Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Danny's BEST OF 2009: The Year In Movies

- If it seemed like a lot of 2009 movies were included in my recent Best of the Decade list, it's because 2009 was, despite rumors to the contrary, a great year for film. Okay, so maybe there weren't quite as many triple-A titles as in other years, but if you focus on genre filmmaking, for example, there was a lot to like. In the 00's, we've seen the Western make a comeback, we've seen the superhero film get a shot in the arm, and in 2009, we saw the rebirth of real sci-fi at the movies. Avatar, District 9, Star Trek, and Moon - all phenomenal films that took us to different times and strange new worlds. At the same time, there was The Hurt Locker, a movie that, finally, gave us a cinematic look at the Iraq war that was both gripping and provocative. Tarantino delivered his long-awaited WWII epic, Inglourious Basterds. And the Coen Brothers delivered their latest, a hilarious and brilliantly-written film called A Serious Man. This was a year where some of the greats gave us some of their greatest films, and also when fresh, new voices emerged, sometimes from out of nowhere, and created some of the year's most memorable movies.

In fact, I'd say that 2009 was definitely a year of surprises. Part of what made seeing movies like The Hurt Locker, Moon, District 9, and Paranormal Activity so enjoyable was that I really didn't quite know what to expect going in. It's one thing when a blockbuster movie lives up to or exceeds the hype, but it's that rare thrill when a movie seems to come out of left field and then proceeds to blow you away.

As always: I saw a lot of movies this year, but inevitably there will be some that slip through the cracks. By the same token, there are some movies on my list that may surprise you, but I'll argue passionately in their defense. More and more, we live in a world where people are quick to jump on and off bandwagons. A movie bombs at the box-office? It must suck (wrong in the case of The Road - it was excellent). A movie star is overexposed? Then let's not even give his new film a chance (Seth Rogen may have been overexposed, but Observe & Report was perhaps his best work to date). Avatar was the ultimate example of these extremes. Months ago, fanboys hyped it as the movie to end all movies. But after a trailer or two, everyone seemed ready to bash it - it was just Smurfs in space, apparently. Then, the movie came out, and everyone is calling it the best thing since Star Wars. The truth? Avatar was a great film with some incredible visuals, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it an all-time classic. At least ... not yet.

I do want to emphasize this though: it speaks to how deep my list is this year that there are Honorable Mentions which still manage to fall in the A- range. Some years, you've got a few top contenders, and everything past 7 or 8 represents a steep drop in quality. Not so this year. When I look at some of the movies that didn't even make the Top 30 - like Thirst, Zombieland, and Bad Lieutenant - those are movies that I immensely enjoyed, and that I highly recommend. In other years, they could easily have been ranked higher. There are some absolutely great, soon-to-be-classic movies in the Top 10 and even Top 20. Choosing between them was definitely a difficult task (and as I alluded to above, you'll notice that a full thirteen films from this year made my Top 100 Movies of the Decade list - not too shabby!).

So here's my list ... hope you enjoy.


1.) The Hurt Locker

- I've talked a lot about The Hurt Locker in the last few weeks and months, but I'll go on record as saying this: I hope it wins big come Oscar time. The movie simply works on so many levels: a fantastic script, a phenomenal cast, and you-are-there direction that easily ranks as Kathryn Bigelow's most impressive work to date. There's a lot to like about this movie - the riveting action scenes, the insightful look at the kind of stress that soldiers must endure while fighting on foreign soil, in harsh desert environments - but I think what put the movie over the top for me was the ending. Few films are ever able to end with that proverbial exclamation point, but The Hurt Locker concludes on a haunting note that forces you to put the entirety of the film in a new perspective. In a year filled with impactful movies, The Hurt Locker, I think, was the year's best.

2.) A Serious Man

- I talked about this in my original review of A Serious Man, but I'll say it again: when I watch a new film from the Coen Brothers, I often catch myself just sitting back in awe at the genius I'm watching unfold on screen. A Serious Man is another classic from the Coens - a darkly hilarious look at a suburban Jewish family in the 60's, in which the Coens ask a variation on the classic Jewish question: "why do bad things happen to good people?" The fruitless search for meaning in chaos makes for a movie both funny and profound. And this is a movie in which the writing, direction, and acting are all deserving of nothing but the utmost praise and admiration.

3.) Inglourious Basterds

- In real life, Quentin Tarantino's unbridled enthusiasm for film is infectious, and that same sort of enthusiasm and excitement is captured in his latest movie, Inglorious Basterds. This is a movie that seems to be speaking directly to the audience: "you've gotta see this," and "you're not going to believe what's about to happen here." Tarantino's pulpy WWII epic is a lot of fun, but at the same time, there is some real gravitas behind the snappy dialogue and over-the-top violence. There's big themes at work in the subtext of Inglourious Basterds, and the movie transcends pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) to become one of Tarantino's greatest films.

4.) District 9

- I was floored by District 9, plain and simple. I went in expecting a nice little low-budget sci-fi flick, something meditative and cerebral. And District 9 was smart, it was thought-provoking ... but man, it also kicked more ass than any other action movie this year. This one was a lesson to all the overbudgeted blockbusters out there ... *this* is how you make a kick-ass sci-fi film, *this* is how you combine a great script, quality acting, badass action, and a unique premise to really make something special. I can only hope that people were taking notes.

5.) Observe & Report

- Here's a movie that, on the surface, looks like every other lame Hollywood comedy. But listen up people, Paul Blart this is not! This is a film from the twisted minds behind The Foot Fist Way. This is a comedy that's pitch-black and just plain %&#$'ed up. It features a remarkably good performance from Seth Rogen. If anything, it's like Taxi Driver if someone were to remake it as a black comedy. There weren't a ton of great comedies in 2009, but trust me on this one, Observe & Report stands out from the pack, because, well, it's awesome.

6.) The Road

- I know that The Road received some mixed reviews, but to the detractors I'll say this: to me, Viggo Mortensen's breathtaking performance in The Road is right up there with his award-worthy turns in films like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. I mean, the guy is ridiculous - intense as hell and going all out to convincingly play the part of a desperate man navigating through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The Road kept me on the absolute edge of my seat, and to me it has to be ranked right up there among the year's best.

7.) Anvil: The Story of Anvil

- As someone who took a big risk to live the dream of working in entertainment, I totally loved the story of Anvil. Anvil was a metal band that enjoyed a moment in the sun in the 80's, but quickly succumbed to the harsh realities of showbiz. But Anvil kept the dream alive. They kept playing, kept rockin', kept putting out albums, and remained convinced that one day yet they'd make it back to the bigtime. This is the story behind this epic rock doc - it's funny, it's sad, it's inspirational - and it's one of the year's best. Absolutely crazy that this isn't in the running for Best Documentary at the Oscars.

8.) Precious

- Precious was hard to watch at times, but rarely are movies this powerful, this moving. It's a film that shakes you, that wakes you up. It doesn't provide easy answers or a happy Hollywood ending. But it does make you mad, make you wonder about a society that can let people like Precious slip through the cracks. Precious is a powerful tale of poverty and perseverance, made all the more impactful thanks to a couple of dynamite performances from an unlikely cast of actors.

9.) Up In the Air

- Up In the Air could have been a formulaic romantic comedy, but it ended up as something far better, far more substantial. Because this isn't just a story about a guy who ends with a girl. Instead, the lense is pulled back, and it becomes a story about a certain kind of man, a certain kind of lifestyle. And then you pull back further and you see that this is a movie not just about one guy, but about our society, about the way we live now. Again, potential for disaster in the wrong hands, but director Jason Reitman, aided by a stellar cast, shows that he has the chops to make movies that rise above cliche and formula. It's what makes Up In the Air such a standout.

10.) Avatar

- When you get past all the hype, I think that Avatar is genuinely a great sci-fi / action film - in fact, it's one of the best there's been in years. I think a lot of that is because director James Cameron has an uncanny sense of how to build up a story arc. So many movies feature a couple of cool scenes but end up being anticlimactic. Avatar, on the other hand, is the real deal. It doesn't waste time with an "origin" story. It immerses you in the world of Pandora and gets down to business, culminating in an action-packed finale that is truly the epitomy of cinematic spectacle. Avatar is a badass action flick and a visual treat, but most importantly - it tells a simple, iconic story that works impeccably - because there is a master storyteller at the helm.


11.) Star Trek

- JJ Abrams just seems to have this innate sense for creating pop art done right. Star Trek captured the spirit of the classic series while giving it a shiny new coat of paint. The end result is one of the best sci-fi blockbusters in years.

12.) Moon

- Moon was like one of those great Twilight Zone episodes with an absolutely killer twist. Old-school science fiction, the likes of which we haven't seen in theaters in years, Moon is also notable for an award-worthy turn from Sam Rockwell. It would be spoiling things to explain why, exactly, he's so great in this one ... suffice it to say, he needs an Oscar nom.

13.) Drag Me to Hell

- Drag Me to Hell is up there with the Evil Dead films in the Sam Raimi cannon. It's madcap horror-comedy done to perfection, and it was one of the best times I had in a theater all year. Raimi was clearly in his element here, and I can only hope he's got one or two more of these up his sleeve. And how about Alison Lohman in the lead role? Awesome.

14.) Crazy Heart

- An incredible performance from one of my favorite actors - the great Jeff Bridges - highlights this superb film about a hard-drinking country music singer, whose rugged lifestyle is quickly catching up to him. Bridges is phenomenal. Funny, heartbreaking, and completely enveloped by the part of "Bad" Blake. More than that though, the movie is an engrossing tale of redemption and missed chances in life and love.

15.) Watchmen

- Let's face it: no movie adaptation was *ever* going to live up to the legendary reputation of Alan Moore's groundbreaking comic book series, but man, Zack Snyder and co. gave it their best. Sure, certain scenes in the film didn't quite click, and certain roles might have benefitted from stronger casting. But I give the movie credit for its ambition and faithfulness to the comics. It got a lot right, and certain moments were far better than I imagined they could be. At the end of the day, I still rank Watchmen up there with the elite comic book movies ever made.

16.) Taken

- There was nothing fancy, nothing flashy about Taken. It was quite simply 110% percent pure, unfiltered badass. Liam Neeson ruled it. The story was simple but effective. The action was riveting, and the gravitas-infused dialogue was pure awesome-sauce. Taken is a modern-day action-movie classic.

17.) Adventureland

- A great coming-of-age comedy the likes of which you rarely see anymore, Adventureland was a retro-blast of 80's nostalgia with some real heart and soul. Some great performances from Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Ryan Reynolds help make this a film with characters that feel real, and situations that anyone who's ever worked a college summer job will relate to.

18.) Coraline

- A trippy fantasy story rendered in stunning stop-motion animation, Coraline melds the unique sensibilities of author Neil Gaiman with the impressive visual stylings of director Henry Selig. Coraline creates a dark and magical universe for us to become immersed in, and the result is one of the most interesting and vividly-realized animated films to come along in quite some time.

19.) The Princess and the Frog

- I wouldn't quite put it up there with some of the all-time Disney classics, but I do think that The Princess and the Frog succeeded in recapturing that old-school Disney magic. Not only was it a pleasure to see a hand-drawn Disney film in theaters again, but I was also impressed with how the movie seamlessly combined classic Disney themes with more modern sensibilities. Unlike previous princesses, this one had to work hard for her happy ending.

20.) Up

- The first fifteen minutes or so of Up rank right up there, I think, with the best work Pixar has ever done. After that, the movie becomes a bit more standard kids'-fare, but it's still a really well-done, thematically-complex film. I don't rank it on the same level as last year's Wall-E, but Up is still a fine effort from Disney and Pixar.

21.) The Invention of Lying

- I love how absolutely fearless this movie was. It felt really rebellious, really un-Hollywood. Ricky Gervais frames this high-concept comedy as a more-amitious-than-usual romantic comedy, but it also isn't afraid to ask the tough questions - namely, if nobody could lie, then how many of our social and political institutions would come crumbling down around us. Politics, religion, entertainment - no subject is safe here. It's a pretty remarkable little film.

22.) Pirate Radio

- Like School of Rock, Pirate Radio is a movie that will rock your world if you're a true-blue fan of rock n' roll. While some took issue with the movie's loose interpretation of history, I personally saw it as a rock fable that was more about the idea than the specifics of what actually happened. Nonetheless, this is a great movie - very funny, lots of heart, and overflowing with the spirit of rock.

23.) Paranormal Activity

- I love the fact that the year's scariest movie was made on a micro-budget, outside the studio system. It's proof that a great idea and clever storytelling always wins out in the end. And Paranormal Activity is just a great horror flick - a completely intense, edge-of-your-seat movie that doesn't rely on copious gore or big f/x to work. Just simple tension-building and creepy atmosphere. The underdog, viral success of Paranormal Activity is surely one of the year's biggest stories at the movies.

24.) The Lovely Bones

- Peter Jackson tried something a bit different with The Lovely Bones, and to me, he succeeded in crafting a movie that worked both as a tense thriller and as a moving meditation on life and death. Mixing sweeping fantasy visuals with the cold nostalgia of 1970's suburbia, the movie looks amazing. I commend Jackson on a job well done, and for having the guts to do a movie like this given his blockbuster-filled resume.

25.) Bruno

- A hilarious film almost as uproariously funny as Borat, Sacha Baron Coen's follow-up film is yet another biting satire of American culture. Some of the comedian's shock-tactics may be questionable, but the end result is not: one of the year's funniest films.


- Fanboys
- Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans
- Zombieland
- Thirst
- The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
- Sherlock Holmes
- I Love You, Man
- The Informant
- G.I. Joe
- Jennifer's Body
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
- (500) Days of Summer
- House of the Devil
- A Christmas Carol
- Extract
- Public Enemies



1. Jeremy Renner - The Hurt Locker

2. Sam Rockwell - Moon
3. Viggo Mortensen - The Road
4. Jeff Bridges - Crazy Heart
5. Michael Stuhlbarg - A Serious Man


1. Gabourey Sidibe - Precious

2. Melanie Laurent - Inglourious Basterds
3. Alison Lohman - Drag Me to Hell
4. Zoe Saldana - Avatar
5. Kristen Stewart - Adventureland


1. Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds

2. Anthony Mackie - The Hurt Locker
3. Fred Melamed - A Serious Man
4. Brian Geraghty - The Hurt Locker
5. Bradd Pitt - Inglourious Basterds


1. Mo'Nique - Precious

2. Diane Kruger - Inglourious Basterds
3. Anna Kendrick - Up In the Air
4. Paula Patton - Precious
5. Susan Sarandon - The Lovely Bones


1. Kathryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker

2. Neil Blomkamp - District 9
3. Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds
4. Joel and Ethan Coen - A Serious Man
5. James Cameron - Avatar


1. A Serious Man
2. Inglourious Basterds
3. The Hurt Locker
4. Observe & Report
5. District 9
6. Up In the Air
7. Precious
8. Adventureland
9. Star Trek
10. Moon

- And that just about wraps up my year in film. Don't worry, I'm not quite done with BEST OF 2009 lists yet. Stay tuned for a couple more entries about the year that was. In the meantime ... HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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