The Top Ten Movies of 2009

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I start, as I always do, by flagging the handful of critically acclaimed movies that are notably absent from my list below.  Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, which graphically depicts the mental, physical and sexual torture of an overweight Harlem teen at the hands of her monstrous Pepsi-guzzling “mother,” is far too repugnant in far too many ways to recommend.  Where the Wild Things Are, a dark but far tamer film about the turmoil of childhood, takes a more fantastical approach, but makes the fatal mistake of assuming that a little boy playing make-believe with his imaginary friends—rejects from H.R. Pufnstuf—can sustain a ninety-minute film.  Another movie that failed to hold my interest, the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, purportedly based on The Book of Job, celebrates quirky characters in a stylish but meandering story.  Other critical darlings that fell flat in my book include Gomorrah, Goodbye Solo, The Last Station, Nine, Paris, Summer Hours and The White Ribbon.

In the category of movies-I-admired-that-just-missed-the-cut I would include District 9, which attempts to tell a socially relevant story about alien creatures stranded in South Africa.  The documentary-style format and some farfetched plot elements, however (fuel that transforms humans into aliens? really?), kept me from being as engaged as I would have liked.  Also, I was of two minds about Julie and Julia.  The Julia component (with Meryl Streep) provides topnotch entertainment but gets dragged down a bit by the Julie parts (with Amy Adams), which are commercial fluff as airy as a freshly baked croissant.  Finally, A Single Man tells a moving story of a repressed gay professor in the early 1960’s (Colin Firth) but just fell short of my list because of its too-ironic ending.  (I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to laugh).

The following movies were my favorites of 2009:

10.  Zombieland.  A dork (Jesse Eisenberg channeling Teen Woody Allen) teams up with a badass (Woody Harrelson channeling Chuck Norris) and sets off on a roadtrip to a west coast amusement park with a pair of con artist sisters (Abigail Breslin and Emma Stone) in this hilarious post-apocalyptic zombie comedy.  A mashup of belly laughs and gore, it tackles important questions such as: how difficult is the dating scene in a world overrun by the walking dead? And will the Jesse Eisenberg character live long enough to lose his virginity?  Along the way they encounter the last living celebrity in the year’s funniest cameo.

9.  The Messenger. Ben Foster plays an emotionally detached and wounded soldier and Woody Harrelson (again!) is his brash superior officer, a recovering alcoholic, both of whom are assigned to notification detail—advising next of kin of the death of their loved ones in Iraq or Afghanistan.  This heart-rending indie gem explores grief from an entirely original perspective—the point of view of the bearers of bad news—and features the year’s best ensemble acting.  Foster and Harrelson are both Oscar-worthy as is Samantha Morton as a soft-spoken widow with whom the Foster character – in violation of all the rules and protocols — forms a bond.

8.  The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow’s electric war drama explores the hearts and minds of an elite squad tasked with defusing bombs on the streets of Iraq.  The handheld camera shots and the soldiers’ constant interaction with locals – who may or may not be hostile – create edge-of-your-seat suspense.  Jeremy Renner steals the show as the latest addition to the squad, a reckless risk-addict who endangers them all.

7.  Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges gives the performance of a lifetime as a washed up, alcoholic country singer who falls in love with a reporter and single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) writing about his turbulent career.  Colin Farrell is surprisingly effective in a minor role as the talented protégé who has eclipsed his mentor’s fame.  The terrific country music and Bridges’ stellar performance make this an absorbing and superior character portrait.

6. An Education.  Carey Mulligan, in a starmaking performance, plays a whip-smart 16-year-old student on track for Oxford in this charming coming-of-age story.  When a sophisticated suitor (Peter Sarsgaard) exposes her to an alluring world beyond her textbooks, he offers her a different type of education in life and love.  Mulligan’s enchanting performance is sure to garner an Oscar nod.

5.  Inglourious Basterds. A strike force of Jewish assassins sets off to battle the Nazis in Quentin Tarantino’s riveting alternate-reality revenge flick.  In vintage Tarantino style, the dialogue crackles and the film’s interrelated vignettes climax in an explosive, Fuhrer-bashing finale.  Christoph Waltz deserves special kudos for the most menacing performance of the year as a charming, multilingual, killer Nazi.

4. Up. In this uplifting tale about beginning life anew, a curmudgeonly widower (voiced by Ed Asner) attaches helium balloons to his house and sets off on a quest to Paradise Falls in South America, the exotic destination he and his late wife had always dreamed of visiting.  His plans are complicated when he discovers an eight-year-old Cub Scout stowaway.  Another Pixar classic in the tradition of Toy Story and WALL-E, it departs from familiar formulas – the hero and villain are septuagenarians and the love story is between a man and his deceased spouse – but still delivers adventure aplenty, including lost explorers, talking dogs, exotic birds and dirigible battles.  It also features the most poignant five minutes of any movie in 2009 in its opening montage, which chronicles the protagonist’s relationship with his wife from childhood to old age.

3.   Up in the Air. George Clooney stars as a freelance hatchet man who travels the country terminating employees of the airline industry in Jason Reitman’s timely dramedy about the pain of corporate downsizing.  Clooney’s character finds his own job is at risk when a young up-and-comer (Anna Kendrick) pitches the idea of saving time and money by firing the workers via webcam.  Vera Farmiga plays Clooney’s kindred spirit, a fellow nomad racking up frequent flyer miles who makes him reassess the value of a life without meaningful emotional connections.  Smart, sad, and slick, Reitman’s film hits all the right notes and surprised me with its ending.

2.   Moon. Duncan’s Jones’s suspenseful and cerebral sci-fi indie stars Sam Rockwell in a bravura single-actor performance as a solitary worker monitoring a mining plant on the dark side of the moon.  Kevin Spacey provides the voice of his cloying companion computer.  In the final weeks of his three-year assignment and desperate to be reunited with his wife and daughter on Earth, an accident and its aftereffects spur Rockwell’s character to question not only the true purpose of his mission, but his sanity.  Smartly riffing off of—and subverting—expectations created by movies such as Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the eerie Moon explores the nature of identity in a thoughtful and original way.

1.   Star Trek. J.J. Abrams’ adrenaline-fueled re-imagining of the Star Trek franchise exploded onto the big screen in the year’s best popcorn movie, which provided the most fun I had in the theater in 2009.  By cleverly using a time travel story, the screenplay injects a breath of fresh air into the series as relationships are re-jiggered and the Enterprise squares off against a genocidal Romulan hellbent on revenge.  The breakneck pace and superb recasting would mean nothing, however, without making us care about the characters, and the film faithfully captures the brashness and swagger of James T. Kirk, the inner turmoil of half-Vulcan-half-human Spock and the loyalty (and general irascibility) of Dr. Leonard McCoy, the troika at the heart of Trek.  The story is so compelling that it’s easy to overlook – even on a fifth viewing! — some plot holes and bad science pointed out by the ever-vigilant Trekker contingency on the Internet.  Pass the popcorn; I’ll be watching this one again and again.

The five runners-up:

11.  Watchmen (visually stunning adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel, a noir whodunit set in an alternate 1985 as nuclear war looms and members of a retired superhero group are killed off one at a time); 12. Avatar (James Cameron’s revolutionary special effects film—the highest grossing movie of all time—provides the ultimate immersive 3D experience and would have ranked higher on my list had it moved beyond its Pocahontas redux plot); 13. The Hangover (a Las Vegas bachelor party gone horribly wrong provides the most raucous laughs of the year); 14.  In the Loop (a political satire that boasts the sharpest dialogue of the year, it depicts the behind-the-scenes wrangling of British and American politicians prior to a possible invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country); 15.  (500) Days of Summer (jigsaw pieces of a bittersweet romance that captures the exhilaration and heartbreak of a summer tryst).

2 responses to “The Top Ten Movies of 2009”

  1. Avi Kotzer says:

    As usual, I can’t comment on some of the movies in the list, not having seen them yet. I was particularly sad to have missed on “Inglorious Basterds” and “Moon” in the theaters. But perhaps they will be re-shown, especially if there is enough Oscar buzz surrounding them.

    I WAS surprised, though, to see Star Trek as number 1, and strongly disagree, for whatever that’s worth. There is one caveat, of course, which is that I saw the movie on an airplane, so perhaps I was not privy to the entire movie. However, I’m not even sure if it belongs in the Top 10.

    In my opinion, “Up In the Air,” is by far the best movie I saw in 2009. In fact, it’s one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. It’s so good that I think even the director does not understand the ending he filmed.

    Regarding “Avatar,” its Golden Globe award for Best Picture frightens me to death, and forecasts a grim future for moviemaking. Sure, the film is visually stunning and ambitious in scope and technology, but the story is unoriginal, clunky, deficient, and riddled with clichés and tropes. It’s good for entertainment (and keeping movie studios in business), but it should not be confused with real cinema.

    As a side note, I wanted to mention that what I liked best about “Hurt Locker” was that it covered —or rather, uncovered— something original about war, something we don’t usually see discussed. War can be as addicting as the strongest of drugs, and that addiction can be the ultimate price that a soldier pays. The addiction destroys his or her family and his friends, and ultimately consumes the person to such a degree that he/she can only “do war,” which is a profoundly sad way of destroying a human being.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Avi. We’ll have to agree to disagree on Star Trek. That’s definitely not a movie meant to be viewed on the tiny TV screen of airplanes. As for Avatar, I enjoyed it way more than you did–in spite of its too-familiar tropes. But I do believe it was a real missed opportunity to tell an original story on par with its revolutionary technology. There’s a document circulating on the Internet in which the plot of Pocahantas is summarized — except the names are crossed out and replaced by the characters’ names from Avatar. The similarities are striking. I believe that we disagree about the ending to Up in the Air, but the fact that there can be two valid interpretations is a testament to how good a movie it is.

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