The Year's Best Narrative Films
1. Sita Sings the Blues Notice a theme here? 2009 was a banner year for animated films, and the most creative was this little charmer written, directed, produced, and animated by Nina Paley (it’s legally available for free online, but don’t be a cheapskate: make a donation or buy the DVD). Paley approaches the Indian epic The Ramayana from a number of angles, all thought-provoking and highly entertaining.
2. Coraline Local hero Henry Selick helmed this stop-motion animated adventure distinguished by its serious girl-power and otherworldly circus Vaudeville. Based on the Neil Gaiman book, Coraline offers up a wild and wooly wonderland while also telling a tight tale that looks like Halloween but endorses thanks-giving. It’s like Faust, if it were a comedy…for kids…in 3-D.
3. Still Walking Taking an understated tack, Hirokazu Kore-eda delivered another affecting domestic drama from Japan, this one taking place over a period of one day in the life of a family. When grown children grudgingly visit their parents, generational conflict arises as young and old sift through past and present only to find that their individual hopes and family ties have mostly escaped them.
4. Tokyo Sonata Though Up in the Air is hoarding all the awards-season attention with its disingenuous concern for the downsized, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s domestic drama puts it to shame. Kurosawa explores a family under strain as a shamed father attempts to hide his joblessness: disturbed by the duplicity they intuit, the man’s wife and children lose their moorings and begin to act out.
5. In the Loop One part Dr. Strangelove and two parts The Office, In the Loop was the year’s top comedy, a political satire savaging government movers and shakers on both sides of the Atlantic. This loose spinoff of the BBC comedy series The Thick of It is the brainchild of director Armando Iannucci and his team of co-writers, though it also benefits from improvisational flexibility.
6. The Road Screenwriter Joe Penhall and director John Hillcoat dared aspire the lofty terrain of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, and the resulting film packs a gut punch. Astonishing performances (particularly those of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son) power this morality play about humanity’s emotional and behavioral limits.
7. The Hurt Locker The top suspense picture of the year turned out to be this well-wrought Iraq War drama from Kathryn Bigelow. In Mark Boal’s script and Jeremy Renner’s leading performance, we got more than an armrest-gripping workout. We also got a pithy representation of the modern grunt: sadly disposable, highly skilled, soul-bruised, and with each tick of a bomb timer, just a bit more addicted to the drug of war.
8. Up Pixar tapped into our inner senior citizen for its annual gift to the masses. Few images were as indelible this year as the four-minute montage that economically dramatizes the sixty-year relationship between Carl and Ellie, or the keen symbol of an elderly, grief-clouded Carl dragging the baggage of their lives–a home lifted by thousands of balloons–toward the destination of their dreams.
9. Where the Wild Things Are How do you make a 95-minute film out of a ten-sentence children’s book? Very carefully. At least that’s what we can gather from Spike Jonze’s well-considered, well-designed, well-performed youth psychodrama. Taking its cues from Maurice Sendak’s book, the screenplay by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers projects childhood emotions onto a not-terribly inviting landscape and its monstrous denizens. For the inner child in all of us.
10. A Single Man Colin Firth shot to the top of the Best Actor short list with his leading performance as a gay professor reeling from the recent death of his lover. Julianne Moore, equally good, nails the role of his boozy bosom buddy. First-time director Tom Ford–who comes from the world of fashion–overdoses on style, but A Single Man is also a thinking person’s picture about love, loss, and the mortal ravages of inexorable time.
Runners-up: You, the Living; A Serious Man; Summer Hours; The White Ribbon; (500) Days of Summer; Duplicity; Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire; Ponyo; Fantastic Mr. Fox; Me and Orson Welles; Police, Adjective; Star Trek; Bright Star; Watchmen: The Director's Cut, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The Year's Best Documentary Films
2. Valentino: The Last Emperor
3. Of Time and the City
4. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
5. Every Little Step
6. The Beaches of Agnes
7. The Way We Get By
8. Food, Inc.
9. The Cove
10. Burma VJ
Runners-up: Capitalism: A Love Story; Michael Jackson's This Is It
The Year's Worst Films (There But For the Grace of God Go You): Miss March, Bride Wars, Planet 51, Sorority Row, Aliens in the Attic, I Love You, Beth Cooper, Friday the 13th, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Hannah Montana: The Movie.
Underrated/Undersold/Overlooked: Sita Sings the Blues, The Road, Duplicity, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Dare, The International, The Brothers Bloom, Séraphine, Funny People, The Way We Get By, Surrogates, Brothers, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
The Yellow-Bellied Coward Award goes to the studios that released Saw VI, The Stepfather, Pandorum, Sorority Row, Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All by Myself, Gamer, The Final Destination, Halloween II, Aliens in the Attic, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Obsessed, Crank: High Voltage, Dragonball Evolution, Next Day Air, 12 Rounds, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail, Friday the 13th, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, My Bloody Valentine 3D (A few of these charmers played for critics on the night before opening at 7:30pm or even in some cases as late as 9 or 10pm. These are the times when you see "TOO LATE FOR REVIEW" in your morning paper, though some particularly hardy internet critics will burn the midnight oil to review them.)
Coolest Titles: Anvil! The Story of Anvil; Winter of Frozen Dreams; You, the Living; Capitalism: A Love Story; A Town Called Panic; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Worst Titles: Donkey Punch, Crank: High Voltage, Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, Spread, The Final Destination, The Blue Tooth Virgin, Janky Promoters, Oh My God?, Do Knot Disturb, Transylmania, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Aptest Titles: Hotel for Dogs, Everlasting Moments, Fighting, Land of the Lost, My Life in Ruins, Whatever Works, Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, The Blind Side, (Untitled)
Movies that Never Got Anywhere Near Me (damn!): Monster Beach Party; Gooby; Nursery University; Short Kut, The Con Is On; How to Be a Serial Killer; My Fuhrer; Gogol Bordello Non-Stop; OPA!; Confessions ofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha
Demented Double Features/Marathon Madness: 2009 films that belong together or that'll just mess with your head...(Be sure to watch in the suggested order.)