Contemporary Hollywood can feel like a creatively stagnant place, stocked with remakes, sequels and vehicles inspired by toys and television.
But for anyone worried that the movie business has an originality problem, 2009 offered plenty of evidence to the contrary. Could that be a harbinger for the new movie year?
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True, studios in 2009 ransacked the 20th century for time-tested properties such as “Star Trek” and “G.I. Joe” and went back to the global-disaster well for the umpteenth time with “2012.”
But amid all the familiar retreads and easy explosions came a surprising number of fresh ideas. With a microscopic budget and a simple haunted-house premise, the lo-fi “Paranormal Activity” elicited millions of gasps and screams. “The Hangover” combined seemingly shopworn elements – buddies on the road, a trip to Vegas, raunchy antics – and turned it into something subversive and wholly original (it also became the most successful R-rated comedy in history). And “District 9's” unique setting and sharp special effects, coupled with Peter Jackson's imprimatur, drew crowds to a sci-fi story that also doubled as a pointed political allegory.
The surprises stretched outside of traditional male genres. “Julie & Julia,” adapted from Julie Powell's book, took a seemingly esoteric subject of a cookbook writer in Cold War-era France. By spicing it with a culinary-minded everywoman, it created a warm crowd-pleaser.
“Up” made a balloon-enthusiast septuagenarian its unlikely hero and in the process deflated the idea that animated movies need talking animals and frantic action.
“The Blind Side” showed that audiences will come to a drama in droves if there's a touch of football, a dollop of Sandra Bullock and a wallop of sweetness.
These movies dominated the cultural conversation in 2009, and while it's impossible to know which will do the same in 2010, there's a fair share that could make a similar impact.
With that in mind, here's a rundown of films to keep on the radar moving into the new year.
If you liked “The Hangover,” keep an eye out for “Due Date.”
Mike Tyson's tiger, Zach Galifianakis' BabyBjorn and, of course, the photographs from the end credits are still burned indelibly in our brains. Next November we'll get more outrageousness from Todd Phillips, the director of “Hangover,” and Galifianakis, who's reteaming with Phillips for a new R-rated comedy. Robert Downey Jr. adds extra star power as a father-to-be who, thanks to a series of unhappy coincidences, must drive across the country with a slacker (Galifianakis) to arrive in time for the birth of his first child.
“We've made the most … movie about fatherhood,” Phillips says.
But don't expect a reprisal of Galifianakis' zoned-out man-child from “Hangover.” Says Phillips: “There are still shadings of Zach and his humor, but it's an entirely different character.”
If you liked “Paranormal Activity,” keep an eye out for “Frozen.”
We shuddered at the prospect of a supernatural intruder poking around our house while we slept. Now we could be shivering – literally – at the fear that takes hold when a group gets stranded on a ski chairlift.
That's the premise of the low-budget horror film “Frozen,” which premieres at the (appropriately) snowy Sundance Film Festival in January 2010 and opens in theaters Feb. 5.
“It plays on a lot of primal fears – fear of heights, fear of getting stuck, fear of freezing to death,” says writer-director Adam Green.
Making it even more chilling: Green says the actors went through an ordeal of their own.
“It's all practical filmmaking,” Green says. “When you see (the actors) freezing, they're really freezing.”
Another one-word-title horror movie, “Buried,” could also be a possible Sundance breakout. It's about a man trapped in a coffin underground who must use little more than a lighter and his wits to escape.
If you liked “District 9,” keep an eye out for “Sanctum.”
Peter Jackson got us to pay attention to a movie we might otherwise have overlooked. Now James Cameron will try to do the same.
Even as the director's “Avatar” continues to attract fans worldwide, Cameron offers his stamp as executive producer of a new movie: an underwater adventure called “Sanctum,” about a father and son trapped in a cave. Like “District 9,” new technology will make the film look spiffier than its $20 million budget. And like “Avatar,” it's shot in 3-D.
“It's really a psychological thriller and a drama about what happens to human beings under extreme pressure,” says director Alister Grierson of the movie, which could come out in 2010 or 2011.
He adds: “Jim's philosophy is that to make a 3-D movie you don't always need expensive visual effects. You just need good storytelling.”
If you liked “Up,” keep an eye out for “Despicable Me.”
Pixar will offer the latest installment in its Buzz Lightyear mega-franchise when it releases “Toy Story 3” on June 18. That movie will no doubt bring more magic and earn a gazillion dollars to boot. But for an animated film this summer with a more adult feel, the one to watch is Universal's “Despicable Me.” The July 9 release, about a villain named Gru who plots to steal the moon, may play more like a straight comedy than the tender and sometimes melancholy “Up.” But “Despicable Me” also has a heart, as three orphans hope to find a father figure in Gru. With comic talents Steve Carell, Jason Segel and Kristen Wiig voicing characters, it promises to keep adults entertained too.
If you liked “Julie & Julia,” keep an eye out for “Eat, Pray, Love.”
There's a long, rich history of food stories on the big screen. But the cooking-as-therapy story line never got as full-on a treatment as it did in “Julie & Julia.”
The trick could also be turned with “Eat, Pray, Love,“ scheduled for an August slot similar to that in which “Julie” succeeded. Julia Roberts stars in the adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir, in which a woman finds solace in cuisine (as well as spirituality and romance) after a messy divorce. It could be just what gal pals seeking a night out ordered.
(There's also “Sex and the City 2” on May 28.)
If you liked “The Blind Side,” keep an eye out for “Love Don't Let Me Down.”
The runaway success of “The Blind Side” has everyone in Hollywood clamoring for an inspirational story that will be embraced in the heartland. There's no sports drama that neatly fits the bill, but the country-music-loving fan base of “The Blind Side” will be intrigued by “Love Don't Let Me Down,” a drama about two country-music personalities going in opposite directions that also happens to feature ”Blind Side” costar Tim McGraw.
If that doesn't strike the right note, you could always check out Jeff Bridges as dissolute crooner Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart,” which should stick around in theaters through early 2010.