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The Ten Best Films of 2009

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | January 9, 2010 | Comments ()


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What is there to say? The movies of 2009 were all over the map, but perhaps the best way to make sense of them as a whole is to appreciate the resurgence of simple pleasures and returns to form found in the year's best films. Star Trek is a shaky-cam explosion of lens flares that's nevertheless a rock-solid blockbuster built on character and humor. District 9 uses the newest tech to tell the oldest kind of story, about identity and war. And Up, the most accomplished and nuanced film to date from Pixar, is a simple story about an old man coming to grips with death. These were the best films of the year for the way they moved us, and for the way they seemingly did the impossible by telling very specific stories with universal resonance. It's a varied but worthy group, and one that made 2009 as enjoyable as it was. Without any more yammering, let's get down to it:

ingbasterds.jpg10. Inglourious Basterds: We watch movies to be lied to. More than any other medium that comes to mind, they thrive on deceit and myth-making, and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds seems to revel in this fact. Mélanie Laurent plays a fugitive in the guise of a cinema owner, Brad Pitt's Tennessee-born soldier tries to pass for an Italian filmmaker, Michael Fassbender's British film critic must pretend to be a German soldier, Diane Kruger's actress makes for an ideal spy, Christoph Waltz's sociopath hides behind a mask of civility, Daniel Brühl's reluctant war hero becomes a celebrity and so on, until a movie theater itself becomes a tomb for the Nazi elite. Action sequences are outdone by dialogue exchanges, while history changes for the better simply because it can. In Quentin's world, everyone is a bastard during wartime, and anything goes at the movies. -- William Goss

startrektest1.jpg9. Star Trek : J.J. Abrams' Star Trek accomplishes the impossible: It reboots an entire film franchise even while honoring the spirit of its beginnings, and it breathes new and heated life into a series grown stale. The director reteams with writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman; the same team also crafted the fantastically done Mission: Impossible III, and Orci and Kurtzman's writing and producing credits include "Alias" and "Fringe." They've created something wonderful in Star Trek: a fast-paced, breathless space opera, crammed with action, humor, and heart. Of the original film series, only the second and sixth entries -- The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country -- stand up as legitimately good films, thanks to director Nicholas Meyer's emphasis on character conflict and dramatic action. Abrams and crew take a cue from those films but go light-years further and faster, upping the number of action sequences but also marrying them to an intriguing story. It's easily one of the most fun films to hit theaters in some time, and the perfect summer blockbuster. -- Daniel Carlson

fantastic_mr_fox_review.jpg8. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Not to sound like a lazy freshman trying to coast through Introductory Composition and Rhetoric, but I think we should start this off by remembering that the original and primary definition of "fantastic" is not "excellent" but rather "based on fantasy ... conceived by unrestrained fancy." So thinking about all that, it's appropriate that he's the one who's adapted Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox for the big screen. The detail and conception are gorgeous, as if Anderson's been dreaming of doing this all along, and he and co-writer Noah Baumbach have done an excellent job at transposing very human attitudes and concerns onto a bunch of wild animals just trying to survive in the woods. It's energetic and kind, and the splendid stop-motion animation doesn't look or feel like any other film out there. The film is, indeed, conceived by unrestrained fancy, an explosion of style and grace that feels like a storybook come to life, packed with incisive humor and genuine heart. -- Daniel Carlson

adventureland403.jpg7. Adventureland: If the humor in director Greg Mottola's Superbad was largely credited to writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, then surely Mottola deserves accolades for taking all those dick jokes and giving them a sturdier than expected emotional context; like it or not, there's a kind of gritty sweetness to the way the core male relationship played out in that film, and it's that kind of emotional truth that Mottola brings in spades to Adventureland. Directing from his own screenplay, Mottola creates a film that's funny without being wacky and sweet without being saccharine, and he manages to perfectly capture that glistening moment right between youth and whatever comes next. The film is a heartbreaking, bittersweet coming-of-age story born of Mottola's own experiences working summer jobs, but it's broad enough to resonate as more than just a comedy about (post-)teens. It couldn't be further from Superbad in tone or execution -- for just starters, no one's pants are at any point stained with menstrual blood -- but it's that film's direct descendant in emotional honesty and its filmmaker's decision to mature just like his characters. -- Daniel Carlson

500_days_of_summer.jpg6. (500) Days of Summer : (500) Days of Summer isn't an easy movie to describe. Try explaining to a friend why you're in love with your significant other. You might say, "She's beautiful; she's got a great sense of humor; she's wicked intelligent; and she has a great rack," but this won't do your significant other justice. They're just words, and words rarely stack up to the effervescent giddiness you feel when you're falling in love, or the crushing heartache an unexpected end to relationship can often leave. (500) Days of Summer, like few movies I've ever seen, accurately captures the range of emotions that accompany falling in love and then having your heart shattered. And while the dialogue is witty, and real, and funny, and smart, it's director Marc Webb's attention to the details that make (500) Days of Summer such a deeply authentic movie. There are a lot of movie about love, and even more that think they are, but very few successfully capture that helpless uncertainty attendant to a new relationship -- the overwhelming need to pin it down, to label it, to gain a sense of security, to know that what he or she is feeling is not fleeting. -- Dustin Rowles

3262_7739543817.jpg5. District 9: At its heart, District 9 is about the lines we draw around "us" and "them," and how truly shaky those lines are. We can accept any sort of horror, any torture, as long as it isn't one of us. The film feeds on the horror implicit in how easy it is to carry a one and move someone back and forth across that line. It is an intelligent and layered film, but as the old adage goes, ideas are boring, so if you must tell a story about ideas, be sure to wrap it with a bunch of explosions. -- Steven Wilson

awaytest1.jpg4. Away We Go: Away We Go is a genuine treasure for being an original story that wonderfully, grandly, joyously weaves together the disparate strands of what could be called Eggers' worldview into a warm and moving tapestry. Krasinski and Rudolph are at the top of their game, and they make Bert and Verona believable as dramatic characters as well as empathetic and humorous ones. This is Krasinski's best performance yet, and he's amazing at capturing the giddy excitement of an expectant father as well as the worry and fear that he won't be able to protect his baby girl from a world he doesn't know how to fix. Rudolph is equally impressive. She's strong, smart, funny, and creates the ideal onscreen match for Krasinski. They click with the ease of two people who have centered their lives on taking care of each other. Because that's what Away We Go is about, and what it manages to so sublimely stumble upon in a pitch-perfect ending that can't help but call to mind the lofty wordless emotion of the closing pages of Eggers' book from a decade earlier. These are young people figuring out how to take care of each other, wondering what it means to be adult, and trying to discover the place they've been looking their whole lives to find. -- Daniel Carlson

uprev1.jpg3. Up: Up is the 10th feature from Pixar Animation Studios, and it so skillfully and wonderfully extends the company's filmmaking record that it would be easy to dismiss the movie as nothing more than their latest assembly-line perfection. The film is as gorgeously rendered as viewers have come to expect a Pixar film to be, packed with colors and styles that mesh to create a unique universe that's still recognizable as Pixar's, and the story and characters are as genuine and joyful as ever. But the film's real strength is in the way it conveys emotional nuance with nothing more than the right image, and how it turns what at times is a slightly "cartoonish" script into something resonant and heartbreaking. -- Daniel Carlson

up-in-the-air-review.jpg2. Up in the Air: Jason Reitman's Up in the Air is a brilliantly deceptive film. Superficially, it's a light dramedy percolating with rich and complicated performances from George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick. It's smart, and witty, and exuberantly entertaining. It's easy to get so wrapped up in the story of these three people that you barely notice the thematic weight that Reitman is packing on your shoulders until the end, when he pulls out the carpet from underneath you so fast that your kneecaps break and you're left sitting on your ass wondering how that nice movie with the charming gentleman just mugged you. Up in the Air is more than a story about layoffs and terminations -- it's about personal identity. It's about how our jobs can define us, the fragile nature of those positions, and how easily our identities can be stripped away from us. The intelligent comedy will pull you in, but it's the melancholy that will stay with you long after you've left the theater. -- Dustin Rowles

hurtlockerrev.jpg1. The Hurt Locker: I usually avoid including a particular viewing experience with a film review, since it's unfair and dangerous to start behaving like one has any great bearing on the other. But one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a film is the acknowledgment that it's still replaying itself in the deeper recesses of your mind, and since seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, I have only grown more affected by its tale. It's a perfectly paced action film that never resorts to gimmickry to convey suspense; it's a character-based war drama that avoids the easy stereotypes of soldiers and their relationships; and it's an expertly observed story about the current war that eschews partisanship just as it also does any kind of lazy moralizing or appearances of objectivity. In other words, the film doesn't purport to rise above politics while quietly damning the leaders. It truly is about the characters and their stories, allowing the atrocities of war and the path of history to speak for themselves. The Hurt Locker is arresting both emotionally and aesthetically, and it's the first great film to arise from the wreckage of the Iraq War. -- Daniel Carlson



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