"Economy” was the word on everyone's lips this year, and it's the word I kept coming back to when thinking about the year's best films. Whether implicitly or explicitly, in form or in function, in story or in style, my favorite movies reflected 2009's recessionary landscape.
10. IN THE LOOP
More about power than money but firmly tethered to both, Armando Ianucci's biting British political comedy “In the Loop” offers a screamingly funny and considerably scary glimpse into the chaotic swirl of media, intergovernmental relations and twisted communication that can set the ever-profitable machine of war into motion. Only “Brüno” delivered more tear-inducing laughs this year, and no comedy in years has been more brilliantly written. The film unflinchingly suggests that war can be the most cutthroat business of all, with a screwy slew of bigwigs and underlings from both sides of the pond climbing the ladder (and the “the mountain of conflict”).
"Avatar” is unquestionably the year's best bang for your movie buck, enhancing its breathtaking visuals with gimmick-free 3-D to provide an immersive, amazing cinematic experience. As Roger Ebert recently pointed out, it also proves that James Cameron is one of very few filmmakers working today who know how to make excellent use of hundreds of millions of dollars. A towering behemoth of pure astonishment, this long-awaited saga about an epic battle on a distant moon holds you spellbound for all of its 162 minutes, and vividly exemplifies the eye-popping possibilities of modern movie-making.
8. DISTRICT 9
A transcendent, ingenious sci-fi adventure for the ages, bold new talent Neill Blomkamp's “District 9” flips the conventions of the alien invasion picture, presenting its otherworldly visitors as a group of vulnerable, persecuted refugees and creating a potent allegory on race and socioeconomic class. Executive produced by fantasy maestro Peter Jackson, the movie also succeeds as a fascinating faux-documentary, an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, a rip-roaring action flick and a great-looking creature feature – its computer-generated imagery seamlessly blended with the slums of its South African setting.
7. PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE
A gritty, galvanizing and richly textured drama set in 1980s Harlem, West Philly native Lee Daniels's “Precious” focuses on a girl who's not just poverty-stricken, but obese, illiterate, beaten at home, pregnant again by her father and HIV-positive. As the tight-lipped title character, breakout star Gabourey Sidibe gives a terrific, transformative debut performance, and as her venomous mother, comedienne Mo'Nique delivers the best performance of the year. Think you've got it bad? Then you haven't met Claireece “Precious” Jones, and when you do, odds are you'll never judge her again.
For her uncompromising Iraq War drama, “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow takes a refreshingly thrifty approach to action filmmaking. She nixes the frenetic editing and showy effects, and instead uses frightening images and tightly-wound patience to produce relentless, white-knuckled tension. Led by the war-addicted Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner, Oscar-worthy), the bomb-defusing soldiers in this movie never feel safe, and neither does the audience. Emotional, yet unsentimental, it's the best contemporary war film since “Black Hawk Down.”
There's not a wasted moment, shot or line of dialogue in “Hunger,” a harrowing interpretation of the events that occurred within the walls of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison during the 1981 Irish hunger strike. Masterfully directed and co-written by British artist Steve McQueen, “Hunger” conveys its story not with words, but with visuals, its exposition reserved for one 17-minute conversation that serves as its entire second act and is caught in one continuous take. Nearly every frame is frame-worthy, as the grisly proceedings are captured with staggering aesthetic grace. As strike-initiating martyr Bobby Sands, rising star Michael Fassbender gives a fearless, indelible performance.
Plenty have argued that Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is unforgivably overindulgent with his use of shock value in the controversial jaw-dropper “Antichrist,” an unshakable beast of a movie best described as the director's dark vision of an alternate, godless world. But von Trier is highly economical in terms of plot, reducing his framework to the increasingly volatile interplay of a grieving couple attempting to mend their marriage and emotional wounds at a remote cabin in the woods. He indeed fills in the gaps with some gruesome, extremely shocking images, but more important than the images are their implications, which lead the mind down terrifying, devastating paths. The most profoundly disturbing film I've seen in years, and also one of the most undeniably powerful.
3. BRIGHT STAR
In translating the work and tragically short life of 19th century English poet John Keats to the screen, writer/director Jane Campion creates her own kind of poetry, presenting the romance between Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse, Fanny Brawne (an exquisite Abbie Cornish), as a ravishing gift to the senses. Like Bigelow, Campion exhibits a great deal of restraint and frugality, letting the movie's consummate loveliness wash over you but never forcing it upon you. Campion is in full command of the tools at her disposal (Grieg Fraser's photography, Mark Bradshaw's music, the delicate countryside of Bedfordshire, England), and uses them to craft a love story that's romantic in every way. The year's most beautiful film by a mile.
The blissful, high-flying adventure “Up” reinstates why the films of Pixar are priceless and nearly peerless in an industry that too often forgets it's based on visual storytelling. Like “Hunger,” and like last year's “Wall-E,” this hilarious, exciting and very colorful tale of an old man who sails away on an incredible adventure after tying thousands of helium balloons to his house frequently eschews dialogue and communicates its narrative through meaningful, impactful, carefully rendered images. Though perfectly appropriate for kids, this is Pixar's most mature film to date, addressing themes of mortality and loss and stressing the importance of letting go of material things and embracing life – a soothing reminder for these difficult times.
1. UP IN THE AIR
To this list and to the cultural zeitgeist, there's nothing unclear about the relevance of “Up in the Air,” director and co-writer Jason Reitman's endlessly witty, enormously satisfying tragicomedy about an antihero who lives his life in hotels and airplanes and fires people for a living. It's not easy for a movie to be both ageless and acutely of-the-moment, but “Up in the Air” pulls it off. The components of job loss and the decline of human interaction via electronic communication are incomparably timely, yet the timeliness seems an almost incidental benefit of the eternal and universal core story. Reitman, who draws perfect performances from stars George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick, and does an extraordinary job of maintaining a funny, yet poignant tone, introduces us to a man slowly discovering his humanity. In the process, the supremely gifted young filmmker taps into the humanity in all of us.
“(500) Days of Summer,” “Gomorrah,” “Julia,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Brüno,” “Star Trek,” “Summer Hours” and “Goodbye Solo.”
“Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Of Time and the City,” “The September Issue,” “Nine,” “Watchmen,” “An Englishman in New York,” “Michael Jackson's This Is It” and “I Love You, Man.”
Another nail in the coffin of Eddie Murphy's career, “Imagine That” is an absurd, unbearable family fantasy that tries and fails to mix the world of stocks with nonsense like magical blankies and invisible dragons. The finance stuff is over kids' heads and the kid stuff is in no way appealing to adults. Family schmamily – this is a movie for no one.
An outrageously insensitive carnage-fest that follows the disaster movie formula to the letter. Director Roland Emmerich may now hold the distinction of having the highest body count and annihilating the planet more completely than any other filmmaker on record, but what kind of career goal is that?
NEW IN TOWN
The most shamelessly unoriginal, cliché-filled rom-com to come along in quite some time. Completely implausible as a Starbucks-drinking, stiletto-wearing corporate hotshot bewitched by small-town charm, Renée Zellweger hits a new low.
OH MY GOD?
British photographer Peter Rodger sets out across the globe to inquire about the meaning of God, and comes back with this pretentious, obtuse, hyperactive mess of a documentary that's basically unwatchable. OMG, did I hate it.
Even the climactic cat fight is clawless in this insipid “Fatal Attraction” rip-off, which features some of the year's most wooden acting and, certainly, the year's worst dialogue. “Did you not get my message?” Beyoncé's big-haired, bigger-tempered housewife asks at one point. If the message was, “This movie totally sucks,” then yeah, I got it. Loud and clear.
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN
An insufferably long, incomprehensible nightmare of grinding metal, raucous special effects and monotonous fight sequences, Michael Bay's needless “Transformers” sequel is an assault on the cerebral cortex, creating the sensation of being fired through a pinball machine. Forget worst of the year – this awesomely awful movie gets my vote for worst of the decade.
To read last year's lists, CLICK HERE.