It's absolutely true that 2009 was a great year for movies, but I'm not altogether sure that 2009 was a year for great movies. The difference, some might argue, is negligible, since there probably shouldn't be any sort of division between smarter and more substantive fare and populist entertainment. In a year like, say, 2008, that might have been true, at least where its biggest blockbuster, The Dark Knight, was concerned. But in '09, it seemed like about five people saw the "serious" movies, while everyone else was watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
That said, the value of being entertained isn't necessarily less than that of being enlightened or inspired, and box office success isn't automatically antithetical to quality. (I actually kind of liked Revenge of the Fallen, after all.) Ultimately, however, making a Top Ten list for 2009 has seemed like a more ambiguously-defined process than in previous years, because I realize that many of the movies I enjoyed were not the most meaningful or deep, and ones I admired or respected were not always the ones that readily thrilled or excited. As such, here's a list of my top ten favorite films of the year, arranged in deliberate but basically arbitrary order. By all means discuss, debate, and disagree, but I'd love it if I could get folks to see even one or two of these that they haven't already, even if it's to fortify their arguments why I'm wrong.
10. Funny People – After two successful, straightforward comedies, writer-director Judd Apatow ventures into more serious territory with this story of a miserably successful comedian coming to terms with not dying of a supposedly terminal disease. Adam Sandler plays the perfect, superficially self-analytical asshole to Seth Rogen's fanboy who finds himself in the shadow of his idol, and while Apatow languishes in character detail that would otherwise threaten to derail a lesser filmmaker's narrative, he pulls the whole thing together with an ending that feels unconventional but is nevertheless fully satisfying.
9. District 9 – Neill Blomkamp's directorial debut effectively resuscitates thinking man's science fiction for mainstream audiences (like Duncan Jones' Moon did for indies) with this story of a low-level bureaucrat who finds himself trading spaces with an alien race he intends to single-handedly relocate. Blomkamp's deliberately scruffy filmmaking gives the film a tense, palpable energy and an authenticity that the locked-off effects shots of other films lack, while first-time leading man Sharlto Copley improvises his way through a physical and emotional transformation that is as evocative as it is exciting.
8. House of the Devil – Ti West pays homage to late 1970s and early '80s horror with this riveting, atmospheric tale of a babysitter stranded in a house that may or may not be otherwise inhabited. Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, the film's thoughtful, imperiled heroine, lending believability to her increasing panic, while West's attention to detail creates not only an authentic sense of period, but a compelling and relatable naturalism, as well as a sense of dread that lingers long after the final credits roll.
7. Bronson – Nicolas Winding Refn turns a biopic about Britain's most violent criminal into a brilliant character study. Refn's visual and storytelling flourishes recall vintage Kubrick (thanks in no small part to a soundtrack loaded with classical music and cinematography by Eyes Wide Shut lighting cameraman Larry Smith), while Tom Hardy's galvanizing performance in the title role transforms previous associations with Star Trek: Nemesis into little more than speedbumps en route to overdue stardom.
6. Up – Pete Docter turns an octogenarian and a city-slicker wilderness scout into an action hero and his unseemly sidekick in this exhilarating, powerful animated odyssey. The silent first 15 minutes are as emotionally involving as any single film released this year, but it's the densely-seeded details which reflect and expand upon the characterizations and the superficial story beats to make Carl's search for lifelong fulfillment – and Russell's for a family - something truly special, resonant, and lasting.
5. The Messenger – Oren Moverman puts together the second great apolitical Iraq war movie of 2009 with a portrait of two men taking on one of the military's most thankless jobs. The often-idiosyncratic Ben Foster dials into his character's tormented soul and finds a fractured heart in desperate need of repair, while Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton give the story gravitas as (respectively) a superior but no less sensitive officer, and a widow whose efforts to come to terms with her husband's death offer Foster's character a chance at his own redemption.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox – Wes Anderson offers a throwback take on stop-motion animation with his adaptation of Roald Dahl's story of the same name. George Clooney gives a great performance as the title character, a classic chicken-hunter whose grandiosity gets his entire community in trouble, while Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Eric Anderson and Wally Wolodarsky show him that being yourself need not come at the cost of everyone else.
3. Crazy Heart – First-time writer-director Scott Cooper crafts a modest country-music celebration and a captivating character study with this tale of an aging singer trying not to be consumed by the life that made his art so memorable. Jeff Bridges has seldom been better than he is here, fearlessly playing a bloated, washed-up alcoholic deceiving himself about the sad truth of his empty existence, while Maggie Gyllenhaal offers a shot at redemption that ultimately only proves meaningful when it costs him some of the things that are most valuable to him. Oh yeah, and the music's amazing too.
2. The Hurt Locker – Katherine Bigelow offers the first great war film that takes place in Iraq with this riveting portrait of a team of bomb specialists who almost literally have to have a death wish in order to do what they do. As written by Mark Boal, the film follows a Staff Sergeant named William James who ventures readily into one life-threatening situation after another; but rather than reducing his duties to the physical extension of some political philosophy, or simply chronicling a series of wartime events, Bigelow gets inside the head of her main character, creating a vivid, emotionally overpowering portrait not only of the tasks our soldiers are asked to take on, but the toll they exert – indeed, even the exhilaration they offer – once that same soldier is returned to a life of normalcy.
1. Inglourious Basterds – No film has appreciated in entertainment, much less intellectual and artistic value since its release than Tarantino's revisionist-history opus about a series of half-assed plans to kill Hitler that turn into a full-assed, almost comically-disastrous slaughter. The fact that Tarantino makes the film's Nazi protagonist a fascinating, fearsome and yet almost likeable fellow isn't what makes the film such a riot; rather, it's that he takes his typical pop-culture pastiche and transforms it into WWII wish fulfillment. Most miraculously, the film accomplishes this ambitious task without moralizing about the virtue or value of human life, and yet maintains an elegant, effective balance between abject escapism and a substantive existential examination of the nature of identity.
Honorable mention: Zombieland, Where the Wild Things Are, Paranormal Activity, The Cove, Away We Go, Star Trek, Drag Me to Hell, Watchmen