Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Films of 2009

Not only do I think that 2009 was a great year for movies, but I saw more films this year than ever, seeing almost one hundred 2009 releases either in the theater, on DVD/BluRay, or on-demand through cable or Netflix. Most critics and bloggers do a "Top 10" list with "runners up," where they throw in several other good movies. I am going to stick with ten films this year, however, I will be posting a complete, ranked list of 2009 films I have seen at a later date.

I have waited until now to release my list simply because I am in a small market, and do not have many chances to see limited release films released during the last few months of the year. Thankfully a lot of these films are seeing quicker DVD releases, and many are available on-demand through my cable provider. However, there are still many films that I cannot see until after the new year begins, and I do not want to release an incomplete list, so I've waited until I've seen just about everything I suspect would have a chance at making my top ten.

Before I give you my list let me address an issue regarding list making, particularly related to movies. This list is subjective, but I would argue that every list is subjective, including those that try to list the most important films, or the films that are the most well made. Even consensus lists, such as IMDB's Top 250, or Rotten Tomatoes' 100 Best Films, are simply made up of a bunch of subjective rankings or votes. Everything is subjective, and I find my opinions can change with subsequent viewings or even just the passing of time. Right now, these films are my favorites of 2009, and for the reasons that they are my favorites, I consider them the best. They affected my emotions, exhilarated my senses, and challenged me intellectually more than everything else I saw. These movies simply "worked." Whatever special combination of story, acting, directing, cinematography, script, and music it takes to tickle my fancy, these did it the best. You can respect the "quality film making" of another film, but if it doesn't "work" for you, it is not "better" than a "lesser" film that you love more. I apologize for elaborating on what some may consider semantics, but this is a subject that I always find that people seem to have differing opinions on. Now you know mine!

Now, with more than enough explanation behind us, here are ten best films of 2009:

10. Crazy Heart
Sometimes all you need is a great performance, and the rest of the film seems to fall into place. Jeff Bridges delivers a performance of this caliber in this small film about an old, washed-up country star named Bad Blake, who isn't trying to find his place in life so much as trying to make it to his next drink. There is something very familiar about this story, but the performances by Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell, and Robert Duvall elevate it to something new a fresh. The wonderful, original music, composed by T-Bone Burnett, is not just icing on the cake, it's a substantial ingredient in the cake itself. This is a huge deal for me, because typically I hate country music. Although I don't think it is quite as good as last year's The Wrestler, it is similar in a few respects. First, the main character is an older guy that is hanging on by a thread, and can't seem to cope with anything in his life outside of performing. Second, it features the year's best original song, but hopefully "The Weary Kind" will win the Oscar, whereas Bruce Springsteen's "The Wrestler" wasn't even nominated. Overall, Crazy Heart has a more melancholy, but hopeful vibe than The Wrestler, and it fits the story well.

9. Sin Nombre
I saw this film early in 2009, but it has managed to stay with me. In case you missed it the first time, check out my full length review of the film. Basically this film is a gritty, violent, movie about gangsters and illegal immigrants with themes of love, loss, and redemption. If that doesn't sell you, I don't know what will.

8. The Hurt Locker
This film is probably on more "best of" lists than any other this year. More than any film in recent years, The Hurt Locker has everybody talking about it and singing its praises. I have literally not heard anyone say they didn't like this film. Gladly, it lives up to the hype, even on repeat viewings. Watch for it to take home several Oscars on March 7, and check out my review in the mean time.

7. Moon

This is one of the movies I'm most passionate about this year because it is far too under seen. Not only that, but Sam Rockwell delivers one of the best performances of the year, and it is a huge mistake that he is not nominated for an Oscar. Again, not enough people saw it. In addition to the performance(s), the special effects are pretty awesome for the budget, in fact, I think Moon did more with its $5 million than District 9 did with its $30 million. It's on BluRay and DVD now, so check it out now. To read me gush over this film some more, check out my review from earlier this year.

6. Gomorrah

Speaking of foreign films I saw early in the year, I saw Gomorrah all the way back in April and it continues to demand my thoughts, even though I haven't re-watched it since. This is essentially Goodfellas, but stripped of all the romanticism of mob life. The fact that it is so closely based on reality is even more disturbing and captivating. It was released recently on Criterion BluRay and is available on Netflix Watch Instantly. Obviously I highly recommend it, and also recommend you read my review after seeing the film and let me know if you agree or disagree.

5. An Education
Just a word of warning going forward. The four movies I've place 2 - 5 could almost be interchangeable, I love them all so much. I want to emphasize this, because I wish I could stress more how good this film is in order to get people to go see it! Like Moon, not enough people have indulged themselves with this delightful film that only gets better with subsequent viewings. Carey Mulligan plays a young school girl, named Jenny, in her last year of secondary school in 1960's London. Walking home from school in the rain one day, she's confronted by an older man who claims he's worried about the state of her cello. One thing leads to another, and... well I don't want to discuss the story further, because it deserves to be seen with a blank slate, but what we end up with is a smart, witty, very funny, extremely well acted piece of cinema. The performance from Carey Mulligan is the best from a female lead in 2009, while Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina both deserve supporting nominations more than Matt Damon. I think more than anything, I ended up really care about these characters, especially Jenny, and the choices she makes. The film can serve as a character study for any one of the main characters, but also comments on society and the social norms of the period, some of which linger still today. For all of these reasons, and some that I'm sure I missed, do yourself a favor and see An Education.

4. Up in the Air
Let me begin by saying that I am a huge fan of Jason Reitman. Thank You for Smoking is still probably my favorite of his three directorial efforts, although Up in the Air is right there as well, and even though I wasn't as in love with Juno as a lot of people were, I recognize that his direction is what made that movie work so well, in spite of Diablo Cody's terrible dialogue. He claims that Up in the Air is his most personal film yet, and you can feel it in his characters, and in the minute details of air travel that are so important to the mechanics of this movie. Of course this isn't just about a traveling business man who fires people for a living, it's about a lot of things, not the least of which is our connections to those we love, both romantic and platonic. With such broad themes you might think that it would be generic or blase, but it avoids that by building very specific characters, and giving them amazing conversations to have with each other. The dialogue is so quick and funny, that at first you might mistake it for a well made romantic comedy from another era. He tops it off by making this a film very specific to our time, but including interviews with real people who have been laid off during this huge recession we've had the past couple of years. The way it's employed is not manipulative, but rather useful, like a tool to help drive home the other themes I already mentioned. Again, you won't find much discussion of plot with this film, as I'm trying to keep these spoiler free, but I'd love to discuss the details of the film with anyone who has seen it. Just leave a comment on this blog post.

3. Up
As with several others on this list, I did write a review for Up earlier in the year. Please check that out for more in depth thoughts. All I'll say here is that I saw this movie twice in theaters, and twice on BluRay, and it moves me every time. The story of Carl and Ellie's love and how Carl learns to live and love again, albeit in a different way, is so profoundly conveyed that it is truly a marvel that it is an animated film. The human emotions so eloquently portrayed by a cartoon with a huge square head. I love it. This is probably my favorite Pixar film now, although they are all so good. I'm not sure if I mentioned it before, but the score is fantastic and will hopefully win an Oscar.

2. A Serious Man
This latest film from the brothers Coen is a Jewish fable or parable set in 1960's suburbia, around the same time and place the Coens actually grew up, in Minnesota. Some compare the story to Job, mainly because the main character, Larry Gopnik, is plagued from the outset with trial after trial, and seemingly for no apparent reason. Larry searches for answers from various Rabbi, and is constantly thwarted from discovering what God wants from him. Why is God punishing him? Unlike Job, I don't think Larry is a man of utmost righteousness, but he isn't the most sinful man in the world either. We are given no cause to justify the affects that Larry is experiencing. This film is very Jewish, and there is so much Yiddish terminology that a goy like myself almost didn't stand a chance. Of all of the films on my list, this more than any needs to be seen more than once. It really benefits from having been through it once, and having the chance to really zone in on each scene with the benefit of hindsight. A Serious Man is similar in tone to the Coens more existential works, such as Barton Fink or The Man Who Wasn't There, with dark comic overtones and many intersecting themes. Some people think the Coens enjoy torturing their characters, and if anything, this film solidifies that argument. However, I think this movie is about so much, and whether its Murphy's law, the uncertainty principal, or the mysteries of God himself, it can be little tricky to put your finger on it exactly. Either way, it's an incredibly entertaining and stimulating experience, and one that no cinefile should miss.

1. Inglourious Basterds
I'm sure for most of you reading this, this pick came as no surprise. There is probably not much more I can say here, that I didn't already say in my review. I anticipated this film more than any other that I can remember, and it delivered on every level. I saw it three times in the theater and again on BluRay, and it gets better each time. Although I am a self proclaimed Tarantino fan boy, that is not the reason this is my number one film of 2009. Grindhouse was not my number one of 2007. No, Inglourious Basterds is a work that stands on its own, albeit from a true master, and deserves every accolade it's given, and more.