles to look out for include: “The Book of Eli” (1/15), a provocative-looking post-apocalyptic thriller from the Hughes Brothers (“From Hell,” “Menace II Society”) starring Denzel Washington; “Clash of the Titans” (3/26), a reworking of the cult 1981 fantasy film on Greek Mythology with new genre fave Sam Worthington taking on the main role for “Incredible Hulk” director Louis Leterrier; “Cop Out” (2/26), the latest comedy by raunch icon Kevin Smith (this time working from another person’s script) delving into the crime comedy genre with Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan; “Green Zone” (3/12), a tantalizing political thriller set in Iraq from the “Bourne” team of Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass; “Daybreakers” (1/8), another vampire thriller, only one with a premise more “I Am Legend” than “Twilight,” with Ethan Hawke and Sam Neil starring; “Robin Hood” (5/14), Ridley Scott’s reworking of the English legend with frequent leading man Russell Crowe; “The Wolf Man” (2/10), Universal’s long-delayed remake of the iconic Lon Chaney monster movie classic, with Benecio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins under the direction of future “Captain America” director Joe Johnston- the previews promise a Gothic delight; “Date Night” (4/9), a promising romantic action-comedy with Steve Carell and Tina Fey; “The Last Airbender” (7/2), M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the instant Anime classic “Avatar: The Last Airbender”- maybe this is the film that gets him off the relative losing streak he’s been on since “Signs”; “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (12/10), the third film based on C.S. Lewis’ epic fantasy series, now set up at Fox after Disney dropped it after “Prince Caspian” failed to perform; “Leap Year” (1/8), an impossibly cute rom-com at the start of 2010 with the always adorable Amy Adams as a woman looking to propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day; “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (5/28), with Jerry Bruckheimer and “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” director Mike Newell trying to break the video game-to-movie jinx with Jake Ghyllenhaal as the titular Prince in this action-adventure (could go either way); “Nightmare on Elm St.” (4/30), another classic slasher getting the Platinum Dunes reboot treatment- Jackie Earl Haley is great casting as Freddy, but Wes Craven’s original is fine just the way it is; “Legion” (1/22), an intriguing-enough supernatural thriller about angels and demons that could be good enough for a January surprise, but who knows anymore; “Little Fockers” (7/30), the inevitable continuation of Ben Stiller’s family pratfall series, where he and Teri Polo become parents- can they keep it going?; and “Death at a Funeral” (4/10), a remake of Frank Oz’s 2007 Brit wit gem with a killer cast including Chris Rock, Danny Glover, Martin Lawrence, Zoe Saldana and others- yeah, it’s unnecessary, but the cast (and director Neil LaBute) makes me curious.