The Top 10 of 2009

December 27, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Here they are… the best of the best, the cream of the crop, the acme of 2009, etc. Top 10 lists serve a few purposes. For the person making them, they represent an opportunity to clarify what emerged as memorable from the year gone by. For those reading, it's a chance to enter into a mental argument (which sometimes spills into an e-mail argument) with the list writer and confirm your opinion that he is (a) the biggest idiot on the face of the Earth, (b) the most brilliant critic alive, or (c) both. And for the studios, it's a chance for free publicity. It won't be long until we see a statement decreeing that "Old Dogs is on 134 Top 10 lists!" (Well, not quite, but you get the point.)

Comments decrying this list as a foul perversion of cinema tainted by hopelessly unenlightened, mainstream taste will be taken in the spirit in which they are delivered. (They may in fact be right.) Comments anointing me as the most enlightened critic on the "Interweb" will be equally taken in the spirit in which they are delivered. (Although they may also be right.) Comments arguing that #7 must surely be better than #6 will be given the consideration that such weighty matters deserve. (Who gives a shit?) It's a list - that's all.

As is my custom, the list is presented from least great to most great, with #1 at the end. Oh, and if you want to see the Bottom 10, here's a link.

Honorable Mention (alphabetical):: Brothers, In the Loop, Moon, Sin Nombre.

10. A Serious Man: There may be no 2009 title that has caused more consternation and puzzlement than the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. I have given a talk about the film and I still don't claim to have a handle on everything. Still, full comprehension doesn't matter; as long as there's recognition that the movie is following a template based on "The Book of Job," it's clear enough. The movie isn't just quirky and thought-provoking , it's humorous in a way that only a Coen Brothers film can be humorous.

9. An Education: The great strength of An Education is Carey Mulligan's performance, but this movie has a lot more going for it than just the ability of the lead actress. It's a well-developed character drama that generates strong viewer sympathy for Jenny. We relate to her in ways we often don't relate to screen personalities. The supporting cast, which includes the likes of Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molia, Emma Thompson, and Sally Hawkins - is top-flight and the Nick Hornby screenplay is as smart as one would expect from a writer of his pedigree. A real treat.

8. Precious: Ultimately, Precious wants to be uplifting, but I'm not sure the "hopeful" note it employs at the end overcomes the two hours of misery to precede it. In part because of its bleakness, however, this is a powerful film. It sugar-coats nothing. One of my problems with too many inspirational films, like The Blind Side and Invictus, is the inherent blandness. They gloss over the ugliness to amplify the crowd-pleasing elements. Precious does the opposite. It provides two strong performances that generate memorable characters and leaves a forceful imprint. One doesn't have to enjoy a movie to be moved by it, and that summarizes my reaction to Precious.

7. District 9: One of the best science fiction films of 2009, District 9 is as allegorical as a movie can get, and all the more effective because of it. The premise is unique - the aliens come to Earth, but things don't go as one expects when a spaceship enters geo-synchronous orbit. The final third, as has been pointed out, is the film's Achilles heel, but it nevertheless offers some effective action sequences. The worst moments of District 9 are better than the best moments of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

6. (500) Days of Summer: (500) Days of Summer has been referred to as the "romantic comedy for those who don't like romantic comedies," and I understand why. The movie contains many of the familiar rom-com beats, but they are jumbled out-of-order and the Happily Ever After ending never happens, at least not until Autumn. The lead performances (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zooey Deschanel) are wonderful and the actors connect in precisely the manner the director needs them to. The screenplay is witty and emotionally honest. A great double feature with Adventureland.

5. The Hurt Locker: From the time it was shown in film festivals in late 2007, The Hurt Locker built a tsunami of buzz. It has proven to be one of the few of the recent crop of war films to succeed on multiple levels. As a thriller, it's without peer - tense, gritty, and exciting. As a character drama, it's effective, providing honest, atypical looks at individuals who stare death in the face on a daily basis. By eschewing politics and keeping the action local, The Hurt Locker avoids preaching while still making a forceful statement.

4. Adventureland: When I first saw Adventureland, I enjoyed it. On subsequent viewings, I became enamored with it. The best romantic comedy of the year, it's chock full of little pleasures. The characters act like real people, not walking clichés. The comedy is actually funny. There are no true villains. And the romance, understated though it is, feels honest and unforced. As I have said in the past, I'll forgive Kristen Stewart the Twilight movies if she makes more films like this.

3. Up in the Air: The best film I saw at the 2009 Toronto Film Festival is one of the most engaging movies of the year. Part social commentary, part off-kilter romance, and part character study, Up in the Air represents Jason Reitman's most accomplished directorial effort to date (considering he was behind Juno, that's no small accomplishment). It gives George Clooney the perfect outlet for his debonair charm while allowing his talent to shine through on those occasions when the character's smile slips. Up in the Air is often upbeat and sometimes very funny, but there's a little core of sadness at the center of it all and Reitman doesn't cheat us with an unearned ending.

2. Inglorious Basterds: For a while, I thought Inglourious Basterds would be my #1 film for the year and, after re-watching it recently on Blu-Ray, I was reminded how engaging and well-made it is. It ranks alongside Pulp Fiction at the summit of Tarantino's work. The word "audacious," which I used in the original review, remains the single most appropriate descriptor for the film which displays not only a brilliant level of cinematic literacy but a desire to offer the viewer about 2 1/2 hours of pure entertainment.

1. Avatar: Avatar arrived in theaters with a weight of expectations pressing down upon it, and it did not disappoint. For the first time, a filmmaker has illustrated the true potential of 3D - not as a gimmick to divert children or a means to bilk customers out of $3. From a purely visual perspective, Avatar represents something we have never before seen. Not only that, but James Cameron has set the bar so high for 3D that filmmakers failing to come close in the future with be showered with derision. This is the stake in the ground, the line in the sand. Of course, if Avatar was merely a visual feast, it wouldn't come close to the #1 spot on this list. But Cameron has always been a master storyteller (regardless of the subject matter) and, although his screenplay is far from original, this tale is told exceedingly well. I cared about the characters and was drawn into their struggle. The whole Avatar experience is an amazing, exhilarating spectacle. If this is representative of the direction in which big budget movies are headed, I'm less pessimistic than I once was. (Now all we need is for a less visionary director than Cameron to show us something similar.)