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2009 Year in Review

The Best    |    The Worst    |    The Individual Best

The Best


Some year’s, it’s hard to get really worked up about a lot of films. While I have a great deal of respect for many films this year and believe quite a few are extremely well made and affecting, I don’t quite feel over-the-head excited about my top 10 list or the honorable mentions. I rated them all highly, but only a handful can I stand up and defend with zeal.

I am on very limited time this year and have been running behind for most of it with preparations for my new site, so I’m posting this review of the year’s best films a month later than intended. And on top of that, many of the films you’ll read about here haven’t even gotten a review posted as yet.

2009 doesn’t close out the ‘00s with a whimper. There were too many good films for that, but it certainly isn’t the stellar closing year that 1939 was, or even 1989. Most films releasing this year on my Top 10 are message films that have a great deal to say about their subjects, but I can’t say most of them make me want to go out there and change the world, which is a significant missing element.

Six films have merited inclusion on my list of honorable mentions this year. These are films that I gave a solid rating too, but weren’t able to make my Top 10 of the year. These are presented alphabetically.

James Cameron wasn’t able to match the excitement, sorrow or passion of Titanic when he created Avatar. The film shares some of the same elements and there are plenty of moments in the film where you feel a sense of sadness from the events your watching, but the film is also filtered through a layer of corny dialogue. But this isn’t your typical Michael Bay film where you can just turn your brain off, you still have to think through some things and the message is clear, concise and laudable. And the visual effects are stunning, becoming the second 3D film this year that shows us what the technology can achieve without feeling gimmicky.

I’m not a Wes Anderson fan. I’ve not seen many of his films and Rushmore barely left an impression on me (though, in all fairness, I did see it when it first came out and I wasn’t paying attention to it the way I would now). Fantastic Mr. Fox has a patina of pretentiousness on it. Although it’s a capable, wildly entertaining yarn filled with an interesting cast of characters, I’m irritated by just how phony some of them feel. Supposedly Anderson is a master examiner of the relationship between family members and sometimes he is, but other times, his situations just seem over-emphasized for faux-comedic effect.

Anchored by a terrific performance from Shohreh Aghdashloo, The Stoning of Soraya M was one of the first major message movies I saw this year, lambasting outdated Arab cultures where women are just pawns in the games of men. Bookended by Jim Caviezel’s inexpressive performance, this film is almost entirely about Aghdashloo’s surprisingly strong Muslim woman taking on her town’s elders over one man’s treatment of his wife Soraya M (played heartbreakingly by Mozhan Marno). It’s a strong film with a few lightweight elements that prevent it from being great, but yields two of the year’s best female performances, too often ignored.

I don’t like the Coens. If you’ve ever read me talk about Fargo, No Country for Old Men or Raising Arizona, you know this. While I admire their technical capabilities, I am put off by their conceited world view and pretentious characterizations. So, imagine my surprise when I actually enjoyed A Serious Man. For me, this film doesn’t feel like all those others. Although the players are a bit too exaggerated, there’s an honesty and compassion in this film that I haven’t seen from the Coens since The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Spike Jonze is another of those directors who paints his characters with broad quirks that don’t feel realistic. However, his previous two films I’ve enjoyed tremendously. Both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation., are quirky fun films that may feel pretentious, and really are, but are still madly enjoyable. Where the Wild Things Are has many of those same qualities, but has a humanistic element that makes it more engaging than his previous efforts, though not necessarily better. Jonze has a capability of bringing out terrific performances, and Max Records is a delight as the young boy trying to resolve his emotional demons in a magical world where his actions have consequences.

A stellar debut for thespian-director Drew Barrymore, Whip It is a surprisingly effective story about a young girl breaking away from her parents to do what she enjoys: roller derby. It may seem a bit fluffy in its execution, but there’s a rough interior and a knowing surety in the film that make it feel more exciting and palatable than might have been created with another director. Barrymore clearly knows how to have fun with her film and carries the audience along with her.

None of these films were able to crack the top 10, but even I would be hard pressed to take the bottom three films on my list and not interchange them with any of these.

Falling into the bottom spot of my list is one of the modern era’s most interesting auteurs. Although you wouldn’t say emotional depth was one of his best qualities, Quentin Tarantino still manages to bring out those passions from his audience. Inglourious Basterds features many of Tarantino’s signature violent styles, but happily evokes a bygone era, something new for this director. There are a few contemporary moments in the film, but Tarantino’s attention to detail helps recreate a gorgeous bygone era that hid a dangerous, yet resilient core.

The second animated film to mention at the end of the year, and not the last, is Coraline, a sweet, but strange fantastical allegory of a young girl’s struggle to accept her parents even though they aren’t what she wants them to be. A sumptuous feast of visuals, this enigmatic tale hooks you at the opening and never lets you go, keeping you entertained throughout.

Disney’s third Golden Age came to a close shortly after Mulan, with disappointment after disappointment. Every few generations, Walt Disney Studios manages to break out of its rut and start crafting wonderous animated products again. The first Golden Age from the 1930s and 1940s to the second Golden Age from the 1950s to the 1960s and finally the third from 1989 through the late 1990s each had similar bursts of creative energy, starting out with a successful, though not exactly perfect feature that led to some great and brilliant classics. The Princess and the Frog very much carries those sentiments. It’s the first hand-drawn piece from Disney since the abysmal Home on the Range forced the company to shutter the unit. Thanks to Pixar’s John Lasseter, this latest effort takes some of Disney’s greatest animated elements and blends them with Pixar’s own brand of accessible entertainment.

Sometimes a movie doesn’t need a world-affecting moral message to be a terrific movie. Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours falls into this category. It’s simplistic story of a family forced to deal with their mother’s passing, examines just how differently people handle loss and the emotional vagaries of moving on. The film features nothing but solid performances, from the youngest thespians to the memorable Edith Scob. The film won’t easily appeal to those who want a lot of action or drama in their films, but for those of us who can appreciate simple beauty, the film is a treat.

War is such a tricky genre to tackle, especially when the skirmish is still going on. Sometimes the best way to present such situations is to make them feel like they are a part of many different wars. Although bomb squad defusing wasn’t as modernized as it is presented in The Hurt Locker during past conflicts, it still remains a tense situation that is effectively conveyed by Kathryn Bigelow. Certainly not the best directorial achievement of the year, but her work is solid and her film stands easily with some of the best minor war films ever made.

Bringing to a close one of the greatest years in animated feature history, Up is yet another Pixar instant classic. Telling the story of an elderly man going on one last great adventure, the film has all of the elements of Pixar films we’ve come to love over the years while keying into a seldom-explored element in animation, the frailties of getting older and the passion of the elderly to live as they once did as children. Nearly everything in the film is perfect and this film was the first to show me that 3D could be used for something other than thrown-at-the-camera gimmicks and it was magnificent.

Honest expressions of romantic attachments are seldom conveyed convincingly. And even those that do, tend to be a little over-emphasized for dramatic purposes. (500) Days of Summer is a perfect example of this. Anchored by a terrific performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, his exploration of the ups-and-downs of a relationship no one’s sure is even meant to be is wonderful. The film shifts through time with ease, never losing the audience and always keeping them engaged with the characters.

The best war film this year is Oren Moverman’s debut feature The Messenger giving audiences a glimpse into the lives of those brave men and women who have one of the most difficult tasks: notifying soldiers’ families of their deaths. Featuring three high-caliber performances from Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton, The Messenger is a movie that doesn’t make you feel good, but helps you come to terms emotionally with the pain of loss and the magnitude of suffering.

After Thank You for Smoking and Juno, you would expect Jason Reitman to turn out another clever, humorous film that pushes hot button issues leaves you with a strong sense of conviction. Up in the Air does something similar, but in a more subtle way. Ostensibly about a man coming to terms with who he is after his life is threatened by a massive corporate shakeup, George Clooney does what he’s always done and delivers a passionate, concerned performance that pulls you into his somewhat egomaniacal character and helps you understand who and why he is. Surrounded by solid performances, Clooney and Up in the Air are simple, charming and thought-provoking without being too preachy or condescending. Reitman is shaping up to be a world class filmmaker on a level his father never really achieved.

Topping my list this year is a film that I feel will stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the history of great science fiction films with the likes of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Blade Runner and Contact. District 9 is a film that forces you to take stock of the world we live in and come to terms with the disrespectful and segregationist tendencies of human civilization. It isn’t a pretty film and while it does move into action flick towards the end, it never fully loses that humanity and compassion that make it an evocative, involving and rewarding film.

There are certainly more films I’ve seen this year, but I feel the need to post my thoughts on the top 10 as I see them at the moment. Although my opinion may change over time, or as I collect more films in my 2009 memory, the above will remain an expression of my sentiments for the year.

The Worst


The Individual Best