I am six weeks late with this, but better late than never. There's no need for an extended prologue, but just know that these are not my "favorites" of the year, but what I consider to have been the best films of 2009. What that means, I'll explicate some time in the future. For now, enjoy!
- - - - - - -
Sight unseen: Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga); The Box (Richard Kelly); Antichrist (Lars von Trier); The Sun (Alexander Sokurov); Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola); Revanche (Götz Spielmann); You, the Living (Roy Andersson); The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke); That Evening Sun (Scott Teems)
Honorable mention: A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen); The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow); Moon (Duncan Jones); Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze); District 9 (Neill Blomkamp); Star Trek (J.J. Abrams); Public Enemies (Michael Mann); Away We Go (Sam Mendes); Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck); The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)
- - - - - - -
10. Coraline (Henry Selick)
This gorgeous animated moral tale caught me by complete surprise. The beauty of the visuals equals in every part the detail of the characters, the dynamics of the world created on screen, and the difficult journey young Coraline takes toward a true and earned love for her family, warts and imperfections and all.
9. Julia (Erick Zonca)
Tilda Swinton, an actress I (fairly or not) associate with low-key, frumpy, subtly nuanced roles, delivers a performance as the out-of-control alcoholic Julia that makes a mockery of the Oscar nominations (Sandra Bullock? Really?). But beyond that -- given that I watched the movie because of what I had read about Swinton -- the story, and the way it so faithfully goes off the rails in the third act, was no less a surprise, and a wild ride, itself.
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
I could not have been happier or more charmed by Wes Anderson's belated zig (rather than zag). This change-up was supposed to have been The Darjeeling Limited, but whereas that film lagged and even stepped backward creatively (wallowing in tired tropes and spent habits), the new possibilities afforded by Fantastic Mr. Fox's visuals also opened up new and delightful avenues in storytelling, character, and dialogue. I am now completely unprepared and wholly excited for Wes Anderson's next work.
7. Avatar (James Cameron)
I have two reactions to James Cameron's ultimate pet project: yes, the story is a mish-mash; yes, it is not clear that Sam Worthington is a certifiable leading man; yes, the political and theological directions of the narrative are problematic and deserve critique. On the other hand: when I walked out of the IMAX 3-D theater, I imagined the feeling I had was something not unlike that of those walking out of theaters on May 25, 1977. No, Avatar isn't perfect, but it also doesn't need to be. It was, however, in many ways a singularly unique experience, and it certifies James Cameron as the most visionary cinematic craftsman of big-budget epic storytelling alive today.
6. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
This was my first Claire Denis film, and I suspect my difficulty in getting into her careful rhythm was largely due to unfamiliarity with her work. Regardless, 35 Shots of Rum draws you in without your knowing it, and if any film is a grower, this is it. I haven't stopped thinking about this minimal, intimate, extended breath of a movie since the meaningfully mundane final image tripped to black; and I suspect further viewings will validate the lived-in nature of this wonderful glimpse into the life of a special sort of family at a handful of necessary, but painful, crossroads.
5. Two Lovers (James Gray)
If Joaquin Phoenix only acts every 2-3 years in James Gray films, that just might be a workable set-up. The previews for this extraordinary film are laughably misleading compared to the actual story and its complexities; combined with Julia, this represents the height of filmmakers committed to the truth of human characters: faithfulness to their person, honesty about their failures, refusal to pass judgment, involvement with their thoughts and actions. Two Lovers is the story of a man, and two women, at alternate, but unsustainable, places in their lives; what comes can only be true to them, and Gray succeeds profoundly.
4. In The Loop (Armando Iannucci)
The word that came to mind the moment In the Loop ended? Brilliant. I simply did not know what I was getting into, even two thirds of the way through the movie, and the swift harmony of writing, direction, performance, and political import was devastating. All talk of politics and war ought to make this bitter, hilarious film required viewing. Such a revelation, both in its ultimate sadness and in its unflinching commitment to the truth.
3. Up (Pete Docter)
Having seen this one only once, and nine months ago, it is difficult to put into words what I felt at the time. In ways that walk a thin line between manipulation and sentimentality, on the one hand, and heavy-handedness and taking itself too seriously, on the other, Up is a tightrope of emotion, action, and relationship. Just a joy, like all Pixar films. A blessing on their house, and may their tribe increase.
2. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Steve McQueen's Hunger is nothing less than a work of art: pristine, composed, precise in execution, radically political, wholly subversive, rigorous and bare in emotion, and raw, even virtuosic, in performance. The year of 2009 was the year of Michael Fassbender, and Steve McQueen has announced himself as one of the most relevant young directors working today. Don't read the cover, don't go to IMDb -- just watch this movie (even if you need subtitles).
1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
I was so impacted by Quentin Tarantino's sixth film that I wrote something like 10,000 words spread across two different posts, creating a bit of controversy and intersection with others in the blogosphere. The point being: this film is powerful. So powerful, in my case, that I am still thinking about it: what it says about speech and action, about violence and vengeance, about film and history, about retribution and fantasy -- there is so much to Tarantino's (vicariously self-proclaimed) "masterpiece" that I believe it will continue to stand as one of the most generative works of film for questions of ethics, art, and history long into the future. If you can handle the interruptive spikes of violence -- which you needn't be able to, though my description itself reveals something about the film's presentation versus its reality -- Inglourious Basterds is essential viewing.