Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

With this weekend being the official start of Hollywood’s fiscal year with new releases “Bride Wars” and “The Unborn” gracing our theatres (unless you prefer stinking up…hehehe), and Oscar nominations hitting the streets next week, I thought this would be a good time to let you guys in on the film’s I’m most looking forward to this year. My bet is, once you see and hear about them, they’ll be on your list as well. So I’ll let the list speak for itself from here.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle

Brian’s 11 “Must-See” Films of 2009
1. “Avatar” (12/18)- It’s hard to imagine any film geek anticipating a film from this year more. Twelve years to the day since his last feature-length film- some Oscar winner about a sinking ship and a tragic love story- hit the screens, writer-director-visionary James Cameron returns to theatres with this mysteriously under-wraps sci-fi epic. Hell, the fact that no one really knows what it’s about, and people still want to see it, should tell you everything you need to know about how awaited Cameron’s return to sci-fi- where he’s had a little success over the years (what with the first two “Terminator” films and “The Abyss”)- is. The big pull for this film is technically, however; apart from his use of Peter Jackson’s own WETA for the visual effects, he’s also employing his custom-made 3-D process (used in previous IMAX documentaries “Ghosts of the Abyss” and “Aliens of the Deep”) that will be a test to see if the process can be used to make a serious dramatic work instead of just escapist fluff like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Spy Kids 3-D.” I, for one, will hope to be one of the first in line to see it.

2. “Where the Wild Things Are” (10/16)- While “Avatar” is the general #1 movie to see in ’09, this is my personal pick for the movie I must see in the coming 12 months, as much for the behind-the-scenes story as anything else. The film is obviously an adaptation of the classic children’s story by Maurice Sendak about Max, a kid sent to his room without supper for his mischievous ways who creates a fantasy world to get lost in. The director is Spike Jonze, himself a bit mischievous on the basis of his first two films (the Charlie Kaufman-penned “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.”), which is reason enough to see the film. But the film has had many an issue, leading to much reshooting- for, like, nearly all of it- starting this summer due to creative differences and technical problems and much rumors of infighting between Warner Bros. and Jonze and his patrons at Playtone, the production company behind the film. No matter; Jonze is a visionary with a keen sense of the heart of his characters, and he owns “final cut” on the film. Even if the few shots and brief clip I’ve seen of the film aren’t representative of the finished film, it’s enough to get any geek behind Jonze and waiting eagerly for his vision of this tale.

3. “The Lovely Bones” (12/11)- After two epic, Oscar-winning undertakings with “The Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong”, Peter Jackson returns to the more intimate realm of his brilliant 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures.” Based on the celebrated novel by Alice Sebold, “Bones” looks at the way two young parents (played by Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz) cope when their young child (“Atonement”‘s Saoirse Ronan) is brutally murdered. The catch is, it’s from the point-of-view of the child from Heaven. From that basic description alone, the film feels right for another opportunity for Jackson to take on the same sort of imaginative drama with deep emotional truths that put him on the map (“Creatures” was Oscar-nominated as well) before we lose him to more Middle Earth (he’s co-writing and producing those “Rings” prequels for Del Toro) and motion-capture animation (his “Tintin” series with Spielberg).

4. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” (7/17)- Apparently, Warner Bros. was so hurt for films because of the Writers Guild strike, they moved this sixth film in the “Potter” franchise from J.K. Rowling’s series that they moved the film from its’ November slot to July, on the weekend that corresponds with “The Dark Knight”‘s record-breaking opening. I and most of my friends think it’s a terrible idea- this is a holiday franchise, not a summer one (although they did have some success with “Order of the Phoenix” in July of ’07). Nonetheless, do you really think people won’t show up to see this increasingly dark series- continuing to be directed by “Phoenix’s” David Yates- continue as this installment looks at the origins of Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes), originally called Tom Riddle. From one look at the teaser, however, I can’t wait to see where Yates- whose “Phoenix” was one of the franchise’s best films- takes the franchise before his two-film conclusion of the series with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.”

5. “Knowing” (3/20)- Four years after his underrated sci-fi action film “I, Robot” (which resulted in an exhausting battle with Fox over the film for the director), Alex Proyas- the Australian director of “The Crow” and “Dark City”- returns to the screen with a long-in-development thriller about prophecies and numbers starring Nicolas Cage. The trailer has me sold on the film, even if the failure of “The Number 23” makes a film like this a dicey proposition. Proyas is a smart talent who wouldn’t know how to make a dull movie or a false move if he wanted to. That said, though I do look forward to this film, a couple of future projects on his plate- an intriguing prospect entitled “Dracula Year Zero” and an adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”- have me peaked even higher, especially if he ever decides to include in that his long-proposed adaptation of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” For now, I can’t wait to see what Proyas and Cage- both faves of mine unafraid of taking chances- have in store for viewers.

6. “Up” (5/29)- As I said going into this year, so long as Pixar keeps churning out winners, they’ll have a home in my top 10 to see any year they have a film. Hell, after 2007’s better-with-each-viewing Brad Bird gem “Ratatouille” and Andrew Stanton’s remarkable robot love story this year, they could churn out a string of losers and I’ll still give them the benefit of a doubt. Well, I’m certainly bracing myself this this one. What technical challenges await the Pixar magicians in their first 3-D outing? What story turns await when an old man’s house is taken up in the clouds by balloons? What acting surprises await in the main performance by veteran actor Ed Asner (best known for his work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show?” More importantly, what imagination does director Pete Doctor- who did 2001’s “Monsters Inc.”- have in store with his cohorts in what may be their most unlikely and unexpected film yet? The teaser doesn’t have much to tell us, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pixar come out with another wonderful fable for the kid in all of us this coming summer.

7. “Watchmen” (3/6)- Is it safe to say that this will be 2009’s comic book phenomenon? Last year it was “The Dark Knight.” Two years ago, it was “300” That one wasn’t very loved by me, but I was in the minority. Still, even if I have my reservations with the film, if the success of that film led to Warner Bros. hiring the film’s director Zack Snyder (who also directed 2004’s visceral “Dawn of the Dead” remake) for this long-in-development adaptation of Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel about a league of superheroes who watch over the world serving good. I’ve never read Moore’s graphic novel myself- and Moore has taken his name off the film, as he has been known to do in years past- but the trailers for this film promise another imaginative and visually-thrilling adventure from Snyder, who’s making a name for himself with geeks and critics alike. Note- With Warner Bros. and Fox in legal bindings about the rights to the property, don’t be surprised if that release date changes, but here’s hoping it doesn’t.

8. “Red Cliff” (N/A)- Five years after his last film- the Ben Affleck thriller “Paycheck”- John Woo returns to his native China to make the most ambitious film of his career, and the most expensive film in that country’s history. His American career saw the action master’s unique touch get sullied by reek cliche (“Hard Target,” “M:i-2”) and formulaic writing (“Broken Arrow,” “Paycheck”), with only two films- 1997’s masterpiece “Face/Off” and the underrated war film “Windtalkers”– capturing a piece of the magic convergence of theme and style that made his Hong Kong films (“The Killer,” “Hard-Boiled,” “A Better Tomorrow”) modern classics that reinvented the genre. Now, Woo returns with an epic war movie set in third-century China and The Battle of the Red Cliffs and the power struggle that ensued between the Three Kingdoms at the time. Originally, Woo was supposed to reunite with both of his “Hard-Boiled” stars Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung (since equally known for films like “2046” and “Lust, Caution”), but through a series of musical chairs, Leung took Yun-Fat’s role and Yun-Fat dropped out. The film is already a success in China, and while it’s unsure whether the film will take America by storm as other Asian films have in recent years, no doubt Woo fans- fueled by an exciting trailer- will be in line to see what being back in China does to inspire the director, who was horned in by his own legacy in the Hollywood system.

9. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (5/1)- After Brett Ratner wrecked a perfectly solid comic-book trilogy Bryan Singer started with the good- but not good enough- “X-Men 3: The Last Stand”, Fox is milking their film rights on Marvel’s mutant squad for everything its’ worth- look for production to increase now that Marvel’s shown they can deliver the goods solo, starting with this look at the origins of Hugh Jackman’s alloy adamantium-clawed star character from the “X-Men” movies. The film- directed by “Tsotsi” Oscar-winner Gavin Hood- has been rife with the type of behind-the-scenes infighting fans have become accustomed to from Fox genre productions, but the footage shown at this year’s Comic-Con blew the roof off of geeks, making the film- the first out of the gate for an intended series of “X-Men” related films (of which David S. Goyer’s “Magneto” film is likely the next out of the gates)- a must-see (although its’ character cameos, including a young Sabertooth, Deadpool, and Gambit, kind of help also).

10a. “G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra” (8/7)- The real American hero comes to the big screen in the wake of “Transformers'” success. True, the behind-the-scenes pedigree isn’t as promising (“Collateral” writer Stuart Beattie- good; “Swordfish” writer Skip Woods- eh; “Van Helsing” director Stephen Sommers- not so much), but those in front of it more than make up for it, starring Dennis Quaid as General Hawk, Brendan Fraser as Gung Ho, and stuntman-par-excellence Ray Park as Snake Eyes, with “Stop-Loss” co-stars Channing Tatum and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Duke and Cobra Commander, respectively. I haven’t seen a shot of this movie beyond a few stills, but Sommers aside, this could be another solid summer entertainment from Hasbro and my childhood.

10b. “Inglorious Basterds” (8/21)- A late arrival on the top 10, I couldn’t really find a film above I wanted to remove to make room for it, so I thought I’d list it alongside another August battle epic of different stripes. This one is just as promising- a remake of the Italian cult “men-on-a-mission” grindhouse film by writer-director Quentin Tarantino, who’s had the film on his brain for a lot of years now. Italian master composer Ennio Morricone opting out of scoring the film is a setback, but QT’s gathered a great cast to go on this journey with him, with everyone from Brad Pitt and Mike Myers to Diane Kruger and Eli Roth in on the adventure, which will no doubt contain the same rebellious attitude and unquestionable style every Tarantino film is known for. We’ve been waiting a long time for this one…can’t wait to see what QT has in store for us.

Other 2009 titles to look out for include: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (6/26), with Michael Bay back in the director’s chair and Shia LaBeouf back to star with Hasbro’s heroic Autobots as the Decepticons continue to wage war on Earth in this sequel to the 2007 smash; “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” (N/A), the latest fantasy from Terry Gilliam (“Brazil,” “12 Monkeys”) and the film that Heath Ledger was making when he died last January- to complete the film, Gilliam used his creativity to allow for Ledger’s role to be played by a trio of actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Ferrell, and Jude Law) looking to pay tribute to their contemporary’s all-too-brief legacy; “Shutter Island” (10/9), a thriller from Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese (based on the novel by “Mystic River” author Dennis Lehane) marking the fourth straight collaboration between the director and Leonardo DiCaprio; “Star Trek” (5/8), the sci-fi reboot of the venerable franchise by J.J. Abrams looking at the early days of the Starship Enterprise; “Monsters vs. Aliens” (3/27), the first of three CG-animated films this year to take a chance on raising the bar with 3-D, this one from Dreamworks (getting a 2 month head-start on Pixar and Fox’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaur” (7/1)); “2012” (7/10), the latest mega-blockbuster epic from co-writer/director Roland Emmerich- looking to redeem himself after this year’s dreadful “10,000 B.C.”– set in the year the Mayan calendar says the world will end- who knows about the story, but the cast (John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Danny Glover) will have me there; “Public Enemies” (7/1), a period crime drama from contemporary crime master Michael Mann about the crew of John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) and co. during the ’30s- Christian Bale, “Stop-Loss'” Channing Tatum, and Billy Crudup also star for the “Heat” and “Collateral” director; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (11/6), the latest concoction by idiosyncratic writer-director Wes Anderson (“The Darjeeling Limited”), an animated take of the Roald Dahl story; “Drag Me to Hell” (5/29), with “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi returning to his gore horror roots in a film that’ll hopefully bring to mind his “Evil Dead” series without being haunted by it (shouldn’t this been a Halloween release?); “Taking Woodstock” (6/26), a period drama about the staging of the iconic Woodstock music festival from the continually-versatile Ang Lee; and “Terminator Salvation” (5/22), with Christian Bale taking on the role of John Conner for this fourth film in the action/sci-fi series, this time directed by “Charlie’s Angels” auteur McG (ugh…). Among others to be announced/reviewed as the year goes on, also be on the lookout for “Edge of Darkness”, a crime drama from “Casino Royale” director Martin Campbell and a script co-written by “Departed” Oscar-winner William Monahan with Mel Gibson (in his first on-screen role since 2002) as a Homicide detective looking into the death of his daughter; “Departed” co-star Ray Winstone plays a role originally intended for Robert DeNiro as someone looking to cover-up the crime. The media will be more interested in public reaction to Gibson since his much-publicized drunken outburst with police in 2006; I’ll be more interested in watching the underrated actor/star in seeing what age and adversity has done for his talent.

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