Top Ten Films: 2009

Continuing my retrospective Top 10 lists...

Okay, so this was the year the Oscars got on my nerves for announcing ten Best Picture nominees. (And judging by what was included in those ten, I think we can all agree that I was right to be irked… which is some vindication, at least.)

Ironically enough, 2009 was not a particularly good year for cinema, despite the Academy’s urge to double the number of films contending for Best Picture. My Top 10 is weak, compared to most years — the latter films, while certainly quite good, are filler that wouldn’t have made the cut any other year. And naturally, the Oscars followed their long-standing tradition of ignoring many of the year’s few truly great works in favor of some more forgettable titles. It’s a crime that (500) Days of Summer wasn’t nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and A Single Man was unjustly shut out of so many categories it belonged in — including Best Picture (especially when its competition was sentimental fluff like The Blind Side). A Serious Man, on the other hand, was the most maddening, least enjoyable film I saw all year, yet because it was a Coen brothers movie, it somehow made its way onto the list. (I know it’s not exactly a bad movie, but I hated it.)

Whatever. I picked ’em better. Here are my choices for the top prizes.



Yes, Avatar. The cinematic milestone has been massively overhyped, ushering in a 3D craze that is sure to get pretty old pretty fast. The highest-grossing film of all time (however misleading those figures may be, with ticket prices so high) is dazzling to behold and, at times, quite beautiful. In terms of pure popcorn spectacle, James Cameron delivers like no other filmmaker in a story that draws as much from the past (specifically, Western colonization of Africa) as it does from the future.

While the stock characters and predictable, sometime obtuse (Unobtainium? really?) story may hold Avatar back from being a wholly transcendent experience — especially once it’s viewed on smaller 2D screens — it does transport us to a new world both narratively and as a cinematic experience. Avatar is that rare landmark, a film that changes the industry while the world watches – and it more or less lived up to the hype. It’s nice to know that a few directors can still meld eye-popping entertainment with a reasonably intelligent storyline. (Imagine what Michael Bay would have done with the same material.)


In its own way as tense and disturbing as The Hurt Locker, The Messenger concerns combat vets faced with the unfortunate gig of notifying survivors of those who have been killed in action. Rather than focus on the grief of the bereaved, however, The Messenger examines the psychological state of soldiers who have returned from “over there” — leaving us rather perturbed that these damaged individuals are the guys “representing” our country. (There’s also a pretty severely messed-up love story at the core.)

The Messenger features standout performances all around, particularly from Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson — they play characters who aren’t necessarily likable, but are vulnerable and human to keep us invested in their story. It’s one of the best examinations of war’s effect on the human psyche in quite some time, certainly a nice companion piece to The Hurt Locker (a sequel, of sorts). This is one case in which we should be glad writer/director Oren Moverman shot The Messenger.


Bright cinematography, twisted backstory, fractured timeline, movie-within-the-movie, and Penelope Cruz — Pedro Almodovar is back in fine form with all his tropes, and that’s good news for his ardent fan base. Cruz portrays a secretary-turned-hooker-turned-trophy-wife-turned-actress (only in an Almodovar film would this progression be completely logical — Almodovar never judges characters who sell sex). Naturally, nothing is quite what it seems.

Yes, as is par in Pedro’s course, much of the film plays out as backstory, with characters explaining the backstory at great length; in the present, nothing much “happens.” But in an Almodovar film, the journey is more interesting than most films’ destination; it’s all about characters and atmosphere, and in that department Broken Embraces delivers in spades. While it may not be as indelibly juicy as Almodovar’s Bad Education or Talk To Her is, it’s nevertheless a welcome addition to the Almodovar ouvre. Few American filmmakers take even half the risks Almodovar takes in his safest film.


Featuring some of the year’s funniest cameos, Away We Go concerns thirtysomething parents-to-be on the hunt for the perfect place to raise their new family. The contenders? Phoenix, Montreal, and Madison. On the journey, they encounter various incarnations of the all-American family — including boozy loudmouth Allison Janney and the loopy, New Age Maggie Gyllenhaal, before one of the most heartbreaking pole dances you’ll ever see, courtesy of Melanie Lynskey.

John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph have a fresh chemistry as parents who don’t fit any mold; Rudolph, in particular, shows a sensitive side that may surprise SNL followers. Many critics dismissed the film’s leads for being smug, but who hasn’t come across crazy parents like these? Sam Mendes brings a touch of class to a film that might’ve unraveled in the hands of a lesser comedy director, and the small-scale tone is a nice departure from his usual suburban epics.


Marketed as the latest lame rip-off of Superbad, featuring wacky SNL cameos, and starring Bella from Twilight, Adventureland sure didn’t hold much promise as one of the year’s ten best movies. In actuality, though, Greg Mottola’s coming-of-age film is a heartfelt and intelligent teen drama with plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments (and they’re not stupid). And though the premise is a fitting setup for plenty of zany hijinks, it’s also relatable to virtually everyone – set in that time of life when we have a vague sense of what we want to accomplish with our lives, but are still stuck in a juvenile, dead-end job awaiting opportunity’s knock.

Jesse Eisenberg proves a capable leading man here (as in his other “-land” film of 2009, the superb Zombieland), in a role thankfully not played by Michael Cera. Kristin Stewart also holds her own, proving that in spite of her tween queen status, she’s actually an interesting actress in the right role. Ryan Reynolds, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, and Kristen Wiig all shine in supporting roles (some with real pathos beneath the laughs); however, nothing tops slutty, gum-smacking bimbo Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), one of my favorite comedic characters in recent years, who dances along to a soundtrack full of our favorite 80’s hits. Lisa P, I melt with you.5. FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Wes Anderson’s films have always been highly stylized, like children’s picture books dealing with adult themes. There’s a simplicity to the plots and clear morals at the end of the story. In a word, they’re cartoonish. It’s refreshing, then, to see Anderson make a film that totally embraces the surreality of the worlds his characters inhabit — Fantastic Mr. Fox his first cartoon that’s actually animated.

Spot-on, hilarious voice work from George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, and friends enhances an exceedingly witty screenplay about animals trying to rise above their beastly nature. At times, they’re curiously civilized; at times, not so much. But somehow they come across as more human than the protagonists in some of Anderson’s lesser efforts. The one-of-a-kind stop motion animation is never less than a delight to behold. Perhaps much of the humor will go over the little one’s heads, but that’s because this is a cartoon made primarily for grown-ups. Sorry, kids.


The Hurt Locker got everyone abuzz because it was directed by a woman, but you’d never know it. The film isn’t any less relentless or more sensitive than the hardest-edged war movies — it’s up there with the likes of Kubrick, Stone, and Coppola’s hard-hitting epics. There’s no tacked-on sentimental coda a la Saving Private Ryan and no Eastwood-esque grandstanding. Kathryn Bigelow wisely eschews making any political statements and instead focuses on three very average soldiers, led by Jeremy Renner as a risk-addicted bomb defuser, with Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty in stirring supporting roles.

Most of the “action” scenes are really “inaction scenes,” as we watch Renner slowly dismantle an explosive or wait for snipers to make their move — putting the audience in the position of a real soldier at war. The tension comes as we hold our breath waiting for what might happen — a massive explosion or a bullet that takes our hero’s life. It could happen any minute. (An effective cameo from Ralph Fiennes drives this point home.) The Hurt Locker isn’t revolutionary as a war film, but it is a satisfying, suspenseful thriller that brings what “our troops” face “over there” into focus. As the best war films are, it’s about the day-to-day, minute-by-minute tension, not the global implications.


Timely recession resonance aside, Up In The Air is most memorable as a throwback to the genre-defying dramedies Hollywood rarely makes anymore, with sophisticated adult characters capable of being funny while experiencing believable human emotions, acting in ways that feel driven by character, not plot. The romance between George Clooney and Vera Farmiga (both fantastic, with chemistry crackling between them) feels organic and alive, without a drop of the typical Hollywood schmaltz (until the third act, at least).

But the real breath of fresh air is Anna Kendrick as Type-A Natalie, never a caricature but always a riot. (Wouldn’t most filmmakers have made Natalie a ho-hum male character and/or turned the film into some bland love triangle?) Kudos to co-writer/director Jason Reitman for stepping just a little outside the box, while still making room for all the stuff in the box we still like. Hilarious and moving in equal measures, Up In The Air didn’t even need to be made during the perfect historical window to be fantastic. But it was.


The year’s best villain was not found in Harry Potter, Avatar, or Transformers. She’s right here, as portrayed by Zooey Deschanel. (500) Days Of Summer strikes a near-universal chord because everyone can relate to Tom’s semi-requited love for the unobtainable Summer (and the ensuing hell of heartbreak she puts him through). We can easily see why Tom falls head over heels for her — she’s cute, playful, just a tad enigmatic, and has excellent taste in music. Then, just as easily, we hate her right along with him when her shoulder grows inexplicably cold, stealing the warmth and light from the picture-perfect romance Tom is having in his head. (That name is no accident.) Summer giveth and summer taketh away.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are perfectly cast as the unromantic duo — special kudos to the former, for as played by most other actors of his generation, Tom would have been too wrongheaded and pathetic to sympathize with. (Gordon-Levitt is one to watch for at the Oscars a few years from now.) Smartly, the script (by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) sheds light on the fact that when the Toms of this world fall for difficult and unavailable Summers, we really only have ourselves to blame (yet we continue to blame her anyway). Marc Webb’s film uses pop songs, foreign films, direct-to-camera confessionals, and other techniques, but that’s just the icing on this cake – for what this film really offers to anyone who’s ever been rejected is catharsis. It’s an original and insightful film that speaks honestly about messy 21st century relationships to hopeless romantics everywhere. It’s a love story for the rest of us.


Who knew Tom Ford had it in him? That the infamous designer’s first film is a visual marvel comes as no surprise to those who know his perfectionism in the fashion world. What is surprising is how well the screenplay (adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s beloved novel) matches the quality of the cinematography, costume design, and art direction. As we move through what is to be the last day in a single man’s life, style and substance meld sublimely — little moments add up to give us the big picture of who this man is and what he’s lost along the way. A Single Man is a “gay movie” in the best sense; it avoids being too provocative, political, or overtly sexual, but there is plenty of nuance, particularly in the pitch-perfect performance from Colin Firth. He somehow gives us every insight into his character’s emotional state while projecting only the utmost stiff-upper-lip restraint. (Witness the scene in which he learns his boyfriend, played by Matthew Goode, has been killed in a car accident. He almost doesn’t react, which says so much.) A difficult task, but Firth rises to the challenge.

A Single Man is a realistic, empathetic portrait of gay man that mercifully avoids camp and cliches. If it failed to fully connect with mainstream audiences, it is certainly destined to join the few quality films that truly speak to the homosexual experience. A Single Man knows that it’s the details that make up a single day, and a single life; we are treated to a series of disconnected conversations between George and a variety of characters, everyone from his perky next-door neighbor (Ginnifer Goodwin) to his hot-for-teacher student (Nicholas Hoult) to a gigolo aping James Dean. Most mesmerizing, of course, is Julianne Moore as George’s perpetually single gal pal Charley, still in love with him after all these years. The intense but lovely score by Abel Korzeniowski seals the deal — A Single Man is heartbreaking, but wonderfully so.

And now, my picks for 2009’s best writing, direction, and performances! (Winners in bold, ranked in descending order from there.)


1. Colin Firth – A Single Man
2. Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
3. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – (500) Days Of Summer
4. Viggo Mortensen – The Road
5. Ben Foster – The Messenger

The Academy favorite would have been mine, too, if Colin Firth wasn’t so damn good…


1. Saoirse Ronan – The Lovely Bones
2. Sandra Bullock – The Blind Side
3. Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia
4. Carey Mulligan – An Education
5. Catalina Saavedra – The Maid

I liked The Lovely Bones more than almost anyone else in the world (though the Heaven sequences were admittedly ill-conceived), but I also think Sandra Bullock elevated the mediocre The Blind Side far above what it would have been otherwise. She’s the only reason I saw it, and by far the best thing about it.


1. Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds
2. Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
3. Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
4. Nicholas Hoult – A Single Man
5. Matt Damon – Invictus

Again, I’m behind the Oscars on their front-runner, in what is otherwise a fairly weak year in this category.


1. Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air
2. Julianne Moore – A Single Man
3. Mo’Nique – Precious
4. Vera Farmiga – Up in the Air
5. Melanie Laurent – Inglourious Basterds

Often my favorite category, it is again this year. It was hard not to pick Moore, but Kendrick is such a scene-stealer. It’s really her year (for me, not the Academy).


1. Tom Ford – A Single Man
2. Kathryn Bigelow – The Hurt Locker
3. Jason Reitman – Up In The Air
4. Marc Webb – (500) Days Of Summer
5. James Cameron – Avatar

It’s pretty much a given that my favorite director of the year will fall in line with my favorite film. I greatly admire Bigelow and can’t wait to see her win the Oscar, but Ford really surprised me.


1. Up In The Air – Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman
2. A Single Man – Tom Ford and David Scearce
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox – Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach
4. The Lovely Bones – Peter Jackson & Philippa Boyens
5. An Education – Nick Hornby

A Single Man may have been my favorite film, but I credit the script after the direction and performances. Up In The Air, on the other hand, takes quite a few liberties with the source material — Anna Kendrick’s wonderful character, the best thing about the movie, isn’t even in the book. Now that’s an adaptation!


1. (500) Days Of Summer – Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
2. Broken Embraces – Pedro Almodovar
3. The Hurt Locker – Mark Boal
4. The Messenger – Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman
5. Away We Go – David Eggers & Vendela Vida

No competition here. I loved everything about (500) Days Of Summer‘s script. Everything.

A Single Man

2009 MOVIES Complete Rankings

1. A Single Man
2. (500) Days of Summer
3. Up in the Air
4. The Hurt Locker
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
6. Adventureland
7. Away We Go
8. Broken Embraces
9. The Messenger
10. Avatar
11. The Lovely Bones
12. The Girlfriend Experience
13. Inglourious Basterds
14. An Education
15. Up
16. Zombieland
17. Crazy Heart
18. In the Loop
19. The Hangover
20. Where The Wild Things Are
21. Precious
22. Nine
23. State of Play
24. Michael Jackson’s This Is It
25. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
26. District 9
27. The Road
28. The Maid
29. Two Lovers
30. Public Enemies
31. Coraline
32. I Love You, Man
33. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
34. Whip It
35. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
36. Julie & Julia
37. The Informant!
38. Humpday
39. The Proposal
40. Invictus
41. Moon
42. Monsters vs. Aliens
43. Sunshine Cleaning
44. The Last Station
45. The Blind Sid
46. New York, I Love You
47. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
48. The Box
49. Star Trek
50. He’s Just Not That Into You
51. Jennifer’s Body
52. Duplicity
53. Watchmen
54. Bruno
55. The September Issue
56. The Time Traveler’s Wife
57. Confessions of a Shopaholic
58. Drag Me To Hell
59. Observe & Report
60. Taken
61. Mysteries of Pittsburgh
62. Fast and Furious
63. A Serious Man


Next time — 2008!

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