My favorite films of 2009

My favorite films of 2009

Posted by Sean Stangland on Sat, 02/13/2010 - 05:36

At last, I feel comfortable enough in presenting a top-ten list. I have now seen all 10 of Oscar's best-picture nominees -- "The Blind Side" is the worst film I can ever remember making the cut -- and this weekend I also knocked out the critically acclaimed trio of "Crazy Heart," "Moon" and "Tyson." I still have some biggies to see. "In the Loop," "The Cove" and "Anvil" will be arriving via Netflix in the next week, but I figure waiting any longer on this list is really pushing it.

It was a tremendous year for animated films. How tremendous? The highly acclaimed entry from Pixar was probably only the fourth-best movie of its kind in 2009. It was also a great year for sci-fi of both kinds: small and thoughtful, and hugely entertaining.

I have seen 55 of the hundreds of films released in 2009. These are the ten best:

• • •

1. "Up in the Air," director Jason Reitman -- It just feels so right. As I watched "Up in the Air," I had this gut feeling that told me this was the best movie of the year, a movie that I'll probably still be watching 40 years from now, every single time it's on cable. Though George Clooney's Ryan Bingham is about 15 years older than I am, I sympathize with him and share much of his pain and frustration. (And yet I also envy him.) "Up in the Air" is the perfect movie for this uncertain America we live in, and confirms Reitman as one of the finest young directors in the business.

2. "Inglourious Basterds," d. Quentin Tarantino -- So much has been said about this film, I hardly know what more I can add. Repeat viewings continue to impress me, and I find more audacity each time. I have a new favorite scene every week or so, but right now I think it's the opening of Chapter Four: Operation Kino, in which Mike Myers and Michael Fassbender try to out-British each other. "What shall we drink to, sir?" / "Oh! Down with Hitler!" / "All the way down, sir."

3. "Fantastic Mr. Fox," d. Wes Anderson -- It looks exactly like Anderson's hyper-detailed live-action films, but never hits that awkward lull they inevitably reach about halfway through. "Mr. Fox" is packed wall-to-wall with jokes, and while ostensibly a children's film, it never once talks down to the audience. So good and so funny, you almost wish Anderson would keep working in the stop-motion medium.

4. "Star Trek," d. J.J. Abrams -- I really liked "Star Trek" the first time I saw it, but I didn't think it was best-of-the-year material. Then I saw it again. And again. And again. I saw "Star Trek" seven times at various theaters across the suburbs, and every time I was genuinely thrilled by its perfect cast, seamless effects, and Michael Giacchino's thunderous music. Abrams' vision of the Enterprise is colorful, crazy and, above all, lots and lots of fun. And sometimes, that's just enough to make a movie one of the year's best.

5. "Avatar," d. James Cameron -- A singular moviegoing experience that will never, ever be duplicated at home, "Avatar" is the rare spectacle that actually gets by on spectacle alone. Cameron has taken 3D and performance-capture technology far beyond anything his peers have done, and the result is a truly immersive film that honestly amazes us time and again. Yes, it's "Dances With Wolves" in space. Yes, it's another white savior movie. Yes, the dialogue often makes your eyes roll. But yes, it is a must-see, a cultural phenomenon, and a film that will inspire dialogue for years to come.

6. "Away We Go," d. Sam Mendes -- By turns hilarious and hopeless, "Away We Go" gives two great comic actors (Maya Rudolph and John Krasinski) the best script either has ever worked with, courtesy of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. Some found the protagonists smug and annoying, but I was in tune with them on their journey across the country, finding old friends while looking for a place to start anew. The ending is the obvious one, but also the right one.

7. "District 9," d. Neill Blomkamp -- The $30 million sci-fi allegory that shocked the world. Its technical accomplishments are considerable, but "District 9's" greatest thrill comes from watching a first-time director in full command. The scene in which Sharlto Copley's bureaucrat is subjected to government experiments has a hellish, Kubrickian quality that still haunts me; I can't wait to see what Blomkamp will do next.

8. "The Princess and the Frog," d. Ron Clements & John Musker -- Disney returns to the hand-drawn animated musical, and guess what? The result is more engaging and visually stimulating than the wildly overrated "Up" from those computer wizards at Pixar. (It's OK, guys. You're still the best movie studio in the world.) It's a shame more people didn't see this bright, beautiful film, but I guess that's what happens when you put the word "princess" right there in the title.

9. "Crazy Heart," d. Scott Cooper -- A first-time director and a master actor make beautiful music together in this character study that one might call "The Old Lebowski." Picture The Dude as a country singer at the end of his rope, and you get just a small inkling of the genius that Jeff Bridges brings to the part of Bad Blake, whom we meet just before playing a gig at a bowling alley in the middle of nowhere. Much of the film's success must lie with T-Bone Burnett, who co-wrote the songs that Bridges himself sings.

10. "The Hurt Locker," d. Kathryn Bigelow -- If any one person deserves the incredible number of accolades this Iraq War action flick has received, it is Jeremy Renner. His performance as Staff Sgt. William James is the stuff of legend, a picture of troubled machismo that reveals more and more as the film progresses. "The Hurt Locker" doesn't strike me as a very accurate portrayal of military life in Iraq, but Renner certainly makes it a powerful one.

• • •

The runners-up (alphabetically)

"2012," d. Roland Emmerich -- Yes, really. Emmerich has devoted himself to perfecting the modern disaster movie, and he comes very close to topping his masterpiece (as it were), "Independence Day," with this ludicrous and lucrative spectacle. Much like "Avatar," this one will be totally underwhelming on your television. But in the theater, it was a jaw-dropping, crowd-pleasing blast.

"Drag Me to Hell," d. Sam Raimi -- Ah, now that's the Sam Raimi I know and love. The Sam Raimi who gives us flying eyeballs, gallons of blood and viscera, sly comedy and really icky monsters. Throw in a talking goat and an uncompromising ending, and you've got a potential horror classic.

"Invictus," d. Clint Eastwood -- A film more about South Africa and its rugby team than about Nelson Mandela, "Invictus" impresses in its final act with how the pivotal World Cup match is presented. No annoying, patronizing announcers; no overbearing fans in the crowd; no manufactured drama in a game that already contains plenty.

"Precious," d. Lee Daniels -- Daniels earned his best-director nod for wringing terrific performances out of an unknown (Gabourey Sidibe) and a trio of actresses who have no business being this good (Mo'Nique, Mariah Carey and Paula Patton). The script feels unfinished, and more cynical viewers will see this as campy, emotional pornography, but I believe Daniels has delivered a truthful film, if not a perfect one.

"A Serious Man," d. Joel & Ethan Coen -- Perhaps the Coens' most personal film, "A Serious Man" is a slow burn about a father and husband facing much tsuris in the '60s, and his realization that religion may not be able to show him the way. Absurd comedy clashes with depressing catharsis in that special Coen way in the kind of film that probably gets better the more you see it. (That happens a lot with the Coens ...)

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