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The Best Films of 2009

by David Cornelius

As usual, I’m late to the party with my year-end best-of list. But (watch closely as I wriggle myself off the tardiness hook!) 2009 was a year worth a little extra mulling-over time; the year’s best films were the kind that invite multiple viewings, all those nuances waiting to be discovered, ideas waiting to be debated. Movies - at least the best ones - seemed more daring this year, more eager to take chances, more willing to challenge audiences as they entertained them.

These are the year’s best films:

1. “Inglourious Basterds.” For years, Quentin Tarantino teased fans with talk of a long-in-the-works WWII actioner. What fans expected was a gritty, sleazy tribute to B cinema, something on par with “Kill Bill” and “Grindhouse” (and that’s exactly what the trailers promised, too, playing up Brad Pitt’s Nazi scalps and Eli Roth’s baseball bat). What the filmmaker delivered, however, is all that and much, much more: the title bastards are mere supporting players, blood-soaked comic relief in their own movie, giving us time to relax after intense encounters with Hans Landa, one of movie history’s greatest villains, and Shosanna, one of its greatest heroes. (Needless to say, great performances abound.) This is a sprawling, breathless epic, crammed with meticulously crafted scenes of character study and verbal sparring, the dialogue dripping like honey. There’s just so much Tarantino crams into these 153 minutes, and he makes every frame count. It’s ballsy enough to (correctly) call itself a masterpiece - and perfect enough to make us forgive the spelling.

2. “Up.” Pixar goes ten for ten. This time, they audaciously ask family audiences to cuddle up to a cranky widower, a chatty, pudgy kid, and a talking dog. And of course it works. It’s Pixar. The opening section alone - the much-celebrated montage of few words, a marvel of concise, heartfelt storytelling - would merit a spot in any best-of list, but it’s only the start of such a wonderful adven-- SQUIRREL!!!

3. “Moon.” Sam Rockwell has long been one of the best actors working, and here he delivers his best performance yet as the tired, homesick, and slightly insane lone man on the moon, a guy who finds himself, literally. More than just a showcase for its leading man, “Moon” is also one of the smartest chunks of sci-fi in years, a wicked puzzler of a plot that also begs us to consider the very notion of what makes us human.

4. “District 9.” One of the other smartest chunks of sci-fi in years is this sleeper hit, imagining a South Africa plagued once more by apartheid, but this time it’s aliens in the slums. The premise alone is fascinating, but then the movie dares us root for two of its least likeable characters: a human bigot and an alien criminal. Oh, and about half the film is in a documentary format. It’s one bold move after another, lifting what could’ve been just a clever allegory into endlessly engaging storytelling.

5. “The Way We Get By.” The year’s finest documentary isn’t just another movie about the war(s). It’s about the comfort given to those finally returning home. And the devastation that comes with shipping out. And the contemplation of our mortality. And how little one has to do to make a difference in someone else’s life. And how big that little action can become. And snow angels. Can’t forget the snow angels.

6. “Sita Sings the Blues.” Much was made over filmmaker Nina Paley’s copyright struggles and her subsequent decision to release her movie online, for free, to anyone who wants it. But let’s not forget that even without all that, “Sita” is still one of the most inventive animated works you’ll ever see, and every ounce of its inventiveness is an instant smile. Cleverly turning one story into three and back again, Paley dabbles in a variety of styles that dazzle while never losing sight of the comedy that tickles and the heartbreak that aches so very much.

7. “The Hurt Locker.” At one level, it’s an action thriller wound so tight you can hear your knuckles crack under the pressure. At another, it’s a meditation on adrenaline - what some will do to obtain it, what others will do to run from it. “War is a drug,” goes the quote Kathryn Bigelow chooses to open her film, and “The Hurt Locker” examines those four words in so many ways, all of them exciting.

8. “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” I’m not the first to say it, far from it: with his attention to detail and appreciation for the quirky, Wes Anderson was born for stop-motion animation. This one’s a stunner, too, with small-scale detail drawing us into every frame. But the story’s a winner, too, a lively, sly expansion of Roald Dahl’s classic, complete with George Clooney slickness and cool-as-cuss dialogue.

9. “Up in the Air.” Speaking of Clooney, his devilish grin here hides a mountain of… what? Regret? Disconnect? Loneliness? All that and more, it seems, in this sign of the times tale where downsizing becomes a personal matter, too, turning a snarky take on recession living into an earnest character-driven dramedy. Jason Reitman, you’re forgiven for “Juno.”

10. “The Informant!” Leave it to jack-of-all-genres Steven Soderbergh to turn a movie-of-the-week true-story tell-all into a comedy tilted at all the wrong angles. And leave it to Matt Damon to keep us cheering for bumbleschmuck Mark Whitacre as his best and very, very worst efforts collapse around him. It’s witty and weird, a biopic utterly unwilling to play by any rules.

Runners-up: “Battle for Terra,” “Coraline,” “Duplicity,” “The Great Buck Howard,” “Gretchen,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “In the Electric Mist,” “Ponyo,” “Public Enemies,” and “Taking Chance.”

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originally posted: 01/17/10 01:25:55
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