I don't believe most people will remember 2009 as a standout year for film, especially because most of the high-profile summer and Christmas-time releases were pretty disappointing.
But if you knew where to look, last year actually had a lot to offer — particularly for fans of horror movies and/or family-oriented films, two traditionally dicey genres that experienced a mini-Renaissance and consequently dominate my top 10 list.
I wasn't able to keep up with my usual movie-watching schedule in 2009 due to increasing demands at work and school, so in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have not yet seen such promising titles as "Up in the Air," "Nine" "A Serious Man," "An Education" and a few others that I will catch up on — and provide reviews for — later.
For now, though, here they are: the 10 best films I saw in 2009.
1. "Inglourious Basterds" (Quentin Tarantino, U.S.)
Tarantino continues to grow as a filmmaker, and this outrageous bit of historical revision is his most aesthetically and thematically sophisticated movie to date. This World War II revenge yarn simultaneously serves as an awesome action flick and a probing essay on the moral implications of different kinds of violence, and even Tarantino's critics can agree that it cements his position as one of our most creative cinematic voices. An added bonus: As Nazi enforcer Col. Hans Landa, Christoph Waltz (a shoe-in for the best supporting actor Oscar) delivers the year's most daring, nuanced and, yes, funny performance.
2. "Antichrist" (Lars von Trier, Denmark)
I'm still not entirely sure if this study of pain and grief is indeed the most involving, disturbing horror film of the past 20 years, or if von Trier has simply played me for a fool. Either way, though, the fact remains that "Antichrist" was the most intensely interesting film I saw all year, and von Trier officially retains his title as the most provocative filmmaker working today. It's vile, it's misogynistic, and by the time the talking fox shows up, you may just think the whole thing is rather silly. But regardless, this intrapersonal, Biblically charged battle of the sexes refused to be ignored, and such boldness goes a long way with me.
3. "Watchmen" (Zack Snyder, U.S.)
Easily the year's most under-rated film, Snyder's long-awaited adaptation of Alan Moore's beloved graphic novel was a consistently exciting, visually arresting marvel. The movie — a deft deconstruction of superhero lore — took some flak for retaining the original cold war plot instead of updating the story to mirror our current War on Terror, but such criticisms are absurd; the principles of power and mechanics of aggression remain static over time, and "Watchmen" skillfully underlines the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
4. "Where the Wild Things Are" (Spike Jonze, U.S.)
Young kids may have been bored, confused or even frightened by Jonze's visionary interpretation of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book, but for older kids and those young at heart, "Where the Wild Things Are" was, in a word, perfect. Writer/director Jonze flawlessly captures the danger and majesty of Sendak's world, then does one better by expanding the scope of the story and recasting the Wild Things as various aspects of our young hero Max's psyche. James Gandolfini steals the show as the voice of Carol, the Wild Thing who most closely connects with Max during his strange, otherworldly odyssey.
5. "Paranormal Activity" (Oren Peli, U.S.)
Ah, the power of suggestion. Very little is actually shown in this ultra-low-budget tale of demonic possession in suburbia, but first-time writer-director Peli displays an incredible knack for establishing atmosphere and maintaining a slow-burn sense of suspense. Credit also goes to Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, two amateur actors who star as a couple torn apart by tension and mistrust as it becomes clear that their home is being plagued by a malevolent entity. Without their natural chemistry, the film wouldn't have worked nearly as well.
6. "In the Loop" (Armando Iannucci, U.K.)
A political satire so clever and topical that, on grounds of sheer demented hilarity, it deserves comparison to "Dr. Strangelove." The film (an offshoot of the British comedy series "The Thick of It") offers at least one laugh-out-loud throwaway line every few seconds, and the constant rat-a-tat wordplay has a dizzying, intoxicating effect. Galdolfini is a standout once again, this time as an American general trying to prevent a war in the Middle East, but it's Peter Capaldi who owns the film as a foul-mouthed British communications director who elevates profanity to the level of art.
7. "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (Wes Anderson, U.S.)
Like fellow hipster Spike Jonze, Anderson has found great inspiration in a classic children's tale and delivered his most impressive work in more than a decade. This one is far more accessible than Jonze's film, and kids and adults alike are guaranteed to be delighted by the skewed sense of humor and unique visual flair that Anderson lends to what might otherwise have been "just another" family movie. A riot from start to finish, and it has a great soundtrack to boot.
8. "Trick 'r Treat" (Michael Dougherty, U.S.)
Dougherty's debut was held in limbo by the studio for years, only to eventually get dumped as a straight-to-DVD release just before Halloween. A crime, as this ode to the holiday deserves to be seen and appreciated far and wide. If you've a soft spot for horror stories, Halloween, and things that go "bump" in the night, you'll find it impossible not to fall for this unpretentious treat of a film, an anthology that plays out as a sort of horrorshow "Pulp Fiction." Destined to become a holiday standard, provided enough people see it.
9. "The Hurt Locker" (Kathryn Bigelow, U.S.)
Finally, a movie about the Iraq war that manages to be both socially relevant and hugely entertaining as an action picture. A star in born in Jeremy Renner ("S.W.A.T.," "North Country"), who headlines as a veteran bomb technician who becomes increasingly bold and brazen as his latest tour of duty winds down. Structured as a series of action set-pieces, the movie never lets up on the suspense, thanks largely to Bigelow's expert pacing. The brilliant, ultra-ironic final shot is just the cherry on top.
10. "Ponyo" and "Up" (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan; Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, U.S.)
Honestly, picking between these two charming, heartwarming films is too difficult, and I refuse to even try. Does "Ponyo," Miyazaki's re-envisioning of "The Little Mermaid," deserve the spot for being yet another in a long line of mind-blowing animated works from the Japanese master, or does Pixar's adventurous "Up" get the edge simply by virtue of its opening 15 minutes, which may be the most emotionally affecting piece of animation I've ever seen? Maybe I'll be able to choose after seeing both films a few more times, but for now, I'll call it a draw.
11. (Three-way tie)
"The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans"
This dreamlike oddity about a crooked cop in post-Katrina New Orleans served as my introduction to the films of Werner Herzog, and it whet my appetite for more of his particular brand of insanity. Speaking of insanity, Nicolas Cage stars.
Not as on-point as "Borat!," but almost as funny. It's hilarious as a gay sex romp, but the humor is even more potent when the film turns its attentions to the cult of celebrity. If you're not on the floor laughing by the time interviewee Paula Abdul nonchalantly agrees to use Mexican immigrants as furniture, then perhaps you should lighten up in life.
"The White Ribbon"
A punishing but rewarding tale of strange goings on in a small German village circa 1913, intended as a commentary on the eroding moral fabric of Europe during the lead-up to World War I. Winner of the Palm d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival (yeah, it's "that" kind of thing).