Yeah, I know: I should have posted a Top 10 Films of 2009 list at some point back in late December. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons – some professional, most personal – I couldn’t find time to thoughtfully consider and dutifully write such a wrap-up by year’s end. (Part of the problem: It took me much, much longer than I expected to take second looks – or, in some cases, first looks – at all the movies eligible for inclusion.) So I put it off for a week, and then a week became a month, and then… well, here I am, just hours away from the Oscarcast, and I’m just now completing the job. I may never again be able in good conscience to penalize a student for his or her tardy submission of an assignment.
(Would I get any sympathy if I reminded you about my cancer treatments? No? You say I’ve milked that cow quite enough already? OK, never mind. It’s like my son always tells me: You dribble and you shoot, and you hope you score…)
To begin with my standard disclaimer: Compiling a Top 10 list for any year is a task I approach with a fair share of ambivalence. Because, let's face it, what I'm really doing is announcing my favorite films released during an arbitrarily agreed-upon 12-month period. A decade or so hence, I might look back on the following lineup and want to make additions or deletions. (Hell, I’ve already made revisions to a preliminary list I submitted to IndieWire nearly three months ago.) At this point in time, however, I can honestly state these are the 2009 releases that impressed me most and best.
Up in the Air – Back in September, I reported from the Toronto Film Festival that Jason Reitman’s uncommonly amusing, insightful and affecting dramedy “may be… oh, to hell with equivocation. It is the best movie I have seen so far in 2009. If I see anything better by year’s end, I will be greatly astonished and immensely grateful. But I’ll still probably want to go back and take another look at Reitman’s film – and at George Clooney’s career-highlight performance – just to be absolutely certain the other movie really is better.” Well, I took a second look, and it’s still No. 1 for me.
That Evening Sun – It’s still winding its way across the U.S. in limited theatrical release, and for that, I suppose, I should be thankful. But I’m deeply disappointed that more moviegoers – and movie-award voters – didn’t discover and share Scott Teems’ richly atmospheric and vividly acted drama with the superb Hal Holbrook at the top of his game as an irascible octogenarian farmer who will not give up his land or his pride without a fight.
(500) Days of Summer – Marc Webb’s absolutely delightful comedy-drama about falling in love – or, perhaps more precisely, assuming you’ve fallen in love – is a fleet-footed, time-tripping, tone-juggling treasure, deftly balancing exhilaration and melancholy, and offering the most deriously, contagiously joyful musical production number on display in any movie all year.
The Messenger – Two soldiers (Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson) charged with bringing tragic news to next to kin find it increasingly difficult, if not downright impossible, to maintain their distance from the receivers of their sad tidings in Oren Moverman’s subtly observed, quietly devastating drama.
Crazy Heart – It can’t help reminding you of Tender Mercies – and not just because Robert Duvall, the Oscar-winning star of that 1983 classic, participates here as producer and co-star – but Scott Cooper’s emotionally resonant tale of a faded country music star who must hit rock bottom before he can regain lost ground stands tall on its own merits as an exceptionally fine drama about regret and regeneration. And yes, the-never-again-underrated Jeff Bridges deserves every single award he has collected (and likely will collect) for his lead performance.
Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Wes Anderson’s wondrously witty adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel is a masterwork of stop-motion animation that is every bit as drolly whimsical as… well, most live-action Wes Anderson movies.
A Serious Man – Joel and Ethan Coen offer their modern-day take on the Book of Job in a bleakly hilarious fable about not-so-stoically accepting the cruel caprices of chance.
The Informant! – Steven Soderbergh’s exuberantly cheeky dark comedy, freely adapted from real-life events, showcases Matt Damon in a marvelously multifaceted performance as an unreliable whistleblower who’s gradually revealed as a self-aggrandizing fabulist, all to the tune of an audaciously cheery Marvin Hamlisch score that, presumably, Damon’s deceiver hears inside his head.
Summer Hours – Olivier Assayas addresses us in a soft yet insistent tone – communicating in French, but speaking in a universal language – while spinning his ruefully melancholy tale about three adult siblings (Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier) dealing with their late mother's estate -- and, by extension, with their increasingly tenuous ties to their shared past, and to each other.
The Hurt Locker – Much has been written about the unfortunate inability of Kathryn Bigelow’s edgy indie drama to avoid the “Iraq War movie curse” during its theatrical run. (For all its acclaim and accolades, its domestic gross is less than half that earned by the near-universally reviled All About Steve). But there’s little doubt that, for decades to come, long after most boffo box-office hits of 2009 are forgotten, audiences will be discovering and savoring her viscerally suspenseful and visually arresting film about an adrenaline-addicted bomb-disposal specialist who may never find peace even after the shooting stops.
Runners up: Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Judd Apatow’s Funny People, Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Pete Docter’s Up, Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, Jody Hill’s Observe and Report, James Cameron’s Avatar, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Invisible Girlfriend and John Lee Hancock’s The Blind Side.