The decade closes with a flashback to the medium's once-vaunted universal appeal, although The Hurt Locker's impressive consensus popularity comes more from critics than audiences. Sign of the times: The Hurt Locker is one of five war or war-related movies on my list, although the pair at the bottom are more like war fantasies. Those two movie-movies and the 3-D spectacular Coraline aside, the films that most impressed me this year have mainly been modest productions, self-contained and sharply focused—and in that, The Hurt Locker is exemplary as well.
1. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
2. Hunger (Steve McQueen)
British video artist Steve McQueen's first feature is as visceral as it is formalist. Based on the jailhouse passion of Irish Republican martyr Bobby Sands, Hunger is an extreme drama, replete with suffering and pain, a reasoned political essay, and a cinematic icon with an awe-inspiring final movement that, informed by a thousand years of religious art, is something to experience even more than watch.
3. Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)
A young detective in Romanian backwater places a trio of pot-smoking teenagers under surveillance, files reports, and deems the crime too minor to warrant prosecution—but who is he to judge? Staged for maximum objectivity, Corneliu Porumboiu's accomplished second feature has something of Jim Jarmusch's deadpan theatricality. But it's also a deadly serious, often brilliant analysis of bureaucratic procedure and the tyranny of language.
4. I'm Gonna Explode (Gerardo Naranjo)
Gerardo Naranjo proves the French new wave ever-young with this audacious transposition of Jean-Luc Godard's ultra-romantic Pierrot le fou (más o menos) to a Mexican high school. I'm Gonna Explode derives its essential pathos less by fetishizing Pierrot than by embracing that film's profoundly adolescent nature—Godard isn't pastiched or travestied, but poignantly downsized.
5. Coraline (Henry Selick)
The most obsessive movie of 2009, Henry Selick's fantastically labor-intensive fantasy is also the year's strongest adaption of a children's book and finest animated film, puppet or otherwise. For all its near-psychotic content, it's the most subtly calibrated 3-D movie made in Hollywood since Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder. In fact, if you haven't seen it in 3-D, you haven't seen it.
6. The Sun (Aleksandr Sokurov)
After portraying Hitler and Lenin, Aleksandr Sokurov concludes his 20th-century dictator cycle on an upbeat note, with a ruler who declines divinity—Hirohito of Japan. Set mainly in the emperor's makeshift bunker, The Sun is characteristically precise and almost droll, with Issei Ogata notable for his humanizing—and, in Japan, taboo-breaking—performance.
7. The Beaches of Agnès (Agnès Varda)
Now an octogenarian, Agnès Varda—the great idiosyncratic original of the French nouvelle vague—plays herself in this charming memoir, gleaning material from her films and photographs. Varda's playful psychodrama is fanciful but frugal, fey yet tough, as it explicates and enriches an entire oeuvre.
8. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
Argentine writer-director Lucrecia Martel is one of the world's most inventive narrative filmmakers precisely because she is so stubbornly disinclined to spell out a narrative—her stories coalesce out of overheard dialogue, shifts in focus, and off-handed shock cuts. Martel's third feature is a dark comedy of disassociation in which the audience is compelled to share the opaque protagonist's mental state and, like her, live in the moment.
9. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Yo, Q! IG is energetic, funny, blithely fantastic, and blatantly stoopid—or do I mean fuckin' awesome? It's also amoral and a bit obnoxious, but I'll take Tarantino's essentially generous "Jewish porn" (as one participant crassly put it) any day over the mean-spirited "Nazi porn" (yes) of A Serious Man.
10. Red Cliff (John Woo)
The prodigal son returns . . . almost. Based on a 14th-century Chinese novel, John Woo's spectacular homecoming arrived here relatively unheralded and chopped to half its five-hour running time. Perhaps one of our local film festivals will see fit to present what looks like Woo's magnum opus in its complete version.
11. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, U.S.) and, tied for 12th, 11 more honorable mentions: Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark), Afterschool (Antonio Campos, U.S.), The Baader Meinhof Complex (Uli Edel, Germany), Brüno (Larry Charles, U.S.), Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, U.S.), The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, U.S.), Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater, U.S.), Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain, Chile), Tulpan (Sergei Dvortsevoy, Russia), 24 City (Jia Zhangke, China), and The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Austria).