Our critics pick their top movies of the year, from a saga of love and frequent-flier points to a Nazi-whacking fantasy
It was a year of outer-space spectacles and inner-city dramas, animated delights and sombre period pieces. Critical acclaim may yet swirl around flicks like Crazy Heart and The Messenger, but they won’t hit local screens until 2010. Thus, the following is how the best of this year’s celluloid lot stacked up for our movie reviewers. The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, and Up in the Air scored the most accolades with our critics, with An Education and District 9 coming in a close second.
This has been a big season for George Clooney as seen or heard in theatres. Equal kudos to Meryl Streep for three memorable performances this year, although she’s represented here in foxy form. The films below are in order of how much I dug them, but there isn’t really a whole percentage point between.
Up In The Air
In Jason Reitman’s fluke-busting follow-up to Juno, Rosemary Clooney’s nephew gets his best role yet, as a grey-suited corporate killer with an Air Miles card where his heart should be—and, it turns out, is.
Me and Orson Welles
In which Americana specialist Richard Linklater re-creates prewar New York (in the U.K.) and gives us, in the form of Christian McKay, an Orson Welles to compete with the original.
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is an autumnal, richly detailed tribute to everything the former bad boy loves about movies, storytelling, and Penélope Cruz.
The early ’60s are in, baby, in. And Danish director Lone Scherfig’s depiction of pre-Beatle London is a glorious glance backward. It also makes a star of Carey Mulligan, as the teenage snob, and future journalist, who steps out with Peter Sarsgaard’s older, richer, and not much wiser man.
Juliette Binoche plays against sensitive type as the brashly Americanized sibling in an otherwise French family that comes together to ponder the legacy of its late uncle, a famous painter, at his country retreat. Olivier Assayas’s best effort, and the one in which he most perfectly balances our sympathies.
The Necessities of Life
Benoí®t Pilon’s gorgeously meditative tale of assimilation and integrity—set where French Canada met the Inuit North in the wintry 1950s—remained unseen in most quarters—except, happily, where awards were given.
Out of numerous current documentaries about crimes against nature, this feast of scary info stands the most chance of changing the way you live—or at least making you feel really bad about it.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Clooney again, here with Streep; they play married Roald Dahl characters filtered through the baroque sensibility of Wes Anderson. The on-screen actors are stop-motion puppets, but it still comes out very much Mr. Fox and The Life Vulpine. (Even if they do—squirrel!—make me miss the dogs from Up.)
A Serious Man
The Coen brothers are uncharacteristically subdued in this slightly autobiographical (that is, if they come from Barton Fink’s family), seriously strange look at growing up Jewish in the delayed late 1960s of suburban Minnesota. For unbelievers, I have two words: Jefferson Airplane!
There is always a lot to recoil at in Quentin Tarantino’s megalomaniacal vision, but only Almodóvar rivals him for shamelessly revelling in what makes movies fun. As for rewriting the end of the Second World War? Oh, what the hell. It was due for an update.
Hair-metal has-beens, supersized pregnant teens, and crustaceanlike aliens: it was a weird cast of characters in the year’s best films. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A mind-blowing mashup that’s equal parts chase movie, tragic love story, and politicized documentary, amped up by lush Latin American scenery and Mexican gangsters so bad-ass they make the Crips and the Bloods look like grade-school wannabes. The rail ride to El Norte has never been more heartbreaking or sangre-spattered.
Precious: Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire
If there is a hell, it must look something like the title character’s dank Harlem flat. Disturbing yet exhilarating, Precious also has hope, whether it’s in the Beyoncé-video-styled fantasies or one overweight teen’s lumbering escape from the darkness.
A failed cheerleader who cleans up gory crime scenes, a one-armed janitorial-supply salesman, and an eight-year-old who hawks popcorn with his hustler grandad: out of this ragtag crew of characters comes something close to the perfect comment on our tough times.
Never mind the epic odes to old war movies and over-the-top flights into bloody revenge against the Nazis, the most reviled targets of the last century. Only a master like Quentin Tarantino could build the kind of tension in the year’s two most harrowing scenes: one in a cramped French farmhouse, the other in a basement soldiers’ bar.
The September Issue
Breezy and engrossing, The September Issue is a lot like losing yourself in that fat fall edition of Vogue. Keep your The Devil Wears Prada; the battle of wills between Anna “Nuclear” Wintour and her equally passionate art director, Grace Coddington, is the real deal.
Anvil! The Story Of Anvil
From the icy suburban wasteland of Mississauga to the basement European bars where metalheads go to die, Sacha Gervasi’s doc rocks. You start out thinking 50-year-old Steve “Lips” Kudlow is a pathetic loser who’s more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap, and suddenly you’re rooting for his return to his spandexed glory days.
The Necessities Of Life
Benoí®t Pilon’s aching ode to cultural divides is almost unbearably moving. An Inuk man is ripped from his family and shipped to Quebec for tuberculosis treatment in the 1950s. Imagine being sent to the ice floes and you’ll get a sense of his loneliness.
The Hurt Locker
War is insane, but Kathryn Bigelow makes it seem even more twisted than usual, zeroing in on the lunacy of roadside bombs in Iraq. The enemy is invisible, and the job is bleaker than anything Franz Kafka could have concocted.
Up In The Air
George Clooney finds the ideal vehicle for what’s normally his downfall: sleek insincerity. The brilliance is in playing his Teflon axe man off an equally driven upstart (Anna Kendrick)—with a bunch of enraged and depressed schmoes thrown in for colour.
An FX–pumped science-fiction movie with a scathing social message about segregation, all set in South Africa? Not only is District 9 provocative and thrilling, but you actually feel empathy for an alien that looks like the mutant child of a cockroach and a lobster.
One of the oldest Christmas adages suggests that good things come in small packages. Increasingly in Vancouver, the most interesting motion pictures play for only three or four days, about half the standard minimum commercial run of one week. In protest against such “time tyranny”, this year I’ve decided to start my list with the best of these “small packages”. In similar fashion, I have placed aesthetics ahead of entertainment value. I might have had more fun at Pirate Radio than I did at Lorna’s Silence, but that doesn’t make it a better film.
35 Shots of Rum
Once again, Claire Denis and her inseparable cinematographer, Agní¨s Godard, have found new ways to demonstrate the truth behind Sergei Eisenstein’s belief that sound cinema should be far more than just talking theatre. This small, intimate drama about a Parisian railroad engineer and his academically minded daughter manages to touch our hearts and ravage our senses in a myriad of tiny ways. In its muted fashion, worth at least 150 blockbusters.
Integrating his own failed psychoanalysis with a 21st-century take on a 1922 classic directed by fellow Dane Benjamin Christensen (Hí¤xan: Witchcraft Through the Ages), Lars von Trier managed to outrage audiences around the world with a psychodrama that many critics saw as nothing more than a pornographic, misogynistic, cabin-in-the-woods horror movie. This is far from being his masterpiece, but compared with most of the features released last year, it’s still a knockout.
Belgium’s Dardenne brothers have built their career on neorealistic themes shot with Bressonian austerity. Their latest effort pivots on the difficult moral choices that must be made by a female Albanian immigrant.
A chillingly dry, almost scientific look at the Italian underworld syndicate that makes the Sicilian Mafia look like the Sally Ann by comparison.
How things are in French schools of today, where most of the students’ ancestors were not “the Gauls”. This multiple prizewinner could have done with a bit more visual panache, but that doesn’t make it any less of an eye opener.
Steve McQueen’s harrowing account of the 1981 IRA protest against conditions in Ulster’s infamous Maze prison will probably best be remembered for star Michael Fassbender’s near-suicidal weight loss during the production but it really has more to do with such contemporary hells as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
From Norway came the most “hangdog” comedy of last year.
John Woo might not be in Zhang Yimou’s league yet, but the Guangzhou native’s momentous return to his homeland still resulted in the best martial-arts epic of 2009.
Hansel & Gretel
The only South Korean horror flick of last year stylish enough to shoulder Park Chan-wook’s darkly comic Thirst out of the running.
Che: Part One
Steven Soderbergh deliberately tried to make the two halves of his massively long biopic about Argentina’s greatest rebel stylistically independent of each other. Pity.
Movies, like all art, are about the creation of feelings. I’m not opposed to being educated, hectored, or made ashamed, but I call those life lessons, and I can get them for free. When I lay down my $13 plus popcorn, I want to get the good feelings: to be amused, charmed, thrilled, and shaken, ideally at the same time. These are 10 of the year’s most successful, albeit in the theatre—it’s never the same at home, at least until James Cameron invents the fully holographic cinema, complete with bad parking and rainy puddles.
The best TV-to-movie reboot, and possibly the greatest space adventure ever made, Star Trek succeeds on almost every level. It brings giant spectacle, subtle themes, and confident performances, moving crew and audiences alike to say “Energize!”
The Hurt Locker
Twenty-plus years of quality action filmmaking culminate in director Kathryn Bigelow’s masterpiece. A character study set in a contemporary bomb squad in Iraq, Bigelow’s triumph is in making us feel the explosiveness within.
A Serious Man
The Coen brothers have long brought us funny, ironic, and dense tales of naifs distressed by the bizarre behaviour of those around them, but this semiautobiographical tale is perhaps their first to directly implicate God as the solution—and the reason—for all such woes and among their best work.
Science-fiction movies are usually short on both science and fiction, in the sense of compelling characters or novel plot, but District 9 transcends the genre as a haunting and rather amazing blend of political satire, relationship drama, farce, horror, and then sheer kick-assery.
A classically B-movie tale—retired CIA man on the hunt for his missing daughter—this unheralded product from Luc Besson’s thriller assembly line is an example of the revenge thriller done as well as it can be, thanks to a riveting star performance by Liam Neeson, who plays us like a violin. Which he then stomps.
A Second World War men-on-a-mission flick as only Quentin Tarantino could deconstruct it, Basterds is endlessly enjoyable as treatise on propaganda, as textbook example of dialogue construction, and, not least—in fact, mostly—as gleefully sadistic vengeance fantasy.
Solemn philosophizing has never merged so seamlessly with over-the-top violence as in Watchmen, the antisuperhero superhero movie that is easily the most faithfully reverent comic-to-movie translation ever, despite Alan Moore’s ungrateful and destructive kvetching.
Observe and Report
With this giddily psychotic inversion of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, director Jody Hill has done for people who think they are tough what Anchorman did for people who think they are sexy. Who knew that Seth Rogen could mutate his flabby geniality into something so genuinely disturbing?
(500) Days of Summer
A witty, wrenching autopsy of a failed relationship, where the lessons fly mostly over the head of the (charmingly) unreliable narrator, played by terrific young star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
To be visually distinctive in an era where the spectacular is commonplace is, in itself, an impressive achievement. But storytelling comes first, which is why the animated movies of Hayao Miyazaki and Pixar are so special. I share this spot with Up, because it is wise and clever, while Ponyo—a sentimental fable about a boy and his fish/girlfriend—is uniquely weird.
Hey, I thought The Hangover was hysterical too, but those ladies sitting in front of me with the four little kids watching that 18A-rated exercise in inappropriateness seriously messed with my head.
Uh, Kill Adolf? Quentin Tarantino turns his fanboy-auteur brain to blackly giddy Nazi ass-kicking—or “Gnatzi”, as Brad Pitt’s forehead-carving Yank commando says it. The cat-and-mousing between the SS colonel and the French farmer plays like Sergio Leone, QT style. Crazy, implausible, “glourious”.
The Hurt Locker
Step into the boots of American soldiers whose lucky job it is to find and destroy roadside bombs in Iraq, never knowing if they’ll end each day dead. Jumpy camera work keeps you in dry-mouthed fear and it all feels head-freakingly real and relevant.
Some goofy dialogue aside, that $230 million for the fancy CGI tool kit was seriously worth it. It’s an exhilarating, soulful mashup of love, war, greed, and green in a transcendently beautiful natural realm that’s like a dream you want to live forever. You know—like Earth before we wrecked it.
Up In The Air
It’s hard to feel sorry for George Clooney, especially when he’s playing a guy who scoffs at love and fires people for a living. Jason Reitman captures the ultimate loneliness of life lived in the shallow end and the exquisite pain of the freshly unemployed. Scene-stealing Anna Kendrick nails the art of really funny crying.
Never mind the glorious, weep-worthy CGI effects. A cranky, get-off-my-lawn old dude and a chunky, hapless boy scout on the kind of crazy, spirited adventure that only dreamers dare simply whacks the heart and the funny bone. Plus, there’s that chipmunk-voiced Doberman.
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
It’s more waking nightmare than two tonnes of fun watching a 400-pound Harlem teenager suffer heinous parental abuse. But good luck prying your eyeballs off the screen during this righteously tough 16-year-old’s near-primal fight for personhood. In some way, you’ve been there too.
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The nattily dressed tiny animals walking on their hind legs are, frankly, irresistible. Director Wes Anderson brings his kooky-hipster imagination to Roald Dahl’s tale with utterly enchanting stop-motion effects and cheeky, rollicking fun.
Who is blind screenwriter Harry Caine and why is he also film director Mateo Blanco? In the continuing passion of Pedro for all things movies, Almodóvar wraps a delectable melodrama of mystery, jealousy, love, and revenge around Penélope Cruz’s bewitching dream woman.
Yeah, I was avoiding the documentary about dolphins getting slaughtered in Japan too. If the filmmakers can carry out some insanely ballsy—and, incidentally, riveting—covert ops to expose a nasty, wrenching business, you can get over your wussy self already. And stop taking the rugrats to SeaWorld.
Hmm, an Oxford education or a seductive older man? For a 16-year-old London schoolgirl in 1961, it’s a tricky question, and in this sparkling, canny coming-of-age tale, it’s a heady, poignant trip—especially to Paris, where beguiling actor Carey Mulligan channels Audrey Hepburn.
Looking back over this past year in films has been a pleasant experience, thanks mostly to a few movies that have worked hard to put a sense of intelligence and emotional substance ahead of the usual box-office concerns. In its own way, each movie on this list is a timely reminder of what it means to be human.
The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty take on an army bomb squad in Iraq shows you don’t need a big-name cast and an over-the-top budget to tell a powerful, affecting story. Jeremy Renner is riveting as a hotshot bomb-disposal expert hooked on the adrenaline rush.
Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road tells the story of a loving father and son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they make their way across a post-apocalyptic American landscape. Despite the dark story line, you’ll come away inspired by the sense of enduring humanity.
The story of prawnlike aliens who are condemned to live in squalid isolation after their mother ship breaks down over Johannesburg may be the most novel movie of the year. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp endows his science-fiction tale with a documentary feel while making us root for the aliens.
Up In The Air
Is Jason Reitman on a one-man mission to bring back smart, funny movies? His follow-up to Juno may fall just short of utter perfection, but a sophisticated cast—led by George Clooney as a corporate hatchet man with hidden depth—is so completely irresistible that you’ll barely notice.
Me and Orson Welles
Drawing inspiration from the young Orson Welles and his landmark 1937 production of Julius Caesar, director Richard Linklater conjures up a truly memorable coming-of-age story. Zac Efron sheds his teenybopper image while a magnetic Christian McKay makes an impressive big-screen debut as Welles.
I would have bet money that my interest in the tired Star Trek franchise could never be revived. Now I’m a believer. Director J. J. Abrams and a fresh-faced cast of unknowns make going back to the future with a younger version of the Enterprise crew an exhilarating experience. May they live long and prosper.
Set in the early ’60s, this wise little movie centres around a bright young woman (Carey Mulligan) who seems to be bound for Oxford and better things. When her academic ambitions get sidetracked by a slick playboy twice her age (Peter Sarsgaard), she learns the kinds of lessons they don’t teach in school.
In this animated gem, a cranky widower (voiced to crusty perfection by Ed Asner) decides he’s going to travel to South America. His mode of transport? Ten thousand balloons that transform his house into the most unlikely airborne vehicle imaginable. This is what family entertainment is all about.
Julie and Julia
Nora Ephron’s joyful amalgamation of two food-savvy biographies by Julia Child and latter-day blogger Julie Powell left me craving a bigger slice of Meryl Streep as the irrepressible Julia. That said, this is a lovely reminder of how important it is to cultivate a genuine appetite for life.
It’s not easy to make a genuinely amusing comedy that also happens to be unashamedly stupid, but director Todd Phillips manages to do just that while earning extra bonus points for freshening up the stale premise of a bachelor party gone off the rails. Who knew Mike Tyson could be funny?