As of right now, I’ve seen 78 movies that were released in 2009. This is probably less than a lot of critics, but more than most folks. Overall, I had a much better feeling about this year than I had in the past couple years. I had a really difficult time with my 2008 list (which I’m actually pretty happy with now, after a year of reflection), but here in 2009, things came together pretty easily. I had 9 movies right away and the 10th movie came when I finally caught up to a movie I knew I would like.
As always, lists like this are inherently subjective and I know that gets on some people’s nerves. Both from a you’re stupid because you don’t like the same movies I do perspective as well as the lists are inherently evil argument. Indeed, due to this year also marking the end of the decade, the multitude of best of the decade lists has also prompted an increase in the typical backlash of anti-list sentiment. This post covers the usual complaints about lists: they’re lazy criticism and basically represent filthy linkbait whoring. There’s obviously more to it than that (read the full post). He makes some good points and there are certainly a lot of crappy lists out there (hey, here’s one!), but on the other hand, who the hell cares what he thinks? I like lists. Apparently Americans Love Lists (and you know who doesn’t like lists? Joseph Stalin!) So without further ado:
Top 10 Movies of 2009
* In roughly reverse order
- (500) Days of Summer: This has emerged as something of a polarizing movie for some reason, but count me among the film’s admirers. Great performances, genuine emotion, a playful, non-linear narrative structure and a wonderful ending all helped elevate this movie above the usual romantic comedy cliches.
- The Brothers Bloom: Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort is perhaps not as tight as Brick, but it’s still a blast. It hits all the con movie tropes while still managing to carve out an identity of its own, and while the ending isn’t quite perfect, it’s still better than I was expecting. All of the performances are good, but Rachel Weisz was a revelation and Rinko Kikuchi steals every scene she’s in… Overall, it’s a big barrel of fun and well worth watching (and judging from the box office results, you haven’t seen it).
- Paranormal Activity: This low-budget found-footage horror flick isn’t especially innovative and it’s not as artistically accomplished as most films on this list, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the creepiest movie of the year. I still get chills thinking about this movie, and I’m very rarely scared by horror movies. The movie employs an effective scheme of tension and release and, thankfully, it also features a tripod (which mitigates many of the issues associated with found-footage movies). It was perhaps hyped too much upon initial release, but I saw it in ideal conditions, which may have something to do with how much I enjoyed it.
- Anvil! The Story of Anvil: This documentary follows the trials and tribulations of a once-influential heavy metal rock band that failed to ever find a real audience. It’s a tale of perseverance and hope in the face of adversity, and even though their music isn’t especially great (at least, not today – apparently their early stuff heavily influenced bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Anthrax), you can’t help but root for these guys.
- A Serious Man: Yet another Coen brothers curveball, I found myself surprisingly riveted to the screen on this one. It has a big smattering of the Coens’ trademark humor and at least one exceptionally well executed set piece (not exactly the right term, but I’m trying not to give anything away here). An excellent performance by Michael Stuhlbarg and the usual stable of great side performances (including the scene-stealing Fred Melamed, playing the smarmy Sy Ableman) anchor this film. The ending is abrupt and will undoubtedly infuriate some people, but I found it surprisingly fitting. But then, I’m apparently a sucker for the Coen Brothers.
- Star Trek: The most fun I’ve had in a movie theater all year. J.J. Abrams took an old, crusty franchise and made it fresh and interesting again. I wish there was a little more science in the fiction, but in the end, it’s a highly enjoyable, action packed, crowd-pleasing popcorn film.
- Up: The first 20 minutes of this movie are the most devastating of any movie this year (in a good way). Luckily, the rest of the movie reels it back in, leaving you feeling pretty good by the end (which is no small feat considering the intensity of the prologue). Oh, and did I mention that this is an animated kids movie? Pixar continues it’s amazing streak of great films.
- Red Cliff: John Woo’s triumphant return to Hong Kong is a wonderful movie and his best since he left. Whether armies are being strategically maneuvered or a woman is pouring tea, Woo manages an elegance that has eluded most of his filmography. He’s always choreographed excellent, almost balletic, action sequences, but everything in this film is pulled off with the same precision. So you get wonderful epic battle sequences (a first for Woo, I think) and also some more personal touches. I saw the theatrical cut, but there is apparently a two-part, 5 hour version that I am now quite interested in seeing.
- Fantastic Mr. Fox: A near perfect melding of Wes Anderson’s quirky aesthetic with a classic children’s story. The stop motion animation looks great and Anderson’s visual style complements Roald Dahl’s story quite well. Great voice performances from George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman (ok and Bill Murray and hell, everyone else too) and overall just a wonderfully fun experience. I’m suddenly interested in Wes Anderson again, as I think he’d fallen into a bit of a rut before this film, which shows that he’s capable of growing as a filmmaker.
- Inglourious Basterds: The single most audacious movie of the year (if not the decade). Anchored by Quentin Tarantino’s best writing since Pulp Fiction and a manic villainous performance from Christoph Waltz, playing Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa like a Nazi version of Columbo, this movie pulls no punches and never falters. Mildly controversial when it came out, I think such criticism ignores Tarnatino’s expert use of exformation, while at the same time exploding any preconceived notions of his WWII epic. Truly an astounding movie and without a doubt my favorite of the year.
* In alphabetical order
- 4bia: This Thai horror anthology, the awful title of which is supposed to be a play on the word “phobia,” has a lot going for it. As you might expect from the fact that it’s an anthology, there’s not a lot holding it together and some of the segments are better than the others. It was an early year favorite of mine, but eventually it yielded to other films. Also, as time went on, it began to feel more derivative than I had originally thought (a few of the segments feel exactly like other movies… interestingly, I think my favorite segment was also the least scary and most referential). Still, there’s something to be said for a well executed genre pic, and this one fits that bill well. Definitely worth a watch for horror fans.
- Bronson: The semi-true story of Michael Peterson (aka Charles Bronson), the UK’s most infamous prisoner. Ultimately not a lot of insight into Bronson, but the film is stylish and features one of the most spectacular performances of the year from Tom Hardy. As Bronson, Hardy is a font of volcanic rage and so, despite there not being much here, the film is never boring. I don’t normally like this kind of movie, but I couldn’t help but respect what this movie has done.
- Crank: High Voltage: I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this movie. Indeed, I seriously considered it for a top 10 position, but it ultimately got pushed off the list by the Coen Brothers. This is a movie that just seems like it would be terrible, but again, I found myself very enthusiastically embracing the movie for what it is. It’s just a huge amount of fun, playful and energetic filmmaking at its best. Probably not for everyone, but I had a lot of fun with it.
- Drag Me to Hell: Sam Raimi’s return to his horror roots didn’t blow me away the way it did with some other folks, but I did have a lot of fun with it. Really, it was the little things that I enjoyed the most. The handkerchief as villain motif, the anvil in the shed, and so on. It doesn’t really approach Raimi’s earlier low budget films, but it’s still quite entertaining and well worth a watch for fans of the genre.
- Duplicity: Another strong contender for the top 10, I think this is a criminally underrated movie. I think perhaps this tale of corporate espionage and one-upmanship suffered from being released during a global economic depression. Still, it’s well written and entertaining. The only bad thing to say about it is that the chemistry between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts wasn’t exactly lighting the screen on fire. That’s a small complaint though, and this movie would make a great rental. Check it out.
- The Hangover: I think this might have been the most I laughed in a theater this year. Sure it’s completely random and overly raunchy, but I do like that sort of thing from time to time, and this movie is a fine example of the genre. In any other year, it might also have the best cameo, but as we’ll see below, there’s some stiff competition this year.
- The House of the Devil: I finally caught up with this brooding horror film last night, and I have to admit that it gave me pause about including Paranormal Activity in my top 10. Both movies are quasi-haunted house movies, but similarities wind up being mostly superficial. The House of the Devil is made with more artistry and in a more unconventional manner. It’s a masterpiece of misdirection and tension building. Unlike the repeated tension and release of Paranormal Activity, The House of the Devil opts to continually build tension while withholding release. This is an interesting approach and the foreboding atmosphere of dread is hard to shake. I wish I was able to catch this a few months ago, as I’d like to see how well it ages. Highly recommended for fans of slow burning horror films.
- The Hurt Locker: Director Kathryn Bigelow’s tense tale of a bomb defusing squad in Iraq is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and Bigelow is certainly deserving of the best director title. Unfortunately, I’m not a huge fan of the movie as a whole. The action scenes are exceptionally well done, but some of the other sequences are a bit lackluster and the film ends without much of a real resolution. It’s the best Iraq war movie made yet, but then again, that’s not saying much.
- Moon: This little science fiction film features a great double performance by Sam Rockwell and a reasonably good SF story too. Unfortunately, I found myself nitpicking a lot of the plot points, especially towards the end, which makes for a less satisfactory experience. I think a lot of SF fans are so starved for good, hard SF movies (as opposed to huge budget special effects extravaganzas like Avatar or most super hero movies) that they’re willing to overlook some of the less rational plot points. So I go back and forth on this. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I’m infuriated by the plot.
- Playing Columbine: What can I say, I’m a sucker for video game documentaries. The film is directed by Danny Ledonne, the creator of a game called Super Columbine Massacre RPG! where you actually play Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and act out the massacre. Unsurprisingly, the game was very controversial and this movie delves into that a bit, but Ledonne wisely uses his game as a mere jumping-off point, preferring instead to explore broader and more interesting concepts such as the demonization of video games in the media, the value of video games as an artistic medium, censorship, responsibility and the nature of violence and school violence. If you like video games, it’s well worth a watch, though I guess it’s not available on DVD yet.
- Surveillance: Jennifer Lynch (yes, daughter of David) directed this rather twisted tale. The film begins with a modern, dark Rashomon type feel, but it eventually eschews that style for something else. It’s perhaps a little too reliant on the big twist, but I thought it was rather well done. It’s also worth noting for some unconventional casting choices and surprisingly good performances. I’m apparently somewhat alone in even liking the movie at all, but I thought it was pretty good.
- Trick ‘r Treat: This long-awaited horror anthology was worth the wait, but I think perhaps my expectations had become too inflated. Still, it’s a worthy movie and one that I think will take its rightful place among Halloween themed movies, if only because of the way it incorporates all sorts of Halloween lore and rituals as plot elements (in a way that no other movie has). Unlike the aforementioned 4bia, the various segments here are all interconnected, and the movie benefits from that structure. Well worth a Halloween night watch next year.
- Watchmen: This movie adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel Watchmen was a long time coming. It’s certainly not perfect, but I think it’s about as good as an adaptation could ever be. It’s a little uneven, but it absolutely nails some areas of the story. Given that the comic book was created specifically to show off the comic book medium, I’m still surprised that the movie turned out as well as it did. Again, not perfect, but well worth it.
- Zombieland: I’m not a big fan of zombie stories and I’m also not a big fan of Woody Harrelson, yet I really had a lot of fun with this movie. Sharply written, well acted and it also features the best cameo of the year. Just a big ball of fun, it hits all the right notes. What more can you ask for?
Just Missed the Cut…
But still worthwhile, in their own way. Presented without comment and in no particular order:
- Up in the Air
- State of Play
- District 9
- I Sell the Dead
- In the Loop
- Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!
- The Box
Should Have Seen
Despite the fact that I’ve seen 78 movies this year (and that this post features 30+ of my favorites), there were a few that got away… mostly due to limited releases, though a few of the flicks listed below didn’t interest me as much when they were released as they did when I heard more about them. Unlike last year, I’m not really expecting any of these to break into the top 10, though I guess there’s always a chance. Anyway, in no particular order:
- Black Dynamite
- Mystery Team
- The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans
- World’s Greatest Dad
- Whip It
- The Cove
- An Education
Well, that wraps up 2009… actually a pretty solid year for movies from my perspective. Not the best ever or anything, but probably better than the past couple years. Hey, perhaps I should put together a best of the decade list? Eh, that would be reallly difficult (not to mention reallly late), but perhaps I’ll give it a shot at some point. Indeed, at some point, I want to post a top 100 of all time… but that’s even harder! Someday…