1. The Hurt Locker--usa--In the post-9/11 world there have been a number of decent films about the issues we are facing today. But there was always something missing. The message was usually strong, we knew what the filmmakers were trying to “say”. But we weren’t having any fun. And I don’t mean fun in the traditional sense. Just fun in a cinematic sense, the kind of fun that makes time disappear. Then along comes this film that manages to not only say more than any of its predecessors in this sub-genre, but it’s entertaining as hell. I saw this months ago and it’s still with me. That says a lot.
2. Two Lovers--usa--I keep trying to spread the gospel of James Gray, but I don’t feel that the message is getting across. This writer/director, responsible for what I consider four great films over the past 15+ years (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night, Two Lovers), just seems to be getting better and better. At a mere 40 years of age, I am excited about what is to come. His next is an adaptation of one of my favorite books of 2009, The Lost City of Z. This film, filled with quietly brilliant performances, wasn’t around for long in theaters. But do yourself a favor and rent it. If you are a fan of the 1970’s golden age of American cinema, James Gray is one of the few carrying that torch.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox--usa--I get sucked in frequently by great trailers. They get me excited and raise my expectations to what might be unrealistic levels. I end up disappointed fairly often. This was the case with Where the Wild Things Are. I had a small bout of depression following that misfire. The reason I get excited is because I crave a joyful experience that takes me somewhere for a couple of hours and leaves a smile on my face or a thought in my head. No film did this better than Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009. Pure joy.
4. The Tiger in the Snow--italy--This is the only film on my list not released in 2009 and arguably the biggest wtf pick on my list. Not for me, but you’ve probably never heard of it, saw and hated it, or wouldn’t watch it in the first place. The reason? Roberto Begnini. That crazy Italian of Life is Beautiful fame wrote, directed and stars in this little gem. I didn’t plan to see this. But one night, while flipping around, I caught the start of the film with the great Tom Waits singing his great tune “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”. I was instantly intrigued. The film just got better from there and touched me in a way I still can‘t explain.
5. A Single Man--usa--I’ve heard the praise (Colin Firth is amazing) and the criticism (too flashy, over stylized). And both are correct. Where Brokeback Mountain told a story of two men never able to break through the chains of society and be together, this film tells the tale from a new perspective. And in the pain and loss displayed through Firth’s performance, enhanced by the best score of the year, this film is my pick for the best love story of 2009. The grief felt real. What more can you ask from such a film?
6. The Cove--usa--There’s no real way of explaining why this is such an important film. If it doesn’t win the Oscar for best documentary, I won’t be shocked. The Academy has a long and embarrassing history of overlooking the best in this category. Crumb? Four Little Girls? Roger & Me? No, I won’t be surprised. But few documentaries in recent years have deserved it as much.
7. Inglorious Basterds--usa--Personally, Quentin Tarantino annoys the hell out of me. He comes off a bit prick-ish and I get a little sick of the constant never-ending homage to something. But I’ll be damned if he doesn’t write some of the best dialogue and interesting characters out there. I like it in spite of myself. Plus that opening scene on the farm, wow.
8. A Serious Man--usa--The kind of film you can only make if it’s the follow-up project to a masterpiece like No Country for Old Men. Blatantly un-commercial. One character drains his neck throughout the film for goodness sake. Thank God (the old testament one) for the Coens.
9. Moon--usa--The always-great Sam Rockwell + Silent Running/2001-style sci-fi = GOOD
10. Zombieland--usa--You can keep your Shaun of the Dead, I’ll keep Woody, Bill Murray and the eternal search for Twinkies.