There have been years here at A.V. Club Central where the five core writers in the film-reviewing pool have been almost Borg-like in our consensus over the best movies of the year. Think 2007, for example, when the only suspense over the No Country For Old Men/There Will Be Blood/Zodiac trifecta was the order they’d be in at the top. 2009 was not one of those years. Of the films listed below, only our No. 1 appeared on all five of our Top 20 lists, and even then, the amount of passion wavered significantly from one person to another. But what 2009 lacked in obvious modern classics, it more than made up in the quantity and diversity of very fine efforts, which inspired us to expand the big list from 10 titles to 20 this year. Much as we may fight over their individual merits, we can at least agree that the movies below are well worth your time. Maybe.
The Top 20
Tim Burton got the lion’s share of the credit for The Nightmare Before Christmas, James And The Giant Peach never got the mainstream attention it deserved, and Monkeybone was kind of a flop, so it wasn’t until this year that director Henry Selick finally made the movie that should make his name. His stop-motion adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short novel Coraline is a textural marvel, so smooth and accomplished that it looks computer-animated, but with a wealth of tiny, lovely detail that’s astonishing in something built by hand. No wonder it took years to make. Gaiman’s story—about a discontented girl who finds a door to a magical world that revolves lovingly around her—is genuinely creepy, and Selick doesn’t stint on the unsettling qualities, or the terror that follows when Coraline decides she wants to escape. Adults may consider Coraline too scary for children, but kids will likely find it just scary enough to be thrilling, and both age groups can marvel at the film’s elegant execution and impeccable craft.
19. 35 Shots Of Rum
Paying homage to Yasujiro Ozu has almost become a cottage industry on the festival circuit, but Claire Denis’ 35 Shots Of Rum goes beyond mere tribute, capturing Ozu’s simple emotional essence while furthering Denis’ own hypnotic, enchanting, elliptical style. The setup evokes Ozu’s Chishu Ryu/Setsuko Hara pairings beautifully: A middle-aged widower (Alex Descas) lives happily with his grown daughter (Mati Diop), but resolves that she should find her own way, independent of him. Denis subtly details the warm, comforting rituals of their day-to-day life together while bringing friends and neighbors into the picture, including the wayward young traveler who will come between them. 35 Shots radiates with bittersweet feelings of love and regret, and in one late-night bar sequence set to The Commodores’ “Night Shift,” a kind of magic, too.
18. Passing Strange
The difference between watching the last performance of Passing Strange on Broadway and watching Spike Lee’s filmed version is that Lee can get right up into the actors’ faces, watching them pant and pour sweat as they throw themselves into their work. He isn’t just letting more people see the show, he’s letting them see how it was produced, how much energy and passion the cast and musicians threw into this extraordinary musical. Mark “Stew” Stewart, the show’s writer and narrator, moves through musical genres as he moves through his own life, documenting phases in his musical and personal development. The sequences are played out by a small cast, particularly Daniel Breaker as “Youth,” a callow young semi-fictionalized version of Stew. Gospel, punk, blues, and R&B all get separate, deeply felt outings, alongside other genres presented as jokes and experiments. But what’s remarkable about the show is the way the songs come together in a single story, equally joyous, celebratory, accusatory, and sad, as Stew picks apart his life and shows what he and the people around him did right and wrong. It’s a monument to coming of age, presented with wry humor and a great deal of dedicated, invested—and above all, sweaty-with-focused-effort—talent.
17. Summer Hours
Generations overlap as they make way for one another in Olivier Assayas’ beautifully understated film about the difficulty faced by three siblings charged with dividing the estate of their mother, the niece and heir of an acclaimed painter. All three have drifted away, and their relationship with the place they spent many happy hours as children has grown complicated over the years. They’ve raised children seemingly indifferent to its charms, and the family’s longtime housekeeper may have a stronger emotional claim to the land than they do. The film examines how national identities shift, what culture means removed from the context that created it, and more, with subtlety, insistence, and in its final moments, a well-earned sense of grace and resignation.
16. Still Walking
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s subtle domestic dramedy follows a family as they gather for the anniversary of their eldest son’s death and spend the day eating, praying, and passive-aggressively dredging up old resentments and prejudices. Kore-eda meticulously catalogues the ways loved ones smile at each other over tea and then casually rip each other apart in private, showing how it all trickles down from sweet-faced matriarch Kirin Kiki, who passes out cruel comments along with plates of food. Still Walking is a movie about how family dynamics are often driven by perceived slights and miscommunicated expectations, but it’s also about how the whole history of a family can be told in the books, trinkets, posters, clothes, and utensils they never throw away. Their clutter—like their snippy comments—mysteriously assemble as a lasting monument to regret.
A film about organized crime that makes even Tony Soprano’s dullest day in the back room of the Bada Bing look glamorous, Matteo Garrone’s epic-in-sweep Gomorrah explores the pernicious influence of the Comorra, the Neapolitan mafia. Crime creeps like a weed into slums, factories, and the gun-toting dreams of a pair of dull-witted teenagers, insuring nothing healthy or beautiful can grow. Garrone’s matter-of-fact presentation and his cast’s naturalistic performance make the film all the more disturbing.
The most shocking moments in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist earned the film a lot of advance press, but little of it could prepare viewers for the atmosphere of sustained discomfort von Trier creates out of an excursion into the forest. Grieving the accidental death of their child, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe—playing characters known only as “She” and “He”—retreat to a forbidding cabin. She continues a plunge into depression while He attempts to use uses logic and reason to snap her out of it, in the midst of a wilderness that will not be tamed. The battle of the sexes that follows might feel unpardonably schematic if it weren’t for the stars’ flesh-and-blood performances and von Trier’s unsettlingly sensual approach to image-making. The shocks make an impact, but von Trier’s command of his themes—the way everyday existence opens itself up to the depths of despair, and the persistence of misogyny in allegedly enlightened times—are what prove memorable.
If it were possible to trademark a directorial approach, Chris Smith would owe Errol Morris serious royalties. To say that Collapse—Smith’s riveting portrait of author, editor, and ex-cop Michael Ruppert—is indebted to Morris’ Fog Of War is an understatement. Yet by telling Ruppert’s story through his own words, via an extended monologue interrupted only by the occasional question, the film gains a brooding intensity and almost painful intimacy. Ruppert summons an unrelentingly bleak vision of a world spinning violently out of control, yet his sense of certainty makes him hard to dismiss. Collapse is ultimately as much about Ruppert and his tortured psyche as it is about his terrifying ideas. Though it might seem like a departure from previous Smith films like American Movie and The Yes Men, they all share an interest in empathetically exploring obssessives doggedly pursuing their idiosyncratic passions in the face of widespread institutional indifference.
12. Big Fan
No film has explored the psychology of sports super-fandom with the eviscerating wit, insight, and uncompromising darkness of Big Fan, the directorial debut of The Wrestler screenwriter (and former Onion editor/friend of The A.V. Club) Robert Siegel. In a daring lead performance, Patton Oswalt plays a scarily committed New York Giants booster who has an opportunity to martyr himself for his team after getting viciously beaten by his favorite player. In bitter irony, Oswalt lives out every fan’s fantasy—being able to play a personal role in determining his team’s success or failure—under the darkest, most masochistic circumstances. The film’s poignantly pathetic hero can’t score a winning touchdown or kick a game-tying field goal, but he can sacrifice his own well-being and financial security for the sake of the greater good. Oswalt suffers for his team, yet the film also acknowledges the comforting sense of community and belonging that comes with being part of a herd of like-minded pigskin zealots.
Pixar has yet to make a bad movie—even the bloated Cars is pretty charming—but with Ratatouille, Wall-E, and now Up, the studio is in the midst of a stunning run of creative and commercial success. Because Pixar encourages its team to experiment and explore, talented people like Up co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson get the time and space they need to develop the whimsical image of a house hoisted by helium balloons into a rousing South American adventure featuring talking dogs, disgraced heroes, and a heartbreaking contemplation of personal loss. Up is funny, exciting, tear-jerking, and gorgeously crafted. In other words, it’s a Pixar film.
10. The Informant!
A confident exercise in cognitive dissonance, Steven Soderbergh’s true-life tale of price-fixing in the lysine industry could have been a dull exposé of corporate malfeasance. Instead, it keeps shifting the sands beneath viewers’ feet, pairing drab office interiors with Marvin Hamlisch’s vibrant, alternately romantic and wackadoddle score, and casting recognizable funnymen in straight roles. What kind of movie is this? Soderbergh never answers the question, and at the center of it all, Matt Damon plays a man who isn’t sure what sort of movie he’s in, either. A brilliant, bland, bipolar schemer, Damon’s Mark Whitacre withholds information from everyone, including himself, creating two mysteries for every one he leaks to the FBI, and making the film less about the price of lysine than the human costs of denial and deception.
9. Where The Wild Things Are
Spike Jonze’s impressionistic portrait of childhood, as filtered through Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book, is such an idiosyncratic, strange, specific vision that it’s no wonder it charmed some and alienated others. But love it or hate it, viewers almost have to acknowledge that it’s wholly unique, and one of the best-crafted, controlled movies of the year. Jonze and his collaborators manage a production design that utterly respects Sendak’s iconic images, while finding deeper ways to express his themes through an extended story about an angry kid (Max Records) trying to come to terms with his personal demons, which he doesn’t understand and can’t fully satisfy. In the end, maybe he learns something, and maybe it’ll stick—but given that he’s still just a kid, who knows? By not forcing any conclusions, and not underlining his points, Jonze offers up a film that’s literally like a dream, existing in a series of hyper-intense, beautiful moments that don’t fully stick together or lead anywhere, but leave a lasting impression.
Tony Gilroy’s twisty, colorful, wildly entertaining follow-up to Michael Clayton serves as its perfect companion piece, a glamorous Hollywood comedy that traffics the same themes of corporate chicanery. Taking off from an inspired slow-mo opening-credits sequence, where competing CEOs (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) tussle on an airport tarmac, Duplicity combines the old-fashioned, rat-a-tat rhythms of classic screwball comedy with the complex double-dealings of modern industry titans. As corporate spies on opposite ends of a no-holds-barred war, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts have a sexy, grown-up chemistry that recalls the 1932 classic Trouble In Paradise, another movie about the sparks between two cynics who have made deceit their profession.
The close relationship between two grown men reconciling with adulthood has been a recurring theme lately, from mainstream comedies of the Apatow school to perceptive indie dramas like Old Joy, but none have attempted a high-wire act as audacious as Humpday. Simultaneously hilarious and painfully honest, the heavily improvised film stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as longtime friends on separate paths; as Duplass and his wife prepare to have a child, his bearded, patchouli-stinking buddy remains cheerfully adrift. Their drunken pact to create a film to enter into the local “arty” porn festival plays out like a game of chicken, with neither wanting to go through with it, but each needing the other to blink first. Duplass, Leonard, and director Lynn Shelton succeed in making an outrageous premise utterly plausible, while scoring consistent laughs out of the tension between two men who truly love (and secretly envy) each other.
6. In The Loop
The term “Strangelovian” tends to get tossed around gratuitously these days, but it absolutely applies to In The Loop, Armando Iannucci’s fiendishly smart, coal-black spin-off of the acclaimed TV satire The Thick Of It. In The Loop takes a brutally uncompromising look at the political machinations and power struggles on both sides of the pond, as British and American politicians and bureaucratic functionaries split off into warring factions in the run-up to an international skirmish in the Middle East. The film’s hyper-verbal characters use words as weapons, tossing around insults and vitriol with undisguised venom, none more so than Peter Capaldi as a rabid attack dog of a spin doctor who rattles off great symphonies of poetic profanity. If words could kill, his enraged rants could destroy at least a continent.
At 144 minutes, Erick Zonca’s uncanny John Cassavetes homage is the wildest of wild rides, a darkly comic abduction thriller/road movie/character study caught up in the turbulent impulses of its boozy heroine. Played with unforgettable immodesty by Tilda Swinton, the Julia of the title is an unrepentant sinner who’s pried away from the barstool when a woman offers her money to steal her son from his grandfather’s custody. Greedy and duplicitous by nature, Julia goes for an much bigger and more improbable score, which catapults Julia into a genuine nail-biter even as Zonca and Swinton keep unpeeling the endless layers of narcissism that obscure her withered, pea-sized sense of decency.
4. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino claims he doesn’t think about what his movies might mean until they’re in the can, but when it comes to the long-in-the-works Inglourious Basterds, it’s hard to believe he didn’t have some higher purpose in mind from the start. This is a movie about the power of propaganda—movies, rumors, campaigns of terror, and the like—to shape the perceptions and directions of world events, and it ends with a twist that gives cinema the ultimate victory over history. The brilliance of Inglourious Basterds is that while setting up this layered meditation on World War II archetypes, Tarantino also delivers a potent revenge thriller, with memorable characters, bravura setpieces, and flavorful dialogue, much of it in foreign languages. It’s a daring, clever stunt, and Tarantino finesses it masterfully, reestablishing himself as the rare filmmaker who can turn a trip inside his own head into a cultural event.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s lovingly hand-crafted, stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox radiates pure joy. Taking its cues from George Clooney’s charming vocal performance as a dashing rogue of a fox who goes to war with a trio of nasty farmers after they destroy his family’s home and rob him of his tail, the film revels in language, music, dance, friendship, and family. It’s a film of dazzling verbosity and meticulous perfectionism, filled with loveable characters and quotable dialogue. Balancing its director’s trademark melancholy with irrepressible optimism, Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenanbaums is nothing short of life-affirming.
2. A Serious Man
Confounding, absurd, yet oddly ingratiating, A Serious Man finds Joel and Ethan Coen contemplating the mystery of why bad things happen to good people, and coming to the conclusion that since “good” and “bad” are relative terms, the question itself is kind of stupid. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a winning performance as a Jewish physics professor wandering through the increasingly vague moral landscape of late-’60s suburban Minnesota, looking for answers from a God who responds with inscrutable parables and easily misinterpreted signs. The Coens heap abuse on their poor protagonist—career humiliations, financial woes, marital strife, the works—but the film empathizes with Stuhlbarg’s plight. Here’s a man of faith who doesn’t really understand the ultimate meaning of what he believes, but sticks with it anyway because the math checks out.
1. The Hurt Locker
So many powerful movies have already been made about the recent American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that any filmmaker trying to follow up runs into the Holocaust-movie problem: The subject comes freighted with a lot of inherent emotion, but it also comes with a lot of the content dictated in advance, and finding a fresh new approach can be difficult. With The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal come at the subject from a thriller-movie angle, without sacrificing any respect for American soldiers, or lionizing them either. Their story about a bomb squad in Baghdad is breathtakingly tense, assembled with action-movie immediacy, but with a respect for reality that’s rare in the genre. Their film is gritty, detailed, and lived-in—Boal was an embedded reporter in Iraq, while Bigelow is an action vet, with textured films like Near Dark and Strange Days under her belt—and it pays as much attention to the character dynamics as it does to the specifics of dealing with an IED. Jeremy Renner is terrific in the lead role as a swaggering bomb specialist whose seeming overconfidence keeps pushing his new team into well-justified panic. He’s charismatic but infuriating, and it’s a sign of the film’s quality that the immensely absorbing push-and-pull the audience undergoes while trying to decide whether to love or hate him is just one of the many unbearable tensions running through this film.