Tis the season to check out some of 2009’s best movies, as determined by the cinephiles in Emory’s Department of Film Studies. The diverse selections (minus a couple of major releases in mid-December) include a mix of blockbusters, documentaries, international works and smaller films that are definitely worth a look. Faculty raters include Matthew H. Bernstein, chair of film studies, along with Eddy Von Mueller.
“Given the structure of the annual film schedule, distributors with few exceptions hold back on releasing their often high-quality Oscar bait until late in the year, when the film studies faculty are busy grading student work,” says Bernstein. “Here follows a list of recommended films released through November 2009. “Up in the Air” and “The Messenger” may be worth including, but we can get back to you on those in January. Happy viewing.”
A SINGLE MAN Some may carp at fashion photographer Tom Ford’s “too perfect” visual style that in certain scenes betray his background in this literate adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel, but Colin Firth provides a transformative performance as a British gay college professor who is mourning to the point of suicide for the love of his life who has suddenly died in a car crash. Set in Los Angeles in the early 1960s, well before Stonewall, this is a moving example of cinematic mourning, helped immeasurably by the stellar Julianne Moore as his closest friend. (MHB)
AN EDUCATION Few films capture so effectively as this one a teenager’s urgent desire to be taken seriously and to be grown up. The early 1960s British setting (pre-Beatles, pre-swinging London) is meticulously recreated, and the lead performances are impressive-a breakthrough role for Carey Mulligan as the precocious 16-year-old and yet another notch in the belt for Peter Saarsgaard as the 35-year-old sophisticated man who wins her heart and that of her conventional parents. (MHB)
AVATAR and PRINCESS AND THE FROG – The Biz is currently serving up a pair of box-office and mass-marketed heavyweights that are also claiming to mark historic turning points for American cinema: “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s mostly 2-D musical featuring the company’s first African American “Princess,” and James Cameron’s hyper-hyped “Avatar,” which promises to be the Last Word in sci-fi cinema.
There’s technically nothing wrong with the manufacture of these two would-be “revolutionaries.” Both represent the very best of what animators can accomplish these days, with ink-and-paint or motion-capture. Both films do dazzle, when dazzling is called for – and often, frankly, when it isn’t. Ballyhoo and bang-for-your-buck aside, though, both these films are finally a little too calculated, a little too cold. And whatever records might be broken, neither film is particularly innovative. These are emphatically safe films. Depending on your tastes, top-shelf execution and more than abundant entertainment value may not quite cover the clumsy armature of pandering politics, faux-progressivism and ham-fisted storytelling that underlie both these hits. (EVM)
DISTRICT 9 This clever South African space-opera turned slum-opera about a drab bureaucrat working in a refugee camp inhabited by sentient, really jumbo shrimps stranded on Earth when their spaceship malfunctions may be the year’s biggest surprise. One part “COPs,”one part “Aliens,” and one part “The Office” injected with a healthy dose of gross-out gore, this genre-jumping satire fuses state-of-the-art CGI effects with ragged, hand-held camcorder realism to make a mix deeply felt and thoughtful enough for art-house audiences and still far enough over the top for horror and sci-fi fans. (EVM)
EVERLASTING MOMENTS Swedish director Jan Troell is not nearly as well known or prolific as countryman Ingmar Bergman. But his most recent film is a meticulous and photographically stunning recreation of working class life at the turn of the 20th century, centered on a hard working mother (a superlative performance by Maria Heiskanen) who appreciates life’s ephemeral pleasures, especially when she learns how to use a still camera, and takes photos that endure, like Maria herself. (MHB)
FOOD, INC. Robert Kenner’s no-holds barred documentary reveals how the American food industry functions-in terms of quality, safety and humaneness, all sacrificed to the principle of quantity. With expert testimony from investigative journalists and food writers Michael Pollen (author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and Eric Schlosser (”Fast Food Nation”) among others, the emphasis here is on the dire contemporary conditions, but “Food, Inc.” also offers some glimmers of hope for the future. This is a film every American should see – even if it might turn you into a vegetarian. (MHB)
HURT LOCKER Kathryn Bigelow’s nail-biting expose of life and death on a Baghdad bomb squad is probably the most underseen of this year’s batch of Oscar bait. It’s by no means the most overrated. Not only is it the best film about the Iraq war, it belongs in the ranks of the best war films ever made, giving viewers not an understanding of the conflict (that’s too big a job for any movie) but rather a wrenching insight into some of the people fighting it. Based on first-hand reportage, the movie scores also high marks for balancing drum-tight dramatic storytelling with rivetingly realistic visual style. (EVM)
UP Computer Generated animation has finally come of age with this tale about a cranky widower who accidentally brings an over-eager 8-year-old with him when he decides to fly his house to a Lost World in South America. Beautifully rendered and snappily written, Up also manages the nigh impossible feat of making its synthetic caricatures fully realized characters, giving this tale of balloons, boy scouts, bi-plane flying dogs and very big birds an emotional weight wholly lacking in the vast majority of slick and kinetic films churned out during the current boom in animated films. (EVM)