2009 has come and gone, and with it came cinematic events both fantastic and traumatizing. As far as my personal viewing is concerned, I would say that this year is on par with the previous year. I've enjoyed this year, especially since 2010 should be interesting, since the consequences of 2007's writers' strike rears their ugly heads, but also because most of the stellar films this year were bursting with originality, rather than the usual humdrum mix of remakes and sequels (though there were plenty of those as well). Nevertheless, 2009 provided some excellent films, with my favorites below.
Honorable Mentions: Precious, Coraline, Bruno, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I Love You, Man, Food, Inc., Adventureland, Sherlock Holmes, Public Enemies, Moon
10. Zombieland: There's no way this film should have been as popular as it was. It was a zombie road trip buddy comedy featuring indie actors and Woody Harrelson. And yet with its mix of zombie survival tips, fantastic performances (especially Harrelson's gonzo-redneck bravura as Tallahassee), and a pitch-perfect cameo from Bill Murray, Zombieland succeeded as the best zombie movie of the year, as well as one of the best comedies of the year. The film also introduced director Reuben Fleischer to the world, whom we will hopefully see more from in the future.
8. The Hurt Locker: Who would have imagined that it would take a woman to revitalize the war movie? Kathryn Bigelow brings a stunning focus to the war on Iraq by observing the everyday lives of a group of soldiers who defuse IEDs, rather than making grand political statements. Bigelow layers the film with so much tension that every face in the background looks like a threat, and the defusing scenes are the most intense action sequences in recent memory. Its not just the direction, though. The entire cast, from rookie adrenaline junkie SSgt. William James (a top of his game Jeremy Renner) and uptight Sgt. JT Sanborn (an underrated Anthony Mackie) to a fantastic cameo appearance by Ralph Fiennes, delivers naturalistic performances that lend great tension to the film. The Hurt Locker is by far one of the greatest war films ever made, despite not featuring a single battle scene. (If you're a fan of Renner after seeing this, check out his before-anyone-knew-my-name portrayal as a difficult, dying punk star on the episode "Games" from the fourth season of House.)
7. Watchmen: Fanboys hated it. Everyone else just shrugged it off. But give Watchmen credit: it was one of the most ambitious adaptations ever made, and remained mostly faithful down to the frame of the original graphic novel. Plus, Watchmen took an admirable risk in changing the ending, making the movie stand alone from the source material (though it is thematically the same: what's the best way to save the world, ethically or efficiently?). But its also a great movie, featuring fantastic performances from Jackie Earle Haley as the morally ambiguous, gravel-voiced Rorshach and Billy Crudup as the blue radioactive Dr. Manhattan. Watchmen was the most underrated superhero film of the year.
6. Star Trek: This is how you properly reboot a franchise. Going back to the beginning and telling the story of how the Enterprise crew came together, the film rewrites Trek history while staying reverent to that same history. The story involves a lot of elements, including time travel (this is coming from J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, of course) but it never gets bogged down by the curse of Too Many Ideas. Instead, Star Trek rides high on a buoyant atmosphere, a pitch-perfect cast, and exciting action. Star Trek is pure blockbuster entertainment, and proof that it is possible for a Star Trek film to be popular and great.
5. Antichrist: I was really hesitant to review this one, much less put it on the list. A dark, misogynistic film about a relationship that tragically (and graphically) disintegrates, Antichrist stirred up controversy upon its debut at Cannes, and again upon its release. Its a hard film to stomach, but a rewarding one. Director Lars von Trier supposedly wrote it in a fit of depression, and its themes of recovery and therapeutic methods of doing so show that he had very little faith in optimism. The film is the most gorgeously shot of the year, and Willem Dafoe and the radiant Charlotte Gainsbourg deliver heartbreaking performances. And, intentional or not, Antichrist turns out to be one of the best studies on the nature of evil ever put to film.
4. District 9: It's been a boom year for sci-fi, with such great films as Star Trek, Moon, and the ultra-successful Avatar reaching all audiences. District 9 is the crown jewel of the sci-fi revolution. Set in South Africa, the film flips genre conventions by having humans segregate the aliens after the latter accidentally land on Earth. It serves as an allegory for apartheid, but don't be fooled: its also a fantastic action movie that even provides emotional resonance (prawn Christopher's attempts to escape in order to save his son from abuse lends humanity to them). Sharlto Copley gives the breakout performance of the year as Wikus van de Merwe, a government agent tasked with evacuating the Prawns from District 9 into a new internment camp. Hopefully, director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp will have plenty of new films in the future.
3. Up: Pixar's winning streak seems to know no end. After the amazing Wall-E last year, they return again with Up, the heartwarming story of an old man who flies to South America in his house lifted by balloons. The film is gorgeously rendered, with heartbreaking performances from such memorable characters as Carl, Russel, Kevin the tropical bird and the hilarious Dug, a dog who can talk through a special box. A daring adventure, a terrific buddy comedy, and a touching story of remembering a lost loved one, Up is another win for the Pixar team.
2. Where the Wild Things Are: Another major trend in 2009 is miraculous reinventions of classic children's stories, as evidenced in Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Where the Wild Things Are was polarizing upon its release, but the film succeeds in that it is not a children's movie, as many expected it to be. Writer Dave Eggers and director/co-writer Spike Jonze took a huge risk in adapting Maurice Sendak's classic into a movie that's more than just Max's adventures with the Wild Things. It's a movie about being a kid, the wonder of a new world and the messy, complicated relationships that make up a family. It's the rawest portrayal of growing up all year, and stands as the archetype for artistic interpretation.
1. Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino can always be relied on to deliver a fantastically original movie that riffs on genre and the films he grew up loving. But Inglourious Basterds is his most original, balls-to-the-wall film yet. Telling the story of a group of Jewish-American soldiers in Nazi-occupied France, the film has the best cast of the year, with every actor giving a wonderful performance, especially Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Melaine Laurent, and, best of all, Christoph Waltz as the sinisterly suave Col. Hans Landa, aka The Jew Hunter. Tarantino's screenplay sparkles with his usual Tarantinoisms, but he proves himself to be one of the best working writer/directors today by not only rewriting history, but also making it believable in the world of his film. It's a risky move, but just like the film's protagonists, there's nothing that it can't pull off.
Agree? Disagree? What were your favorites? Comments please. Soon I will post my favorite scenes of the year.