MOVIES | The top ten of 2009

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With close to 600 films released commercially in the US in 2009 (589, to be exact), there were more than enough to see and to choose from in compiling a list of the year’s top ten. To put that number into perspective, I saw 139 of those films. This seems like a ton, but just think how major film critics feel watching seven to eight films a week. In the Twin Cities, there were some weeks where up to nine films were released on one Friday!

That figure of 589 comes from a list compiled by the Village Voice and LA Weekly so it’s misleading, as not all of those films played in the Twin Cities. There were probably only about 275-300 films that opened in the Twin Cities, which by all means is still plenty of movies. In fact, two films on my top-ten list never screened in Twin Cities: Lucrecia Martel’s haunting The Headless Woman and Chris Smith’s eye-opening documentary Collapse.

There were a handful of films that I was unable to see or have yet to open in the Twin Cities. Some of the notable titles I haven’t seen are Antichrist, 35 Shots of Rum, Invictus, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Crazy Heart, The Maid, Police Adjective, The Sun, A Town Called Panic, That Evening Sun, Goodbye Solo, Tulpan, Sin Nombre, Ponyo, The Last Station, and The Lovely Bones.

There were a handful of films that I saw that have been getting high praise or have been mentioned in numerous top ten lists but that I thought were mediocre. Notably, those films include Precious, Nine, A Serious Man, Public Enemies, The Road, Food Inc., Where the Wild Things Are, Bronson, Funny People, and Moon.

In trying to be as accurate as possible with my 2009 list, I want to put in a small disclaimer and explanation about a few films from last year’s top ten list. I included two films that I saw in 2008 but weren’t released commercially until 2009; even though both films would have made my 2009 list, they have already been on one list and going forward, I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. Nonetheless, the films should still be seen: Gotz Spielmann’s terrific Austria revenge story Revanche and Sacha Gervasi’s balls-to-the-wall music documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

And before I can give the contents of my top ten list, I’d also like to note that there were some excellent films that just missed making the list and I would solely regret it if I didn’t mention sixteen films that I couldn’t find a spot for them in my top ten and are worth seeing regardless. They are listed in alphabetical order by title: Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer, Greg Mottala’s Adventureland, Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces, Henry Selick’s Coraline, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, Lone Scherfig’s An Education, Paul Solet’s Grace, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop, Erick Zonca’s Julia, Pablo Trapero Lion’s Den, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s Sugar, Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours, and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air.

Finally, the top ten films of 2009 and when and where they can be found for your viewing pleasure, whether they are still in theaters or on DVD:

1. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Every frame of this film had me pinned to my seat like a fly on sticky paper. Bigelow’s audacity in bringing the horrors of war to the screen was well conceived and truly a pioneering piece of art that should be recognized for years to come. (The Hurt Locker opens Friday at the Riverview Theater, where it will play for at least one week—and it should be seen on the big screen. Otherwise, the DVD/Blu-Ray comes out on January 12.)

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Anderson’s best film since his classic Rushmore was a child’s fantasy and an adult’s wonderment. From the 1970 children’s novel by famed author Roald Dahl, this stop motion adventure bringing to mind the other lovable stop motion English characters Wallace and Gromit, left me giggling from start to finish, and breezed by with its charm and truth. (Currently in theaters.)

3. Up (Pete Docter & Bob Peterson)
Another Pixar film that by sheer genius turned an 80-year-old curmudgeon into one of the most sincere and loveable characters of 2009. From its heartbreaking opening, which I loved, Up brought out the inner child in me and showed a little bit of the Carl Fredrickson in all of us. (Available on DVD/Blu-Ray.)

4. The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
This Argentinean film, which unfortunately never screened in the Twin Cities, was probably the most challenging film of the year and features a compelling character study of a woman who may have killed a child or something while driving. A head-scratcher of a film leaving your mind knotted; as haunting as any David Lynch film. (Available on DVD and on Netflix streaming.)

5. We Live in Public (Ondi Timoner)
In the best documentary of the year, Ondi Timoner’s character study on Internet pioneer, Josh Harris was not only disturbing but downright fascinating. Some wonder why Harris was famous at all, I wonder why I’d never heard of him before this year and Timoner’s film nails his narcissism and pettiness perfectly in this one man band. (No available DVD release date but look for it in early spring.)

6. Thirst (Chan-wook Park)
Park’s latest film would have gone unseen in the Twin Cities if the Uptown Theatre hadn’t showed two midnight screenings of this crazy and daring piece of beautiful pulp fiction last month. The story of a priest who becomes a bloodsucking fiend who can’t help but bring a childhood friend into the fold was a bit overlong, but this South Korean film went totally nutso and I loved every messy minute of it. (Available on DVD.)

7. The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh)
Matt Damon’s performance as whistleblower Mark Whitacre was nothing short of incredible but so was this seemingly comedy before turning into an engrossing secret agent drama. The trailer was misleading but Sodenbergh prevailed in giving Damon room to be inventive, loony and frail all within this unbelievable story of the human condition. (Available on DVD/Blu-Ray on Feb. 23, 2010)

8. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
The gifted Austrian director Haneke creates another original story of strange accidents and occurrences among the children and adults of a small German town circa 1913. The plush black-and-white photography is breathtaking and worth admission alone, but so are the final moments of this bleak historical psychological drama. (Opening at the Uptown Theatre on January 22.)

9. Collapse (Chris Smith)
Taking a page from documentarian Errol Morris, Smith’s captivating interview with former LAPD officer and investigator journalist/author Michael Ruppert will have you scared straight beyond your wildest fears. Revealing injustices from America’s past, present, and future, Smith’s documentary will leave you wondering how we can move forward and what you can do to survive it. It’s a shock to the system. (Collapse may screen in early February over at Minnesota Film Arts’s new location at St. Anthony Main and is currently available on Comcast’s video on demand)

10. Amreeka (Cherian Dabis)
In a breakout year for women directors, Dabis’s fish-out-of-water immigrant story broke clichés and was exceptional in every way, featuring a wonderful lead performance from Nisreen Faour, whose character brings her son from Palestine to a small Illinois town. It’s refreshing to see a tight-knit family come together despite struggling from their first moment on American soil, a story that becomes inspirational in Dabis’s promising debut feature. (Available on DVD on January 12.)