=9 Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
=9 District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Two of the most visually spectacular and biggest grossing blockbusters of the year seemed to share a link in their considering of society’s relation to an ‘otherness’ in the allegories they drew. The similarities between them are striking: both feature protagonists ‘going native’ and finding sympathy with alien races rather than warmongering humans, and in both cases ideas of mixed-race hybridisation – and a consequent rejection by both races – is considered.
So too do the films have their differences: James Cameron’s much hyped Avatar occurs on an alien world being exploited by humans and is much more straightforwardly didactic in its approach to its politics, while first-time director Blomkamp’s District 9 is set on an Earth being settled by prawn-like aliens and by comparison affords more of an air of moral uncertainty. The former is much more outwardly a demonstration of new technology, in particular its much-talked-about use of digital 3D, while the latter is equally impressive but more subtle in its clever blending of live action and CGI ‘prawns’.
The films are in many ways like negative images of each other. While District 9’s allegorical content openly invites parallels to apartheid, it is a much more elegant and wide-ranging polemic against all forms of discrimination and segregation; by comparison while Avatar seems to have broad anti-war and pro-environment themes, it is actually the more restricted vision, really only commenting post-Vietnam US war economy rather than the world or history as a whole. If I have a preference, Avatar seems the more balanced, consistently constructed film, but in isolation the opening twenty minutes of District 9 are the most astonishing.
=8. Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, 2009)
=8. Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)
Another year, another great Pixar film. It is easy to get blasé about the quality of their output, and perhaps this has affected my slight underwhelmment with their latest offering Up, a quietly moving film about an old man trying to come to terms with life after the death of his wife. Dealing with mortality in such an unsentimental way seemed a little odd against the sheer beauty of its visuals, but this is not a negative comment – I suspect a further viewings will yield a greater understanding and admiration for what they have produced here.
The other great animation of the year was Coraline from A Nightmare Before Christmas stop–motion genius Henry Selick, based on a short story for children by Neil Gaiman. A young girl moves with her family to another town far away from her friends, but in her unhappiness finds a mysterious tunnel which transports her to an alternate universe where people have buttons for eyes and everything is a much more spectacular version of her drab, boring life on the other side. Soon, though, she discovers that all in this world is not as perfect as it seems. A delightfully entertaining gothic Alice-like tale, and truly a feast for the eyes. And what is it about buttons that are so scary? (see also Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell)
7. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2009)
A merciless cruel streak runs through much of the Coen Brothers’ work, a tendency which gains them detractors as well as fans, and A Serious Man is unlikely to change the opinions on both sides of this argument. Poor Larry Gopnick, a Jewish university professor in late 1960s US suburbia, sees his life slowly fall apart, leading to him to seek the answer to a simple question – why is this happening to him? A series of progressively older but so too increasingly out of touch Rabbis appear to be of no help at all in these matters, though he appears to find no solace in reason either. Black comedy is the brothers’ signature, taken to new heights in this, a very personal project revisiting the Midwest of their youths. Where their previous work has worked within the parameters of genre, A Serious Man falls into a category all of its own; what notable is that it is one defined by their back catalogue, and consequently as the brothers’ purest film d’auteur it may well prove to be their most significant film to date.