The year 2009 was about as good for movies as it was for job-hunting. There was hardly a single big-budget or highly promoted film that will be remembered in five years. (The exception is probably Avatar, but only because it created exactly the kind of world that fantasy nerds love: one composed largely of tits and dinosaurs.)
But it was the dearth of great films during the autumn Oscar-begging season that really set 2009 apart. Most of the contenders were either well-intentioned mediocrities (like The Road), well-executed but unoriginal rom-coms dressed up as Serious Cinema (like Up in the Air) or action films that made slight gestures toward art or political awareness (like The Hurt Locker). These aren't terrible movies, but nothing to compare to some of the decade's greats like There Will Be Blood or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or A History of Violence.
Still, it was a very good year for small films. A few movies that got festival-only releases in 2008 got slightly wider releases in '09, producing some serious treats. And non-Americans, emerging from their cave dwellings in foreign lands, used their primitive technology to put together a handful of truly rewarding pictures.
So here's a list from our two critics, one focusing a bit more on the hard-to-find, and the other digging valiantly through the morass of American movie-making in search of the worthwhile. Remember: These guys sorted through mountains of truly atrocious cinema to find something you might enjoy. So if their sensibilities seem warped by their forced exposure to hours and hours of boy wizards riding giant robots riding Megan Fox, do not blame them. Instead, do what the Tea Partyers do: Blame America.
I feel about the movies of 2009 the way my parents feel about me: I'm not angry, just disappointed.
The blockbusters were lackluster, which is par for the course, but I at least expect them to be well-executed. Instead, we got fun but sloppy stuff like Star Trek, which had plot holes so large and loose that I started to think of the story as a washed-up porn actress, and Avatar, which was at least tightly plotted, if something can be both tight and stupid.
The year was weak for comedies as well. It was the year of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and Blartness ruled over the darkness. Zombieland had maybe three laughs, and The Hangover was mildly funny, but I have no idea why people thought it was like watching Jesus Christ do standup.
The annual autumn parade of Oscar contenders was perhaps the most disappointing lot in years. The Road tried so hard to follow the unfilmable book upon which it was based that it might have been better to just have James Earl Jones read it aloud for two hours. George Clooney (Up in the Air) and Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) showed up late in the year to do films about older men loving younger women, with Bridges courageously making out with someone 25 years younger. Again, Hollywood wanted us to know that old dudes are sexy, and old women are exclusively played by Meryl Streep.
And then there was Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, a film about the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl that is so cutesy, shallow and visually retarded that it makes The Care Bears Movie seem like Ingmar Bergman's lost masterpiece.
Some of the films that made it to the top of other critics' lists didn't do it for me. I liked The Hurt Locker, but there was enough corny dialogue, mixed with standard B-movie scenes, that I couldn't understand why it was being treated like high art, and not what it was: Point Break in Iraq. The first 10 minutes or so of Up were genuinely moving, then it became just another by-the-book Pixar outing. District 9 was great fun, but it squandered some of its potential in becoming an action film. And Moon could have been great, but it had stupid directing mistakes that kept it off the Top 10 list.
In spite of the absence of high-quality material from the major studios and their minor, Oscar-friendly divisions, it was very easy for me to pick my favorite film of the year (even if, technically, that film came out in 2008).
Hunger was the standout: one of the rare cases of a work of conceptual art that's also a riveting narrative. Director Steve McQueen (not the dead guy) found new ways to tell a story by using almost no dialogue in the first hour, which was followed by an overwhelmingly claustrophobic and talky sequence for the next half hour, as if to say, "See, I can write an awesome script ... if I want to!"
As for the worst film of the year, I want to save that as a special secret surprise. So don't peek ahead and spoil it!
And now, the list:
1. Hunger. Sometime in the 1960s, a movement of film-as-art began that treated cinema not as a narrative medium, but as a way to present image and sound for their own sake. Director Steve McQueen, a recent addition to that movement, first created projected installation pieces in galleries and museums. Then he decided to make a more traditional feature film, only he somehow managed to tell a story without resorting to standard narrative, instead using only the techniques pioneered by the art-world crowd. The result is stunning: a truly disturbing and effective look at the brutality of the British government and the Irish Republican Army during the early '80s. This movie was so visually arresting, original and gripping that it almost restored the piece of my soul that was destroyed when I was forced to watch The Lovely Bones.
2. Big Fan. Writer/director Robert D. Siegel made a movie about a homely, unpleasant, middle-age loser who dedicates his life to chronic masturbation and an abusive relationship with the New York Giants football team. And yet, this is the most caring movie of the year. It's like Siegel is the Martin Luther King Jr. of outsiders, showing us that even lumpy guys in dead-end jobs deserve our respect. Also—and I think this is a key point—Big Fan's script is so good that even Peter Jackson couldn't have ruined it. Though, based on his work in The Lovely Bones, I'm sure he would have tried.
3. A Serious Man. While the Coen brothers are treated as gods by cinephiles, not all of their films are amazing. Some are even bad enough that I'd compare them to The Lovely Bones. However, they're also responsible for some of the best films of the last 20 years, and A Serious Man is a standout even in the Coens' oeuvre: Every patch of color in every shot seems perfectly chosen and placed; the period (1967, suburban Midwest) is captured with grotesque clarity; and the story manages to strongly compel the viewer without ever falling back on traditional narrative.
4. Precious. You wouldn't think that a movie about a 16-year-old girl who is pregnant with her second child by her father would be so visually arresting. But then you wouldn't think Peter Jackson would spend $100 million making child rape seem like a ticket to paradise, so I guess you never know what's going to happen in modern cinema. Precious is in many ways what The Lovely Bones should have been: a thoughtful, nonexploitive and artistically rich exploration of the worst things that can happen to a young girl.
5. Humpday. It's weird that a truly original and inventive film like Humpday—which explores moral issues from an intelligent perspective, and yet still manages to be funny—would wind up in limited release in a handful of theaters, while a manipulative, morally repugnant film like The Lovely Bones was given a theatrical release that was almost as big as Peter Jackson's ego. However, if movies can die and go to hell, then Humpday might wind up there, whereas Lovely Bones cannot, because, of the two, only Humpday has a soul.
6. The Messenger. I like knowing that Woody Harrelson is constantly stoned, because it makes his sharp and sober performance in The Messenger seem even better than it already is. This is a film that deals with untimely death using honesty and the kind of powerful screenwriting that would never, ever have a character utter the line, "These were the lovely bones that had grown around my absence."
7. The Great Buck Howard. This is technically a 2008 release, but it only showed up at a few festivals that year. To make up for the neglect, it was released into literally tens of theaters in the spring of '09, where it did what good movies always do: languish and die. Too bad. John Malkovich, in the title role, proves that he was worthy of being in Being John Malkovich, and being in Being John Malkovich is a pretty lofty honor. The Lovely Bones sucked.
8. Che: Part One. This film was also released at a few festivals in 2008, but didn't hit wide until 2009. It's a visual blast, with rapid editing that perfectly fits the revolutionary changes occurring in the world, and in Cuba, at the time of Batista's overthrow. Plus, while not falling for the warped, right-wing slanders of Che Guevera that are currently popular on the unread Web sites of unemployed Ayn Rand fans, director Steven Soderbergh nonetheless avoided the naïve, left-wing romanticization of Che that turned him from a soldier into a T-shirt icon. That may seem like a small accomplishment, but avoiding romanticization must be difficult in a Hollywood that romanticizes child rape (cf The Lovely Bones).
9. O'Horten. With Hunger, Precious, A Single Man and O'Horten, this was a very good year for filmmakers creatively re-thinking visual components. Sure, it was also the year that somebody made a visually derivative, $100 million film about how wonderful it is to be a dead 14-year-old girl, but that hardly takes away from 2009's cinematographic excellences.
10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil. I think dudes should cry more often. However, obviously manipulative schmaltz just doesn't make the true tears flow, no matter how much money Peter Jackson spends making it. Rather, the true dude needs true-dude tragedy and triumph to feel the hot sting of tears on cheeks. That's where Anvil comes in. It's about the most dude-ish of dudes: middle-age, unsuccessful metal musicians, and their Spinal Tap-like ride to the bottom. Only Anvil isn't a mockumentary; it's a documentary, and for true dude pain, real always beats make-believe.
The following runners-up are flawed films that would have made the list with a little editing or more robots or if they'd explicitly insulted The Lovely Bones:
An Education. Well worth seeing for Peter Sarsgaard's very complex and creepy performance, but the film could have used a little more energy.
A Single Man. Director Tom Ford used color in a way I've never seen before. Plus, the soundtrack was centrally important to the film's mood, instead of just a manipulative attempt at emphasizing what's already onscreen. However, a lack of narrative focus keeps this from being Top 10 material.
Adventureland. This was just a great little teenage/coming-of-age sort of movie. It had no discernible flaws, but its target was a little easier to hit than what one would expect in a best-of-the-year film.
The September Issue. An excellently executed documentary which is not Top 10 only because, really, who cares about fashion? And if you do care, maybe you shouldn't.
In the Loop. Maybe the best Iraq War movie so far, and rich with English humor. The first half hour is amazing, but it stumbles just a bit when the scene shifts to America, and some non-British people are forced to stand in front of the camera and try to compete with actors who've come from a country that invented eel pie.
Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I think this movie is full of flaws. I mean, it's still 1,000 times better than, say, I don't know, The Lovely Bones. It's not a great movie, but it has great scenes: An anthropologist is interviewing men about their sexual attitudes, and each of the interviews goes off the rails in the weirdest way possible. Then the anthropologist's boyfriend (Jon Krasinski, who also wrote and directed) gives the sickest speech I've seen since Alec Baldwin's vicious turn in Glengarry Glen Ross.
The suspense is coming to an end, and the mystery is about to be solved. What will be DiGiovanna's pick for worst film of the year? Will it be the re-release of Troll 2? The 40 minutes of blank videotape I accidentally rented from Blockbuster? Medical footage of penile surgery with a soundtrack of painfully loud Reggaeton covers of Doodletown Pipers songs?
No! Far worse! It's The Lovely Bones!
This film is being touted for its CGI scenes, but in the 1970s, director Alejandro Jodorowsky made far more visually inventive films using nothing but mud and straw. And yet, give Peter Jackson 24th-century technology and a budget that could repair the hole in the ozone layer, and he makes something that looks like a poorly conceived My Little Pony commercial. I mean, it's slick, but about as original as a joke about men's nipples. And the dialogue! Actual line from the film: "I loved the way a photo could capture a moment before it was gone." Oh, before it was gone! You'd think that for $100 million, Peter Jackson could have hired someone smart enough to say, "Umm, hey, this script reads like a bad Kodak commercial." But I guess when you're making a movie whose central theme is that raping and killing little girls sends them to a magical paradise, you don't worry too much about how bad the script is.
Well, it looks like Avatar has built up some unholy momentum (on top of its big box office) heading into Oscar season. It landed the coveted, if somewhat shallow, Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture for Drama, which allowed for the painful spectacle of James Cameron talking Na'vi in public.
Well, I am sticking by my guns. The movie just isn't that good!
While I saw many films this year, I have not seen A Single Man, Hunger and Che (although my Blu-Ray copy just arrived) so there could be alterations at a future date. As for now, this is where I stand.
1. Up. This brilliant animated movie had me crying in the first 15 minutes, and it had me laughing hard throughout. When I first heard it was a movie about an old man sailing away in his house via thousands of little balloons, I had my doubts. But one should never doubt Pixar. Doubting them is a waste of good energy. James called this one "just another by-the-book Pixar outing." "By-the-book" when it comes to Pixar means hugely entertaining, imaginative and beautiful.
2. Moon. This sci-fi classic stayed under the radar, which is a shame, because Sam Rockwell deserved to be among the contenders for year-end awards. His performance as a stressed-out moon miner is the performance of the year, but nobody really saw it, so there you go. It's out on DVD now (see Now Showing at Home), so no excuses.
3. Star Trek. Contrary to Mr. DiGiovanna's opinion, the plot holes were not a detriment to my enjoyment. While people heap year-end praise onto Avatar's petulant, bloated back, let us not forget the best fantasy adventure the year had to offer. J.J. Abrams rebooted this beloved franchise with confident command, taking some crazy steps to make Star Trek a formidable franchise again. Please, J.J., waste no time getting to the further adventures of the new/old crew. And, yes ... WE WANT SHATNER!!!
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox. Director Wes Anderson transfers all of his quirky charms to this stop-motion animation classic. The sequence where characters jam out to "Petey's Song" (by Jarvis Cocker) had me giddy. George Clooney's voice added a lot of charm to the title character, but Jason Schwartzman gets my Best Animated Feature Voice award.
5. Inglourious Basterds. Definitely the trippiest film of the year. Quentin Tarantino (who, like Pixar, has never made a bad film) mixed elements of spaghetti Westerns, World War II action films and propaganda movies into the twisted scenario of an all-Jewish platoon hunting Nazi scalps. This might actually get Christoph Waltz an Oscar for his role as the Jew Hunter, perhaps the most suitably vile character on screens this year.
6. A Serious Man. The Coens made another great movie. I'm thankful that they experienced financial success with No Country for Old Men, because no studio would've green-lit this eccentric movie otherwise.
7. Up in the Air. I firmly believe that many years from now, people will look back on George Clooney and this film in the way we look back on Jimmy Stewart for It's a Wonderful Life. This is a career-defining role for Clooney, who had himself a banner year. I also firmly believe that James DiGiovanna, who took a few shots at this film, has no soul.
8. Where the Wild Things Are. Of all the movies this year, this seems to be the one with the biggest split: You love it, or you hate it. I, for one, think Spike Jonze nailed the fright and wonder of being a kid.
9. The Messenger. Woody Harrelson had a great year. Loved him in Zombieland, enjoyed him as the frothy DJ nut in 2012, and was amazed by his work as a stressed-out soldier in this film. His best work to date.
10. The Hangover. James DiGiovanna is a grumpypants. This movie is fun as all hell, and supremely acted. Yep, the American Film Institute and I have no problem putting this one in our Top 10s. It's a movie so consistently funny it crosses over into near-genius territory. All hail Zach Galifianakis!
And now, because space allows, we are going all the way to 20 ...
11. The Lovely Bones. And here you have it—the single biggest disagreement this year. While James feels it is the year's worst, I qualify it as one of the year's best. I had equal parts love and hate for Alice Sebold's novel, and director Peter Jackson capped off a fine decade by figuring out what worked best in the book while jettisoning the crap. Saoirse Ronan is heartbreaking as a murdered girl watching over her family from the "In Between." Stanley Tucci is scary as shit as her killer. I have no problem with the CGI "In Between," and certainly no problem with the performances. The movie impressed me on many levels.
12. Crazy Heart. Jeff Bridges has a serious shot at his first Oscar for this one (he got the Golden Globe) about a has-been alcoholic country singer. Major props to Colin Farrell in a supporting role as his protégé. Both actors did their own singing, and they are pretty damn good.
13. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans. Nicolas Cage comes roaring back with a vengeance as a drug-addicted cop trying to solve a murder while coping with enormous back pain. Bug-eyed, having sex in public and staring down iguanas ... this is the stuff we used to love about Cage.
14. Two Lovers. Joaquin Phoenix says this is his last movie as an actor. If such is the case, he went out on a good note.
15. (500) Days of Summer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are irresistible in this funny and sometimes dark look at a failed romance.
16. The Road. John Hillcoat had a daunting task bringing Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel to the big screen. Thanks to Viggo Mortensen and some stunning art direction, he succeeded. Not to be confused with The Book of Eli, which kind of sucks.
17. Watchmen. In another difficult adaptation, Zack Snyder filmed Alan Moore's "unfilmable" graphic novel quite well, thank you very much.
18. The Hurt Locker. You know, I sort of agree with James in that this one falls somewhat short of true greatness. I thought it was a very good action film with an excellent performance by Jeremy Renner at its core. And while it isn't even close to being my favorite film of the year, it is worlds better than Avatar.
19. Thirst. This is one crazy-assed vampire movie, the perfect antidote to all of that Twilight crap. Director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) continues to be a force to be reckoned with. Ok-bin Kim is amazing as a timid girl who reacts to vampirism in the strangest of ways.
20. An Education. Carey Mulligan got a lot of accolades for her turn as a high school student who gets involved with an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) in 1960s England. Those accolades are much-deserved. It scored a bunch of BAFTA nominations, so the folks in England are loving this one despite Sarsgaard's uneven English accent.
1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I actually almost liked the first Transformers movie; I hit the breaking point somewhere in the last 15 minutes and decided, "Say, you know what? I'm just not liking this." Such was not the case with the sequel: I hated every minute of this piece of junk. It's Big Hollywood at its very worst, and the shits will just keep on coming, because people are going to these things in droves.
2. Angels and Demons. Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, you must stop screwing around with these lame-assed quasi-religious fantasies. They are boring and useless, and they are giving the pope a bad name. I truly believe that the lady who tackled the pope on Christmas Eve was pissed off about this movie.
3. Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience. No year-end worst-of list would be complete without giving mention to these little Satanic bastards. I've noticed that some of these little pricks are splintering off and doing solo gigs, like a spreading virus. This means that at any given time, the awful Jonas sound could be poisoning the sky in all corners of the Earth.
4. Amelia. I love Hilary Swank, but she stunk up the place as the infamous pilot who, according to this film, was kind of an asshole when it came to men. Swank delivered all of her lines with a forced, goofy characterization that made her sound like she should've been announcing a Chicago Cubs baseball game.
5. Avatar. Technically, there were a lot of movies worse than this, but I have to put this on my worst list for the sheer level of disappointment and depression it inspired. When this movie failed, the year took a major hit, and the holidays were ruined. I also got the flu and a serious head cold. I honestly think Avatar weakened my immune system. Fuck you, James Cameron! Oh, and to the 200 pissed-off people who wrote to me because I didn't like this glorified Smurf movie ... get a life!
6. The Twilight Saga: New Moon. Kristen Stewart's hyperventilating performance is my pick for year's worst acting, just edging out Robert Pattinson's dull and sullen work in the same film. I don't care how good the books are supposed to be, and I hear they are good. (I believe you, Stephenie Meyer fans!) These movies are awful, and the mere thought of knowing that more are coming gives me intestinal distress.
7. Year One. Jack Black and Michael Cera in a Harold Ramis movie about biblical times. How could you go wrong? Not only could you go wrong; you could go deadly wrong to the tune of being the year's worst comedy. And this is a year that also saw Pink Panther 2, so that's no small feat.
8. Nine. One of the year's best performances is in one of the year's worst movies. Penélope Cruz is so hot in her musical number that you forget for a moment how awful this film is. Daniel Day-Lewis looks lost in this musical, which does not feature one good song and does feature the dumbest plotline for a musical since Cannibal: The Musical (a film that I loved ... but it did have a stupid plot).
9. Halloween 2. I really did have high hopes for this one. Rob Zombie's first crack at the John Carpenter classic was almost good. I thought another chapter would give him a chance to fix the mistakes and deliver the goods. I am an idiot.
10. The Ugly Truth. With this vile experiment and his involvement in Gamer, Gerard Butler seems determined to make people hate him. As for Katherine Heigl, I already hate her. You'll want to take a shower after this one.
Actually, please remember to shower every day. You have little buggies on you, and they need to die in a Dial soap tsunami. You also stink on the third day, and that's just rude.
While there were a lot of films that I would consider terrible, all in all, it was an OK film year, and a decent way to end the decade.
Sam Rockwell (Moon), Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), George Clooney (Up in the Air), Nicolas Cage (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans), Viggo Mortensen (The Road)
Ok-bin Kim (Thirst), Natalie Portman (Brothers), Carey Mulligan (An Education), Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones), Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist)
Best Supporting Actors
Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), Woody Harrelson (The Messenger), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover), Ed Helms (The Hangover)
Best Way to Rid Your Back Yard of Raccoons and Bears
Intimidate them with nasty looks, or just shoot them
Best Supporting Actresses
Mo'Nique (Precious), Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air), Samantha Morton (The Messenger), Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), Penélope Cruz (Nine)
Duncan Jones (Moon)
Tyson, The Cove
Worst Thing About My iPhone
Those bastard dropped calls
Avatar, Invictus, Nine, This Is It
The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Lovely Bones, Observe and Report, Land of the Lost
Worst Actor and Actress
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart (Twilight: New Moon)
Best Performance (Actor) in a Bad Movie
David Cross (Year One)
Best Performance (Actress) in a Bad Movie
Penélope Cruz (Nine)
Worst Performance (Actor) in a Good Movie
Jimmy Fallon (Whip It)
Worst Performance (Actress) in a Good Movie
Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes)