Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Before the Oscars®: Looking Back at '09

by Ray Morton

With one year ending, another one beginning, and awards season starting to ramp up, this is the time when those of us that write about movies present our lists of the Best and Worst cinematic achievements of the previous twelve months. Since my purview is screenwriting, I’m going to focus my attention on what I consider to be the best and the most dubious screenplays of 2009.

For me, hands down the best script -- and the best film -- of 2009 is Up (screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, and Thomas McCarthy). In this time of remakes and recycling, when originality and imagination are at a premium and movies have lost much of their sense of wonder, every frame of this gem from Pixar was terrifically fresh, clever, and bedazzling. The story is jam-packed with inventive concepts – so many that it is almost impossible to synopsize the narrative in any way that makes it sound coherent (“Y’see, it’s about this boy that meets a girl. They fall in love and spend fifty years together. Then she dies and he is sad and then he’s going to lose his house, so he hooks it up to a bunch of balloons and sails it away with an annoying Boy Scout in tow. The two travel to South America, where they befriend a goofy flightless bird and encounter a crazy explorer whose henchmen are a pack of squirrel-obsessed talking dogs…” Huh?) and yet the material is so impeccably structured and emotionally true that all of the outlandish ideas make complete sense and so are totally believable in context.

I was also very impressed with The Hurt Locker (screenplay by Mark Boal) which I felt was Hemingway-esqe in the best sense of the term – marvelously spare and simple on the surface, rich and complex underneath – and District 9 (screenplay by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell), which took an idea we’d seen before (in the film and television series Alien Nation) and by treating it with depth and intelligence and by peopling it with relatable three-dimensional characters (both human and alien), transformed it into a fresh and exciting sci-fi adventure, as well as a really good movie. In addition, I was a fan of a film that, for reasons I don’t really understand, was cited by many critics as being one of the worst of the year -- The Men Who Stare at Goats. I thought screenwriter Peter Straughan did a marvelous job of adapting some truly bizarre and seemingly improbable real-life material into a really smart and interesting fictional narrative that was both biting (in its savage view of the insanity of the military intelligence community) and sweet (in its depiction of the goofy-but-sincere higher-consciousness aspirations of the characters played by George Clooney and Jeff Bridges).

These qualities aside, the main reason that I liked all of these films is that they made me feel something – Up made me laugh and cry (continuously and often concurrently); The Hurt Locker terrified me and I found the war between a desire for normality and the excitement of living on the edge that raged inside of Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant First Class William James to be both disturbing and compelling; District 9 was exciting, funny, and in the end quite moving (the site of Sharto Copely’s transformed protagonist crafting a metal flower on a garbage dump was both heartbreaking and uplifting); The Men Who Stare at Goats found enormous heart and soul in the blackest of black comedy. I’ve said a number of times in this column that the primary factor that prompts me to recommend a script is if it provokes some sort of genuine emotional reaction in me. To put some words down on paper that move another human being is the hardest and rarest thing to do in writing and something that the authors of these scripts manage to accomplish in impressive ways. Bravo to them all.

As for the year’s other notable releases:

On the positive side, I feel about Inglorious Basterds the way I feel about everything Quentin Tarantino does – I can’t help but admire its bold and furious inventiveness, while at the same time wishing that it was actually about something other than all of that bold and furious inventiveness. I enjoyed Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes, although I would have preferred if both of them had been less frenetic and had the courage to be as smart as they were clever. Likewise, I wish both Up in the Air and (500) Days of Summer had been as deep as they were smart (although I definitely enjoyed the smart). Despite claims to the contrary, I didn’t think The Hangover was the funniest movie ever, but I laughed a lot and really admired its commitment to going as far as necessary for a joke. Where the Wild Things Are was a bit raggedy as a story, but I was impressed by its effortless fantasy and its willingness to embrace the darker sides of childhood without making a big deal out of it. There were things to like in Away We Go, Sunshine Cleaning, and Everybody’s Fine that helped to balance out the more annoying and cloying elements in each.

On the negative side, I thought that, while Avatar had some appeal as a viewing experience, as a script it was a dud – ham-fisted, derivative, and silly. The same goes for 2012 and Transformers 2. The most disappointing film of the year for me was Pirate Radio (The Boat that Rocked in the U.K.) – I am a big, big fan of screenwriter Richard Curtis’s work and while none of his scripts have been perfect, they have all been smart, witty, peopled with well-realized characters that are easy to care about, and full of heart. Pirate Radio has none of these qualities – it is long, unfocused, not particularly funny, filled with frustratingly one-dimensional characters, and missing the sweet soul that has been at the center of the rest of Curtis’s oeuvre. Everyone’s entitled to a bad day, though, so I’m hoping that Pirate Radio will turn out to be just a curious misfire in an otherwise stellar career. My vote for worst script of 2009 (or of mid-1970s, when it was allegedly written) is Woody Allen’s Whatever Works – a bitter, mean-spirited, and terribly unfunny script about miserable characters (or, in most cases, caricatures) behaving horribly to one another for ninety minutes before finally arriving at insights and resolutions that were probably just as stale thirty-five years ago as they are today. It’s hard to believe that the man that once wrote that “You have to have a little faith in people,” could produce something so excruciatingly misanthropic, but the result is frustrating and sad not just because of that, but also because it is yet another sign of the decline of a once magnificent writer.

In the end, 2009 was a mixed time for screenwriting and for movies. Still, any year that produce one great script, a few pretty good ones, and a number of okay ones has to be considered a pretty decent one. Let’s hope 2010 is even better.

Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.

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