best of 2009

The Best Movies of 2009

Was this a great year for movies? Much of Hollywood thought so. In 2009, studios made record profits with fewer movies — “event” movies — while specialty divisions and indie distributors contracted or folded altogether. Meanwhile, many small and foreign-language films (including some listed below) showed up for a fee on cable in the same week they opened in New York and Los Angeles. I watched many of these films on my big-screen TV and felt sad over the lack of company. Sometimes I put the remote on the other side of the room to force myself to pay as much attention as I would in a theater, without the possibility of pausing or rewinding.

I gave up winnowing the list to ten at a certain point because there were simply too many wonderful films. (You’ll find the rest of my list on my blog, The Projectionist.) The number is annoying anyway. Why should I count on my fingers and stop there? Why not my toes? Why not other extremities? As it is, I’ve left off too many docs (Under My Skin, The Yes Men Fix the World, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers), maligned socially conscious dramas (Mammoth), and maligned comedies (Observe and Report). Enough woolgathering. To the list!

See More Year-End Best-of Lists

Yes, darn it, James Cameron (with the help of a brontosaurean budget) has outdone himself, creating a pantheistic virtual world with such thrilling depth that even if the wishful-thinking plot (Native Americans saved!) is by numbers, the perspectives are dizzying. And wow, is it big!
It fictionalizes the days leading up to the strong-armed U.N. resolution in support of the invasion of Iraq — largely from the Brit perspective, but with cameos by fanatical American world-shakers and the people who tried to stand in their way. It’s farcical, laden with obscenities, utterly outlandish — except this is likely how it went down exactly.
Terrence Davies’s acidic, angry, resigned, transcendent portrait of the life of Liverpool after World War II — found footage woven into a tone poem.
In a year of stunning activist docs (The Cove stands out, as does American Casino and, yes, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story), Robert Kenner’s film has the kick of The Matrix — the movie where humans find out they’re living in a simulacrum, a virtual world of fake food (and farms) they mistake for reality. It will wake you (and your kids) up to the hidden costs and unintended consequences of How We Eat Now.
James Toback’s documentary is among the most intimate celebrity portraits ever made, a revelatory weave of confession and boxing footage. A whitewash? The charge can be made. But only if you want your ear bitten off.
A Jewish joke with a sting: Joel and Ethan Coen lampoon Jewish traditions and folklore — along with the sanctified notion of moral “seriousness” — and yet affirm the existential dislocation (and dread) that gives rise to the kind of faith that holds communities together.
Why choose among such stop-motion riches? In his hilarious Roald Dahl adaptation, Wes Anderson’s ultracomposed frames have never seemed so magically alive. And if Henry Selik makes some big boo-boos in adapting Neil Gaiman’s novel, the images are so exquisite and otherworldly that you’ll feel as if you’re floating through his dollhouse world along with the wide-eyed heroine.
Jan Troell’s entrancingly beautiful drama centers on a turn-of-the-century woman who finds an old camera in a cabinet and discovers that she has what another character calls “a gift for seeing.” Troell uses surfaces — light, texture, faces — to hint at another world, a shadow realm. He treats every frame as if the medium of filmmaking were new and precious.
Underpraised by most critics, Jim Sheridan’s melancholy drama (with superlative performances by Tobey Maguire [who bought NOTHING], Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, and young Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) explores not just the trauma of war but the chemistry of families — the connections that shape our actions even when separated from loved ones (or loathed ones) by continents and years.
Why is this the film of 2009 that rises to the top? I think because through the device of selling off a dead woman’s estate, Olivier Assayas captures as no one I’ve seen (in 100 low-key minutes) the passing of the Old World with its indigenous forms of culture, the rise of globalization, and the weakening of family ties. It’s very French, with predictable whiffs of xenophobia and anti-Semitism (someone pointedly mentions consulting with a real-estate broker named “Rosen” to sell the beloved estate) … but its conservatism is, at least, double-edged. Assayas is too much of an international multi-culty bohemian jet-setter to imagine a sleepy life in the country surrounded by nineteenth-century vases. For the rest of my favorites (and least favorites), read my blog, The Projectionist.
The Best Movies of 2009