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The Year in Film – 2009

Farewell, 2009. You won’t be missed.

Not only did the economy fail to generate much enthusiasm this year, neither did the movies. In fact, with a single exception, I’m hard-pressed to name a single film released in 2009 that I got genuinely, unreservedly excited about. But at the same time, I can name very few movies that I absolutely loathed. Lots of mediocrity, but still plenty of films out there to recommend… even if those recommendations come with a few caveats. The collected 2009 top ten lists of the staff commence forthwith. –Christopher Null, Director and Editor in Chief, Filmcritic.com


Christopher Null

1. Two Lovers
No one saw James Gray’s quiet masterpiece, and this saddens me — more even than Two Lovers saddened me when I saw it. In fact, I nearly forgot about it myself when composing this list — thinking it came out in 2008. But Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow (and even the underplayed Vinessa Shaw) have never done better work than in this sad and tragic story of love, obsession, and suicidal tendencies. Still hurts to think about it.

2. The Messenger
One of the most searing looks at the war at home produced since the ’70s. Imagine Apocalypse Now in suburban America and a four-door sedan and you’ve pretty much got this film. If Woody Harrelson doesn’t win Best Supporting Actor this year it’ll be a crime.

3. Adventureland
The popular ‘edgy’ rom-com choice on lists like this for 2009 is going to be (500) Days of Summer, but Adventureland is the better film, a semi-tragic love story and an unabashed celebration of our suburban ’80s — the last decade before the suburbs totally went to shit.

4. A Serious Man
The Coen brothers tried to go all Barton Fink and meditative with this film — which is stellar until it just about blows it on the ambiguous ending, now becoming a bit overdone as a trademark of the duo. Still, this look at a man whose life is crumbling around him despite his very best intentions is searing and sad, destined to be an underrated, minor masterpiece.

5. The Hangover
With the possible exception of I Love You, Man, has any movie this year proven more quotable and rewatchable? Zach Galifianakis is destined for great things.

6. In the Loop
This is how you make a war. Not on the battlefields, but in the backrooms (and even the children’s bedrooms) of Washington and London. Utter farce… but probably not far from the truth.

7. The Informant!
It took a while for this film to grow on me, but Soderbergh and Damon produce some quirky, magical moments along the way to laying out the Archer Daniels Midland scandal for the masses. Love the toupee.

8. The Hurt Locker

9. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
The best kids’ film of the year was not Up — a random ‘adventure’ movie that barely even had a point — but rather the underdog Meatballs, which skewers modern excess and has a very adult, understated sense of humor. Great for the little ones and the grown-ups.

10. Avatar
Not as dumb as I thought it’d be, and even more gorgeous to experience than everyone says it is. Big screen is a must.

Worst of the year: Angels and Demons


Don Willmott

1. Still Walking
Hirokazu Koreeda’s keenly observed domestic drama is all about the tiniest details. Watch the body language, the eyes, the turned backs, and all the resentments and disconnections of this painfully fractured Japanese family come into sharp focus. Ozu and Bergman would bow with respect to this beautifully crafted movie.

2. The Hurt Locker
Once again, directrix Kathryn Bigelow proves she has more cojones than Michael Bay and James Cameron (her ex-husband) combined, helming this unbearably tense exercise in explosive suspense. Great to see the sometimes overlooked Jeremy Renner up front.

3. District 9
It works as a thriller; it works as sci-fi; and best of all, it works as a clever extended metaphor for any apartheid-like societal system anywhere. The fact that it’s humans vs. aliens is no big deal. In fact, the way the movie scrupulously avoids being amazed by this close encounter is one of its biggest pleasures.

4. Precious
Whoever called this film ‘poverty porn’ has a point, but it’s real, it’s raw, and it’s about as challenging as an American film can get. The performances are amazing, especially that of Mo’Nique, who must have gone to a very dark place to bring forth the monster she creates.

5. Adventureland

6. Julie & Julia
Entertainment Weekly gave this movie two ratings, a low one for the Julie half and a high one for the Julia half. We get it. While it’s hard to care about a whiny Queens food blogger, it’s impossible not to be utterly transported by Meryl Streep’s Julia Child, just the latest in what’s now a 30-year string of incredible on-screen transformations.

7. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
It turns out that this real-life Spinal Tap saga is as entertaining as the fictional one. How amazing to find yourself weeping tears of sympathy for a washed-up Canadian metal band that peaked in 1984 and has been trying desperately to keep the Zippo flame alight ever since. This chronicle of their disastrous European ‘comeback’ tour is equally funny and pitiful. ‘Looks like we missed our train.’ You said it.

8. Of Time and the City
A five-star winner here at Filmcritic.com, Terence Davies’ feverish prose poem both celebrating and lamenting the lost Liverpool of his youth combines really interesting archival footage with his wildly pompous and portentous narration, and somehow it works. And what’s really interesting: The Beatles barely earn a mention.

9. Sugar
How the producers managed to assemble a troupe of non-acting Dominican baseball players to create this story of cultural dislocation among foreign players who show up in the American minor leagues with big dreams and slim chances is perhaps as compelling a story as the movie itself. Easily paced and low-key, it’s a home run.

10. Sin Nombre
Why not shoot a movie on top of a moving freight train? Director Cary Joji Fukunaga is up to the challenge with this thriller about three people riding the rails from Mexico the U.S. alongside a turncoat gang killer who has become the target of his own gang. It’s quite a chase and quite a logistical achievement.

Runners-up: The Cove, Food Inc., Up, Inglourious Basterds
Worst of the year: Whatever Works


Sean O’Connell

1. The first 11 minutes of Up
Some will view this as a cheat. How could my No. 1 film not be a feature-length movie? Well, I didn’t see anything this year as moving, uplifting, and perfectly complete as the opening montage for Pixar’s Up. Director Pete Docter sandwiches a lifetime of love and loss into one tear-jerking sequence (enriched by Michael Giacchino’s warm score) that recounts the relationship shared between cautious Carl Fredricksen and his adventurous soul mate, Ellie. Sadly, Up peaks too soon, and Docter’s remaining story doesn’t muster the same emotional punch as his beautiful opener. But for 11 breathtaking minutes, Up soars higher than any other film released this year, and I believe that’s an achievement worth celebrating.

2. (500) Days of Summer
Marc Webb’s heartfelt, funny Summer traces the highs and lows of the often-turbulent, 500-day relationship between a greeting card writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and an interested but noncommittal beauty (Zooey Deschanel). The talented duo makes the film’s emotional core sing. But it’s Webb’s imaginative direction, nonlinear storytelling and clever use of guilty jukebox pleasures (listen up, Hall & Oates) that elevate Summer to a rarified air occupied by such films as Harold and Maude, Say Anything, and The Graduate. Yes, it’s that good.

3. Up in the Air

4. This Is It
The year’s biggest surprise. Kenny Ortega’s rambunctious This Is It served as a musical release, an antidote to the foul tabloid journalism that polluted Michael Jackson’s legacy in the days and weeks following his death. Using cobbled-together footage, Ortega created a splashy souvenir, a dynamic party and a ferociously entertaining send-off to the King of Pop that celebrated the man’s artistry, ignored his oft-covered quirks, and permitted Jackson’s career to end on a high note.

5. District 9

6. A Serious Man

7. Star Trek

8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
As a standalone fantasy epic, the sixth Harry Potter adaptation possesses remarkable maturity and a deep appreciation for J.K. Rowling’s contemporary gothic mood. But on a larger scale, Half-Blood extends the impressive, unprecedented, and downright magical run that began nearly a decade ago. Four directors, two screenwriters, and countless high-profile, British co-stars have passed through the Potter universe, but the core cast — and the remarkable level of quality — has stayed consistent. Forget the uneven Star Wars franchise and that overrated Lord of the Rings trilogy. When all is said and done, the eight-picture Harry Potter series will be the definitive film franchise of our lifetime.

9. Away We Go
Color me impressed by Sam Mendes’ tender, funny, and embraceable road comedy about smitten, scruffy 30-somethings searching for the ideal place to put down roots before their baby arrives. Mendes directs with a caring touch, and helps his cause immensely by casting John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as college sweethearts with no idea how to function in the ‘real’ world. Away may be episodically structured, but I recognize these characters and can associate with their problems, connect with their dreams, and understand their fears.

10. Big Fan
The kid brother of last year’s Oscar-nominated The Wrestler, and not just because they come from the same creative father — Robert Siegel. Both view the fragile human condition through the cracked prism of professional sports, assuming the viewpoint of a wounded individual who stands on society’s outskirts while dreaming of inclusion. While not as polished as The Wrestler, this film wrings pain out of heartbreaking truths, and Siegel steamrolls Big Fan to an unpredictable conclusion that’s suspenseful, mildly coincidental, and gut-wrenchingly sad.

Tied for No. 11: Moon, The Lovely Bones, The Road, and In the Loop
Best opening credits: Watchmen
Best closing credits: The Hangover
Worst of the year: Play the Game


Chris Barsanti

1. Adventureland
It starts and ends with The Replacements, and in between one finds several movies’ worth of heartbreak and joy.

2. A Serious Man

3. Coraline
Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s thrillingly dark fantasy speaks to children (and the adults who brought them) in a way that hits directly at the locus of their deepest vulnerabilities. Coraline herself — a strong-willed girl who inadvertently swaps her parents for a perfect-seeming pair from a never-never land — is a wonderful, independent character who somehow isn’t diminished by the gorgeously-imagined 3-D stop-motion immensity of the world Selick and Gaiman created. Forget Avatar, this should be remembered in coming years as the film that truly showed audiences what 3-D was capable of.

4. In the Loop

5. Still Walking

6. The Way We Get By
Aron Gaudet’s sharp, unsentimental story about senior citizens in Bangor who greet every plane that lands at their airport full of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is the kind of gripping documentary that doesn’t come along very often.

7. The Hurt Locker

8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
It’s greedhog farmers vs. cute, funny f
arm animals in this stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book. Instead of making brainy movies for immature adults, this time Wes Anderson went straight to the source and just made a children’s movie (with wit and imagination to spare, of course). The fact that adults will probably like it much, much more should surprise nobody.

9. Bright Star
The perfect film for those who like their poets served up on screen in doomed romantic scenarios, the kind that leave one not just crying but sobbing, Jane Campion’s Bright Star follows the fate of a sick John Keats and his pensive would-be lover, Frances Brawne (inhabited with incredible presence by Abbie Cornish). Kept apart by his lack of funds and her need for a providing husband, the two indulge in an exchange of passionate correspondence and literary, flirtatious badinage that fairly sings with the lyricism of true love.

10. Summer Hours
Another great reunion film. Three adult siblings (including a sarcastic, downbeat Juliette Binoche) return from their far-flung homes to their family’s beautiful estate in rural France to celebrate their mother’s 75th birthday, expiate their guilt over not visiting more, and start figuring out what to do with everything once their mother passes on. Writer-director Oliver Assayas’ meditations on memories and the ties that bind are quietly, humorously made, but pack a punch. Although the choices the siblings make are perfectly understandable, that doesn’t make the film’s reverie-like conclusion any less heartrending.

Honorable mentions: Inglourious Basterds, Two Lovers, Gomorrah, Ponyo, Of Time and the City, The Messenger, Me and Orson Welles, The Informant!, The White Ribbon, A Song of Sparrows, Burma VJ
Most terrifying: Collapse, The Cove
Most terrifyingly bad: Transformers 2, Antichrist
Most overrated: Bruno
Most disappointing: The Invention of Lying
Most overlooked: Forbidden Lies, I Sell the Dead, Humpday


Norm Schrager

1. The Messenger
Sydney Pollack and Ben Affleck were once lined up to direct this drama before it landed with its screenwriter, Israeli Oren Moverman. Quite a stroke of destiny. With confident control, Moverman focuses on a seldom-seen aspect of war — casualty notification duty — to illustrate the demands placed on unsuspecting military families and the men forced to deliver horrific news. Moverman starts down an expected path or two, then takes unpredictable turns that reflect his characters’ loose psyches. As a director, his style is one Hal Ashby would love, reminscent of the wilder, woolier American films of the 1970s. In a world mixing cold protocol with indescribable pain, Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton nail the tension, loss and quiet, hopeful moments. A heartbreaker.

2. Up in the Air
Jason Reitman leaps into his third film with unexpected maturity, delivering one of the most timely and engaging character studies of the year. As nowhere man Ryan Bingham, George Clooney brings a touch of melancholy to his unflappable exterior, representing a fading era of hard work, handshakes and honor — all while the American economy fades too. A script full of wonderful touches and layers, with a rock-solid performance by Vera Farmiga as Bingham’s on-the-road lust interest.

3. Brothers
Irish director Jim Sheridan remakes a Danish drama as a great American tragedy. After he’s presumed dead while serving in Afghanistan, a POW (Tobey Maguire) returns home to a world his damaged mind won’t allow him to understand or accept. Despite their status as ‘movie stars,’ Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman bring real depth to Sheridan’s deceptively powerful direction.

4. Inglourious Basterds

5. The Hurt Locker

6. Winnebago Man
This documentary star of the ’09 festival circuit is one of the funniest, most entertaining movies of the year. Twenty years after starring in Winnebago’s corporate sales videos, Jack Rebney becomes a YouTube hit thanks to his notoriously profane rants in between takes. When an obsessed filmmaker goes searching for Rebney, we’re left to wonder about — and laugh at — the oddities of fame, infamy and perception.

7. Two Lovers

8. Up

9. Adventureland

10. Five Minutes of Heaven
James Nesbitt does a remarkable job carrying this heavy film, one of the most overlooked of 2009. He plays a revenge-seeker finally getting to meet the man (Liam Neeson) who killed his IRA-member brother decades earlier. The catch? They’re meeting on television. Beyond the obvious issues of forgiveness and vengeance, there’s commentary on the reality of ‘reality TV’ and the media’s willingness to worship anyone who’ll talk on camera.

Also Worthy (in order): I Love You, Man; Knowing; Grace; Pontypool; Fifty Dead Men Walking; Humpday
Best performances: Ben Foster, The Messenger; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Paul Rudd, I Love You, Man; Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air, James Nesbitt, Five Minutes of Heaven; Natalie Portman, Brothers
MVP Actor: George Clooney (Up in the Air, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr. Fox)
MVP Actress: Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia, It’s Complicated, Fantastic Mr. Fox)
Worst ending to a great film: (500) Days of Summer
Worst of the year: The Informers


Bill Gibron

1. Inglourious Basterds
It ta
kes nerve to rewrite history, but that’s exactly what Quentin Tarantino does in this stunning cinematic dissertation on film and its roll on changing/challenging the past. Sure, it was sold as a standard revenge flick, a twisted take on Jewish soldiers kicking Nazi keister, but there’s so much more here than that. From Christoph Waltz’s jaw dropping performance as a smiling, sinister SS agent to the finale which retrofits the upper echelons of the Third Reich as an action epic turkey shoot, this remains 2009’s most memorable motion picture statement.

2. Avatar

3. A Serious Man

4. Antichrist
Good old Lars Van Trier. Who else but the mastermind behind the no-frills filmmaking style Dogme ’95 could take a two character drama about grief and transform it into the greatest Grand Guignol gross-out statement of 2009 – and still maintain its narrative depth and character complexity. Sure, limbs are hacked and body parts violated, but in between all the blood and guts is a serious statement about life, love, and our human inability to comprehend either.

5. Up in the Air

6. The Lovely Bones
Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s heartbreaking novel is getting railroaded by most in the mainstream media – unfairly, actually. Instead of delivering something straight forward or melodramatic, the Lord of the Rings leader turned the tale of a dead girl looking down on her killer from Heaven as his own version of a Brothers Grimm cautionary tale. Destined to be misunderstood now, and beloved later.

7. Star Trek
J.J. Abrams should win a Special Oscar. The category – Pulling It Off! While purists persist in calling this revamp of the classic sci-fi series some manner of abomination, it stands as one of the great popcorn blockbusters of the modern age. Abrams didn’t only update Trek for a new millennium, he breathed infinite new life into a franchise that was running on fumes for decades. Bring on the inevitable sequels!

8. Where the Wild Things Are
Leave it to Spike Jonze to spin Maurice Sendak’s seminal kid lit fixture into something dark, melancholy, and oh so special. Parents expecting the same old family film pap were stunned at how complicated and confrontation this vision was, especially in comparison to the original book’s stark illustrations. The result is something incredibly rare – a child’s fairytale which says more about the human condition than a dozen dramas.

9. Up

10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Everyone has unfilled hopes and deferred dreams. Few have a champion in Hollywood screenwriter (The Terminal) turned documentarian Sacha Gervasi. After spending time in the ’80s as their roadie, the filmmaker did a ‘whatever happened to’ Google search and discovered that, far from defeated, his favorite band was still plugging along. So he decided to grab a camera and craft a follow-up. The result is an everyman lesson in longevity, and never giving up.


BONUS: 15 Top Tens — “clip ‘n’ save”

Christopher Null
1. Two Lovers
2. The Messenger
3. Adventureland
4. A Serious Man
5. The Hangover
6. In the Loop
7. The Informant!
8. The Hurt Locker
9. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
10. Avatar
Don Willmott
1. Still Walking
2. The Hurt Locker
3. District 9
4. Precious
5. Adventureland
6. Julie & Julia
7. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
8. Of Time and the City
9. Sugar
10. Sin Nombre
Sean O’Connell
1. Up
2. (500) Days of Summer
3. Up in the Air
4. This Is It
5. District 9
6. A Serious Man
7. Star Trek
8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
9. Away We Go
10. Big Fan
Chris Barsanti
1. Adventureland
2. A Serious Man
3. Coraline
4. In the Loop
5. Still Walking
6. The Way We Get By
7. The Hurt Locker
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
9. Bright Star
10. Summer Hours
Norm Schrager
1. The Messenger
2. Up in the Air
3. Brothers
4. Inglourious Basterds
5. The Hurt Locker
6. Winnebago Man
7. Two Lovers
8. Up
9. Adventureland
10. Five Minutes of Heaven
Bill Gibron
1. Inglourious Basterds
2. Avatar
3. A Serious Man
4. Antichrist
5. Up in the Air
6. The Lovely Bones
7. Star Trek
8. Where the Wild Things Are
9. Up
10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Paul Brenner
1. The Hurt Locker
2. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
3. The Windmill Movie
4. Adventureland
5. Of Time and the City
6. Me and Orson Welles
7. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?
8. The Girlfriend Experience
9. In the Loop
10. Eccentricities of a Blonde Hair Girl
Keith Breese
1. The Hurt Locker
2. A Serious Man
3. Inglourious Basterds
4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
5. Gomorrah
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
7. District 9
8. Pontypool
9. The Cove
10. Coraline
Chris Cabin
1. Police, Adjective
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. The Hurt Locker
4. The Headless Woman
5. Silent Light
6. The Limits of Control
7. The Sun
8. Summer Hours
9. Hunger
10. Treeless Mountain
Jesse Hassenger
1. Up
2. The Brothers Bloom
3. Inglourious Basterds
4. A Serious Man
5. Where the Wild Things Are
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
7. Adventureland
8. Observe and Report
9. Star Trek
10. Public Enemies
Blake French
1. The Hurt Locker
2. The Informers
3. Antichrist
4. The Burning Plain
5. Inglourious Basterds
6. Knowing
7. A Serious Man
8. Crazy Heart
9. Shrink
10. The Last House on the Left
Rob Vaux
1. Up
2. The Hurt Locker
3. The Road
4. Up in the Air
5. The Hangover
6. Watchmen
7. Moon
8. Coraline
9. District 9
10. Observe and Report
Pete Croatto
1. Up
2. In a Dream
3. Star Trek
4. Humpday
5. Adventureland
6. Brothers
7. Sin Nombre
8. Big Fan
9. Julie & Julia
10. Away We Go
Jason McKiernan
1. Up in the Air
2. Julia
3. The Messenger
4. The Hurt Locker
5. Mammoth
6. An Education
7. Up
8. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
9. A Serious Man
10. Adventureland
Jay Antani
1. The Hurt Locker
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox
3. Up
4. Big Fan
5. The Messenger
6. A Serious Man
7. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
8. Perestroika
9. Adventureland
10. Food, Inc.
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