What does it say that three of the top five films on my list this year--and another that could easily have made the top ten, Coraline--are “kid’s movies”? In the end not much, I think. Two of the three, Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox, were directed by talented indie auteurs (Spike Jonze and Wes Andersen, respectively) who merely happened to adapt children’s books in the same year. And the third, Up, is by Pixar, so its excellence requires no further elaboration.
But if there is something the films have in common that seems to elude most “grownup” pictures, it is the marriage of whimsy with deeper, darker elements: the palpable grief of Carl Fredricksen in Up, the loneliness and rage of Max in Where the Wild Things Are, the undercurrents of existential dissatisfaction in Fantastic Mr. Fox. This knack for melding disparate elements, never easy, seems harder than ever for Hollywood to pull off. The big summer entertainments--this summer’s in particular--are much dumber than they need be, and the Oscar-season hopefuls too often wear their seriousness like a hair shirt. The idea that a good, or even great, film can also be fun seems to have fallen into some disrepute. Two films that tried to make the marriage this year, Jason Reitman’s very good Up in the Air and Tony Gilroy’s only somewhat good Duplicity, missed to varying degrees, the former by skimming too lightly over the tragedies it surveyed, the latter by skimping on the humor. But both at least strove to be adult entertainments, an ambition that seems ever rarer.
On to the list, with the usual caveat: Though I saw a great many films in 2009, I did not see all of them and, in particular, still have a few documentaries and foreign films on my must-see list. (Yes, Summer Hours, I’m talking about you.*) For any interested, my lists for 2007 and 2008 can be found here and here, respectively. With that, here goes.
A year after Wall-E, I would have much preferred not to give the top spot to another Pixar release. But in a year of good but flawed films this was, for me, the least flawed, and its early “Married Life” montage was by far the most moving four minutes I spent in a theater last year.
Vastly imaginative yet minutely observed, Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the Sendak classic is among the most unsparing portraits of childhood--and parenthood--ever committed to celluloid.
A nimble, elegant film but, like its protagonist, a touch aloof from realities on the ground.
Despite the tour-de-force performance by Jeremy Renner, the true star is director Kathryn Bigelow, who delivers the year’s most harrowing, exhilarating action film by far.
After years of diminishing returns from his twee tableaux, Wes Anderson pulled himself from his rut with an animated children’s adaptation that is, oddly, among his most mature films to date.
6. Funny People
Judd Apatow’s best film, and his most misunderstood. Yes, it is profoundly overlong (a common flaw this year), but it is the much-derided final act, in which wished-for romance is revealed as merely another in a series of dodges, that makes the film.
Morally idiotic? Yes. Profoundly juvenile? Absolutely. But also a reminder of the dizzying cinematic gifts that its man-child director, Quentin Tarantino, seems content to continue squandering.
Largely unheralded, this sneaky black comedy about agribusiness price-fixing is carried by a delightfully chattery Matt Damon turn--the anti-Bourne. The result is Steven Soderbergh’s most satisfying film in close to a decade.
9. Sin Nombre
A bolt from the blue by first-time feature director Cary Joji Fukunaga: part Western, part romance, part road movie, part gangster flick (and, for the subtitle-squeamish, all in Spanish). Avoid the trailer--which gives too much away--and enjoy the ride.
10. A Single Man
Director Tom Ford (yes, that Tom Ford) imbues his film with so much style that what starts out as beautiful gradually becomes suffocating. But he’s rescued from this fault--and from a horribly miscast Nicholas Hoult--by a sublime and understated performance from Colin Firth.
Honorable mentions (alphabetical): Anvil! The Story of Anvil; Bright Star; Broken Embraces; Brothers; Coraline; Crazy Heart; The Damned United; (500) Days of Summer; An Education; Goodbye Solo; The Hangover; Humpday; In the Loop; Invictus; Julie & Julia; The Messenger; Moon; Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire; Public Enemies; Red Cliff; A Serious Man; Star Trek; Thirst; Tyson; Two Lovers
Worst Movie (Everything Going Wrong That Could Possibly Go Wrong Category): The Lovely Bones
Worst Movie (Idiotic Remakes of Minor Classics Category): The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
Worst Movie (Misogyny Pretending to Be Feminism Category): The Ugly Truth
Runners-up: All About Steve, He’s Just Not That Into You
Worst Movie (Intentionally Good-Bad Category): Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Worst Movie (May the Vengeful Specter of Peter Sellers Haunt Everyone Involved Until Their Dying Breaths Category): The Pink Panther 2
Best Male Performance: Colin Firth, A Single Man
Runners-up: Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker), Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
Best Female Performance: Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Runners-up: Abbie Cornish (Bright Star), Mo’Nique (Precious)
The Dumbledore Award for Mystic Beardiness: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy in The Last Station
Runner-up: Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Most Unseemly Shot: Our first glimpse of Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, hanging limp from a noose over the Thames
Worst Parallel Between Prostitution and Fitness Coaching: The Girlfriend Experience
The Bad Scheduling Award: Focus Features and The Weinstein Company for releasing 9 and Nine just three months apart
Runners-up: BBC Films, Twentieth Century-Fox , and Paramount, for releasing three George Clooney films (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Up in the Air) in just over one month.
The “Mad Men” Award for 1960s Fetishism: An Education
Runners-up: A Serious Man, A Single Man, Taking Woodstock, Pirate Radio
The Ham Sandwich Award for Most Overacting in a Motion Picture: The Last Station
The Terry Gilliam Award for Cinematic Self-Indulgence: Terry Gilliam, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Most Interesting Human-Vampire Romance: Thirst
Least Interesting: The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Best Stanley Tucci Role in Which He Sports Spectacles and a Painter’s Brush Moustache: Julie & Julia
Worst: The Lovely Bones
Creative Talent Who, in Retrospect, Seems More Responsible for the Success of Juno: Director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air)
Creative Talent Who, in Retrospect, Seems Less: Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Jennifer’s Body)
The Behold-the-Awesome-Power-of-Film-Criticism Award: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Rotten Tomatoes score: 20 percent; domestic box office: $402 million)
Runners-up: The Twilight Saga: New Moon (28 percent; $288 million); Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (21 percent; $160 million); Fast & Furious (28 percent; $155 million); G-Force (24 percent, $119 million); Couples Retreat (12 percent, $109 million)
The Worst Economic Timing Award: Confessions of a Shopaholic
The Belated Ubiquity Award: Stephen Lang (Public Enemies; The Men Who Stare at Goats; Avatar)
Best Performance as Amelia Earhart: Amy Adams in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Runner-up: Hilary Swank, Amelia
Most Awkward Dance Sequence: George Clooney, The Men Who Stare at Goats
Runner-up: George Clooney, Up in the Air
Worst British Accent by an American Actor: Peter Saarsgard, An Education
Runner-up: Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes
Best addition to the Terminator franchise: 9
Runner-up: Not applicable
Best Product Placement of the Year: An eternity of travel comfort on American Airlines in Up in the Air
Worst Product Placement of the Year (tie):
1) Stanley Tucci’s pedophilic murderer popping the cap off a Coke bottle (at waist level!) immediately before assaulting his young victim in The Lovely Bones;
2) newly demonized Megan Fox wolfing down a Boston Market chicken seconds before she vomits a river of black ooze in Jennifer’s Body
Top Ten Cinematic Trends of the Year:
10. Mall cops (Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Observe and Report)
9. Characters who sing, play, or air-drum Rush songs (I Love You, Man, Adventureland, Adventures of Power)
8. Introverted girls moved against their wills to the Pacific Northwest, where they have paranormal experiences (Coraline, The Twilight Saga: New Moon)
7. Atrocious comedies with titles that beg comparison to cinema classics (All About Steve, The Ugly Truth)
6. Jesse Eisenberg trapped in amusement parks (Adventureland, Zombieland)
5. Well-made adaptations that should probably never have been made at all (The Road, Nine)
4. The educational redemption of large, quasi-mute, African American high-schoolers (The Blind Side, Precious)
3. Young MC’s “Bust a Move” (Up in the Air, The Blind Side, “Glee”)
2. Cinematic yardsticking by size-obsessed CGI impresarios (James Cameron’s 162-minute Avatar, Roland Emmerich’s 158-minute 2012, Michael Bay’s 150-minute Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen)
1. Tragic, period seamstress romances (Bright Star, Coco Before Chanel)
*Re: Summer Hours. A plea to IFC Films: Please find someone of minimal competence to put together your DVD screeners. I tried, with some exertion, to watch two separate copies of Summer Hours. The first was a mislabeled screener of Police, Adjective; the second offered a tantalizing 28 minutes of Summer Hours before freezing abruptly, switching over to the first six minutes of the Irish movie A Film with Me in It, and then stopping altogether. Add in a screener of In the Loop that would not play at all, and it is a truly dismal record.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.