Before the calendar turns on another movie-filled year and we celebrate the number 12:00 with confetti, kisses, and carbonated beverages (i.e. Shasta), it’s that time again for RT’s editors to bravely proclaim their favorite films of the year! Below, we pick our personal favorites of 2009, from crowd pleasers like Inglorious Basterds to critics’ favorites like Precious, and many more. Sure, we love the Tomatometer and its warm glow in our office’s hydroponic tomato patch, but see what movies tickled your editors’ collective fancies and let us know your favorites in the comments below! And before we say goodbye to 2009, make sure to rate your favorite movies of the year for this year’s User Golden Tomato Award!
Crackling dialogue? Check. Gruesome and cringe-worthy deaths? Check. Fantastic music? Check. All of the hallmarks of Quentin Tarantino’s signature style are here, but this time we’re seeing those elements translated to Nazi-occupied France. That allows for QT to create one of his best villains, Colonel Hans Landa (AKA The Jew Hunter), played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz is sure to get an Oscar nomination, and well he should; it’s not easy to be terrifying in four different languages. But Waltz’s fine performance is just one among many excellent efforts from the entire cast. And lest you think plots to assassinate high-ranking Nazis are predictable, think again; I won’t spoil the ending, but I will that say that Tarantino is smart enough not to let history dictate what his characters are going to get away with.
James Cameron kept us waiting for over a decade while technology caught up to his vision of humans and aliens on a faraway world. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Sure, the story could use a bit of work, and the dialogue isn’t Shakespeare, but none of that matters while you’re watching the movie. The world of Pandora is simply breathtaking, and not since the Lord of the Rings trilogy have we been transported to such a fully-realized environment. And better yet, Avatar‘s alien landscape is like nothing we’ve ever seen on film before. I predict that years from now, we’ll see Avatar as a watershed moment in the use of CGI, much the same way we look at how Star Wars changed people’s expectations of special effects.
There’s a fresh sense of discovery in An Education — the giddiness of a first crush, the anticipation of a bright future, the heartbreak of realizing that some things are too good to be true. And that feeling of discovery extends to its star, Carrey Mulligan, who proves here that she’s ready for the big time. An Education is about as well-acted as is possible, with excellent, nuanced work from the likes of Peter Sarsgaard, Olivia Williams, Alfred Molina, and Emma Thompson. But this is Mulligan’s show, and she conveys an astonishing mix of wide-eyed optimism and precociousness — that is, until things come tumbling down. The movie is witty, sad, and almost effortlessly smart…and it’s got a killer soundtrack to boot. It’s a movie I couldn’t stop thinking about for days after I saw it…and every time I did, I smiled.
Walking out of I Love You, Man, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Why aren’t more comedies like that?” I Love You, Man gets practically everything right: it transcends its sitcommy premise with some profound questions about the complex nature of friendship without resorting to schmaltz; it contains believable, three-dimensional characters having discussions — and sometimes arguments — about real issues; and it never stops being funny, occasionally crudely and gut-bustlingly so. It also gets bonus points for not treating its gay characters as stereotypes, and for making its celebrity cameo work for his credit (nicely done, Lou Ferrigno). I Love You, Man isn’t the funniest movie I saw in 2009 (that prize goes to Zombieland) , but it’s one of the warmest, truest comedies I’ve seen in ages.
John Woo’s comeback flick and nobody goes out to see it? I was at first hesitant to go out to watch it, hearing that it was a severely shortened version of a four hour movie, based on Chinese history I had no idea about. But the movie’s an absolute thrill nearly all the way (ending’s a bit weak), and a masterwork in storytelling and editing. Woo keeps the story simple, while every action sequence is crisp, staged to perfection, and never just a flurry of quick, violent images.
Next on my list: Fantastic Mr. Fox. Looks like I was attracted to the comeback stories this year. After producing movies for a few years with diminishing returns, Wes Anderson returns to form with this funny and wistful adaptation of the Roald Dahl story. Anderson loads the Mr. Fox’s journey with subtext and mature heart, while keeping the comedy clean for the kids. I can’t say how well it succeeds as family-oriented entertainment, but as an adult, it’s utterly fantastic.
Ah, Lars von Trier, you wacky prankster. Who else would combine graphic genital mutilation, talking foxes and a dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky to make a grisly arthouse splatter movie that had audiences at Cannes feinting and critics violently leveling charges of misogyny? The controversy surrounding Antichrist — and yes, it’s definitely a grueling film to watch — tended to obscure the real beauty of it. For me, this was the most terrifying horror movie of the year; not for the notorious elements but for the psychological menace it exerted — which is the scariest thing of all. Though sequences in the movie seem to tumble from nightmare, von Trier seems most to identify with his female protagonist (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in an electrifying and frightening turn) and her journey through depression at the mercy of her arrogant, foolish husband (Willem Dafoe). Then again, there’s always a sense of mischief behind all of von Trier’s scenes. I think John Waters, no stranger to shock, put it nicely: “If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made.”
It was so great to see that, in a year saturated with 3-D CGI, the two best animated films — Fantastic Mr. Fox and Coraline — were rendered in meticulous stop-frame wonder, proving that the old art still has the ability to enchant. Where Wes Anderson celebrated the form in its archaic glory, Henry Selick — who was originally set to direct Mr. Fox — made use of digital and 3-D for Coraline; yet these aspects only served to enhance what is an intricately realized stop-motion world. Selick’s detail in set and character design is just splendid — from the button-eyes sewn into the simulacrums of Coraline‘s “other” world to a flying grasshopper mechanoid — and his expansion of Neil Gaiman’s story actually widens the scope for our own imagination, rather than overstuffing it with movie set pieces. Of course, if the movie had simply consisted of the jumping mouse circus for 90 minutes straight, it still would’ve been my favorite.
It’s always nice when things take you by surprise. So many millions of online column inches precede the release of a Star Trek or a Terminator that the resulting film will either be the very movie you’d hoped for or, more likely, it’ll disappoint you entirely. When you don’t know what you’re going to get before you sit down in a darkened theatre, you can never be disappointed and are often pleasantly surprised. Moon offered the latter. Who knew that a low-budget Brit indie could not only prove to be one of the year’s best movies, but that it could compete in its genre with the best from Hollywood? Only Star Trek came close to being as impressive. The greatest science-fiction stories work because they’re set in a wholly believable universe, one that you are convinced lives and breathes even outside of the realms of the particular tale you’re watching. Think Star Wars, Blade Runner and, indeed, Star Trek. Moon does just this – despite setting itself on a lonely moon base and revolving only around one character and his smiley-faced robot, it’s fully-formed enough to give you a flavour of the grander universe and make the journey of the film’s lead actually mean something. Director Duncan Jones and producer Stuart Fenegan have promised us more within the same universe in a follow-up called Mute – I can’t wait.
Shane Meadows isn’t known for his comedy. While there may be laughs in like likes of A Room For Romeo Brass and Somers Town, his forte is in those films’ emotional core and in the gritty drama of the likes of This is England and Dead Man’s Shoes. But Donk, a hapless roadie whose delusions of grandeur have convinced him of his musical genius, has been around for years as a sideshow character created in little shorts Meadows made with his star, Paddy Considine. The film follows Donk and his latest musical prodigy, a rapper named Scor-zay-zee, as they try to find a space on the bill at an Arctic Monkeys gig. The brilliance of the film is in the paper thin line between life and fantasy – Scor-zay-zee is a real rapper and Shane Meadows appears in the film as himself, directing a documentary following Donk. Likewise, the Arctic Monkeys gig is real, and it’s no spoiler to share that Scorz does get his moment on stage in front of 50,000 fans. Shot in five days on a miniscule budget, Le Donk is one of the year’s most brilliant comedies, and anyone outside of the UK would do well to find a multi-region DVD player and import a copy – it deserves to be a huge cult favourite.
I wasn’t entirely prepared for what Zombieland would be like. I had some idea, of course, that it was going to be a sort of wry look at zombie movies, and that there would be a healthy dose of comedy tossed in. And maybe because I had been disappointed by the 2009 release calendar in general, I was aching for something to wow me and get me really excited. Suffice it to say, I had an absolute blast watching this movie. From the opening credits to the final climactic sequence, I can’t remember the last time I had this much pure FUN at the theater. I don’t know that there’s necessarily any deeper messages to take away from Zombieland, or that there’s anything groundbreaking or worthy of study in any cinema classes, but when it comes down to well-crafted entertainment, Ruben Fleischer has put together an exhilarating, hilarious, action-packed, and, in some ways, cathartic little film here. When Woody Harrelson grabbed onto a tilt-a-whirl with one hand and began blasting zombies with the uzi in his other hand, I couldn’t help but smile and enjoy the ride. Fleischer’s off to a great start here, and I’ll most definitely be on the lookout for any future projects from him.
Working here at RT, one is introduced to all sorts of films that the average moviegoer might never see (or even hear about, for that matter), and every once in a while, one of those small, independent films manages to break out of its shell and make the world take notice. This sleeper hit first caught my attention when it began receiving the highest praise from critics everywhere, and by the time I finally got around to seeing it, The Hurt Locker had already moved into second-run theaters. I have to say, even with all the acclaim lavished upon the film, I was not disappointed. Kathryn Bigelow does a magnificent job maintaining an incredible amount of tension throughout the movie (the only other film I saw this year that matched this feat was Inglourious Basterds) without resorting to cheap thrills, and Jeremy Renner offers what I feel to be a strong contender for the breakout performance of the year (too bad his TV show, The Unusuals, didn’t fare as well — I rather liked it). For a “war movie,” The Hurt Locker has relatively few explosions and all-out firefights; instead, its strongest sequences come in the form of those quiet moments of tense ambiguity, when the viewer is aware something could happen. And those moments are sublimely executed.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have hyped myself out of many a “good movie.” So when I bought tickets to see Up in the Air right after it won Best Feature from the National Board of Review, I went into my local Cineramadome a bit skeptical. I sat. I watched. And I loved. After watching the perfectly cast and brilliant performances by George Clooney (whose character I related to in a variety of ways…and we are often mistaken for one another by strangers), Vera Farmiga, and one of my new dreamboats Anna Kendrick, in a film about how we all experience emotion, I got it. Up in the Air lived up to the hype. The story was unique. The characters mattered. And though I saw the end coming, being along for the very human, very real ride made Up in the Air my favorite movie of the year.
J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek completely flipped the cool factor of the question, “Dude, did you see Star Trek?” While most of the people who helped Star Trek make out like bandits at the box office likely wouldn’t necessarily identify themselves as Trekkies, for two hours and seven minutes, I certainly was one, despite my resistance to my brother’s Star Trek fandom growing up. The action sequences were CGI eye candy, and James T. Kirk’s (Chris Pine) origin story was compelling enough for a Star Trek novice like me to pick up on the fun references. Whether by design or not, seeing Kirk as someone who was more like me, instead of a neighbor’s cool dad, transformed how I understood his character and made me appreciate what I knew of the series even more. And I would be remiss not to mention that I was proud to see that in the future, a young Asian male (John Cho) is entrusted with the keys to the dopest ride in town (that town being Space: The Final Frontier). Though it was your inspiration that started the movement, Hikaru Sulu, I will help lay the foundations for you here in the past to crush stereotypes in the future.
Yeah, we’ve seen raunchy comedies about men behaving badly before — quite a number of them this decade, actually, and a few from director Todd Phillips — but few of them have been as consistently funny as The Hangover, and none of them have raked in the kind of record-setting cash generated by this sun-baked tale of three groomsmen who lose their groom after a wild night in Vegas. What sets Hangover apart isn’t just that it’s loads of laughs, but that its leads’ comedic styles mesh so beautifully. From Zach Galifianakis’ insane non sequitirs to Ed Helms’ uptight doofus to Bradley Cooper’s unctuous emotional adolescent, the movie is a veritable comedy buffet — and when you toss in Ken Jeong as an effeminate, occasionally naked gangster, well…The Hangover 2 can’t come quickly enough, can it?
From Fast Food Nation to In Defense of Food, Americans have spent the aughts taking more of an active interest in what they eat than they have for generations — and if you’ve read either of those books, Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. won’t tell you much you don’t already know. Then again, neither of those books make their arguments with 94 minutes of snazzy graphics, concise interviews, and revolting film clips drawn from across the agribusiness spectrum. There’s just something about seeing it all unfold on the screen — something Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, authors of the aforementioned books, must understand, seeing as how they both appear in Food, Inc. Whether or not you subscribe to any of the many burgeoning food movements that have gained prominence over the last decade, this documentary makes a compelling case for doing something we’ve gotten used to believing we didn’t have to do: thinking about where our food comes from.
This almost dialogue-free, South Korean/American Coproduction by So Young Kim (In Between Days) could have been the pin-drop heard around the world-instead it’s largely unsung, even though it was showcased by A.O. Scott in his fantastic piece on New Neo-Realism. About two sisters (6 and 4 years old) who’s mother goes on a search for their absentee father and leaves them in the custody of Dickensian family members, the film evokes the viewer’s own perspective of childhood in all its gauzy, gorgeous horror. And while all that sounds rough (and it surely is), these girls’ version of “growing up,” which in an American film might have been a tragically bittersweet development, in this film looks like the most hopeful and joyous thing that any young person could ever concede to. I cried like the children I wish those girls had the luxury to be.
A melodrama in social-realist clothing, Precious is based on a novel that’s written largely in phonetic near-English, but director Lee Daniel’s film adaptation aims at such a neutral narration Daniel’s tragic tenement story leaves nothing for us to decipher at all. We spend most of the movie holding our breath hoping Precious (Gaby Sibide), an overweight, illiterate, pregnant, 16 year old, survives the horror movie madness that surrounds her. The lunatics, drug addicts and abusive parents that endanger her are as epic as super-hero menaces but the only superpowers Precious’ has at her disposal reside in the alternate reality she escapes to when she’s brutalized-escape from this vision of 80’s NY seems imaginary until it grows clearer that Precious’ strongest weapon is her budding self-worth. Like Treeless Mountain this is a film about surviving youth to reach a hopeful passage into adulthood, and this adulthood is one that changes the landscape in as many ways visible as invisible.