Avatar and Fantastic Mr. Fox, two of 2009's most satisfying screen endeavors, couldn't be further apart, technology-wise. In vivid ways, they represent the future and the past of filmmaking - the 21st and 20th centuries - and demonstrate with resounding artistry that both innovation and a respect for tradition are essential storytelling components.
James Cameron's $230 million-plus sci-fi eco-yarn, about an ex-Marine who joins a blue-skinned tribe on a faraway planet, deployed new 3-D cameras, sophisticated motion-capture devices, an army of digital renderers and more visual effects and CGI than you can shake a stick at.
Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, adapted from the Roald Dahl children's book about a family of foxes and its efforts to, um, outfox a trio of farmers, was filmed in the no-less-painstaking process of stop-motion animation, with puppets repositioned in micro-increments on dollhouse sets. It's a primitive technique that goes back to the silent era, and offers a visual "dimensionality" that hand-drawn and even computer animation can't deliver. One 90-second scene in Fox - the banquet in the flint mine - took 7 1/2 weeks to shoot.
Both Cameron and Anderson went out of their way to not do things in the customary manner, approaching their respective projects with singular obsession, a focus on detail, and a determination to not take "can't do it" for an answer. (Anderson's cinematographer was ready to quit because the director wanted to shoot as if he were making a live-action movie, like The Royal Tenenbaums, just with more fur.)
It's not just the technologies (futuro and retro) that make these films so exceptional. Each bears its director's stamp, and each invites the audience into a world that's different, dynamic, fully realized. At a certain point in each film, I found myself out of myself - totally immersed. And that's what great movies, no matter what their stripe or color, ambition or agenda, are supposed to do.
(Admittedly, it took me longer with Avatar - I was fighting it, and fighting the hype - but by the time Sully and Neytiri climbed atop their banshees, soaring over the Pandoran rainforest, I was there.)
Although 2009 wasn't the strongest year for films - the Academy should have made the move to double its slate of best picture contenders in 2007, which was rife with gems, not now - it nonetheless produced stellar work. Bubbling under my Top Ten, in no particular order, are the animated features Up (Pixar strikes again!) and Coraline (another stop-motion triumph); the documentaries Food, Inc. and The September Issue; the home-grown docs In a Dream and Pressure Cooker; Lee Daniels' audacious Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire; John Woo's ancient-China war epic, Red Cliff; J.J. Abrams' rocking, rocketing Star Trek; the blotto free-for-all of The Hangover; Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours; Cary Fukunaga's border-crossing nightmare, Sin Nombre; the Oscar-nominated Austrian thriller Revanche; Hirokazu Koreeda's sad, lovely Still Walking; and the blaxploitation send-up Black Dynamite.
Not to mention (so we're mentioning) the brilliant acting turns that made Crazy Heart (Jeff Bridges as a washed-up, alcoholic country star), The Damned United (Michael Sheen as an enigmatic English soccer coach), Moon (Sam Rockwell as a lonely astronaut), and Me and Orson Welles (Christian McKay as the Mercury Theater despot) unforgettable.
Among the overrated - or in the I-just-didn't-get-it category - I'd have to pick Quentin Tarantino's World War II fantasy, Inglourious Basterds. Also on the list: Clint Eastwood's cornball salute to Nelson Mandela, Invictus; the Iraq war post-traumatic stress drama The Messenger; and Steven Soderbergh's manic The Informant!
This year saw DIY filmmaking reach new heights with the mega-success of Paranormal Activity, and sturdy sequels in the Harry Potter and Twilight series. Sandra Bullock scored huge hits with The Proposal and The Blind Side, and bombed nuclear with the scary-awful stalker-com, All About Steve.
George Clooney's box office wasn't as big as Bullock's this year, but his choices have been dead-on: The loopy The Men Who Stare At Goats, the title role in Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the lead in Up in the Air.
Which leads me to my list:
Avatar - Cameronian grandeur in a 3-D Dances with Wolves for the gamer generation. A trip - and kinda trippy.
Bright Star - Jane Campion's ode to John Keats, and ode to love, with Abbie Cornish as the Romantic poet's fashionista muse.
An Education - Carey Mulligan shines as an independent-minded teen who falls for an older gent (Peter Sarsgaard) in this pre-Mod London period piece, scripted by Nick Hornby.
Fantastic Mr. Fox - It's existential, it's elegant, it's adorable, it's a caper flick - a portrait of married life and a meditation on the innate conflict between our wilder instincts and our need to be civilized. And Fox's adieu to Rat offers a cold, hard view of it all: "At the end of the day, he's still just a dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant."
Goodbye Solo - Ramin Bahrani's soul-stirring story of an African immigrant cab driver and the old, lonesome Southerner who becomes his passenger and his friend - and who plans to kill himself in a couple of weeks.
The Hurt Locker - Intense suspense from first frame to last in Kathryn Bigelow's look at the Iraq war from inside the protective headgear of a maverick Army bomb squad sergeant (Jeremy Renner).
A Serious Man - The ominous twister that spirals toward the camera at the end of the Coen Brothers' dark, dark comedy says it all: there's no predicting what life's going to bring. Set in the mid-1960s Midwest and steeped in Jewish-American culture, the film heaps woe upon woe on the head of its title character (Michael Stuhlbarg), a family man and physics professor who has worse luck than Job.
Sugar - Indie filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's beautifully observed portrait of a young Dominican baseball player who dreams of playing in America - and then gets to live the dream, with unexpected results.
35 Shots of Rum - Cinema as poetry, poetry as cinema, in Claire Denis' achingly lovely look at a French-African community on the outskirts of Paris, focusing on the relationship between a father and his grown daughter.
Up in the Air - Director Jason Reitman captures the angst of the Great Recession - and the era of the Great Layoffs - with Clooney as a guy who fires people for a living, and is happier in an airport executive lounge than he is in his own home. Vera Farmiga plays a fellow frequent flier, and Anna Kendrick the young exec who thinks she has all the answers - on her laptop.