But there is an embarrassment of riches when you start ticking off the “very good movies” from the twelve months past—an astonishing number of films that had some flaws, but were interesting and/or vibrant and/or entertaining and/or challenging all the same. They may have required some caveats—“Oh, it’s terrific, but it’s one scene too long” or “There’s a couple of mediocre performances, but it’s awfully good anyway”—but they were still head and shoulders above much of the dreck that Hollywood shoveled out on a weekly basis. Those films make up the bottom half of my top 10, and the ridiculously large “runners-up” list that follows.
So here we go.
The Top 10:
1. Up in the Air: Jason Reitman’s smart, savvy, heartbreaking comedy-drama is both timeless and uniquely of this moment; his tale of an unattached man who crashes down to earth is impossibly nimble in its savvy negotiation of the thin line between comedy and tragedy. Snappy in its construction and flawless in its performances, it’s about as perfect a motion picture as I saw all year.
2. Up: Every year, the folks at Pixar make an extraordinary film, a movie so smart and sweet and entertaining and challenging that it puts other so-called "family entertainment" to shame. But they’re not just making movies for kids: they get away with narrative craftsmanship and thematic maturity that most "grown-up" movies can barely conceive of. What a charming, lovely, wonderful movie.
3. Where the Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze’s long-awaited, much-discussed adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved book is enchanting film, warm and winning, a picture that envelops its audience and holds them in its grasp for its entire 94 minutes. But it’s more than a sweet family entertainment; it’s a tentative, difficult look at what it is to be a child, to feel the first, terrifying pangs of sadness and fragility and loneliness and despair.
4. Pressure Cooker: The year’s best documentary, a disarmingly intimate portrait of three inner-city kids vying for culinary scholarships, and the extraordinary woman who encourages them. Strong, powerful filmmaking, with a sequence of closing scenes that are unbelievably moving; I basically spent the last twenty minutes of the picture either on the verge of tears, or just over the edge. Seek this one out; it’s unforgettable.
5. Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire: Lee Daniels’ modern American tragedy is unflinching and powerful, unrelenting in its sorrow yet simultaneously moving and forgiving. The direction is assured, the performances astonishingly natural; it is a bold, heartbreaking picture, and entirely worthy of the considerable praise it has received.
6. Funny People: A thoughtful, sometimes moving, frequently uproarious mediation on fame, humor, and death from writer/director Judd Apatow, offering up not only some of his most mature and complicated storytelling to date, but also some uncommonly candid insightful commentary on its star (and Apatow’s friend), Adam Sandler.
7. Moon: A rare sci-fi flick with a brain and a heart; director Duncn Jones spins this occasionally-familiar yarn into something unique, fresh, and exhilarating. Hypnotic, altogether spellbinding storytelling.
8. In The Loop: Director Armondo Iannucci’s pitch-black, wickedly funny political satire is the kind of smart and tart, take-no-prisoners mockery that seldom makes it to screens intact; it’s an admirably zippy picture where the punch lines are beautifully well-aimed but characterizations are never sacrificed for the easy laugh. In The Loop wasn’t as widely seen as it should have been, but it hits DVD and Blu-ray in January, and will hopefully become something of a cult classic.
9. The Girlfriend Experience: Twenty years after his breakthrough film sex, lies, and videotape, Steven Soderbergh returns to themes of intimacy and honesty with astonishingly assured results; much as Scorsese did with The Departed, Soderbergh creates a film that is, in many ways, a culmination of his recurring themes and unique style, and is also something altogether new. Confident, fascinating filmmaking, emboldened by a shockingly skillful leading turn by adult film star Sasha Grey.
10. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson’s inaugural foray into the world of stop-motion animation is an absolute charmer, sweet and sunny and unquestionably entertaining; by turning his filmmaking process upside-down, Anderson seems to have reconnected with the infectious energy and all-out joy of his early pictures.
Honorable Mention: I was instructed not to review the brilliant French crime picture A Prophet (Un Prophète) until its release in February of 2010, but I’ve seen it crop up on a few year-end lists. I’m going to honor the theatrical release date, but take this opportunity to give you the heads up, because it would have ranked very high on this list were it an official 2009 release. It is filmmaking at point-blank range, a stark, fierce criminal portrait of tremendous power, and one to watch for in the upcoming months.
Runners-up: Adventureland, Big Fan, Star Trek, An Education, The Soloist, The Hurt Locker, The Road, The Brothers Bloom, Not Quite Hollywood, Outrage, Crazy Heart, Whip It, Cold Souls, Sugar, Lymelife, Capitalism: A Love Story, The Informant!, Me and Orson Welles, The Hangover, The Messenger, It Might Get Loud, Playground, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Public Enemies, Broken Embraces, A Single Man, That Evening Sun, Duplicity, I Love You, Man, (500) Days of Summer, Drag Me to Hell, Observe and Report, World’s Greatest Dad, Two Lovers, Gomorrah, and Inglourious Basterds.