10) District 9 – This alien tale was an excellent allegory for apartheid in South Africa, and it also managed to create an alien race in which we could sympathize. Sharlto Copley plays Wikus Van De Merwe (say that three times fast), a goofball in charge of relocating the aliens, who have fallen out of favor with their human neighbors in South Africa, to what amounts to a concentration camp. Only when he comes into contact with a substance that makes him transform into one of the “prawns,” does he understand their side. This is a nice introduction of the world to director Neil Blomkamp, a Peter Jackson disciple.
9) Public Enemies – Though it has a tough time getting started, Michael Mann’s gangster story about the heyday of folk hero bank robber John Dillinger and the parallel forming of the FBI by J. Edgar Hoover really picks up steam and turns into one of the better gangster pictures of the last decade. Depp eases into the suave role as Dillinger, and is a perfect match with the lovely Marion Cotillard. And Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the FBI’s golden boy, the trio of leads meshes together to perfection. Not to mention the look of Mann’s deep focus lens (though it takes some time to adjust), and the costume and set design are all Oscar worthy.
8) The Hangover – So what if it’s not going to win any awards. So what if it’s goofy, crass, and insane. The Hangover is far and away the funniest movie of the year, and perhaps the funniest flick of the last three or so years. And, despite it’s over the top hilarity, a film about three friends who try and figure out what happened the night before, in a way, ties in to the current state of this country, where hedonism spells disaster the morning after. It also introduced the masses to Zack Galifianakis, the bearded genius with all of the best lines.
7) Precious – As the subtitle would tell you, Precious is a film based on the novel Push by Sapphire, about a morbidly obese black teen, pregnant for the second time by her own father, living in the hood, repeating eighth grade again, and saddled with an abusive mother played by, of all people, Mo’Nique. But somehow director Lee Daniels does not weigh us down with melodrama and sadness, mainly by allowing us to see the imagination of young Precious, played serenely by Gabourey Sidibe, take her away from this hell in which she lives. And credit Mariah Carey, playing a guidance counselor, for stripping away her makeup to find a real actress living under it all.
6) Where the Wild Things Are – Spike Jonze daring, touching adaptation of the lauded children’s novel is somewhat of a polarizing film for people. There are those who love it, and those who hate it. I think it’s a beautiful examination into the imagination and the troubles and confusion of a young child who is unable to express himself in the real world. And all of the Wild Things, voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, and Lauren Ambrose, are a marvel to see. But none of it would work without a bravo performance from young Max Records, the focal point of the story. Max is simply marvelous.
5) Star Trek – J.J. Abrams is quickly becoming the Midas of Hollywood, somehow managing to make Tom Cruise tolerable in Mission: Impossible III, and somehow turning a dying franchise on its head, making it marketable to the masses, and still keeping that Trekkie cred with the majority of fanboys. The casting of Chris Pine as the cocky James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto as the cerebral Mr. Spock were both spot on, and the rounding out of the central crew of the S.S. Enterprise near perfect. On top of the casting, the energy, the humor, and the action help to kickstart the Star Trek world and make it an adventure worth taking. Let’s hope the next time around the crew takes on the Klingons.
4) Up – Who could ever imagine that a story about losing the one you love, about growing old and lonely, only to find that you do have a heart when it counts, would be the storyline for Pixar’s summer release? That is the case, and Up is hands down Pixar’s finest animated feature to date. And that is saying a lot. Rife with gut-busting humor and teeming with soul and emotion, Up is a game changer, an animated film that, on the surface, is for children, but at its core is a film for everyone. Not to mention that the look of the animation is second to none.
3) The Hurt Locker – Every major American conflict has had its moment in Hollywood. Vietnam and World War II have countless films that speak to their generation, as well as the general public, regarding the horrors and the trials and tribulations of war. For a few years now, people have been trying to put a cinematic face on the war in Iraq, but to little or no lasting effect. But this year, director Kathryn Bigelow put herself on the short list for Best Director with The Hurt Locker, a dynamite film about a bomb-disposal team in the middle of the Iraq conflict. Jeremy Renner plays the head of the unit, and he is an adrenaline junkie who happens to be a magician with diffusing explosives. From top to bottom, this tense, revealing look at the conflict in the Middle East is flat out astounding.
2) Up in the Air – Jason Reitman’s new dramedy is the penultimate film of our time, a representation of 2009 like no other. With George Clooney playing a man who relishes having no ties in life while traveling the country firing people for large corporations, the themes and the situations here speak to our national frame of mind. It also happens to be a film about great realizations, none more than realizing that Vera Farmiga, playing Clooney’s love interest, is a fine actress. Farmiga delivers a breakout performance here, and is a perfect match for Clooney. Up in the Air is one of the finest of the year, and subsequently one of the more important films of the entire decade.
1) Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino could have, like M. Night Shyamalan, become a slave to his own devices, being overwhelmed by trying to deliver a certain type of edgy, witty film that falls under a certain label. Instead, he continues to reinvent himself, this time around creating perhaps his best film. This World War II fantasy epic is like no other film I have ever seen, despite the fact that it pays homage to the gritty war pictures of the 70s. Brad Pitt as the snarling country leader of the group of Nazi-killing Jewish soldiers is pitch perfect, and Christoph Waltz as the villainous Colonel Hans Landa is a shoe in for Best Supporting Actor. Rife with compelling dialogue throughout, excellent tension, a few brutally violent scenes, and some surprising humor, I.B. is head and shoulders above any other American release in 2009.
Some close calls include Avatar, a visual stunner like no other that suffers a bit from a lack of originality in the plotline, The International, an average film elevated by the performances of Clive Owen and Naomi Watts and a dynamite shootout at the Guggenheim Museum, the charming romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, and the brave attempt to adapt a tough and brilliant graphic novel, Zack Snyder's Watchmen. It should also be noted that I have yet to see Jeff Bridges' new film, Crazy Heart, which could have made it on the list...