It seems somewhat crazy in retrospect, but, sitting at the tail end of last year – a period which produced some of the most noteworthy films of the decade - the approaching movie year of 2009 was awaited by many with a combination of trepidation and ambivalence. We were warned for months prior that, due to the lingering after effects of the WGA strike, there would be bombarded with a considerable amount of shoddily-written tent-poles and hastily-assembled projects green-lit solely to fulfill the economic needs of the business.
Indeed, there was definite cause for concern.
However, though there were certainly a few clumsy high-profile black marks (such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Year One), 2009 proved, intriguingly, to be the anti-hype year, with the majority of the best film-going experiences thriving on the buzz of discovery, as opposed to pre-sold satisfaction. While massively-marketed blockbusters (like Terminator: Salvation and Angels and Demons) and prestige awards-bait (Nine, Invictus, The Lovely Bones and The Informant!, to name a few) disappointed, startling word-of-mouth hits such as District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Paranormal Activity and Star Trek (A project which, prior to release, seemed destined to underperform) thrilled and moved ticket-buyers the world over.
Looking over my list, I’m inspired by the staggering originality and craftsmanship of the films on it, and I treasure the unforgettable trips each and every one took me on. These ten – and the honorable mentions, of course – exemplify the intense excitement and stunning artistry of a wonderfully rich year of movie-watching; an ideal close to an often turbulent cinematic decade.
1) INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS If Death Proof occasionally felt like Quentin Tarantino spinning his wheels, this blood-spattered ode to WWII and the liberating power of cinema is like a baseball bat to the head of mainstream filmmaking; a staggeringly grand-scale-yet-intimate effort that you yearn to dismantle just so you can decipher why its disparate parts fit together so flawlessly. From gripping intro - wherein sadistic Nazi Hans Landa (the chilling Christoph Waltz) interrogates a frightened farmer - to nightmarish conclusion, Basterds hums captivatingly along like a brutal, witty, well-oiled machine. Movies this breathtaking, innovation and unique are a dearly treasured rarity, and I’m indescribably thankful to know that – sixteen years in – Tarantino still has enough fight left in him to continue to shock and awe anyone who buys a ticket.
2) THE HURT LOCKER Appearing like an oasis in a sea of bloated political polemics, The Hurt Locker succeeds triumphantly by eschewing the hot-button issues almost entirely. Rather, in drawing us into the white-knuckle day-to-day life of Ssgt. William James (Jeremy Renner in a star-making performance), an adrenaline junkie tasked with defusing bombs in war-torn Iraq, director Kathryn Bigelow adroitly provides a nail-bitingly suspenseful you-are-there experience which, true to the movie’s “War is a Drug” tagline, leaves you feeling shaken and buzzed, yet fixing for more.
3) A SERIOUS MAN Of the numerous original characters that emerged in 2009, none were quite as tragically unforgettable as Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the beat-down Jewish physics professor battling to escape a suffocating hell of personal, professional and existential crises. Wearing a frazzled expression of woeful hope and, alternately, impotent dread, the bespectacled Larry’s blackly comic descent into damnation provides the bitter center to the Coen Brothers’ challenging and often deeply unsettling 60s-set absurdist odyssey. Utterly uncompromising, A Serious Man is a tantalizing cinematic enigma that attaches itself to your brain and refuses to let go. No matter how nicely you ask it.
4) UP Following in the rusty tread-marks of Wall-E, Pixar’s tenth feature-length slice of animated delight once again proved the studio to be the utmost crafters of emotionally-devastating first acts in the business, with a heart-rending, dialogue-free recap of the romantic life of Carl and Ellie Fredrickson leaving many – myself included – moist-eyed and sniffling. Luckily, Pete Docter’s Up manages to hold its course for the entire duration, shifting from thrilling adventures, to sincerity and broad comedy as buoyantly as Carl’s magnificently soaring home.
5) ADVENTURELAND Criminally under-seen during its release, writer/director Greg Mottola’s lovable amusement park coming-of-age tale deserves recognition alongside the life-affirming works of inspiration Cameron Crowe. A touching tribute to the lazy summer days and nights of low-wage employment, Adventureland, with its marvellous cast - including Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Ryan Reynolds - and impeccable soundtrack, lulls you into a blissful state of nostalgic joy, where even the raunchiest laughs speak to a recognizable truth. This is a movie you want to hug and treasure; a tender reminder of time gone by and of those balmy, enchanted evenings when the mysteries of the cosmos could almost be unlocked by a bright smile or an adoring gaze.
6) HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE Silly me, I was becoming convinced that Harry Potter was beginning to run out of magic dust, following the rather lacklustre Order of the Phoenix. So it now feels pretty terrific to be eating crow, as this summer’s Half-Blood Prince proved to be the very finest of the cinematic literary adaptations. Directed with a true storyteller’s zeal by David Yates, and featuring stunning cinematography and a crackerjack performance by Jim Broadbent, the world of Hogwarts has never been as exciting, perilous or sublimely gorgeous as it is here.
7) FANTASTIC MR. FOX After a string of lukewarm disappointments, it was a dazzling, hysterical treat to witness hipster auteur Wes Anderson rediscover the beauty of his own idiosyncratic cinematic language through stop-motion technology and the sneaky, miraculous spirit of Roald Dahl. In detailing how George Clooney’s wily animal thief extraordinaire leads a trio of callous farmers on a wild goose chase, the gifted director delivers a sumptuously detailed visual banquet of a fable, replete with sharp ironic zingers, warmth and – evidenced best during a poignant encounter with a majestic lone wolf – unadulterated, entrancing wonder.
8) UP IN THE AIR Jason Reitman’s revelatory third effort – a standout in a weak year for studio-produced prestige projects - is a refreshingly adult meditation on the complexities of human connection and corporate culture. Riding confidently on the broad shoulders of George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, a travelling professional free of personal ties, who takes on a naive protégé (Anna Kendrick) and begins a playful relationship with a similarly-spirited mystery woman (Vera Farmiga), Up in the Air expertly walks a fine line between cynism and optimism, offering plenty of truthfulness and good-natured humour. It further proves that wunderkind Reitman may just be his generation’s answer to Billy Wilder.
9) STAR TREK Jubilantly breaking free from forty years of suffocating continuity, J.J. Abrams whizz-bang reboot of Gene Roddenberry’s iconic science-fiction universe is a truly astonishing sight to behold. Soaring higher than it has in eons, this Enterprise – now staffed by a brilliantly cast new crew of space voyagers, led by the ultra-charismatic Chris Pine – takes audiences on an exhilarating and massively entertaining flight into the heart of popcorn blockbuster nirvana. Now, with a rejuvenated life-force and infinite opportunities ahead, Star Trek’s future has never been brighter.
10) DRAG ME TO HELL Francois Truffaut’s oft-quoted statement on the filmic medium was that “cinema should express either the joy of making cinema or the anguish of making cinema”. Well sir, Sam Raimi’s return to the spook-a-blast genre of his youth falls, goofy and grinning ear-to-ear, into the former; a slime-soaked tribute to the gloriously bonkers world of gypsy curses, moonlit séances and cackling possessed farm-stock. Aided by on-screen co-conspirator Alison Lohman - a good sport if ever there was one – the director unleashes one of the decade’s greatest fright-fest extravaganzas, a goofball exploration of the macabre that delivers jack-in-the-box scares with irresistibly impish glee.
Honorable Mentions: BROTHERS, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, MOON, THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, PRECIOUS, WATCHMEN, SUMMER HOURS (L'heure d'été), AN EDUCATION, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, PUBLIC ENEMIES.