Well, another year is down the tubes, and even the time of frenzied list making (not only of the year but of the decade in many cases) is starting to wind down. My top ten films of 2009 and my top ten of the decade are posted over on Row Three, so this post is opened up to everything I saw during 2009, no matter when it was released. Despite getting behind on filmwatching early in the year, I ended up watching a TON of movies in October thru December, for a grand total of 128 total, of which a whopping 66 were in theatres. Fifty-one of those 66 were current releases, with the remaining ones being older films seen at one of the repertory houses or in re-release. That’s certainly a record for me, to have the opportunity to see that many films in the theatre!
With no further ado, here are my favorite films I watched (for the first time) in 2009. They are casually ranked with ones I liked more at the top and ones I liked less at the bottom, but do not hold me to these rankings. You may notice some deviation among the 2009 ones between this order and the order of my Top Ten list at Row Three; that’s because there I was balancing quality with personal response, but here I’m going much more with pure gut feeling.
Titles link to IMDb for further information; please note many of these titles are available for purchase through the Amazon.com store I set up on my site. I do get a kickback for any items purchased through there; if I led you to consider buying any of these, please do me a favor and order them here.
Chungking Express – A gorgeous, gorgeous film with two stories loosely connected through a deli in Hong Kong – elements of crime, noir, and romance combine into a sumptuous whole whose very simplicity becomes profound.
Inglourious Basterds – Tarantino takes his signature cinematic references, violence, and virtuosic dialogue sequences and puts them in service of a bigger story – a story so big in fact that it rewrites history itself. A giant undertaking that he pulls off flawlessly, creating his most mature work yet.
Le doulous – Excellent and surprisingly subtle crime film from Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It may seem fairly routine for most its running time, but then the symbolism Melville has been building pays off and it becomes amazing.
I Killed My Mother – This extremely personal film, an autobiographical vision from writer/director/star Xavier Dolan, will also be instantly recognizable by anyone who’s ever struggled with the changing parent-child relationship as children go through their teens.
Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages – This silent film purports to be a documentary tracing the history of witchcraft, but it’s all an excuse for some of the most fantastic flights of ghoulish imagination and gleeful horror ever made.
Up in the Air – Classic old-fashioned filmmaking in the best sense – there’s nothing out of place here, from performances to direction, from script to pacing. Add in one of the timeliest stories in recent years, and you can’t do much better than this.
An Education – Carey Mulligan gives a strong and subtle performance as a precocious 1960s schoolgirl wanting something more, hoping to find it in a charming older man. It’s not just Mulligan’s film, though – the whole ensemble is pitch-perfect.
Where the Wild Things Are – Spike Jonze expands the classic ten-line children’s book into a fable of childhood aimed firmly at adults who haven’t forgotten how to be childlike. There’s no pandering in this film, and it’s simultaneously joyous and heartrending from start to finish.
Fish Tank – An electrifying performance from newcomer Katie Jarvis centers Andrea Arnold’s second feature, a gritty, realistic, idealistic, ugly, beautiful story of a teenager just coming into her own among working class Brits.
Barton Fink – Catching up on an older Coen Brothers film is always a good thing, and this is one of the best – a dark, quirky, hilarious tale of a playwright eaten alive by Hollywood.
A Serious Man – A Coen Brothers film that is both 100% Coen and almost completely unlike anything they’ve done before – that’s why they’re geniuses, and this may even be one of their best films in a career with very few missteps.
A Town Called Panic – Manic and hugely entertaining stop-motion/claymation film about the misadventures of roommates Cowboy, Indian, and Horse. Too many WTF moments to count.
Akira – Sci-fi anime done to perfection, with a better-than-average story and amazing visuals.
A Tale of Two Sisters – A great horror film for sure, but also a great film period.
Black Dynamite – A blaxploitation homage film done to perfection – a riot from start to finish that goes further into ludicrousness than you’d think possible and still makes it work.
Broken Embraces – Almodovar turns in another great film, this time centered on a film director-turned-screenwriter and the tragic love that made him who he’s become.
Up – The latter part of the film falls a little too much into cutesy kids adventure territory, but honestly, even if I had hated the second half (which I didn’t – it remains warm and funny), this deserves a spot for the almost unbearably beautiful wordless journey through Carl and Ellie’s life.
(500) Days of Summer – Finally someone makes a solid romantic comedy told from the male point of view without devolving into Apatow-esque immaturity. From JGL’s winning performance to spontaneous musical numbers, I was delighted from start to finish.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox – Wes Anderson makes one of his most perfectly realized films, and it’s stop-motion. But at no point is it not fully Anderson, completely delightful, or visually wonderous.
Revolutionary Road – A bleak but deceptively complex portrait of the failure of the American Dream with great performances from Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio.
Shadows and Fog – This Woody Allen film snuck out of nowhere to become one of my favorites of his – full of gorgeous high contrast cinematography, parallel conspiracy/murder/circus stories, and memorable characters.
Slumdog Millionaire – One of the better East/West fusions of recent years, wrapping Bollywood up for Western consumption with a feel-good underdog story.
In the Attic – In terms of sheer inventiveness, this Czech stop-motion film is pretty tops; children’s toys live out adventures in the attic, among other long-discarded items.
Belle de Jour – Another character for Catherine Deneuve to add to her list of frakked-up roles. But despite the rather sordid story of a woman who becomes a prostitute to fulfill her own fantasies, this ends up being quite an excellent character study.
The Big Knife
The Loved Ones
The White Ribbon
The Brothers Bloom
The Man From Laramie
Mask of Satan
A Woman Under the Influence
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench
The Girlfriend Experience
Away We Go
The Mystery of the Wax Museum
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Drag Me to Hell
The Evil Dead
In Search of a Midnight Kiss
Evil Dead II
Remember My Name
Sweet Smell of Success
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
The Limits of Control
The Phantom Tollbooth
No One Knows About Persian Cats
Forgetting Sarah Marshall