I'm not sure it was a good movie year, but it was definitely an unusual one. We had a gourmet smorgasbord of animated films all year long, as well as a high number of excellent films directed by women. Then there were the war movies, a genre I usually can't stand for its preachy seriousness. But this year there were at least two flat-out masterpieces, not to mention the best period battle epic in decades. (Meanwhile, it seems as if the sci-fi genre has taken over for the war genre.) There was even one breathtaking example of another of my most hated genres, the costume movie. In all, it was a year to challenge the conventions, even if the conventions still continued to make the most money. But above all, 2009 was unusual...
Following is my list of ten best, in ranked order. For fun, I'm including one or two "runners-up" along with each choice, making up a kind of artistic or thematic double- or triple-feature.
(See the full list after the jump.)
1. The Hurt Locker
When I saw Kathryn Bigelow's movie last summer and decided during the end credits that I had just seen a masterpiece, I thought I had a long battle ahead of me, convincing everyone else to see it the same way. But it turns out I had no trouble at all. Just about everyone seems to love this movie; it has won most of the critics' awards and has appeared on most of the top ten lists. Now my fear is that it has been elevated too highly. No one is going to see it because it reeks of "important masterpiece" and "no fun." Not true. Above all, this is a two-fisted, gut-busting popcorn war movie of the type that Samuel Fuller and Don Siegel used to make; the message is in there, but above all it's about the action and the drama and the characters. Jeremy Renner is magnetic in the centerpiece role and deserves some notice from Oscar. (Runner-up: The Messenger)
2009 was a watershed year for animation and for 3D films, but also a great year for a new maturity in kids' films. Henry Selick's Coraline was the leader, by far, in all three categories. (Runners-up: Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox)
3. Bright Star
Jane Campion's costume movie pretty much turned me into a chick for two hours; I just swooned at this pining, doomed romance between poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). It helped that Campion's usual grace, passion and poetry were here to rip through the usual, stagnant dullness of this genre. (Runner-up: 500 Days of Summer)
4. Red Cliff
This space is reserved for the full-length cut of John Woo's masterful period battle epic (which I have yet to see), but for now the 2-1/2 hour version plays just fine. It seems to be filled mainly with big action blowouts at the expense of character, but never mind: Woo's touches are all here, including the male bonding of Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, each representing a separate army and joining forces against evil Chancellor Cao Cao (Zhang Fengyi). Among other great scenes, the one in which the new friends cleverly steal 100,000 arrows from their enemy is worthy of applause. (Runner-up: The Sun)
5. You, the Living
Made in Sweden in 2007 and receiving a tiny, tiny U.S. distribution in 2009, this super-deadpan comedy evokes David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and Buster Keaton. But it has a bittersweet tone all its own, using big, gray, blocky spaces to trap its hapless locals in dreamy, workaday oblivion. (Runner up: Lake Tahoe)
6. 35 Shots of Rum
Claire Denis returns from her recent globe-hopping to a Paris-set ensemble piece like I Can't Sleep (1994), but without the serial killer. Her new film centers on a mostly non-white community of people, some of whom are train engineers. The centerpiece relationship between father Lionel (Alex Descas) and his beautiful, grown daughter Jo (Mati Diop) is expressed visually, poetically, tenderly and without an excess of words. It's an Ozu film for the new century. (Runner-up: Treeless Mountain)
7. Drag Me to Hell
Some horror fans griped because this wasn't scary or it was too predictable; in other words, Sam Raimi was now a wealthy, mainstream sellout instead of an up-and-coming outsider, so why bother? But I love the way this moved, like dark, snaky tendrils teasing the audience, still so very excited about the physical possibilities of the medium. (Runners-up: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The House of the Devil)
8. Sita Sings the Blues
Many years ago, I watched Disney's Fantasia at my apartment with Nina Paley, a cartoonist who went on to make this astonishing animated feature, a personal essay combined with a musical, with its own Fantasia-like imagery. Indeed, in its own way, it's the equivalent of Fantasia. Now you can watch it online for free, so there's no excuse not to see it. (Runner-up: The Beaches of Agnes)
9. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino took tired, self-important "based-on-a-true-story" war movies like Defiance -- meant to honor the fallen heroes -- and flipped them upside down for this crazy "what if" war movie that is based mostly on the idea of war movies: it has a film critic and a movie theater projectionist as its heroes. During the course of its running time, it manages to be funny, shocking, hypnotic, thoughtful and flat-out astonishing. (Runner-up: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans)
Greg Mottola's summer at the job from hell could have been another one of those vulgar, yet sentimental and far too long movies from the Judd Apatow camp, but instead it came up with a portrait so vivid and touching it had me re-living my own summer at the job from hell. (Runners-up: Whip It and Zombieland)
And three more runners-up -- a final triple-feature -- all animated features that my list sadly didn't have room for: Ponyo, The Princess and the Frog and Up.