2009 has been a pretty good year for me and movies. I've seen more films in the cinema than I have for ages, largely because the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and the Enzian Theater are such fantastic places to go to. I've begun to watch a wider range of movies at home than normal as well, thanks to Netflix streaming. (They should be paying me, the amount I go on about them.)
Anyway, here's my top three.
#3 Red Cliff
I've loved the Dynasty Warriors games since I first saw a PS2. John Woo's Red Cliff is an epic film based on one of the historical battles depicted in that game, so I was fascinated to see what it would be like. I wasn't disappointed. I was stunned to see how close it was to the game, in terms of both the story and the visual design of the characters and the places. They're both drawing on the same sources, and they're both treating it remarkably faithfully. As you'd expect from John Woo, it's a full-on spectacular action film, and the set-piece sequences are jaw-droppingly good. Costumes, sets, and cinematography are all fabulous, in the way that top-notch Chinese movies seem to have mastered these days. I still haven't seen the full 280-minute Asian release, only the 148-minute Western release, but I certainly intend to.
It's a tough call, but I'm going to have to put Avatar in second place. In the last three weeks we've seen the popular response go from "it can't live up to the hype" to "wow!" and then to "yeah, but the story's lame, what's the big deal?" The big deal is this. It's breathtaking. It uses 3D like no movie before it. The animation is incredible. The visual design is astounding. When you see it on a big IMAX 3D screen you become totally immersed in this beautiful, fantastic, magical world and in the film, and you want to reach out and touch it. You get vertigo while sitting in your seat. As for the story, personally, I loved it. It weaves together things from so many sources I've enjoyed over the years: Ferngully, yes, but also Deathworld, Starship Troopers, Aliens, Dragonriders of Pern, Emerald Forest, Dances With Wolves, and a host of classic SF stories. It wasn't at all what I was expecting, but I was absolutely entranced throughout. It's without a doubt the best thing Sigourney Weaver has done in years. It's taken Cameron 10 years and $300m to create Avatar, and he's exceeded all my expectations. It's a true landmark film.
At completely the opposite end of the spectrum to Avatar, this low-budget sci-fi movie from Duncan Jones is my top pick of 2009. It's the best hardcore sci-fi I've seen in, well, as long as I can remember. It's an engrossing psychological thriller, with just one actor (more or less) and a robotic voice. I'm not going to say anything at all about the plot: I knew nothing about it when I saw it, and was absolutely hooked. It's only 97 minutes long, but you have no sense of time in this eerie world, and you feel completely sucked in. It's even more incredible when you know that it was made for just $5m, and it's Jones's debut movie. The special effects shots are superb, and I was amazed to learn that they're nearly all model shots, not digital, because it was cheaper that way. There's a lesson in there for movie-makers.
There are some good-looking movies coming up in 2010, and I still haven't seen Sherlock Holmes or Me And Orson Welles. I'm really looking forward to Alice in Wonderland, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Clash of the Titans, Legion, The Lightning Thief, Dante's Inferno, Prince of Persia, and Eagle of the Ninth - and those are just the big movies I know about. Who knows what the indie movie scene or the Florida Film Festival will reveal?
Happy New Year, everyone. Whether you're making or watching movies, have fun!