So did Santa deem me a good little boy or a bad little boy this year? Hard to say. On one hand, his helpers at the Fox studio didn't screen Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel for local press, and for that, I'm eternally grateful. On the other hand, those bastards at Fox also didn't screen Avatar in Charlotte, a demeaning slap in the face to this region and its inhabitants.
Fortunately, I caught up with Avatar in time to include it in this overflowing gift basket containing capsule reviews of the year-end crop. Here, then, are brief blurbs on 11 films new to local theaters, listed in preferential order.
UP IN THE AIR (**** out of four) -- In the cinema of 2009, Ryan Bingham should by all accounts emerge as the Protagonist Least Likely To Be Embraced By The Nation's Moviegoers. That's because Ryan works as a downsizing expert, hired to come in and dismiss employees that their own bosses are too gutless to fire face to face. Ryan is excellent at his job, which would make him the antagonist in virtually any other film. But because he's played by charismatic George Clooney, Ryan becomes less a villain and more a representative of the modern American, a tech-age person trying to reconcile his buried humanity with what he or she believes is necessary to survive in this increasingly disconnected world. That's the starting point for this superb adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel, but the film covers a lot more territory -- both literally and figuratively -- before it reaches the finish line. As Ryan jets all over the country doing his job -- the opposite of The Accidental Tourist's Macon Leary, he loves traveling and hates the handful of days a year he's forced to spend at home -- he makes the acquaintance of a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga), and they strike up a romance that's among the sexiest and most adult placed on screen in some time. Yet Ryan's carefully constructed life threatens to crash and burn when his company's latest hire (Anna Kendrick), a whiz kid just out of college, implements a plan that will require the grounding of all employees, including Ryan. Penning the script with Sheldon Turner, director Jason Reitman (now 3-for-3 following Juno and Thank You for Smoking) has created a timely seriocomic work that manages to be breezy without once diminishing the sobering realities that constantly hover around the picture's edges (for starters, the fired employees interviewed in the film are not actors but real workers who were let go from their jobs). Farmiga and Kendrick are excellent as the two women who unexpectedly alter the direction of Ryan's life, yet it's Clooney, in his best screen work to date, who's most responsible for earning this magnificent movie its wings.
THE MAID (***1/2) -- The Maid sports the sort of terse, career-oriented title that often suggests a viewer can expect to either see a slapstick comedy (The Valet, The Bellboy) or a psychological thriller (The Nanny). But while it's clear from the outset that pratfalls will be noticeably missing from this Chilean import, it isn't until late in the game that audiences will be able to determine the extent of the picture's darker undertones. In a formidable performance, Catalina Saavedra plays Raquel, who for 23 years has served as the live-in maid for the Valdez clan. Considering herself one of the family, Raquel is fiercely territorial, and when her failing health forces mousy matriarch Pilar Valdez (Claudia Celedon) to hire additional help, Raquel does whatever she can to scare off those she views as intruders. The script by director Sebastian Silva is masterful, setting up all manner of interesting dynamics not only between Raquel and the members of the household but also between Raquel and the succession of domestics who run afoul of her tyrannical ways.
THE DAMNED UNITED (***) -- Anthony Hopkins has long been heralded for playing a wide variety of historical figures -- Adolf Hitler, Pablo Picasso, Richard Nixon and a dozen others -- but Michael Sheen isn't exactly a slouch either when it comes to turning real life into reel life. The talented thespian who previously tackled David Frost, Tony Blair, H.G. Wells and Emperor Nero now essays the role of Brian Clough, and if most American viewers draw a blank on that name, rest assured that British soccer fans are more than familiar with his legacy. Refusing to devolve into a routine sports flick (see Invictus), The Damned United is instead more interested in the off-field clashes than the on-field skirmishes, as the talented soccer manager Clough moves up into the major leagues and ends up taking over the championship team vacated by his rival, Don Revie (Colm Meaney). The beauty of the script by Peter Morgan (The Queen) is that the feud between the two men isn't black-and-white: Clough often reveals himself to be as much of a jerk as Revie (especially when ignoring the advice of his longtime friend and partner Peter Taylor, well-played by Timothy Spall), and it's this entanglement of audience emotion and expectation that allows this rollicking saga to score.