14 Must-See Movies of 2009

I realize this is so more than one month ago. Call my style retro.

2009 had its share of great moments in cinema, but ultimately I have managed to narrow  down my list  to fourteen films which I consider essential viewing. I, of course, have no time to watch every movie released in any given year and so there are a few, mostly smaller, films that I have yet to watch. Among them Summer Hours, 35 Shots of Rum, The White Ribbon, A Prophet, A Serious Man, The Beaches of Agnes, and The Headless Woman.

I also saw a handful of very good films that came close to making my list, but just missed out. They include The Princess and The Frog, A Single Man, An Education, and Good Hair.

On to my Top 14.

14. Avatar
You’ve probably heard everything there is to say about this film at this point. It’s true that it might not be storytelling at its best. On a visceral level, however, I can think of only a few movies that I have enjoyed more over the last few years. That’s pretty hard to come by, so why whine?

13. Coraline
The first animated film on this list is the wonderful, imaginative and visually stunning Coraline. It adheres to the classic fairy tale format close enough for comfort and somehow still ends up being an altogether original experience with  just the right amount of  spooky horror.

12. Star Trek
Leave it to J.J. Abrams  to bring a previously dying franchise back to life with such force. This is how summer action blockbusters should be made. A must-see for Star Trek fans and non-fans alike.

11. District 9
This politically charged faux documentary might have been made at a fraction of the budget of most other summer blockbusters, but towers head and shoulders above pretty much everything else.  This is a movie for moviegoers seeking an edge-of-your-seat great time but who don’t  feel like checking their brains at the door when entering a theater.

10. Up
While Up is a slight step down for Pixar after last year’s brilliant WALL-E, it in no way breaks its more than decade-long winning streak. The first ten minutes are brilliant, and the rest of the movie is still winning enough that I was sure it’d end up as the year’s best animated film. I was wrong, but that speaks more to the wonderful year it’s been for animated films than the quality of this movie.

9. The Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Fantastic Mr. Fox might, for the most part, lack the emotional wallop of other animated film this year, but it more than makes up for it with witty, quirky dialogue and gorgeous animation.  From a strictly technical point of view, it doesn’t get much better than Mr. Fox.

8. Up in the Air
Following Thank You For Smoking and Juno, Up in the Air proves that Jason Reitman is nothing if not consistent. The movie might have benefited from perfect timing following massive corporate layoffs, but would still be a gem any other year thanks to a trio of great performances and  a biting but compassionate and ultimately moving screenplay.

7. The Cove
This thrilling documentary is the rare piece of activist filmmaking that might actually manage to make a difference for the cause it fights (the slaughter of dolphins in Japan).  Wrenching and unforgettable, this passionate little film appears to be a lock for an Academy Award this year. It will be well-deserved, although score and editing nominations are also worthy.

6. (500) Days of Summer
Like a past love, 500 Days of Summer seems to have somewhat faded from people’s memories as time has passed. But what a treat it was when I first saw it last summer! Here we have a romantic comedy that fully embraces love, along with it’s many ups and downs. And in a realistic manner!  The defining romantic movie of a generation? Time will tell, but just maybe.

5. The Maid
A character study about a lonely maid in Chile, The Maid is one of those small gems that prove that a great film does not require a multi-million dollar budget.  While the theme of social class is not avoided, this is not a simple story of rich versus poor.  The household which employs our lead character is compassionate, while the latter at some points seems to border on psychosis as a result of the isolation that has resulted from more than two decades of servitude to the family. By turns heartbreaking, terrifying, and hilarious, Catalina Saavedra delivers what is, in my opinion, the best lead performance of 2009.

4. Bright Star
While every year a handful of small, brilliant films go completely unnoticed by award groups, I can’t think of a more perplexing scenario in recent memory than Bright Star. Yes, the film , as directed by Jane Campion,  might ultimately be too understated for mainstream groups. The same could be said for Abbie Cornish’s career-best performance as Fanny Brawne. But what about the costumes? The cinematography? I can’t think of a reasonable explanation why they have gone unnoticed. The beauty of some of the scenes have to be experienced, not heard about. At any rate, this is the odd piece of art befitting of its subject (John Keats). And, sadly, the most underrated movie of the year.

3. Precious
The early, deafening buzz might have set Precious up for an inevitable backlash, but that in no way takes away from its accomplishments. Tough, but not off-putting, it is the type of unflinching movie that few filmmakers would dare make.  Recognition should also be handed out to its cast,  led by Gabbourey Sidibe in one of the most stunning acting debuts this side of Jennifer Hudson and an eerily pitch-perfect Mo’nique as the mother from hell. Without them the film would not work nearly as well.

2. Mary & Max
Capping off an extraordinary year for animation, this woefully underseen pic is the perfect example of the level of sophistication the medium has achieved. Perfectly combining laugh-out-loud comedy with pathos, Mary & Max is a tale about the true meaning of friendship. It might sound like the perfect recipe for an overly saccharine, been-there-done-that cliché fest, but writer-director Adam Elliot takes it to surprising, emotionally resonant places. To say nothing of its technical achievements. Those with proper emotional range might find themselves tearing up from laughter one minute, heartbreak the next. Even the odd grinch in the audience might find their heart has grown a size or two by the end of the film.

1. The Hurt Locker
Portraying war in a realistic manner is quite possibly one of the most challenging obstacles a film director faces. You can argue that no film has managed to get it down 100% right, and that The Hurt Locker doesn’t change that. Perhaps. The reason I am placing the movie at the top of my list is not for the way Kathryn Bigelow portrays war itself, but the way she portrays the harrowing effects of it on the human psyche.  It is an uncompromising, far-from-idealistic view of war as a drug, complete with its devastating aftermath.  Expertly acted by Jeremy Renner and a supporting cast led by Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker is easily, in my opinion, the best movie of 2009.

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3 responses to “14 Must-See Movies of 2009”

  1. Raffi says :

    Great list. Our #1s match! Just proves to me I’m not wrong about The Hurt Locker. Since it’s gotten so much recognition as best of the year I’ve started doubting whether it really was because everyone else always gets it so wrong. =P haha

    Ok, I REALLY need to see Mary and Max – the only one on your list I haven’t seen. While I seem to be one of the few who did see Bright Star, I seem to be one of the fewer who didn’t fall in love with it.

    wow, 11 of these films landed in my top 20!

  2. Rod says :

    Great minds think alike! Occasionally, I fluke out also 😛

    Most definitely see Mary & Max as soon as you have a chance. I don’t see how you could not fall in love with it.

    Maybe even give Bright Star a second chance 😉

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