There have been years here at A.V. Club Central where the five core writers in the film-reviewing pool have been almost Borg-like in our consensus over the best movies of the year. Think 2007, for example, when the only suspense over the No Country For Old Men/There Will Be Blood/Zodiac trifecta was the order they’d be in at the top. 2009 was not one of those years. Of the films listed below, only our No. 1 appeared on all five of our Top 20 lists, and even then, the amount of passion wavered significantly from one person to another. But what 2009 lacked in obvious modern classics, it more than made up in the quantity and diversity of very fine efforts, which inspired us to expand the big list from 10 titles to 20 this year. Much as we may fight over their individual merits, we can at least agree that the movies below are well worth your time. Maybe.
The Top 20
Tim Burton got the lion’s share of the credit for The Nightmare Before Christmas, James And The Giant Peach never got the mainstream attention it deserved, and Monkeybone was kind of a flop, so it wasn’t until this year that director Henry Selick finally made the movie that should make his name. His stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short novel Coraline is a textural marvel, so smooth and accomplished that it looks computer-animated, but with a wealth of tiny, lovely detail that’s astonishing in something built by hand. No wonder it took years to make. Gaiman’s story—about a discontented girl who finds a door to a magical world that revolves lovingly around her—is genuinely creepy, and Selick doesn’t stint on the unsettling qualities, or the terror that follows when Coraline decides she wants to escape. Adults may consider Coraline too scary for children, but kids will likely find it just scary enough to be thrilling, and both age groups can marvel at the film’s elegant execution and impeccable craft.
19. 35 Shots Of Rum
Paying homage to Yasujiro Ozu has almost become a cottage industry on the festival circuit, but Claire Denis’ 35 Shots Of Rum goes beyond mere tribute, capturing Ozu’s simple emotional essence while furthering Denis’ own hypnotic, enchanting, elliptical style. The setup evokes Ozu’s Chishu Ryu/Setsuko Hara pairings beautifully: A middle-aged widower (Alex Descas) lives happily with his grown daughter (Mati Diop), but resolves that she should find her own way, independent of him. Denis subtly details the warm, comforting rituals of their day-to-day life together while bringing friends and neighbors into the picture, including the wayward young traveler who will come between them. 35 Shots radiates with bittersweet feelings of love and regret, and in one late-night bar sequence set to The Commodores’ “Night Shift,” a kind of magic, too.
18. Passing Strange
The difference between watching the last performance of Passing Strange on Broadway and watching Spike Lee’s filmed version is that Lee can get right up into the actors’ faces, watching them pant and pour sweat as they throw themselves into their work. He isn’t just letting more people see the show, he’s letting them see how it was produced, how much energy and passion the cast and musicians threw into this extraordinary musical. Mark “Stew” Stewart, the show’s writer and narrator, moves through musical genres as he moves through his own life, documenting phases in his musical and personal development. The sequences are played out by a small cast, particularly Daniel Breaker as “Youth,” a callow young semi-fictionalized version of Stew. Gospel, punk, blues, and R&B all get separate, deeply felt outings, alongside other genres presented as jokes and experiments. But what’s remarkable about the show is the way the songs come together in a single story, equally joyous, celebratory, accusatory, and sad, as Stew picks apart his life and shows what he and the people around him did right and wrong. It’s a monument to coming of age, presented with wry humor and a great deal of dedicated, invested—and above all, sweaty-with-focused-effort—talent.
17. Summer Hours
Generations overlap as they make way for one another in Olivier Assayas’ beautifully understated film about the difficulty faced by three siblings charged with dividing the estate of their mother, the niece and heir of an acclaimed painter. All three have drifted away, and their relationship with the place they spent many happy hours as children has grown complicated over the years. They’ve raised children seemingly indifferent to its charms, and the family’s longtime housekeeper may have a stronger emotional claim to the land than they do. The film examines how national identities shift, what culture means removed from the context that created it, and more, with subtlety, insistence, and in its final moments, a well-earned sense of grace and resignation.
16. Still Walking
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s subtle domestic dramedy follows a family as they gather for the anniversary of their eldest son’s death and spend the day eating, praying, and passive-aggressively dredging up old resentments and prejudices. Kore-eda meticulously catalogues the ways loved ones smile at each other over tea and then casually rip each other apart in private, showing how it all trickles down from sweet-faced matriarch Kirin Kiki, who passes out cruel comments along with plates of food. Still Walking is a movie about how family dynamics are often driven by perceived slights and miscommunicated expectations, but it’s also about how the whole history of a family can be told in the books, trinkets, posters, clothes, and utensils they never throw away. Their clutter—like their snippy comments—mysteriously assemble as a lasting monument to regret.
A film about organized crime that makes even Tony Soprano’s dullest day in the back room of the Bada Bing look glamorous, Matteo Garrone’s epic-in-sweep Gomorrah explores the pernicious influence of the Comorra, the Neapolitan mafia. Crime creeps like a weed into slums, factories, and the gun-toting dreams of a pair of dull-witted teenagers, insuring nothing healthy or beautiful can grow. Garrone’s matter-of-fact presentation and his cast’s naturalistic performance make the film all the more disturbing.
The most shocking moments in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist earned the film a lot of advance press, but little of it could prepare viewers for the atmosphere of sustained discomfort von Trier creates out of an excursion into the forest. Grieving the accidental death of their child, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe—playing characters known only as “She” and “He”—retreat to a forbidding cabin. She continues a plunge into depression while He attempts to use uses logic and reason to snap her out of it, in the midst of a wilderness that will not be tamed. The battle of the sexes that follows might feel unpardonably schematic if it weren’t for the stars’ flesh-and-blood performances and von Trier’s unsettlingly sensual approach to image-making. The shocks make an impact, but von Trier’s command of his themes—the way everyday existence opens itself up to the depths of despair, and the persistence of misogyny in allegedly enlightened times—are what prove memorable.
If it were possible to trademark a directorial approach, Chris Smith would owe Errol Morris serious royalties. To say that Collapse—Smith’s riveting portrait of author, editor, and ex-cop Michael Ruppert—is indebted to Morris’ Fog Of War is an understatement. Yet by telling Ruppert’s story through his own words, via an extended monologue interrupted only by the occasional question, the film gains a brooding intensity and almost painful intimacy. Ruppert summons an unrelentingly bleak vision of a world spinning violently out of control, yet his sense of certainty makes him hard to dismiss. Collapse is ultimately as much about Ruppert and his tortured psyche as it is about his terrifying ideas. Though it might seem like a departure from previous Smith films like American Movie and The Yes Men, they all share an interest in empathetically exploring obssessives doggedly pursuing their idiosyncratic passions in the face of widespread institutional indifference.
12. Big Fan
No film has explored the psychology of sports super-fandom with the eviscerating wit, insight, and uncompromising darkness of Big Fan, the directorial debut of The Wrestler screenwriter (and former Onion editor/friend of The A.V. Club) Robert Siegel. In a daring lead performance, Patton Oswalt plays a scarily committed New York Giants booster who has an opportunity to martyr himself for his team after getting viciously beaten by his favorite player. In a bitter irony, Oswalt lives out every fan’s fantasy—being able to play a personal role in determining his team’s success or failure—under the darkest, most masochistic circumstances. The film’s poignantly pathetic hero can’t score a winning touchdown or kick a game-tying field goal, but he can sacrifice his own well-being and financial security for the sake of the greater good. Oswalt suffers for his team, yet the film also acknowledges the comforting sense of community and belonging that comes with being part of a herd of like-minded pigskin zealots.
Pixar has yet to make a bad movie—even the bloated Cars is pretty charming—but with Ratatouille, Wall-E, and now Up, the studio is in the midst of a stunning run of creative and commercial success. Because Pixar encourages its team to experiment and explore, talented people like Up co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson get the time and space they need to develop the whimsical image of a house hoisted by helium balloons into a rousing South American adventure featuring talking dogs, disgraced heroes, and a heartbreaking contemplation of personal loss. Up is funny, exciting, tear-jerking, and gorgeously crafted. In other words, it’s a Pixar film.
10. The Informant!
A confident exercise in cognitive dissonance, Steven Soderbergh’s true-life tale of price-fixing in the lysine industry could have been a dull exposé of corporate malfeasance. Instead, it keeps shifting the sands beneath viewers’ feet, pairing drab office interiors with Marvin Hamlisch’s vibrant, alternately romantic and wackadoddle score, and casting recognizable funnymen in straight roles. What kind of movie is this? Soderbergh never answers the question, and at the center of it all, Matt Damon plays a man who isn’t sure what sort of movie he’s in, either. A brilliant, bland, bipolar schemer, Damon’s Mark Whitacre withholds information from everyone, including himself, creating two mysteries for every one he leaks to the FBI, and making the film less about the price of lysine than the human costs of denial and deception.
9. Where The Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze’s impressionistic portrait of childhood, as filtered through Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book, is such an idiosyncratic, strange, specific vision that it’s no wonder it charmed some and alienated others. But love it or hate it, viewers almost have to acknowledge that it’s wholly unique, and one of the best-crafted, controlled movies of the year. Jonze and his collaborators manage a production design that utterly respects Sendak’s iconic images, while finding deeper ways to express his themes through an extended story about an angry kid (Max Records) trying to come to terms with his personal demons, which he doesn’t understand and can’t fully satisfy. In the end, maybe he learns something, and maybe it’ll stick—but given that he’s still just a kid, who knows? By not forcing any conclusions, and not underlining his points, Jonze offers up a film that’s literally like a dream, existing in a series of hyper-intense, beautiful moments that don’t fully stick together or lead anywhere, but leave a lasting impression.
Tony Gilroy’s twisty, colorful, wildly entertaining follow-up to Michael Clayton serves as its perfect companion piece, a glamorous Hollywood comedy that traffics the same themes of corporate chicanery. Taking off from an inspired slow-mo opening-credits sequence, where competing CEOs (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) tussle on an airport tarmac, Duplicity combines the old-fashioned, rat-a-tat rhythms of classic screwball comedy with the complex double-dealings of modern industry titans. As corporate spies on opposite ends of a no-holds-barred war, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts have a sexy, grown-up chemistry that recalls the 1932 classic Trouble In Paradise, another movie about the sparks between two cynics who have made deceit their profession.
The close relationship between two grown men reconciling with adulthood has been a recurring theme lately, from mainstream comedies of the Apatow school to perceptive indie dramas like Old Joy, but none have attempted a high-wire act as audacious as Humpday. Simultaneously hilarious and painfully honest, the heavily improvised film stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as longtime friends on separate paths; as Duplass and his wife prepare to have a child, his bearded, patchouli-stinking buddy remains cheerfully adrift. Their drunken pact to create a film to enter into the local “arty” porn festival plays out like a game of chicken, with neither wanting to go through with it, but each needing the other to blink first. Duplass, Leonard, and director Lynn Shelton succeed in making an outrageous premise utterly plausible, while scoring consistent laughs out of the tension between two men who truly love (and secretly envy) each other.
6. In The Loop
The term “Strangelovian” tends to get tossed around gratuitously these days, but it absolutely applies to In The Loop, Armando Iannucci’s fiendishly smart, coal-black spin-off of the acclaimed TV satire The Thick Of It. In The Loop takes a brutally uncompromising look at the political machinations and power struggles on both sides of the pond, as British and American politicians and bureaucratic functionaries split off into warring factions in the run-up to an international skirmish in the Middle East. The film’s hyper-verbal characters use words as weapons, tossing around insults and vitriol with undisguised venom, none more so than Peter Capaldi as a rabid attack dog of a spin doctor who rattles off great symphonies of poetic profanity. If words could kill, his enraged rants could destroy at least a continent.
At 144 minutes, Erick Zonca’s uncanny John Cassavetes homage is the wildest of wild rides, a darkly comic abduction thriller/road movie/character study caught up in the turbulent impulses of its boozy heroine. Played with unforgettable immodesty by Tilda Swinton, the Julia of the title is an unrepentant sinner who’s pried away from the barstool when a woman offers her money to steal her son from his grandfather’s custody. Greedy and duplicitous by nature, Julia goes for an much bigger and more improbable score, which catapults Julia into a genuine nail-biter even as Zonca and Swinton keep unpeeling the endless layers of narcissism that obscure her withered, pea-sized sense of decency.
4. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino claims he doesn’t think about what his movies might mean until they’re in the can, but when it comes to the long-in-the-works Inglourious Basterds, it’s hard to believe he didn’t have some higher purpose in mind from the start. This is a movie about the power of propaganda—movies, rumors, campaigns of terror, and the like—to shape the perceptions and directions of world events, and it ends with a twist that gives cinema the ultimate victory over history. The brilliance of Inglourious Basterds is that while setting up this layered meditation on World War II archetypes, Tarantino also delivers a potent revenge thriller, with memorable characters, bravura setpieces, and flavorful dialogue, much of it in foreign languages. It’s a daring, clever stunt, and Tarantino finesses it masterfully, reestablishing himself as the rare filmmaker who can turn a trip inside his own head into a cultural event.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s lovingly hand-crafted, stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox radiates pure joy. Taking its cues from George Clooney’s charming vocal performance as a dashing rogue of a fox who goes to war with a trio of nasty farmers after they destroy his family’s home and rob him of his tail, the film revels in language, music, dance, friendship, and family. It’s a film of dazzling verbosity and meticulous perfectionism, filled with loveable characters and quotable dialogue. Balancing its director’s trademark melancholy with irrepressible optimism, Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenanbaums is nothing short of life-affirming.
2. A Serious Man
Confounding, absurd, yet oddly ingratiating, A Serious Man finds Joel and Ethan Coen contemplating the mystery of why bad things happen to good people, and coming to the conclusion that since “good” and “bad” are relative terms, the question itself is kind of stupid. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a winning performance as a Jewish physics professor wandering through the increasingly vague moral landscape of late-’60s suburban Minnesota, looking for answers from a God who responds with inscrutable parables and easily misinterpreted signs. The Coens heap abuse on their poor protagonist—career humiliations, financial woes, marital strife, the works—but the film empathizes with Stuhlbarg’s plight. Here’s a man of faith who doesn’t really understand the ultimate meaning of what he believes, but sticks with it anyway because the math checks out.
1. The Hurt Locker
So many powerful movies have already been made about the recent American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that any filmmaker trying to follow up runs into the Holocaust-movie problem: The subject comes freighted with a lot of inherent emotion, but it also comes with a lot of the content dictated in advance, and finding a fresh new approach can be difficult. With The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal come at the subject from a thriller-movie angle, without sacrificing any respect for American soldiers, or lionizing them either. Their story about a bomb squad in Baghdad is breathtakingly tense, assembled with action-movie immediacy, but with a respect for reality that’s rare in the genre. Their film is gritty, detailed, and lived-in—Boal was an embedded reporter in Iraq, while Bigelow is an action vet, with textured films like Near Dark and Strange Days under her belt—and it pays as much attention to the character dynamics as it does to the specifics of dealing with an IED. Jeremy Renner is terrific in the lead role as a swaggering bomb specialist whose seeming overconfidence keeps pushing his new team into well-justified panic. He’s charismatic but infuriating, and it’s a sign of the film’s quality that the immensely absorbing push-and-pull the audience undergoes while trying to decide whether to love or hate him is just one of the many unbearable tensions running through this film.
For each writer's individual ballot and additional commentary continue on to page three.
1. Inglourious Basterds
2. A Serious Man
3. Public Enemies
5. Still Walking
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
9. Funny People
10. Passing Strange
The Next Five
A phenomenal year for animated features got off to a great start with Henry Selick’s visionary, cranky, rich, and enveloping stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s juvenile novel Coraline—a story about childhood fantasy worlds that’s as knotty and moody as a classic fairy tale. Amid a fairly strong batch of offbeat horror films (such as The House Of The Devil and Zombieland), Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell was the most purely entertaining, turning excessive splatter and deadpan goats into masterful slapstick. Steven Soderbergh had a great run in ’09, beginning the year with one of his sharpest, most relevant low-budget experiments, The Girlfriend Experience, and ending it with its slicker companion piece The Informant!, a movie about corporate malfeasance that turns the audience into unwitting accomplices. For blockbuster thrills, it was hard to beat J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek revamp, which retained the character-driven charm of the original while creating an accessible entry point for non-Trekkies. And finally, Olivier Assayas’ quiet, well-observed family drama Summer Hours features the year’s best final scene, in which a younger generation imbues old artifacts with new meaning simply by putting them to use.
Performance: Tom Hardy, Bronson
Nicolas Winding Refn’s arty examination of violent British prisoner Charles Bronson starts to chase its own tail after a while, but star Tom Hardy is never less than electrifying, whether he’s punching at a cage in stylish slow-motion or sitting stock-still, threatening to explode. Hardy delivers an oft-hilarious running monologue throughout the film, explaining his antihero’s quest for infamy with such brio that it’s hard not to root for him to succeed, even though his mission involves robbing folks and leaving them bloody.
Greg Mottola’s tour of late-’80s post-grad angst is a likeable enough romantic comedy, with the ring of truth whenever it deals with the petty bullshit of a low-stakes summer job. But while it’s often funny, Mottola doesn’t have much story to offer. The romance between alt-rock-loving spiritual kin Jesse Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart keeps getting derailed for ludicrous (and predictable) reasons, and because Mottola doesn’t give his female characters the kind of wit and depth he gives his male characters, the movie's various love stories lack balance. (Plus, Martin Starr’s slack-faced, lower-middle-class intellectual should’ve been the lead, not the terminally whiny Eisenberg.)
A lot of critics are grumbling about Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, calling it dull and obvious, and claiming its message of racial unity floats lazily on the surface. But while that’s true to an extent, it’s what’s below that surface that makes Invictus better than its reputation. Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar beautifully play the mix of caution and formality that underlies reconciliation, putting across the idea that even when we aren’t sure of the outcome, we achieve a great deal just by going through the motions. So it goes in politics; so it goes in sports.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Monsters Vs. Aliens
Like most non-Pixar computer-animated features, DreamWorks’ Monsters Vs. Aliens presumably originated as a crass attempt to wedge together enough marketable elements to force the cost of a matinee out of exhausted parents. But while Monsters Vs. Aliens contains the requisite manic action, smirky in-jokes, gross-out gags, and forced sentiment, the movie has a slyer sense of humor than most. Borrowing openly from the sensibility of Mad magazine—specifically the fleshy, overstuffed pages of Jack Davis—the film lovingly spoofs old science fiction while making a spectacle of itself. And when Stephen Colbert shows up as an unexpectedly funky U.S. president, the movie hits an absurdist high from which it never completely comes down.
Guilty Pleasure: Year One
Harold Ramis’ comic style is better suited to gentle oddity than Mel Brooks-style zaniness, so it’s no wonder that his broad biblical spoof Year One got trashed by so many. Large swaths of the movie simply aren’t very good. But whenever Ramis scales back and just plays the sardonic “woe is me” attitude of inept gatherer Michael Cera against the manic dunderheadedness of slovenly hunter Jack Black, the movie becomes honest-to-goodness funny. It’s also surprisingly sweet, with some of the same “people are people” idealism that Ramis brought to Groundhog Day and Stuart Saves His Family. Year One may be for Ramis-as-auteur devotees only, but that tiny subset of cineastes will find more to enjoy here than they’ve been led to expect.
Future Film That Time Forgot: The Unborn
Who’d have guessed that 2009 would be The Year Of The Dybbuk? Still, chances are that history will look more kindly on A Serious Man than it will on David S. Goyer’s bizarre Jewish twist on The Exorcist, which stars Odette Yustman as a college student who discovers she’s being stalked by the same demon that possessed the body of her grandmother’s unborn twin at Auschwitz. The convolutions of that plot description alone should give the unsuspecting some idea of what they’re in for when they settle in to watch “Jumby” try to be born.
1. A Serious Man
2. In The Loop
3. Where The Wild Things Are
5. Broken Embraces
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox
8. Summer Hours
9. The White Ribbon
10. The Hurt Locker
The Next Five
Before closing the book on 2009, why not try some double features? The Informant! and Humpday provided two different looks at identities in flux. In the former, Matt Damon’s wide-eyed office-dweller fools everyone, himself included, as he reveals corporate intrigue. In the latter, a pair of old friends who’ve spent years drifting apart reunite just as they’re about to commit fully to lives about which they have mixed feelings. One’s a quiet family drama, and the other is a lively cartoon, but changing times figure prominently in Still Walking and Up as well. By the end of each, one generation has come to a bittersweet understanding of another. Done with those? Then catch up with Drag Me To Hell, a first-rate horror-comedy that doubles as memorable morality tale in the EC Comics tradition.
Performance: Matt Damon, The Informant!
It’s easy to make much of actors gaining or losing weight for a role until they grow almost unrecognizable, but harder to point to the transformations going on under the skin. In The Informant!, Damon plays a man continually amazed with the world, in part because he’s such a stranger to it and to himself. Playing a mentally ill would-be whistleblower, Damon has to stay one step ahead of the corrupt employers he’s bringing down, and two steps ahead of the FBI agents he’s supposed to be helping, all while avoiding the tangles of his own mind. It’s a deeply funny performance, and Damon captures the swelling undertones of pathos perfectly.
Overrated: The Hangover
Funny cast. Funny premise. Funny start. But The Hangover quickly devolves into a series of easy gags and dull action as its stars try to reassemble the pieces of a quickly forgotten night. It’s hardly a terrible comedy—especially in a year that brought us Old Dogs—but its undemanding laughs hardly deserved the praise that met them.
Underrated (by me): Inglourious Basterds
I wrote a review of Quentin Tarantino’s World War II movie predicated on the notion that, apart from its amazing opening sequence, I would never think of it again. What I saw felt easy, shallow, and likely to slip away quickly, and I wrote accordingly. I don’t regret the review, really. Reviews have to capture their writers’ feelings at the moment. But I’ve also found myself thinking about Basterds frequently since then, and feel I need to revisit it soon. Most movies I dismiss stay dismissed, at least by me. This one hasn’t.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Mystery Team
The big-screen debut of the online-favorite team Derrick Comedy (Donald Glover, D.C. Pierson, and Dominic Dierkes onscreen; Dan Eckman and Meggie McFadden behind the camera) follows the adventures of a trio of almost-grown-up boy detectives as they confront problems outside the scope of their juvenile skills. It’s uneven but bighearted, and when it counts, extremely funny. The film received only a slow, rolling release, but will hopefully find the appreciative audience it deserves on DVD.
Guilty Pleasure: Halloween II
Rob Zombie aimed a little lower for this sequel to his ambitious reboot of the Halloween franchise, but that still left it several cuts above most horror sequels, revamps, and sequels to revamps. It isn’t great, but it at least keeps a torch burning for skillful horror filmmaking while others settle for easy shocks.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Post Grad
A film about dashed expectations and unemployment would keep perfectly with the zeitgeist, but Post Grad is not that film. Instead, this frothy, squeaky-clean comedy confines a lot of talented comic actors (including Jane Lynch, Fred Armisen, and the underemployed Carol Burnett and Michael Keaton) while the perpetually underemoting Alexis Bledel—in what’s likely to be her only leading role in a nationally released movie—tries to find love and success. Also, there’s a soapbox derby.
1. Big Fan
2. A Serious Man
3. Inglorious Basterds
4. In The Loop
5. The Hurt Locker
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
9. Passing Strange
10. An Education
The Next Five
Judd Apatow delivered his most personal and (perhaps not coincidentally) least critically and commercially successful directorial effort with Funny People, an overstuffed but often brilliant comedy-drama that takes Adam Sandler’s aggression-addled man-child persona into thrillingly dark places. Apatow’s Superbad collaborator Greg Mottola (who also helmed the fine, underseen 1996 comedy Daytrippers) scored artistically, if not commercially, with Adventureland, a sweet, funny, poignant coming-of-age comedy about an overqualified post-collegiate intellectual (Jessie Eisenberg) and his summer working at a rundown amusement park populated by ringers from the Apatow repertory company, like a gloriously sardonic Martin Starr. Fashion icon Tom Ford made a stunning directorial debut with the Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man, a melancholy, keenly observed character study about a man (Colin Firth) in the grips of suicidal despair following the death of his lover. Like his underrated second sequel to Mission Impossible, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek offered eye-popping spectacle with smarts. Even more remarkably, he managed to reboot one of our most beloved cultural institutions in a manner that still appealed to cultists and die-hards. Lastly, Anvil: The Story Of Anvil was pegged as a real-life This Is Spinal Tap, but that reductive description doesn’t do justice to the film’s big-hearted celebration of a middle-aged Canadian heavy-metal band that never really made it, but also never lost faith in the primal power of rock. In one of the year’s most touching human-interest stories, the documentary’s success did wonders for Anvil’s career. Those crazy kids just might make it after all.
Performance: Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man
For the lead role in A Serious Man, the Coen brothers took a huge risk and cast Michael Stuhlbarg, a Tony-nominated theater actor unknown to most film audiences, in the lead role of a Job-like professor in 1967 Minneapolis who goes looking for the answers to great spiritual questions after his wife leaves him and his life unravels in every direction. It paid huge dividends. Stuhlbarg accomplishes the tricky feat of dominating a movie while playing a fundamentally passive character; he isn’t an actor so much as a reactor to life’s never-ending parade of indignities and slights. A Serious Man could easily have come off as cruel or misanthropic, if not for the sweetness and decency Stuhlbarg brings to the role; his put-upon mensch evinces empathy where it might otherwise invite ridicule.
Overrated: Where The Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze’s first two features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, would have been unbearably bleak if they weren’t so consistently funny, thanks to Charlie Kaufman’s wildly imaginative screenplays and winning way with a one-liner. Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are is just as emotionally apocalyptic as those films, only this time, there’s no real humor or levity to undercut the claustrophobic, all-consuming, sometimes oppressive sadness. Where The Wild Things Are demands respect; it’s audacious, uncompromising, original, occasionally terrifying, and gorgeous, but it’s also incredibly depressing and repetitive, a somber exploration of the existential angst and dysfunctional group dynamics of a group of borderline suicidal monsters locked in a never-ending loop of disappointment and despair. Perhaps in a sequel, they can hire Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’s Phil Towle to facilitate an emotional reconciliation between these furry downers.
Underrated: The Invention Of Lying
Remove the non-starting romantic subplot involving a perversely unlikeable Jennifer Garner, who threatens to consume the entire film, and Ricky Gervais’ The Invention Of Lying registers as a subversive religious and social satire that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as his revered TV creations The Office and Extras. The film takes place in a sad, grey alternate universe devoid of lying and imagination, where an old-folks home is called “A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People,” and everyone blurts out whatever comes to mind. Lying can be heartbreaking as well as hilarious: The scene where a teary Gervais, a sad-sack who is hailed as a prophet after coming up with the concept of fibbing, invents religion and the concept of a benevolent “man in the sky” to comfort his dying mother is devastatingly sad. If Gervais ever decides to edit Garner out of the film, the result could be a Life Of Brian for a new generation.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Next Day Air
Next Day Air’s uninspired title, commercials, poster, and trailers all made it look like a generic lowbrow stoner comedy. Yet it sailed above the low, low expectations its promotional campaign engendered, thanks to a sharp script, tight plotting, a solid cast, and an unrelentingly cynical take on human nature and the machinations of hustlers, drug dealers, and other assorted lowlifes rooted in noir and blaxploitation. Actually, the simple title feels appropriate, since Next Day Air delivers the action-comedy goods with unadorned, no-frills panache.
Guilty Pleasure: Brüno
In 2007, America fell in love with a strangely ingratiating Kazakh reporter played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who bumbled his way through painfully, delightfully awkward encounters with unsuspecting civilians in Borat. Cohen got a much chillier reception when he returned in the ribald, transgressive Brüno as another character from Da Ali G. Show, this time a shameless, self-absorbed gay fashion journalist. Granted, the joke was no longer novel, but it was still extremely funny. Cohen’s fashionista horrified focus-group respondents by showing an obscenely explicit “pilot” for a new show, exposed the sinister calculation of stage parents willing to do just about anything short of decapitating their children for a shot at the limelight, and generally did everything in his power to enrage as many people as possible. Brüno confirms that Cohen is the most fearless comic performer alive, a daredevil willing to risk life and limb for the sake of laughs.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li
Time already seems to have forgotten Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li, a misbegotten, ridiculously tardy attempt to resurrect the videogame-derived franchise 15 years after a terrible 1994 adaptation starring a beret-wearing Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Van Damme vehicle at least bore a strong resemblance to the game that created it; the half-assed filmmakers behind Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li just seem to have plugged the names of some of the game’s characters into the worst action screenplay they could find. Factor in a dead-eyed, emotionless automaton for a lead actress (Kristin Kreuk), chintzy production values, and Chris Klein doing a poor Christian Slater impersonation, and you have a film that was obsolete well before it hit theaters.
1. Where The Wild Things Are
2. The Hurt Locker
3. District 9
5. The Informant!
6. The Brothers Bloom
9. Big Fan
The Next Five
Plenty has already been said about Pixar’s latest, Up, so let’s just take one more moment to remember that opening 10 minutes, one of the finest, most smoothly condensed, and yet highest-impact character arcs ever to grace an animated film. Quentin Tarantino could learn a few things from Up’s concision; his Inglourious Basterds was a discursive ramble with a ridiculous wish-fulfillment capper, though it, too, had one of the year’s best opening sequences. And the tension, uncertainty, and control of that first confrontation emerges again and again throughout, in what emerges as Tarantino’s most controlled, grown-up film since Jackie Brown. Still more controlled and grown-up: Lone Scherfig’s coming-of-age story An Education, which showcases an Oscar-worthy performance from Carey Mulligan as an ambitious, precocious British teenager focused on her university plans, until she meets a casual sophisticate (Peter Sarsgaard) who changes her life. Life is equally turbulent for Algenis Perez Soto in Sugar, a low-key look at foreign baseball camps where poor recruits train for the American leagues as if they were soldiers going to war; Soto gives a heartfelt but underplayed performance as a Dominican prodigy possibly not focused enough on the big-time, and the film around him is a subtle slice of life, revealing but not pushy. Tom Ford’s writing and directing debut A Single Man is more consciously artful and richly executed, but it’s a similarly pained portrait of a similarly self-reliant, deeply internal man on the verge of a big decision: whether to kill himself after his lover dies in a car crash. It’s full of big emotions, but Colin Firth keeps them in his posture and his actions rather than wearing his heart on his sleeve, and the tactful restraint gives the movie a sense of class and dignity that belies its soap-opera spirit.
Performance: Stew, Passing Strange
While I loved Passing Strange, I couldn’t in good conscience put it on my best-of-the-year list, because I don’t feel that it’s really a film: It’s an attempt to capture a live performance of a stage play on film. Virtually every shot is a compromise, an attempt to balance the important things happening on the stage, the limited angles available in a stage setting, and the need for cinematic variety rather than one fixed perspective. The sets are minimal, there’s no depth, and the musicians are in stage pits among the actors. The film lacks any feeling of cinematic physical depth, dynamism, or sense of place. What does feel real is the terrific music, the winning writing, and the fantastic performances, particularly by composer/singer/musician Stew, who narrates this musical version of his own life. At times, he’s just telling a story to a paying audience looking for a show; at other times, he’s offering excuses or explanations to a presumed gallery of people sitting in judgment on him. And in the play’s best and most painful moments, he’s looking at the young actor playing him and challenging his younger self, sometimes just with a “How you gonna respond to that, you brat?” look, sometimes in anguish-filled confrontations when he stares down that younger actor and confronts his past callousness and foolishness in the form of the avatar he designed to stare right back at him. It’s fascinating and beautiful to watch, and Stew brings it all off with warm humor and real pain.
Overrated: A Serious Man
The Coen brothers are talented, idiosyncratic people whose films are never boring, but they aren’t always satisfying, either—particularly when they enter their familiar “shaggy-dog storyteller” mode. A Serious Man is of a piece with such tonally divergent films as Burn After Reading, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski: It’s a long, rabbit-trail-filled setup for a punchline that never comes. In the immortal words of Homer Simpson, it’s just a buncha stuff that happens. Which is utterly the point: With its “People don’t always get answers, and real life doesn’t always have meaning” theme, A Serious Man is practically an explication of all those films. Problem is, stories with no ending tend to be frustrating. Given how much easier it is to craft a story that goes nowhere, they can even seem lazy. For all its chilly, finely managed look and solid performances, A Serious Man is a collection of stories that deliberately hook viewers in, then flip the bird at them, crying “There’s no payoff! Ha!” It’s a mean joke, and ultimately an unsatisfying one.
Sure, it’s overbearing, fascistic, and overly stylized, Matthew Goode was badly cast, and Malin Akerman is awkward and terrible; Watchmen has some pretty obvious flaws. Even so, few other films this year had such a distinctive, managed look and feel, or an opening as breathtakingly polished and ambitiously choreographed as Watchmen’s lead-in montage sequence. Maybe this wasn’t the best movie that could possibly have been made from Alan Moore’s groundbreaking graphic novel, but Zack Snyder’s take was more faithful than anyone had a right to expect, and it didn’t attempt to rewrite the story to make it relevant to current history in a way that will look as dated in 20 years as Watchmen’s Cold War philosophizing looks now. Instead, it updated the visuals, pressing the gorgeous limits of modern technology. Given an adaptation that’s 95 percent respectful of the source—more than any other filmmaker was likely to manage—why did fans bitch so much about the remaining 5 percent?
Most Pleasant Surprise: The Men Who Stare At Goats
It’s easy for a movie to come as a pleasant surprise after it’s been broadly dismissed as an awkward, pointless, humorless disappointment. Sure, The Men Who Stare At Goats lacks focus, but where did that “humorless” tag come from? Taken without the expectation that it’ll be a massive blockbuster on par with its A-list cast, or a loony yet trenchantly cutting satire on par with Dr. Strangelove, it’s a quirky, enjoyably offbeat little comedy that highlights a ridiculous facet of the military, but largely just exists to provide wry giggles.
Guilty Pleasure: Outlander
Anyone who’s actively into campy action movies or so-bad-it’s-good kitsch has likely seen Outlander already; just the sell-line “Vikings vs. aliens!” was enough to get certain butts in seats. (Though likely more seats in front of the TV than theater seats.) Everybody else is missing out. This Beowulf retelling is kinda action-trashy and kinda schlocky, with spaceships and swords sharing screen time with big, grunting, sword-wielding warriors fighting a giant CGI effect. But it’s actually smarter than it looks. The script plays on viewers’ genre-based expectations, but throws in several unexpected twists, and the fights are actually pretty exciting. Besides, Vikings vs. aliens!
Future Film That Time Forgot: Is Anybody There?
Michael Caine has anchored so many films over so many years that it’s hard for any of them to stand out, and guess what? This one doesn’t, except in the ridiculous roteness of its plot. Caine plays a cranky retired magician mourning his wife’s death; Son Of Rambow star Bill Milner plays a hostile, hateful, death-obsessed kid. Naturally they form one of those cross-generational friendships that bring them both closer to normality, except for the part where Caine starts going theatrically senile. Outré and off-putting in execution, yet boring and unambitious in its basic concept, and featuring a fairly big name who gets put through some fairly embarrassing paces… here’s a movie meant to be forgotten, then revived for laughs 30 years from now.
1. 35 Shots Of Rum
8. The House Of The Devil
9. Fantastic Mr. Fox
10. The Hurt Locker
The Next Five
Though it may, in the end, be little more than a tribute to righteous martyrdom—specifically, that of IRA member Bobby Sands (and nine others) in the 1981 hunger strike in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze—Steve McQueen’s Hunger captures the political and physical dimensions of that sacrifice with astonishing force. It was another year, another great movie from the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, who tiptoed into genre thriller territory with Lorna’s Silence, but one staked on their usual premise of desperate outsiders—in this case, an Albanian immigrant paid to marry and legalize other immigrants in Belgium—forced to make some terrible choices. With her emphasis on close-ups and densely layered soundtracks, Argentinean director Lucretia Martel (La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl) makes movies with a tactile, three-dimensional quality, none stranger or more beguiling than The Headless Woman, which follows the drifting conscience of an affluent, middle-aged woman in the wake of a car accident. The Italian docudrama Gomorrah is almost too big a story for a 135-minute movie, but its many strands do enough to suggest the overwhelming, multi-tentacled power of the world’s most fearsome mob organization, and the legions stuck under its thumb. The gloriously profane In The Loop evokes the run-up to an Iraq War-like conflict through lingual miscues and backroom diplomatic skullduggery, all while introducing a host of colorful phrases (“fuckety-bye,” “You are a boring F, star, star, cunt”) into the culture.
Performance: Tilda Swinton, Julia
Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for her performance as a chilly, reserved corporate shark in Michael Clayton, and she deserves at least three or four more—one for each layer of her character’s deranged personality—for her fearless, sinister, outrageously brassy, sneakily affecting performance in Erick Zonca’s Julia. With due deference to Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ Gloria, the film’s most obvious jumping-off point, Swinton plays a miserable, unrepentant barfly who ups the ante on an already spectacularly ill-conceived kidnapping scheme. As her character improvises her way through one sticky situation after another—she knows even less about childcare than she does about blackmail—Swinton’s larger-than-life performance nails every emotion on the spectrum.
On what planet does this horror show take place? In Lee Daniels’ fraudulent indie drama, noble intentions, two great performances, and a redemptive arc are like the sharp scent of Febreze to cover the most rancid, pernicious racial and urban stereotypes. Every cliché is as supersized as its poor, obese, brutalized teenage heroine, whose 300 pounds bear the weight of AIDS, incest, illiteracy, molestation, welfare, and the various gaps and needless bureaucracies that clog up “the system.” Not to mention the girl’s mother (played by an admittedly inspired Mo’Nique), a stampeding Jerry Springer monster given to form-fitting floral jumpsuits, endless consumption of pig’s feet and daytime television, and hurling glassware and foul epithets in equal measure. This isn’t the poetry of the everyday, in spite of Daniels’ predilection for arty shots of flapping birds and literary quotations; it’s grotesquerie masquerading as truth.
Poor Francis Ford Coppola. After a decade in exile from Hollywood, the once-revered director has sought renewal with a pair of self-financed independent features, 2007’s Youth Without Youth and the black-and-white melodrama Tetro, but few have paid much attention. A large part of the problem is that both—especially the often painfully awkward, muddled Youth Without Youth—are hugely flawed, but there’s a searching vision and beauty in them that show signs of his old vitality. With Tetro, Coppola doesn’t seem that invested in the age-old story of estranged brothers and Oedipal strife in Buenos Aries, Argentina, but the operatic emotions give him the latitude to express himself with the camera. It may be little more than a gorgeous bauble, but Tetro’s luxuriant camerawork gives the city a memorably timeless, enchanting surface.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans
When it was announced that Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage were teaming up for a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, “compelling” was maybe the kindest word to describe the project—as in “compellingly misguided,” “compellingly odd,” or “compellingly awful.” And yet a strange thing happened on the way to instant cult status: Herzog and Cage satisfied every gonzo expectation audiences could possibly have for the movie—the “lucky crack pipe,” a superimposed soul dancing, “iguana-cam.” And yet they avoid camp for camp’s sake. Freed from the Catholic guilt that tormented Harvey Keitel in Ferrara’s film, Cage takes an almost childlike glee in misbehavior, and that playful spirit infuses the rest of the movie, which frequently distracts itself from its boilerplate procedural by exploring the corners of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Guilty Pleasure: Orphan
It’s too bad that word about Orphan’s twist circulated so quickly that everyone couldn’t experience it first-hand, untainted by the “Can you believe that?!” exhortations that flooded the Internet from Day One of release. (Cave-dwellers are advised to bypass the film’s Wikipedia page, cover their ears, and sing “la la la” all the way to the video store.) For much of the way, Orphan is a standard-issue “evil kid” movie of the Omen school, albeit one with particularly bad taste (it opens with a graphic miscarriage), a monster with a thick (and obviously diabolical) Eastern European accent, and two lead actors, Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga, working well below their station. The twist is telegraphed throughout, but only because it has to be—otherwise, the audience wouldn’t be prepared for something so profoundly, sublimely, transcendently stupid and demented.
Future Film That Time Forgot: Echelon Conspiracy
No movie ages worse than the techno-thriller, which not only shows its age through outdated gizmos once thought to be cutting-edge, but also by the paranoid attitudes that greet each new step along the evolutionary chain. To that end, Echelon Conspiracy is the poor man’s Eagle Eye, reducing that (also-forgettable) thriller’s worries about invasive, all-knowing computer networks to the size of a magical smartphone. There’s some early fun where the smartphone acts like a genie in a bottle, foreseeing changes in the market or on the blackjack table before they happen. But then there’s some chase scenes, and Ed Burns shows up looking bored, and please don’t quiz me on the rest.