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Best films of 2009: Redux

Well, that’ll learn me not to make a yearly best list without seeing all the films out there. And thank you, Kathryn Bigelow, for that most useful little lesson.

Redoing these lists isn’t something I normally do (whether out of obstinance or laziness I don’t know), but Bigelow’s tense and amazing “The Hurt Locker” blasted its way into my heart and left behind an uneasiness that lingered for hours after viewing. In short, it demanded its rightful spot in my list … and with a film this outstanding, I’m more than happy to oblige.

(Oh, and “Hangover” — I’m sorry we had to break up, but … I found someone better.)

1. “Inglourious Basterds”

Never underestimate a Jew hunter (Christoph Waltz) who speaks softly and carries a HUGE pipe.

With most directors, it’s hard to know if they know when they’ve created a masterpiece. Not so with Quentin Tarantino, who concludes “Inglourious Basterds,” a gloriously loud, darkly comic and explosively complicated epic, with what seems like a statement of his genius. Really, though, can we blame him? “Inglourious Basterds” works as a brilliant piece of revisionist history, a kickin’ action flick, a layered character study (the most intriguing character being, of course, Christoph Waltz’s fabulously wily Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa) and a technicolor work of art. Bravo, Mr. T. Bravo.


2. “The Hurt Locker”

Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie show the spoils (and horrors) of war in "The Hurt Locker."

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Up in the Air,” insisted it was “a movie for this time.” It’s an apt and accurate observation, indeed, and it also applies beautifully to Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping “The Hurt Locker,” which throws us right in the uncomfortable, bloody, unsentimental middle of the War on Terror. Relative nobody Jeremy Renner gives the performance of the year as SSG William James, a reckless adrenaline junkie willing to sacrifice everything — including the safety of his fellow soldiers — to get his next fix. That performance and Bigelow’s confident direction make “The Hurt Locker” not just a great war movie, but one of THE great war movies.


3. “Up in the Air”

Airports are home to George Clooney, who makes for a most touching aimless drifter in "Up in the Air."

To watch “Up in the Air,” Jason Reitman’s gutsy and achingly beautiful third film, is to witness a director coming into his own — though “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno” hardly felt like the work of a novice — at the precisely correct moment. With “Up in the Air,” Reitman shines an unwelcome light onto the harsh yet strangely hopeful world of corporate downsizing, unemployment and the speedily tanking economy. The never-better George Clooney becomes the face and voice of this world, a drifter who eventually learns what we all know: Any man who insists he’s got life all figured out is twice as clueless as the people he’s lecturing.


4. “Precious”

Gabourey Sidibe (left) and Mo'Nique deliver powerhouse performances in the gritty "Precious."

Films don’t get much rougher or rawly acted than Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” adapted from Sapphire’s best-selling novel “Push.” At times difficult to watch, “Precious” nonetheless introduces us to newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, who is a revelation as the Bronx-born Precious. The teen, rendered practically mute by the horrors of her life, endures unspeakable emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her vicious mother (Mo’Nique, who most assuredly deserves a Best Supporting Actress nod). Sidibe — and Daniels — manage the impossible here: to find hope in a life where none, rightly, should exist.


5. “Up”

Dreams deferred, then recovered, come to vivid life in Disney-Pixar's touching "Up."

There’s something about youthful dreams that never, ever get old. Disney-Pixar’s “Up” takes this never-aging concept and runs with it in “Up,” a sweet, very funny and often heartbreaking look at an elderly man’s (voiced by Ed Asner) stubborn refusal to let go of his late wife’s dream to travel the wilds of South Africa. How he goes about achieving that decades-old goal boggles the mind in terms of bright, gorgeous animation. But visuals aside, what “Up” does so wonderfully well is tap into our secret hope that it’s never too late to try again for the heart’s strongest desire.


6. “(500) Days of Summer”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt memorably discovers that not every love is eternal in "(500) Days of Summer."

Try as we might, humans can’t force love — or, at the very least, our memories of it once it’s vanished — to follow a neat-and-tidy timeline. Neither will it conform to the molds we attempt to force it into. “(500) Days of Summer,” a painstakingly constructed yet fragmented tale of love lost, drives home these points through Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a 20something convinced a coworker (Zooey Deschanel) must be The One. He’s wrong, very wrong, we learn in the opening credits, and thus “(500) Days” becomes a different kind of love story — the painful kind, but the one most likely to stick with us once the credits roll.


7. “Star Trek”

Eric Bana adds "villainy" to his already-full resume in "Star Trek."

Summer blockbusters often get snubbed come Oscar time (remember what happened with “The Dark Knight”?) on the basis they lack any substance beyond the visual pyrotechnics and the glitter. Count “Star Trek” out of that lot, for this is the other kind of summer blockbuster — the one that has it all, from the visuals to the special effects to great acting (found everywhere, but especially in the performances of Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Leonard Nimoy) and first-rate writing. “Star Trek” is a treat for the senses, all of them, and a much-needed shot of epi to the dying “Star Trek” franchise.


8. “Two Lovers”

Joaquin Phoenix plays a beautifully damaged shell in the superbly acted "Two Lovers."

James Gray, with “Two Lovers,” does something most extraordinary: make a movie about a romantic triangle that eschews melodrama and focuses instead on affecting character growth. At the center of this character study is Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), a shifty soul reeling from his fiancee’s departure who falls for two women: the beautiful but equally unstable Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the kind daughter-of-a-family-friend who senses Leonard’s troubled nature and wants to help him. The strong performances lead to a resolution that’s poetic, somehow unspeakably sad and not the least bit maudlin.


9. “The Informant!”

James Bond ain't got nothin' on whistleblower Mark Whitacre, a spy of his own creation, in "The Informant!"

A story about one of the world’s biggest (and strangest) tattletales, Mark Whitacre (wonderfully portrayed by Matt Damon), sounds intriguing enough. Then in marches Stephen Soderbergh to direct, and, well, it’s all over from that moment on. Soderbergh, with his trademark verve and style, transforms the story of Whitacre, who blew the whistle on ADM’s price fixing racket, from a corporate thriller to a jaunty but deeply sad venture into the mind of Whitacre, who concocted such an elaborate, crazy scheme even he couldn’t wrap his fragile little mind around it. Credit Damon, at his best, for taking a buffoon and turning him into an oddly sympathetic Everyman.


10. “Brothers”

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal anchor the subtle "Brothers" with strong performances.

“Brothers,” much like “The Departed,” offers solid proof that remakes should not be discounted out of hand. Based on a Danish film, Jim Sheridan’s “Brothers” stands as a fine creation on its own, a penetrating look at the effect war — particularly in the realm of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — has on families. Tobey Maguire is sheer dynamite as Capt. Sam Cahill, who escapes an Afghani prison camp but comes home to his wife (Natalie Portman) and worried brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) a broken, dangerous man. “Brothers,” with its wrenching but never showy performances, makes us feel the knife edge of his desperation and the way it slices clean through his family harmony.

Honorable mentions: “The Brothers Bloom” for its first-rate cast (Ruffalo, Weisz, Brody); “Jennifer’s Body” for its clever dialogue, genius reversal of the teen-girl-as-hapless-victim sentiment informing most horror films and a career-making performance by Amanda Seyfried; and “Zombieland,” which glides in on sheer gross, witty fun.

41 Responses

  1. Awesome list! I can’t say that it’s been a great year for movies, but thankfully we did get some lasting films to get us to a much more promising 2010.

    Oh – in case you’re curious, here’s my top five of 2009:


    • Great list, MH, and I’m thrilled to see “Precious” and “Inglourious Basterds” made the cut. You’re made of stronger stuff than me, though, because I couldn’t boil it down to just five…

      I’d say 2009 had some really high highs (a.k.a. “Basterds,” “Precious,” “Up”) and a whole bunch of near-misses and average movies.

      • Thanks Carter! By the by, at the risk of revealing how deep my geekery truly runs, around September I put together a list on my computer ranking what I’ve seen so far.

        As the year goes on, I slot things in where I figure they rank. So truthfully, I actually have a “Top 38” that I could post if anyone was interested. Not that anyone would be.

        For what it’s worth, the back five of mine would look like this:

        6. A SERIOUS MAN
        7. (500) DAYS OF SUMMER
        9. THE ROAD
        10. UP IN THE AIR

        Oh, and I’m not sure if it’s your thing or not, but Univarn and I recorded a podcast talking about our year-end top fives. I posted it here…


      • Hatter, as I think I have mentioned I have been doing the same, look out on new years day. I am posting my top ten earlier than planned, it will be up in about 20 minutes.

  2. Who were your favourite actors?

    • Ooh, that’s a tough question. For actresses, I’d have to go in this order:

      1) Mo’Nique (who knew she had THIS in her?)
      2) Gabourey Sidibe
      3) Melanie Laurent, who communicated so much emotion with so few words
      4) Vera Farmiga, who tops my best actresses on any normal day
      and 5) Melanie Lynskey, very good in small parts in both “The Informant!” and “Up in the Air”

      For the fellows, I’ll start with the obvious:

      1) Christoph Waltz for THE performance of the year as Col. Hans Landa
      2) Adam Sandler, who proved in “Funny People” that he’s grown into a real, talented actor
      3) George Clooney
      4) Matt Damon, who deserves an Oscar nod for “The Informant!”
      and 5) Tobey Maguire, who kicked a** and took names in “Brothers”

  3. Great top ten. The thing that infuriates me about it, like with all the other top tens I am reading is the films that I haven’t seen yet. Just to compound that my top ten has films in it that some people saw summer 08. Having said that I did get to see An Education and A Serious Man, both are well worth seeing.

    Inglourious Basterds – Great choice, I loved it.

    Up in the Air – Coming out next month

    Precious – Coming out next month

    Up – the only one of your top ten I have missed by choice.

    (500) Days of Summer – Really enjoyed but not in my top ten

    Star Trek – same as above!

    Two Lovers – really interesting choice, I know from your review at the time that you really liked this film. A point on the your comment. I never felt Leonard “fell for” Sandra, she was always a convenience. That is what makes the ending so devastating.

    The Hangover. Not in my top ten but one of the most pleasantly surprising films of the year.

    The informant. Matt Damon is becoming one of my favourite actors. Like Cary Grant, he is brilliant and believable in everything he does but is still himself, it is so effortless as though he isn’t even acting.

    Brothers – Coming out next month

    I have seen two of your honourable mentions and loved them both, one made it to my top ten. Not long to go before you find out which!

    (By the way, I like that you put links to your original reviews good idea)

    • Fandango, I feel your pain — there are plenty of films on other top 10 lists like “A Serious Man” and “Crazy Heart” that I haven’t seen. It’s one of the many downfalls of living outside the “limited release” realm.

      You’re right about “Two Lovers” — the ending isn’t happy in the slightest. He settles for Sandra and she doesn’t realize it. Or, if she does, she takes it anyway. Such a heartbreaking tragedy that I’m sure many, many viewers mistook for a happy ending.

      • I shouldn’t complain, I get most of the smaller films living just outside a big city but we just get films in the UK so long after North America.

        As for two lovers: I always took it that he didn’t love her, you raise a point I didn’t really consider, did she know or not? If she knew it makes it even sadder!

      • Sandra seemed to intuit that Leonard had some sort of mental problem, so I suppose I thought she figured out that Leonard wasn’t head-over-heels for her.

  4. I’m busy working on my best of the decade list (I just need to rewatch and review one more and I’ll be ready to print that one), but I just figured I’ll check out a bunch of foreign and indie films up on Netflix at the moment before I finalize the year-end list. I imagine I’ll finish that one sometime mid-January. Nice to see Inglourious Basterds at no.1: I’ve found so much to love about that film I had to write a second review of it once I got it on Blu-Ray. Just a magnificent film.

    • “Precious” was the only serious challenger for the top spot, but in the end nothing topped “Inglourious Basterds” for me. So lurid, violent, cancerously funny, ambitious, epic — just so everything. It’s Tarantino’s masterpiece, and he knows it.

      • Aaaaand now I know Two Lovers will be making my list. Actually nudged out A Serious Man from what I considered a set-in-stone top three. I believe the only films I have left to watch (that I feel might have any bearing on my list) are Nine, Up in the Air, Summer Hours, Tulpan, The Road and The Headless Woman. Those are all ones either playing in my immediate vicinity or available on Netflix.

      • Hooray for someone else picking “Two Lovers,” then. It didn’t hit theaters anywhere near me but someone (you?) suggested it and Netflix obliged me. Certainly one of Joaquin Phoenix’s finest performances.

  5. Great list, just need to catch up now one some of the films mentioned. Coudln’t have agreed more with Tarantino at the helm.

  6. Glad to see you’re back, M, and what a comeback it is. I was going to post my picks before 2010 rings in, but I haven’t seen a lot of them that I figured I should get to ’em first. I’ve only seen four out of your top ten and two of them definitely would not be on my best list. Boy, I really have to see Basterds now despite my initial reservations. In any case, even if I disagree with your list, I always enjoy reading ’em!

  7. I know that some people are putting their top 10 lists now. You have some great choices on your list, but I’m holding out on mine until before the Oscars. Besides, my list changes everyday. I want to have a concrete understanding of all the films released and have my list ready.

  8. I have yet to watch Inglourious Basterds…great list though! I completely forgot about Star Trek but that was a cool film!

    • I think with all the hustle most people forgot about “Star Trek,” but I’d say it was one of the few films of 2009 — like, say, “Inglourious Basterds” — that had SO MUCH going for it: great writing, acting, action, humor, terrific special effects.

  9. A 7 out of 10 match. I can’t tell if we are just incredibly unoriginal or if we are just a movie match in heaven.

  10. I really want to see the first two movies on your list! I was unimpressed with Star Trek (I felt nothing as I left the theater…haha), but I’ve seen it popping up on lots of peoples’ year-end lists. And The Hangover was pretty hilarious. I posted a list of my own here: http://dismrepair08.wordpress.com/2009/12/24/top-movies-of-2009/

  11. Great list. I have a few films left to see before I post my finalized list, but it should be up in a couple of weeks. Inglourious Basterds and (500) Days of Summer will be high on my list. Any plans for a best of the decade list?

    • I’ve tossed that around … didn’t get it done before Jan. 1, but maybe that can be a project for later this month.

  12. Great list! Inglorious Basterds is also my top movie of the decade and it’s nice to see 500 days of summer getting some love as well. Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to see Precious, nor Up in the Air yet 😦

  13. Great placement of QT’s Basterds at No 1! Still bummed that I still haven’t seen ‘Precious’, ‘The Informant’ and ‘Up in the Air’.

    Yet, I saw 500 Days of Summer and maybe I missed something but it didn’t quite live up to the praise and acclaim I had been reading about all this time. JGL as always shined but Zooey, I think is consistently miscast (and not a great actor at all).

    Biggest surprise, I thought (for me anyway) was the success and mass appeal of Star Trek. Awesome!

    • Hey, now you just have three movies to look forward to! “Up in the Air” (reviewing it as we speak) was so good that I wish I could see it again for the first time.

      “(500) Days of Summer” has its fair share of flaws — including that CHEAT of an ending — but it did so many things well and had such a great performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt that I couldn’t leave it out of the list. It’s an inspired work, I believe, even though it’s hardly perfect. And I agree with you about Zooey Deschanel — I miss her when she was allowed to be sarcastic (re: “The Good Girl”) and not an Indie Princess-Goddess.

  14. I haven’t seen 500 Days Of Summer or Up In the Air yet! Arrrrrrrrrr! My list will be published today but I feel like I haven’t seen a couple important ones that I need to in order for it to be fair!

  15. I’ll admit, the presence of Gwyneth Paltrow & the insane behavior of Joaquin Phoenix kept me from “Two Lovers”.

    I’m more & more interested in “Brothers”. It sounds like a surprise winner.

    • Definitely a surprise winner — went in not knowing what to expect but came out really bowled over by Gyllenhaal and especially Tobey Maguire.

  16. What what what?! No Avatar? Granted it’s a bit (lot) linear, but surely those visuals warrant a special mention at least?
    Inglourious and Up woould round off my top three for the year, the latter I think deserves a Best Picture nod from the Academy

  17. Hooray for the Basterds and rememberance of the unappreciated Two Lovers.

  18. Woohoo. Another Inglourious Basterds lover!

  19. This is the reason why I haven’t put up my list yet. I don’t want to be doing a “redeux”, a “trois”, etc. I want a definitive list when I see “The Last Station” and the 3 out of the 5 docs nominated.

  20. Maybe it’s just me (and nobody throw anything at me) but I thought Hurt Locker was a tad overrated. I liked it but maybe I just heard sooo many GREAT things about it that I expected more. Jeremy Renner was an undeniable badass but the rest of the story just didn’t live up to the things I heard.

    • Really? I thought it lived up the height. It was better than I expected; then again, I don’t watch many war movies.

  21. Taken as a whole, 2009 may have been the weakest movie year of the decade. However, there were a few standouts for me. My five faves were:

    1) INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (popcorn heaven)
    2) IN THE LOOP (the smartest comedy in ages)
    3) UP (Pixar’s best yet)
    4) ADVENTURELAND (better than DAZED AND CONFUSED, with which it was often compared)
    5) WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (let the wild rumpus start)

    I also greatly enjoyed ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL, STAR TREK, THE INVENTION OF LYING, THE BROTHERS BLOOM, and several others which are not immediately jumping to mind.

    I haven’t yet seen UP IN THE AIR, A SERIOUS MAN, or THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, much to my shame.

    Finally, while I liked THE HURT LOCKER, I feel it is a tad overrated. The story takes an unfortunate turn towards unbelievability in the third act.

    • I’m THRILLED to see “The Brothers Bloom” on your list! I really enjoyed that one and think Rian Johnson is a huge talent.

    • You should give The Hurt Locker another go. You said “unfortunate turn towards unbelievability in the third act.” Others have said it lost its way at that point. I actually think that part of the movie and the scene at home such as the one in the supermarket frame the film and make sense of the rest of it. Whatever you hay thing of them on their own the film as a whole is far stronger for having them in it.

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