I actually had a difficult time putting together and ranking the 10 best movies of the past year, but unfortunately it wasn’t because there were so many to choose from. No, 2009 was a particularly weak year for movies – not only were there very few great ones, there were more than plenty disappointments. I’m hoping that 2010 will give us a better crop of films.
Regretfully, I haven’t seen 500 Days of Summer or Zombieland, two movies that I’ve heard very good things about. Still, I feel like I’ve seen enough this year to make a top 10 list. If you feel like I’ve left something off or included a movie that has no business being in the top 10, let me know in the comments section.
I’m sure someone is going to mention the absence of The Hurt Locker, so I might as well say right now that I didn’t like it so much. OK, enough babbling – let’s get to my picks for the top 10 movies of 2009.
10. The Hangover
Comedies don’t really get a lot of love and regardless of the year, you almost never hear them mentioned amongst the best movies. With comedies, I tend to think that the goal of the people involved with the movie is primarily to make the audience laugh (as opposed to other genres of film, where more emphasis is placed on storytelling and characters). Well, if the point of The Hangover was to make me laugh, then Todd Phillips, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zack Galifianakis succeeded big time. The Hangover was certainly the funniest movie this year and one of the best comedies I’ve seen in years. Todd Phillips has still got it.
Because it was the best comedy this year and made me laugh pretty hard – even on repeat viewings – I had to include The Hangover in my top 10.
James Toback’s documentary about Mike Tyson lets audiences into the life and mind of one of the most intriguing sports figures in history. Mike Tyson is one of the greatest American tragedies, and a film documenting his rise and fall was long overdue. In Tyson, Toback shows us sides of Tyson we’ve never seen before. Instead of as a raging maniac, Toback portrays Tyson as a lonely, frustrated individual who has suffered in ways most of us couldn’t imagine.
I enjoyed Moon quite a bit when I first saw it, but after letting the film marinate for awhile, I’ve really come to love it. Duncan Jones’ Moon is somewhat of a throwback science fiction movie, feeling much more like 2001 as opposed to a more modern effects-driven movie. Sam Rockwell gives a great performance, and Moon’s focus on the psychological aspects of solitude and cloning make it not only one of the best science fiction movies of the year, but on of the best movies period. Moon is original, has a unique atmosphere, but above all else, it’s refreshing.
7. Up in the Air
Apparently Up in the Air is among the few movies mentioned as being Best Picture contenders. Nothing against Up in the Air – I do have it listed as the seventh best movie this year, after all – but it’s not half as strong a film as some of the movies that have been nominated for Best Picture in years past. It’s nowhere near as good as There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, or even Michael Clayton. The thing is, though, there’s really nothing about Up in the Air that I didn’t like. It was extremely well-acted, and the quirk that saturated director Jason Reitman’s Juno was essentially deleted.
Up in the Air does a lot of things very well (especially avoiding a cliche trap toward the end) and has a poignant message about life choices and social norms. Still, it doesn’t do anything to really blow you away, so I can’t put it much higher than seventh.
6. Fantastic Mr. Fox
From one George Clooney movie to the next, Fantastic Mr. Fox should have received the hype that undeservedly went to Where The Wild Things Are. Fox is directed by Wes Anderson, a fact that anyone should be able to figure out after just five minutes of the movie. Although it’s based on a children’s book, Fox is clever enough for adults. It’s filled with humor and genuinely interesting characters that you care about despite their being animals. Truly impressive voice acting and a simple yet aesthetically unique movie help to make Fantastic Mr. Fox one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Perhaps best of all, the movie comes across as fun and is devoid of any pretentiousness.
5. Star Trek
J.J. Abrams proved that you can make a fun blockbuster movie with incredible special effects without dumbing it down too much. Both fans of the franchise and people who had never seen an episode of Star Trek in their lives raved about the movie, and you’ve got to give credit to Abrams for being able to appeal to everyone – hell hath no fury like a nerd who notices a technical error.
In addition to a great story that could be considered part of the “old” or “new” Star Trek universe, Star Trek featured great visuals as well as characters with a bit more depth than we’re used to for big-budget science fiction. Maybe what I liked the most about Star Trek was how well Spock’s cold, logical personality supplemented Kirk’s impulsive, emotional personality. Pine and Quinto were great in their respective roles, and I’m definitely looking forward to a sequel.
You have to think that an animated movie is going to get nominated for Best Picture one of these days, right? Now that the number of nominees has expanded to 10, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Up is in the running. Pixar has been on a hit streak the likes of which have never been seen, and the studio’s most recent movie – Up – may be the best one yet. Up proves that animated films can elicit empathy and genuine emotion from audiences, sometimes even more effectively than live action movies can. And that’s exactly what Up does, in addition to telling a great, original story and showing off some of the best-looking animation in movies today. Still, Up never really feels like a cartoon; it’s too good a movie to be undermined with a label like that.
The bottom line is that if you didn’t feel anything during the first 15 minutes of Up, you don’t have a soul.
Anything to say about how this movie holds up visually has likely already been said. Simply put, it’s the best-looking movie of all time. Watching Avatar on IMAX 3-D is truly an experience and feels more like an EPCOT ride than seeing an actual movie. When I saw Avatar, I felt as though I had been beamed 20 years into the future and someone had told me, “This is how we watch movie’s nowadays.”
Granted, Avatar is a derivative story and there are some cliches, but the Dances With Wolves archetype isn’t such a bad form to follow. James Cameron proved all the doubters wrong and changed the way big-budget science fiction and fantasy movies will be made from this point forward. Avatar is a game-changer and even with its flaws (which I believe have been really, really blown out of proportion), it deserves a spot in the top three.
2. Inglourious Basterds
If anyone can rewrite history, it’s Quentin Tarantino. It was amazing to me how easily Tarantino was able to remove himself from his usual world of undercover cops and organized crime and still maintain the ability to have his characters come across as supercool masters of dialogue. There was plenty of violence in Basterds, but Tarantino showed that he can film a suspenseful scene as well as anyone. The opening scene of this movie is perhaps Tarantino’s best work; I was on edge the entire time.
In a movie where most characters are pretending to be someone else, it takes a great performance to really convince the audience as to what a certain character’s motivations truly are. Nobody shined more than Christoph Waltz, and if he should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
1. District 9
Neil Blomkamps moderately-budgeted apartheid metaphor was the best movie to be released this year. The effects was remarkable considering the restraints, but District 9 didn’t need to rely on flashy effects to make an impression. Wikus van de Merwe was a refreshing protagonist; instead of virtuously good or macho, there were many shades of gray to his character and it takes a while for you to figure out just how you feel about him. The prawn Christopher Johnson was equally interesting, and it’s tough not to admire his resolve.
District 9 is more than effective as a social commentary – as many science fiction movies are – but isn’t too heavy-handed, nor does it parade around like it’s proud of itself (Blomkamp expects the audience to pick up on the apart hied metaphor immediately). But what separates District 9 from the rest of the pack is the incredible action that goes down in the third act of the film. And unlike many other big action sequences in film, with District 9, you actually care about how everything is going to turn out. District 9 was the best movie of 2009 and has the staying power of an all-time classic.