Here are all the movies I have seen that came out in 2009. About half I saw in the theater, half on DVD. They are in order from best to worst. Obviously there are plenty of great movies that I didn’t see. The ones I am still missing that I most want to see include An Education, The Road, Public Enemies, Zombieland, 9, The Princess and the Frog, A Prophet, and (guilty pleasure) Terminator Salvation. Overall, I liked most of the movies I saw, so it wasn't a bad year. But it wasn't an especially good year, either, as I would only call one or two of these masterpieces.
1. Inglourious Basterds-- The most entertaining film of the year also happens to be filled with virtuoso dialogue, beautiful camera work, and an incredibly original--yet somehow familiar--cast of characters. There are a few glaring missteps (most involving Eli Roth), but otherwise the film dazzles with life and wit in at least four languages. Not only is it laugh-out-loud funny and tongue-bitingly suspenseful, it is also surprisingly thought-provoking on subjects as diverse as just war theory, the characteristics of Nazism and its followers, and the very nature and purpose of cinema. This may very well be Tarantino’s masterpiece.
2. Where the Wild Things Are-- An art film for kids. Has that ever been done before? It emphasizes mood over plot, mapping the psyche of a 9-year-old boy with searing, heart-breaking intensity. It’s beautiful and painful to watch.
3. The Hurt Locker-- The first good Iraq War film. It was overpraised by the industry and critics, receiving award after award, but it’s still an excellent piece of cinéma vérité that lets the audience feel the intensity of war in a realistic manner. Unfortunately, according to real American soldiers, the films depictions of protocol and certain characters’ actions are highly unrealistic, but this doesn’t overshadow the incredibly realistic “feel” of the movie or the thankfully no-nonsense depiction of insurgent atrocities.
4. A Serious Man-- Actually, at this point I’m not entirely certain that this should be up this high. But I love the Coen Brothers and several of the other movies on this list are good, but not especially original or memorable. This one, however, was both of those things, and I have no doubt I will watch it again in the future. It has a lot on its mind, and its carefully composed Coen style is hilarious to watch. But its ending was odd and unsatisfying, and its message might be either “There is no God,” or “Don’t worry about God, you can never really know anyway,” neither of which I agree with or support. I have the feeling it will lend itself to a great deal of analysis and thought in the future, though.
5. Crazy Heart-- Jeff Bridges gives one of his greatest performances as washed-up country singer Bad Blake, and the movie as a whole is just drenched in whisky, gravelly-voiced songs, and Southern comfort. I felt like I was curled up on a couch with a blanket and a fire on as it rained outside--it just gave me that feeling of warmth and compassion. So the fact that it was pretty much this year’s The Wrestler or that I didn’t understand Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character’s attraction to Bad in the first place don’t matter much to my judgment of the film. I loved it.
6. Up and Coraline-- Both of these animated films were excellent, though in different ways. Up was another in a long line of funny and emotionally compelling Pixar films, though it lapsed into predictability at points. Coraline was a hugely original and visually magical stop-motion film that had the year’s best use of 3D, though it didn’t have quite the heart that Pixar manages. Both had better beginnings than endings, but both continued to prove the ability of “kids’ movies” to equal or exceed the maturity of their adult peers.
7. Up in the Air-- An very good comedy-drama dealing with purpose and identity in the modern corporate world. Not perfect, but highly “relevant” without being preachy or politically-minded. I originally had this up higher, but it has since slipped a bit in my estimation; it's just not that original or memorable.
8. District 9-- The most intelligent sci-fi film of the year (except possibly for Moon, which I haven’t seen), though it’s not exactly brilliant. Nevertheless, it feels very original and exciting, allowing its audience to explore a foreign world and watch awesome action-violence without completely sacrificing its heart or its head.
9. 500 Days of Summer--Inventive, funny, but also painful, this movie may finally make stars of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. I'm not sure I can recommend it wholeheartedly--something about it just rubbed me the wrong way--but I still quite enjoyed it and think most other people would enjoy it, too.
10. Ponyo--Hayao Miyazaki is quite possibly the greatest animator of all time. Slight, with a cartoony style oriented toward small children, this is definitely not his best film. However, it is still innocent and sweet, with a cuteness that never comes off as cloying or manipulative. This is a master tossing off a minor work that nevertheless has far more to nourish in satisfy in its brief runtime than the vast majority of big studio slop made every year.
11. Avatar-- Incredible technology harnessed to a terribly hackneyed script. The world of Pandora is very beautiful, and certain sequences were hugely exciting--especially the "dragon"-taming scene, which was fantastic and awe-inspiring. But every development in the movie was completely unsurprising, and the politics were preachy and nonsensical. The movie worked when it was content to be great popcorn, but became cringeworthy whenever it tried to have meaningful character moments or give a message. And its dialogue was awful. I groaned in the theater at this part: "I needed their help. And they needed mine. But to ever face them again, I was going to have to take it to a whole new level."
12. Star Trek-- Lots of fun, lots of action, no thinking required (or wanted, because that would ruin it).
13. Fantastic Mr. Fox-- Wes Anderson is known for micro-managing every little piece of his movies, imposing his idiosyncratic aesthetic so completely that each one of his films is instantly recognizable as his with every single shot. A stop-motion animated film would seem to be right up his alley, then, and for the most part it is. What he creates is very entertaining, with an amazing array of tiny details and a wonderfully quirky style, with a plot and themes that could fit easily into any of his other movies. However, it’s not likely to entertain little kids that much--it deals with some difficult themes and has a surprising amount of bloodthirstiness, and most of its jokes will go right over their heads--so teenagers and adults might be the most likely to enjoy this movie. Also, while this film avoids the self-indulgent weirdness, inscrutability, and boredom of The Darjeeling Limited, it lacks the character depth and real emotions of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic. I also missed the human expressions of these films--I found the admirably scruffy puppets to be lacking just a little in facial movement and communicated emotion. Overall, a fun time, but not as wondrous and beautiful as Coraline and Up.
14. Taken-- A simple, direct, hard-hitting actioner that wasn't afraid to be politically incorrect. It wasn't overly clever or big-budgeted, but it hit the same notes that 24 and Bourne have also hit so well this decade, and did it without attempting to be more important than it was.
15. Sherlock Holmes-- Sure, at times it leaned towards incoherence, but it never quite got there, and I found it overall surprisingly original and entertaining. Downey, Jr.'s performance is excellent--though not all that much different from Iron Man--and there was witty dialogue and some cool steam-punk mechanics. The rollicking, Irish-jig score deserves special mention for being memorable and adding significantly to the movie. I've never much liked black magic villains, though.
16. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince-- The second-best Harry Potter movie yet, after The Prisoner of Azkaban, making it only the second in the series to qualify as a “good movie.” Nevertheless, a few of the plot changes, usually welcome in this overly-faithful series, made little sense and simply distracted.
17. The Hangover-- Very funny, very raunchy.
18. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs--A zany, fast-paced comedy by a new animated film-making team, this movie reminds of nothing so much as Disney's The Emperor's New Groove. This could be both a good and a bad thing, for like that other film, when this one is hitting on all cylinders, its humor approaches the wacky brilliance of classic Looney Tunes. But when they fall flat, both films fall really flat, feeling stupid and boring. Fortunately, they move along so quickly that they never stay boring for long, and I am sure this one will prove just as entertaining to kids as the previous film has (at least in my family).
19. X-Men Origins: Wolverine--Once again, I am struck by how fantastic the material is for X-Men movies, and how every one of them fails to take full advantage. The first two are fairly good and the third one's okay, but each time they set up fantastic relationships and complicated societal conflicts, and then squander them late in the game with action climaxes that have little to do with the compelling set-ups. This one, though, forgets to deliver the compelling set-up in the first place. It's got great background in the comics, and an overall intriguing plot arc, but it wastes it with lots of weightless action and fake-looking CGI explosions. In the comics, before Wolverine met the X-Men, he was a killing machine. In this one, the filmmakers seem afraid to make Wolverine too dark or unlikable--he never lets the beast really take hold, though they keep talking about it happening. And all the supporting cast is just there to make fans weep and confuse pretty much everybody else. It's fairly entertaining, not awful, but very disappointing considering how much potential it had.
20. Watchmen-- This was probably my most anticipated movie of the year, but I was sorely disappointed. While its colors were flashy and production values first-rate, the movie left all the intelligence and moral questioning of the graphic novel behind in order to exaggerate the story’s already-extreme sex and violence. The movie claims to criticize the violence, but then heightens it with slow-motion and superhuman fight choreography, finally spraying blood at the screen sickeningly in an apparent attempt to make you hate what it just worked so hard to make "cool." (I have not seen the extended cut, though; perhaps that version provides a little more context and thoughtfulness. But I doubt it.)
21. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen-- Despite the completely incoherent plot and succession of painful/disgusting gags, I was initially quite entertained by the CGI robot action. (I do think those special effects were robbed of an Oscar nomination, by the way. Bay and his crew succeed remarkably in giving animated objects weight and density, something that far too many movies fail at.) I finally realized how bad it was when, months later, I tried to recall something from the movie and found I could only remember bits of flashing metal crashes which made my head hurt.
22. The Men Who Stare at Goats--Intermittently quite funny, it squanders its stellar cast and goes nowhere. Eventually it seems to find heroism in major characters' decisions to free captured terrorists from the apparently evil American military. It makes no sense, has a story structure that robs it of any narrative drive, and has a terribly boring visual style. It's not impossible to make desert look interesting; Lawrence of Arabia succeeded quite well.
23. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian-- While the first was a highly entertaining little family actioner, this one got too big and complicated for its own good.
24. Race to Witch Mountain-- Dumb and difficult to sit through.