Ever since Moses brought down the stone tablets from atop Mount Sinai, people have gravitated to the Top 10 list. Perhaps no one aside from David Letterman has employed the decalogue format more than film critics, who each year use it to stamp out the last words on the year of film.
At the risk of sounding like Dana Carvey in the "Grumpy Old Man" skit he used to perform on Saturday Night Live, 2009 was the most lackluster year for film in more than a decade. Don't get me wrong: There were a number of superb movies and acting performances. But unlike every year I can remember, this year lacked one or two films that stood apart from the rest and achieved a measure of greatness.
The reasons for this slump are wide-ranging but ultimately inscrutable. On the positive side, James Cameron returned to directing feature films, Quentin Tarantino took time off from sitting on film festival juries and talk show couches to add to his slow-building catalog and Pixar submitted its annual superlative entry. On the other hand, many of the decade's most accomplished filmmakers were absent from theaters this year, including Paul Greengrass, Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, P.T. Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro Iñárritu, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. Films from Peter Jackson (The Lovely Bones), Clint Eastwood (Invictus) and Steven Soderbergh (The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant!) met with mixed reviews, while Rob Marshall (Nine) and Ang Lee (Taking Woodstock) threatened to make us forget they were ever competent directors.
Moreover, a decade-long decline in quality roles for female actors reached its nadir in 2009. Just when a woman seems poised to finally win the best director Oscar, the search for outstanding lead-actress performances this year is like going on an egg hunt two weeks after Easter. A search of festival-circuit and indie cinemas might have unearthed such hidden gems as Carey Mulligan in An Education, Tilda Swinton in Julia and Michelle Monaghan in Trucker. But while Meryl Streep is perhaps the finest female actor of our time and was delightful as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, when a role as slight as this—in a film as forgettable as this—catapults to the top of probable Oscar winners, it is a dilemma that portends an industry-wide plunge. Indeed, the bulk of our most decorated film actresses not named Streep spent 2009 marooned on the shipwreck Nine.
What is heartening about this year's best films, however, is the sizable number of young or unheralded directors already putting their stamp on the film scene. In a year when the big names were AWOL, the up-and-comers pulled up the slack. So I commend to you—and your Netflix queue—my choices for the best films of 2009.
1. (500) Days of Summer—This anti-love love story eschews the insipid tropes that have atrophied the romantic-comedy genre. Instead, it is an examination of the kind of white-hot romantic relationships that often burn out as quickly as they ignite. Director Marc Webb's underrated visual expressionism is captivating and humorous without becoming indulgent. This is a witty, refreshingly original portrait of Gen Y love that speaks to audiences of all ages. Although it punctures the illusion of happily ever after, the film's affirming final scene reminds us that love is always just another season away.
2. The Damned United—This criminally ignored biopic about the great British soccer coach Brian Clough—portrayed brilliantly by the equally undervalued Michael Sheen—is a character study about the corrosive effects of pride and obsession, all revolving around an underdog whose success blossoms only on fields barren of expectations.
3. The Hurt Locker—The first worthy movie set around America's current war in the Middle East is an exploration of soldiers' survival instincts and the war-torn psychology that the only way to feel alive is to keep facing death. Director Kathryn Bigelow returns after a seven-year layoff to not only fully realize her filmmaking potential but perhaps become the first woman to win a best director Oscar.
4. Up in the Air—Jason Reitman crafts a timely and timeless film that hearkens back to such worldly comic masterpieces as Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner and Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels.
5. The Messenger—Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson play two casualty notification officers charged with giving notice to the families of fallen soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together with Samantha Morton, they give three of the best acting performances of 2009 in an intelligent, affecting screenplay co-written by debut director Oren Moverman.
6. Up—This is—say it together—"Pixar's annual entry in the best films of the year." This is mature animated filmmaking that will make you laugh and cry ... and that's just within the first 15 minutes. It is a film about longing and discovering that adventure isn't necessarily "out there" but may be closer to home.
7. District 9—Director Neill Blomkamp depicts the chaos and racism that ensues throughout Johannesburg, South Africa, when extraterrestrial aliens become marooned on Earth and attempt to integrate into human society. The faux-documentary approach that dominates the film's opening half lends an unsettling verisimilitude to the aliens, their earthly subculture and the provocative ethical questions the film poses.
8. Goodbye Solo—Ramin Bahrani's third critically acclaimed feature film—after Man Push Cart and Chop Shop (No. 7 on last year's list)—is an ethereal mediation on mortality and displacement centered around an African immigrant cab driver (Souleymane Sy Savane) and his taciturn fare, a septuagenarian (erstwhile Elvis bodyguard Red West) bent on ending his life. From its nocturnal forays through Winston-Salem, N.C., to the striking finale atop Blowing Rock in the Western North Carolina mountains, this film's haunting images linger long after its closing credits.
9. The Road—Director John Hillcoat's (The Proposition) ultra-faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bleak, post-apocalyptic novel is a survival story about a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who embark on an odyssey that carries them down treacherous thoroughfares, and their quest becomes freighted with the possibility of human redemption and rebirth.
10. Avatar—James Cameron's epic return to feature filmmaking after his Titanic rainmaker reestablishes him as the DeMille of our time. What separates Cameron from the Michael Bays of the world is that his visual masterworks are accompanied by a soul. The film's post-9/11 symbolism is a bit heavy-handed. But this giant leap forward in the art of moviemaking deserves recognition. Admit it: You're already counting down until the Blu-ray DVD release. (But will the F/X transition to Blu-ray?)
A Serious Man; Star Trek; Fantastic Mr. Fox; Inglourious Basterds; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Everlasting Moments; Michael Jackson's This Is It; the first 11 minutes of Watchmen