And the Winners Are...

CityBeat writers unveil their Top 10 films for 2009

Dec 30, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The subjective nature of Top 10 lists inevitably reveals personal interests, quirks, prejudices and tastes, all of which can be either intriguing or infuriating depending on whether you agree with a given compiler’s cinematic worldview.

Top 10 lists often yield more questions than answers. What’s the difference between your No. 1 and No. 6 movies (a question I’ve slipped by going to alphabetical lists in recent years)? What’s the difference between No. 10 and whatever film might have placed at the unseen No. 11 spot? How could you have left out my favorite movie of the year? How could you have included that piece of pretentious claptrap?

Personally speaking, most years my list features a few movies I feel strongly about (this year The Hurt Locker and Summer Hours stand alone) and several that could easily be swapped out for 10 more (this year’s honorable mentions include Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the Dardenne brothers’ Lorna’s Silence, Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar and Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, among others) based on mood and other caprices.

There’s also inevitably a handful that I admire but, for one reason or another, strike me as not entirely satisfying (like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Lee Daniels’ Precious, James Toback’s Tyson, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, Judd Apatow's Funny People or Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, among others).

Then there are those movies I didn’t even get to see — typically undistributed documentaries and foreign films, this year most prominently Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Sang-soo Hong’s Night and Day and Aleksandr Sokurov’s The Sun.

With so many movies in so many different genres and styles from which to choose — only a fraction of which actually get a commercial theatrical run in Cincinnati — consensus is near impossible: 23 different films showed up among the 31 mentioned in our lists, and only Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air appeared on all three.

Why mention these caveats? Well, Top 10 lists are a conceit, a game of sorts that rarely does justice to the year they're trying to sum up. They're not necessarily fair — or the whole story. Consider the following lists as just the start of the conversion, not the end. (Jason Gargano)

Jason Gargano

My 10 (or 11) favorite movies of 2009 in alphabetical order:

From the opening guitar riff of The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” to Jesse Eisenberg’s appropriately awkward lead performance, writer/director Greg Mottola’s coming-of-age ode to ’80s nostalgia penetrates deeper than one would expect. The discerning soundtrack — Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” are perfectly employed — is but one of its many pleasures.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
German wild-man Werner Herzog blissfully resurrects old-school Nicolas Cage in this hilarious, noir-infested tale about a drug-addled police officer (Cage) whose disintegration (both moral and physical) coincides with that of his hurricane-ravaged hometown. Often surreal and sneakily affecting, Bad Lieutenant was the most fun I had in a movie theater this year.

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson finds his true calling with this stop-motion-animated fantasia about a family of foxes in peril both internally and externally. It has all the traits of his live-action offerings (ornate production design, a dysfunctional family, a whimsical tone, a roguish central figure) but ironically transcends their often airless artificiality. Fantastic Mr. Fox’s handcrafted puppets give off a sense of presence that no amount of CGI tinkering can possibly comprehend and a warmth that Anderson’s human characters rarely radiate.

The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow jettisons the contentious politics, clichéd caricatures and/or post-deployment home-front dramatics that have hampered previous Iraq War movies in favor of a more visceral approach. The Hurt Locker is an unrelenting, impressively self-contained pressure cooker that feels both deeply authentic and appropriately unsettling. Not just the action movie of the year, it’s the movie of the year.

Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic smorgasbord has no interest in the real world, which is why I found some of Basterds’ critics — like those who decried its bastardization of history — perplexing. QT’s audacious (and sometimes indulgent), movie-mad movie is satisfying on a variety of levels, none more obvious than its meticulous production design and skillful, Hitchcockian coiling of dramatic tension. If only Lee Marvin could stand in for Brad Pitt.

The Limits of Control
I watched this by myself — there was literally no one else in the theater — on the last day of its brief one-week Cincinnati run, initially mystified, finally enraptured by DP du jour Chris Doyle’s beautifully composed images and Jim Jarmusch’s hallucinogenic, free-floating approach to narrative. An existential head-trip that lingers in the imagination long after exposure, The Limits of Control subverts every expectation — it’s an action movie with no action.

Police, Adjective
Corneliu Porumboiu’s detail-rich, slow-burning neo-realist (anti)drama centers on Cristi (Dragos Bucur), a low-key police detective who can’t help but identify with the small group of teenagers he is assigned to follow daily for what seems like an eternity. Several long, unedited sequences effectively capture the banality of undercover police work — work that not only requires the patience of Cristi but also the audience that Porumboiu so immersively draws into the world of this Romanian everyman.

Summer Hours
French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ elegant, Renoir-esque drama signals the end of an era in more ways than one. Summer Hours touches on everything from globalism to the ties that bind (and often fracture) families to the importance (and often misrepresentation) of art to the pleasures of the occasional spliff, all done with a subtle yet incisive touch.

Tetro and Two Lovers
Francis Ford Coppola returns to his 1970s roots with a family drama so earnest and personal it almost makes the viewer blush via its operatic intensity. James Gray returns to his 1970s American cinema fetish with a love story so earnest and personal it almost makes the viewer blush via its goofball intensity. Each is far from flawless, each is unblinking in its willingness to go places most dare not tread.

Up in the Air
Jason Reitman’s sleek yet affecting genre-juggler confirms, once and for all, that the 32-year-old filmmaker is more than just Diablo Cody’s Juno bitch or the opportunistic son of a Hollywood insider. No multiplex movie in recent memory better sums up the state of our fractured cultural and economic landscape, and the screwball repartee between George Clooney and Vera Farmiga recalls an era all but extinct in contemporary Hollywood.

Steven Rosen

I wish more people would go see them, but it was a great year for documentaries — four made my Top 10 list and others (Tyson, Capitalism: A Love Story, Every Little Step, The Jazz Baroness) got strong consideration. Good documentaries have everything a narrative film has (inventive directing, fascinating characters, tension and humor) and at their best offer far more original endings than most Hollywood fare.

There were, as usual, strong foreign-language films like Tulpan, Seraphine and Summer Hours. For traditional, English-language narratives, it was an odd year — there were some very good films (Up in the Air, Precious, The Hurt Locker) but also a self-indulgent, pro-torture World War II fantasy (Inglourious Basterds) inexplicably posing as a masterpiece.

My Top 10 of 2009, in alphabetical order:

Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Spinal Tap lives — only this time it’s a documentary about two middle-aged Jewish guys in Canada who refuse to give up their dream of being Heavy Metal superstars, despite having had nothing but decades of bad luck in the music biz. Funny, touching, poignant and revealing about the ties that bind friends and family together.

Cold Souls
Sophie Barthes’ small film might be considered science-fiction — it’s about the black market in extracted human souls, after all — except the melodramatic elements are (down)played in favor of a quietly humorous, philosophical examination of just what a person’s soul actually is. And what it’s worth. Paul Giamatti, playing a version of himself, is wondrous as a blocked actor; Dina Korzun is seductive as a Russian soul-trafficker.

The Cove
In this riveting documentary made at great risk, filmmaker Louie Psihoyos goes underground — underwater, actually — to show how the fishing industry in Taijii, Japan, brutally slaughters dolphins in a secret cove and then tries to keep the truth from becoming known. Great activist filmmaking, and it makes a strong case for dolphins as intelligent animals on par with us.

Food, Inc.
Robert Kenner’s enlightening, sometimes entertaining and sometimes horrifying documentary borrows from some well-known sources — Fast Food Nation, especially — in showing how the corporate-controlled agricultural industry is bad for our health and treats the animals it slaughters with a level of cruelty that should be criminal.

Herb and Dorothy
Megumi Sasaki’s documentary about two retirees with limited incomes who amass one of the nation’s great contemporary-art collections has amusingly eccentric but also art-smart subjects in the Vogels. The film is a lesson in art appreciation as well as an uplifting tale of the human spirit.

The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow brings her gritty, thriller sensibilities to a tense, sweaty, verite-style portrait of the GIs who dismantle hidden bombs in Iraq. The film has a whiff of macho melodrama, but it benefits from Jeremy Renner’s memorable lead turn.

In the Loop
This scabrous British-made satire by Armando Iannucci, directed with a deadpan, Office-like tone that makes watching feel voyeuristic, takes aim at the governmental lies and stupidity accompanying the Iraq War build-up. There’s endless vicious double-crossing and plenty of showy, funny and profane acting.

Thematically related to Avatar, but the opposite in terms of budget and reliance on spectacle, Duncan Jones’ imaginative and provocative sci-fi thriller, starring Sam Rockwell as an astronaut completing a three-year stint on the moon, does what great sci-fi is supposed to do. It makes you think about our values today.

Some elements of Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push don’t work for me — Mo’Nique’s big, revelatory monologue comes off as too self-consciously written. But the many risks Daniels has taken with this film and the triumphantly proud performance he got out of young newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe as Precious make it stand out as a daring and rewarding work.

Up in the Air
Jason Reitman directed and wrote (from Walter Kirn’s novel) this darkly comic drama, and he sharpened its focus on the tragic reality of corporate downsizing in America today by using real laid-off people. That’s a masterstroke, and George Clooney’s performance as a professional “downsizer” is pitch-perfect. The film loses some urgency when it shifts to his character’s family and love life, but its strengths are estimable.

TT Stern-Enzi

1. Precious
Over a decade ago, author and poet Sapphire gave life to a functionally illiterate girl named Clareece “Precious” Jones who told her story of abuse with slowly dawning self-awareness and poignancy. Writer/director Lee Daniels and his eclectic cast featuring the unknown Gabourey Sidibe, Pop stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz and comedian/radio show host Mo’Nique transformed the cautionary tale into an urban fairy tale worthy of the Brothers Grimm.

2. A Serious Man
God’s blackest humor or most uncaring heart is on display in the latest film from the Coen brothers, but for all their smart winks and nods to the contrary, the most evident element onscreen is their sensitivity to Larry Gopnick (Michael Shulberg), the seriously distressed center of this terribly personal and affecting work.

3. Up in the Air
Writer/director Jason Reitman and his brilliant ensemble of professionals (George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick) and first-timers (many of the extras were hired due to their recent experiences with downsizing) facing the axe for a second time have given life to a seriocomic world that takes flight. There are a few moments in the film that feel like scripted situations, but even those have strong emotional veracity.

4. Avatar
The King of the World returns and he continues to wear the crown like a royal born. Avatar contains the best (visionary detail and rendering of a brave new world) and worst (the pedestrian dialogue and story is actually a step up from his usual community-theater vibe) impulses of James Cameron, but as is the case, the best will blind even the most jaded filmgoer.

5. The Hurt Locker
Enough has already been written about how Bigelow’s film might be the first Iraq War movie to connect with audiences in a significant way, and sadly, this argument has been soundly disproved (it did little at the box office). But what she was able to accomplish in conjunction with screenwriting journalist Mark Boal was the creation of a thinking-man’s action film about a war zone few of us will likely ever be able to comprehend.

6. It Might Get Loud
Everyone embraced Anvil as this year’s music documentary, but this measured and deeply personal exploration into the sonic sphere with three of Rock’s premier guitarists (Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White) is more than one tale or one song. From the retiring lord of Led Zeppelin to the master technician of U2’s Arena Rock to the bluesy White Stripe and Raconteur, it would have been nearly impossible to assemble a better representation of the spirit of music.

7. Away We Go
One of the few films this year I had the pleasure of experiencing more than once in theaters, and one I could have seen a few more times. Sam Mendes, working with a script from married writers Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida, takes us on a journey that starts with a laugh and ends quietly at home in the heart of a beautiful woman (Maya Rudolph) in love with her man (John Krasinski).

8. Tyson
Director James Toback already had a relationship with the former heavyweight champion (Tyson appeared as a version of himself in Black and White), which made it possible to get the much-maligned fighter to sit down and talk as freely as he does in this film. Hearing him, in his own words, answer questions about his life and experiences is, on an emotional level, like getting in the ring with him at any point in his illustrious career.

9. Tetro
Filmmakers, once they reach a certain age and reputation, probably feel that they deserve the right to downshift from the high-wire act of inspired dramatic creation. Francis Ford Coppola has given us some of the greatest stories ever committed to film, worked for hire, made a fortune outside film and come back to the craft renewed. Tetro, an intimate and moody family drama with messy complications, certainly proves he’s still willing to open up his veins for us.

10. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Throughout his career, Wes Anderson has been the kind of filmmaker I have begrudgingly respected (largely due to the presence of Angelica Huston as his maternal muse) but never embraced as a true fan. He’s a smart stylist who has never moved me until now. But it took stop-motion animation and a Roald Dahl story to humanize him. Who would have guessed this would make such fantastic sense?