Thursday, March 04, 2010

Best Movies of 2009

Living in the Midwest, I usually have to wait longer for a lot of the year-end prestige pictures to open in my area. While critics in Los Angeles and New York have the luxury of being able to catch movies that open in limited release before going nationwide within a calendar year, an average guy such as myself who happens to be a film lover can't fully complete a list of what the best pictures of the year are until much later. Add to that a modest budget and time can pass quickly before I've seen everything on my wish list. Which is why I'm finally doing best films of 2009 list more than two months into 2010. I figure that a list such as this still has relevance as long as it's before this Sunday's Oscars. So here it is. My favorite movies of 2009.

1. Ponyo

This marks the third consecutive year that an animated movie has topped my list. I think it goes to show just how great a period it is right now for animation. All three films were unique in their tone and subject matter and further proves just how diverse the field has become, from the moments of grimness in 2007's Persepolis to 2008's Wall-E with its patient and expressive storytelling style and to my favorite film of 2009, Ponyo, that mixed dazzling visuals with pure emotion in the way that director Hayao Miyazaki has made his career on. The film centers on the title character, a fish who magically attempts to turn into a human girl in order to be friends with a little boy named Sosuke, who has taken her in as a pet. Miyazaki films are usually the best, live-action or animated, when it comes to capturing childhood. Most often, movies seem to forget that children are fully formed people as well, thoughtful and capable of many emotions, but Ponyo is able to capture many of the details that can make childhood so joyous and scary at the same time. In addition to having one of the most exhilarating sequences I saw all year which involved Ponyo running on the waves, I was moved by the innocence and affection of her and Sosuke's relationship. By the time it was finished, I was overcome with more happiness than I've had in a while after watching a movie. Ponyo isn't my favorite film of 2009 simply because it made me the happiest, but it what does what most great movies do: it transports an emotion onto the viewer.

2. 35 Shots of Rum

There is a scene in 35 Shots of Rum that stands as my favorite of 2009, even more so than the one in Ponyo. It takes place in a bar where The Commodores' "Night Shift" sets the mood with all four main characters of this French drama. It is representative of the movie with its lingering camera shots, sparse dialogue and the way that it simply lets the viewer be an observer. So much is revealed about the characters' desires and doubts through the slightest of gestures and subtly emotive facial expressions. It's a wonderfully human moment because it engages you so much that the fact that this is a movie gets thrown to the back of your mind. Much of 35 Shots of Rum is like this. You're dropped into the world of these four people and everything is laid bare and left for the viewer to decipher on their own. There are moments between Lionel and Jos├ęphine, the father and daughter that the movie is centered around, that are extremely heartfelt without clubbing you over the head that it is a loving and dependent relationship. The cast deserves a lot of the credit for doing so much by saying so little, but its director Claire Denis who proves once again how adept she is at examining relationships.

3. Inglourious Basterds

The thing I love most about Quentin Tarantino and why he's one of my favorite directors is that you can clearly see his love for cinema on the screen. What some might see as a lazy homage, I prefer to view as a movie buff geekily sharing his joy and knowledge with the world. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino shows that his movie reference well has yet to run dry as he cribs from various aspects of the Spaghetti western, European cinema and the classic ensemble war movie. By drawing from the most artistic and intense elements of those genres, Tarantino manages to create a work that remains within the realm of his unique style, but at the same time still entertaining. While I'm in the minority as far as being a supporter of Death Proof and the way it built things slowly, Tarantino does a much better job with creating tension-filled scenes this time around, mostly due to the superb casting of Christoph Waltz, who injects a cunning mix of glee and terror into nearly every moment, but even when he's not on screen, specifically in the tavern scene—one of Tarantino's most impressive—where you can feel the inevitable approaching, the journey to the climax is as exciting as its conclusion.

4. The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon takes place in a rural German village on the eve of World War I. Mysterious acts of violence against the inhabitants strike fear into the community. Who's behind it? Why are they doing it? Is it the work of an adult? A child? Children? It's the mark of a great artist when one can raise so many questions without answering outright, but yet doesn't frustrate in the process. Director and writer Michael Haneke packs the story with so much historical, social and religious subtext that it leaves the intention of these acts up to multiple interpretations, any of which could be valid. In typical Haneke fashion, it's not ultimately important that the questions are so easily resolved, but that the audience is challenged to question why instead of how and to independently form their own opinion. The film's poetic nature is further helped by being gorgeously shot in black and white, a choice that rightfully resulted in an Academy Award nomination for its cinematography.

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Usually when big names are attached to an animated project, you never get the sense that they're acting, but instead playing an exaggerated version of themselves (Exhibit A: Shark Tale). George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray, amongst others, make up the well-known cast, but the vocal performances in Fantastic Mr. Fox stand out not only because of the level of talent involved, but because of the gravity they're are able to bring to certain parts and director Wes Anderson being able to successfully inject his live-action rhythms into the animated world. It all makes for a very mature effort and some of the most natural sounding voice-over work I've ever heard in animation. Seeing Anderson's signature comedic pacing in stop-motion also encourages the thought that his style could possibly translate stronger in animation than most of his films. By far, Fantastic Mr. Fox was one of the smartest and most fun films I saw all year, filled with constant wit and zippy action sequences.

6. In The Loop

I used to think that Samuel L. Jackson was the English language's best curser. His most famous roles include characters who use profanity emphatically and enthusiastically to a point that it's almost artistic, because let's face it, not everyone can swear and make it sound as sincere as Jackson does, but Peter Capaldi, who portrays the British Prime Minister's enforcer Malcolm Tucker in this salty, political satire, has me thinking that there might actually be someone who knows how to curse better than Jackson. Capaldi lights up the screen whenever he makes an appearance and provided some of the year's funniest and cruelest lines. In The Loop takes its inspiration from the War in Iraq and explores who benefits from war and what it takes to create one, all done in an intelligent yet humorous matter.

7. Big Fan

At its most base form, Big Fan is not about an obsessed, pathetic sports fan, but a man-child who just happens to idolize the New York Giants to an excessive fault. The scenes that look into an overexuberant sports culture are handled well, but its when we see Paul Afiero, portrayed incredibly in a dramatic role by comedian Patton Oswalt, interacting with his family that it becomes apparent that this is a movie about arrested development and is where the most of the substance lies. It's a terrific character study that lies on the back of how well Oswalt can display a sad sack demeanor without coming off as humorous and propelled in its realism by a grim script courtesy of Robert Siegel, who also wrote The Wrestler and made his directorial debut with this film.

8. Up

I can't mention Up without first talking about its wonderful early opening sequence. It tells the story of a couple beginning with their marriage and follows them through their ups and downs over the years. Without Michael Giacchino's score, it simply wouldn't have half of its magic, but as storytelling on its own, its impressive how much emotion is captured and elevates the entire field of animation. With its mixture of tenderness and pristine visuals, it exemplifies the best of what Pixar has been so great at over the past few years. It's almost a shame in a way that it takes an animated studio to remind the rest of us that movies can be entertaining and heartfelt without sacrificing one for the other or dumbing it down for the audience. It's an endlessly exciting adventure that takes the time to develop its characters in a way that both kids and adults can appreciate.

9. The Damned United

With myself being a very casual soccer fan, the story of how Derby County's manager left the team to go to their hated rivals, Leeds United during the 1970's was completely new to me. Even with minimal knowledge of England's soccer history, The Damned United proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Michael Sheen dazzles in his role as Brian Clough, the egocentric yet determined manager and brings a healthy amount of charisma to the role. The proceedings of The Damned United are often dramatic, but is peppered with comedic touches that make the entire thing extremely delightful.

10. Coraline

There should be no shame for Coraline in being the second best stop-motion animation film of 2009, right behind Fantastic Mr. Fox. While it is not very often that feature-length stop-motion films make it to theaters, 2009 blessed us with a double whammy of great films. Coraline is still good enough to finish in my top ten because of the mesmerizing world director Henry Selick was able to create and his unwillingness to play things safe or saccharine. There are moments that border on scary and some that are just plain weird, but the rightful tone of the original source material is never sacrificed in order to make something that is more palatable for a typical family film audience. It's that kind of daring attitude and adventurousness that made 2009 such a banner year for animation.

And the rest...

11. Broken Embraces
12. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
13. A Serious Man
14. Precious
15. The Hurt Locker
16. (500) Days of Summer
17. Black Dynamite
18. Star Trek
19. The Informant!
20. The Maid
21. Up In The AIr
22. Tyson
23. Drag Me To Hell
24. Good Hair
25. An Education
26. Moon
27. Bruno
28. District 9
29. Me & Orson Welles
30. Fish Tank
31. Invictus
32. Police, Adjective
33. Zombieland
34. A Single Man
35. Where The Wild Things Are
36. Bright Star
37. The September Issue
38. This Is It
39. Capitalism: A Love Story
40. Paranormal Activity


  1. I love what you wrote about Inglorious Basterds. I completely agree (and I say it often) that the cavern scene was one of his best in history... that scene with the build up and the twists and just overall intensity, that shows true screenwriting Genius!! and great camera work too. but the best thing about the movie is that was one of maybe four or five really Classic scene in the movie.

  2. Yeah, Inglourious Basterds was filled with moments like that and that's what made it so special. I was squirming in my seat for half the movie because of all the tension.