"Even these apples look fake, but at least they have stars on them."
--Mr. Fox, The Fantastic Mr. Fox
There weren't very many perfect movies made in 2009. A perfect movie is a hard thing to come by in general, but this year it seemed there were more people than usual aiming for perfection and just barely failing to get there. It had me disappointed for a while--for most of the year I scoffed when anyone claimed it was a great year for cinema, and saw every new movie with high hopes that inevitably went unmet. But when it came time to put together this list, and I got to look back at all the movies that moved me or thrilled me in some way, I was amazed at how many were genuine, ballsy attempts at greatness that came close enough to be wonderful all on their own.
It's not that my top 10 movies are artificial, like the apples in Fantastic Mr. Fox, or that they're spangled with stars in an attempt to mask their flaws. It's more like they're not what I was expecting, but once I had them, they were exactly what I needed after all. A bunch of mediocre movies strung among some great ones makes for a good moviegoing year, sure, but when there are this many almost-great ones to feast upon? That really is, well, kind of fantastic.
1. Inglourious Basterds
For the first time in his career, Quentin Tarantino got me. His sprawling, over-the-top Nazi-era epic, with all its delectable side characters, extended dialogue sequences and flashy editing, was an unending treat for moviegoers of every kind, an assembly of everything exciting and lovable about the medium in all of history. It's not necessarily how it all fits together as a whole, but the individual scenes-- the farmhouse interrogation, the underground pub scene, Shosanna burning down the theater-- that will doubtlessly be studied by film students for years. Tarantino loves film perhaps more than anyone living, and for the first time, he's shared that love completely with us. Best Moment: Shosanna breaks for one moment after a tense lunch with Hans Landa.
In their yearly effort to outdo themselves and everyone around them, Pixar turned a classic adventure story into a meditation on aging, loss, and the ability to find love and satisfaction where you don't expect it. Carl Fredericksen isn't the bravest or most rugged hero we've ever seen in the movies, but despite the fact that he's made entirely of pixels, he's achingly human. With the comedy coming from Dug the talking dog and the pathos from fatherless Russell, Up is both exquisitely entertaining and brutally honest about the heartbreak life can offer. Yes, they did it again. Best Moment: "I was hiding under your porch because I love you!"
3. In the Loop
War is gruesome and cruel and horrible, but it's also caused by doughy bureaucrats in ugly offices, and selfish go-getters who would sell out their idol or their best friend to get their name on a meaningless piece of paper. And when you're looking at it from that angle, war can be hilarious. Armando Iannucci's farce is so hysterically funny and fast-paced that lines about thousands of dead soldiers go by in a blink, and yet at the end, when these smart and horrible characters are left with blood on their hands and nothing to show for it, the toll feels very real. It's a Dr. Strangelove-level satire for the Iraq era, and the funniest and smartest movie of the year by miles. Best Moment: The Scottish political operative (Peter Capaldi) and the American general (James Gandolfini) finally come face to face, and the expletives fly like rain.
4. Star Trek
"It's the kind of blockbuster that makes you glad movies exist," I wrote when I reviewed Star Trek at the beginning of the summer. As the year trudged on past endless, soulless effects spectacles I missed Star Trek all the more, until around August I finally realized that what I felt for Star Trek wasn't just a childlike glee, but a deep, unwavering love. The script is flawed and the lens flares are a little too much, but no film this year made movies feel so magical or so fun. For sheer audacity and energy and cleverness, nothing beat Star Trek in 2009. Best Moment: The Enterprise comes together for the first time to disable the drill boring into Vulcan.
5. A Serious Man
There's a lot I don't understand about this movie, from the odd parable at the beginning to the apparently crucial cultural importance of F-Troop. But the Coens, in taking their nihilistic bent once again and applying it to a strange, under-explored corner of America, have created a perfectly inscrutable and curious study about suffering and patience and what it all might mean. Does the movie conclude that God is vengeful, that God doesn't care about the meaningless actions of people like Larry Gopnik, or is there no God at all? The Coens are going to let you figure that one out for yourself, but watching them lead you to the question is worth not getting any answers. Best Moment: Any scene with Sy Abelman.
James Cameron is back to show modern Hollywood how to shoot a decent action scene, how to get away with questionable dialogue, and more importantly, how to make CGI effects feel real and vital rather than expensive box of crayons. It's not just that Cameron managed to imagine a world like Pandora, but that the story he gave us there is seemingly a combination of every myth and storytelling legend we've ever told. Jake Sully escapes the clumsy boundaries of his human body and soars above the alien forest, and the entire audience takes flight with him. Best Moment: Neytiri rescues Jake in the trailer.
7. The White Ribbon
Humans are inherently cruel and vicious to one another, and children are no exception. Michael Haneke puts together a kind of fable about strange, violent incidents in a pre-World War I German village, and through stunning black and white photography that echoes the harsh, false morality imposed by the adults of the town, indicts all of us in the horrors that would befall the country decades later. It's heady and difficult stuff, but thanks to the prodigiously gifted child actors and Haneke's skill directing them, the human toll of this story feels just as powerful as the moral despair. Best Moment: The teacher confronts the children.
8. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
The narrative takes a little while to get going and the multitude of side characters are impossible to keep track of, but much like its main character, Wes Anderson's film is so full of jaunty energy and self-confidence that it coasts right past every flaw. The deliberately herky-jerky animation and natty, impeccable costumes help build this ochre-colored world separate from time or place, in which a fox can be a newspaper columnist and a game involving a burning pinecone a national pastime. As consistently entertaining as it is throughout, the movie really hits it home with the melancholy ending, in which flourescent lighting has replaced the golden sun and you can't dig under the Formica floors, but at least they feel cool to your feet. Try it, see? Best Moment: Ash finally gets to shout "Hotbox!"
Baseball is America's beloved national sport, but as Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck show simply and beautifully in their second film, it also represents a beacon of opportunity to teenagers in the Dominican Republic, where every major league team recruits young players and essentially buys their lives. Following one talented kid, nicknamed Sugar, from the DR to the foreign cornfields of Iowa, Fleck and Boden explore both the iconography of baseball and the quieter joys, like teammates bonding over music through a language barrier, or the kindness of devoted minor league fans. Sugar's fate isn't particularly tragic or exceptional, but very true-- and quintessentially American. Best Moment: Before shipping off to the States, the Dominican players hang out in the dugout and jokingly practice their English.
Just as twisted and clever as Gilroy's Oscar-nominated Michael Clayton, Duplicity has the added benefit of being sexy and hilarious, boasting electric lead performances from Julia Roberts and Clive Owen and the kind of crackling, mile-a-minute dialogue that Howard Hawks would be proud to call his own. Both a takedown of corporate culture and a celebration of its inane self-importance, Duplicity is just as much a movie of our economics-driven times as it is a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 30s. Bonus points given for Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson's performances as corporate kingmakers not above digging in one another's trash or, as in the best title sequence of the year, duking it out on the tarmac. Best Moment: Owen puts on a Southern accent to deceive a naive travel executive (Carrie Preston)-- and gives her a little something extra for her trouble.
Great Movies That Didn't Make The Cut: (I had an exceptionally hard time culling down even this list) Humpday, The Girlfriend Experience, Moon, District 9, Drag Me to Hell, 500 Days of Summer, Up in the Air, A Single Man, Big Fan, The Hurt Locker, Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
Just In Case You Were Wondering:Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the worst movie of the year. Not only was it incoherent and offensive and lazy, but it cost more money to make than nearly everything on my Top 10. The fact that it's the #1 movie of the year at the box office is just the final insult.
To get more from Cinema Blend's Best Of 09, click here.