2009 was a bit of a down year at the movies, but there was plenty to see if you knew where to look. When thinking back over the course of a year you always search for patterns. This was a year for films about soldiers (four made my list), high quality animation (the top two found their way here, but there were other contenders), and the strongest year for science fiction in recent memory (including three who earned spots). Throw into that mix my favorite drama of the year, and a spot-on teenage coming of age comedy, and maybe 2009 wasn't such a bad year after all.
I tried my best to see everything but a few slipped by me including Broken Embraces, Red Cliff, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and A Single Man. And I'll take a moment to give a shout out to a pair of films just missing the cut in Sin Nombre the Coen Bros. A Serious Man.
But enough about what didn't earn a spot. Let's get on to the list...
Teen comedies are a dime-a-dozen these days. So for me to include a film like Adventureland in the best of the year category it must be something special. And it is. Director Greg Mottola has given us an instant classic in the genre. This belongs on your DVD shelf next to Say Anything..., at least that's where it is on mine. Mottola's semi-autobiographical coming of age tale gives us more than we expect. Yes, it wants to make you laugh, but it also sets out to be a lasting film with an easily relatable personal story of young love and that crappy summer job everyone remembers so well. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.
In the future all of the Earth's energy needs will be met by a single man working on the Moon. Sam Rockwell stars as a man nearing the end of his three-year assignment with no direct contact with Earth and only a robot as a friend. A shocking discovery leads him to doubt his own sanity and question everything he knows and believes about himself and the nature of human existence as he knows it. With a budget of only $5,000,000 director Duncan Jones gives us a tight psychological drama about what it means to be human. Available on DVD and Blu-ray January 12th.
Speaking of strong sci-fi films made on a modest budget. With $30,000,000 director Neill Blomkamp takes a hard look at segregation, under-the-radar government experiments, class structure, and xenophobia through the lens of one man's (Sharlto Copley) journey and slow transformation from bureaucrat, to fugitive, to alien life-form. This is District 9. Somehow this thinly-veiled allegory to Cape Town's District Six never comes off as preachy or pompous. Blomkamp earns major points here by combining weighty ideas with some seriously cool effects, and all without a name star to help sell the film. Now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
If Moon represents one side the the sci-fi genre (the quiet, science-heavy introspection), James Cameron's Avatar is the other. Costing upwards of $300, 000,000 (reports differ), the film is less about story than providing a lasting memorable experience unlike anything you have ever seen. This tale of humans attempting to survive on a hostile alien world, and one soldier's (Sam Worthington) attempts to learn from the native population, is big budget sci-fi spectacle at its best. Part Dances With Wolves and part Star Wars, Avatar succeeds in structuring intriguing characters, lush visuals, amazing 3-D, and an amazing fleshed-out new world, around a rather pedestrian story. It's quite possible in five years that this is the film everyone remembers from 2009. Currently in theaters and IMAX.
I'm not Wes Anderson's biggest fan. Other than Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited I tend to come away from his work conflicted, saddened, and ultimately disappointed. With Fantastic Mr Fox Anderson uses his unique style and quirky sense of humor to its fullest. This beautifully rendered stop motion adaptation of Roald Dahl's book is as good as anything the director has ever done. Every choice is right here, and in a normal year for animation this would be handsdown the best in of the genre, but we still have a Pixar film to discuss. Currently in theaters.
It's hard for me not to think of Ben Foster as the lead character in the teen comedy Get Over It, but the The Messenger makes it easier. Foster stars as a decorated soldier coming off an eye injury who is given a new assignment (working as a Casualty Notification Officer) and a new commander (Woody Harrelson), neither of which he's all that sure of. Foster carries the film with a depth I never knew he was capable of, and Samantha Morton chimes in with a memorable supporting performance as a widow of a fallen soldier. Currently playing in select cities.
You and me both Dug. Up has it all. The humor, craftsmanship, and Pixar's usual fine touches earn it a spot on the list, but it's those early heart-wrenching scenes involving Carl (Ed Asner) and Ellie's life together that push it into the top five. And here's another film where animals (dogs) are more than just anamorphized human characters... *SQUIRREL!*... Where was I? Oh yeah, they think and act like dogs! This isn't just a great animated film. Up is a great film. Period. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Director Kathryn Bigelow throws us into the action following members of a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal in Iraq. Although I think the second-half of The Hurt Locker is a little too preoccupied with Sgt. James' (Jeremy Renner) concern over a missing young boy, Bigelow delivers a great war film without much of the usual trappings and cliche of films of this type. Renner's performance is first rate as the team leader, who seems just as likely to get everyone killed as save the day, in a film filled with strong performances. Available on DVD and Blu-ray January 12th.
I have never owned a Quentin Tarantino film, until now. I've always respected the man as a filmmaker (and never needed to buy Pulp Fiction, as it's seemingly always on television), but this was the first film of his I felt I needed to won. Inglourious Basterds takes on history itself with this tale of a Jewish band of Nazi killers (led by Brad Pitt), a Nazi officer known as "The Jew Hunter" (Christoph Waltz in a performance which should snag him an Oscar), and the women (MÃ©lanie Laurent, Diane Kruger) who have their own roles to play in ending the war. Given it's offbeat nature (I still argue the film is a comedy with some great dramatic moments) it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I thought it was bloody brilliant. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.
The easiest choice on the list was naming #1. This isn't the first time Jason Reitman has earned a spot on my best of the year list, but Up in the Air does mark the first time the director has snagged the top spot. Sometimes the right movie hits at exactly the right time. This is that film. This tale of a hatchet man for hire (George Clooney in one of the year's best performances) trying to protect his own job (and lifestyle) from the new ideas of young Cornell graduate (Anna Kendrick), deal with his sister's (Melanie Lynskey) impending wedding, and examine his feelings for his new lady love (Vera Farmiga), is clever, witty, sly, and awfully charming (just like the film's star). Up in the Air is a great film getting the most out of the talents of a young director and a movie star at the top of his game. Reitman also carefully blends in scenes with both actors and real people dealing loosing their jobs, a love of travel, and a philosophy of an untethered life. The result is magic. A film about firing people has never been this funny, and rarely this moving. Currently in theaters.