Last year in this space, we proclaimed 2008 the "worst year ever," and I think that designation has held up pretty well. Comparatively, 2009 was a year of cinematic plenty, despite a lack of anything I might be tempted to call a masterpiece, inspiring my personal "Top 20" list to go 25 films deep, every one of which would have made my top dozen a year ago.
If the film story of 2008 was better-than-normal popcorn movies, 2009 was the year of animation and "kid" movies.
Half of my 10 favorites fall into one or both categories, with my colleagues' lists similarly dotted with cartoon epiphanies. Overall, there's surprising consensus here, along with personal picks, but none of us struggled to fill out a list of faves. — Chris Herrington
1. The Hurt Locker: Kathryn Bigelow's story of U.S. soldiers in Iraq could be given the Godardian title Six or Seven Things I Know About Bomb Units. Structured as a series of missions, none more or less perilous than the next, Bigelow captures the cycle of danger and excitement that informs her film's "war is a drug" theme. It works mostly because of the maturity and control Bigelow brings to the "action" set pieces, a spatial coherence that's key to the tension created and skillfully maintained for 131 minutes.
2. Where the Wild Things Are/Coraline: These are visually inventive literary adaptations about kids escaping from and returning to the family cocoon, boys' and girls' versions. Spike Jonze turns Maurice Sendak's slim kid-lit classic into an intense, dreamy, emotionally rattling depiction of childhood and brings the title characters to life with enormous visual and verbal nuance. I'm not sure I've ever seen a film with as heightened a sense of how sensitive kids think and feel. Henry Selick's stop-motion Coraline is perhaps not as gripping but has a similarly refined feel for childhood behavior and pushes its fairy-tale scenario into even more delicate, dangerous territory.
3. Goodbye Solo: This "New South" indie rewrite of the Cannes-winning Iranian film Taste of Cherry paired a charismatic Senegalese immigrant (Souléymane Sy Savané) with an aging white Southerner (Memphian Red West in a career performance) for the year's most moving and interesting on-screen partnership. With his film's feel for urban isolation and cultural assimilation, director Ramin Bahrani evokes a more sincere, less mannered Jim Jarmusch.
4. The Class/Waltz With Bashir: A weak year for foreign-language films on local screens, but these two, which made U.S. debuts in 2008 and slowly made their way here, were the best. Laurence Cantet's The Class is a doc-like feature about a French middle-school class, embedding its camera in the middle of the volatile action. Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir is an animated, nonfiction fever dream built on first-person stories from Israeli soldiers who fought in the 1982 Lebanon war.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson's stop-motion animation take on the Roald Dahl children's book explodes with visual and verbal wit and infuses the inherited characters with a yearning, aspirational spirit. The result is the snazzy, emotionally serious rebirth of a directorial style that had been threatening self-parody.
6. A Serious Man: Set in a predominantly Jewish Minnesota suburb circa 1967, A Serious Man might be the first Coen Brothers film inspired more by real life than by a (mis)reading of cinematic or literary source material. A smirking black comedy like all the rest, and with some overripe characterizations, but the Coen Brothers know and feel this world, their plotting is virtuosic, and their bemused skepticism about religion is serious indeed.
7. Gran Torino/Up: The stories of gruff widowers who strike up reluctant friendships with younger neighbors, the link between these films has been cleverly captured by a YouTube trailer mash-up. Gran Torino finds director Clint Eastwood killing off icon Clint Eastwood in style. Up ultimately succumbs to the standard Pixar problem — settling for relatively mundane action sequences in the final stretch. But the opening section, capped by a melancholy five-minute montage about the life of a marriage, might be the year's most intense and beautiful filmmaking.
8. Adventureland/An Education: Coming-of-age stories: one male, one female; one post-collegiate, one pre-collegiate. Greg Mottola's '80s-set Adventureland was the year's biggest sleeper, a deftly conceived period romance about driving around late at night with your would-be dream girl while listening to Hüsker Dü cassettes. Set in pre-swinging London, An Education wasn't flawless, but lead Carey Mulligan sure was. Every good thing you've heard about this performance-of-the-year is true.
9. Let the Right One In/Drag Me to Hell: The year's two best horror films were neither as gory as the contemporary norm nor all that frightening. The Swedish Let the Right One In is a vampire procedural suffused with adolescent melancholy. With Drag Me to Hell, director Sam Raimi sets the Spider-Man franchise aside for something far better: a witty, merciless black comedy about a young career woman cursed.
10. Inglourious Basterds: Better moment by moment than in toto, Quentin Tarantino's nervy, unwieldy WWII epic contains some of the year's best scenes (the long opener at a dairy farm in Nazi-occupied France) and performances (Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent).
Honorable Mentions: Alexander the Last, Wendy and Lucy, Hump Day, Red Cliff, Bright Star, Up in the Air, Avatar, Hunger, The Informant!, Food, Inc.
1. Where the Wild Things Are: A landmark achievement in children's cinema, adaptation screenwriting, and technical filmmaking, Where the Wild Things Are is the best movie of the year and one of the best of the decade. Exhilarating and profound, the film is a mature, non-condescending kids' movie. It respectfully trusts its audience to be cognitive, cogitative, and competent thinkers, and it's emotionally honest. Not bad for a reworking of one of the most beloved books of the 20th century, a 10-sentence marvel. I'll go ahead and say it: The movie's better.
2. Julie & Julia: For sheer entertainment value, it doesn't get much better than Julie & Julia. Impeccably acted and directed, the film is a delight: a comedic soufflé made savory with dramatic gravitas. It never deflates. Julie & Julia should be in the clubhouse as a major Oscar contender.
3. A Serious Man: Following their Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men and the nice little palate cleanser, last year's Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers return with A Serious Man, arguably their most sober film yet and maybe the one with the most to say. It's thematically, figuratively, and literally a coming-of-age moment for the filmmakers. After a period of diminishing returns earlier in the decade, this film puts the Coens back on the shortlist of most interesting major moviemakers going.
4. Gran Torino: Inexplicably overlooked for 2008 Oscar honors, Gran Torino is a minor-trending-toward-major masterpiece from Clint Eastwood. It's the kind of personal document that filmmakers usually make early or late in their career. Here's hoping Eastwood has many more years ahead of him, in front of and behind the camera.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Not unlike the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson has suffered from a mild artistic retreat over his last few releases, but he's back on terra cussing firma with Fantastic Mr. Fox. A more charming, ebullient animated film you'll be hard-pressed to find — to the point that Mr. Fox is a kids' movie even though it's not really a kids' movie. Like Where the Wild Things Are, Up, and Adventureland, 2009 is the year for adults pondering what it means to be young.
6. Adventureland: How surprising is it, in our age of deathly ironic, ribald teen comedies, to find a movie as sweet, romantic, and elegantly unforced as Adventureland? Set in the '80s and marketed as yet another gross-out, R-rated assault on the senses, the film sidesteps the formula and instead wraps its characters in an appreciative, gracious embrace.
7. Star Trek: The best so far of the recent spate of Hollywood reimaginings of franchise properties, J.J. Abrams' Star Trek boldly braves remaking not just one icon but a fistful of 'em. Stuffed with philosophic and speculative science, adventurous fiction, and hot people to look at, Star Trek has something for everyone who sidles up to it.
8. The Wrestler: As only he can, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky follows the "celebrity as modern Christ" metaphor to a surprisingly appropriate end — the wrestling performer — in this brilliant, tough film. The crucial scene is the hardest to watch: Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) mutilates his body with barbed wire and a staple gun to the howls of joy from the crowd. We demand blood and, ultimately, death from our celebrities. Aronofsky delivers.
9. Avatar: Avatar is often enough a fantastic and immersive cinematic experience, though it's prone to some bad dialogue and military grunt clichés. It plays out at times as a greatest hits parade of ideas and character tropes from previous James Cameron movies, and it seems intended as a mea culpa for the xenophobia of Aliens, but Avatar is certainly better than the "Ewok Battle of Endor done right" that the trailer makes it out to be.
10. Up: Pixar continues its win streak and inches closer to master animator Hayao Miyazaki. The opening 15 minutes of Up are as good as anything all year, heartwarming and heartbreaking, and a joy to behold. The film gets relatively pedestrian afterward but retains its high watchability. One of these days, Pixar will produce an entire feature worthy of Miyazaki and become a studio making world classics — not just excellent American animated movies.
Honorable Mentions: Pontypool, Drag Me to Hell, Tyson, Let the Right One In, The Hurt Locker, Zombieland, Goodbye Solo, Adoration, The Informant!, Up in the Air
1. Coraline: In a year chock-full of animated fantasies as gratifying for adults as they are for kids — including grand achievements such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up, Where the Wild Things Are, and Monsters vs. Aliens — Henry Selick's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's eerie children's book is at the top of the pile, not only for its engaging story but for its sly references to 20th-century modernist painters. When I was not staring in slack-jawed amazement at the 3-D stop-motion animation and the cornucopia of arresting imagery, I was blown away by the Mondrian allusions that popped up during the apocalyptic final showdown between plucky, stubborn Coraline (Dakota Fanning) and her wildly wicked "Other Mother" (voiced by Teri Hatcher, her best film work since Soapdish). The most complete entertainment of the year and one of my favorite films of the decade.
2. Crank: High Voltage: This comedy/action/media overload stimulated my hyperactive, socially maladjusted, I just-wanna-see-crazy-shit inner child far more than Inglourious Basterds ever did or ever could. Utterly shameless and tasteless but endlessly creative, this sequel to 2006's underrated Crank is the epitome of the fish-eye lens and a hunk of pop-culture garbage too inventive to dismiss. Unfortunately, I missed Gamer, the second film released by Crank co-creators Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor this year, so I have no idea if their adrenaline-rush diptych (do I smell a sequel?) is a fluke or an early high point in a long, wild career.
3. The Class: After she saw this film, one of my former students told me, "Whenever the bell rang in that movie, I wanted to get up." Along with Chalk, these are the two films I'd show if I could run a back-to-school workshop. And yes, there would be a graded discussion afterward. Participate twice in the conversation, or your grade will suffer.
4. Waltz With Bashir: Another unlikely, highly rewarding, ultimately very troubling fantasy, this cartoon is about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Ari Folman's excavation of his military memories is aided by an astounding visual sense: a man pirouettes amid spent shell casings; an enormous blue woman carries a soldier from an attack at sea; a man trudges through his post-war days while the world whizzes by him.
5. Tyson and 6. Michael Jackson: This Is It: Thanks to a pair of sensitive filmmakers willing to stand by and let their subjects present themselves to the public, two massively misunderstood cultural icons get the last laugh. Contemporary psychologists have argued that, in lieu of a single mutable but essentially consistent personality, humans are comprised of multiple, impulse-driven selves. Tyson director James Toback takes this conceit literally, overlapping images and voices at key points in his subject's filmed autobiography to broaden not only our conception of the fallen champ but our ideas about human strength and weakness. Turns out that the man who bit Evander Holyfield's ear off (with far more justification than we knew, it seems) is also a devoted family man, a word-a-day autodidact, and a remarkable monument to a teacher's power to build a better human. This Is It dispels the numerous distressing public King of Pop personas in favor of a startlingly soulful, stripped-down performance record that lets Jackson sing, dance, and choreograph his heart out for a tour that never was.
7. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: Not only is this slam-bang animated feature totally hilarious, it gets many of its laughs by embracing the casual cruelty that electrified so many Bugs Bunny cartoons. There are wonders galore: The world's largest sardine meets an untimely end; Mr. T jumps through a giant nacho to save his family; a giant steak falls from the sky and brains a restaurant patron; and a man who's part chicken saves the world.
8. Adventureland: Greg Mottola atones for the unfunny hi-jinks of Superbad with this remarkably scored and sensitive take on the lost year after college when all that book-learning has sufficiently alienated you from your hometown, except you find yourself back there anyway because no one else will take you.
9. A Serious Man: My favorite line of the year: "What happened to the goy? ... Who cares?"
10. Wendy and Lucy/The Hurt Locker: Two films that tackle two major issues nobody wants to address in America: hopeless poverty and endless war. Both films are more of a chore to sit through than you're led to believe, and both have protagonists who challenge your patience and tolerance for crazy risk. But both films grow in memory, although neither film is one I'd care to revisit.
Honorable Mentions: An Education, Taken, The Time Traveler's Wife, Food, Inc., Let the Right One In, Every Little Step, Hump Day, Soul Power, Me and Orson Welles, Lorna's SilenceTo find out what's playing in your favorite theater tonight, check out the Flyer's film times section.