Right now, 2009 remains a blank slate, untouched, full of promise. January is the graveyard month, during which studios drop mostly movies they don't care about, so it won't take long for the new year to become sullied. I'm thinking that this weekend's triple threat of Bride Wars, The Unborn, and Not Easily Broken are gonna get 'er real dirty real quick, but for now I choose to remain optimistic.
The following films are my ten most anticipated of the year, but of course, I am not in the possession of a crystal ball; some of these might be awesome, some of these might suck, and at the end of the year, most of my favorites will probably be movies I haven't even heard of yet. But I'm gonna have fun while I can, so here we go:
10. Drag Me to Hell
Release Date: May 29
So Spider-Man 3 was a disappointment. What better reason for director Sam Raimi to return to his whacked-out horror roots? Before he was an Oscar-nominated, blockbuster-directing force of nature, he was, after all, the guy who gave us Bruce Campbell battling his own demonically possessed hand. Alison Lohman is a loan officer who has to evict an old woman from her home, but unfortunately, she's the recipient of an ancient curse. As any watcher of ancient curse movies can tell you, this never ends well. The footage shown at the San Diego International Comic-Con last summer was gloriously goofy and unhinged (I'll just say that a stapler proves a key weapon against the undead), but if there's one concern I have, it's with the teaser they showed beforehand. It was somber and serious, advertising what is clearly a successor to the insanity of Evil Dead II as another horror du jour. If they stick with that marketing plan, viewers might be confused and disappointed, but one thing I know for certain: Bring Mr. Campbell in for a trademark cameo and everyone will be happy.
9. The Year One
Release Date: June 19
All I really need to hear is that Harold Ramis is directing, Judd Apatow is producing, and Jack Black and Michael Cera are starring. But if you must know more: this Biblical-themed comedy written by Ramis along with Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, a writing duo known for their work on The Office, is about two hunter-gatherers in the ancient world who are banned from their village and begin wondering about the meaning of life. Ramis' golden days are long gone, and it's been some time since he's been involved with a worthwhile film (1999's Analyze This was the last), but if he's looking to get back in the game, this is the perfect project. The Apatow brand isn't infallible — Step Brothers was a train wreck, and I avoided You Don't Mess with the Zohan — but The Year One has such a delightful premise and such talent both in front of and behind the camera, that I can't imagine this being anything but hilarious. Plus David Cross and Paul Rudd play Cain and Abel. Are you sold yet?
8. Shutter Island
Release Date: October 2
After 2006's powerhouse The Departed, director Martin Scorsese returns with Shutter Island, based on a Dennis Lehane novel about two U.S. Marshals investigating the disappearance of a woman from a hospital for the criminally insane. The Marshals are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo, and while I'm not a big fan of DiCaprio, I have faith that Scorsese can draw out the same kind of taut brilliance the actor achieved in The Departed. Plus he's got help from a truly excellent supporting cast featuring the likes of Sir Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, and Jackie Earle Haley, among others. This is definitely one to watch.
7. The Lovely Bones
Release Date: December 11
I've never read Alice Sebold's bestselling novel The Lovely Bones, but it has a great premise: after being raped and murdered, a teenage girl must come to terms with her own death and watch from Heaven as her family and friends grieve. This is perfect material for director Peter Jackson, who, as the man behind The Lord of the Rings, has proven adept at tackling fantasy. He hasn't made a film since his 2005 King Kong remake, though, and I was in the minority in thinking that it didn't exactly live up to the hype. So, for me, this sounds like a fitting return to form, while most others will see it as another brilliant work in an impressive career. And let's not forget the star power of Rachel Weisz, Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon, and Atonement's Saoirse Ronan.
6. Untitled Brüno Project
Release Date: May 15
Sacha Baron Cohen is at it again. The notorious comedian who broke out as Borat, the Kazakh reporter with a penchant for making everyone feel as awkward as possible, is giving another of his characters from Da Ali G Show the feature-length treatment. This time it's Brüno, the flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista. Brüno's very real antics have been making headlines for some time now: he crashed a Proposition 8 rally, shut down production on an episode of Medium, stormed the catwalk at a Milan fashion shown, and started a riot in a blue-collar Arkansas town. Cohen's obviously still got plenty of the firebrand left in him, so here's to hoping this is another painfully funny indictment of close-minded people everywhere.
5. Funny People
Release Date: July 31
Judd Apatow can go around producing any old movie he wants, but the best ones also find him in the director's chair. Take, for example, his two previous directorial efforts, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. Funny People looks similarly poised to deliver, and what's even better is that it'll be the first time in years that the name "Adam Sandler" can be said in the same sentence as the word "funny" without the descriptor "not." However, Apatow has also said that this is going to be a more dramatic film, with Sandler playing a lonely comedian diagnosed with a terminal illness who hires Seth Rogen as his opening act and friend. It sounds a little maudlin, sure, but I trust Apatow to give us something poignant, hilarious, and refreshingly original.
4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Release Date: July 17
Yes, in a perfect world, this would've arrived last November 21. But the people at Warner Bros. are mere Muggles, as we all are, so we mustn't be too hard on them. Now scheduled for release on July 17, this adaptation of the penultimate Potter book (though not the penultimate film, as The Deathly Hallows is planned to be split in two) promises to be even darker and more challenging for the boy wizard than the previous five. I've got to admit, this franchise kind of lost me after 2004's brilliant Prisoner of Azkaban; Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix both felt rushed and workmanlike, like glorified highlight reels. Even though David Yates, who directed Order of the Phoenix, is returning for this one, the trailer is superb and I figure I owe ol' Harry at least one more shot.
3. Public Enemies
Release Date: July 1
Miami Vice aside, few filmmakers tell "cops and robbers" stories as engagingly as Michael Mann. So it's encouraging to hear that his next film stars Christian Bale as FBI Agent Melvin Purvis and Johnny Depp as famed gangster John Dillinger. Just imagining those two actors onscreen together is exciting enough, but imagining them in a complex true-life tale set during the Great Depression kind of makes me want to start spamming Academy members with "For Your Consideration" e-mails. I'll try to restrain myself, but it's going to be hard.
2. Where the Wild Things Are
Release Date: October 16
Spike Jonze's long-delayed adaptation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are is finally scheduled to bow this fall, and I couldn't be more excited. Though there were reports of a disastrous screening in which the children in the audience were scared to tears, and that the whole thing might be reshot, Warner Bros. has assured us that Jonze's vision will remain intact. And that's a damn good thing, because the test footage looks as if it could've been lifted from the page; Jonze seems like the only man for the job, perfectly capturing the essence of Sendak's world. Though it's a live-action film, all of the monsters are actors in giant suits, and the stellar voice cast includes Catherine O'Hara, Forest Whitaker, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, and Paul Dano. Oh, and as much as I like Michelle Williams, the fact that she was replaced with Six Feet Under's beautiful Lauren Ambrose just has me dying to see this even more.
1. Inglourious Basterds
Release Date: August 21
As far as I'm concerned, news of any Quentin Tarantino film is cause to celebrate. And I don't just mean a quiet little dance of joy, I'm talking full-on celebration: running down the streets, jumping on tables, swinging from the ceiling fan, any crazy wild thing you can think of. Grindhouse may have been a box-office flop, but it was a thrilling cinematic experience, and Tarantino's half of the double feature, Death Proof, was as exhilarating as anything I've ever seen. So contrary to what you may have heard, the guy's still got it. Inglourious Basterds is particularly exciting because this is a film that Tarantino has been talking about for years. He's been working on getting it made for at least a decade, before Kill Bill came along and took up his time (back then, he even spelled the title correctly). It's a big World War II picture starring Brad Pitt, and it'll be interesting to see Tarantino transport his visual and verbal trademarks to the German battlefields. It's also going to be a blast to see Pitt — who, after indelible turns in everything from Se7en to Burn After Reading, is one of the most versatile actors alive — team up with the greatest director of his generation. Pitt may have had a bit part in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance, but at long last, he's finally in the hands of the man himself. The rest of the cast is an odd bunch, to say the least: it ranges from Maggie Cheung to Mike Myers, with Samuel L. Jackson serving as narrator. Tarantino's always had a keen eye for casting, though, and I've no reason to doubt his choices here. After all of that, it's like icing on the cake to discover that the legendary Ennio Morricone is doing the score. If all goes according to plan, Inglourious Basterds should be pretty legendary itself.
After writing all of this, I find myself smiling. These are all exciting, interesting projects that could point the way toward a shiny new year. Not even Bride Wars could dampen my spirits.
What are you looking forward to?