THE BEST FILMS OF 2009

December 31, 2009–Every year, it is any critic’s “duty” to put together a list of the “ten best” films of the year. I find year after year that this is a time-consuming and difficult task. How is one who truly loves film supposed to narrow down a list to a mere “top 10″? I’ve tried every way I know how to list, number, and/or categorize my favorite films of the year – a lengthy list, indeed – and it never feels as though I’m doing true justice to those films that don’t fit in a list of ten.

So: I have listed my “top 10″ alphabetically below, preceded only by my two favorite films of the year, then my “Eleventh Place tie” for the films every bit as good that don’t quite fit in those 10 slots. There are categories after that. Still, this is all pretty arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. However, as a top ten is some kind of sacred thing for critics, here goes…

1. Passing Strange: The year’s best film was Spike Lee’s delightful, deeply observant, inspiring and, above all, entertaining slice-of-life in the form of a filmed Broadway rock musical. The story, written and narrated by Stew, is that of a privileged black youth in South Central, L.A. in the mid-1970s, growing up loved to the point of suffocation at the hands of his overbearing mother. Falling in love with drugs and punk rock music, aided and abetted by an astonishing supporting cast, he takes off for first Amsterdam and then Berlin, looking for “the real” in art rather than in life. His journey of self-discovery is not to be missed. An overlooked must-see, and one of the best films yet from one of our greatest and most puzzlingly underrated directors.

2. Inglourious Basterds: Unlike any World War II film anyone could ever have seen or even made, writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic pastiche is both an homage to various forms of genre cinema and a wholly original reinvigoration of them. A three-act epic with a meandering but masterfully-controlled structure, the film centers on first a monstrous but oddly amusing S.S. officer (Christophe Waltz in an award-worthy performance) hunting Jews in Nazi-occupied France in 1941. One of his targets (Melanie Laurent, lovable and heartbreaking) escapes and, four years later, is operating a cinema in Paris. When a Nazi film premiere is scheduled to play her cinema, she hatches an explosive revenge plot. Unbeknownst to her, the title characters, a ragtag group of Jewish-American U.S. soldiers led by a redneck Lt. Colonel (Brad Pitt), have hatched their own brutal form of revenge. An exercise in stretching tension to the breaking point. The way the three storylines intertwine and, in the end, collide is a work of bloody-minded, often darkly hilarious whackadoo genius. It’s not the deepest film of the year, but I’ve seen it four times as I write this and I’m still noticing new things in it every time I see it – the mark of any truly great film.

3.

(500) Days of Summer (2009): Directed by Marc Webb. Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber.

Speaking of reinvigorations of genre, this delightful, off-beat twist on the modern romantic comedy is this generation’s (insert iconic romantic comedy title here). Working non-chronologically, the film shows us every meaningful moment in the relationship between a love-struck greeting card writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a beautiful, quirky, independent spirited young woman (Zooey Deschanel). The results are funny, surprising, inventive and, above all, entertaining.

Antichrist (2009): Written and Directed by Lars von Trier.

When was the last time a major director scored a “Worthless” rating from French critics at the Cannes Film Festival? That’s just what the latest misanthropic jaunt from Danish writer-director and all-around provocateur von Trier did this past summer. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a couple grieving after the accidental (?) death of their baby – he falls out a window while they’re having (unsimulated) sex. Tortured by their loss, He (Dafoe), a psychiatrist, takes She (Gainsbourg), working on her thesis on “gynocide” (the killing of a particular gender – male or female), to their foreboding cabin in the woods, “Eden.” Once there, it becomes increasingly clear that not only is nature exacting some kind of bloody revenge, but so is She. Lots of debate about the alleged misogyny in this film, as well as the merits of the film that contains it, to say nothing of the symbolism throughout. Visually stunning and hypnotically entrancing, yet painful to watch. You decide. “Admired” is something critics say when they can’t call a film “entertaining,” but really liked it for whatever it does. Let’s just say I admired the heck out of von Trier’s film.

Away We Go (2009): Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Dave Eggers & Vendela Vida.

From one form of domestic hell to another, the sunniest film yet from the director of American Beauty (1999) and Revolutionary Road (2008), this one stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a young couple expecting their first child while still barely grown-ups, existing in a modified student lifestyle. When they find themselves untethered from family obligation, they go searching for the perfect home to raise their baby, and discover domestic hell along the way in the form of many fucked-up marriages. The results are alternately very funny, somewhat sad and profoundly moving.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009): Directed by Werner Herzog. Screenplay by William M. Finkelstein (as William Finkelstein), based on the earlier film Bad Lieutenant by Victor Argo & Paul Calderon & Abel Ferrara & Zoë Lund.

You probably won’t quite know what to make of this one-of-a-kind corrupt cop thriller, a sorta remake, sorta sequel (to Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film starring Harvey Keitel, sans definite article and ungainly subtitle), sorta stand-alone effort from the visionary German director of films like Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Never fear, neither do I. Nicolas Cage gives one of his trademark over the top performances, spewing scenery as a fairly corrupt cop in New Orleans who gets injured saving someone during Hurricane Katrina, only to become hooked on pain killers, cocaine and heroin, descending further into a web of corruption and impropriety than ever before. Hilarious and sad at once, this is like nothing you’ve seen before.

Crazy Heart (2009): Written and Directed by Scott Cooper, based on the novel Crazy Heart by Thomas Cobb.

An astonishingly assured directorial debut of bit TV and movie actor-turned-screenwriter Cooper, who adapts the novel by Thomas Cobb. The lyrically meandering, quietly powerful and, ultimately, profoundly moving story of a has-been country recording star, also a downward spiraling alcoholic, named “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges, in a career-high performance worthy of all its awards buzz). He’s 57 years old, he’s broke, being forced by his agent (Paul Herman) to play shitty gigs in small-town bowling alleys and low-rent dives, and is begrudgingly being pushed by that same agent to ride the coattails of his one-time acolyte turned star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell, subtle and moving). The future is not too bright until he meets an admiring reporter/single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who could become his road to salvation…if he doesn’t fuck things up too badly first. A touching story of regret and redemption. Great music, gorgeous widescreen cinematography by Barry Markowitz (Sling Blade, The Apostle), another nice supporting turn by Robert Duvall (also one of the lead producers) as Blake’s bartender and true friend, all centered around a gorgeous performance by Jeff Bridges. This year’s The Wrestler.

Drag Me to Hell (2009): Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Sam Raimi & Ivan Raimi.

Neither the scariest horror film of the year, nor the most clever, this is nevertheless the best because it achieves so completely what it sets out to do: to be startling, disgusting and hilarious. A return to form for the director of the Evil Dead trilogy, back from blockbuster land after his Spider-Man films, this is vintage Raimi: a bank loan officer (Alison Lohman) turns down a poor gypsy woman and the woman puts a curse on her. She discovers that in just a few days, if she cannot reverse the effect of the curse, she will die. Goofy, over-the-top effects ensue. Great fun.

An Education (2009): Directed by Lone Scherfig. Screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the memoir by Lynn Barber.

In 1960s London, an impressionable, bright young Oxford candidate (Carey Mulligan, in an astonishing breakthrough performance) enters the sights of an older, caddish con man (Peter Sarsgaard), who seduces both her and her parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour), much to the chagrin of her devoted teacher (Olivia Williams) and headmistress (Emma Thompson). A delightful, moving and sometimes funny coming of age film based on the memoir of Lynn Barber, adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity). A film so perfect moment-by-moment that I wanted to not only see it again immediately after it finished, but repeat each scene again one-by-one as they ended. A stunningly terrific effort from Scherfig, the director of Italian for Beginners and Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself.

The Girlfriend Experience (2009): Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by David Levien & Brian Koppelman.

One of America’s most chameleon-like directors makes one of his best films (one of two great films he made this year) with this remarkably observant, austere, fly-on-the-wall-style slice-of-life about a prostitute (Sasha Grey, adult film star) who will basically perform the role of a girlfriend for a fee (talking, dating, flirting, sex). On the cusp of the economic crisis on Wall Street, an apocalyptic air of dread is palpable, affecting not only her clientele, but her actual boyfriend also.

Goodbye Solo (2008): Directed by Ramin Bahrani. Screenplay by Bahareh Azimi and Ramin Bahrani.

One of America’s up-and-coming filmmakers is this young Iranian-American from North Carolina, who after making two films in New York City (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop) returns home to Tar Heel country for his third brilliant effort, an affecting slice-of-life about a kind, energetic, talkative young Senegalese cab driver (Souleymane Sy Savane) who takes it upon himself to befriend a somber, quiet old Southern gentleman (Red West), bent on being taken up to a large, windy mountain without a return trip. Powerfully, if almost inexplicably, moving.

The Hurt Locker (2008): Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Written by Mark Boal.

Another exercise in tension from star female action director Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break), this powerful, award-worthy war drama could’ve been stocked on the overlooked shelf were it not for the heaps of (deserved) awards and critics’ praise being bestowed upon it at. A unit of bomb-defusing specialists (including Anthony Mackie) in Baghdad is in the middle of a tour of duty. The new leader (Jeremy Renner) is a bit reckless, seemingly addicted to the controlled chaos of his job. Why? The film begins with a clue: a title card reads “War is a drug.”

The Informant! (2009): Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald.

An absurdly funny comedy from Soderbergh, the more “mainstream”(-ish) of his back-to-back efforts this year (see The Girlfriend Experience above) is an oddball and often hilarious farcical portrait of lysine development upper-level management Mark Whitacre (a brilliant Matt Damon, kind of recalling William H. Macy’s work in Fargo), who (true story!) became a whistle blower and undercover spy for the FBI to expose illegal price-fixing in his own company. The secrets he has up his sleeve, and the expectations he has for exposing them, are half the fun. Bizarrely enjoyable.

 Julia (2008): Written and Directed by Erick Zonca. Co-writer: Aude Py. Adaptation by Michael Collins and Camille Natta.

An overlooked gem of an epic thriller centering on a terrific performance from Tilda Swinton in the title role as a boozy, slutty mess of a monstrous human being who gets roped into a kidnapping scheme by a Mexican woman in her AA meeting. Stealing the woman’s son back from the woman’s husband, Swinton takes advantage of the situation and extorts money for her own purposes, and it just snowballs from there. You kinda have to see it for yourself, or you just wouldn’t believe it. An air-tight, deeply absorbing crime drama from the director of The Dreamlife of Angels (1998).

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (2009): Directed by Lee Daniels. Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel by Sapphire (as Ramona Lofton).

The producer of Monster’s Ball (2001) makes a directorial breakthrough with this painful, powerfully affecting coming of age story about a pregnant high school student, the victim of rape at the hands of her father and physical and psychological torment at the hands of her monstrous mother (Mo’Nique). Her only salvation? An inspirational alternative school teacher (Paula Patton) and a begrudgingly caring social worker (Mariah Carey, almost unrecognizable) who draw her out of her shell to get to the truth behind her life. Gabourey Sidibe gives an amazing debut performance in the title role as the abuse victim, a quiet, shy, angry and sad young woman with no outlet through which to vent her pain.

A Serious Man (2009): Written and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.

The 14th film from the brothers Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo) is their most seemingly autobiographical work yet, a sardonically-amusing take on God, fate and the quirky whims of the cosmos, conspiring against a Job-like college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in 1960s Minnesota. His life is falling apart: his wife is leaving him for his best friend (Fred Melamed), an irritatingly smooth-talking and comforting older man; a student is attempting to bribe him for a good grade; he’s awaiting his superiors to grant him tenure; his son is obsessed with the TV receiving F Troop; and his no-account deadbeat brother (Richard Kind) is sleeping on the couch and hogging the bathroom. It all makes for a hilarious tragicomic portrait of the old notion that it’s all fun and games till it happens to you.

A Single Man (2009): Directed by Tom Ford. Screenplay by Tom Ford and David Scearce, based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood.

Colin Firth gives an award-worthy performance as a closeted gay college writing professor in 1962 Los Angeles who is in mourning. 8 months ago, his partner of 16 years (Matthew Goode) died in a car accident. After suffering through life ever since, Firth has decided to struggle through his last day before shooting himself. As he goes through the motions of his routine, and adds some new stops to his schedule, he begins to see things anew and appreciate things he never did before. Can a newfound respect for life curb his suicidal impulses? An adaptation of the novel by Christopher Isherwood, this is an astonishingly confident directorial debut from fashion designer Tom Ford.

 Up in the Air (2009): Directed by Jason Reitman. Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, based on the novel by Walter Kirn.

George Clooney gives a great performance as a corporate downsizer-for-hire who travels the country and lives nowhere in particular. Inspired by the innovative use of the Internet to fire people over the computer, his boss (Jason Bateman) hires a young fresh-faced college grad (Anna Kendrick) and has Clooney travel around, showing her the ropes. On the cusp of his sister’s wedding, he meets a female version of himself (Vera Farmiga) that he begins to see as a potential significant other. Another wonderfully warm and bittersweet human comedy from young Reitman, the director of Thank You For Smoking (2005) and Juno (my favorite film of 2007). The more you think about it, the sadder it is, but it is also very funny.

Watchmen (2009): Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

The director of 300 (2006) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) brings us a powerful, epic adaptation of the beloved Alan Moore graphic novel and scores big time. A reminder of the renaissance we find comic book genre films in, this one begins in an alternate universe 1985 with the death of former superhero the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and features a bevy of believable superheroes, including the fascinating and sociopathic Rorshach (Jackie Earle Haley), the nerdy Nightowl (Patrick Wilson), the sexy Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), the tall, blue, naked and (apparently) dimension-less Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) and the powerful philanthropist Ozymandius (Matthew Goode), investigating his murder. A visually-stunning, stylistically inventive and brilliant quantum leap for its type.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetically):

Richard Kelly’s The Box (2009): Writer-director Kelly has gained a kind of cult status in just shy of a decade with the sci-fi mind-fuck Donnie Darko and the post- (pre-?) apocalyptic epic Southland Tales. Adapting the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button” gets Kelly his highest marks yet from me. Cameron Diaz and James Marsden are a suburban New England couple in the mid-1970s. She is a teacher with a foot deformity, he a NASA optic designer. A deformed, well-dressed man (Frank Langella, never creepier) appears at the door with an offer: if they open a box that has appeared on the doorstep and push the button inside, they will receive $1,000,000. The catch? Someone they don’t know will die. What’s a couple in dire financial straits to do? This is a slow-burning, absorbing psychological sci-fi thriller with tantalizing moral implications. Underrated.

Jane Campion’s Bright Star (2009): The woman behind The Piano (1993) and An Angel at My Table (1990) gives us her take on the rather chaste romance between Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw). A beautiful, swooningly romantic drama with terrific comedic relief from Paul Schneider as Keats’ longtime friend and collaborator.

Tom Hooper’s The Damned United (2009):

Steve Jacobs’ Disgrace (2008):

Ti West’s The House of the Devil (2009): Not so much an homage to the style of 1980s horror films, as a film that feels like a lost and found classic of the genre. A pretty young college student is hired to housesit for one night by a tall, mysterious older man (Tom Noonan, need I say more?). What she discovers on the job is…not what she signed up for. A dark, tense, eerily effective and slow-burning thriller.

Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009): The sharpest political satire in many a moon, a very clever ensemble comedy about a couple of mid-level British politicians (including a bumbling Tom Hollander) attempting to hold their own with their American counterparts (including James Gandolfini as a sharp-witted general) in the ramp-up to the wars in the Middle East. A Dr. Strangelove for modern times, if Dr. Strangelove weren’t still so relevant 45 years down the line.

Alex Proyas’ Knowing (2009): This financially-successful but critically-trounced sci-fi thriller from the director of Dark City (1998) is, in fact, a thought-provoking and absorbing mystery with tantalizing moral implications (Ebert agrees with me, anyway). Nicolas Cage gives another tightly-wound performance as an MIT professor who stumbles upon a series of numbers that appear to be the dates and times of every major disaster for the past 50 years, written by a disturbed little girl for a time capsule in an elementary school classroom…50 years ago. What’s more, the three latest events haven’t even occurred yet. It’s up to Cage and Rose Byrne (and their kids) to attempt to prevent it from happening, or at least warn people of the coming destruction. A fascinating apocalyptic ride.

Michael Keaton’s The Merry Gentleman (2008): The directorial debut of movie star turned character actor Keaton is a dour, somber, occasionally sardonically amusing little character drama about an abused wife (the luminous Kelly Macdonald) who escapes a horrific marriage (to Bobby Canavale), and travels to Chicago to start a new life. Working as a secretary in an office building, she’s leaving work one night when she looks up and sees a glum man about to jump off an adjacent rooftop. This is Frank Logan (Keaton), a local hitman who is terminally depressed. Meeting the abused wife is just the beginning of his road to salvation. Will a jealous lovelorn alcoholic detective (Tom Bastounes) get in the way? An unusual and movingly detailed character study from screenwriter Ron Lazzeretti.

Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009): The directorial debut of the son of David Bowie is perhaps the best sci-fi film of the year, a hypnotic and creepy film recalling elements of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Sam Rockwell appears in “multiple” roles as a mining company’s astronaut for hire on a solo mission to the moon. His only companion is the eerie voice of Gerty (Kevin Spacey), the unnerving computer. When Rockwell discovers something outside of his vessel, he investigates and things just get weirder after that. A fascinating and somewhat overlooked gem.

Rod Lurie’s Nothing But the Truth (2008): Film critic turned writer-director Lurie (Deterrence, The Contender) adapted the true story of Valerie Plame and Judith Miller for this political thriller in which a D.C. columnist (Kate Beckinsale) cites a covert CIA operative (Vera Farmiga) in her article exposing the fact that the President ignored the agent’s findings when he ordered an air strike in Venezuela. Soon, Beckinsale is in jail thanks to a bloodthirsty prosecutor (Matt Dillon) and her defense attorney (Alan Alda) and no-account husband (David Schwimmer) are her only hope in staying out of prison for concealing her source from investigators. A fascinating and absorbing character drama and mystery wrapped in a strong political message. Sadly released almost direct to DVD in America due to the distributor’s bankruptcy.

Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (2009): Nobody’s idea of a film in good taste, this entry in the horror genre takes the old demonic child trope and twists it into a really fun and surprisingly effective thriller. A couple (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) suffering in the wake of various marital troubles (miscarriage, Farmiga’s alcoholism, Sarsgaard’s infidelity) decides to adopt an older child. The child they get, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), is one of a kind. Soon, bad things happen whenever she’s around. Is something wrong with Esther? The answer is, of course, a resounding yes. The reason is the key, and it will floor you.

Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009): The director of Heat (1995), The Insider (1999) and Collateral (2004) may not be the last person you’d expect to reinvigorate (and at times seem to almost reinvent) the gangster genre, but his epic portrait of the adversarial relationship between professional criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) is not what you’d expect. A long, slow, nuanced look at 1930s America through the realms of crime and punishment, it’s not precisely the jazz riff the trailer advertised (or that those who loved Collateral might’ve expected).

John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009): Cormac McCarthy’s beloved novel about a father and son (Viggo Mortensen is the patriarch here) wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland made for a somber, sparsely-written, disturbingly effective portrait of humanity at the end of the world. The film from Australian director John Hillcoat (the classic 2005 Western The Proposition) is a visually-stunning and pretty faithful rendition of the material. Charlize Theron is the mother in flashback, Guy Pearce and Molly Parker appear at the end, but when Robert Duvall pops up for one scene as a grizzled old man looking for mercy in the kindness of strangers, the film starts to take flight.

Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play (2009): Based on the BBC series of the same name, adapted and condensed into a mere 127 minutes, this riveting political thriller from the director of The Last King of Scotland (2006) is an absorbing, labyrinthine mystery involving a Congressman (Ben Affleck) and the mysterious death of his colleague with whom he was having an affair. His roommate from college (Russell Crowe), now a reporter, aims to help him by finding out what happened. Spurred on to exploit their friendship by his editor (Helen Mirren), Crowe is partnered with a young blog reporter (Rachel McAdams), and the investigation draws them into a web of truths and lies.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro (2009):

James Mottern’s Trucker (2008): An out of the blue and very involving slice-of-life debut from writer-director Mottern, a surprisingly absorbing look at a surly, hard-drinking, chain-smoking big rig trucker (Michelle Monaghan in the performance of her career) whose son (Jimmy Bennett of Orphan and Star Trek) comes to stay with her when her former husband (Benjamin Bratt) goes into the hospital for treatment of colon cancer. The two are at odds to begin with, and slowly, begrudgingly, they begin to bond, adding her married (platonic) best friend (Nathan Fillion) into the mix. Observant, with terrific performances all-around.

Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are (2009): The director of Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation. (2002) moves away from Charlie Kaufman land and adapts the beloved Maurice Sendak children’s book about a naughty little boy in a wolf costume who fights with his mother (Catherine Keener), sails off to the land of the Wild Things and, through deception, becomes their king. An all-star cast (James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose) play the voices of the Wild Things. A visually delightful and emotionally truthful coming of age story.

Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009): The directorial debut of Drew Barrymore is a ridiculously entertaining coming of age drama about a misfit Texas teen (Ellen Page) who falls in love with roller derby and becomes a star (her teammates include Barrymore, Kristin Wiig and Eve; her opponents include Juliette Lewis). This falls just under the radar of her rigidly domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden), who wants her to take part in beauty pagents, and her neutered, football-loving father (Daniel Stern). Delirious fun.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s The Young Victoria (2009): A gorgeous historical epic in miniature, this portrait of the rise to power of Queen Victoria (Emily Blunt) and her partnership with Prince Albert (Rupert Friend) is an effective chess game of a power struggle centering around the life of an inexperienced but strong-willed young woman who came to rule a kingdom, much to the chagrin of her peers. Beautifully directed, well-acted by a strong cast (Blunt, Friend, Mark Strong, Jim Broadbent, Miranda Richardson, Paul Bettany), and wonderfully written (by Gosford Park scribe Julian Fellowes), it’s a great year-end gift for any Anglophile.

The Best Foreign Language Films (Alphabetically):

Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces / Los abrazos rotos (2009), from Spain. Finally, one of the cinema’s finest filmmakers (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Bad Education) makes an out-and-out film about filmmaking – well, a blind filmmaker (as well as lust, adultery, Hitchcockian melodrama, voyeurism, secrets & lies, and revenge). Penelope Cruz is ravishing and the film is gorgeous-looking.

Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments (Maria Larsson’s) / Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (2008), from Sweden. In 1911, a wife and mother of an abusive drunk dock worker takes her camera to a store to sell and the shop owner notices something profoundly wonderful about her technique. She is inspired to continue to take pictures and it is a form of escape from her humdrum existence.

The Dardenne Brothers’ Lorna’s Silence / Le silence de Lorna (2008), from Belgium. The harrowing story of a female Albanian immigrant (Arta Dobroshi) who married a junkie (Jeremie Renier) so she can obtain Belgian citizenship, divorce him, and marry a Russian mobster in order to get him a Visa. The woman just wants to open a shop with her sweetheart (Alban Ukaj). The junkie just wants his marriage of convenience to save him, and the Russians have other plans. Another powerful slice-of-life from the men behind Rosetta (1999), The Son (2002), and L’enfant (2005).

Martin Provost’s Séraphine (2008), from France. A beautiful portrait of the maid turned painter in turn of the century France whose pieces of art featuring flowers were particularly unique and oddly disturbing.

Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light / Stellet licht (2007), from Mexico.

Cary Jôji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre / Without Name (2009), from Mexico. A Honduran girl and her father and uncle flee their country on top of a train in an effort to get to coyotes who will get them to America. A Mexican gang member betrays his leader and flees for his life. When the paths of the two cross on the way to El Norte (the North), they must rely on each other to survive. An astonishingly beautiful and assured debut film.

Chan-wook Park’s Thirst / Bakjwi (2009), from Korea. A batshit-fucking-insane vampire film from the director of Oldboy (2003), like you’ve never seen before. A Roman Catholic priest has the misfortune of being infected with a virus during a blood transfusion that turns him into a vampire. He falls for the girl next door, and makes her one of them. The results are truly off-the-wall and unpredictable, and it works despite itself.

Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon / Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (2009), from Germany. An unrelenting parable about a small farming village in the lead up to World War I in which a schoolteacher recounts the horrific series of “accidents” that caused the village to lose its innocence, in more ways than one. A very disturbing and austere black-and-white epic slice-of-life focusing on the disturbing encroachment of evil upon a seemingly banal or secure surface, which is the forte’ of the man behind Cache, both versions of Funny Games, The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video, among others.

The Best Documentaries (Alphabetically):

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009): Perhaps the most relevant documentary to Americans this year was this expose from the provocateur behind Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko. This time, he takes on the banks, Wall Street and big corporations like Wal-Mart that have made a business out of your spouse’s death (the revelation about how a company like that actually profits off such an event, you have to hear to believe).

Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove (2009): My personal favorite documentary of the year was this powerful, angering, very sad expose of the Japanese fishing and whaling practices that kill 23,000 dolphins a year – for no good reason. Former Flipper star/trainer Ric O’Barry takes it upon himself (and the filmmakers) to stage a form of high-tech espionage in order to prove their allegations to the world. Heartbreaking.

Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern’s Every Little Step (2008): A portrait of the world in which professional singers/dancers live, torturing themselves at a shot at fame. No they aren’t hoping to be cast in the remake of Fame, but rather in the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. We get to know the choreographers, the directors, and the hopefuls and by the end we feel like we’ve seen their entire lives in microcosm before our very eyes.

Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. (2008): You might think it would make people want to stop eating fast food or even non-local food from a supermarket, but it hasn’t stopped me. I’m addicted, what can I say? Still, this is an angering and disturbing look at the truth behind what Americans are eating and it’s (at times) as hard to watch as Super Size Me (2004).

Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud (2008): A one-of-a-kind musical event from the director of An Inconvenient Truth (2006) in which Jack White, U2’s The Edge and Jimmie Page of Led Zeppelin-fame get together to jam and talk about their musical philosophies. We get a glimpse into all these guys’ lives and, in the end, understand them and music a little better.

Kenny Ortega’s This Is It (Michael Jackson’s) (2009): If someone had told me that by year’s end Michael Jackson would be dead, I might not have believed it. If someone had told me he was hard at work on a final comeback tour and that the rehearsal footage would make for an absorbing theatrical event of a documentary, I might have believed that less. This reminded me why I grew up loving the man.

James Toback’s Tyson (2008): A surprisingly in-depth, honest and personal balancing of accounts from the Meanest Man in the History of Boxing, revealing hidden depths thanks to the probing of friend and terrific filmmaker Toback (Black and White, When Will I Be Loved).

The Best Animated Films (Alphabetically):

Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol (Disney’s) (2009): The man who brought The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007) to IMAX 3-D now gives the same treatment to the Charles Dickens classic and the film is a hauntingly beautiful reminder of that story’s message. Jim Carrey takes on dual roles as Scrooge and all three Ghosts of Christmas past and you will find it very hard to tell; Gary Oldman is Cratchit, Marley and Tiny Tim.

Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009): The first animated film from the maker of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited is this adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story about a chicken thieving fox (George Clooney) who retires from crime to raise a family with Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep), including a son with feelings of inadequacy (Jason Schwartzman). When a trio of evil land developers plot to destroy their valley, the Fox Family gets together with a demolitions expert badger (Bill Murray) and others in order to sabotage their efforts. Delightful.

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo / Gake no ue no Ponyo (2008): A visually gorgeous (if somewhat American-influenced) effort from Japan’s great animator, the simple Little Mermaid-esque story of a goldfish that is saved by a little boy and becomes a kind of fish girl, only to send nature out of a balance. Beautifully done.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008): In a year chock-full of great animation, my favorite was the one Ebert championed that few have probably heard of let alone seen. San Francisco writer-director-editor-animator-voice actress Paley’s portrait of a lovelorn young woman left high-and-dry by her husband without so much as a word of explanation is interwoven with a couple of different styles of animation to recount and interpret Valkimi’s Ramayana, a story eerily similar to Paley’s. Add in some Annette Hanshaw musical numbers animated in Betty Boop style and you’ve got a unique, funny and moving animated film like nothing else anyone’s seen before.

Pete Docter and Bob Petersen’s Up (2009): Pixar’s latest is a break from the message-laden WALL-E, but no less moving in its story of a widower, a grouchy old man (Ed Asner) who sets off for the skies in his house, tied to tons and tons of balloons. The only catch? A boy scout is on the porch and gets stuck with him on his journey. Now the two have to rely on each other to survive. More fun, less generic than it sounds. A beautiful silent prologue paints a portrait of youth and marriage and loss so moving, it brings tears to the eye within five minutes.

Note: I am constantly seeing new films so this list will be updated as/if necessary.

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