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The 10 Best Films of 2009

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Article by Mark Dujsik | January 26, 2010

My list of the ten best films of 2009:

10. The Informant!
At a time of huge government bailouts followed by elaborate corporate parties and extravagant bonuses done right in our faces, this massive, worldwide price-fixing scheme just seems sort of quaint. The Informant! takes that apathy and goes the opposite route of the usually deadly serious tone of nonfiction stories of corporate malfeasance and gives us a light-hearted, insider's view of people doing their jobs and cheating consumers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in hotel conferences rooms, on the golf course, and over a cup of coffee in indifferent, everyday tones. Director Steven Soderbergh handles this playful look as the intriguing, involving, and infuriating background of a character study of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), the highest-level executive in the United States to turn whistleblower. Whitacre is not a figure with whom to sympathize or whose actions are to condone, and Damon is pitch-perfect in a performance of ego turmoil and constant second-guessing. It's a true story that's stranger than fiction made more complicated by the lies that make it up—a tricky film about a tricky individual.

9. An Education
An affectionate look at all the possibilities and pitfalls of growing up, Nick Hornby's screenplay for An Education doesn't judge its characters or try to justify their actions. It simply lets them be and allows us to see where they're coming from. That is the greatest strength of the film, which lives entirely in the moment with its characters and their successes and failures. Director Lone Scherfig assembles a superb cast to tell the story of a young girl (Carey Mulligan) who meets an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) and starts to rethink the life she has had planned out. Mulligan's performance is one that subtly speaks volumes about her character, and Sarsgaard is so sincere as a charmingly effective compulsive liar that he manages to con us as easily as those around him. Also trying to influence her life are Alfred Molina as her swaying father and Olivia Williams as the teacher who sees her potential. The film captures how the events at this pivotal time in the girl's life shape her with ease and wisdom.

8. A Christmas Carol
Sincerely faithful to the original Dickens' novella, A Christmas Carol is director Robert Zemeckis' most accomplished of his three ventures into the world of computer animation and "performance capture." True to the language, themes, and even the original illustrations, the film is entirely concerned with two things: morality and mortality. It's not exactly what we'd expect from an animated holiday film from Disney, but here it is, complete with all of the criticism of the greed of capitalism, the championing of governmental and individual altruism, and all the visual allegory and then some of this parable. The story is well-known, but it's the way Zemeckis and his collaborators tell the tale that sets it apart from other versions and serves to revitalize it. From the opening, swooping shot of London's rich juxtaposed with its poor to the Gothic nightmare of Scrooge's (Jim Carrey) home to Death chasing the miserly curmudgeon after he has shrunk to a size that mirrors his worth to the world, this is a visually stunning but still emotional potent morality tale.

7. Ponyo
If Ponyo is, as some have stated, a lesser work of Hayao Miyazaki, then we are truly dealing with a master. This animated fable lacks the thematic depth of some of Miyazaki's previous work, but still, the themes of nature's power and man's interference with it are timely and approachably simple without becoming preachy. The reason is that the story is solidly grounded on the relationship between a young boy and his new best friend. The friend happens to be a fish transformed into a young girl by an enigmatic and mystical experiment. There is a code of responsibility to others that is a long-lost virtue missing from so many children's films these days, and while the relationship is very much metaphorical, it works on a real level, too. Whether Miyazaki intended the film first to be an ecological parable and second a story of two outsiders who find each other, or vice versa, is unimportant. One cannot exist without the other, and they both work splendidly. Full of amazing imagery, the film is one that genuinely, sincerely, and honestly delights.

6. Up in the Air
Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) has a job in the ultimate growth industry of a withered economy: He fires people for a living. He lives a life on the road, usually spending a little over a month at his small apartment. Otherwise, he's flying or firing, and Ryan is perfectly content with this life. Clooney once again shows himself an authority in playing smoothly professional operator, but there is also a deep vulnerability to this performance, seen in subtle glimpses of something we can't quite grasp. Ryan ends up in the same place where he started by the finale of Up in the Air, but so much has happened to him in the meantime, that it's a tragedy. Two women show him an option he has never considered before—that there may be more to life than isolation from the rest of the world. One is his protégé Natalie (Anna Kendrick), who has her life planned out, and the other is romantic interest Alex (Vera Farmiga), who lives much as he does. Co-writer/director Jason Reitman doesn't sentimentalize, and the result is a character study of a singular, ultimately heart-breaking vision.

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson and an animated film partially about the family dynamic are a perfect fit the more one thinks about it. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a joyous time for its well-developed, anthropomorphic characters, mature themes, minimalist and vibrant look, a sense of ironic detachment, and, above all, the jubilant energy Anderson brings to all of it. With loving attention to detail, the puppets of this stop-motion animated feature are expressive and get to the heart of the common but difficult terrain of the dysfunctional family unit. Voiced with spot-on character focus by the likes of George Clooney as the cool Mr. Fox, Meryl Streep as the loving but fed-up Mrs. Fox, Jason Schwartzman as their rebellious, teenage son, Eric Anderson as his Zen cousin, and Willem Dafoe as a nefarious rat, the film is also about how a group's differences can make them stronger. And how one cannot defy their nature. And how basic survival can be the most difficult challenge of all. Expanded from the book by Roald Dahl, Anderson's film has a renegade attitude that keeps us on our toes but is also respectful and mindful of the purposes of children's stories—to entertain, to teach, and to imagine.

4. The Hurt Locker
An extended example of Hitchcock's rule of suspense (the one about the bomb under the table), Kathryn Bigelow's story of an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq follows Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a hotshot explosives expert. Mark Boal's episodic screenplay gives us mission after mission of intense, life-or-death scenarios and the less hellish moments before and after, in which the insanity of the situation these soldiers find themselves never wears off. Boal, who served as an embedded journalist with a similar unit, never makes political assertions with The Hurt Locker, indeed avoiding politics all together. This is these men's job, difficult enough and complicated by the awareness that a local with a cell phone, a camcorder, or even a 9-volt battery could be an enemy, ready at a moment's notice to set off an IED. Bigelow's pacing and staging of the disposal scenes, the personal tension within the team, and the wider implications of the psychological state it takes to do this work (not to mention what the job does to one's mind) are equally harrowing. It seems the only way to live through an insane situation is to be a little crazy, even if it might significantly hurt one's chances of surviving.

3. Up
Watching Up is like seeing some wonderful bedtime story you never heard brought to life. Pete Docter's fanciful tale of an old man (voice of Ed Asner) on a quest to fulfill his deceased wife's dream is an adventure with an undercurrent of deep loss and regret. This tone is set up in a masterful, wordless, and heartbreaking montage at the beginning of Carl, the man, and his wife, growing up, celebrating, suffering, and ultimately saying goodbye, and yet the film manages to find joy for the rest of Carl's journey to bring his house to Paradise Falls via a collection of colorful balloons. Still, his escapades with boy scout Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai), talkative dog Dug (voice of Bob Peterson), and a mysterious bird dubbed Kevin are defined by his intent to do this one last thing. Its subject matter is surprisingly mature and serves as a human offset to the colorful exploits, full of imaginative turns and gags. If his encounter with disgraced explorer Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer) comes across as a little too pat a conflict, it is still in the same vein as the rest of the thematic content, growing up to realize your childhood hero isn't all he's cracked up to be, and it gives Carl the opportunity to realize that life isn't over until you decide it is. In a year of some great animated features, this one is at the top.

2. Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
A tableau of some of the most oppressive, horrific, and painful situations in which a person can find themselves, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire is an honest and vivid study of Murphy's Law. Taken individually, each new complication that adds up in young Claireece "Precious" Jones' (newcomer Gabourney "Gabby" Sidibe) life would be enough for some to give up, but at the start of Lee Daniel's extraordinary balancing act, Precious doesn't even know she had a chance to start. Pushed into a cloistered life of silence and unobtainable dreams by the verbal, psychological, and sexual abuse of her mother (Mo'Nique) and absentee father, Precious slowly discovers a way out through her new teacher at a alternative school (Paula Patton). As written by Geoffrey Fletcher, hers is not some trite inspirational story. There is progress, the glimmer of hope, and the smallest of rewards to be won here, but as the wounds of Precious' life begin to heal, it becomes apparent that they are also infected. She may be able to move past them, but they will continue to cause her heartache in the future.

Mo'Nique is ferocious as Precious' tormentor, whose final scene reveals a warped humanity that is heartbreaking and frightening. Sidibe is a revelation, traversing Precious' psychological range and displaying the necessary strength just beneath the surface for us to realize that whatever may come this young woman's way she will be able to face it. It's a small reward, but it's more than enough for her and us.

1. Inglourious Basterds
Directing scenarios like a virtuoso conductor, Quentin Tarantino weaves a unique story of World War II with a skilled, meticulous attention to pacing. Simply, it is the ultimate period revenge fantasy about a group of Jewish soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), in Nazi-occupied France attempting to kill as many of the enemy as possible, a young woman (Mélanie Laurent) with a similar intent, and a plan inside a movie theater that brings both stories together to change the written face of history. Inglourious Basterds almost plays like a series of short films, and each chapter of the film as a whole is expertly crafted. The opening, an almost 20-minute-long dialogue between a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) and the villainous "Jew Hunter" Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz, in perhaps the performance of the year), sets the tone with its overt Western imagery, a cinematic in-joke about preferred language, an excruciating moral dilemma, and brilliant tempo. We also get an extended monologue about the details of wartime cruelty, a discussion of German cinema (and a film critic as a hero, to boot), a masterful scene in a basement bar that plays with the tension of phony dialects and the political implications of King Kong, and the break down and expansion of the film's fictional archetypes and historical caricatures.

On one hand, Inglourious Basterds is about the varying degrees of the dredges of humanity in a time and place where the shadows have free reign, but on the other, it is as much about movies. By the final mission, the film has turned into an exhilaratingly outlandish piece of propaganda, and no account of history could or should match it. In his sixth film, Tarantino has crafted a unique vision of people in wartime and given us the best film of the year.

Honorable Mention:

Anvil: The Story of Anvil, The Cove, The House of the Devil, In the Loop, Me and Orson Welles, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Paranormal Activity, Sherlock Holmes, Sugar

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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