How ready am I for 2009?

Well, not counting what's in my Sundance catalog or under-the-radar small titles like "Thunder Soul" that haven't shown up on IMDb yet, I've already got a list of 187 movies I feel like I'm interested in seeing next year. Sounds like I should prioritize a bit, right? Well, let's see if we can figure out what we're most excited by, curious about, or living in mortal fear of in the year ahead.

2009:  THE MUST-SEES

I think 2009 has the potential to be a huge year, an amazing year full of amazing films that aren't all just packed into two months.  Here are the titles I'm absolutely rabid to lay eyes on as soon as humanly possible.

 

"Watchmen"

We, along with everyone else online, have written a lot about the legal fireworks that threaten to overshadow the actual movie, but let's set that aside for a moment.

Is "Watchmen" going to be any good?

That's the real question that fanboys should be asking themselves, and based on the half-hour or so of footage I've seen from the film, including the first 22 minutes in order and the famous Mars sequence involving Dr. Manhattan, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this looks to be one of the most engrossing and unusual films coming out this year, regardless of what the source material is.  Zack Snyder's an exciting filmmaker who seems to be coming into his own right now, and this may be the exact material he needed in order to finally step up and assert his voice completely.

Faithful?  For the most part, and eerily so in some regards.

Ambitious?  Absolutely.

Will it make money?  Well, there's the rub.  I certainly think it could be a monster hit, just based on the spectacle of it, but I also think there's a chance we're looking at the new "Blade Runner," a film so stylistically ahead-of-the-curve that it just plain doesn't connect when it comes out, only to resonate through the next 20 years of filmmaking, like the book has done for the last 20 years.  I hope that's not the case, and I hope people turn out to see it, but whatever happens, I'm just thrilled that "Watchmen" is finally here, and that it came together in this particular configuration.

"Observe And Report"

"Funny People"

"Observe & Report" is up first, coming out in April. This is the new Seth Rogen comedy from the guys who wrote, produced, and directed "The Foot Fist Way," one of the best no-budget comedies I've ever seen. I spent about an hour in the editing room with director Jody Hill last fall, looking at sequences from this film that looks to be the "Taxi Driver" of mall security, a movie about a dude named Ronnie (Rogen) who's wound way too tight for his job at a local mall. When someone begins flashing mall patrons, Ronnie decides he's going to step up and stop the guy, no matter what. That maission takes Ronnie to darker places than I think most people are going to believe when they first see the film.

Of course, for Seth Rogen fans, the biggest event of the year has got to be "Funny People," written and directed by Judd Apatow, and also starring Adam Sandler and Leslie Mann. I think this is the best thing Apatow's written so far, by leaps and bounds, but what's on the page is nothing compared to what's got to happen in the live performances that the cast has been giving and is still planning to give, in character. These are some talented performers, but stand-up comedy is its own beast, and if they're going to really make us believe them in the film, it can't be faked. I think it's the tightrope act of the year, in some ways. Apatow built a great dramatic spine for the film, so it'll work on that level, but if these funny people deliver as stand-ups and as characters both, I think the film has a chance at being a classic.

"Avatar"

James Cameron's "Avatar" is the year's game-changer, so maybe it's a good thing it isn't coming out until next Christmas. I'm not sure anything else in 2009 has a chance once people get a load of this unparalleled journey to where mankind's future is being decided in a war for an alien planet. Part of me wants to know everything about this movie right now, and part of me hopes they don't show us anything until we sit down in the theater to see the finished film. Either way, I know the year's going to end on something special. I have absolute faith in Cameron. This is not someone you bet against, and I've heard too much from the sets, too much from people who have seen footage... just plain too much to believe that it's going to be anything less than a cultural event.

If you don't know what it's about, here's the short version:  a cynical, burnt-out young man in the future named Josh (Sam Worthington) is approached by the government to become part of the Avatar program, which his now-deceased twin brother was originally going to do.  Basically, they take a sample of your DNA and splice it with a native life form from a planet that can't easily be explored by humans because of atmosphere and environment.  Then you're able to control the avatar by remote because of that shared DNA.  When Josh and his avatar are introduced to the planet of Pandora, something awakens in him, and he ends up leading a revolution to stop mankind from invading this remarkable new world.

Expect to see an alien planet and ecosystem unlike anything you've ever experienced, thanks to Cameron and the remarkable artisans he's had working on this one for a few years now, including the wizards at Weta and Digital Domain, and with a 3D IMAX release on the books, I can only imagine the sensory overload we'll be experiencing a year from now.

"Star Trek"

I wasn't sure what to think of JJ Abrams and his requel to the original "Star Trek" series until I saw a presentation of about 20 minutes of footage.  Now I'm totally sold.  I think a big part of what sold me is that they're bringing a real sense of scale to the series for the first time, and the casting seems to be pretty spot on.  Chris Pine was a total mystery to me before seeing that footage, but now I'm pretty sure they found the right guy to pull off the role of Kirk.  And if he has chemistry with Zachary Quinto's Spock and Karl Urban's Bones, then Paramount's got a brand-new franchise.

"This Side Of The Truth"

I spent some time in Boston on set for this comedy, and I walked away convinced that this could easily be a classic, a high-concept comedy that takes a simple premise and spins it out into a savage commentary on how we live and the lies we tell ourselves and each other just to keep this whole thing spinning along.  Matt Robinson and Ricky Gervais co-write and co-direct, and Gervais has proven to be a talent magnet, attracting a laundry list of supporting actors who wanted to be part of the project, names like Jonah Hill, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Patrick Stewart, Christopher Guest, Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, Louis C.K., John Hodgman, and, yes, Karl "Head Like A Fucking Orange" Pilkington.  Why would this many funny people fight to all be part of something?

Because it's the single best comedy script written since "Groundhog Day."

The film opens with an explanation of how lying developed as a human habit.  We see the first moment in human history when someone told a lie, and then we see how things would have played out if that person had not lied at that point.  The entire film unfolds off the supposition that lying in general never occurred to anyone, and the entire fabric of reality is different as a result.  What makes the premise special is just how far Robinson and Gervais go with it.  In a world where everything is literal truth, there is no slang.  No sarcasm.  No innuendo.  No fantasy.  No fiction  No religion.  Everything is what you see in front of you and blunt information.

Gervais plays a screenwriter.  Of course, in this world, movies are simply someone sitting in a chair, reading a dry account of actual events that happened with no dramatic embellishment.  And Gervais is a very unpopular screenwriter because the year he's been given to write about is filled with little more than plague deaths and land disputes.  One day, something in him snaps, and he tells the world's first lie.  And because no one is prepared for it, everything he says is accepted as truth, no matter what.  Almost overnight, his whole world changes, and he becomes hugely famous, especially when he has to offer up a source for all these outrageous things he says and he creates "The Man In The Sky."

Controversial?  Most likely.  Hilariously funny?  On every page.  I think this could be one of the films you hear about over and over and over this time next year, and I look forward to finding out if I'm right.

"Where The Wild Things Are"

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox"

"Coraline"

"Up"

"9"

Ostensibly, all of these are children's films.  All but one is animated, and the one that's live-action is based on one of the most acclaimed and beloved children's books of all time.

But I think it would be a mistake for anyone who is serious about their love of film to ignore any one of these films, because they all have the potential to transcend being "mere" family entertainment.

I've seen a rough cut of "Where The Wild Things Are," and I spent a good chunk of time talking to Spike Jonze about it last fall.  It's not really a film for children as much as it is a film about children and the way they take all the anxieties and fears and failures that people project onto them and then process them into something they can understand and handle.  I'm curious to see what the final cut looks like, because I know it's been a tumultuous birth for the project, but I think there's a chance it'll be something really special.

Having seen the first 45 minutes of "Up" at this year's Butt-Numb-A-Thon, I'm absolutely sure it's another Pixar knock-out.  Pete Docter hasn't directed a Pixar film since "Monsters Inc.," but I think that's aged incredibly well, and I think what he's doing here is sly and smart and more adult than you'd expect at first.  An old man (voiced by Ed Asner, who gives good gruff) goes on a huge adventure in an effort to fulfill a promise he made to his now-dead wife.  Not the typical stuff from which family comedies are spun, but when has Pixar ever been typical?

Both "Coraline" and "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" are stop-motion features, an art form that isn't really as "dying" as people like to claim.  It's always been incredibly expensive and difficult to make a stop-motion film, and it takes real dedication for anyone to devote themselves to spending three years of meticulous madness to making these films.  Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" looks creepy, arresting, and uncompromised, and Focus Films is going to be releasing as many prints as possible in 3D, something that really works to pull you into the world that Selick and his artists have created.  In one of those odd coincidences, Selick was originally attached to help bring "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" to the screen, but had to drop out to devote all his attention to "Coraline."  Now we'll see how Wes Anderson managed without him when Fox releases his adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novel.  I've seen a good 25 minutes of "Coraline" now and not a frame from "Mr. Fox," but I have faith that Anderson's treating the source material right.

And then there's Shane Acker's "9."  I published the trailer here the other day, and I've watched it six or seven times since then.  I really liked Acker's original Oscar-nominated short film, but I'm entranced by what he's done with it as a feature.  Just that trailer alone is one of the most beautiful things I saw all year, and I'm excited to see if Acker can shake loose of the conventions of what people expect from this type of film to deliver a singular fantasy experience.

"The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus"

And speaking of singular fantasy experiences, Terry Gilliam's at it again this year with a film that will get a whole lot of publicity based on the fact that it contains the last performance by Heath Ledger.  When he died, the film was unfinished, and there was some question about whether or not it would even be possible to complete it.  I know Gilliam's cursed, but dear god... no one director (with the possible exception of Orson Welles) has ever had so much talent and so little luck to go with it.  That horrific experience led Gilliam to make an artistic choice that could pay off in something truly wonderful, though.

The titular Imaginarium is part of a travelling show, a sort of stage/carriage that offers you up a vision of your inner life when you step into it.  Christopher Plummer is Dr. Parnassus, and Ledger was cast as Tony, one of his assistants.  There are three points in the film where Tony steps into the Imaginarium, and since the inside is all the stuff that hadn't been shot, Gilliam had a wild idea:  what if he cast three different actors to each appear in one of the fantasy sequences, each of them offering up a different interpretation of Ledger?  And when you realize he cast Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play the three faces of Tony, it gets very exciting, indeed.

Add to that the fact that this was co-written with Charles McKeowan, Gilliam's best collaborator, and this sounds to me like a very special experience, and one that should be hotly discussed when we finally lay eyes on it later this year.

"Ashecliffe"

This one sounds just plain crazy.

I'm not a big fan of "Mystic River," also adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel, but I sort of loved "Gone Baby Gone," which was based on an earlier book of his, so I figure it could go either way here.  But you've got Martin Scorsese directing, and that's about as good as it gets.  Just as importantly, Laeta Kalogridis is the screenwriter, and for the first time in her career, she's got a director working with her who is actually a collaborator and not just someone determined to undo everything she did on the page.  Considering her other screenplay credit this year may end up being for "Avatar," depending on WGA arbitration, I think she's turned a corner in terms of perception of her.  I've been a fan for a while because of how great she is on the page, but that's never really translated to a finished product.

This time, though, she's working with some really ripe material.  Lehane's novel was designed as a mix of the Bronte sisters and a horror film, and I'm dying to see if Scorsese can bring all these bizarre elements together in the story of two US Marshalls who are sent to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a woman from a psychiatric hospital.  What begins as a mystery turns into a full-blown freak out, and with a cast like Leonardo Di Caprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Jackie Earle Haley, Max Von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Elias Koteas and Patricia Clarkson onboard, it's going to be filled to the top with people chewing on the completely wacko characters they've been given.  I guarantee there's nothing else like this coming out this year, and that's a thrill.

"Kick-Ass"

Have you been reading about the real-world superheroes?

No?  Well, you should.  It's a fascinating and inevitable social development that's playing out right now, and I have a feeling it's the start of something, and not just an isolated moment.

And what's really weird is just how completely Mark Millar nailed it in his limited run comic series "Kick-Ass," which is still in progress.  Even before he began publication, Matthew Vaughn optioned the idea, and he and his writing partner Jane Goldman adapted it into a script as fast as they could and then leapt into production.  I spent about four days in London last year to watch them work, and I think they're making something really special.  It's a crazy world where an average kid named Dave (Aaron Johnson) decides to become a hero by putting on a costume, never realizing the chain reaction he's going to set off by doing so.  He meets other masked heroes like Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, best known from "Superbad") and Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), and he comes up against some not-remotely-comic-book bad guys who aren't nearly as easy to beat as Dave imagines.  His identity as Kick-Ass may net him a great girlfriend, but it may also cost him his life, and the film promises to throw a wild ride at viewers, with radical shifts in tone between the absurd and the dramatic.  It's obvious with the arrival of this and "Watchmen" this year that we are entering a new phase in the superhero cycle, and I think it's just starting to get truly interesting.

"Sherlock Holmes"

Here's another one that I got an early look at, and my initial reluctance melted away when I saw just how serious Guy Ritchie is about making a Sherlock Holmes film unlike any previous adaptation, and without having to reinvent or reinterpret anything.  One of the most confounding things about the way people think of Holmes on film is that the most iconic parts of his movie image are things that did not come from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Instead, early film versions (particularly the successful Basil Rathbone series) set up certain expectations for people, and they became the bar by which all else is measured.

But what if it could be done better?

That was what led producer/screenwriter Lionel Wigram to revisit the property several years ago.  He fell in love with the material as an English schoolboy, and he's always harbored a desire to bring his idea of Holmes to the bigscreen.  He met a kindred spirit in Ritchie, and the result so far seems to me to be energetic, electric, and absolutely spot on in terms of treating the character right.  I mean, you can't ask for better casting than Robert Downey Jr. as the famous detective.  His natural intelligence and wit is a perfect match for Holmes.  And for the first time ever, they're actually using a Watson who fits the description from the stories, where he was an ex military man, somewhat dashing and good with women, who was the physical side of the equation.  Jude Law (who was dubbed "Hotson" by Downey on the set) looks to be a great compatriot for Holmes, and the addition of Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, the only woman to ever get the better of Holmes on a case and Mark Strong as Blackwood, a truly terrifying villain, means there's a lot to look forward to when Warner turns them loose on the case this November.

"Inglourious Basterds"

Quentin Tarantino's fighting WWII again, and this time, he's going to make sure it ends the way it should.

I don't know what to say to the people who have turned on Tarantino.  Maybe you just never liked his work as much as you convinced yourself you did.  All I know is I'm enjoying his rekindled energy since "Kill Bill," and I think this crazy-ass WWII buddy film reads like a fever dream after someone watched wwwwwaaaaaaaaayyyy too much Sam Fuller one night.  Brad Pitt plays the leader of a special platoon of Jewish soldiers, put together with one purpose:  kill Nazis.  When they're dropped behind enemy lines, mayhem ensues, but don't expect an empty action film.  Tarantino's got a lot of sly, subversive fun up his sleeve, and although I'm sure the final film will change dramatically from the script that leaked, that was enough of an indicator of what he's got planned that I figure this may be the craziest thing you see in a theater all year.

"Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World"

Then again, Edgar Wright's making a film about a 20something kid who falls in love with a girl who delivers packages using shortcuts through his subconscious, only to learn he has to fight her Eight Evil Ex-Boyfriends before they can be together.

And I... can't... wait.

Michael Cera takes some shit for playing variations on the same character in each film, but I don't buy it.  Most great movie stars are only playing variations on a type over the course of their career, so why did we decide to draw a line in the sand with Cera?  I think the kid's got amazing timing, and he always manages to show us the soul behind the jokes.  Scott Pilgrim is a great character, and the series of graphic novels that the film is being adapted from by Michael Bacall is rich and hilarious and sweet as can be.  Anime and emo and video games and alternative rock all play a part here, but "Scott Pilgrim" never reads like the sum of its influences, instead somehow managing to make it all feel fresh and original and unique.  I'm not sure how Edgar, whose "Shaun Of The Dead" and "Hot Fuzz" are both comedy classics, plans to adapt the book's wild visual style, but if anyone's going to figure it out, it's him.  I hope this is done and in theaters this year, and that certainly seems to be the plan.  If so, it should be unforgettable.

"The Tree Of Life"

It's a new film written and directed by Terrence Malick.  If that's not enough information to excite you, you and I may have very different definitions of "exciting."

And on that note, I'll end this first part of the 2009 preview.  Next up, we'll look at the films that have real potential but that still represent giant risks, the "question marks" of the year ahead.  See you back here later today for that one.