The Best Movies of 2009
by Reid Fishman
As we closed out the decade, I’d have to say that 2009 was not the best movie year we’ve had recently, with most of the top movies showing up in the last month or so. However, with that said, it should be noted that 2009 was a strong year for comedy and a stellar year for science fiction, with films that will likely revolutionize the genre.
I also want to point out that my reviews often differ wildly from those of traditional film critics. They view film as an art form and, as such, tend to look for movies that are unusual and unsettling, whereas I like to be entertained and care about the filming technique only to the point that it enhances that entertainment. As such, many of the movies on my list get less than raves from most critics, and I simply dislike movies where bad people do bad things to each other with little or no redemption. That’s why, over the years, you’ve not seen me list movies like “Closer,” “Notes on a Scandal,” or this year’s “A Serious Man.”
Finally, I need to mention that I wrote this without having seen a few movies that I want to see, including “The Hurt Locker” and “Broken Promises,” which might have otherwise appeared on the list. So, here are the films I currently consider the Twenty Best of 2009:
20. Adventureland: Directed by Greg Mottola and starring Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Reynolds, and Kristen Stewart with outstanding supporting performances by Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, this movie is set in 1987 and tells the story of a young man whose father loses his job, forcing him to cancel his European vacation and work through the summer after his college graduation at a local amusement park. What could easily have been a silly farce is instead a well-told story of love and friendship.
19. I Love You Man: This edgy comedy from director John Hamburg stars Paul Rudd as a nice, tame man whose fiancé, played by Rashida Jones (daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton), encourages him to find some male comrades. He eventually befriends a laid-back investor played by Jason Segel, and that relationship tests the bounds of friendship in a variety of ways. Throughout the film, there are enough uncomfortably humorous moments to make this movie both enjoyable and memorable.
18. Funny People: This dramedy by director Judd Apatow tells the story of a very popular comedian and film star (think Adam Sandler) played by Adam Sandler, who faces a near-death experience and takes on an assistant/protégé, played by Seth Rogen to help him recapture his roots in both comedy and love (Leslie Mann). What ensues is a touching (although a tad too long) portrait of a life behind the celebrity image.
17. The Answer Man: This overlooked little gem stars Jeff Daniels as a reclusive author with a bad back and Lauren Graham as a chiropractor who helps to ease his pain, both physically and emotionally. Well-written and directed by John Hindman, it’s the kind of adult romantic comedy you rarely see anymore.
16. The Blind Side: Yes, it’s hokey, and yes, it’s another movie about a poor African American getting saved by well-meaning white people, but it’s also a true story that is well-acted, primarily by Sandra Bullock as the unorthodox mother figure. Directed by John Lee Hancock, this movie is simultaneously entertaining and heartwarming, and the real people it portrays have validated its authenticity in most aspects.
15. It’s Complicated: Admittedly, this comedy is more relevant to my (boomer) generation than it might be to younger audiences, and it certainly plays out like a TV sitcom, but it also has two or three moments that are absolutely hysterical, and I know of very few other modern comedies that meet that threshold. Starring the wonderful trio of Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, perhaps the best comic performance is turned in by John Krasinski as the often-surprised son-in-law.
14. Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino’s retelling of World War II could benefit from tighter editing and a little less banter, but it is nonetheless a brilliant black comedy starring Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger about Jews intent on taking down the Third Reich. As with most of Tarantino’s films, it also draws in many ways on his love of movies.
13. Invictus: With more flaws (particularly the somewhat sappy ending) than his greatest films, Clint Eastwood has crafted a beautiful portrait of Nelson Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, and his single-minded desire to unify South Africa’s post-Apartheid population. Matt Damon is also superb as the captain of the rugby team that Mandela enlists in this effort.
12. Up: A beautiful, animated film from Disney’s Pixar Studios, this tell the story of an older man, voiced by Ed Asner, whose wife has died. He embarks on a great adventure, only to learn too late that he is to be accompanied by a nine-year-old boy. A wonderful voice cast, featuring Christopher Plummer, adds to the beauty of this movie which is at times sad, but mostly hopeful.
11. The Hangover: This outrageous comedy, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Heather Graham, is rude, crude, and just plain funny. Be aware that there are some gross-out scenes, but the story is generally good-natured and includes a bit of mystery, as well as a surprisingly effective performance by Mike Tyson (yes, that Mike Tyson), as himself.
10. Sin Nombre: My favorite foreign language film of 2009, this daring movie, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is set mostly in Mexico and tells the story of young love amidst relentless gang violence. It is a powerful, interesting, and well-told story that shows how difficult it can be for some people to seek and attain new lives for themselves.
9. Whip It: The fun quotient on this movie is really high. Directed by Drew Barrymore (her first directorial effort), it stars Ellen Page as a young woman groomed to compete in beauty pageants who begins competing instead in roller derby. The story could have easily come off as slapstick, but it works, in part, because of outstanding supporting performances by Marcia Gay Harden, Kristen Wiig, Juliette Lewis, Eve, Jimmy Fallon, and Daniel Stern.
8. Away We Go: I don’t get why some critics didn’t like this Sam Mendes dramedy, starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as an out-of work couple, expecting a baby, who are “trying out” different locations where they might possibly move. With great supporting performances by Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, and Catherine O’Hara, this was a very enjoyable, mature, affecting movie with genuine warmth and character.
7. Star Trek: The first of three sci-fi flicks to appear in my top seven, I thoroughly enjoyed watching director J.J. Abrams tell a fine tale about the beginnings of the Starship Enterprise and its well-known crew. Chris Pine, and Zachary Quinto head a terrific cast that actually includes Leonard Nimoy as an older version of Mr. Spock (the plot is too complicated to describe here). Suffice it to say that if you’ve ever watched an episode of Star Trek, then you will likely enjoy this movie.
6. An Education: It’s rare that you can say with some degree of certainty that a star is born, but in the case of Carey Mulligan, this is that opportunity. Although she first appeared in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice” and has had several film and TV roles since, this is indeed her breakthrough performance in a film, directed by Lone Scherfig and written by Nick Hornby, about a young woman who meets and falls in love with a charming rogue played perfectly by Peter Sarsgaard. Supporting performances by Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike, Olivia Williams, and Emma Thompson help make this film memorable.
Here is where my dilemma begins. On any given day, I might consider any of the next five films to be the year’s best. While none of them is as good as last year’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” they are all groundbreaking in some way. So, here is my thinking today (it may change tomorrow):
5. District 9: Directed by Neill Blomkamp and set in South Africa, this sci-fi film is an allegory for Apartheid, told in a semi-documentary fashion about aliens who land on Earth and are assigned to a colony, known as District 9, which is more like a refugee camp. When the humans try to relocate the aliens, tensions mount. Newcomer Sharlto Copley does an amazing job as the human in charge of the relocation who is infected with a virus that begins to change him into one of the aliens. Overall, it is a movie unlike any other I have ever seen, and it works on so many levels.
4. Avatar: 2009’s other outstanding sci-fi adventure, James Cameron took years and an obscene amount of money to make this movie. While the script and story are familiar and somewhat pedestrian, it is a visual masterpiece, in 3D, that will change the future of movies. I won’t try to explain the premise here, and the acting by Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, and others is acceptable but not outstanding, but I didn’t care, and neither will you—this movie is eye candy in the purest sense, and I look forward to seeing it again and again.
3. Up in the Air: Jason Reitman is on a roll, coming off directing “Thank You For Smoking” and “Juno,” and into this outstanding movie about loyalty, commitment, and the shallowness of corporate greed. But this film isn’t about the plot—it’s about three characters and their faults, and how those faults have the capability of corralling those characters into lives they may not want to lead. Played brilliantly by George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick, this is a comedy only so much as the absurdity of the characters’ lives allows us to laugh at their situations. I don’t mean to sound obscure, but the nature of this movie defies any easy attempt at description. Just see it.
2. Precious: I refuse to use the official title of this film, which includes an advertisement for the book and its author, but that’s about the only thing wrong with the movie. Set in 1987 Harlem, it tells the story of a large black teenager who has been abused by her parents and ignored by almost everyone else until she enrolls in an alternative school where her life starts to change and the details of her abuse begin to unfold. With outstanding performances by Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Sherri Shepherd, and Lenny Kravitz, and an Oscar-worthy turn by Mo’Nique, this could have been a bitter tale, but instead is a story of resilience and hope.
1. Nine: Here’s where I disagree with the film critics, because I feel that this is the most complete and entertaining movie of 2009. In 1964, Federico Fellini released his classic “8½,” about a womanizing movie director who retreats into his memories and fantasies. Filmed in black & white, much of the original movie occurred in flashbacks focusing on the main character’s youth from the time he was 8½ years old. In 1982, the story was staged as a Broadway musical called “Nine,” which I saw and did not like, but could not fully explain what was missing. Having seen this movie, I now understand that because the musical was based on a film about a movie director, it works much better as a film than as a play, including its use of black & white flashbacks similar to those in “8½.” Even forgetting all that and just looking at this particular movie, it includes a superb lead performance by Daniel Day Lewis and supporting performances by Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacy Ferguson (Fergie), and Sophia Loren, all of whose parts have been updated to make them less like sex objects and more like strong women. I thoroughly enjoyed this film’s choreography and direction by Rob Marshall with the understanding that the dance numbers are supposed to be manifestations of the lead character’s imagination. So, suspend disbelief and see “Nine”...I don’t think you’ll regret it.