KANSAS CITY, KS -- Crude comedies and end-of-the-world actioneers dominated the box office in 2009.
Missing was the spiritual poignancy found in past dramas like "Schindler's List" and "Dead Man Walking." Absent were guileless comedies such as 1965's sight gag festooned "The Great Race," or the droll, anecdotal-laced standup concert "Bill Cosby: Himself."
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This decade's redesigning of the comedy genre continued in '09 with witless and coarse examples, as in the case of "Year One," a film that didn't visit just the toilet for its humor, but also the sewer. And satires like "Thank You For Smoking" and "Dr. Strangelove" were morphed into the likes of "The Men Who Stare At Goats," a mindless mess that caused this critic to wonder if it weren't just the film's protagonists ingesting LSD.
Hollywood's movie-making strength was revealed through documentaries and animation. With exceptions, most everything else seemed populated by people who made a lot more money than their artistry deserved. Indeed, after "Land of the Lost," Will Ferrell owes us all.
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Allow your humble movie correspondent to spotlight a few films I believe uplifted the spirit as well as entertained. Before renting them, please visit previewonline.org for full reviews and the reasons for their ratings. As to Hollywood's worst of 2009, the industry continued its attack on people of faith, and worse, its irreverence for our Creator. I'll include the most offending offenders so you can be warned as they make their way onto video store shelves. But first ...
THE BEST MOVIES OF 2009
-- "The Blind Side" (Rated PG-13 for some language, one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references). It's not cynical or profane, the leads aren't dysfunctional, and what's this, could many of the main characters actually be Christians? The film's subject, a wealthy family take in a homeless youth, is handled with a blend of humor and pathos, giving audiences a funny, sensitive and uplifting night at the cinema. It stars the gifted Sandra Bullock, who, alas, also gave us this year's worst film, "All About Steve."
-- "Earth" (G). Narrated by James Earl Jones, Disney's nature documentary tells the remarkable story of three animal families and their journeys across this planet we share. Mesmerizing, the visuals alone are breathtaking, as the documentarians approach the wonder of our world with the same magic and majesty found in "March of the Penguins" and "Winged Migration." With scale and drama the production follows five main topics: the Earth and the sun, great migrations, adaptation and habitat, predators and prey, and life cycles. A picture is worth a thousand words and a thousand pictures are mind-blowing.
-- "Lord Save Us From Your Followers" (PG-13 for thematic elements and some language). This documentary by fellow Christian Dan Merchant examines the question, "Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?" The film covers hot button issues with candor, humor and balance. Often when we are strident in our views, we lose sight of the Holy Spirit's purpose. Follow Christ's example and answer the questions with an empathy that overrides a desire to win a debate -- that's what the film says to me and why I will watch it several times throughout my life.
-- "More Than A Game" (PG for brief mild language and incidental smoking). Five talented young basketball players from Akron, Ohio, are featured in this coming of age documentary about friendship and loyalty in the face of great adversity. Led by future NBA superstar LeBron James, the "Fab Five's" improbable nine-year journey leads them from a decrepit inner-city gym to the doorstep of a national high school championship. It's about facing adversities, it's about fathers and sons, it's even about faith. Clean, insightful and entertaining, "More Than A Game" is one of the best sports documentaries I've seen.
-- "UP" (PG for some peril and action). My favorite film of the year, this animated treasure begins with two children discovering that they are soulmates and wannabe explorers. Spring ahead, they marry, but before they can go off to explore, life gets in the way. As in real life, the couple has their share of troubles. Though there are tearful moments, they are adroitly handled, giving the story and characterizations depth and feeling. There's great wit and heart in this production -– that's the type of film that enriches little ones as well as accompanying loved ones.
-- Also worth noting for 2009: "Julie & Julia" (PG-13), New In Town (PG), The Princess and the Frog (G), Under the Sea 3D (G) and It Might Get Loud (PG). Again, please read the entire review of each of these films on previewonline.org in order to see if they are appropriate for your family's viewing.
THE WORST MOVIES OF 2009
-- The Invention of Lying (PG-13 for language including some sexual material and a drug reference). The story is set in an alternate world, where lying has yet to be discovered. Ricky Gervais plays a loser named Mark who suddenly develops the ability to lie and be rewarded for it. To relieve his dying mother's fears, he tells her of an afterlife, complete with a "Man in the Sky" and your own mansion. By film's end, Gervais and his accomplices make the statement that there is no "Man in the Sky," the implication being that storytellers from long ago sat around the newly invented campfire and created the mythology of God and a life after death. Why is it that seemingly non-believing filmmakers are always so sure of their atheism and why is it so important for them to convert others?
-- Observe and Report (R). Seth Rogen once again plays a vulnerable bumbler, and once more the crude comedian is determined to push the envelope of bad taste. Hey, you name the envelope and this guy will push it. Here Rogen turns the nerdy underdog genre into a highbred assault on the senses. With 160 uses of the f-word alone, not to mention every other obscenity he can muster, plus insensitive gags about casual drug use and mall shootings, he takes the comedy genre to a new low.
-- Whatever Works (PG-13 for sexual situations including dialogue, brief nude images and thematic material). An eccentric, neurotic New Yorker, played by Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm"), meets a young girl from the South, reluctantly allows her to move in, and then falls for her, which leads to the inevitable May/December relationship. Soon after, the young woman's folks show up: first the super-"religious," drunken, neurotic mother, then the super-"religious," philandering, neurotic father. As for his "Christian" characters, director Woody Allen has them conceptualized like American characters in a BBC sitcom -- they just don't feel like real people. As a Christian sitting there, I couldn't relate to any of their theological pronouncements because they weren't coming from conviction. The actors played their roles tongue in cheek, giving off the distinct impression that they enjoyed ridiculing people of faith. Of course, they would say, "We're just ridiculing the phonies." Yeah, try doing that with any other group.
-- "Year One (PG-13 for crude and sexual content throughout, brief strong language and comic violence). In this comedy meant to lampoon Old Testament figures, a couple of lazy hunter/gatherers (Jack Black and Michael Cera) set off on a crudity-laced journey through the ancient world. They meet Abraham as he is about to sacrifice Isaac, then, that same day, encounter a quarreling Cain and Abel. The next day, the two wanderers discover their ladies have been sold as slaves. Our inept heroes want to rescue the cave-girl cuties before they are sacrificed to the gods. In the process, they set the world straight about not worshiping unseen entities. The moral: trust in ourselves, not a deity. Interesting how that seems to be an agenda of a great many in the media -- to dissuade us from believing in God. Wonder why that is?
When a reporter asked "Year One's" director, Harold Ramis, if he thought some of the religious humor might offend, Ramis answered, "I hope so!"
-- Avatar. (PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking). Writer/director James Cameron, the self-proclaimed king-of-the-world after his success with "Titanic," has bloated his CGI tribute to himself with faintly camouflaged dictums concerning war, the military and the abuse of the environment. While the film's effects are impressive, the content isn't. Along with the profanity and excessive video game-like violence, the film is anti-war, anti-military and anti-human. That's too anti for me.
So, why didn't "Up In The Air" (R) or "Precious" (R) or "Nine" (PG-13) make my best-of list? Content. Though paid little attention by most movie reporters, the content (the reason for the rating) has become as formidable as the artistic and technical merits of a film. It can be argued that sometimes the profundity of a film outweighs the profanity. Mostly, it's hard to make that argument.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective and is the author of "Movies: The Good, The Bad, and the Really, Really Bad." To learn more about his work, visit previewonline.org.