Best Movies of 2009

Here are my top ten favorite movies of 2009, with an additional 15 honorable mentions that could easily have made the best ten as well. This list has gone through many variations in recent weeks, as I’ve seen a few films more than once or some for the first time (and yes, I did see Up In the Air… but it didn’t make my list). I hope you’ll try to see each of the following films if you get the chance (many are available on Netflix). They are the movies that thrilled me the most in 2009:

10) Invictus (dir. Clint Eastwood): Perhaps the most underrated film of the year, Invictus is much more than just another sports movie or “another Clint Eastwood awards season movie.” It’s a beautiful portrait of how reconciliation happens in reality and how politics can employ things like sports and poetry in the service of national renewal.

9) The Last Station (dir. Michael Hoffman): A lighthearted but profound film about the last days of Leo Tolstoy’s life, The Last Station is the best actor’s showcase of the year, featuring wonderful performances from Christopher Plummer (as Tolstoy), Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Kerry Condon and Paul Giamatti.

8) Munyurangabo (dir. Lee Isaac Chung): Made as a sort of YWAM art therapy project for Rwandan children of the genocide, this astonishing debut from American director Lee Isaac Chung presents a beautiful, organic picture of reconciliation and grace.

7) Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion): This John Keats romance film definitely tops the “most beautiful to look at” list for 2009. But it also has ideas and painfully true insights about love and loss, adding to the visceral impact of the well-lensed images.

6) The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow): The first (only?) great film about the current Iraq war, Bigelow’s heart-pounding film is impressively acted, relentlessly tense and refreshingly apolitical. The most exciting film of the year, hands down.

5) Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino): As audacious as ever for Tarantino and yet perhaps his classiest film yet, Basterds features his trademark cinematic pastiche, episodic narrative, and some of the tensest and most well-developed scenes he’s ever concocted. No one can make apple strudel as menacing and lush as Tarantino can.

4) The Road (dir. John Hillcoat): Based on the novel (by Cormac McCarthy) that is arguably the definitive piece of fiction for the 2000s, The Road is a triumph of cinematic adaptation that manages to visually render a book some called unfilmable and offer us an unsettling forecast of what nightmares may come if we don’t “carry the fire” and pass it on to the next generation.

3) A Serious Man (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): The second best Coen Brothers film of the 2000s, A Serious Man is a striking, complicated, “you’ll be thinking about this for a while” film about God, suffering, and having faith like Job. It’s abstract, funny, dark, haunting, and unlike anything else that came out this year. You’ll have a hard time moving in your seat when the screen goes to black.

2) Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas): This exquisite French film is about the beauty and meaning of life, and how it is so much more than just the objects and mementos and bric-a-brac of our everyday accumulations. It’s about the hours we spend with our families, running around on a summer evening in a forest or field, sipping wine or eating quiche. It’s about the love and passion and sadness we share. Summer Hours is a film of incredible subtlety and delicate observation, told with an aesthetic purity and humane sadness that is all too rare in contemporary cinema.

1) The White Ribbon (dir. Michael Haneke): Michael Haneke (Cache, Funny Games) is a director who loves to engage the minds of his audiences, forcing them to consider their presuppositions about cinema and to look closely not just at what they are seeing on screen but how they are seeing it, how their brain perceives it. With Ribbon—a film set in pre-World War I Germany—we are invited to consider the psychological preconditions of fascism, looking at the clues in culture and custom to see what we can see about what led the German children in 1913 to grow up to lead their nation through its darkest hours of fascist hate and Nazi terror. Beyond all that, though, Ribbon is a film of exceptional beauty (if Christian Berger’s black and white cinematography doesn’t win the Oscar, I’ll be shocked) that employs a fragmentary, multiple-plotline structure to haunting effect. It’s an unforgettable film that will get your brain spinning in all sorts of directions.

Honorable Mention: Still Walking, Goodbye Solo, Julia, Up, Lorna’s Silence, The Brothers Bloom, Two Lovers, Tetro, Gomorrah, The Messenger, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Sin Nombre, Knowing, Avatar, Where the Wild Things Are.

Best Documentaries of 2009: Of Time and The City, Le Danse, The September Issue, Food, Inc., The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

8 responses to “Best Movies of 2009

  1. Brett, have you read The Road? I was rather underwhelmed by Hillcoat’s film, which got most of the events and little of the feeling of the novel, in part due to inconsistent POV, distracting camerawork, and a mawkish score (I think the film would have worked far better with no soundtrack whatsoever). Perhaps if he’d had an extra half-hour of running time, there would have been room for some of the existential dread and sociolinguistic questioning that makes the book stick under your skin… as it was, I found the movie to be a perfect explanation for why some novels are considered unfilmable.

  2. Tim- Yes I have read The Road. For me existential dread of the book was absolutely manifest in the film. The sociolinguistic questioning was less evident, but such a “questioning” is best left to the pages of a book than the moving images of “reality” on screen, I’d suggest. What the screen does offer us in this case is a very visceral emotional connection to the characters. I think that Mortensen as the Man gave life and relatable anguish to that character that enhanced what the book provided. And Duvall’s Eli–what with the very cinematic images of light flickering in his near-blind eyes as he spoke about how he “saw it coming”– connected with me even more on screen than in the book. And as for the music, I’d hardly call is mawkish. I think the piano refrain worked especially well, especially given the “piano as symbol of lost civilization” motif of the film.

    I’d be the first to point out the vast differences between what the mediums of film vs. written language can and cannot do, but I think that’s the beauty of adaptation. Once we recognize that adaptation doesn’t have to be some sort of 1:1 relationship wherein the purity of a novel is retained as such on the screen, but is rather more like a supplement, I think the claim that some things are “unfilmable” just sounds a bit narrow.

  3. I’d certainly agree that a film shouldn’t be a direct 1:1 correspondence to a book from which it’s inspired; in the case of The Road, however, so very much was kept the same, while so much of the novel’s muchness was lost in translation, that I didn’t really see the point of adapting it as was done.

    The performances were good; I have no complaints there. But, in my opinion, the film is so intent on containing every event of the book within two hours that as soon as something begins, it’s over– we never have any time to feel concerned when the boy becomes ill at the beach, because as soon as we do, the man is back from the boat and onto worrying about the thief, who is immediately caught. When the man and the boy are in the bunker, there’s no opportunity for us to become concerned that they’re trapped in a blind alley before they’re back out again.

    And I continue to insist that the soundtrack was persistently distracting, insulting, and all-around unfortunate. It pulled me out of more than one scene.

    What I and others mean by ‘unfilmable’ isn’t that the events of any particular novel cannot inspire a great film, but that those things that make McCarthy’s book great are e.g. the man worrying about the existence and identity of objects once they’ve stopped being named, or the subtlety and ambiguity that’s possible on the page w/r/t to the man’s wife that, as soon as you cast an actor and film a scene, loses most of its subtlety, and thus in translating the book to the screen you merely have the skeleton of a story– a skeleton which, for me at least, the film never expanded on.

  4. Put another way: McCarthy’s The Road is not as philosophical and discursive as Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, but it’s on the same continuum. And just as the Kaufman film version of Lightness simply ignores the detours and attempts to replicate Kundera’s story, it misses everything that makes the novel what it is. In this way, there is a film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but the novel remains unfilmable.

  5. Thank you for this list, Brett! I appreciate your perspective!

  6. Thanks.

    Another wonderful documentary we saw this year: As We Forgive. A beautifully-told story of Rwandan reconciliation – a profound example of loving one’s enemies. Won a student Academy Award for its filmmaker, Laura Walters. Deeply, deeply moving.


  7. Pingback: The White Ribbon « The Search

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