The Best Films of 2009
Film article by: Witney Seibold
I saw nearly 80 new films in 2009, and, seeing as the year is out, and I have caught up with most of the so-called “prestige pictures” that studios like to throw at you, en masse, at the end of every year, it has now come for the best – and most arduous – part of a critic’s job: the year-end best-of list.
I have commented before (as have other critics) that a great film is great no matter what year it is released, and sectioning off your films by year is largely arbitrary. I am also not the only critic to observe how churlish it is to “rank” films, seeing as many cannot be compared to one another. (Also, does it really matter, once you’re past the first few films, what falls at #8 and #9? Surely that’s just splitting hairs at that point.)
But I still feel, as do many, that lists are fun. They’re the best way to encapsulate your cinematic experiences for a year, and they’re a friendly and enjoyable way to spark debate about your passions.
2009 was an eclectic year for cinema to be sure. James Cameron released what is surely going to be the highest grossing film to date with “Avatar,” while littler films like “Precious” got huge amounts of attention. Many liked the bromantic comedies released in 2009, and the year saw huge hits in films like “The Hangover” and “I Love You, Man.” The strongest turnout, in this critic humble opinion, was the surprising rise of several solid genre films, including several included on the list below.
The best film of the year, though, was a calm, painful, beautiful, contemplative, almost novelistic approach to an unsolvable mystery. I have thought more about this film than any other I’ve seen this year, and, as such, earned its number one spot.
1) The White Ribbon. German director Michael Haneke has made several painful, penetrating films in the past, and each has explored, with equal fervor, the more twisted canals of a human’s psyche. With “The White Ribbon,” Haneke has constructed a damning fable which explodes notions of groupthink, fascism, suspicion, guilt, and punishment. Some critics have aid that it may serve as a metaphor for the rise of Nazism. This is true, but it is also an intelligent look at the way people behave when wracked by an implacable fear and anger… which just may be their natural state. Haneke has proven himself one f the more important filmmakers of his generation, and has made some of the best films of the decade.
2) The Hurt Locker. And speaking of delving into uncomfortable psychological places, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut wartime drama bothers to depict not just the ultra-visceral wartime experience, but manages to dig into the psychology of the solider. At once a gripping action film, a tragic antiwar film, and a clinical study as to why men continually put themselves into dangerous places, but refreshingly free of the hang-wringing proselytizing that has come with many of the War on Terror films of the last decade.
3) Inglourious Basterds. Is Quentin Tarantino a yammering stylist? Why yes he is. Did he make a film that reaches a delirious stylish height that could, without hyperbole, be compared to Sergio Leone? Yes he did. Exciting, taut, and poetic, and hugely morally irresponsible, Tarantino’s film is a head-spinning thrill. It’s obsessed with language, the politics of death, and offers up an adolescent power fantasy that is braver than being realistic. Now all Tarantino needs to do it make his epic four-hour western, and I think he’ll have hit his stride.
4) A Serious Man. Tarantino and The Coen Bros? It’s the mid 1990s all over again. The Coens have made a small, intimate film about the passivity of one man being unfairly punished by the powers that be. A tragicomic meditation on the power of God and prayer (or the lack thereof), and a halcyon look back at the 1960s shtetls that the Coens grew up on, “A Serious Man” will make you laugh, and then punch you right in the gut.
5) Orphan. More than a guilty pleasure, Jaume Collet-Serra’s batcrap crazy evil child movie is one of the solidest and most enjoyable exploitation films to come out of Hollywood in many a year. While the filmmaking is solid, and the acting is impressive (especially from Isabelle Fuhrman, the evil child in question), what really draws me in are the HFS elements: children are put in danger, a nun is murdered, there is vaginal blood, incestuous seduction, and a twist that will leave you guffawing in incredulity. Is it awful? Yes. But, to quote critic Dave White, Awful is the New Awesome.
6) Coraline and Ponyo. Children, despite what they may say, like to be scared. And no one can make a children’s horror film like stop-motion animator Henry Selick, as proven by his slick and gorgeous “Coraline,” a beautiful fable and a terrifying journey for a plucky and bratty little girl. None of the characters are plush or pleasant, and yet the world is endlessly fascinating. Not one to necessarily blow you away, “Coraline” wormed its way into my brain, and I found myself thinking about it often. And while Selick was busy posing his dolls, master animator Hayao Miyazaki was hand-drawing a pleasant and enchanting fable of his own with “Ponyo,” a tale of a 5-year-old boy and the goldfish who turns into a girl. Sometimes baffling, but always beautiful, Miyazaki can easily blow any American animator out of the water.
7) An Education. Why become educated if the only point is to get a good job? If you get a good job, does the education matter? What if you’re presented with new life experiences that feel more important than anything you read out of stuffy old books? What if you have a sexual awakening? What could have been trite or preachy becomes a dear and intelligent look at the true nature of “an education” and growing up in Lone Scherfig’s “An Education,” the story of an exceptionally bright 16-year-old girl in 1960s London who needs to do some growing up.
8/) Adventureland. Comparable to the films of Cameron Crowe, Greg Mottola’s teen romance bothers to make its teens into fully-formed, believable characters with real-life passions, sexual frustrations, and believable dialogue. Constructed like a comedy, but an inspiring look at young romance and post-college malaise, “Adventureland” will warm you in the most pragmatic fashion.
9) Taken. Like “Orphan,” only much more morally irresponsible, just as nuts, and undeniably exciting. Liam Neeson plays an ex-spy who charges about Paris, damaging property, stealing cars, and murdering without impunity, all because his teenage daughter has been kidnapped. Reactionary, reductive, and another irresponsible adolescent power fantasy, “Taken” is the action film of the year.
10) A Single Man. Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, “A Single Man” is a heart-wrenchingly poetic meditation on loneliness and the injustice suffered by homosexuals in the 1960s. Colin Firth gives one of the best performances of the year as a closeted gay teacher whose lover has recently died in a car wreck. What happens when you love intensely, and no one listens to you? How does the color drift in and out of your life when you can think of nothing but death? What a quiet and devastatingly beautiful film.
11) Up in the Air. Called an allegory for our time (as it deals with the economic crisis head-on), but more about living in the lonely prisons we don’t know we build for ourselves, Jason Reitman’s comedic drama about a hatchet-man-for-hire (George Clooney), bears all the marks of the director’s previous films: snappy dialogue, self-empowered characters, and an emotional honesty that’s rare to find in most films. It dips dangerously close to sentimentality, but earns a spot on this list for its perfect ending. See it.
Also Worth a mention. I mentioned that 2009 was a strong year for genre films, and I must mention some of the better times I had at the movies this year. “Paranormal Activity” left me terrified, and proves that films can still be scary.
Ruben Flesicher’s “Zombieland” was that rarest of birds: a horror comedy that is both funny and horrific. Sam Raimi returns to gloriously clunky horror with his “Drag Me to Hell.” And Michael Jai White makes the savviest spoof I’ve seen in a long time with the blaxploitation homage “Black Dynamite.”
“Dead Snow” came out this year, and had Nazi zombies, Park Chan-wook made a vampire film called “Thirst,” and Jennifer Chambers Lynch showed us a bleak and violent alternate reality in the cop-themed “Rashomon” of “Surveillance.”
And what list would be complete without some of the worst films I saw?
“Royal Kill” is an incompetent, confusing, poorly executed action film that, through unfathomable reasons, managed to land itself in three theaters nationwide. I drive out to Covina to see this thing, and it hurt a lot. It was so horrendously incompetent, I recommend you see it. The story involves protecting the descendant of an ancient royal line of warriors, or something.
“The Limits of Control” was Jim Jarmusch’s chance to tell a deeply important story about… something… that no one… can really… figure… … …out. There’s a hitman in it, and a nude lady. And other stuff. And it’s weird and awful.
“Obsessed” was an all-too-tame retread of “Fatal Attraction” that could have reached the wacko heights of something like “Orphan,” but didn’t push nearly hard enough, resulting in a film that seemed largely dull and even a bit irresponsible. The catfight, though, was perfect.