Top Ten Films of 2009

Third Way Cafe Media Matters Reviewers Best Films of 2009

Our Media Matters reviewers have done it again: brought you not only their picks for top 10 films of the year (in keeping with the Oscar awards’ move to having 10 nominees for each category for the first time this year), but handy short descriptions that you can use to make your own queue for Netflix or other list, or even use in choosing flicks to use for youth or other film discussion groups. After reading their choices, go to our Poll to register your own favorite films of 2009.

There were fewer outstanding films to consider as the year’s best, but surprisingly strong representation from animation and science fiction.

Tom Price – Top 10

Of the 67 films I saw this year, there were fewer outstanding films to consider as the year’s best, but surprisingly strong representation from animation and science fiction.

  1. The Hurt Locker. In a class of its own in 2009, this insightful character study of a bomb squad technician in Baghdad highlights the random, chaotic nature of modern warfare and the permeable boundary between courage and reckless pursuit of an adrenaline rush.
  2. An Education. A witty coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old British school girl in 1961 facing a choice between preparation for an Oxford education and the exciting life offered her by a charming older man.
  3. Star Trek. I’m no Trekkie, but the 11th film in the Star Trek series featured an excellent script, using time travel and following an alternate reality, to tell the story of James T. Kirk and Spock before their union on the U.S.S. Enterprise.
  4. Up in the Air. A rootless corporate downsizing expert finds his dream of 10 million frequent flyer miles threatened, but discovers the importance of real connections.
  5. Up. A tender new Disney/Pixar classic whose main character discovers a fresh wind can blow out the cobwebs of regret and allow love to be realized in a new way.
  6. Avatar. An imaginative, visually stunning film about a man’s encounter with creatures on another world through his virtual avatar. A technically transformative film whose achievements overcome some hackneyed plot elements.
  7. District 9. A smart science-fiction film with biting social satire about a ship of aliens that is resettled from a refugee camp and the bureaucrat whose understanding is transformed through his encounter with them.
  8. Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. This clever, funny animated film about a misunderstood inventor reveals more substantive depth than we might imagine through its atypical and quirky characters.
  9. Coraline. A young girl’s dream of a perfect family has a dark side in this mix of fairytale spectacle, fantasy adventure and nightmare-inducing danger.
  10. A Single Man. A heart-wrenching film about a gay professor who comes to terms with the death of his longtime partner in a 1962 society that denies the reality of his relationship.

Gordon Houser – Top 10

  1. The Hurt Locker. Takes you inside a bomb disposal unit in Iraq in 2004 and shows how war is a drug. Every aspect of this film—acting, script, editing, cinematography, sound—is outstanding.
  2. Up in the Air. Uses humor, excellent acting and an intelligent screenplay to show a man whose job is to fly around the country firing people. It uses a relevant topic—unemployment—as the backdrop to address such basic issues as what makes living bearable and worthwhile.
  3. Up. Pixar’s latest animated gem. The first 10 minutes are brilliant. The film appeals to children, film buffs and the elderly as it touches on themes of grief, parenting and seeking purpose in one’s life.
  4. Summer Hours. Unwraps the lives of three siblings in their 40s after their mother, heiress to her uncle’s exceptional 19th-century art collection, dies suddenly. This French film displays excellent acting and shows its characters facing the end of childhood and their different visions for the future.
  5. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. Tells a harrowing story about a young Harlem teenager who is pregnant for the second time by her drug-addicted father and also suffers abuse at the hands of her cruel mother. Despite its topic, it’s a story of hope, very well acted.
  6. Food, Inc. An important documentary that exposes America’s industrialized food system and its effect on our environment, health, economy and workers’ rights.
  7. Gomorrah. Exposes the corruption plaguing the communities of Naples and Caserta, Italy. The Camorra syndicate influences the lives of even the most innocent civilians. This Italian film uses various styles to show how unredemptive violence is.
  8. An Education. A coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in 1960s suburban London and how her life changes with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age. The script is smart and the acting outstanding, particularly Carey Mulligan as the girl. The film raises a good question: What is education for?
  9. Goodbye, Solo. A simple story that resonates on many levels. Solo, a Sengalese taxi driver in North Carolina, is relentlessly optimistic and friendly and tries to talk a man out of what appears to be a suicide wish. A mysterious grace pervades this film.
  10. Sin Nombre. (Translation: “Nameless.”) Follows the journey of a father, daughter and uncle from Honduras toward “el norte.” It also shows the horrific life of gang members in Mexico, one of whom meets the daughter and helps her. Their tragedies mix with movements of grace in this harrowing film

Steve Carpenter – Top 10

  1. Avatar. This box office blockbuster redefines the limits of computer generated special effects while breaking sales records set by director James Cameron’s earlier epic, Titanic.
  2. The Blind Side. Although you’ve seen this “rags to riches” story before, what distinguishes this film is the fact that it is true. Blind Side is an emotionally powerful portrayal of Michael Oher’s story of transition from homelessness to professional football. Sandra Bullock and child actor Jae Head deliver outstanding performances.
  3. Fantastic Mr. Fox. Breaks new ground as a stop motion animated feature which tells a fascinating story of a fox who tries to go against his nature. Voiced by George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray.
  4. Julie and Julia. A heartwarming love story about the passion two couples share for each other and food. Meryl Streep, who stars as the famous chef Julia Child, fills the screen. Amy Adams, plays Julie Powell, a whiny newlywed in a deadend job trying to discover herself and the passion of her life.
  5. The Princess and the Frog. Disney breaks new cultural ground with its first African American princess. Set in New Orleans, this rich animated feature satisfies both adults and children.
  6. Sherlock Holmes. This fresh portrayal of the British sleuth, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, brings fun and excitement to the detective’s cerebral adventures.
  7. Star Trek. This year’s release breathed new life into a dying franchise. I’m looking forward to more adventures in space aboard the U.S. Star Ship Enterprise.
  8. Up. Pixar has done it again, continuing their long streak of critically acclaimed and commercially successful animated features. Pixar pushes the edge of creative film-making and story telling. This remarkable story of a lonely boy and his grumpy neighbor works at every level.
  9. Up in the Air. George Clooney delivers a sensational performance as a corporate human resources manager whose job it is to fire people. His personal emotional distance is shattered when he meets his jet setting female counterpart.
  10. The Wrestler. Resurrected Mickey Rourke’s career. One reviewer called it “an amazing convergence of player and part.” A tender tale coupled with a gritty performance set in the backdrop of a campy profession.

Michelle Davis Sinclair – Top 5

I saw exactly 10 movies in 2009, and three of them I can’t even justify putting on this list. Fortunately, five of these films deserve mention in the best circles, and here’s why:

  1. The Blind Side. What a story. The filmmakers deserve credit for making a movie that does justice to its subject matter: the incredible amount of guts, perseverance, and faith it took for Michael Oher and the Tuohys to come together as a family. Sandra Bullock deserves at least an Oscar nod for her nuanced portrayal of a tough, confident woman who isn’t afraid to see her own flaws in the mirror.
  2. Star Trek. I don’t care if it’s too commercial to get the “great movie” nod; I love this film. Inspired portrayals of well-loved characters, clever dialogue, a spectacular space cowboy plot—everything contributes to grant this movie the satisfying power of a story well told. Director JJ Abrams freed himself from slavish faithfulness to Star Trek canon in favor of making a great movie. Thus, the unsaveable franchise was reborn.
  3. Invictus. When he became president of South Africa more than fifteen years ago, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) didn’t seek revenge—he sought a World Cup. As in any conflict built on old hatred and even older injustices, there are many perspectives to learn, but Director Clint Eastwood does an admirable job setting the scene, showing the power of Mandela’s vision for sports as an avenue to unity, and reconciliation triumphing over vengeance.
  4. Up. It’s time stellar animated movies earned their proper recognition. Up belongs in the Best Picture category. While kids love the story of a man who flies to South America by lifting his house with thousands of helium balloons, adults are the ones who truly feel this movie’s power. This is a film about lives lived and dreams shared, disappointments, heartbreak, and coping with the feeling the world has passed you by—all while having a grand adventure and learning how to love again. Truly, a joy to watch.
  5. The Informant! A mustachioed Matt Damon wins every laugh in this dark comedy about a 90’s era FBI investigation into corn industry price-fixing. As an informant, Damon gives his FBI agent babysitters regular heart attacks, speaking directly into his tape recorder and grinning into hidden cameras at sting meetings. Yet when he has to, he lies his way out of the stickiest situations with aplomb. There’s a reason for that—and figuring it out as you watch is half the fun.

Matthew Kauffman Smith – Top 0

(Father of two preschoolers and stay-at-home-dad several days a week.)

“Sigh. I don’t even think I’ve seen 10 movies this year. Maybe next year.”

Vic Thiessen Top 10 – Backwards

  1. Up in the Air. I’m a George Clooney fan, so I knew I was going to enjoy this intelligent quiet drama from Jason Reitman, who gave us Juno a couple of years ago. This film is about the meaning of life and work in the 21st century. It’s a great discussion film, both sad and hopeful at the same time, and it’s the kind of film that prevents complete despair with all things Hollywood.
  2. Moon. The only sci-fi film of the year which did not disappoint, Moon is another quiet intelligent film, this time a low-budget indie from a rookie director (Duncan Jones) with a fascinating premise and lots of suspense. Virtually a one-man show, Sam Rockwell acquits himself well. This is what sci-fi is all about.
  3. Nine. What can I say? I have a soft spot for musicals. If you are not a Fellini fan and have never seen Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963), then this film might seem very weird. But as I am a Fellini fan, and was not worried about whether this film captured the magic of 8 1/2 (after all, this is a musical based on a play loosely based on 8 1/2), I very much appreciated the Fellini style, the Italian feel and location, and the great acting.
  4. Inglourious Basterds. Another quirky film from Quentin Tarantino, this is basically a foreign language war film (one of two WWII films in my top seven). It’s worth watching just for the magnificent performance by Christoph Waltz (who deserves an Oscar along with his Golden Globe).Basterds has great dialogue, great cinematography, a great score and one memorable scene after another. Of course, it’s a Tarantino film, so not for everyone (violence warning).
  5. 500 Days of Summer.  I thoroughly enjoyed this quirky romantic comedy. It was not without flaws but I was able to forgive most of these because it was a romantic comedy that actually held my attention throughout instead of making me gag, like the most popular and critically acclaimed comedy of the year, that hugely overrated mess called The Hangover.
  6. Anything for Her. This French suspenser caught me off guard. It’s a very flawed film but the drama behind the suspense played just the right notes for me, making me feel complete sympathy for the irrational protagonist. And the unusual balance of bizarre coincidences confounded me in a good way.
  7. Looking for Eric. It’s so sad that this film will never be seen in North America. This is a gentle amusing film about one man’s struggle with depression and how British football helped him. It’s both sad and funny, dark and light, and a beautifully-acted intelligent film from Ken Loach, one of the UK’s best filmmakers.
  8. The Hurt Locker. The WOW film of the year for me, Kathryn Bigelow’s documentary-style film about what’s happening in Iraq defies any labelling. It’s a work of pure cinematic art that humanizes all sides of the occupation. Great stuff (I hope it wins the Academy Award for Best Picture instead ofAvatar, which is not in the same league)!
  9. Katyn. This WWII epic from Polish directing giant Andrzej Wajda (now 83) is what good old-fashioned filmmaking is all about (and it’s so rarely seen these days). Katyn tells (exposes) the true story of the massacre of Polish officers in WWII with just the right amount of sentimentality (which is to say: very little) and perfect filmmaking in every department.
  10. An Education. Another example of perfect old-fashioned filmmaking, An Education took me completely by surprise. In particular, the performance by Carey Mulligan blew me away (easily the best performance of the year for me and I hope she gets an Oscar for it) and made me care in a way that very few romances have done in decades. Nick Hornby’s screenplay is brilliant and gives us all much to think about. Lone Scherfig’s direction is flawless, as is the acting, cinematography and score. This is what going to the movies used to be about, but so rarely is anymore.