Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2009

The close of a year. As of this post, I've watched 155 films. A theme emerged as I compiled my favorite films of the year: we as human beings are designed for authentic community. Each addresses the simple truth that we need each other. We are inherently relational. Keeping this theme in mind, I believe these are the ten best films of 2009 that I've seen thus far.

10. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung): Made on a bare-bones budget and filmed in 11 days, Chung's quietly haunting film about post-genocide Rwanda is near-documentary in its authenticity. It takes discipline to endure to the emotive climax, but it's well worth the wait. The ghosts of Rwanda's violent past are expressed through the connection between two young men on a journey for revenge and their subsequent redemption.

9. Bright Star (Jane Campion): Modesty can be sexy. For romantics, literary-types, and lovers of the period piece, Campion's latest is a poet's film. Chronicling the real-life romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawn, this quiet and nuanced film reveals a love that is deeper than sex or warm fuzzy feelings.

8. Moon (Duncan Jones): Sam Rockwell carries this sci-fi thriller not on his celebrity, but is incredible acting chops. Isolated in a harvesting station on the moon, Rockwell's character experiences the deepest kind of isolation and loneliness. Moon raises a number of spiritual and moral questions about humanity, technology, and our innate need for community. Rockwell surely deserves an Oscar nomination.

7. The Class (Laurent Cantet): Set in an urban Parisian junior high, this film captures an authentic look at a culturally diverse classroom over the course of a year. Frustrating, sincere, and wonderfully scripted, this film captures the essence of early adolescence. They can be bright, witty, and compassionate in one moment, then selfish, foolish, and aloof the next. The Class is also a meditation on the concept of education and how we are teaching our young people. As someone passionate about good filmmaking, junior high students, and educational philosophy, this was sure to be one of my favorites.

6. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman): Driven by a trio of brilliant and unique performances that could have easily sunk into cliche, Reitman's third incredible film is both timely and timeless. Centering around Ryan Bingham, a frequent flyer who lives by a personal philosophy of relational aloofness, the film is conventional enough to appeal to a wider audience, yet has some subtle twists that keep it from turning into a typical romantic dramedy. If you've ever lost a job, felt lonely, or fallen in love, this is a film for you.

5. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani): An elderly man gets into a cab and makes an offer to the Senegalese driver: he'll give the driver $1000 in cash to drop him off at Blowing Rock National Park in ten days. He will not need a ride back. From this point onward, the two men's lives are inextricably bound. Subtle and nuanced, Bahrani has created a film about the power of human connections between strangers; moreover, this is a look into the American dream. Friendship, joy, loss, bitterness, and hope all abound. The titular phrase is never actually uttered out loud between the two men. It never has to. The emotional farewell is written all over their faces.

4. (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb): One of the only films I saw twice in theaters this year, Marc Webb's debut creatively spans all of the emotions of a 21st century romance. In a media-saturated world, there are two dominate views of love--the naively idealistic and the biological hedonistic. Tom represents the former, Summer the latter. The two fall in love--or do they?--and for 500 days, Tom's life is defined by this enchanting woman. Annie Hall for the postmodern generation.

3. Up (Peter Docter): The first 10 minutes of Up are some of the best storytelling I've seen on film, period. The ability for a film to make an audience move from childlike joy to deep sorrow in a matter of moments, all while remaining perfectly paced, is simply remarkable. The rest of the film is just as delightful. The adventure of Carl, Russell, Dug, and Kevin is both entertaining and enlightening. We're reminded that the greatest adventures aren't inane balloon trips to South America but the ordinary moments we share throughout our lives with the people who matter to us. I think the greatest moment was...SQUIRREL! I'm sorry, what was I writing?

2. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow): Centered around an American military bomb squad, this is an action film with a coherent story arc, characters we care about, masterful direction, and performances worthy of Oscars. I say this without exaggeration: this is the most intense film I've seen in a theater and the best film on the current war in Iraq. The explosions and gunfights are few and far between, but that's what makes this so potent, as we're never quite sure if anyone will survive a given scene. This is a study in the effects of war on relationships, how the trauma and stress can isolate even the strongest soldier.

1. The Road (John Hillcoat): A man and a boy and the end of the world. Becoming a father in 2009 changed absolutely everything for me, but it dramatically altered the way I view films. Especially this one. It would have been phenomenal anyway with its haggardly authentic performances from Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the father and son. Affecting and spiritually enlightening, The Road sharply defines the contrasts between the beauty and depravity of humanity. As the father and son carry the fire--of life? love? hope?--in an ashen and fallen world, we're reminded of how much we truly need each other to survive, and how powerful a bond between a father and son can be.

Honorable Mentions. These would have made my Top 20 list and might be worth your while (in alphabetical order):

Avatar (James Cameron): Visually impressive film about alien worlds and our desire to escape. Dances with Wolves meets Halo (yeah, the video game).

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson): A quick-witted caper film about two con artist brothers and the stories they're telling with their lives.

The Cove (Louie Psihoyos): An enlightening and terrifying, if one-sided, documentary about the covert slaughter of thousands of dolphins in a small Japanese fishing town. A real-life political thriller, complete with cover-ups and conspiracy theories.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp): This film shows what a creative idea and some viral marketing can do for you. With a phenomenally original idea, combining a commentary on apartheid with a sci-fi action flick, Blomkamp has me eagerly anticipating his next move.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson): Anderson's most accessible film to-date includes all his signature features--quirkily dysfunctional family seeks redemption, with lots of dry humor. The beauty of this stop-motion animated film is its sense of detail.

Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner): You'll never look at grocery shopping the same again. This informative documentary has more of a didactic than narrative arc, revealing some of the dark truths about the Western food industry.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino): Quentin Tarantino's latest was the most well-crafted film of the year, with a fantastic ensemble cast--Christoph Waltz better win an Oscar--and a many-layered message. Yet that message was lost under the overly nihilistic tone. Perhaps this deserves a Special Jury Prize or something.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann): Mann remakes his crime classic Heat in the 1930s, replacing DeNiro and Pacino with Depp and Bale. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Great crime films, both of 'em.

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams): The most fun sci-fi action film of the year, Abrams has reinvented the Star Trek world and sent it off into a wonderfully fresh direction.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze): A wondrous treatise on childhood. Sure, the film didn't live up to my ridiculously high expectations set up from the trailer, but it still captures the emotional roller coaster of youth in a magical way. Sure to become a cult classic.

Some films that I haven't seen yet, but would like to: An Education, Crazy Heart, A Serious Man, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Summer Hours, A Single Man, Invictus


  1. Happy to see that we liked a lot of the same movies. All of the other ones I have yet to see, but really want to. Especially The Road and Goodbye Solo.

  2. We had a few in common, although most on your list I haven't had the opportunity to see yet! You had a lot on your Honorable Mentions list that made my top ten... I'll be posting my list later today...thanks for some new titles to add to my Netflix list...

  3. Good list...I totally forgot about The Class...that movie was brilliant...check out Etre et Avoir if you haven't already.

    Food, Inc. was also very good.

    Can't wait to see Bright Star, An Education, Nine and Invictus.

  4. Should I anticipate a Top Ten Most Anticipated list from you? Curious to see what you're looking forward to.

  5. Cam, I don't think I'll get around to a Most Anticipated List. I've got some films I'm anticipating, like Inception and The Tree of Life, but I don't even think I could come up with ten. :/