For the longest time it seemed like 2009 would be a truly dreadful year in film, perhaps as a consequence of the writers’ strike last year. By the end of it I felt like we’d had a pretty good run, once the summer was over. The early months were a desert with only Coraline making a dent in my memory, but by the time December rolled around with the release of Avatar, it felt like a more rounded experience. Even better, though we had a few horribly delayed releases (such as Up, which was disgracefully held back from UK release for six months), there are only a few movies that have yet to be released over here that have attracted our attention, and even then we’re not that bothered. The most frustrating omissions were our own fault. Jane Campion’s Bright Star came and went so quickly we missed out on seeing it, as did Lone Scherfig’s An Education. Sherlock Holmes came out this week but illness and schedule clashes mean we will be seeing it in 2010. It’s frustrating, but compared to last year’s maddening delays in seeing Rachel Getting Married and Synecdoche, New York, it’s nowhere near as bad.
So anyway, here are my top 25 movies of 2009, in order. Hopefully soon I will get to post my bottom 25. It was depressingly easy to complete that list.
Best Movies of the Year:
Greg Mottola’s coming-of-age story is good enough to make me forgive it for being a coming-of-age story (a sub-genre I have little time for). Sensitive performances and a perfectly judged tone set it apart, and I expect second and third viewings will cement it as a favourite in the future.
24. A Christmas Carol
Though Charles Dickens’ novel suffers from being adapted too many times, this version was loyal enough to the source material to stand above the rest. Robert Zemeckis cleverly used his performance capture technology to create a world that looks like a living painting, and — for the most part — his thoughtful direction and stately command of pace are refreshingly old-fashioned.
23. Red Cliff: Part Two
A crushing disappointment after the genius of the first installment, John Woo’s epic finale to the Three Kingdoms story was hobbled by tedious subplots about the horrors of war, as well as an unsatisfying final confrontation with evil Prime Minister Cao Cao. Still, there were enough superb moments to save it, including an enormous conflagration, hardcore badassery from the heroes, and entertaining cunning from Zhuge Liang.
22. White Material
Working as a comment on racial identity, colonialism, and the guilt that attends it, Claire Denis’ movie is a fascinating and thought-provoking experience. It also serves as a fantastic thriller, with its air of imminent collapse building to a nerve-wracking conclusion. Isabelle Huppert is mesmerising as the plantation owner who dooms all around her with her arrogance.
While vampires became a singularly obnoxious cinematic plague, zombies went from flavour-of-the-month to pariahs. Nevertheless, Ruben Fleischer’s apocalyptic comedy was a delightful surprise, perfectly cast and thoroughly entertaining. It also featured the cameo appearance of the year, and one best left unspoiled.
20. The Brothers Bloom
For a few minutes Rian Johnson’s con-trick drama seems like a precious and finicky conglomeration of obnoxious post-Anderson tricks and tics, but thankfully it becomes a warm and humane antidote to David Mamet’s cerebral dominance of the sub-genre. The key to its appeal is an endearing central performance from Rachel Weisz, whose enthusiastic embrace of the brothers’ tricksiness grounds the film even while the plot spirals off in unexpected directions and Johnson’s camera flies around with such exuberant unpredictability. Despite faltering slightly in the final act, its ambition and seriousness of purpose were a resounding success.
19. A Serious Man
The Coens excel at taking on unorthodox projects and surprising their fans, but they also rely on a set of narrative tricks that repeat from movie to movie. A Serious Man was no different, with their familiar exploration of our cosmic insignificance coming into play again. Nevertheless, here their tricks felt fresh again, matched as they were to a plot revolving around morality and heavenly punishment. Casting unknown actors was possibly the masterstroke: it certainly made the movie feel like nothing else out there. It ranks as their most entertaining and most challenging film since The Big Lebowski.
18. Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea
Remarkable to think that Hayao Miyazaki is capable of making movies even lighter and more whimsical than anything he has previously offered us. At times Ponyo can feel too fluffy, and longueurs plague the second half of the film, but these minor errors are easily forgiven in the rush of incredible images. Ponyo’s mid-movie escape from the clutches of her misguided father is among the most visionary and exhilarating setpieces of recent times, aided by the Wagnerian stings of Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful score.
Henry Selick’s stunning adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book is a feast for the eyes, as technically impressive as anything committed to film this year by Digital Domain, ILM or BUF. It’s also one of the scariest films of the year, one of those rare childrens’ movies that is unafraid to terrify its audience. Some of the imagery lingers in the memory with the upsetting persistence of the worst nightmares. Also great was the delicate use of Digital 3D. In the year of Avatar, it’s worth remembering that Selick and his team figured out how to use the technology to subtly enhance the viewing experience before anyone else.
16. The Hurt Locker
By the midpoint of 2009, it honestly felt as if the writers’ strike of 2008 had left us in the middle of a drought. Nothing truly exceptional had been released, and so when Kathryn Bigelow’s superb war thriller came out it was leapt upon as if it were a fusion of Paths of Glory and Apocalypse Now. Third act problems drain some of the energy from it, but even so, no other movie about the Iraq war has done so much to capture the futile stupidity of it, nor made such a pointed comment about the deranging effect it has had on our psyche. That it is also a nerve-wracking thriller is a welcome bonus.
15. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Expectations for Werner Herzog’s crime thriller were low, with only those few of us who revel in the unpredictability of Nicolas Cage holding out any hope. Thankfully Herzog surprised everyone with this demented triumph. Though it could have been turned into a conventional tale of depravity and redemption, Herzog, Cage, and writer William Finkelstein have little interest in following a traditional path, sketching all kinds of entertaining madness in the margins. It helps that Cage was let off the leash. His intense level of commitment to the project is the key to Bad Lieutenant: POCNO‘s success. Welcome back, you mad bastard.
14. Drag Me To Hell
While Sam Raimi’s gleeful homage to EC Comics-style moralising concerned one young woman’s efforts to avoid being sent to hell, this felt like Raimi had escaped from the kind of big-budget purgatory that he had once railed against. Though still obviously made with more money than he had once had at his disposal, Drag Me To Hell was a return to Raimi’s anything-goes ethos. No other movie made this year tried so hard to generate a response in the audience, and it was almost entirely successful. A regression for the genre, maybe, but an incredibly entertaining one.
13. Where The Wild Things Are
It looked like we would never get to see Spike Jonze’s unconventional adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book. When it finally arrived, critical and popular opinion seemed to split right down the middle. Post-release discussion seemed to focus on subjective accounts of how the movie resurrected very specific memories of childhood, with those who were unmoved by the movie stating that it just didn’t speak to them personally. The vision of Jonze and Dave Eggers is certainly gloomy, repetitive, unfocused and pretty unappealing, but I cannot lie: early scenes brought back horrible memories from my youth, and the unflinching depiction of Max’s confused rage rocked me to my core.
12. District 9
Viewed as an allegory about apartheid-era South Africa, Neill Blomkamp’s low-budget SF action film gets tangled up in clumsy metaphorical dead-ends and ill-judged racial stereotyping that blunts the message. Seen as a misanthropic denunciation of venality across all races and species, it becomes far more palatable. Blomkamp’s exciting and imaginative tale takes the audience down unexpected paths, skillfully building to a finale of surprising emotional resonance. I won’t lie: the final sacrifice of one character made me sob.
11. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs
The most pleasant surprise of 2009. Clone High creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller did the same as Spike Jonze — take a beloved but slight children’s book and adapt it into a new format with a drastic change of tone — but veered off in a different direction. Perhaps Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs accomplished less than Where The Wild Things Are in terms of illuminating the mental turmoil of childhood, but while it “merely” sets out to entertain, it did that with amazing success. Gleefully irreverent, pro-nerd, and willing to poke fun at every awful convention of lazy cookie-cutter filmmaking, it is also arguably the funniest comedy of the year.
It’s tempting to leave Up off the list as punishment for manipulating adult audiences into crying miserable tears of mourning for an adorable animated couple and, by extension, ourselves. Nothing else this year moved us as much as that magnificently rendered and utterly devastating opening montage. The level of storytelling talent on display was humbling. The rest of the movie was wonderful too, building on that resonant set-up to deliver a winning adventure, featuring the funniest animal characters of the year. An emotionally exhausting film, but a life-affirming one.
9. Fish Tank
Avoiding the tawdry cultural voyeurism of the works of overrated ghouls such as Mike Leigh or Lee Daniels is the least of Fish Tank‘s many achievements, though one we can be most grateful for. It is also a compelling exploration of youth culture as seen through the eyes of a confused child on the cusp of adulthood. Katie Jarvis’ Mia is a fascinating and sympathetic character, aware that she is trapped in a life that offers her nothing, but eager to escape with her dignity intact. Unfortunately, she’s incapable of avoiding making some terrible mistakes along the way. It also has the grip of a thriller, cleverly changing tone in the final act without sacrificing believability. Yet another classic from Andrea Arnold.
8. Public Enemies
It’s possible to reduce Michael Mann’s adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s exploration of the 1930′s crimewave to just a period retelling of Heat, with Johnny Depp’s Dillinger and Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis as dapper versions of McCauley and Hanna, but that would miss out on his deft commentary on the narcissism of these criminals and how new technologies increased popular fascination with the outlaw. Mann marks the moment where demand for titillation grew to the extent that public attention began to fuel the events that it demanded, and this fine, exciting crime thriller ends on a memorable moment where popular culture begins to eat itself.
Lars Von Trier has finally appeared to let his obnoxious mask of superiority drop long enough to tell a tale informed by his recent nervous breakdown, and the result is one of the most affecting and disturbing horror films of recent times. Conjuring an atmosphere of dread even more upsetting than anything that master of mood Hideo Nakata could create, Von Trier pits man against woman, and humanity against nature. No one wins, except anyone brave enough to endure this remarkable and starkly beautiful nightmare vision of a world — and a grief-stricken mother — gone mad.
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
How bold of Wes Anderson to take the work of a respected author and bolt his own style of preppy, fussy humour onto it, and your acceptance of this depends fully on your acceptance of his shtick. To those of us in love with that viewpoint — and that obsessive attention to amusing detail — Fantastic Mr. Fox was yet another success, playing with the same themes of redemption and forgiveness as his previous movies while being just as sassy and fleet-of-foot as his non-animated work. It also works as a satire on the habitual anthropomorphism of the usual animated fare, with these characters being both more human and more bestial than anything populating the movies of Disney and Dreamworks.
5. A Prophet
No matter how much Jacques Audiard maintains he was not making a political statement with this movie, his rousing prison thriller proved to be as multi-layered as the best crime movies of recent times. Malik El Djebena’s growth from callow youth to crime kingpin is fascinating and weirdly inspirational, while the world he lives in is filled with detail about identity politics, French correctional failings, and racial tensions in Europe. It’s also nail-biting, beautifully judged, and performed to perfection.
While armchair critics fall over themselves to dismiss this movie for being too predictable – a criticism that is being applied with more force than with any other movie released this year – the story is told with enough energy to forgive its clunkiness. James Cameron has always been a master with pace, and here he succeeds in manipulating the audience with a magician’s touch, delivering a groundbreaking visual tour de force into the bargain. Viewing it in Digital 3D IMAX is an unforgettable and thrilling experience.
3. Enter The Void
What James Cameron aimed to do in 3D, Gaspar Noé managed in 2D just months before. His tale of one man’s journey through death is the joint most immersive movie experience of the year, a terrifying and exhilarating cinematic experiment of enormous emotional power, and a technical marvel to boot. Any reservations about its pacing problems are swept away as Noé brings an obsessive rigour to his visual template: a first-person viewpoint that doesn’t falter at any point. That this brave experiment still has no distributor is criminal. If it ever becomes the Midnight Movie phenomenon it deserves to be, make every effort to see it on the biggest screen possible.
2. In The Loop
Armando Iannucci and the Thick of It gang brought their wonderful TV show to the big screen in style, expanding its scope to include the bureaucrats and fools of America, complete with the same venality, paranoia, and incompetence. Funnier even than the original series, it was also densely plotted but lighter than air: a feat of screenwriting to match that of Martin McDonagh with In Bruges last year. None of that would matter if the new cast members were not as talented as the original crew, but the US contingent adapts to the semi-improvisational style with aplomb. A triumph that rewards repeated viewings.
1. Inglourious Basterds
More than any other movie made this year, Inglourious Basterds surprised us all with its piercing intelligence, seriousness of purpose, and deft gameplaying, all of which are applied to an emotionally complex revenge plot that confounds the viewer at every turn. Much has been made of Tarantino’s effort to make a movie in which cinema has the last laugh and reality is forced to bow to its power, but less has been said about his continued facility with character. To the immaculate roll-call that includes Jules Winnfield, Vincent Vega, Jackie Brown, Mr. White, The Bride and Stuntman Mike can be added Shosanna Dreyfus and Hans Landa, the most compelling and haunting characters of the year. Tarantino has every right to be proud of this movie: it is, quite simply, his masterpiece.
Best Documentary: Soul Power
Considered as a sister project to Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte’s documentary about the music festival that ran alongside the Rumble in the Jungle offers up yet more fascinating footage of Muhammad Ali in his prime, sparring with mouthy opportunists and talking about the potential impact of the forthcoming event. It also shows how the festival almost sinks under a tide of ego and bureaucracy. The worst thing that can be said about the movie is that it doesn’t show enough of the festival itself, but even then you still get to see thrilling performances by The Spinners, BB King, Miriam Makeba, and James Brown at the height of his powers. Stingy though the amount of concert footage is, it’s still some of the best music you will ever hear.
Most Embarrassing Admission of the Year: Okay, Soul Power was actually the only documentary I saw this year. Nevertheless, don’t let that put you off seeing it. Even if I’d seen a dozen documentaries this year, I doubt any of them would have been as fun or fulfilling as that one.
No time to dally with small talk: on with the listmaking! More to come when I get the time…