Mad Men was more exciting than two-thirds of the movies released this year. This season-long immersion into the world of half a century ago proved breathtakingly strange even to those who were children then. With Jon Hamm's astonishing Don Draper as a traumatized executive ready to chew his leg off rather than get caught in familial snares, Mad Men made Up in the Air look fairly soft.
Yet George Clooney and Vera Farmiga's performances in Up in the Air exemplify the highest kind of screen acting—they're magic together—and that may be all that matters. Bearing almost everything Cary Grant had, Clooney displays far more eclectic tastes in material; his charm and dissatisfaction took Fantastic Mr. Fox out of the realm of kids' films into a seriocomic midlife crisis.
But Up in the Air has led reviewers to coin the word "fauxmey," meaning "faux" and "homey." Do the fauxmey Midwestern wedding scenes and the robust product placement for American Airlines and Hertz count as a critique of the System? Somehow, those cool airport concourses eclipse the passages about what the aviation industry does to its pilots, as seen in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.
Frank Rich of The New York Times is interested that Up in the Air has as its "primal" background the aftereffects of a Wall Street culture that's turning the United States into a boneyard. His point is unarguable. The question that keeps me from whole-heartedly embracing this movie is whether Clooney's Ryan Bingham have been a better person if he had a family to come home to after a day of cutting throats to boost stocks.
Not all was escapism, though, in the real film story of 2009. This year finally showed that animation would never again be regarded as a novelty or a subset of cinema. From the blue motion-captured aliens of Avatar to the belle dame of Coraline, 2009 was to animation what 1939 was to studio filmmaking.
I recently interviewed Mark Henn, a supervising animator on The Princess and the Frog, another ornament of the year in animation. Rather naturally, Henn credited this trove to the Disney organization. "There were, what, 30 animated films this year?" he asked. "But before the revival or renaissance of Disney in the 1980s, there had been just two or three animated movies a year. We're now seeing the fruits of the efforts we had during that '80s renaissance period."
It's a theory. There's seemingly very little Disney in Coraline, although director Henry Selick worked at Disney. Fantastic Mr. Fox and the sublime Town Called Panic, still unreleased, reflect Britain's Wallace and Gromit more than the Mouse. Whether the technological breakthrough is Disney's A Christmas Carol or Avatar, we witnessed an epochal banquet for children and adults alike. Maybe the key is that these animated films are trying to appeal to everyone instead of a limited, demographically select audience.
I despair when people say Up was cute. What they meant, I hope, was "acute." Yes, it has balloons and talking dogs and we can see the limits of the Pixar/Disney's vision in the final imagining of Oakland's Piedmont district. But Up, rather than Up in the Air, was the best film of 2009. It demonstrates a more wrenching understanding of the problem of staying and going. Its subject is the burden of dreams, and it partakes of blood, gunfire and the uncanny. The story of a man strapped to a haunted house—is that your idea of cute?
Old Carl, the true fanatic, redoubles his aims as he loses his concept of what he's trying to preserve. Is it his memories or the wooden hulk that contains them? It's not the candy colors that make the movie a classic but rather the serious cinematic storytelling during the already famous first five to 10 minutes. Careful writing matches two old men in their mutual obsessions, and (very unusual in a film Disney had anything to do with) it suggests that it is a terrible fate to cling to a past. This is a hard lesson for animators, who are almost all terrible nostaglics.
A close second to Up was Coraline, a ravishing fairy tale told with Oregon terroir and Grimm Brothers terror; here is a more elegant tale of the dangers of coming of age than Twilight: New Moon's spot-that-metaphor game of deflowering equals vampirization.
The Canadian heavy metal doc Anvil! The Story of Anvil shows that even in the age when everyone documents everyone else, it's still possible to trust a director. Critics have remarked of The Hurt Locker that it is amazing a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, made such a tough movie. Could a man have directed Agnès Varda's gentle yet incisive The Beaches of Agnès? Here's proof that self-documentation doesn't have to be boring; a mirror turned to an artist can turn out to reflect a good portion of the world. And what this year was more triumphant that the display of the inner youth of an elderly lady?
A Serious Man's fear and trembling is the opposite. The fable of a confused hero (Michael Stuhlbarg) caught between human malice and divine silence is essential viewing in a year when possibly more nonsense was talked about God and what He wants than in perhaps any other year in the history of the world. (You could judge this nonstatistic on a basis of population alone—nearly 7 billion, and the internet gives them quite a megaphone.) The Informant!'s similar Midwestern blight and its study of trust and duplicity also constitute a kind of corporate critique—more Sinclair Lewis than Billy Wilder.
Sin Nombre is as dreamy as a film could be, dealing with the unspeakably sordid subject matter of drug gangs. Cary Fukunaga's post&–City of Gold filmmaking represents as accomplished a debut as we have enjoyed in years. And The Maid's ride-along with a domestic servant is a work of great intimacy and terror, and of unexpected mercy.
As for the rest of the year: I don't know if I have energy enough left to slap it goodbye. On the non-blockbuster, flank we endured a coterie of hipster coming-of-age movies that make one wonder if a certain segment of society is ever going to grow up—Away We Go, Gigantic, Where the Wild Things Are. If (500) Days of Summer gets the Oscar for best original script, the Academy will be rewarding screenwriters who couldn't come up with a funnier porn movie title than Sweet and Shower. It's not a precedent we want to set.
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