Here they are, the 10 best films of 2009, listed in order of preference. For the original, full review of each movie, click on the title.
In 2009, Max – the wolf suit-wearing mischief maker of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 picture book – was not only king of all wild things, but also king of all movies. Adapted by director Spike Jonze, with a screenplay by Jonze and Dave Eggers, Where the Wild Things Are was dismissed by some as mopey, yet that is what I cherished about it. Kids’ flicks are too often cute and innocent. Max and his movie are unruly. The picture is a mangy concoction of puppetry, computer effects, set design and landscape photography that captures nothing less than the feral side of childhood, the one parents talk about with each other in anxious whispers, usually in bed, at night, under the cover of darkness. Kids are cute, to be sure, yet anyone who has raised them knows they’re also quite capable of being grouchy, manic-depressive monsters. Wild things, in fact.
2. Away We Go
Not another children’s movie – I’ll get to more of those in a minute – though undoubtedly a movie about children, or at least the prospect of having them. And yet Away We Go mostly resonates as a romance, and not one between forced comic adversaries or angsty teen vampires but – get this – two realistic people who simply, genuinely love each other. An unmarried thirtysomething couple content in their relative aimlessness, Burt and Verona (a charming John Krasinksi and a luminous Maya Rudolph) suddenly find themselves pregnant and deeply insecure about it. (Verona looks around their humble shack and sighs, “I think we might be #%*&-ups.”) They’re not. They simply need courage, which this lovely little movie – written by Eggers again, this time with his wife Vendela Vida, and directed with an uncharacteristically light touch by Sam Mendes – helps them find.
Stop-motion animation is proving to be a prosperous playground for some of our finest filmmakers: Tim Burton, Henry Selick (see No. 5), England’s Aardman team and now Wes Anderson, a persnickety chronicler of existential angst who brings exactly that to Roald Dahl’s 1970 novella about a greedy fox. When his scampish thievery results in a dangerous feud with farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, endangering his family and neighbors, Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) must find a way to balance real-world responsibility with his flights of fancy – much like Steve Zissou, the Tenenbaums and countless other Anderson protagonists before him. As in those films, the character, emotion and askew charm is in the details, only here they happen to be animated via stop motion.
I can’t think of a more endearing character in the movies last year than Askhat (Askhat Kuchencherekov), the aspiring young sheep herder at the center of Tulpan. Big-eared and eternally smiling, Askhat’s goals are humble – to mind a herd and start a family in a one-room yurt on a remote steppe in Kazakhstan – but none of them will be achieved if he can’t woo Tulpan, the steppe’s only eligible bachelorette, who would rather go to college. Attuned to both traditional, rural life and the allure of modernity, Tulpan has a simple, elemental pull. When Askhat assists a struggling goat in giving birth, the moment feels more heroic than anything accomplished by a Transformer or Wolverine.
It was touted as a breakthrough year for 3-D, but only one movie truly employed the technology in an artistic manner – and it wasn’t Avatar. Adapted by stop-motion specialist Henry Selick from a novella by Neil Gaiman, Coraline’s 3-D is immersive, not assaultive. It sucks you into the wondrous intricacy of its world, in which a bored young girl discovers a doorway to a seemingly more understanding Other Mother and Other Father. We know better, largely because Selick gives each image – especially those button eyes – a sinister tinge.
Evidence that comedies may be able to better convey madness than drama. A Beautiful Mind is well and good, but this crude, lewd farce about a mentally unstable mall cop named Ronnie (Seth Rogen) felt like watching a bipolar episode from the inside out. The whole picture is loony, since it sees everything from Ronnie’s skewed perspective. Observe and Report made this list, though, because there is also empathy here. The movie is on Ronnie’s deluded side. As he says at the climax – a deranged set piece that rivals Borat in terms of humiliating male nudity – “I win.”
If anyone still wonders what the fuss is about when a new Pixar picture comes along, all they have to do is invest seven minutes of their time in the opening moments of Up. In a delicately animated, deeply emotional and nearly dialogue-free montage, the picture traces the entire married life of widower Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner), all the way through his wife’s sickness and eventual death. Up becomes lighter and more conventionally entertaining as it goes on – especially when Carl attaches thousands of balloons to his house and floats away on an adventure – but those first scenes offer the finest cinema, second for second, of 2009.
How did Duplicity go unnoticed? This is Hollywood at its smartest and sleekest, a dazzling display of clever dialogue and sparkling star power. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen play competing corporate spies who spar, flirt, bicker and connive and maybe, possibly, fall in love. People complain that we no longer get the sort of witty romances that once starred Cary Grant, but when Duplicity is largely ignored, I wonder if we deserve them.
The fact that no one wants to talk about Bruno – while Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s previous expose of American ignorance, appeared on many top 10 lists in 2006 – is evidence that the movie worked. This time Cohen “plays” an aggressively gay Austrian fashion celebrity in real-world stunts designed to reveal the expansiveness and intensity of homophobia in the United States. The gambit was so effective – often hilariously so – that an uncomfortable popular culture is still looking the other way, waiting for Bruno to disappear.
Precious was the most difficult film I saw last year, and I’m still struggling with it, even as I put it on this list. The movie chronicles the horrid life endured by an obese, illiterate and abused 16-year-old girl from Harlem (Gabby Sidibe), as well as the deep well of resilience within her that may just enable her to survive. Despite a thread of hope, the picture leaves you in a state of despair. Precious isn’t meant to falsely inspire, but rather produce vital outrage and essential compassion. In that sense, if it isn’t the best film of the year, it may be the most important.