For film critics, the end of the year means only one thing: “best of” lists. It’s probably one of my favorite parts about the job, so when Bullz-Eye decided to do a decade-end feature in place of our annual retrospective, I didn’t let that deter me from putting one together anyway. This year’s crop of films was just as uneven as in past years, but while you might have had to dig a little deeper to find some real gems, there’s no denying that 2009 still delivered some truly great movies. Here’s a look at my ten favorite films, along with a few honorable mentions and a list of the year’s worst.
1. “Inglourious Basterds”
Quentin Tarantino’s WWII revenge fantasy is every fan’s dream movie. Not only does it feature the director’s trademark dialogue (and plenty of it), but it also boasts a stellar ensemble cast, award-worthy performances from Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender, and some of the most thrilling sequences of the year. The German bar scene may feature QT at his nostalgic best, but the opening chapter is his magnum opus. That “Inglourious Basterds” can run for an additional 120 minutes and still be just as engaging is a testament to the film’s supreme quality.
2. “The Hurt Locker”
This Iraq war thriller is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen, piling on the tension so high that you’ll literally spend the entire film on the edge of your seat. Jeremy Renner is a marvel to watch as the bomb squad thrill junkie at the center of the story, but the real star is director Kathryn Bigelow, who takes an otherwise barebones script and transforms it into a series of memorable set pieces that continually upstage the one before it. But best of all, “The Hurt Locker” proves that female directors don’t have to make movies for women to be taken seriously in Hollywood.
3. “Up in the Air”
There’s a pretty good chance that “Up in the Air” would have moved up a spot on my list had I found the time to see it a second time, but as it stands, the Jason Reitman-directed seriocomedy is still one of the year’s best movies. Reitman may not get a lot of credit as a director, but between his funny and timely adaptation of the Walter Kirn novel and keen use of his actors, it’s pretty clear that he has a promising future in the business. George Clooney continues to charm the hell out of moviegoers in a role tailor-made for the veteran actor, while Anna Kendrick steals the show yet again in a performance that deserves to be rewarded come awards time.
4. “Fantastic Mr. Fox”
I’m surely in the minority on this one, but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is the best animated movie of the year. I love Pixar just as much as the next person, but while “Up” proved to be yet another excellent addition to the studio’s still-flawless portfolio, director Wes Anderson’s adaptation of the popular Roald Dahl children’s story is even better. From the spot-on voice cast and witty script to the incredible sets and wonderful costume design, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” has so many layers that you have to watch it several times just to soak up all of the rich detail that went into making the movie.
5. “(500) Days of Summer”
Hipster indie comedies like “(500) Days of Summer” always look too good to be true, but despite my high expectations, Marc Webb’s directorial debut not only matched my expectations, but actually exceeded them. This fresh take on an old tale is funny, charming and features some of the most memorable sequences of the year (including the much talked about Hall & Oates-driven musical number), but while Webb’s music video background certainly helped in attaining the right look of the movie, it wouldn’t operate on such a high level without its two stars. Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are extremely underrated performers, but it’s their onscreen chemistry that propels this movie into the upper echelon of the romantic comedy genre.
6. “District 9”
The folks over at Universal and Fox are surely banging their heads for dropping the ball with that long-proposed “Halo” film, because director Neill Blomkamp more than proved his ability behind the camera with “District 9,” one of the coolest and most original sci-fi films in the history of the genre. There’s so much to admire about this movie (from the great story to the incredible special effects) that it’s really no surprise Peter Jackson had a hand in making it, but for my money, “District 9” doesn’t work without Sharlto Copley in the lead role. The fact that it was Copley’s first professional acting gig only makes his performance even more impressive, because his star-making role is the heart and soul of this instant classic.
7. “Away We Go”
I was a bit surprised to see “Away We Go” on Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum’s worst-of list, because Sam Mendes’ indie rom-com is filled with several great performances and some of the year’s biggest laughs. The film’s charm may have been lost on Schwarzbaum, but I loved every minute. Maya Rudolph is a welcome surprise in her first semi-serious role of her career, while John Krasinski continues to entertain as yet another variation of the Jim Halpert persona.
8. “A Serious Man”
The Coen brothers have been putting out some of their most impressive work during these last few years, and though “No Country for Old Men” will undoubtedly go down as their best film of that era, “A Serious Man” is a pretty close second. A low-key black comedy filmed with a cast of mostly unknowns, the movie modernizes the Book of Job with a surprisingly funny look at one man’s desperate attempt to find the answers to life in religion. This is one of those movies that you really need to see more than once, so before you discount its abrupt ending, you might want to give it another chance.
Another film that probably won’t end up on many other critics’ lists, “Zombieland” is pure fun from the word “go.” Woody Harrelson has never been funnier than he is here, and between the whip-smart script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, stylish directing from Ruben Fleischer, and a cameo-to-end-all-cameos by Bill Murray, and you can understand why Sony was so quick to greenlight a sequel. Better yet, the film was originally conceived as a TV pilot, so Reese and Wernick probably won’t be too hard up for ideas when it comes to topping the original.
This is surely going to be the most controversial of all my picks, but the minute I finished watching Pierre Morel’s “Taken,” I wanted to watch it again. It’s a no-nonsense action-thriller that doesn’t waste any time in racing to its kick-ass finale, and though we’ve already seen this movie several times before, Liam Neeson’s commanding performance easily makes it the best of its kind. Think Jason Bourne meets “24” and you’ve got one of the most exciting moviegoing experiences of the year.
“Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince”
“Drag Me to Hell”
1. “Paul Blart: Mall Cop”
2. “Year One”
4. “The Pink Panther 2”
5. “The Fourth Kind”
6. “Race to Witch Mountain”
7. “The Uninvited”
8. “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”
9. “All About Steve”
10. “Old Dogs”