It’s time once again to reflect back on the best films of the past year. Notice that I do not do a “Ten Best” list; I do a “Fifteen Best” list. This tradition began in 2008, after years of lamenting my annual need to cut a few worthy movies just to hit some standard number. My feeling is that if we’re celebrating great motion pictures here, why stop at just ten? Even at fifteen, I’m cheating a bit because, as you will soon see, there are actually sixteen titles here.
Also, please remember that rankings are often generally arbitrary. What makes my #6 film better than my #7 film? Beats me. The movies just need to be ranked, and so I go on instinct. The only rankings that legitimately count this year are #1 (which, in my mind, was a work that slightly exceeded all others this year) and #2 (which slightly exceeded all others, except for #1).
Before the formal unveiling, I want to recognize some other terrific 2009 films. These did not make the list, but are worthy of mention in case you missed them and may want to rent them on DVD:
Comedies - The Answer Man, Bruno, The Hangover, I Love You Man, Zombieland
Dramas - Adventureland, Big Fan, Crazy Heart, Notorious, Public Enemies, Sunshine Cleaning, Uncertainty
Documentaries - Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, Capitalism: A Love Story, Food Inc., Michael Jackson’s This Is It
Family Films - Coraline, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Monsters vs. Aliens
Action/Adventure/Horror - Drag Me to Hell, Orphan, Paranormal Activity, Star Trek, Watchmen
And now, my picks for the Fifteen Best Films of 2009:
15. Knowing - In this genuine love-it-or-hate it kind of movie, director Alex Proyas guided Nicolas Cage through an intense spiritual sci-fi adventure about the end of the world. In talking to people who hated Knowing, I found one thing in common: a total misreading of the ending. You have to pay attention to all the Biblical references scattered throughout to really “get” the story, but if you do, it’s hard to deny that this is a science-fiction masterpiece with actual religious substance.
14. District 9 - Another great example of how sci-fi can be used to address deep, socially relevant themes. Neill Blomkamp made an astonishingly assured feature debut with this tale of a government bureaucrat (the sublime Sharlto Copely) learning to identify with aliens, who are being held in Apartheid-style containment camps. Simultaneously exciting and politically provocative, D9 proves again that entertainment and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.
13. Outrage - Kirby Dick is not a household name, but he deserves to be; the documentarian serves up one incisive hot-button film after another. This time his target is closeted gay politicians who – in what Dick deems the ultimate hypocrisy – actively fight against gay rights. Florida governor Charlie Crist comes in for some of the harshest criticism, but he’s not the only one at fault. Dick lays his argument out with a clarity that will make you even more cynical about the government than you probably already are.
12. Fantastic Mr. Fox/Where the Wild Things Are (tie) - I hate ties on Best-Of lists, but I’m pairing these two films because I liked them for exactly the same reason. Two innovative auteurs (Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze, respectively) took on two classic children’s tales (by Roald Dahl and Maurice Sendak) and transformed them into hip, weighty screen fare. For that reason, some complained that the pictures played better to adults than to kids. Perhaps…but so what?
11. Brothers - Tobey Maguire gives the performance of his career in this devastating story of a Marine who returns from battle a changed man. Natalie Portman is the wife back home who is tortured psychologically while her husband is being tortured physically. Director Jim Sheridan (In America) effectively shows us that war is hell, but also shows us how staying at home while a loved one goes to war is hell, too. Brothers is one of the best movies ever made about how hard it is for a family to regain normalcy when a soldier comes home.
10. Avatar - If we learned any lesson from Titanic’s pre-release bad buzz, it’s to never, ever count out James Cameron. Sure, the early trailers looked, um, weird, but the final project delivered groundbreaking special effects, an unexpectedly compelling story, and the best use of 3-D in the history of motion pictures. Without a doubt, one of the most immersive moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.
9. Funny People - Judd Apatow understands comedy. So it was a real treat to see him explore a topic he would naturally have a lot of insight into: the various personality disorders that drive people who make jokes for a living. Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen both gave performances of unexpected depth, showing heretofore unseen range. The third act put a lot of viewers off, as it moves out of the comedy clubs and becomes more of a romantic/domestic drama. Granted, it’s not as much fun as the first two acts, but I maintain that it’s absolutely necessary to make Apatow’s point, which is that comedians are fundamentally screwed up.
8. The Cove - Studios spend big bucks to turn out action crap like G.I. Joe and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. In 2009, they got their butts kicked by – get this - a documentary! A doc that plays like a thriller, The Cove follows a group of filmmakers determined to expose the dolphin slaughter that occurs in a small Japanese town that’s supposedly dedicated to the creatures. Using an Ocean’s Eleven-style plan, they sneak cameras into the cove, foiling the cops, the local government, and a handful of guards. What their cameras record is beyond shocking; what they do with that damning footage will make you want to stand up and cheer.
7. (500) Days of Summer - I hate rom-coms like The Proposal and The Ugly Truth because they are so patently artificial – the work of too-cute screenwriters following a formula rather than actually exploring the intricacies of love. That’s what made this romantic comedy such a breath of fresh air. The relationship between leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel feels authentic, and director Marc Webb finds visually interesting ways to chart their ups and downs. As the voiceover narration says, this is not a love story; it is, however, a funny, charming, and painfully truthful examination of how relationships sometimes go.
6. A Serious Man - Joel and Ethan Coen do it again. The filmmaking siblings have turned out so many masterpieces in their joint career that it’s a wonder the rest of Hollywood doesn’t resent them. The amazing Michael Stulhbarg plays a Jewish man who visits three rabbis in the hope of resolving a sudden onslaught of personal problems. With this darkly funny story, the Coens ask that age-old philosophical question, “Why do people have to suffer?” Their answer: “Because.” This is a delightfully weird and thought-provoking film.
5. Up in the Air - Jason Reitman directed my personal favorite film of the last five years, Juno. His latest may not be on quite the same level, but it’s still an expertly crafted character study, filled with laughs and moments of genuine emotion. George Clooney plays a professional downsizer who has chosen to also do some personal downsizing as well. He’s happiest bouncing between airports and hotel rooms, avoiding meaningful human connection at all costs. Vera Farmiga and (in a star-making turn) Anna Kendrick play the women who force him to reconsider that lifestyle. On the surface, Up in the Air sounds like a vapid romantic comedy, yet it intentionally avoids sentiment and treats the subject of downsizing – of both kinds - with gravity.
4. The Hurt Locker - This tale of a bomb disposal unit in Iraq was so intense that I practically didn’t blink for two hours. Director Kathryn Bigalow (working from Mark Boal’s authentic screenplay) gives the film a relentless pace, milking the anxiety of disarming an IED for all its worth. Jeremy Renner is perfection as the specialist who gets off on danger, which, when you think about it, is kind of a requirement for such a job. Completely free of politics, The Hurt Locker embeds us with Renner’s unit to let us observe the tension for ourselves.
3. Inglourious Basterds - Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to rewrite history. QT brings his unique mash-up of influences to the war genre, creating an alternate history in which the Nazis are blown to smithereens in a movie theater. You’ll find plenty of the man’s trademark quirky dialogue and cool 70’s influenced posturing, but what I loved most about Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino’s willingness to build suspense by letting scenes run long. In an era when too many directors want to cut everything as tightly as possible, there’s something to be said for a movie with the patience to hang around long enough to rattle your last nerve. Also, who doesn’t love watching Nazis get blown to Hell?
2. Up - Pixar’s latest production is proof that, Avatar aside, 3-D is not the greatest thing since sliced bread. I saw Up for the first time in 3-D. Loved the movie, thought the effect was cool. But it wasn’t until I saw it again on DVD in 2-D that I realized just how emotionally resonant the story is. This is a beautiful tale of an elderly widower (wonderfully voiced by Ed Asner) discovering life again by tying a million balloons to his house and floating away. The first-act montage spanning the man’s life with his late wife is one of the most moving sequences my eyes have ever witnessed. Try not to get choked up by that. Pixar has the best track record of anyone in the movie business. They always hit home runs. Up is a grand slam.
And my choice for the Best Film of 2009 is:
And there you are - fifteen films (actually sixteen) all worth your time and money. Honestly, I didn’t realize what a great year for movies 2009 had been until I started to compile this list. As always, let’s hope the year ahead brings us plenty of quality films to rival the best of the last twelve months.
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