Some years at the cineplex are just better than others. Which years those are can always be debated, hence the reason why FSR writer Paul Sileo and FSR’s resident devil’s advocate Josh Radde sat on their collective asses to hash out whether or not 2009 was particularly strong or notably weak.

Opening Statement (Josh)

Dear Paul,

Before I begin telling why 2009 was a slow year for movies, let me first say that something needs to be done about that thing growing on your face. Wow.

As an avid moviegoer and appreciator of fine things cinema, I have to admit that 2009 was very underwhelming. There were some very good movies, I admit, it just seems like nothing really sticks out. And being that this is the first year that the Academy will be nominating 10 films, I find it’s hard to even find 5 that could be worthy contenders. But I’m getting ahead of myself:

Let’s start at the beginning of 2009. What was the first movie that blew our collective skirts up and when did it actually come out? Most Americans saw Taken at the end of January, beginning of February, and that was cool. That movie made a ton of money just because the only thing it was competing against were Bride Wars, Paul Blart, and My Bloody Valentine 3D. And let’s be honest: Taken was alright. Coraline was adecent from the first half of the year, as was Hunger, I Love You, Man, and Adventureland. But none of them were pantheon-type films, just early-year fillers. I Love You, Man was funny but it was no 40 Year-Old Virgin and Adventureland was sort of an awkward Dazed and Confused-type film. Either way, nothing to get excited about.

Now I know that a lot of years start out this way, and then gain some momentum heading into the summer with studio blockbusters and indie darlings hitting the scene. However, 2009 was the worst year for Blockbusters we’ve had in awhile. Luckily, it wasn’t as bad as 2007 when Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3, and Pirates 3 all came and blew, but it was still horribly underwhelming. Wolverine, Angels and Demons, Land of the Lost, Year One, G.I. Joe, Public Enemies, Terminator: Salvation, and Transformers 2 were bloated and boring. I’d say only Up, Star Trek, and District 9 lived up to the summer blockbuster hype. In fact, most of these “event” movies were so “meh” that a movie like The Hangover almost grossed $300 million due to lack of real competition. The sixth Harry Potter movie was solid but ultimately pretty forgettable. Fast forward to the November-December event releases and it’s the same thing all over — Sherlock Holmes, New Moon, 2012, and A Christmas Carol were all pretty yawn-inducing as well. Again, due to a lack of diversity at the theaters leads to something like The Blindside making huge bank.

I dunno, maybe it’s too close to 2009 to properly judge how it’ll turn out historically, but let’s finally look at the movies that are “representing” more or less the films of 2009 (in the sense that they will take in awards, not necessarily what will be remembered). The Hurt Locker is a genuinely good, if flawed, film. Up in the Air is charming and funny and is this year’s Sideways for being the film that will be pretty unanimously liked by all groups of people. Inglourious Basterds solidifies Tarantino as an all-time great writer-director, yet is still a deeply flawed film. Precious was touching, but is a one-time-view-only type of movie. Avatar is gorgeous but sports a fatally shallow story (and an even worse execution of basic story-telling technique), therefore making it a movie that we won’t even be able to watch in 5 years because the technology will be out-dated.

So tell me why I’m wrong. I’ll even admit that I haven’t seen everything yet, so maybe there are some gems out there that will make me change my mind (like Moon or An Education or Crazy Heart). I do stand by my opinion that no movies really jump out at me that make 2009 a really stellar year for movies. So I have a question, do a select number of “pretty good” movies equate to a “great” year?

Counter Argument (Paul)

Happy New Year to you, Mr. Radde.

Now that I have been sufficiently cordial, let me take a little time out of my busy life of being ridiculously intelligent to—how do you say it?—“bring myself down to your level.” For someone who probably spent an excited twenty or thirty minutes on the phone gushing over The Squeakquel with Kevin Carr, I can see how you may think 2009 was anything less than brilliant.

You note that this will be the first year we will have ten Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards, but this is pretty much the only thing you got correct in that entire paragraph. This is actually the first year in recent memory where it’s tough to whittle the best films of the year down into ten. Hell, trying to fit the nominees into a category of five would probably have blown enough minds in Hollywood to make it the cerebral equivalent of a Michael Bay flick. 2009 gave us some of the best animation in recent memory (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up, Coraline), some of the best comedy in recent memory (The Hangover), and by far some of the best science fiction since you were but a zygote (District 9, Moon, Star Trek, Avatar). Couple this with films that will long be remembered as one of the best, if not the best in a few cases, from their respected directors (The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, A Serious Man, Up in the Air), then you have quite a year in film, my fuzzy-headed and obnoxiously pale friend.

But let me take a moment to focus on the area where I think 2009 saw its strongest showing: Science Fiction. Holy crap, sir, this was the year that science fiction took a major step forward in respect as a genre. You have four science fiction films that are contenders for Best Picture nominations. Four! I know even you can count that high. When is the last time that happened? Of those four, two (District 9 and Avatar) actually have a legitimate (if perhaps unlikely) shot at not only being nominated but winning. Star Trek is, dare I say it, this year’s The Dark Knight and Moon has a good chance of supplying a contender for Best Actor. And don’t forget, as I know your tiny brain tends to do, that I am only speaking about Best Picture, but that does not mean I don’t think a few of these could pick up other nominations as well (Best Screenplay?!). And let’s not forget that Avatar poised to perhaps surpass Titanic as the biggest money-maker of all time, after it hit the billion dollar mark in only seventeen days.

And though I normally don’t consider Box Office success to mean much, it can’t be overlooked that 2009 had the biggest BO of all time. Out of the top ten, four are also possible Best Picture nomination contenders. So that can also be considered a decent melding of critical and commercial opinion. This is, of course, a pretty damn rough deduction, but I will say it nonetheless.

Ultimately, you focus so much on what 2009 wasn’t that you are neglecting to consider the significance of what it was. Also, would you please kindly leave my beard out of this? It is twice the man and three times the movie critic you are.

Rebuttal (Josh)

Yeah 2009 DID have the biggest BO of all-time — but wasn’t it going to be a huge box office year anyway? Ticket prices raised ON TOP of the fact that basically every movie comes out in 3D now and you have to pay 3 extra bucks to get in. Box office argument: nullified.

Hey man, if sci-fi is your thing then I can see why 2009 was an enticing, drool-inducing year for you. Star Trek was a ton of fun, basically everything you could ask for in an action/adventure sci-fi flick. Abrams = Quality and he really delivered. Avatar, though? If you and your face-rat are three times the movie critic I am, then let’s get together for a beer sometime and you can explain what makes Avatar an Oscar-caliber flick for something other than special effects. I just can’t oblige you there my friend. District 9 is the type of film that filmmakers should try to mimic (special effects that enhance the story); Avatar is a big example of an unfortunate theme that we’ve been seeing more and more lately (special effects in place of story). The fact that Transformers 2 and Avatar are the “biggest” films from this year will only provoke more “visionary” directors to try and up the FX-ante without a legitimate storyline.

And just for shits, let’s poke some holes in the rest of your argument. My problem with The Hangover isn’t that it’s not funny, it often is, but it’s just joke-after-predictable-joke. It’s like watching an episode of “Family Guy” and if that’s your thing, sweet, just don’t hail it “best comedy in recent memory”. Comedy is about characters, not situations, and that’s all that movie was. Fantastic Mr. Fox was fun but very unfocused, Coraline was interesting but not really that creative (especially when watching its wholly uninspired 3D version), and Up was extremely charming, heartfelt, funny, and thrilling, so I give it up to Pixar for continually striving to make great entertainment, but I still lean towards 5 other Pixar movies over Up.

Look, I’m willing to concede a few things. Maybe we’re looking at it from different perspectives. You see a lot of decent-to-really-good movies in one year whereas I see a year where no films really reign (like when we had There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men in 2007) and none of them had people really talking about movies at your everyday functions (with the exception of Avatar where no one I know was entirely blown away by it — well, except for Neil Miller). I haven’t said it was a bad year, just underwhelming. In five years my favorite films from this year (Up, Inglourious Basterds, Up in the Air, (500) Days of Summer, Star Trek, Hunger, Hurt Locker, and Precious [in some order]) will struggle to find a place in my all-time Top 50. So, maybe my expectations were too high; maybe yours were a bit more realistic. Regardless, put this year up against any other year from the past decade and I think it gets clobbered — quality-wise.

Closing Statement (Paul)

I don’t dispute the fact that I consider my BO claim to be a bit shaky. I even said it right after making the observation. I am simply saying that it can’t be wholly ignored. Now, having Transformers 2 as the largest grossing film of the year is certainly dubious, so I will bow to you in this respect.

But let’s talk about Avatar for a moment. This is a film that stands in an interesting place in film history. Not only do we have the typical arguments made with every film about the overall quality, but we also have arguments about whether it really is a “game-changer” or not. And the intersection of these two arguments has causes quite a stir in many circles. Unfortunately, it’s all a matter of opinion (except for the visual impressiveness of the technology, can’t say I’ve seen disagreement on that from more than one person). Personally, I thought Avatar was all three: a great film, a great technical achievement, and a game-changer. Can this be scientifically proven? Of course not. But I think the criticism about Avatar’s story is an unfair one to use when discounting its effectiveness as a film overall. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “There is no such thing as an original idea.” Well, there is no such thing as an original story either. All narrative has similarities and most of them can be traced back to antiquity. Is Avatar’s story the best ever told? No. Does it take a common narrative that has been told many, many times and populate it with fresh characters and an interesting coat of paint? I would say yes. When talking about its status as a “game-changer,” people like to compare it to Star Wars. And I fully agree. Is Star Wars’ story original? No. Is it fun? Hell yes. Is its tech dated? Of course. You say Avatar’s tech will be dated, and I agree to a point. But when will that be? Terminator 2’s still looks wonderful for the most part and has aged well. Many beloved science fiction movies have technology that is dated—Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, 2001, Alien, to name a few. And people love these movies, as they will also love Avatar in the future. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Avatar alone makes 2009 a significant year in film.

But, fortunately for me and not so much for you, I don’t have to hinge my argument solely on Avatar. And keep your poking to yourself. This isn’t Facebook. You criticize The Hangover as being a predictable, situation-based comedy and that real comedy is based around characters, not situations. I completely disagree. Real comedy is both—emphasis on characters and then how they react to the situations that move the story forward. The Hangover did this wonderfully. The situations were silly, but I wouldn’t call them predictable. And I felt the characters were done extremely well. They were interesting and just deep enough to give us a nice sense of characterization. Is it the best comedy I’ve seen in five years? No (that distinction goes to Death at a Funeral). But it does comedy well, and that’s more than you can say for 99% of film that describes itself as such.

Damn, I am running out of room. You really know how to irritate the loquaciousness out of me, Mr. Radde. In closing, I guess I will counter your claim that none of 2009’s movies have lasting power. Here we go. Both Up in the Air and The Hurt Locker will survive as films that are directorially significant and distinctly “2009.” The wars in the Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) are nothing new, but The Hurt Locker captures an aspect of them that was thrilling, harrowing, and terrifying, and the best I’ve seen. Up in the Air’s commitment to the reality of the interview scenes is significant and heartbreaking enough as it is, but being contained within a great film gives it lasting effect. You’ve heard my spiel about Avatar, but I consider District 9 to be of equal importance. As spectacular as Avatar was, District 9 is significant in its subtlety. I believe all science fiction films from now on will follow one of these two paths, and we can thank Avatar and District 9 for laying the groundwork. Lastly, I think Inglourious Basterds will stand the test of time just as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction have. This could be Tarantino’s best, and it certainly shows a level of storytelling that we haven’t seen from him since his early work.

So there you go, my brutha from another mutha. 2009 was a significant year in film for many reasons, and I hope that you can gracefully concede defeat. Even if we may dispute the quality of the films that came out, there are enough culturally significant events tied to them to warrant my enlightened opinion. It’s been quite a year, and I look forward to its influence on filmmaking in the future (with the obvious exception of Transformers 2).

And as for that beer? Well, I would be honored, sir. But only if you’re buying.

These two fine gentlemen could chat all day about the real cinematic merit of a film like Avatar or whether or not 2009 was a good year for movies until the end of 2010. However, what really matters is what you think. Were you happy with the releases of 2009 — was it a strong or weak year for movies?


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