My 2009 Movie Reviews: From Avatar, Sherlock Holmes and Precious to Invictus, Amreeka and Up

I haven’t done many movie reviews this year for some reason, but as movie buff, I’ve really missed writing them. And while it’s too late, and perhaps too burdensome (mostly for the readers) to do all of these seperatly, I thought I’d write them all in a single gigantic post. They are not necessarily the best of 2009 as I haven’t seen every movie, not even some of the ones I still want to see like The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Up in the Air – but they are certainly my personal favorites picks for the year.

Avatar: What can be said about a movie that defies all expectations. It’s a rare moment in the film industry these days, and James Cameron does exactly that in Avatar. A story about a world where the humans are the invading force; the aliens who have come to conquer a native people for their resources. Sounds eerily familiar, no? Avatar in 3D is actually more than just a movie: it’s an experience. Your mind will be busy hours after the credits roll, processing what it has just seen. It’s like being introduced to a new color.

District 9: Another science fiction film that deserves more than it got audience-appreciation wise. A South African production that conjures up memories of apartheid. Like Avatar, humans are in reality the enemy, forcing a group of broken down aliens to live in a refugee camp where their weapons and DNA are cherished by human scientists and local African warlords. But like all great films about two cultures and two peoples, the story doesn’t really start until those two cultures clash and something controversial is created that is sure to stir the very definition of race. If you didn’t see this movie, you should. It’s not about science fiction or aliens. It’s about race, discrimination and the human instinct to divide and conquer people who are different from them in their moment of weakness.

Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law do an imbecable job at recreating one of the most beloved characters in English literature: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The duo are really unstoppable in a movie that is both character and plot-driven, with a story line that leaves you thirsting for the sequel. More importantly, director Guy Ritchie finally makes his comeback, managing to overcome the Madonna curse – a marriage that had him creating some of the biggest Hollywood flops of the decade, post-Snatch. Ritchie’s touches are all over the movie, even in its characters, with Holmes calculating fight sequences being completely owned by Ritchie’s directorial imagination. To say nothing of London: don’t think there’s a better director out there who’s able to capture that city on the silver screen today.

Precious: What can I say about a movie that really grips you. An obese black girl who, while in school, is pregnant with her second child by way of her own “father”. At home, she is verbally and physically abused by her mother (Monique); but it’s the kind of on-screen abuse that makes you cringe. Her journey to overcome the travesties of her life and create a new life for herself where she has a fighting chance of surviving, let alone succeeding, is a journey worth watching, even if it’s not entirely complete by the time the film ends. And by the way, Mariah Carey also stars in this film, and while her appearance makes it hard for the average person to recognize her, it’s really her acting (which is actually good) that makes it so hard to make her out in this film. A definite watch for 2009.

Invictus: It’s the uplifting film of the year from Clint Eastwood that reunites his directorial efforts with old pal Morgan Freeman. The true story of Mandela’s efforts to bring his post-apartheid countrymen together after assuming the presidency, by helping South Africa host the 1994 Rugby World cup – a game much loved by the people – is pretty inspiring. The film does a good job of focusing on this one aspect of Mandela’s struggle and does not venture too far in the politics of post-apartheid Africa. It’s an attempt to highlight how such a simple tool was wielded by Mandela to unite his people and help heal social wounds that would have not only detonated his presidency but in all likelihood ended in his assassination. This latter concept is highlighted by a storyline that also centers on Mandela’s bodyguards, who, for the first time in South African history, were of mixed backgrounds. Morgan Freeman gives the performance of a lifetime worthy of a best actor nomination, while Matt Damon manages to pull of a South African accent, but barely. Meanwhile, Eastwood does his best to make a rugby match look as cool on screen as all those American football movies out there.

(500) Days Of Summer: Just when you thought romantic comedies were dead, 500 days of summer flies in under the radar. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, two under-appreciated and yet incredibly talented actors, help weave a romantic story that is doomed to fail. The nonlinear narrative helps create a creative and artsy look at how two people can meet, fall in love, and then break each other’s hearts, all in the span of 500 days. It’s not meant to have a typical happy ending; it’s meant to have a realistic one. Another must-watch, even if you’re like me and don’t quite dig romantic dramadies.

Up: I imagine Pixar to be a place where creativity thrives. What these people manage to create is an unimaginable story that is so out-of-the-box it draws a smile on your face within the first 5 minutes, and keeps it there for the next 88. Up is no different, as a grumpy old man, tired of the city life and faced with inevitable demolition plans of his precious home to make room for a commercial district, decides to simply float away. With a boy scout by his side, the two sail off on an beautiful and colorful journey.

Where the Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze, one of my favorite modern directors, brings to life the dark and light of this classic childhood book by Maurice Sendak. For those who haven’t read it, Where the Wild Things Are centers on Max, a lonely boy whose lack of friends is somewhat compensated by his abundant imagination, the latter of which allow him to sail off to a fantasy land with strange creatures after getting in to a fight with his mother. Max is rebellious, lonely and angry, but strives to be simple and happy, and all these emotions are embodied by the creatures he encounters, one of which is brilliantly voiced by James Gandolfini. Jonze manages to take the dark elements of Where the Wild Things Are and render them striking contrasts that could only be produced by a child’s mind. It will force any one to think back to their own childhood and carefully analyze the simple emotions we’ve all had to deal with at one point or another, before they were complicated by the complexities of modern life.

Amreeka: The story of a Palestinian divorcee who takes her son to Amreeka upon getting a chance to escape Israeli occupation and chase the American dream. Naturally, this is not a tale of coming to America and making it big, but about coming to America and struggling to survive; a much more realistic outcome of such a pursuit. Taking place in the midst of the US-led invasion of Iraq, Amreeka is a movie that will click with any Arab who has ever gone abroad, and at the very least manages to capture the humanity of a single-mother trying to maneuver in unfamiliar waters – a theme that is universal enough for non-Arab audiences. But obviously, to truly appreciate the small things in this story, you really have to be an Arab. Sorry.

Star Trek: Probably the best blockbuster, mainstream film that came out in an otherwise disappointing summer that produced the likes of Transformers 2. Star Trek has created a million franchises with a million episodes, a million movies and a billion trekkies who like to dress up and go to conventions to hold up a weird futuristic looking peace sign. While I do not consider myself to be a full blown trekkie, I admit to being a lover and appreciator of the entire Star Trek universe. When it was announced that a reboot of the film franchised was destined for the silver screen, expectations were simply confusing to deal with. Everyone seemed to respect the fact that J.J. Abrams was at the helm of this production, but that seemed to only make matters worse expectations wise. Luckily the guy pulled a rabbit out of a hat with this one, retracing the story of how the original Star Trek came together in a distant future that is, to the franchise, a distant past. In a year filled with science fiction and fantasy films, Star Trek comes out on top with a solid story, solid cast, and great action sequences.

Also enjoyed this year: Tyson, Food Inc., and Lemon Tree

*Images via NYT


  • I agree with your assessments of these films; they’re all truly gems of 2009. But concerning Guy Ritchie and his “flops of the decade”, what are your thoughts on ‘RocknRolla’?

  • Dave: Coincidentally, I’ve had this discussion recently with someone on Facebook. I think RocknRolla was the start of a comeback but wasn’t quite there yet. It was definitely better than Revolver and definitely better than Swept Away

  • Thanks for these. I agree with you about Avatar–just came home from seeing it, which I agreed to watch with trepidation. What a ride! What a surprise. True, your assessment–like being introduced to a new color. And I think I’m going to be hissing like a cat more. Ha.

    Also I saw Star Trek on an AirFrance airplane this summer. What another pleasant surprise.

    Amreeka is definitely on my list. Kids loved UP. Food, Inc. is now being streamed for free on NetFlix for those of you with accounts.

  • Yea, Avatar was pretty sweet, but I didn’t like it as much in 3-D though. District nine was ok, just couldn’t get past the fact that the biggest discovery in human history gets stranded in a trash dump. Please, we Americans would have our sticky hands all over that one! Wouldn’t dare miss a Clint Eastwood flick, two thumbs up. Ah, Amreeka, I think that our little avant-garde theatre is playing that soon, definitely check that out. If I’m not mistaken though, I think Arab Americans have a higher median income than most. The Palestinians I know all own successful stores.(Thanks brothers!, my life would be crap without your guava nectar, that watery American crap sucks!) Star Trek wasn’t bad, just don’t care much for time travel plots. I’m a little hazy here, but does that mean Kirk from that point on knows that time traveling Spock saved his butt from that point on? If so,that would be weird. Anyway, can’t shut up when I read peoples movie takes, so thanks Nas for sharing.

  • btw, if your a sci-fi junky, check out red letters medias movie reviews on youtube. That new Star Wars one is priceless!

  • mo: just saw zombieland. excellent movie!

    i thought hangover was pretty overrated and as for paranormal activity, it would make an honorable mention list, but not the best of 2009. i think people are more intrigued by the film’s backstory than they are with the actual film.

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