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Up, Up and Away

Pixar film was the record-breaking year's true highlight

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The year wasn't without its surprises. Paranormal Activity, the low-budget movie about the haunting of a condo-dwelling yuppie couple, relied on word of mouth rather than a six-figure marketing budget to bring in big box-office numbers. It came out of left field to defy all odds. As much as that might give hope to aspiring indie filmmakers, the fact that the movie looked like a half-assed home video wasn't particularly inspiring. Surprise ending notwithstanding, the film was a second-rate Blair Witch Project that isn't like to hold up to repeated viewings or even become a cult classic (which is perhaps why the DVD has already been rushed to release). Yet its success definitely caught the industry off-guard.

The rest of the $10 billion, record-setting year for movies took a more predictable path. While sequels such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian ran up their expected big numbers at the box office, the real summer surprise was The Hangover, a politically incorrect comedy that proved far funnier than Funny People, producer du jour Judd Apatow's return to the director's chair.

JJ Abrams' reboot of the Star Trek franchise was another high point for the year (and the recently released Blu-ray edition is filled with spectacular extras), as Abrams not only rethought the film but also stayed faithful to the original's corny humor, even enlisting Leonard Nimoy, the original Spock, for a cameo. District 9's old-school science fiction was equally ingenious. The film is intensely thought-provoking, setting itself up as a metaphor for apartheid and featuring some of the gnarliest alien outfits you'll ever see.

Pixar's Up, however, was the year's true highlight. Its poignant story about Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner), a grumpy old man who strikes up an unlikely bond with an annoying young boy, gave the incredible animation (which looked tremendous in digital 3-D) a good dose of pathos. The same couldn't be said for Avatar, a visually stunning movie hampered by its rote storyline about the colonization of an exotic planet.

All of this isn't to say that indie flicks with minimal budgets didn't make an impact. Director Lee Daniels got great performances out of Mo'Nique and Gabourey Sibide (and even Mariah Carey) in his harrowing Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. And Steven Soderbergh's The Informant was a limited-release movie that featured Matt Damon as a guy who finds his way into a huge scandal after he blows the whistle on his corporate managers. Wes Anderson's stop-motion animation film Fantastic Mr. Fox took a Roald Dahl story and turned it into something magical, in part because George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman lent their prodigious vocal talents to the well-developed characters.

Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill) also came through strong with Extract, a very funny film about a factory owner (Jason Bateman) who finds himself in a predicament as his professional and personal life falls apart. And while the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man lacked the big-name drawing power of their most recent films, it was quietly one of the year's best, funniest movies and their most personal work to date. While many of these films tried to steal screen time from more popular films with eye-catching computer-generated graphics, their presence in a field otherwise dominated by sequels (and Squeakquels!) was certainly welcomed.

jniesel@clevescene.com

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