This has been heralded as the year of the animated movie, and with good reason: Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline and Up, among others, proved as engaging for adults as for children, validating a genre unfairly dismissed as kiddie fare by some critics and too many Oscar voters.
To me, 2009 was most memorable for its documentaries. Tyson, Capitalism: A Love Story, The Beaches of Agnes and The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers entertained as well as informed, and all remain worthy candidates for end-of-the-year accolades. Consider them (as well as Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are) runners-up to my list of the year’s best films.
1. Up in the Air
Jason Reitman’s storytelling has been criticized by some as too slick to be heartfelt. That’s missing the point of Up in the Air, in which Ryan Bingham (George Clooney, perfectly cast) finds his carefully maintained polish wearing thin.
Ryan is a corporate headhunter with a difference. His job is to fire people, and he does it well – so well, in fact, it would be tempting to think him soulless. Yet Clooney finds the humanity in a character whose life is defined by his resistance to emotional connections. He’s not quite coming apart, but there is a growing unrest tugging at the corners of his seamless facade.
Reitman’s movie taps into Bingham’s fears, and those of the devastated workers he’s hired to get rid of. It is the young director’s best work to date, and considering his résumé (Thank You for Smoking, Juno), that’s saying a lot.
2. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino rewrites history in this fanciful epic, giving Hitler and his Nazi accomplices their richly deserved comeuppance. Basterds has been described as a cartoon, and there is no shortage of sensationalism in Tarantino’s brand of pulp fiction. But if this is a cartoon, it’s as sophisticated as they come.
Tarantino plays it straight, to a point. His story is plausible, however lurid, and in some of Hitler’s soldiers he finds men made savage by circumstance, dedicated to duty whatever the cost. He doesn’t let them off the hook – he exacts more pounds of flesh than some might care to stomach – but the depth of his characterizations is impressive, as are the breakout performances of Christoph Waltz, as a sublimely charismatic sociopath, and Mélanie Laurent, as a Jewish survivor determined to avenge her slain family.
3. The Cove
Put simply, The Cove is a heartbreaking achievement. Director Louie Psihoyos' documentary bravely exposes the savage slaughter of thousands of dolphins off the coast of Taiji, Japan, where fishermen use sonar emissions to drive their victims into a secluded cul-de-sac and spear them into submission; the sea literally turns red with blood. It's a horror show that unfolds with all the breathtaking suspense of an espionage thriller, and an important step toward raising awareness.
Those expecting another hormonally charged, cheerfully outlandish sex comedy from Superbad director Greg Mottola may be surprised to discover that Adventureland, despite a deliberately misleading ad campaign, is nothing of the sort. It is a far more grounded, even somber affair, with thoughtful, unaffected characters whose misadventures ring true.
The movie’s best moments belong to Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, whose bittersweet courtship feels as authentic as everything else Mottola’s coming-of-age story has to offer. On some level, they are united by a common misery – nearly everyone in the film, save for Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s quirky amusement-park owners, seems to be running from some kind of demon. But the joy they discover in each other’s company, when they’re not busy breaking each other’s hearts, is contagious.
5. Food, Inc.
Food, Inc. traces the industrial food revolution from its mid-20th century beginnings, when new restaurant chains like McDonalds introduced the factory-inspired concept of line cooking, to the present, when supermarkets are routinely stocked with genetically engineered meats and vegetables.
How the rise of America’s top purveyors of beef and corn has contributed to the nation’s obesity epidemic and recurring E. coli outbreaks is explained with devastating clarity in director Robert Kenner’s big-screen debut, which pulls back the curtains on the highly mechanized food industry to reveal a culture dominated by government-sanctioned greed and an alarming disregard for the health of the consumer.
Is there hope for a fundamentally flawed system that the government and corporations like Perdue, Monsanto and Tyson would rather spend millions to preserve than fix? Surprisingly, there is, and part of the solution involves retail chains like Wal-Mart catering to a growing demand for organic foods. The uneasy alliance of big business and organic farmers is a single step but an important one. So, too, is Food, Inc.
Give director Zack Snyder (300) credit for preserving the integrity of Alan Moore's original story while stripping it down to its barest essentials. In March, I wrote that his narrative fails to soar with the same feral energy as Moore’s writing; having revisited the film several times since its DVD release, I find that my estimation of it has grown with each successive viewing. Watchmen is a grand, gripping spectacle that captures the graphic novel’s subversive spirit. No small feat, indeed.
7. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Rather than indulging in endless flights of whimsy, as he did to distracting effect in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), Wes Anderson returns to spectacular form with Fox, his exhilarating adaptation of Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book. Here, he eschews muddled melodrama for wryly self-mocking humor that never condescends to its audience. It’s a gas from the get-go, and welcome proof that Anderson hasn’t lost his flair for comedy that people can actually laugh at.
8. The Hurt Locker
Americans have cast their ballots at the polls and the box office, and the message is clear: Our military presence in the Middle East is only slightly less popular than the movies inspired by it. The Hurt Locker didn't reverse that trend, which felled recent offerings like Ridley Scott’s underrated Body of Lies and the equally overlooked Rendition, but that takes nothing away from Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping thriller. It’s as emotionally involving an action movie as you’re likely to find, but also a tense, forceful meditation on the addictive nature of combat.
9. In the Loop
Armando Iannucci’s scathing political comedy, a Sundance darling that has been compared to Dr. Strangelove, brings with it an all-star cast featuring Tom Hollander, Steve Coogan, James Gandolfini, Anna Chlumsky and Peter Capaldi of BBC’s Torchwood. The satire is wickedly funny, a savage assault on empty-headed hawks for whom war is just another occasion for politically expedient posturing.
10. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Watching the members of Anvil, a Toronto-based quartet of hair-metal pioneers still looking to recapture the magic of the early ’80s, isn’t as amusing as Spinal Tap, because the humiliations and indignities they endure are depressingly real. But Sacha Gervasi’s affecting documentary about the band leaves room for cautious optimism: These guys can play, and they’re going to keep doing it until the world starts listening. For anyone who has ever pursued a dream against the longest of odds, The Story of Anvil is required viewing.
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