2009 IN REVIEW: Top 10 Films

Creating an annual top ten list is really a high pressure endeavor. Many of the films listed below I have only seen once and although they made a great initial impression on me, it’s hard to know if they have lasting power. Usually I re-assess my top ten list in June/July of the following year after I’ve had a chance to see many of the films a second or third time and a few minor shifts always occur.

This was what I would call a “good” year for movies. Not a great year like 2007, but definitely an improvement over 2008. Going through my long list of films it appears that the average for 2009 is about a B. Most films fall between the B- and B+ range. There were only a few films that I hated and not many others that I loved. However, I have whittled down the ones I loved most and posted them below the jump.

So without further ado…

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical):

Fantastic Mr. Fox

One of the most inventive directors working today shines in a new genre. Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the least kid-friendly PG animated films, but it has enough wit and wisdom to keep any adult entertained. Like many of Anderson’s films, Fox has an existentialist fear of death that is confronted in such a quirky and enjoyable way with pitch perfect voice-acting from George Clooney, Meryl Streep, and Anderson’s usual cast of players.

Food, Inc.

Don’t you hate documentaries that are so relevant you feel obligated to change your own lifestyle? Food, Inc. is a well-structured documentary that offers a shocking wake-up call about the most relevant topic in anybody’s life – the food you eat. It’s films like this that really make the capitalist system that we live in feel flawed. Food, Inc. features interviews with farmers who are part of the corporate farming world, but it never criminalizes them. Instead it challenges them and the viewer to change the way America eats.

Funny People

This underrated Judd Appatow comedy was a completely different tone than his previous efforts. Instead of going for laughs, this film goes for authenticity and it most definitely succeeds. Most of the lines were improvised  in this somewhat biographical films as Appatow takes an Altman-like approach to directing and he got it to work with his familiar cast of actors. It also had the best viral marketing campaign of the year hands down.

Inglourious Basterds

Despite its outrageous attempt to re-write history, this is actually Quentin Tarantino’s most conventional film. He uses a linear narrative in a performance driven film. The result takes a lot of the focus off of Tarantino’s style and puts it more on the actors within. Star turning performances come from Melanie Laurent and the precursor favorite Christoph Waltz.

Paranormal Activity

This minimalist portrayal of horror that director Oren Peli uses in this film should be a lesson to the big-budget studio horror films that continue to fail miserably. There was no better fright to be had in the theatres this year and I can’t remember the last time a “scary movie” actually scared me. For the sake of the genre, I hope Oren Peli keeps making movies with little or no budget. [My Review]

Ponyo

I can’t believe how much this delightful animated film has managed to stay off the radar this precursor season. Hiyao Miyazaki’s film about a fish becoming a child was a love song to the power of the sea. His style of hand drawn animation continues to be the best you will see and he doesn’t need 3D gimmicks or CGI special effects to create honest movie magic.

Precious

For the entirety of this Awards season I have neglected to call Precious by its full name – Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire. The reason for that is not only because of the tedious length, but also because I’ve read Push and Lee Daniels’ film takes the story so much further than the book does. As I said in my review, it’s a world that my suburban white male brain just can’t completely comprehend, but there’s no denying the film’s power. [My Review]

Star Trek

The film was a near-perfectly executed science fiction film that offered something for lifelong Trekkies and new converts like myself. J.J. Abrams has proven himself a solid action director with this 2009 film and his decision to go with mostly unknown faces will make it even more easy to establish a new Star Trek, or (as the previews stated) “not your father’s Star Trek.” [My Review]

Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s critical darling was a good film despite a kind of unraveling in the third act. There may not be a more relevant film this year as it analyzes how the human psyche is affected by the loss of a livelihood. The film also features the performance of George Clooney’s career as his layered character Ryan Bingham reveals cracks in Clooney’s usual cocky exterior. His pain is real and the isolation he experiences is relatable for anyone who is stuck in a life-sucking job.

Whatever Works

I really hope that Woody Allen never stops making movies. Whatever Works may have not had the pathos of his brilliant 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but it was a downright fun and certifiably “Allen” film. Larry David does his usual shtick with an expanded Woody Allen vocabulary and two of the most underrated supporting performances of the year come from the great Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley, Jr. [My Review]

Top 10 Films of 2009

10) The Cove

What makes a documentary great is its ability to go beyond its focused subject matter and raise sweeping questions. Few films accomplish that as well as Louis Psihoyos’ dolphin documentary The Cove. The film features some of the most outrageous and disturbing images that you will ever see in a film and does a fantastic job of telling the story of the courageous men and women who are willing to risk their own lives to save the dolphins, particularly the guilty dolphin trainer Richard O’Barry who is trying to tear apart the industry he helped create.

Where the movie succeeds the most however is in its posing of the question – why do the Japanese eat dolphins when they are knowingly hurting themselves and the environment? It’s a fascinating political look at the motivations of a fallen empire and it carefully pursues answers without criminalizing the Japanese people, only the individuals who hunt the dolphins. It’s a harrowing film that is not for the faint of stomach.

9) Avatar

A lot has been said about James Cameron’s blockbuster science fiction film and a lot of criticisms have been thrown at it because of its tin-eared dialogue and recycled plot. What makes Avatar a fantastic film is its unique style of telling its story. James Cameron is a brilliant filmmaker who uses philosophy, science, and classic film to structure this movie so that it is simultaneously everything and nothing you’ve ever seen before. Film buffs and CGI geeks have been longing for a film that puts the technology to good use after the endless summer blockbusters that are pretty and mindless. With James Cameron’s Avatar, we’ve finally got one. [My Review]

8) Coraline

Despite my love for Avatar, I can honestly say there was only one movie that I saw in 3D this year that blew my mind. That was Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated Coraline. The color palette for the film was not diminished at all by the 3D glasses and the uses of the technology felt genuinely purposeful. Coraline was one of those films that improved with each successive viewing. Apart from the beautiful animation it’s a wonderful story that does not feel a bit generic. It’s whimsical and dark, and like Fantastic Mr. Fox its a PG animated film that doesn’t seem like its for children. Neil Gaiman’s story was brought to the screen better than I could have hoped and it’s a fun experience. [My Review]

7) Bright Star

The technical achievement in Jane Campion’s beautiful period film has really gone unappreciated this awards season. The cinematography by Greig Fraiser and the art direction by the team of Janet Patterson, Charlotte Watts, David Hindle, and Christian Huband perfectly combine to portray a fluid and passionate story. Jane Campion presents every inspiration behind Keats’ romantic poetry in a speculative, yet perfectly believable way. Abbie Cornish also delivers one of the best performances of the year and supporting turns from Paul Schneider and Edie Martin were also fantastic. It is rare that a film about an artist approaches art itself, but with Campion at the helm, Bright Star is a beautiful piece or work.

6) The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow harkens back to classic film methods of creating suspense in this excellent portrayal of a bomb-diffusing unit in the U.S. Army. It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite classic films The Wages of Fear and just like that film, The Hurt Locker often left me holding my breath in anticipation. Jeremy Renner’s portrayal of the adrenaline-seeking bomb-diffuser is one of the best U.S. soldier portrayals of the past decade. Bigelow portrays the volatility of Iraq with such romanticism that when the protagonist returns to his “normal life” in America it feels unfamiliar and unappealing. It really hits home the message that for some soldiers – battle is home.

5) Away We Go

There was a scene in Sam Mendes’ indie comedy Away We Go where the soon-to-be parents are at an amateur strip club with another couple that has multiple adopted children. The wife of the second couple gets up and slowly does a pole dance while her husband tells the story of how she’s just had her fifth miscarriage. The scene is beautifully filmed and acted and it offers a painful portrayal of the fragility of parenthood. Mendes’ film is full of such moments and a great addition to the “indie” comedy genre. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph were one of the most likable film couples of the year in this film that had a fantastic script by writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.

4) Gomorrah

My brother is convinced that the fight scenes in this film are not acted – that they are actually beating the shit out of each other. It wouldn’t surprise me if that were the case in Matteo Garone’s portrayal of gritty realism. There may not be a more harsh portrayal of the Italian mafia than this brilliantly constructed film. There is not a single good character in the film and that’s part of what makes it great – everybody is a victim. The American cinematic convention that romanticizes the mafia is shattered in this gritty and fantastic film.

3) (500) Days of Summer

Marc Webb’s romantic comedy is not only a hilarious portrayal of befuddled love, but it is also a passionate love letter to the magic of movies. The amount of film references are endless and as varying as Star Wars, Enchanted, and The Seventh Seal. The film has an episodic feel that Webb manages to always keep focused. Some of the most creative moments of the year happen in this movie including a clever reality vs. perceptions montage and a hilarious musical number. As a critic you occasionally see a film that you wish you could have made and (500) Days of Summer is that one for me. [My Review]

2) Up

Once again the Pixar team has raised the bar in the world of animated films. What makes Pixar films so great is that they put so much emphasis on storytelling. You see this with the additional materials that accompanies each of their films. With Up, for instance, there was a short for the character Dug that gives more information about what happened just prior to his introduction in the story. They even released a short online that shows the rest of the day of the two men who came to pick up Carl before he goes on his lengthy flight. To Pixar every character is important and everyone’s story deserves to be told, which shows in every one of their films.

Up is not the best Pixar film, but that’s like saying cookie dough is not the best flavor of ice cream. Pixar is the one studio that is single-handedly attempting to preserve the lost are of storytelling and in Up we get some of the best characters of the year. Instead of focusing on the child Russell, the story is about Carl – the geriatric widower who seeks the adventure he never had. His journey is painful, funny, and poignant and makes for one of the best films of the year.

1) A Serious Man

The Coens are easily among the best filmmakers working today and with A Serious Man, the brothers are at the top of their game. They glorify every painful moment in their protagonists life in a sort of twisted homage to their Jewish childhood in Minnesota. The film is brilliantly shot, smartly edited, and ranks among the funniest films the Coens have ever made. As usual, they command brilliant performances from their actors and every character has their moments.

The Coens use a type of repetitive style of humor that is almost slapstick, but never feels overdone. Just as the film reaches its comedic peak we get one of the best endings of the entire year. Much like Pixar, the Coens are on a hot streak right now and I hope nothing derails them anytime soon. [My Review]

There you have it! Now your turn – what are your top ten films of 2009?

2009 IN REVIEW:
Film Misery Highlights
Worst of the Year and Special Awards
My Oscar Ballot (Thursday)
Most Anticipated of 2010 (Friday)
What to Expect from Film Misery in 2010 (Saturday)

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  • Brandon Cooley

    So far Inglourious Basterds is my favorite movie of the year. I thought that Up was one of Pixar’s lesser achievements compared to the others.

  • I haven’t seen ten, but right now my favorite would have to be “Up” (though that might change when I catch “The Hurt Locker” in a few weeks). You didn’t even give “Duplicity” an honorable mention? That movie was so much fun. “The Cove” was really good. I’ve already made my thoughts on “Avatar” known, and I felt the same way about “(500) Days of Summer”. They were both overrated. I plan to see “Gomorrah” soon, and will certainly check out “A Serious Man” when it arrives on DVD. Same for “Ponyo” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. Overall, it looks like a solid list. I agree that this was a fairly weak year for films, and so far it’s been even weaker than 2008. That year at least had a few great films (“WALL-E” and “The Dark Knight”). So far, the only one I’ve seen this year is “Up”. 2007 was a great year, wasn’t it?

  • I also need to catch “Coraline”.

  • mesfin

    avatar is really fantastic

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