Row Three’s TOP TEN FILMS of 2009

 
 

Welcome to the big list post for 2009! As it takes a while to get the Row Three wheel a turnin’ for something involving nearly all the contributors in these parts, we are a little bit late to the list game (that was strange to type, considering it is only January 8th, but such is the way of online list-making), and even then some releases were not seen by many of us (from Crazy Heart to The Lovely Bones, both of which are 2010 releases in Canada), but we decided to plant the flag in the ground anyway. Judging from the pleasing variety of films considered below, it was a varied year, with very few consensus titles and those (A Serious Man, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Inglourious Basterds for instance) from reliable auteur filmmakers playing to their strengths. Intense and sophisticated childrens films (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Up, Coraline, Where The Wild Things Are), intelligent science fiction (Moon, District 9, Mr. Nobody) and films about people coping in hard financial times (The Girlfriend Experience, Up In The Air, Precious, Collapse) are but a few of the themes to emerge in hindsight. We hope you enjoyed past year as much as we did (we celebrated Row Three’s second birthday – with no fanfare – in November) and here is hoping that 2010 holds forth the same sort of variety and daring in the multiplex (District 9, The Hurt Locker, Where The Wild Things Are) and in the arthouse (Enter The Void, The White Ribbon, Antichrist).

Criteria:
Each writer had his/her own criteria for putting this list together. Aside from a couple of festival screenings, most of these titles were released in one form or another (From wide release to direct to DVD and video-on-demand) in North America at some point in the calendar year 2009.

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Onward…

10) Star Trek / Push / Knowing
The sci-fi triple threat. Though not exactly mastperpieces, I can’t help but admire each of these films for what they accomplished. Star Trek successfully breathed new life into a dying franchise; Push came and went with little fanfare but this unlikely super hero story has a grittiness to it that is missing from most major blockbusters; and Ebert knows what’s up. Knowing may have its problems but there’s a lot to love in Alex Proyas’ newest offering. It may not be Dark City but it’s in the ballpark.

9) Cole
I may have to start leaving a permanent spot on my list for Canadian director Carl Bessai who has been on a roll the last few years. His tale of a young man trying to break out of small town life struck a cord with me and his ability to capture the decaying beauty of small town living is heartbreakingly beautiful.

8 ) Fish Tank
Andrea Arnold’s second film is a testament to the director’s abilities. Realistic, gritty, beautiful and ugly all rolled into one, this story of a young woman trying to make a life for herself and escape the projects is a work of subtle power. A brilliant performance from first time actress Katie Jarvis doesn’t hurt matters either.

7) The Girl
This beautiful tale of a young girl left alone over a few weeks is both terrifying and a gorgeous reminder of what it’s like to be a child. Beautifully shot, this languid tale from Fredrik Edfeldt marks the director, who only has a few credits to his name, as one to watch.

6) The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke’s tale of small town life pre-WWI is a gorgeous film of huge magnitude. Though on the surface it appears innocuous enough, the power of the film becomes apparent as it’s left to breathe. Enough moral questions and dilemmas to knock out a horse, this one still has me thinking.

5) Downloading Nancy
Widely disliked, Johan Renck’s feature film debut is a fearless, take-no-prisoners look at a woman so damaged she finds solace in what others could only think of as torture. The sleek, sterile surroundings (gorgeously captured by Christopher Doyle) are a fitting backdrop for the powerful performances from Maria Bello, Rufus Sewell and Jason Patric who really shines in his thankless role.

4) The Hurt Locker
The universal acclaim for Kathryn Bigelow’s most recent offering is warranted. Great performances combined with action and heck, even a message, to create a package the likes of which don’t come around too often.

3) Polytechnique
Denis Villeneuve’s recreation of the 1989 Montreal Massacre is not an easy watch but it’s the work of a man with amazing talent. Beautiful, powerful and above all, respectful, this is a film I both wanted to and dreaded seeing a second time. A sure to be Canadian classic.

2) Two Lovers
Technically, James Gray’s film could be considered a 2008 offering but it didn’t open around these parts until early in the year but like so few, it’s a film that has stuck with me throughout 2009. Gray’s strength is his ability to create characters that are damaged but human and which seem to provide some greater insight into the male psyche. I hope to see more great work from Gray in the coming years.

1) Redland
Asiel Norton’s debut feature is unlike anything I have seen in the last few years. Perhaps the only truly experimental (yet accessible) film of the last decade, Redland is a gorgeously majestic dream-like film which re-invigorates and provides a little hope for the future of film. A masterpiece.

- – honorable mentions: Inglourious Basterds, District 9, The Box, Moon, In the Loop, I Killed My Mother

10) Avatar
Yes it has a simple story that has been told before but 99% of the movies put out suffer from this. I found the character compelling and I cared about what happened. You add that to a beautiful looking movie you have something special. If this had not been called a game changer I believe more people would be less critical of it.

9) Watchmen
The opening sequence of Watchmen is enough to put it on my top 10. I loved the characters and appreciated the minor changes. I still want to watch the Director’s Cut but I don’t have much interest in the Tales of the Black Freighter.

8 ) Bronson
The director of Pusher returns with a terrific character study of a man who wants to be nothing more than respect for being a brutal violent criminal. Bronson is the movie it is because of the amazing performance by Tom Hardy.

7) New York Lately
This one should have been on my top 10 list last year. Gary King has created a story containing a montage of characters that I grew to love. My expectations going in were a bit low going in as I felt it was going to be another small indie flick that I would end up forgetting. By half way through I was completely drawn into the lives of each of the characters. I hope more people get a chance to see this one.

6) 9
Just like Avatar, people have complained about the simple story. My response to that is that it is supposed to be a simple story. It is a chase movie that has a really cool look and some really cool action and character design.

5) Red Cliff
John Woo’s epic is stunning and its a real shame for it to be combined together into a 2 1/2 hour single movie. If you have the chance check out the full 2 movies. Oh and yes there are white doves.

4) The Hurt Locker
A thoughtful and tense action movie that has a really strong performance by its lead, Jeremy Renner. How this didn’t end up with a wider release and more acknowledgment by the general public is somewhat stunning.

3) Drag Me to Hell
Raimi returns to what he should be doing. As much as I enjoy the blockbusters its his smaller fun, gory horror that I love.

2) Inglorious Basterds
I get the feeling that anyone who doesn’t like this is either insane or instead just wanted the movie that the trailers promised. Instead of an over the top brutal action flick we got a movie that Hitchcock would be happy to call his own. The scenes of tension with Christoph Waltz had me completely on the edge of my seat.

1) Ink
As much as I enjoyed the other movies on my list Ink stands apart from them as being the only movie that had me wanting to watch it over and over again. I ended up watching it 3 times prior to screening it at the Dark Bridges Launch Event and I still thoroughly enjoyed it at that event.

- – honorable mentions: Black Dynamite, Moon, Ponyo, Zombieland, Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Serious Man, Rough Cut
- – Wish I would have seen:Antichrist, The Road, Mother, Nymph

10) Up
It’s not the best Pixar film by any stretch, but when it works it’s a moving and entertaining adventure that still impresses. The opening 15 minutes are incredible, reducing many to tears before the film had really got started. The rest of the film struggles to recapture this and turns a bit silly at times, but it’s still better than most.

9) Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl
Incredibly daft and utterly bonkers, Vampire Girl is a hell of a lot of fun. Much in the vein of Machine Girl, this is an orgy of over the top gore effects and inspired lunacy that is an acquired taste, but if you can let it in you’ll not regret it.

8 ) Paranormal Activity
As with Avatar, this isn’t without it’s problems, but is an incredibly memorable cinematic experience. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this gripped and terrified by a film and I think it helped that I watched this early on before the hype-machine took over.

7) Where the Wild Things Are
A little slow and overly minimalist in terms of plot, yet Where the Wild Things Are is still a beautiful film. What struck me most was how effective it was in capturing the feeling of being a child coming to terms with the struggles of life.

6) District 9
It’s quite inconsistent and satirically blunt, but it’s also a fresh-feeling and exciting blockbuster that I thoroughly enjoyed. I found lead actor Sharlto Copley to be infuriatingly caricatured in the film’s first 20 minutes, but his performance gradually develops into one of the breakthroughs of the year, at least in a blockbuster role.

5) Lake Mungo
A film that took me by surprise after it opened a relatively small horror festival in the UK, Lake Mungo is a creepy, yet moving horror film. It’s one of the first fictional horror ‘documentaries’ I’ve seen that actually looks and feels like a real documentary. It has some narrative flaws and is not a perfect film, but it’s quietly powerful and some of it’s scares still haunt me three months later.

4) Avatar
Yes, it’s not without it’s flaws as a film (I don’t want to start the debate again) but as a filmgoing experience it was unparalleled. Exciting, often beautiful and deeply immersive thanks to the impressive effects and use of 3D, it’s the best blockbuster I’ve seen for a while.

3) A Serious Man
The Coens do what they do best, mining a seemingly mundane setting/theme for rich black humour and crafting some fantastic characters along the way. Fred Melamed’s Sy Ableman is so good he alone would make the film worthy of a mention.

2) In The Loop
The finest British film I’ve seen in a long while, it is satire at it’s most furiously paced and hilarious best. Peter Capaldi is incredible in one of the most deliciously foul-mouthed roles I’ve ever seen.

1) The Wrestler
I can hear a lot of you muttering that this was from 2008, but it got released in the UK in 2009 and that’s when I saw it so I don’t care. A powerfully raw and emotional film that really touched a nerve with me. It’s been a long time, if ever, that I’ve felt so strongly for a character. Mickey Rourke and the film itself were robbed at the Oscars so I’m putting it at the top of my list to make up for it – that and the fact that it actually is my favourite film of the year.

- – honorable mentions: The Disappeared, The House of the Devil, Star Trek, Zombieland, The Forbidden Door (AKA Pintu Terlarang)

10) (500) Days of Summer
Finally someone makes a solid romantic comedy told from the male point of view without devolving into Apatow-esque immaturity. From JGL’s winning performance to spontaneous musical numbers, I was delighted from start to finish.

9) Up
Sure, the latter part of the film falls a little too much into cutesy kids adventure territory, but honestly, even if I had hated the second half (which I didn’t – it remains warm and funny), this deserves a spot for the almost unbearably beautiful wordless journey through Carl and Ellie’s life.

8 ) Broken Embraces
Right up there with Almodóvar’s best, a thoughtful retrospective on an aging screenwriter’s tragic love, told with perfect pacing and emotional depth. Possibly his most mature, least willfully provocative work.

7) Fish Tank
An electrifying performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis centers Andrea Arnold’s second feature, a gritty, realistic, idealistic, ugly, beautiful story of a teenager just coming into her own among working class Brits. Go ahead, try to tear your eyes from the screen. I dare you.

6) Where the Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze expands the classic ten-line children’s book into a fable of childhood aimed firmly at adults who haven’t forgotten how to be childlike. There’s no pandering in this film, and it’s simultaneously joyous and heartrending from start to finish.

5) An Education
If Carey Mulligan doesn’t become a major star after this film, there’s something seriously wrong with the universe. She gives a strong and subtle performance as a precocious 1960s schoolgirl wanting something more, hoping to find it in a charming older man. It’s not just Mulligan’s film, though – the whole ensemble is pitch-perfect.

4) A Serious Man
A Coen Brothers film that is both 100% Coen and almost completely unlike anything they’ve done before – that’s why they’re geniuses, and this may even be one of their best films in a career with very few missteps.

3) Up in the Air
Classic old-fashioned filmmaking in the best sense – there’s nothing out of place here, from performances to direction, from script to pacing. Add in one of the timeliest stories in recent years, and you can’t do much better than this.

2) I Killed My Mother
This extremely personal film, an autobiographical vision from writer/director/star Xavier Dolan, will also be instantly recognizable by anyone who’s ever struggled with the changing parent-child relationship as children go through their teens. An amazing artistic achievement no matter how you look at it.

1) Inglourious Basterds
It takes a lot of guts (or arrogance) to end your film with the line “This may be my masterpiece,” but in this case, Tarantino may just be right. This is his most complete, most mature film yet, combining homage and his signature dialogue-heavy scenes in the service of a greater story. Tarantino is a cinephile’s cinephile, and here he has exceeded all of this cinephile’s expections.

- – honorable mentions: Black Dynamite, Sin Nombre, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Loved Ones, Moon, In the Attic, The Girlfriend Experience, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Drag Me to Hell

10) The Limits of Control
Jim Jarmusch’s deliberate ode to architecture, form and patient viewing is bumped into masterpiece territory by the wonderful cinematography of Christopher Doyle and the handsome (dude can WEAR a suit) figure of Isaach De Bankolé.

9) Mr. Nobody
Has quantum physics and romantic love ever been successfully combined in a large-scale science fiction epic? It has now. The arrow of time points forward, but it is thorny and messy and vague (with more choice and tangent universes that Donnie Darko). The resulting film is delightfully confusing, sublime and above all else visually impressive.

8 ) The Hurt Locker
Wages of Fear white-knuckle filmmaking from the director of Point Break. Suspense and adrenaline addiction are combined like chocolate and peanut butter. The films starring turn from Jeremy Renner and a sneak-up-on-you supporting cast are icing on the cake, but it is Katherine Bigelow that keeps this sleek war-action film chugging along. Mercifully free of political posturing or subtext, why this was not a huge mainstream hit is completely beyond me, as it is the type of big action movie that Hollywood used to excel at delivering to a wide audience.

7) The White Ribbon
A slow burn film that can bury you on first viewing, it is vintage lizard-like drama that one comes to expect from Michael Haneke. Nazi allegory meets crisp black and white cinematography with characters and story sprawling across the screen. A second viewing is mandatory.

6) Up In The Air
George Clooney lays on the effortless charm which echoes classic Cary Grant or Marcello Mastroianni, where Jason Reitman directs the mainstream movie of our times (even moreso than either of the great 9/11 reflections in The 25th Hour and The Dark Knight). Smoothing out the rough edges of the directors previous Thank-You for Smoking and Juno the result is a high-wire act and he most unlikely comedy of 2009. Laughs and head nodding abound while Reitman tackles aspects of the 21st century economy and late decade recession, along with digital manners and the growing isolation of people at a point in human history when electronic connectivity is at its most ubiquitous.

5) Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wild and civilized and cartoony and sophisticated, Fantastic Mr. Fox blows Pixar out of the water by giving us the auteur filmmaking of Wes Anderson and a handcrafted stop-motion package. It takes animals pretending to be people to show just how much people are nevertheless animals.

4) A Serious Man
heology and science are present but beside the point in this yiddish everyman tale. The Coen Brothers remain at the top of their game even with the high-bar of No Country For Old Men set less than a year ago. A Serious Man is bleak, funny, and quietly stylish with an honest (serious?) streak down the middle. Heaven is the Hell of Larry Gopnik. Or the already classic Cy Ableman.

3) Mammoth
Here I am. Where are you? I love you. I miss you. Lukas Moodysson puts the theory and practice of a globalized economy under the telescope with a startling (and sobering) clear-eye. Money is the path to the future, but the root of all evil, but nothing is ever simple. When we have the need or choice to work on the other side of the world, the intimacy and warmth of family (and most definitely our mothers) is perhaps more vital than ever. As a multi-threaded melodrama Moodysson is operating easily as the peer of P.T. Anderson, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Robert Altman.

2) Inglourious Basterds
As a whole lotta historical fantasy, the real fun with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is its blind devotion to the power of reputation and cinema. That self-reflection of its rock-star director is never too obvious is a marvel! Playing very comfortably to his strengths, Inglourious Basterds underscores Tarantino’s love for both the arthouse and the grindhouse by its gloriously realized scenes of epic suspense stemming from character, pure dialogue and cinematic craft – eventually and patiently realized by action. Handsome to look at with some of the finest performances of the year: We Have A Bingo!

1) Enter The Void
I now know what it must have been like for audiences to experience 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time on a massive screen in all of its humbling glory! Enter the Void is entirely too long, yet still left me hungry for more! more! more! It wears its simple philosophical mantra right out in the open, but slathers it with stunning visuals and camerawork to show Avatar for the kindergarten kitsch exercise that it is. Weird, sticky, and thrillingly voyeuristic, films like this do not come by often. See it on as large a screen as possible. And wait with baited breath for the 3D Imax re-release that will happen only in my dreams.

- – so many honorable mentions (any of these could be #11): Where The Wild Things Are, Antichrist, Symbol, In The Loop. Agora, Deliver Us From Evil, The Road, Moon, Collapse, The Informant!, Drag Me To Hell, The Class, House of the Devil, Soul Kitchen, The Sky Crawlers (viewed in 2008 released in 2009), Tokyo Sonata (viewed in 2008, Released in 2009) Ponypool (viewed in 2008, released in 2009), Vinyan (viewed in 2008, released in 2009), Splice, My Dog Tulip, Summer Hours (viewed in 2008 released in 2009), Public Enemies, An Education, The Girlfriend Experience, Black Dynamite, District 9, Visage, Grace, Three Monkeys, Valhalla Rising, Stingray Sam, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

- – Wish I would have seen:Love Exposure, Funny People, Mary and Max

10) A Serious Man
Yet another top tier film from The Coens; adding one more notch in their ever expanding belt of fantastic cinematic yarns. Retreating to their childhood, Joel and Ethan have put together a story based on hypothesis, superstition, karma and religion all tangled within everyday suburban life of the 1950′s. With tragically fantastic performances, it’s just one more piece of evidence proving The Coens are the greatest story tellers of our generation.

9) Up
Pixar never ceases to amaze; even with their “lesser” films. Up is an adventure story wrapped in a coming of a age tale that reminds us to never let go of our dreams. It’s tragic and heartfelt at times and hysterically funny at others. Squirrel!

8 ) New York Lately
Highly influenced from some of my favorite directors (Soderbergh, PT Anderson, Almodóvar), Gary King has woven together a charming and inspiring tale of relationship heartaches, determination and new found love through several interwoven character arcs. With great performances, a wonderful eye for detail, art and nuance and an intelligent script, get ready for higher profile films from King in the near future and prepare to be amazed.

7) Fantastic Mr. Fox
As a big fan of Wes Anderson films, saying that this is my second favorite of his works is no menial acknowledgment. Going with the old school use of true, stop-motion animation style coupled with a smart and funny script, Anderson may have unintentionally concocted a main stream cult classic (if that makes any sense) that in 100 years will play just as sparkly and rich as it does today.

6) The Class
Technically a 2008 film, The Class didn’t make it to most areas of the U.S. (including mine) until early 2009. Just when you think this overdone sub-genre can’t possibly get any more snooze-worthy, films like The Class come along and offer a fresh angle; twisting the possibilities. The believability factor within this classroom rings far truer than any fictional movie I can remember seeing in a long while. The dynamic between teacher and students and the interactions that take place truly baffle me with how perfectly they are displayed. I have no idea how this was carried out at such a professional level. It’s 2008 Palme d’Or is well, well deserved.

5) Antichrist
The first true horror film I can remember seeing that is equal parts art film as exploitation. It preys on one’s psyche in the most hauntingly gorgeous film on the year – mostly visually, but aurally as well. The use of only two characters throughout the picture only adds to the subtlety and grace in which this psychologically traumatic tale will pummel you emotionally and physiologically.

3) TIE: Inglorious Basterds
Certainly his most mature film to date, Tarantino churns out yet another mind numbing piece of awesome in which he excels best at what he does: writing dialogue. Except this time he’s added amazing cinematography and probably his best (or equal to his best) casting choices to date. And per usual, Tarantino shoves his middle finger right at the camera and indeed history itself and declares “I’m doing it my way.”

3) TIE: Broken Embraces
You won’t find a director working today with a better eye for color theory and technique and it is equally doubtful you’ll find someone who is so obvious in their painstaking, meticulous attention to set detail and lighting as Pedro Almodóvar. With nods at classic cinema from Hitchcock to noir to the French new wave and even previous Almodóvar works, Broken Embraces showcases a true auteur continuing to do what they do without pandering or becoming a stale caricature of themselves. Two words: mesmerizingly gorgeous.

2) The Girlfriend Experience
Continuing with his trailblazing spirit, Soderbergh casts real people with analogous career paths in this worldy (if fantasy-like) tale of life in the late oughts of the 21st century. The less respected class of people trying to make a living out there are usually overlooked in these types of stories; whether it be from a financial point of view or from a 21st century, career strategy point of view. Leave it to Soderbergh to have the courage, ingenuity, ability and experimental spirit to take a stab at this unique look at a career choice that’s been seen in countless films, but never from this particular angle or point of view and certainly not this well.

1) Where the Wild Things Are
This film reminds me why I love the world of movies. Spike Jonze did the smart thing here and swept most of the CGI under the rug in favor of more tangible film making. Amazing set design and choreography, some great voice acting, a skin burrowing ambience, artful nuance and even a few non-sequitors all combine to create a heartfelt story that almost anyone is able to empathize with. Certainly not a kids movie, but rather a movie for the kid within us, I actually believe it to be a perfect masterpiece. Fantastical, practical, magical. It’s Where the Wild Things Are.

- – honorable mentions: *Mr. Nobody, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, An Education, Drag Me to Hell, Surveillance, New York I Love You, It Might Get Loud, Ink, The White Ribbon

10) Freeter’s Distress
Technically, this is a 2007 release, but since no one in North America really had a chance to see it before Chris MaGee and Jasper Sharp brought it over to Toronto for the first annual Shinsedai Cinema Festival this past summer, it definitely qualifies for me as a 2009 film. I saw many great Japanese independent films this year thanks to Shinsedai, but there was something about this stark, honest effort that made me choose it above the others for this list. Shot with a simple camcorder, it chronicles Hiroki Iwabuchi’s experiences and adventures as a part-timer constantly on the brink of poverty. This is easily one of the strongest examples of personal, first-person filmmaking I’ve seen, and I hope it brings Iwabuchi-san better luck in the future.

9) Up
Yup, it’s all true: Pixar has hit another home run with Up. While not as strong as some of their previous efforts, it still certainly exceeds expectations for a simple kid’s movie. Now, I’d hesitate to proclaim it as “high art,” like some other folks have done. After all, let’s not kid ourselves – a well-made children’s film is still a children’s film with all the limitations of the genre, and shouldn’t be compared with other, more legitimate “art films” like, say, There Will Be Blood or Caché (a matter discussed by Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard over at The House Next Door). Don’t even try it. Worlds of difference separate them. But what Up and the other Pixar triumphs do, they do very, very well. The opening sequence of Up is just as touching and beautiful as everyone says, and it alone will keep me very interested in what the Pixar dream factory will come up with next.

8 ) Star Trek
As with Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, it was so good to have a childhood franchise mature along with me. Rewriting the rule book in a way that seems to have pleased even the most rabid of Trekkies, J.J. Abrams has successfully brought the fun back to Star Trek. He has done justice to the original characters and actors with a well-chosen crop of fresh faces (with Karl Urban clearly stealing the show like a bandit) and injected plenty of action and adventure in just the right way. Plus, the flick looks gorgeous – phasers, starships, monsters and lens flares (yep, lens flares, probably exceeding the amount Paul Thomas Anderson used in Punch-Drunk Love) all virtually pop off the screen. Job well done.

7) (500) Days of Summer
It was so nice to see a light-hearted yet brutally honest film about relationships. Marc Webb’s debut film is very much of the same spirit as Truffaut’s delightful humanist dramas, not needing to look any further than the web of daily life and ordinary people to tell a good story in a fun, stylish manner. For me, this film might be better than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in that it tackles the same subject matter with a similar, non-linear structure, but without requiring the contrivance of a mind-erasure company. I still like Eternal Sunshine a lot, but this one earns extra points in my book for just diving in and approaching the subject head on. Oh yes, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are excellent.

6) Up in the Air
A very mature piece of work from Jason Reitman. Extremely relevant, it serves as a well-articulated call to consider what should be truly cherished in your life. George Clooney’s commitment-dodging, self-made philosopher Ryan Bingham makes for one interesting protagonist who embarks on a gradual, episodic process of reevaluation and renewal. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are both great to watch in their respective roles, as are J.K. Simmons, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Bateman, Danny McBride and Melanie Lynskey in their smaller parts. Very sincere, and more fresh and original than some may expect going in.

5) Visage
Easily the most rewardingly mystifying film on this list. This one I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival, so it hasn’t really gotten a wide North American release yet…but I’ll be waiting patiently until it does, and is released on DVD afterwards. Meditating on death, time, the French New Wave, filmmaking, sexuality, myths and so much more, Tsai Ming-liang’s latest is opaque, difficult and often bizarre, but I can’t get it out of my head. It’s a riddle that I long to revisit and ponder very soon in the future; a cinematic poem of snow, darkness and space.

4) Micmacs à tire-larigot
Another film I previously saw at TIFF and still has yet to be distributed across North America. You can read my glowing review of it here, but I’ll repeat that this is yet another of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s satisfying cinematic treats. Colorful, funny, creative and highly entertaining, it seems to work in all the ways one would expect from the director of Amélie and Delicatessen.

3) A Serious Man
After the minor work (but, I think, unjustly underrated) Burn After Reading, the Coen brothers made yet another solid film. Not as wall-to-wall entertaining as The Big Lebowski (but really, what is?) or accessible as Fargo, A Serious Man keeps some of the ambiguous spirit of No Country for Old Men, but in a completely different story. Michael Stuhlbarg’s physics professor Larry Gopnik is forced to deal with one spot of bad luck after another while vainly searching for understanding and guidance (most memorably from three very different rabbis). A Midwestern fable loosely based on the Book of Job, it certainly warrants repeated viewings.

2) The Hurt Locker
As many are saying, this is possibly the best Iraq war film made yet, precisely because its main focus isn’t the war or its politics, but the people who are caught in the center of it all. Jeremy Renner is compelling to watch as a hotshot adrenaline junkie bomb defuser who gets caught up in one white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat sequence after another. That’s the secret of The Hurt Locker’s success: not only is it insightful and important, but it’s also damned entertaining to boot.

1) Inglourious Basterds
After years of rumors and anticipation, Quentin Tarantino finally delivered his long-gestating World War II movie. But it’s not quite the movie everyone was expecting. While it contains a fair amount of action, it doesn’t feature the massive, epic battles I was originally envisioning, opting instead for a series of expertly devised, deliciously executed lessons in screen suspense. Also, I’m pretty sure nobody was expecting anything like Christoph Waltz, who makes a villain for the ages with his Colonel Hans Landa. Ultimately, this film is of the same breed as Kill Bill in Tarantino’s filmography: both are focused on nothing less than delivering a rollicking good story, rummaging through a vast tool box of cinematic devices with visible glee, serving up character after fascinating character, revelling in the various cultures (Japanese, Chinese, French, German, British) and films that make up Quentin’s distinct, exhilarating movie-verse. Without a doubt, this one will be getting many repeated viewings over the course of the new year. Rock on, Tarantino.

- – honorable mentions: Aruongaku, Adventureland

10) The Loved Ones
This little Aussie horror is not afraid to show familiar scenes in different ways – in fact, it embraces the chance to do so via its choices of framing, editing and pacing. It takes its time, uses long takes and builds up its head of steam through story and character. The dysfunctional relationship at the heart of the main story keeps the viewer always a bit off balance and usually laughing while they attempt to right themselves. Surprises, gore, plenty of humour and plenty of uncomfortable wincing.

9) Fantastic Mr. Fox
I love Wes Anderson’s style so I’m absolutely biased up front. If he seems to bring similar framing tactics, long tracking shots, whip pans and rat-a-tat dialog to everything he does, that’s OK by me because it seems to work every single damn time. Even when the whole film is done with stop motion animation. I can’t wait to see this one again.

8 ) Adventureland
The characters in Greg Mottola’s Adventureland feel like real people. They aren’t completely innocent or completely evil – they do stupid things, react in ways they regret later and all have a great deal of warmth along with their many flaws. That’s kind of comforting and why I loved spending time with them.

7) Love At The Twilight Motel
Alison Rose’s Love At The Twilight Motel was initially pitched as being about the 20 motels located on 8th street in Miami that set their rates based on hourly occupancy. One can easily envision a rogue’s gallery of characters and bizarre situations to be found at these motels that might provide a glimpse into the vast depravity of humankind. Instead, we get seven very intimate stories from seven different patrons of these establishments – all of whom are missing something in their lives. If perhaps they don’t realistically believe they will find love at the motel, every single one of their stories touches on lost loves, hopes for love and love betrayed. It’s beautifully shot, very moving and seriously deserves much wider distribution.

6) Micmacs
Jean-Pierre Jeunet knows how to please his fan base. His latest (whose full title is actually Micmacs a tire-larigot) is chock full of his patented set design, quirky characters and Rube Goldberg type apparatus along with, from start to finish, more inventiveness and creativity than many directors manage in their entire careers. Jeunet isn’t bringing a whole lot brand new to the table, but it’s superbly entertaining, constantly surprising and left me grinning ear to ear.

5) Soul Kitchen
Family. Food. Music. Sex. Depending on the person, each can be thought of as a kind of “food for the soul”. They all make up significant parts of Fatih Akin’s latest film which focuses on many of the joys of life. It’s filled with great characters, contains numerous zigs and zags on the path from A to the inevitable B and celebrates the nourishment that body and mind require.

4) L’Enfer D’Henri-Georges Clouzot
You have to see your madness through“. By the time famed director Henri-Georges Clouzot actually utters this philosophy regarding how artists should approach their work, this documentary look at his failed dream project has already given you a taste of how much he himself believed it. By pulling together footage shot before the project was abandoned (a mix of outdoor shots and test footage for the delusional dream sequences), the film brings you right to the brink of Clouzot’s own madness.

3) Best Worst Movie
I love bad movies as much as the next person, but I don’t quite revel in them. I had feared that Best Worst Movie would focus on the fans of Troll 2 (widely considered one of the worst films ever made and the subject of this doc) – those who can only laugh AT movies and those who have an ironic “isn’t this great” viewpoint. Many of the fans of Troll 2 do indeed show up in the film, but there’s an honest genuine love for “their” movie that they want to share with everyone. It becomes apparent very quickly that Best Worst Movie is about the people behind it – an affectionate, sweet, sometimes sad and often times hysterically funny look at a group of people who had such great intentions…and failed miserably.

2) Up
Pixar sure makes it easy to include their films in end of the year lists – gorgeous graphics, high-energy action, lots of good humour and subtlety in both character and emotion. A smile rarely leaves my face during one of their films and I have to think that’s worth some pretty high praise. Up is yet another example. They still haven’t failed me.

1) Black Dynamite
Easily the most fun I’ve had at the theatre in years. Partially, no doubt, due to the wonderful Toronto After Dark audience who ate it up, but the credit of course goes to director/co-writer Scott Sanders and star/co-writer Michael Jai White. Their homage/spoof of 70′s blaxploitation films finds the perfect balance between poking fun at the genre while also paying respectful tribute to it. These are guys who know and love these films and this translates into tears-streaming down your face laughter and a wealth of fun action.

- – honorable mentions: Castaway On The Moon, Ashes Of American Flags, Iron Maiden: Flight 666, Grace, I Love You, Man, Air Doll, The Headless Woman, Black, Perrier’s Bounty, Inglourious Basterds, The Misfortunates, Five Hours From Paris, (500) Days Of Summer, The Cove, Away We Go, Funny People, Star Trek, The Box.


Add this all up and you got some bad-ass perpetrators and they’re here to stay…

- Without a doubt the best year of film, period. My honorable mentions would make a solid parallel top ten for any other year.

10) The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson was born to make this film, and its just a lot of fun, something that normally would not make my end of list, but because I cannot stop thinking about it, because it makes me smile in a time that had me so pensive, I had to include it. I do think this film will last the test of time.

9) Funny People
This Judd Apatow is going to be big, mark my words. No one does poignant comedy like he does, and nobody does it as long as he does, but frankly I could have watched another hour of this story of the hardships of stand-up comedians.

8 ) Rip! A Remix Manifesto
The most fun, most optimistic documentary I have seen this year, Rip! depicts the possibilities for a bright future of artistic expression in this digital age, a new Renaissance not unlike what is happening in Brazil, and with the advances by artists such as Radiohead and Girl Talk, and the rise of Creative Commons and the further democratization of choice in a world set free by the internet rhizome, there is hope.

7) A Single Man
A last minute inclusion in my list, this debut film of Tom Ford took me places I didn’t expect, reinventing the tired and familiar cliches of homosexuality and sixties Americana, as in pace, it wafts like cigarette smoke to hypnotic effect.

6) Dear Zachary
And the award for most tear-inducing film goes to…Dear Zachary. 3 times, 3 times I cried in the span of this documentary about those left behind trying to gather the pieces together in the wake of a murder.

5) Wendy and Lucy
The film has that sort of disposable grandeur of being immediate and uncluttered, like a well-crafted haiku. Maybe its not the prose you obsess about writing yourself one day, or the earmarked literature of the cafe, but it fills a space just the same. Here is Wendy and there she goes, and you feel like maybe you dreamt her, that this production was as effortless as a daydream.

4) The Limits of Control
The headiest film of the year, a real world Waking Life, with Jim Jarmusch taking semiotics to a whole new level. Less about the need of deciphering to understand the loaded images, The Limits of Control requires you to perhaps sense in a more immanent way the essence of the ideas its collage effect serves.

3) Away We Go
Sam Mendes’ second wind with this and Revolutionary Road have made me a believer, although he had a lot of help from a brilliant script by Dave Eggers, and John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph embodying the protagonists, Burt and Verona. Easily the most enjoyable experience I had in the cinema this year.

2) Mammoth
Babel by way of Gus Van Sant, as perfect and as prescient a film as I have seen all year. This is the standard by which multithread narratives ought to be held to.

1) Collapse
The scariest film of this or any year, a man talks for an hour and a half and things will never be the same again.

- – honorable mentions: The Cove, The White Ribbon, AntiChrist, Star Trek, Gran Torino, We Live in Public, The Hurt Locker, Hunger (saw 2008), Inglourious Basterds, Where the Wild Things Are

10) Broken Embraces
9) Micmacs
8 ) Fantastic Mr. Fox
7) Up
6) Mammoth
5) Up in the Air
4) Where the Wild Things Are
3) The Hurt Locker
2) A Serious Man
1) Inglourious Basterds

Discuss.

- – honorable mentions: Adventureland, Drag Me to Hell, Moon, Star Trek, In the Loop.





38 comments

  1. I love the Consensus (kinda)… the top five I don't even have on my list. :)

  2. Top marks to Kurt and Andrew for being awesome with their #1s.

  3. Why does it not surprise me that only one of my picks made the top 10 consensus list? :)

  4. Six of mine did. Either I win, or I have the boringest taste in the world. Yeah, I'm going with the latter. ;)

  5. why do people not like the Road more? Is it just because the book is so strong in people's mind.

    It stayed with me for days and is among the top echelon of my favorites this year.

    • I didn't love The Road. I liked it a lot. But not sure if it's the book that hits me so much harder or if it's because I saw Last Ride later in the week and though similar, thought it was a much better movie.

  6. Oh, but Marina, you watched and loved Fish Tank! Yay!

  7. I loved the Road when I saw it at TIFF, but I didn't like it as much the second time… still a solid film though but seriously this has been an insanely good year for film that it just didn't make it for me.

    • "I loved the Road when I saw it at TIFF, but I didn’t like it as much the second time… "

      Isn't this the exact OPPOSITE of your argument yesterday? I thought the movie should be judged on your experience that one time. wft.

  8. I now think of you as Middle-Of-The-Road Jandy :)

  9. Kurt Halfyard

    @Rusty, "why do people not like the Road more? Is it just because the book is so strong in people’s mind."

    Yep. The film is fantastic. It is really good, but sadly nowhere near the book. A simple case of trying to adapt perfection into a different medium. I think Hillcoat and co. have made a significant achievement with the film, but it will always suffer in comparison to the book. And that divide colours where the film ends up as peoples favourites.

  10. Kurt Halfyard

    Entries 9 and 10 on that list are kind of baffling (or indicative of the varied year) They barely feel 'consensus' and could easily be replaced with THE WHITE RIBBON and THE LIMITS OF CONTROL.

  11. How did Broken Embraces get on there, and who was it that did the consensus again…hmmm….

    • I have the math of the entry tabulation if you guys wanna take a look.
      Broken Embraces = 3 pts from Jandy, 8 pts from Andrew = 11 pts total, 2 lists
      Limits of Control = 1 pt from Kurt, 7 from Rot = 8 pts total, 2 lists
      The White Ribbon = 4pts from Kurt, 5 pts from Marina = 9 pts, 2 lists.

      Broken Embraces wins.

  12. @Andrew

    No I said it doesn't REQUIRE a second viewing to be judged, but in this case I did actually see the film twice and so the accumulative effect has to be acknowledged (I can't NOT be the person who saw the film twice and have my present opinion of the film remain fixed in the past).

    I am privileging the (relative) present at all times, and not thinking about what The Road will mean to me ten years from now and than grading the experience on that.

    • So its kind of arbitrary then? I agree it doesn't require a second viewing. But you've just acknowledged that a movie that just gets better every time you watch it can be more valuable than a movie you saw once, liked it, but are afraid to watch again because it might not live up to your memories. Likewise, a film that doesn't hold up on future viewings (The Road) can be construed as inferior.

  13. Consensus might not be the right term…OK, it's definitely not the right term (the top 6 weren't on my list).

    Still makes for an interesting 10 though – some obvious picks along with a few surprises. I expect there was also some rolling up of honourable mentions.

  14. you mean there is no hierarchal value to individual lists? Don't Kurt and I trump you and Jandy :)

  15. arbitrary? well our tastes change as we change, if you mean not static, then absolutely. The difference is I am not predicting what the future will hold for the film and adding that to the value, I am taking stock of it right now. We are almost treading into Hurley time travel conversation here, but the present is not a fixed point, its wherever you are at when you think of it.

    • So at least you agree that subsequent viewings of a movie can affect its position on a person's list over time (and if that experience grows, the film's status should as well).

      I agree with you that pretending to know how you'll feel about a movie in 10 years maybe isn't the best way to critique a film. But with something like Fantastic Mr. Fox, I think an argument can be made that it is timeless. And for me, that word is a positive thing for a film and not a negative. Therefore, just one more piece of data (weighed however much stock one wants to put into something like that) to include when deciding where it should go on one's list.

  16. The "consensus" lists never really work out unless we all sat around a table for 10 hours arguing each and every movie over. Filmjunk did theirs for the decade and their picks had to be on everyone's list. This has its pluses but also negatives. Perhaps we could have said that movies had to be on at least 3 lists or perhaps 4.

    Oh and I trump everyone cause I totally destroy the site with my mad coding skills…. not that I would although maybe next year the consensus list should look a lot more like mine. :)

  17. I agree, but focus on what it makes you feel now rather than what it may or may not make you feel later seems like a pretty logical approach. and if you have only seen a film once and you think it has no rewatch value that to me doesn't necessary make it a lesser film, or even affect how I think of the film.

  18. I can do that too, John. :p How about this: if next year's list isn't a perfect composite of our two lists, we turn the site into a circa 1997 GeoCities site clone?

    Mike, I agree on not trying to project ten years into the future and guess what I'll think. It's a fun thought experiment, but it doesn't really enter into my valuation. I've used that timespan a time or two in recent comments not because I'm projecting my critique that far into the future, but because it's a nice round number and I know that the films I loved (and hated) ten years ago aren't the ones I love and hate now. Ten years is a good time span for revaluation.

    As far as focusing on what you feel now…what I feel right when I walk out of a film is often just as dependent on whether the sun's shining when I leave the theatre or if it's raining or if I spent the last five minutes dying to go the bathroom or if there was a group of annoying teenagers near me. My attempts to think through a film over the next weeks are attempts to mitigate those biases.

  19. I managed to catch Fish Tank on Tuesday (I posted a comment on Jandy's review) and it was too late for this list, but I would have put it in at number 6, pushing Up out of my list.

  20. Awesome consensus list! I wonder were Children of Men exists in this list extravaganza, and although on the cusp (2000) Almost Famous?

    And did anyone note that GLORIOUS BANNER!!!!

    • It's weird. Children of Men only appears on two lists. Mine and Jonathan. Both of us have it right around #50. Funny, I think that's a film that deserves more scrutiny and probably a much higher spot than it got. Not sure what the problem is there. Especially after listening to Sean talk about it on the FJ podcast (as their #2 of the decade).

      • Oh, and thanks on the banner. I was going to put up a link o the hi-res version if anyone wants more detail. I'll try to remember to do that over the weekend.

  21. That banner is VERY sweet.

    On THE ROAD, I too enjoyed it quite a bit but not enough to put it on my list. And I don't have the book to blame because I didn't care for it all that much either.

    And I didn't mean anything by the fact that only one of the films on my list made the consensus list. It's just funny that a similar thing happened last year. It always surprises me that as much as we may agree throughout the year, when it comes down to our favourites – we're all very different.

  22. Props to Andrew for having the best list…or at least the one most similar to my own.

  23. Seanithan

    Dear John,

    How do you "have no interest in the Black Freighter"? It's a part of the story just the same as the rest of it. Plus, it's pretty shweet. Watch the director's cut with the black freighter interwoven. It's well done, I do think.

  24. While I still have plenty to watch this year (Fisk Tank, Precious, Crazy Heart, A Single Man, The Hurt Locker, The Girlfriend Experience), here is my tentative top ten of 2009:

    10. Funny People

    9. An Education

    8. Where the Wild Things Are

    7. The Road

    6. Ink

    5. A Serious Man

    4. Moon

    3. (500) Days of Summer

    2. Up in the Air

    1. Inglourious Basterds

    My top five, I feel very, very strongly about. The others, I could see getting bumped off or reshuffled when I watch what I have remaining to watch.

  25. Great list, Jonathan! I just watched Inglourious Basterds again tonight, and it's still just as amazing as it was the first time. Every scene I kept going "oh, this part is AWESOME."

  26. Agreed that as a film, the showy confidence of Inglourious Basterds (as in "oooh, this part is Awesome!") is pretty infectious.

  27. It certainly isn't a life changing movie, but it's a movie I'm going to watch twenty years from now and still have a hell of a time. The first time I heard "bonjourno" in the theater… I'm not sure if I have ever laughed that hard during a movie.

  28. Just noticed Kurt dropped in Mary and Max in his “wish I would’ve seen” list above. I can say that movie is certainly an underseen gem. Possibly the best animated film of 2009 – certainly better than Pixar’s Up after re-watching that.

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