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Reality Bites: Pipe Dreams and Wake-Up Calls of 2009

Having delivered a long thumb-sucker on the aughts, I don’t feel like going beyond my best-of list to sum up the year in film in 2009 — mostly because I think what was happening onscreen had little to do with what was happening off. There’s a two-to-three-year lag time. Precious trafficked in victimization scenarios that would have been timely fifteen years ago — maybe — and only the post-production addition of the names Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry and the use of a morbidly obese non-actress gave the film enough curiosity value to be reviewed (and extolled) by critics who’d normally leave such fare to their third-stringers. (Imagine if Lee Daniels had cast Precious with a merely heavy girl — ho-hum.) The same critics have moved on to laud Nancy Meyers’s It’s Complicated, with its tone-deaf portrait of affluent and self-absorbed white people — a movie that would have been infuriating in 2005 but is now so surreally out of touch that the raves seem positively Venusian.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood Big Movie of the Year is a revisionist-history fantasy, a pipe dream of world harmony. Avatar suggests that maybe if we hadn’t succeeded in decimating the Native-American population (driving them off their land, giving them smallpox-soaked blankets, etc.), they’d have somehow kept us tied to Mother Earth. To make the case for the sacredness of the natural world over the forces of capitalist-imperialist technology, of course, James Cameron needed the best technology that capitalism could buy. Do we applaud him for using the resources of the System to promote political and environmental sensitivity, for creating a cornball populist parable that can even get under the skins of Sarah Palin voters? Or is Avatar proof that we’re no longer just separated from reality, but that the divorce has come through?

Maybe the most resonant movie of the year isn’t the melancholy tragedy-of-globalization picture Summer Hours but Pontypool, a sort of Canadian Noam Chomsky zombie flick in which the disconnect between language and reality turns people into drooling monsters.

It has been a year of dashed illusions ... Indirectly, the hagiography Invictus reminds us that Barack Obama could not pull off Mandela-esque unification in the U.S., a country with too many ignorant people preyed upon by forces both wealthy and unscrupulous. Tiger Woods, who gladdened our hearts by proving that the racial divide is no more, that a (nice, clean) blackish man could triumph even in a white-Republican-weenie game like golf, turned out to be another pussy hound with a yen for blonds.

Although I hate to throw around charges of anti-Semitism (especially in light of Yoav Shamir’s barbed portrait of the ADF in his documentary Defamation), I think Irina Bragin is, alas, dead on in her assessment of An Education — not just an overrated movie but, on reflection, a hateful one.

Meanwhile: another year, another starlet down the toilet. Brittany Murphy: I saw her onstage once and thought she was not only delish but a natural actress. She was a cutie among cuties. But on talk shows she seemed dumb as a post and in life was evidently a sponge for all of Hollywood’s baddest vibes — the constant harping on actresses’ weight, producers’ insistence on “fuckability,” the plethora of prescription drugs, allegedly enabling spouses/handlers ... Mothers, don’t let your daughters grow up to be actresses ... who marry self-proclaimed screenwriters.

Finally: R.I.P. critic Robin Wood, who, even when he overreached, saw through movies in ways that could truly shake us out of our stupor.

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Photo: (clockwise from top left) Lionsgate, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures