02 March 2010
  boo-hoo, saying goodbye to the films of 2009.

i certainly wouldn't be the first person at the end of this year's awards season to reflect on the films of 2009 as largely strung together on the single thread that is 21st Century U.S.-American melancholia. let's face it, over the past few years, the vast majority of well-reviewed and oscar-nominated films have been major downers. but this year, the theme of widespread malaise (if not outright millenarianism) has virtually exploded on the big screen. if you look back on the past year at the movies you will be confronted over and over again with themes of fear, mourning, hopelessness and general sadness. still, even though i admit to not being the first person to make this now-commonplace observation, i think perhaps i am in fact the first person to offer another, related reflection on the films of 2009. i argue that what many people have characterized as filmic representations of ennui is in fact an epidemic of filmmaker pouting. after decades of illusions of u.s.-american righteousness and infallibility, things have dramatically devolved for the people of this country. and one result of this, among the u.s. public at large, has been the simultaneous reactions of self-pitying, blaming and decrying "i-told-you-so." over the past year, these reactions have finally crept full-force into the film industry.

in general, this has been an extremely weak year at the movies, full of major and minor disappointments. i think the last year that was as week as this one was 2006 (when crash was virtually the only thing produced worth seeing). the problem that i have encountered over and over again this year has been that every time i go to the movies i leave feeling at least mildly disgusted by the ways that the filmmakers use their art to pout and whine and make themselves appear self-righteous. for me, there is a clear difference between movies that insightfully probe personal and national ennui (think sideways or election) and movies that exist only to make you feel bad about yourself and your situation in life.

case in point. precious, for me, is an utter failure as a film, due to the out-of-touch ineptitude of director lee daniels (even though it may have worked originally as a novel.) the problem is that daniels sucked every ounce of thoughtfulness and every drop of genuine intellectual content out of the source material, in favor of saturating each second of his movie with the most disgusting, depressing and downright nauseating pieces possible. i can't imagine that anyone has left this movie feeling anything other than hopelessness for humanity. my argument is that if daniels really felt any compassion for these characters--if he really connected in a personal way to these events, he wouldn't have been able to put this material on screen. and if he had related to the material and still made the movie, it would have been a different and better movie based on characters that ultimately bore resemblance to actual humans. i am not saying that these characters might not exist somewhere, but there has to be more depth to them than what daniels provides. in short, precious is a film made by a man pouting about the conditions of a people he doesn't really know and doesn't ever take the time to get to know.

precious is without a doubt the paradigm of this epidemic of self-pitying and generally heartless filmmaking that has saturated the cinemas over the past year, but it isn't the only example. one of the movies i was looking forward to this year, carlos cuaron's rudo y cursi, basically consisted of a director senselessly making fun of two dysfunctional, ranchero, football playing brothers (gael garcia bernal and diego luna) rather than making an attempt to connect the audience with their problems. 2012 was essentially roland emmerich's pointing his self-righteous finger at a cast of characters so loathsome that you pray they ultimately crash their savior ship into a glacier at the film's predictable climax. up in the air wasn't a bad movie necessarily, but the screenwriters ultimately missed a great opportunity to seriously reflect on a national crisis in favor of focusing on one whiny out-of-touch, overprivileged white guy's non-problems. and the unbelievably shallow it's complicated almost literally made me gag on its unending deconstruction of the midlife crisis of a woman so uninteresting that i come to the conclusion it can only be a self-pitying memoir of the filmmaker, nancy meyers. the hurt locker, a serious man, an education, nine, crazy heart, a single man, district 9, antichrist-- each of the movies, in one way or another, led me to the same ultimate reaction: why should i care?

this doesn't mean that there wasn't at least one film this year that did a respectable job of actually engaging the theme of malaise, rather than just wallowing in it. in perhaps 2009's biggest surprise (to me anyways) michael moore's capitalism: a love story poignantly, at times beautifully, probed the national sadness pervading the current moment. at first, the title of this film seems to refer to the u.s. love affair with free market economics, when in fact i see this movie as a love story between moore (and perhaps a large part of the nation) and the nation of the past that cherished its workers, its citizens and a spirit of mutual support. moore uses recent changes in auto manufacturing over the past few decades as a metaphor for larger changes that have occurred in this country as capitalism has taken on new forms. the result is a brilliant and uncharacteristically (for this particular filmmaker) romantic study of the working class u.s.-american citizenry. this is one of the few films i have seen this year that actually brought me to tears--such a welcome respite from leaving the theater furious that the director just didn't and doesn't get it.

so, with that i say goodbye to 2009-on-screen, a little disappointed that we still don't have a solid film canon reflecting the trials and tribulations of the past decade. and i pray that in ten or twenty years we don't look back at films like precious or up in the air to get a glimpse into the psyche of a nation. trust me. it isn't in there.
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