I’m so happy that 2009 was a front-loaded year. Friends and family asked me on more than one occasion, “It’s the end of the year, so where are all the good movies?” I responded that this year, for whatever reason, was different and some of the year’s best films had premiered as early as Sundance (The Hurt Locker technically debuted in 2008 with its premiere at the Venice Film Festival). The scarcity of must-see year-end flicks worked out beautifully for me because I had the time to give more thought to films and have the opportunity to watch them more than once. I feel confident in my Top 10 in a way that I’ve been uneasy about in years prior. There was a wealth of great films to choose from this year and almost all of my favorites are now available to own or rent on DVD or Blu-ray.
If I had to sum up 2009 in films, I would say it was a year of surprises and disappointments. Films I expected to enjoy like Funny People, Bruno, Public Enemies were letdowns, while films like District 9, In the Loop, and A Single Man, came out of nowhere to blow me away. It’s also refreshing to see that movies like The Hangover, Paranormal Activity, and Avatar did so well at the box office despite not being adaptations or remakes.
I thought 2009 was a great year for film and while I seriously considered expanding this list to a Top 15 or even 20, I felt that ten was appropriate because while this is clearly a vanity project for me, I do hope it serves as a recommendation tool for people who can’t go see every movie. If you only see ten movies from this year, see these ten. Hit the jump to start the countdown.
10. FANTASTIC MR. FOX
I can’t think of a better word than “Delightful” to describe Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of a fox going through a mid-life crisis and who tries to recapture his youth by robbing from the meanest land owners around. Okay, here are some other words that also work: “Funny”, “Sharp”, “Witty”, and “Genuine.” It has the unpretentious charm of a low-budget short film, but the stunning stop-motion animation can’t be ignored. Anderson managed to combine it all together and while I’m not sure Fantastic Mr. Fox is the next stage in Anderson’s evolution as a director, it’s certainly his greatest film since The Royal Tenenbaums.
9. IN THE LOOP
Mix a mockumentary style, a brutal satire of careerism and politics, and some of the most biting, hilarious, and funny dialogue of the past decade and you have In the Loop, one of the best comedies in years that no saw…yet. This is a DVD you’ll have to buy and then lend it to all your friends. Peter Capaldi is unforgettable Communications Director Malcolm Tucker, and his insults of “Nazi Julie Andrews”, “Baby from Eraserhead”, “General Flinstone”, and “Leaky Fucking Mingebox” are only some of his many venomous witticisms that you’ll be reciting before you remember that they’re not fanciful lyrics but the stuff that’s meant to shred a person’s self esteem into nothingness. Still, I find I have to stop myself from ending my phone calls with, “Okay then. Fuckity-bye!”
8. AWAY WE GO
Put this one down in the “Pleasant Surprises” category. Having never been a big fan of director Sam Mendes, his foray into a quasi-indie with Away We Go managed to feel 100% genre and feature a relationship as true as the relationship from his previous film, Revolutionary Road, felt false. Playing the expectant couple Burt and Verona, John Krasinski and (to a greater extent) Maya Rudolph gave fresh performances that didn’t recall their television work and the love between their characters was the glue that held the film together. It’s so refreshing to see a lead couple finding humor in their relationship rather than the easy jokes and drama that comes from trying to tear them apart. Watching these two try to discover how to be the best parents possible is heartwarming, funny, and honest. Also, the final scene of the film is one of my all-time favorites as Alexi Murdoch’s “Wait” absolutely nails the emotional crescendo of Burt and Verona’s journey.
7. A SINGLE MAN
In his debut feature, director Tom Ford told a story without words. There is dialogue and it’s well written, but the tale of A Single Man is spoken with light, color, close-ups, facial expressions, beautiful music, and a stunning performance by Colin Firth as the grief-stricken George Falconer. Set in the 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film mixes foreboding with hope and helplessness with redemption. It’s also a relief to see a gay lead character who doesn’t agonize over his homosexuality and his love for his deceased boyfriend would be just as poignant had it been about a heterosexual couple. However, that film wouldn’t have offered the demonstration of how gaydar works so I’m glad A Single Man swings that way.
6. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
“I think this may just be my masterpiece,” quips Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) at the end of Inglourious Basterds. If that’s Tarantino speaking of his latest film, I hope he’s right because it’s frightening to think he could, and probably will, make a better film than this one. Arguably his best movie since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino remixes the World War II film with three parallel stories which reach their climax in a magnificent finale where we see “The Revenge of the Giant Face.” Not only was there the sharp writing, a vice grip of tension in almost every scene (I almost couldn’t breathe during the first chapter), and Tarantino’s trademark love of cinema, (“I’m French. We respect directors in our country.”), but there was Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter. 2009 was filled was magnificent supporting performances but Waltz blew them all away by crafting one of cinema’s all-time great villains.
5. DISTRICT 9
No movie stars. A budget of $30 million dollars. Johannesburg as the setting. The fact that a movie like District 9 can not only be a great film but be recognized as such by the film-going public (the movie grossed $115 million domestic) is uplifting on its own. But writer/director Neill Blomkamp told a story that wasn’t easy and gave audiences a true sci-fi flick that was glowing with subtext that never outshined the narrative, the characters, or the insane weapons that blasted foes into goop. Equaling the breakout work of Blomkamp was lead Sharlto Copley as Vikus van der Meer, an empty suit who ends up wearing full battle armor. Some have criticized the film as another tale of “Whitey Joins the Downtrodden Minority and Saves Them All,” but I don’t think that charge holds up since the aliens are not cuddly, not homogenous in attitude, and Wikus’ story isn’t about appreciating the Prawn culture or wanting to become one of them. It’s the story of a man who manages to give his life meaning with one selfless moment. I want to see where this character goes to next. I want to see how this world expands. I want to see what happens to Christopher’s adorable child. I want a District 10.
4. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
When I first saw Where the Wild Things Are, I proclaimed it the best film of the year. This is a perfect example of why repeat viewings are important, because on my second viewing the melancholy really did overwhelm me. However, I remained completely captivated by the cinematography, the score and soundtrack, the total honesty of the emotions, and the unflinching look at both the highs and lows of childhood. But none of these would come together with out star Max Records and director Spike Jonze. Their work pushes a great film into a brilliant one. Records performance doesn’t feel like a performance, which is stunning for any actor let alone a child actor. It’s also astounding he’s able to inhabit Jonze’s vast creation of a world that’s imaginative but not in a whimsical manner. It’s a limited palette brimming with life and it compliments the story rather than overwhelms it. Oh, and the merging of puppetry and CG is the best kind of special effect: the kind you don’t notice.
3. A SERIOUS MAN
A Serious Man begs to be deciphered, especially if you’re Jewish, whether you be orthodox, conservative, reform, or my sect of Judiasm, “Jewish Jokes and Ham Sandwiches on Yom Kippur.” (We’re open to better names). A modern day retelling of the story of Job, the film leads with a fake quote from Rashi (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”), followed by a Yiddish fable that doesn’t tie into the themes but not the narrative, and the structure of the film has Larry Gopnik’s visiting with three rabbis who may be stand-ins for the comforters of Job. It’s a Jewish film but one I believe is deeply fascinating no matter your religion. It doesn’t lose the Coen Brothers’ trademark black comedy or pacing so you can enjoy the film while you’re wondering if the lyrics of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” may offer a deeper piece of wisdom than fake Rashi or the pointless platitudes and parables offered by rabbis who have no idea how to answer that eternal question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Aside from producing the best opening ten minutes in cinematic history, Up fearlessly goes where most other family films dare not tread. It effortlessly dances between exuberance, melancholy, silliness, love, and grand adventure. Filled with some of Pixar’s most memorable dialogue, (two of my favorites: “I’m going to South America. It’s like America…but south” and “I was hiding under your porch because I love you”), Pixar shows how fearless filmmaking can produce the greatest results. Dug is a lovable character and Russell is cute, but they’re reasonable safe characters and I could see DreamWorks Animation or another studio including similar characters in their movies. I seriously doubt other animated family films would risk having a grumpy, septuagenarian hero like Carl Fredricksen. That’s too bad because Carl putting on the merit badge sash and throwing his walker on his back like a sword is one of the greatest movie moments of the year.
1. THE BROTHERS BLOOM
I’m probably the only critic out there that has The Brothers Bloom as their #1 film of the year. I’m confident in its position after seeing it three times along with almost every widely acclaimed film this year. It’s a script that hides little lines that come back in unexpected ways, has some of the best lines (“That’s my new favorite camel”) and silent gags (Bang Bang smelling Bloom’s fingers) in recent memory, but there’s an ineffable vivacity that writer/director Rian Johnson brought to his film without ever making it cutesy or ironic. It’s a world of steamer ships and charming con men where folks wear bowler hats and technology doesn’t have a role (although Bang Bang has a cell phone…”Bang Bang has a cell phone?”) because The Brothers Bloom transports us to another time and place which never truly existed but tricks us into believing we can go there. And that’s what the best films do. They’re not an escape but a destination. Johnson presented an alternate reality viewed with Steve Yedlin’s gorgeous cinematography, set to his brother Nathan’s enchanting score that swings between joy and sorrow without ever missing a beat, and filled his movie with endearing characters who travel a beautiful landscape. Following the parallel of con artistry and storytelling Johnson sets up in his film, The Brothers Bloom is the best con job ever because I got exactly what I wanted: a film that’s not only the year’s best, but one I’ll treasure for years and years to come.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, World’s Greatest Dad, Every Little Step, Star Trek, and Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire