There's more than one way to approach an end of year list like this and so it always seems necessary to explain what this isn't before I begin it. Some listers create top tens which are actually a smokescreen for a list of movies no one saw which they'd like to promote. This is not that kind of list. Some critics make a distinction between their favorite movies and the year's best movies. I won't do that. If a movie is truly great, it will be one of my favorites. I'm not afraid of my own opinions. Some writers wimp out and categorize their lists, separating out animated films and documentaries and comedies and dramas into separate categories. This list doesn't do that, it has moxy.
Instead what you have here is my list, a list of the best movies released in 2009 as I saw it. I didn't see everything, the newspaper critic paradise where writers could do nothing but watch movies day in and day out is dead and we're left with a reality in which critics must see whatever they can while also doing the hundreds of other things now necessary to make it as someone who writes about film. So while Roger Ebert is still seeing more than 500 films a year, he's a vanishing breed. I'm usually somewhere above 100 but below 200. Still I'm happy with what I saw and, with the exception of Black Dynamite, feel pretty confident that I caught nearly everything which had any chance of making this list. This is my list of the best movies of 2009 and here it is.
1. Up in the Air
Set amongst the decaying bones of America's capitalist paradise, Up in the Air is the right movie for the right time. George Clooney stars as a corporate terminator for hire. He flies around the country laying off employees for failing companies afraid to do their own dirty work. Clooney's Ryan Bingham is a man with big ideas about life, ideas being put to the test as he approaches middle age and wonders if his world of loneliness and constant motion is all there is. Yet writer/director Jason Reitman's movie never makes excuses for Bingham's lifestyle, nor does he cheapen it with Hollywood platitudes about love and relationships. “All the things you probably hate about traveling,” says Bingham, “are warm reminders that I'm home.” For him motel rooms and first class tickets are better than the comfort of accumulation and Up in the Air lets you see the world from Ryan's unique point of view, a point of view in which traveling light is the only way to live life. Like Bingham, Up in the Air is a movie with big ideas, but ideas which it never hammers us with. Instead it addresses not only the world we live in, but also the way we think about it, with subtly and wit. Up in the Air is the year's most resonate film, a poignant examination of life and the way it's lived. In a world of growing uncertainty Reitman's confident, beautifully shot movie weighs the costs of the things we all carry with us and wonders, wisely, if we might not all be better off traveling lighter.
2. (500) Days of Summer
Director Marc Webb's movie is not a love story, but it is about love. In it, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers yet another stunning performance as Tom, a boy who falls in love with a girl who isn't. Told out of order (not as a gimmick but as a means of deeper understanding) and with imagination unmatched by any other film released this year, (500) Days of Summer tells a tale of romance and heartbreak so far beyond the usual boy meets girl formula that it's almost a genre all its own. It contains several of the 2009's most transcendent moments, in particular Tom's reaction to his first night with Summer. A simple reflection captures (more perfectly than anything ever has before) the distinctly male feeling of sexual achievement, as Tom walks down the sidewalk and breaks into an impromptu dance number. Funny and heartbreaking, creative and unexpected, no amount of computer generated wizardry or dangling cleavage could possibly match the amount of entertainment and insight available right here in (500) Days of Summer.
3. The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker is without question the best Iraq war movie ever made. Maybe it's because it's not really about Iraq, at least in a political sense, but about the harrowing jobs of soldiers thrust into hell and asked to perform under impossible circumstances. Jeremy Renner stars as Staff Sergeant James, leader of an Army bomb squad working in Iraq, and a well known “wild man”. As you can imagine, his squad's busy. Surrounded by enemies and under constant threat of ambush or attack, James suits up, grabs a pair of wire cutters and tries to defuse bombs before they blow up innocent civilians who, incidentally, would be happy to see him dead. Director Kathryn Bigelow's movie successfully welds together all the tension-filled excitement of Speed with the confusion and uncertainty of a real life fog of war. It's an adrenaline rush unlike anything else seen on screen this year, set amidst a never ending cycle of occupation and struggle. The danger feels every bit as real as the people plopped down in it. A soldier's world of dust and desert and bullets and smoke has never felt so elemental, so tense, so flat out scary.
4. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Bad Lieutenant doesn't give a fuck whether you walk out of the theater liking it or not, but I did. More than the meandering, drug-addled middle-finger it appears to be, Werner Herzog's film resurrects Nic Cage to near Leaving Las Vegas form as Terence McDonagh, a bad cop with a good work ethic. Rousting revelers in order to steal their drugs and cutting back door deals with crackheads, it's often hard to tell whether this is all just some quest for his next fix or whether McDonagh is actually interested in solving his case. In a strange way, it's the story of a man who believes in his job, even when he no longer believes in anything else. Cage is at his most brilliantly sadistic and the film itself contains what is without a doubt the year's best line of dialogue. You'll know it when you hear it. Herzog's maniacal movie is a piece of gleefully degraded, twisted perfection. Bad Lieutenant is all kinds of wrong, but it feels oh so right.
The first few minutes of Up may be among the most moving ever on film, yet, the geniuses at Pixar capture all of it in mere moments and without words. And as the film waltzes through the life of Carl Frederickson from young man to the squashed down old curmudgeon we're left with on screen, you know you're in for something special. If the movie loses some of its momentum in the second half, it's forgivable in the face of how much life Disney's animation maestros manage to bring to these pixilated characters. Up is a touching, emotional success because of the way it cuts right to the heart of the matter. The adventure Carl finds himself on after his house balloons away into the clouds is almost ancillary in the face of his greater challenge: coming to grips with the loss of his wife. Your kids probably missed that amidst all those pretty colors, but you saw it, and reveled in one of the most affecting stories of the year.
6. Whip It
Drew Barrymore's directorial debut is the perfect antidote for anyone who might be afraid their daughter has been brainwashed into becoming a helpless love slave by Twilight. Confident and full of life, in its most stripped down form it's the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a girl who discovers her place in the world. Her place happens to be in the brutal, no holds barred, all-girl, underground sport of roller derby. It's a movie about taking life into your own hands, about pursuing what you love no matter the cost. It's the story of women who have refused to be defined by their gender or their age or their life circumstances by bonding with one another to do something simply because it makes them happy. It's the perfect girl power movie, a rare film that has nothing to do with women dealing with men, finding love, or shopping for shoes; but free from the usual preachy, feminist muck. It's a rink-rocking success, the kind that all but demands you stand up and cheer.
7. Mystery Team
Mystery Team is a breath of fresh air, an utterly unique comedy which revolves around a well-thought mystery being solved by perfectly drawn, self-unaware characters. It was cute when 8-year-old Jason, Charlie, and Duncan set up a table and offered to solve other kids' mysteries for a nickel, but now they're 18 and they don't seem to have grown out of it or for that matter grown up. Children trapped in adult bodies, they're thrust into a murder mystery which is every bit as mature as they're not. Our heroes' desperate struggle to comprehend an adult world which they've spent most of their lives avoiding (before their ignorance leaves them dead) results in the funniest, most original comedy of the year. Imagine kid-detective Encyclopedia Brown confronted with a real dead body, or forced to sneak into a strip club. More than just hilarious though, there's also a great, classic, noir mystery which the laughs have been built on top of. It's Columbo with a snarky, vicious sense of humor or think Apatow does Agatha Christie. Even that doesn't really cover it. There's nothing quite like Mystery Team.
8. Peter and Vandy
In every way that (500) Days of Summer isn't a love story, Peter and Vandy is. What makes it so special is the film's clear-headed view of romance, its eerily accurate portrayal of realistic love, with all the bumps and bruises anyone who's ever had a relationship that didn't happen in a movie knows all too well. It's only as Peter and Vandy's life begins to unfold that we start to see past the pitfalls to something special, flawed and imperfect though it may be, whenever they're together. Much of the credit goes to Jason Ritter, who delivers a brilliant performance as Peter, and to writer/director Jay DiPietro who seems to know his way around a long-term commitment. Peter and Vandy's relationship is one defined by old Pajamas worn on a lazy Sunday morning. It's a movie stripped of all the romantic clichés, yet, at the same time absolutely drunk on the notion of love. Real love.
Watchmen is every bit as ambitious, edgy, and aspiring as anything based on the greatest comic ever written ought to be. Its twisted take on the superhero genre is a welcome breath of fresh air in the midst of our cape-wearing mania, one which is so far out of step with the usual world of savior crusaders that it deserves bonus point simply for being allowed to exist. Zack Snyder's film isn't some watered down take on the ultimate superhero deconstruction, it wades right in and gets to deconstructing, working at an R-rated, college level. Whatever you think of Watchmen, it has balls, and I'm not talking about those glowing blue ones. It revels in moral bankruptcy and delights in forcing its characters and its audience into unmakeable, unthinkable choices in place of the usual superhero cheap thrills. It features one of the greatest opening credits sequences ever created and it is, without question, visually stunning. This Watchmen will never supplant Alan Moore's comic, but it's a story with something risky to say, and Snyder's not afraid to let his movie say it.
10. Star Trek
In only five minutes, Star Trek had an entire audience in tears. It's done with an action sequence, featuring characters no one knows engaged in a battle to the death with something no one on screen can understand. The movie only gets better. The idea behind JJ Abrams' Star Trek revitalization was so good that with just a tweak here or there it could have reinvented the entire science fiction genre. Instead after that initial emotional firestorm it settles for being flat out fun, this year's Iron Man, and a must see if you're looking for a good time. It's fresh, it's exciting, and it feels young as when the world was new. The future has never seemed brighter than it does here, with new actors stepping into the iconic shoes of the Enterprise crew and injecting thrilling new energy into every frame of the film. It works in large part because its thrills are character driven and Abrams refuses to let the stunning technology and effects at his disposal overwhelm the cast's personality. Instead he creates a world and then simply lets his characters live in it. Excitement soon follows.
Great Movies That Didn't Make The Cut:The Hangover, Observe & Report, Drag Me to Hell, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Princess and the Frog, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, Jennifer's Body, Big Fan, The Road, Whatever Works, A Single Man, The Winning Season, The Snake, I Love You, Man, An Education, Crank: High Voltage, Taken, The Slammin' Salmon, Moon, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Just In Case You Were Wondering:The Unborn was the worst movie of the year. Even Carla Gugino and Gary Oldman couldn't save this stinker from being… wait for it… stillborn.
To get more from Cinema Blend's Best Of 09, click here.