I think it’s fair to say that 2009 was an unusual film year—if only because my number-one film has been more or less constant since June, while everything else has been in flux. On the other hand, I can’t think of a year where my 10 best list altered so much between voting for the SEFCA awards and actually sitting down to come up with the final, no foolin’, etched-in-stone list that will doubtless haunt me in years to come.
This has also been a year where I’d be happy just to copy Justin Souther’s list and not feel bad about it. I won’t, though, because we have some notable differences—and I’m not sure we always liked the same movies for the same reasons. We also differ in that he’s more comfortable with his list than I am, which is to say that, as usual, I find myself wanting to slip about 15 movies into 10 slots. Math has never been my strong suit, but even I know that won’t work. Shall we go?
1. The Brothers Bloom This shot to the number-one position the minute I saw it and nothing has dislodged it—not even three subsequent viewings. I’m particularly happy about this, not in the least because it’s the work of a relatively new filmmaker, Rian Johnson. Johnson’s only previous film was the indie Brick (2005), which played locally for just one week (and then only in connection with The Brothers Bloom opening). This is the kind of occurrence that makes me hopeful about the future of film.
2. Pirate Radio Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio is in a unique position. It was on my list, but much further down—until I saw Curtis’ original cut, The Boat That Rocked. That pushed the film up to the top. This ensemble comedy about rock music and pirate rock-radio stations anchored off the coast of Great Britain in the mid-1960s is about as close to perfection as I could reasonably hope for.
3. Fantastic Mr. Fox With this film, Wes Anderson proved he could make an animated movie that was still every inch a Wes Anderson picture. That’s enough, but it’s also glorious to look at, with brilliant animation, and has voice performances from a stellar cast who are better than a lot of on-screen performances I’ve seen.
4. The Imaginarium of Dr. Paranassus For the second time in his career (the first was with Brazil in 1985) Terry Gilliam blew me away with this heavily textured allegorical fantasy—complete with Gilliam-esque comedy. It’s not perfect, but nothing this ambitious ever is.
5. Easy Virtue As the triumphant return of Stephan Elliott, Easy Virtue is a little miracle of filmmaking—and adaptation. Not only have he and co-writer Sheridan Jobbins taken a reasonably serious-minded Noel Coward play and made it into a comedy, but they made it much more relevant and effective as drama than Coward’s serious theatrical work.
6. Tetro Far and away the most visually stunning film of the year, Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro is a film seen by far too few people. (It still seems to be moving around the festival circuit and there’s no sign of a DVD release.) Bold and operatic (qualities for which it has been damned in some quarters), it’s completely unlike anything else that came out this year. Even on a single viewing, it is unforgettable.
7. Whatever Works Easily the funniest movie I saw all year—and despite its deceptive PG-13 rating, it’s also one of the most daring in terms of content. It’s also the best film Woody Allen has made in ages—and I don’t think that’s just because he wrote it as a vehicle for Zero Mostel back in 1977.
8. Inglorious Basterds Quentin Tarantino at the top of his game pulls out all the stops (completely redeeming himself after 2007’s Death Proof), and rewrites history with explosive bad taste and film references only a hardcore movie fan could imagine. For an interesting change, QT proves that he actually knows more about movies than just drive-in and exploitation fodder—and he unleashes it all with a fearless ferocity no one else would dare.
9. Up I’m usually fairly resistant to Pixar. Up changed all that with a vengeance. Simply beautiful—and one of the most moving films of the year.
10. A Serious Man The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is a film that snuck up on me. I liked it. I admired it. And I thought that was that. But then it kept coming back to haunt me, and as its levels of complexity became ever clearer to me, I had to admit it belonged on this list.
So where are Me and Orson Welles, An Education, Sunshine Cleaning, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? Well, they’re numbers 11 through 15.
1. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen It may not be the absolute worst thing I saw, but at 150 minutes of noisy, classless, obnoxious, unfettered stupidity—seasoned with endless shots of Megan Fox with her butt in the air—it was undoubtedly the most mind-numbing.
2. Transylmania Now, we’re talking bad. We’re talking worse than bad. We’re talking bad on the level of “I’ve been to hog castrations that were more entertaining and tasteful—even to the hogs.”
3. The Twilight Saga: New Moon Three vapid stars as three vapid teens (well, one of them is 108 years old or so) suffering teen angst that would make the biggest emo kid on the planet embarrassed. The two gloomy guys are supernatural. The girl is merely supernaturally stupid. No wonder werewolf boy would rather hang out with his shirtless buddies in the woods.
4. Paper Heart I went to this tripe with an open mind. I left thinking of various forms of torture that Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi needed to be subjected to. I have quite a list.
5. Old Dogs The only way to make a tired, dull, unfunny movie just that much worse is to stick Robin Williams in it. They did.
6. Funny People Yes, there were other movies I gave lower marks to than Judd Apatow’s Funny People, but I grew to dislike its phony stab at being serious and its obnoxious tone—not to mention its bloated 140-minute running time—more and more with the passage of time. I may not have felt like torturing the perpetrators, but several of them needed a good slapping.
7. C Me Dance Amateur-night-with-the-gospels filmmaking at its worst—and that’s saying something. Even the faithful, who can usually be persuaded to sit through anything touting religion, avoided this one.
8. The Last House on the Left A dreary horror film from 1972 that has inexplicably gained a following received a pointless remake. Unlike the original, which was just tasteless, the remake manages to be tasteless and tedious. That’s not progress.
9. He’s Just Not That Into You Drivel like this is the reason people sneer at romantic comedies. The truth is, though, that this is neither romantic nor funny.
10. Observe and Report I sat through this monstrosity because Justin Souther has kept me company through more than a few dogs. The things we do in the name of friendship.
The Pootie Tang Award: The winner of the coveted “Pootie”—for rising above the run-of-the-mill bad comedies to distinguish itself as jaw-droppingly awful—is Miss March. The five or six other people who saw this will know what I mean. The rest of you should just count your blessings.
Finally, I think there are two special awards that need mentioning:
Best Use of an Inane Catchy Pop Song: Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” in (500) Days of Summer.
Best Worst Delivery of an Impossible Line: Ewan McGregor screaming, “Illiminatus!” in Angels and Demons. What a moment!
Justin Souther’s picks
1. Fantastic Mr. Fox With all the G.I. Joes of the world, Wes Anderson reminded me why, exactly, I love movies. A singularly original animated flick that gets more out of a bunch of stop-motion animated animals than most movies get out of living, breathing actors. Best of all, it’s fun.
2. The Brothers Bloom A reminder that comedy can be classy and that quirkiness doesn’t have to devolve into self-parody. A first-class entertainment that never forgets it’s a movie, but never minds going beyond that into something more significant.
3. Inglourious Basterds Nazis, Bear Jews, David Bowie, a reminder of how good Brad Pitt can be, and one of the most memorably despicable antagonists in this decade of film. Quentin Tarantino getting it right can be a wonderfully brazen thing.
4. Up The most sneakily touching and pleasant film of the year, Pixar has—for me, at least—finally lived up to its reputation.
5. Whatever Works Woody Allen on the warpath: a curmudgeonly attack on anything and everything. One of the man’s funniest—and best—in years.
6. A Serious Man A movie made by the Coen Brothers for what appears to be no one other than the Coens. Possibly their most personal and complex movie to date, and a movie only they could make.
7. Pirate Radio Make a movie about how wonderful rock music is and I’m bound to like it. Do it with the kind of verve Richard Curtis has and I’m bound to love it.
8. Sherlock Holmes Think Batman, but with personality. Guy Ritchie—with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the perfect on-screen duo—has made the most purely entertaining film of the year.
9. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince The movie that made me give a damn about Harry Potter films again, David Yates’ second time behind the camera is the most mature portrayal of everyone’s favorite bespectacled wizard, not to mention one of the most strikingly handsome films of the year.
10. Crank: High Voltage Sure, it’s junky filmmaking at it’s skankiest, a cavalcade of egregious bad taste and excessive violence. But while the world (myself included) may be praising the likes of Quentin Tarantino and throwbacks to B-movie schlock of eras past, directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are making their own brand of non-referential drive-in trash for a new generation of the ADHD afflicted. Let’s call it post-post-modern.
1. Observe and Report If this movie were a person, it’d probably get drunk and hit on my mom. And then pass out on my couch and wet itself.
2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Robot genitalia humor, casual racism and Shia LaBeouf. One of these things is bad enough; here you get it all packed into two-and-a-half hours of movie.
3. G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra There was a time when Jean-Claude Van Damme would’ve starred in this movie. It’s that kind of bad.
4. Play the Game An entire movie built around Andy Griffith’s orgasm face. There’s really nothing else for me to say.
5. Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li So awkward and clumsy it has its own kind of weird, inept charm, like those mutant frogs with extra legs and eyeballs. Special consideration for Chris Klein in the worst performance of the year. Nash out!
6. Paper Heart Michael Cera and some girl who giggles way too much try to act cute for 90 minutes. My teeth hurt just thinking about it.
7. The Fourth Kind The illegitimate, inbred offspring of The Blair Witch Project and The X-Files, here’s a movie about alien abduction that can’t keep its mythology straight. However, the most far-fetched thing in it is Milla Jovovich literally claiming she’s an actress.
8. I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell What hath the Internet wrought? Blogger Tucker Max’s vanity project is half-assed Kevin Smith by way of keg stands and Porta-Johns.
9. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel Sartre had it wrong. Hell is rodents singing “Stayin’ Alive.”
10. It’s Complicated Sure, there are worse movies, but none of them annoyed me quite as much as Nancy Meyers latest opus. Affluent white people drink wine, have fun and make croissants. I don’t make enough to find this cute.