The Top 16 Films of 2009

It’s the end of the year, so everybody feels obligated to make their “Best Of” lists.  Given that I feel 2009 was a rather weak year in cinema, I was tempted to not even bother.  However, after looking over the list of everything that came out this year, I realized that while there were very few films I would consider “classics” or “must-sees” in the vein of last year’s Wall-E or2007’s There Will Be Blood, there were plenty of films that were way above-average and worth tracking down.  So here’s my list of the Top 10 (or Top 16 if we’re including Honorable Mentions) films of the year.  While it’s possible I may have liked certain films slightly more or less shortly after their initial release, these are the ones that stick out the most in my mind as being the most noteworthy and potentially deserving of multiple viewings.  Since ranking them from “least” to “greatest” is often very difficult and nit-picky, I’ve organized them in alphabetical order.

NOTE: Though I've seen 120+ of the films released this year, I still haven't seen a few films that I've heard are noteworthy: AntichristThe Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Crazy Heart, A Single Man and Away We Go.  I also haven't seen several foreign and independent films that a lot of critics are raving about.  With that in mind, here's my list. 


(500) Days of Summer – Marc Webb’s directorial debut has all the makings of a cult classic.  It’s this generation’s “Annie Hall,” complete with scenes in which characters address the camera and a sequence that occurs in split-screen.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a fantastic job as Tom, who’s head-over-heels in love with his co-worker, Summer (Zooey Deschanel’s best performance to date).  It doesn’t hit the same notes we find in most romantic comedies, and manages to find a nice balance between idealistic wish-fulfillment and the harsh reality of most relationships.

The Damned United – It’s a sports movie without much in the way of sports, and a biopic that isn’t about someone becoming a crackhead.  Michael Sheen is fantastic – not that that’s unusual for him – and finds the perfect tone between “guy you want to be” and “total asshat.”  Peter Morgan’s dialogue is snappy and the cinematography is brilliant.  It’ll make you want to manage a sports team.

The Hurt Locker – Has a good shot of winning Best Picture.  Were it not for a final 20 minutes that feels a bit too chaotic and tangential for its own good, I might be inclined to agree.  Kathryn Bigelow has crafted an Iraq War film that manages to be an engaging action-suspense film without getting too political.  It’s about a bomb squad in Iraq.  Suffice to say, things get pretty crazy.  It also has one of the best sniper sequences in recent memory.

State of Play – Were it not for an over-the-top and unrealistic ending, this journalistic thriller might be an instant classic.  It’s a loving homage to 70s investigation flicks like All The President’s Men, but with a modern-day twist.  Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams have good chemistry as rivals forced to work together, he the emblem of old-school investigative reporting and she the blogging and net-savvy face of the future.  State of Play feels like a snapshot of our current socio-political climate, from the changing state of media to the corporate scandals we constantly hear about.  This film is a love letter to a dying industry, and deserves more attention than it received. 

Star Trek – If there’s one thing J.J. Abrams knows how to do well, it’s action scenes.  Mission: Impossible 3 was way more fun than it should have been, and Star Trek is no different.  The whole “alternate timeline” aspect had potential to come off as cheesy and tacked-on, and it definitely has its flaws, but overall it felt like a fresh and exciting take on the franchise.  All of the cast members manage to successfully capture the spirit of their characters without feeling like imitations of the actors that came before them, and that’s quite a difficult task to pull off.  In terms of escapist entertainment and big-screen spectacles, it doesn’t get much better than this.

Up in the Air – Another front-runner for Best Picture.  It’s Jason Reitman’s most mature film to date and one of the best portrayals of recession-era America to-date.  Even if the story sucked (it doesn’t), it’s worth seeing for the performances alone.  George Clooney stars as a man who makes a living by taking away that of others, and plays his role with the perfect blend of wry comedy and existentialist malaise.  Vera Farmiga is terrific as his sensual escape (and possibly more), while relative newcomer Anna Kendrick at times even manages to outshine her more established co-stars.  Oh, and the music’s great, too.  


Black Dynamite – The best spoof films are the ones that successfully become part of the genre they’re spoofing.  If you didn’t know any better, you might swear Black Dynamite was actually a blaxploitation film made in the 70s of 80s.  From the gruff but kind-hearted hero who can seduce women as easily as he can punch through concrete, to the drug dealers and pimps he vows to bring to justice, this is a film that knows and respects its genre while poking fun at its main characteristics.  The hero’s name is Black Dynamite and his presence is frequently accentuated by a background track that chants, “Dyno-mite!  Dyno-mite!”  What more do you need to know?  It’s the most you’ll laugh during a film this year.

Bright Star – I knew nothing about this film going into it, other than that it was a period romance and it was supposed to be good.  Directed by The Piano helmer Jane Campion, this film chronicles the romance that developed between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne.  Do you like poetry?  Watch this film.  Do you appreciate good writing?  Watch this film.  Do you enjoy period pieces, romances, figurative language and/or old-school vocabulary?  Watch this film.  It’s the best drama of the year.  Let me put it another way: I can count the films that made me cry on one hand.  This movie got me a bit misty-eyed.  And guys, if you’re not normally  a fan of romances, trust me, watching this with a significant other will earn you major brownie points.

Crank: High Voltage – No, this is not a joke.  I’m convinced that the sequel to Crank is in fact the most misunderstood film of the year.  Even if I didn’t think that it’s an incredibly intelligent satire about video game culture and modern-day concepts of masculinity, it would still deserve a place on this list simply because it’s the most fun I had in a theater all year.  Each scene made my jaw drop a little lower to the floor.  It’s loud, it’s vulgar, it’s graphic, it’s politically incorrect, and it does things that most films wouldn’t even think about doing for fears of alienating the audience.  Somehow Crank: High Voltage does it all and makes it work.  At the very least, you’ll never look at fake boobs or a ferret the same way again.

District 9 – Neill Blompkamp has a bright future ahead of him, if this is any indication.  It’s risky to make a sci-fi film on a less-than-modest budget these days.  It’s even riskier to set it in South Africa.  And to make your main character a racist bigot that is too selfish and despicable to even fall into the “love to hate him” category.  Not to mention his name is Wikus Van De Merwe, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue in the vein of “James Bond,” “Indiana Jones,” or other memorable movie heroes.  Yet somehow, it works.  District 9, while its plot is still fairly formulaic, is one of the freshest takes on the sci-fi genre to come out of Hollywood in a while.  And even though its story doesn’t do anything extraordinary, I frequently found myself on the edge of my seat wondering how situations would ultimately resolve themselves.  The specific effects are a mixture of CG and practical props, and the result looks fantastic – next to Avatar, these are the best visuals you’ll see all year.  The action is intense, the story is engaging, and it has more soul than most of what Hollywood is churning out these days.

Moon – It was a good year for sci-fi, and for first-time directors.  Fans of the genre were given Avatar, District 9, and this little gem from Duncan Jones about a man who works alone on a lunar mining colony.  Sam Rockwell gives an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance; the film rests entirely upon his shoulders, since he’s the essentially the only actor (Kevin Spacey provides the voice of the colony’s computer system).  The script takes what could have been very familiar plot points and twists them into something refreshing and original.  And Jones proves his talent by making sets and backdrops of the moon’s surface and buildings look so convincing.  This movie was made for $5 million, but it looks like it cost five times that much.  To go into details about the plot would ruin some of the best surprises, so just trust me when I say it’s well worth your 90 minutes.

Oblivion – This documentary about everyday people in Peru is cinematic poetry, plain and simple.  Heddy Honigmann talks to bartenders, street performers and other members of the working class about everything from their lives, to politics, to what makes a good cocktail.  For 90 minutes I was fully transported to a different country, engulfed in the sights and sounds (and even smells, it seemed at times), and I can’t think of much higher praise than that.

Two Lovers – This overlooked romantic drama by James Gray is both heartfelt and thought-provoking in its portrayal of melancholy and loneliness in downtown Brooklyn.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Leonard, a bachelor struggling with bouts of depression and a broken heart.  His parents set him up with Sandra (Vanessa Shaw), the daughter of a friend, but despite their chemistry Leonard soon finds himself also drawn to their new neighbor, Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow).  It’s a restrained look at relationships that manages to avoid feeling melodramatic while still retaining emotional tension. 

Unmistaken Child – Barely beats out Oblivion as my favorite documentary of the year.  It follows Tenzin Zopa, a young Buddhist monk in Nepal, as he goes on a search for the reincarnation of his master.  That director Nati Baratz was allowed such access with him and his superiors is admirable in and of itself, but the final product is nothing short of breathtaking.  We’re with Tenzin from the moment he is given the task and follow him through the years-long process to find the true reincarnation of his beloved teacher.  It’s a fascinating look at an ancient religious practice, and Baratz doesn’t let his opinion on its validity influence his depiction of events.  What we’re left with is an immersive story of personal growth, and an engaging look at something few outsiders know much about, let alone get to witness.  (NOTE: click here for my interview with Nati Baratz.)

Where The Wild Things Are – This was my most anticipated film of the year.  I was addicted to the book as a child, and as an adult I went into the film adaptation knowing that in all likelihood it couldn’t fully live up to my expectations.  And yet, at the end of the day, Spike Jonze did that and more.  This is not a studio-friendly picture, and we’re better for it.  Whereas many directors might have been tempted to accentuate the giant, furry monsters in an attempt to appeal to children, Jonze instead emphasizes the more abstract and psychological themes that ran throughout the book.  This is not a film for young children.  This is a dark, sad and beautiful examination of childhood and childhood fantasies.  Each of the characters Max encounters on his journey is an extension of himself: his own fears, doubts and desires.  Thankfully, Jonze doesn’t simply make each character a one-to-one symbol of something from Max’s psyche.  Carol is not simply a representation of “Max’s father.”  KW is not just “the maternal figure.”  In the end, they are all a product of Max himself and as such their attributes frequently overlap and contradict.  You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll remember what it felt like to be a child, with all the joys and sorrows that come from immaturity.  If any of the films from this year deserve to go down in history as a “classic,” this is it.

World’s Greatest Dad – Bobcat Goldthwait’s latest comedy takes the twisted fetishism of Sleeping Dogs Lie and multiples it by a thousand.  He then gets rid of the formulaic plot devices that hindered that previous outing and replaces them with a nuanced character study the likes of which haven’t been seen since There Will Be Blood.  All you need to know is that it’s about a father and son.  To say anything else would ruin a key plot element that occurs in the first act, and sets off a chain of events that will have you questioning what you’d do in a similar situation.  Robin Williams gives one of his best performances of the decade, and by the end you’ll be wondering whether the title is appropriate or delightfully ironic.