Okay, so it's near the end of February and I haven't given you my roundup of the best movies of 2009. Not that I haven't been thinking about it or been putting my nose to the grindstone to see movies with a later release or catching up with movies just now on DVD (or Blu-ray or On Demand or whatever new technology is at our disposal). But the laziness ends here. Or at least it does so in part.
Before I give you my ten best movies of 2009, here are the honorable mentions. The ones that barely missed the elite--my almost top ten (in no particular order):
It was a particularly good year for animated movies, so much so that my least favorite of the four that will be included in this almost-list is Pixar's Up. That isn't a criticism of the film--although, like last year's Wall-E, the best moments come toward the beginning of the picture, most notably and brilliantly, a devastating and moving four-minute silent montage that is as touching as any piece of filmmaking of the past calendar year. But it's a testament to how, perhaps, that others have caught up, and have done so in such striking and varied ways.
Delightfully simple, certainly when compared to the work of Pixar, is the DIY Sita Sings the Blues. Interweaving stories from the epic Ramayana to a contemporary narrative and musical interludes based around Annette Hanshaw records of the 1920s, all the while being interrupted and commented on by a type of Greek chorus (think of them as the Muppets' Statler and Waldorf, plus one), Nina Paley's feature debut was one of the standouts of last year's Florida Film Festival and deserves a mention with the more known animations discussed here and elsewhere.
Henry Selick's Coraline is a daring and beautiful work, much darker than many feature-length animations, but full of just as much wonder and magic. I know many who are strong Wes Anderson fans, but I've found much of his career to be terribly uneven. Outside of the categorically brilliant Rushmore, his films have made me alternately chuckle and wince. I think that is partially because the world in Anderson's brain is so idiosyncratic and self-contained that it doesn't exist in any logical reality. So what better vehicle for him to express that world than in a cartoon? Better yet a Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr. Fox, a consistently hilarious film with, despite being nominated for other films, arguably George Clooney and Meryl Streep's best performances of 2009.
It seems to be an annual lament that we see a dearth of interesting, three-dimensional portrayals of women coming out of the Hollywood machine. I certainly don't disagree with that assessment, but I would suggest we look elsewhere for the kind of filmmaking that Hollywood is oft-criticized for lacking. With that, 2009 seemed to be quite a good year for female characters and, perhaps more importantly, women behind the camera. Two, Wendy and Lucy (by Kelly Reichardt) and Treeless Mountain (by So Yong Kim), are simple and spare, similar in their plight (of a woman and her dog in the former, two very young sisters in the latter) of characters who are figuratively and literally lost. It's the quiet moments in these movies, the alternating looks of hope and despair that are the most moving. Another is Anne Fontaine's biopic, Coco Before Chanel--a film, as the title would suggest, that tracks the journey leading up to the fashion designer's emergence as a world icon. Going to see it, I sort of expected to be underwhelmed by the traditional trappings of your standard movie biography, but instead the film explores the life of a modern woman determined to carve out her own identity (portrayed wonderfully by Audrey Tatou).
Sugar, the second feature from the duo of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) and Goodbye Solo, the third film from Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop--my #10 movie of 2008), are incredibly strong follow-ups to previously heralded works (and only two of many examples) that suggest that the future of independent American cinema should thrive in the years to come.
I'm as surprised as anyone that I Love You, Man makes this list. The past several years have seen these sort of male-bonding movies come out of the pipeline with seemingly diminishing returns. But what distinguishes this one from the rest of the pack (besides being more consistently funny than most) is that while those other movies--either the successful ones or the lesser so--are only obliquely homoerotic and pretend to be something other than part of what is essentially a boys' club, John Hamburg's film takes that subtext and makes it text. And in that way, the film really gets to something about the manner in which male friends interact. It's not only a bromantic comedy, it's the bromantic comedy.
I've realized now that I've reached ten films and wish I could talk about others that won't make my top list. Others such as the quietly insane A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers or the decidedly not-so-quietly insane Werner Herzog picture Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Or how about Lynn Shelton's Humpday? Or Chan-wook Park's Thirst?
I'll reveal my ten best picks soon, but as this list would hopefully suggest, 2009 was a pretty damn good year for movies. I hope you'll take the time to see some of these.