These are the first Neelys Awards of the new decade, named after Patty Duke's boozy, doped-up character in Valley of the Dolls. They’re bestowed with love, even for the Worst 10, because I love seeing bad movies as much as good movies; in both cases, they move me ... even if it is just a run for the exit.
Here are the best 2009 had to offer:
1. Up in the Air: Jason Reitman (Juno and Thank You for Smoking) keeps getting better and better as a director, and his new film is the perfect tale for our time of economic disaster. George Clooney hasn’t been this effortlessly charming in a long time, and his banter with Vera Farmiga elevated a bad movie year immensely. Anna Kendrick could have been clichéd but instead became someone you cared about as Clooney’s know-it-all colleague.
2. Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino’s fantastic, Nazi killin’, bloody fun exploitation flick has scenes of suspense that Hitchcock would envy. Brad Pitt is a hoot, Christoph Waltz is scary good, and both Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent are strong, powerful women in Tarantino’s deft bit of historical wish fulfillment. It’s like a feel-good Valkyrie, and I loved every grossly hilarious minute.
3. A Single Man: Is it style over substance that makes Tom Ford’s film feel less involving than other top picks? Perhaps, although Colin Firth is heartbreaking in the lead role of George Falconer, a closeted gay man in 1962 Los Angeles who is so bereft at the death of his partner, he spends one long day planning to kill himself. Ford’s vision is exquisite, and A Single Man is a timeless classic of love lost, and society’s callous indifference.
4. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire: At one time, Precious was my top film of the year, but on second thought, others rose higher. The outspoken Lee Daniels’ brutally real depiction of a young girl’s struggle to escape poverty and abuse makes for a gripping, unforgettable film. Gabourey Sidibe is amazing in the title role, while Mo’Nique is shocking in her fiercely hateful performance as Precious’ mother from hell.
5. Julie & Julia: Meryl Streep is the incandescent embodiment of Julia Child, while Amy Adams is less lucky with her half of Nora Ephron’s comic drama. When a film makes you cheer a well-cooked meal, you know it’s something special, and Julie & Julia is never more special than when Streep is on screen.
6. A Serious Man: The Coen Brothers have a merciless way of treating their characters, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s hapless Larry Gopnik fares no better. Was his family cursed by the Dybbuk (Jewish evil spirit) that entered the otherwise unconnected opening scene? I’m not sure, but I am sure that the Coens captured their late 60s Jewish and collegiate worlds perfectly, in a story that rivals the Book of Job.
7. District 9: After seeing the gritty realism that infuses Neill Blomkamp’s hard-hitting sci-fi take on Apartheid, Avatar looks like a video game. I hate seafood, but I was cheering on the alien prawns to victory, hoping against hope that the ET’s would do more than just phone home.
8. Sherlock Holmes: Sure, the film is popcorn entertainment, but Guy Ritchie makes a thrilling leap into period action, while Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law take honors as the couple of the year, even if their love dare not speak its name.
9. The Messenger: This story of two men charged with notifying the next of kin when servicemen are killed really resonates. Every person killed in action leaves a huge hole in their family’s lives, as The Messenger reminds us. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson give milestone performances.
10. The Year in Animation: It’s kind of a cheat, but the tenth best films were the fine animated films Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline. Up was Pixar’s most mature film yet, with profound messages about love and loss. Fantastic Mr. Fox finally made me like Wes Anderson, with visually gorgeous stop-animation and a wicked Roald Dahl story. Coraline was also a visual treat, with a creepy tale about getting what you wish for ... and regretting it.
Now the time has come to reward the horrid and reveal the vile. The Neelys 2010 are a little different this year, because I’ve decided to give each movie its own award of shame:
— The Sudoku Award for Most Aggravating Number-Obsessed Movie: Nicolas Cage’s Knowing, which somehow never knew how annoying and illogical it was.
— The Can We Revoke His Visa Award for Bad Citizenship Award: Gerard Butler’s ridiculous revenge flick, Law Abiding Citizen, wherein he rights the unfair murder of his wife by killing countless other folks.
— The Not-So-Gleeful Award for Incompetent Choir Movies: The excruciating Mark Pease Experience. You know it’s really bad when Jason Schwartzman isn’t the worst part of the film. That would be Ben Stiller in floppy hair.
— The That’ll Kill Your Résumé Award for Worst Buzz Kill to its Stars’ Careers: Sandra Bullock had an amazing year (The Proposal and The Blind Side), until you realize that she produced the steaming pile of rom-com crap known as All About Steve. Ditto Bradley Cooper, whose hangover will commence once he spots this incompetent trash on cable. Stalker comedy is bad enough, but did they have to steal and ruin a perfectly good gay film title?
— The That Joke is Jurassic Award: Land of the Lost, Will Ferrell’s painfully awful reboot of the cheesy Saturday morning kids’ show. When the height of comedy is Ferrell’s love of A Chorus Line, you know the humor well’s run dry.
— The Roe vs. Wade Award for a Movie That Should Have Been Aborted: In The Unborn, Odette Yustman is tormented by the evil spirit of her dead fetal twin. The audience is tormented by bad dialogue and cheap scares, and Judaism is set back two thousand years by its lame-brained mysticism.
— The “I Know Anne Archer, and You, Beyoncé, Are No Anne Archer” Award: The ludicrous Fatal Attraction rip-off Obsessed contains a weird bit of reverse racism wherein the devil lady Ali Larter stops at nothing to ruin Beyoncé’s happy home, with none of that pesky psychological suspense to get in the way. Lame catfights ensue.
— The Angelina’s Nightmare Award for Worst Adoption Movie: Following Orphan, Vera Farmiga would be forgiven if she never wants to play a mother again. First, in Joshua, she has a little devil boy. Even worse, in Orphan she has … Peter Sarsgaard as a husband! The horror! And that’s before they adopt a nasty little Eastern European tot with a daddy fixation. There’s good schlock, and then there’s trash like Orphan. No wonder adoption advocates were up in arms over the film!
— The “Does 3-D Stand for Dim-Witted, Depressing and Dull?” Award: With The Final Destination, the most tired entry in the Final Destination series, even 3-D couldn’t bring it back to life. Filled with the worst actors, the laziest plotting and the least imaginative death scenarios, it’s almost as if the series cheated death, only to be killed off by this lame sequel.
— The Prop 8 Award for Worst Wedding Testimonial: The wretched chick flick Bride Wars pits Anne Hathaway against best friend Kate Hudson as battling bridezillas bound and determined to be married at the Plaza Hotel. If this is marriage, who wants it?
— The Isaiah Washington Award for Worst Use of the F-Word: The Hangover, an otherwise entertaining film, is ruined by homophobic “guy banter” like Bradley Cooper yelling “Paging Dr. F****t!” at Ed Helms and gross groomsman Zach Galifianakis freaking out when a tailor measures his inseam.
— Finally, the Neely for Worst Film of the Year is the Chemical Castration Award for Worst Cinematic Man-Whore: Ghosts of Girlfriends Past was Matthew McConaughey squandering his remaining sex appeal on a sour holiday fable about a jerk who uses women, then supposedly grows a heart and soul. Now that Taylor Lautner’s grown killer abs, we don’t even need to see Matthew shirtless, so he had better choose his next projects more wisely.
Lastly (and certainly least), it’s time for the coveted Elizabeth Berkley Awards for acting below and against the call of duty.
This year’s Worst Actor pains me to announce, because he’s just so damn hot ... until he opens his mouth. Channing Tatum’s deadly dull performance in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra actually acts as an anti-aphrodisiac, negating his obvious assets while it kills your brain cells watching it.
This year’s Worst Actress just keeps getting work (including what I hope will be her first good performance as Joan Jett in Runaways) despite a complete lack of apparent ability. Kristin Stewart in The Twilight Saga: New Moon gave new meaning to the word “underplaying”, as she barely seems awake throughout the film. No emotion is within her grasp and no line is dramatic enough to rouse her from her stupor. Stewart makes Chloë Sevigny look like Vanessa Redgrave in comparison.
It’s a new decade, so here’s hoping that 2010 brings a better class of films!
By Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.