It's official: Pixar's Up was one of the best films of 2009.
Films tend to prosper regardless of the state of the economy, and 2009 was not much different for the industry. The year was bookended by smash hits at the box office - Danny Boyle's feel-good Slumdog Millionaire and James Cameron's much-hyped Avatar (glad to get those out of the way) - but there's more to movies than big budgets and big returns.
Last year saw an impressive offering of great, meaningful films in all genres. Animated features like Up had as much to say about the human condition as politically charged sci-fi movies like District 9 and Avatar did. There were the unexpected films - Michael Jackson's This Is It - and then there were the ones we could see trudging in from miles off - New Moon and the return of that Harry Potter fellow.
Wasn't there a Tarantino in there as well?
But enough bandying about. Lists are in order.
Rather than taking a democratic approach to the year's best films (as was done for musicOMH's Top 50 Albums of 2009), we decided to gather our highest rated films, and then let some of our individual reviewers speak for themselves on the films that moved them the most in the last year of the first decade of the current century (notice to what great lengths we go to avoid horrendous terms like 'The Naughties').
Inevitably, there was a bit of overlap among our fine reviewers' choices, but that should only speak to the greatness of these films. Enjoy.
|musicOMH's Highest Rated Films of 2009|
Following are the films from 2009 that received either 4.5 or 5 stars.
Let The Right One In
The Descent: Part 2
Where The Wild Things Are
|musicOMH Film Writers' Top Films|
James Cameron's over-hyped, big budget alien epic, Avatar, has, in no uncertain terms, pushed the film medium forward by great lengths. From its cutting edge special effects to its total re-envisioning of what a 3-D film can be, to the scope of its seemingly unending spectacle and inexhaustible firepower, Avatar does everything a film can do and more. Cameron pushes the 3-D medium from its once cornered status as the paltry plaything of pedestrian filmmakers and gullible audiences into a bona fide experience; Avatar doesn't jump off the screen - you fall into it. There's not a dull frame anywhere to be seen throughout the film's 189-minute runtime.
The Hangover (review)
The Hangover is 2009's much needed return to ballsy, riotous R-rated comedy. This one doesn't flinch. The ensemble cast of Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms are spot on, and their chance encounter with Phil Collins enthusiast Mike Tyson - in the year's second most outrageous cameo appearance - is comedic gold. By all accounts, this was a film that shouldn't have worked. Consider the strikes against it: It's a bachelor party movie in Vegas with no star power to speak of. We've seen this before, right? Even still, strong word of mouth kept The Hangover in theaters for months during a summer season stuffed with soulless, bloated box-office cash cows.
Here's an animated film that deserves to be nominated for Best Picture, not just Best Animated Feature (if old Oscar knows what's good for him). Ed Asner turns in a soulfully disgruntled performance in what is surely Pixar's finest work to date. (Who thought they'd ever be able to top the sublimely postmodern Wall-E?) Pixar has gone to great lengths to create a film that appeals to all ages, presenting a rare sort of fantasy story - a house made to fly with helium balloons, really? - with an old soul. The life-spanning montage that opens the film is among the most heart-breaking cinematic achievements of the decade, and the film as a whole reaches heights (pun, sure, but it's a worthy one) unmatched by any of its Pixar predecessors.
In an era in which the archetypical zombie has been stripped of its terror, foddered instead into brainless straight-to-DVD comedies (Zombie Strippers, anyone?), Ruben Fleischer has shown that Shaun Of The Dead was not the only zom-com with heart (to match its insatiable hunger for brains). Woody Harrelson turns in a career-defining role as Tallahassee, a zombie killing madman; Jesse Eisenberg performs at his twitchy, awkward best; and - at this late date, I think it's safe to spoil it - Bill Murray shows up for possibly the most entertaining 15 minutes of any movie this decade. Zombieland keeps the humour dark, the camera lens blood-spattered, and the music fresh. It was the most entertained I've been by a film in a very long time.
A Serious Man (review)
Joel and Ethan Coen have proven themselves impossible to pin down, and A Serious Man is no exception to their constant shape-shifting and genre-bending. This is perhaps their most personal film, centering on a Midwestern American Jewish family in the 1960s. Here, we get a devastatingly excellent turn by stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg as a modern day Job, and the Coens hurl pestilence and plagues his way. Why does this matter, you ask? The film presents themes of religion and doubt, and life and love in ways that only the Coens can, with a seemingly impossible blend of the darkest humour and the deftest of microcosmic universalism. Larry Gopnik is an everyman for the ages, and A Serious Man is on par with the Coens' best work.
Justin de la Cruz
Let The Right One In (review)
This Swedish horror film presents a spin on the standard vampire tale and does so with exquisite, artistic flair. Author John Ajvide Lindqvist's vampire appears as a young girl who lives in the city. She struggles with her need to drink blood and seeks friendship in a maligned young boy. Let The Right One In (or Låt den rätte komma in) is the story of how their relationship comes to fruition, but also the story of childhood trauma and dysfunctional family relationships set in the dead of winter. A must see.
Moon, like Let The Right One In, deals with the human condition in a stark setting. Sam Rockwell carries the film as an astronaut who resides alone on the moon, harvesting energy to send back to Earth. Clever writing, stellar acting from Rockwell, and a distinct lack of special effects adds up to one intense movie-watching experience.
Star Trek (review)
From video games to blockbuster films, the most sought after venture (i.e., cash cow) is the sequel. Followed closely by the remake. Star Trek had the wisdom to do a bit of both, and superbly at that. It had its snide references to the older Star Trek movies and television shows to keep the fanboys snickering, but it also had an impressive storyline, stellar special effects, and surprisingly good performances from newer actors. All of this combined with the undeniable talent of director JJ Abrams made Star Trek the best revival of a franchise since Batman Begins.
Any film adaptation will have its detractors. But, simply put, there was no way to make a better version of Watchmen than what director Zack Snyder did for the graphic novel. It was a beautifully shot film, from its Bob Dylan-inspired title sequence all the way to its... well, that's the thing. The film was even able to improve on the book's somewhat whimsical ending, making it more of a serious affair. Impressive, indeed.
Rumors that Quentin Tarantino was doing a WWII flick had people on the edge of their seats. The unevenly paced final result (AKA, more violence, please) was nevertheless perfect in its ability to build tension and to portray through screwball absurdity the inexplicable horrors of the second War To End All Wars. In what could be called a manner of blind, yet unflinching pastiche, Tarantino culled motifs from war movies and revenge movies alike to create one gruesome cinematic baby.
The White Ribbon
A Serious Man (review)
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Andersen's visual style overlaid on to a stop motion animal wonderland. The incredible voice work and dead pan delivery throughout the film by Clooney, Schwartzman and Streep gives the anthropomorphic Fox family very real depth aided by a brilliantly animated cast of animal and human characters and the autumnal world they inhabit.
The only contender to The Dark Knight's crown as the best comicbook adaptation ever made, from the heights of the brilliantly expositional opening sequence to a bizarrely long and gratuitous sex scene ending in cum joke. If for nothing else the film, and director Zack Snyder, should be praised for introducing a huge audience to the awesomeness of Rorshach, and to the awesomeness of Jackie Earle Haley.
Duncan "Zowie Bowie" Jones' directorial debut is stark, old-school science fiction as heavy on internal emotional conflict as it is light on cast. Sam Rockwell faces off against Sam Rockwell and a Kevin Spacey robot in a remote mining facility on the moon. It's refreshing to have sci-fi film that is slow moving but engrossing all the same. And there's not a CGI alien or lightsaber to be seen.
District 9 will probably do more for goodwill toward South Africans than Clint Eastwood's forthcoming Invictus. Sharlto Copley's turn as Wikus Van De Merwe, a company man who finds himself quite literally becoming his own worse enemy, is heartbreakingly brilliant. The apartheid allegory is rather obvious and heavy-handed but the small stories and relationships within the larger arc of a standard sci-fi action film are in turn believable, beautiful and tragic.
WWII is rebooted by Tarantino. The best opening sequence of the year kicks off what is essentially an ensemble revenge flick. Brad Pitt and co take us on a journey through Nazi occupied France, a German propaganda film history lesson, the compulsory Mexican standoff and on to one of the most satisfyingly gory endings ever given a wide release.
Let The Right One In
Where the Wild Things Are
Worst of 2009
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
The Boat That Rocked (AKA Pirate Radio)
State Of Play
Pixar's monopoly on thrilling, poignant and pertinent animation continued this year with perhaps their best film yet. Peter Docter's intensely moving Up was perfectly pitched between crowd-pleasing romp and affecting character study. Choosing two unconventional leads (a grouchy old man and an overweight child) and making you root for them was one thing, but having the balls to attempt (and succeed) to reduce an audience to a blubbering wreck within the first ten minutes was a whole different matter - something no other film this year had the confidence to do. If Up is not nominated for best film at the Oscars, not just animated, it will be a travesty.
A slow-moving fly-on-the-wall documentary about a year in the life of a remote Welsh farming village facing the onslaught of modernity may seem not a thrilling evening out. While there was no discernible plot, central characters or even deliberate moral or motive behind it, Gideon Koppel's debut feature was one of the year's most profound films, saying more about the struggles of retaining a sense of community in a static shot of a library van wending it's way slowly through the hills than any number of polemical interviews.
Encounters at the End of the World
It's easy to overlook Werner Herzog's laudable documentary work, particularly in the face of his incredible, idiosyncratic and often downright bonkers fiction work. Encounters ranks alongside Herzog's own Grizzly Man as one of the best documentaries ever made about man and the environment - a spectacular and suprisingly personal look at the lonely humans and beasts that inhabit the Arctic. While the footage is often jaw dropping, it's Herzog's eye for the surreal that really sticks, from a suicidal penguin to a blindfolded group of researchers trying to recreate a blizzard rescue.
Star Trek (review)
How do you reinvent a moribund sci-fi franchise, while keeping the geeks onboard and making it exciting enough for new converts? Well, if you're Hollywood wunderkind JJ Abrams, hire a uniformly beautiful young cast, throw in some inter-species shagging and make the action sequences really, really big. Star Trek's reboot is so incomprehensible, so implausible, that the plot serves only as some breathing space between punch-ups, explosions and snogging. It's what the series was crying out for - the best action film of the year, and the best Star Trek film ever made (yes, including The Wrath of Kahn).
A Serious Man (review)
Coming off the back of the throwaway star vehicle Burn After Reading, A Serious Man was one of the Coen brothers' best volte-faces. A pitch-black, tears-of-laughter-inducing comedy with no stars, set in a 1960s Jewish household was as vicious as it was hilarious. The writer/directors took obscene pleasure in throwing every conceivable test of faith at Michael Stuhlberg's physics professor in the middle of an existential crisis. Many critics couldn't warm to the Coens' new film, finding it too oblique or mean-spirited. They were missing the point. Sometimes these things don't have to have a deeper meaning. Sometimes they just need to be very, very funny.
Where the Wild Things Are (review)
Spike Jones' spirited adaptation of the slight Maurice Sendak book was notable both for its inventive fleshing out of the book's plot and for the ire that its slow-moving, ponderous take on the material attracted. Critics queued up to denounce it as "boring" or "too scary for kids" - but for many, this was as good an evocation of childhood's roughshod emotions as any Pixar flick. With the supurbly designed Wild Things reflecting each of the facets of the young Max's personality, the ensuing film was in turns thrilling, scary, sad and meditative - just like any childhood.