It was a year of quirky, darkly mature childhood fantasy adaptations. Neil Gaiman’s juvenile horror-thriller Coraline, Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are and Roald Dahl’s young reader Fantastic Mr. Fox were each made into unique, challenging films in radically different styles by directors Henry Selick, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, respectively.
Not that all offbeat family films were dark. Up, Ponyo and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs brought lighthearted fun to family audiences, along with The Princess and the Frog (which wasn’t offbeat, but was still good fun). That may not quite match last year’s bumper crop of family films, but it’s better than other years I could mention.
It was a good year for science fiction. Besides the jaw-dropping spectacle of Avatar, there was also the rip-roaring escapist fun of Star Trek, the harsh moral allegory of District 9 and the thoughtful minimalism of Moon (as well as, again, Cloudy with Meatballs, which definitely qualifies as sci-fi).
As usual, the splashiest films weren’t always the best. Roland Emmerich’s 2012 competed with Michael Bay’s Transformers 2 for the title of biggest, dumbest summer blockbuster. The bad boys of cheesy pop lit, Robert Langdon and Edward Cullen, were back to thrill their fan bases in Angels & Demons and New Moon, respectively. Many more families flocked to theaters for another Night at the Museum and a tired guinea-pig caper flick than went to see, say, the delightful Ponyo. Meanwhile, depending on where you live, a number of the year’s best films may not have played anywhere near you. Thankfully, there’s always DVD.
The Year’s Best
There are still many noteworthy films I have yet to see, as well as others I’ve seen but am still mulling over. Below, in alphabetical order, are ten films that stand out to me as deserving of special recognition, followed by ten more also worthy of note. As always, not all can be recommended to all tastes or viewers, but there’s something here for nearly everyone.
As is about par for me, half of the films in my top ten list have not yet been reviewed at this writing. Every year I hope to return to the unreviewed films and do them better justice, but my track record for actually doing so has gotten increasingly spotty. This year, though, I have high hopes that the new Decent Films Blog will encourage me to write something for every film in the next few months, even if it’s not a full-length review. More to come!
SDG’s Top Films of 2009
- Bright Star “The point of diving in a lake,” explains the Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw) in Jane Campion’s poetic romance, “is not immediately to swim to the shore — it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water … It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” Plunging into Bright Star, the tale of Keats’s romance with Fanny Brawne, is just such an experience.
- Crazy Heart Jeff Bridges thoroughly embodies hard-drinking has-been country singer “Bad” Blake in writer-director Scott Cooper’s tale of self-destruction and second chances. Blake plays small gigs, resents the Nashville success of a one-time protégé (Colin Ferrell), and romances a pretty small-town reporter and single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a penchant for making bad decisions about men. Despite Blake’s downward spiral, the door to redemption remains open, but actions have consequences that can’t always be undone.
- Katyn Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s devastating drama commemorates the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre, in which Stalinist forces systematically murdered thousands of Polish military officers and other POWs, intellectuals and other leading figures, then blamed the crime on the Nazis. A film of extraordinary moral clarity and thoughtfulness, Katyn is suffused with the national Catholic spirit that sustained Poland through its long 20th-century dark night of the soul.
Explicit scenes of mass murder; archival footage of forensic examination of remains; some language. Subtitled. (Teens & Up)
- Passing Strange It’s laced with obscenity, profanity, perversity and more, but Spike Lee’s film of writer-musician Stew’s riotous Broadway musical is also something else: one of the most philosophically and existentially searching films of the year, if not the decade. Narrated by Stew, the semi-autobiographical tale follows a black youth on a picaresque journey of self-discovery, rebelling against his middle-class South-Central LA upbringing and variously dabbling in religion, drugs, music, art, hedonism and radicalism. Definitely not for all tastes, but a remarkable document of the quest for authenticity.
Much obscene and profane language; some bawdy musical theater, including brief allusions to homosexual and polyamorous liaisons. (Adults*)
- Summer Hours French director Olivier Assayas’ familial drama of a matriarch whose three adult children living on different continents is an exquisite meditation on the passage of time and the passing of worlds. Family members go separate ways, pages are turned, and both memory and the things remembered slip through our fingers.
- The 13th Day First-time filmmakers Ian and Dominic Higgins depict the 1917 Marian apparitions and “miracle of the sun” at Fátima in moody, impressionistic images and vignettes distilling the childhood memories of Lúcia Santos, who recounts the story in flashback writing her memoirs. Spiritually rich as well as artistically sensitive, it’s the best movie ever made about Fátima.
- The Informant! Matt Damon’s whimsical, unglamorous performance highlights Steven Soderbergh’s fact-based dark comedy about international corporate crime, embezzlement and espionage. It’s a striking depiction of the human capacity for self-justification and self-deception, of our ability to construct narratives for ourselves in which we are always the hero of our own drama and the victim of our own tragedy.
- Tulpan Set among the yurt-dwelling shepherds of the vast, bleak expanse of Kazakhstan’s Hunger Steppe, Kazakh director Sergey Dvortsevoy’s fictional feature debut is at once an engrossing ethnographic drama, an absurdist deadpan comedy and an unsentimental coming-of-age tale. Compared to another film with a similar milieu, The Story of the Weeping Camel, Tulpan is less picturesque and uplifting, but also less archetypal and more individually personal.
Repeated glimpses of a character’s nudie pin-up images; an instance of obscenity and a few crass remarks; a couple of explicit animal birthing scenes; images of dead animals. Subtitles. (Teens & Up)
- Up The latest gem from Pixar, Pete Docter’s charmer is an oddball blend of genres: a bittersweet love story, a high-flying poetic fantasy, a goofy funny-animal cartoon, a cross-generational odd-couple buddy movie, a geriatric swashbuckler, even a burial quest. A flying house becomes an astonishingly potent and fluid metaphor for stages of grief and healing.
- Where the Wild Things Are Spike Jonze reimagines Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of high-spirited rebellion as a meditation on childhood sadness and insecurity in a messy world in which nothing — families, forests, even the Sun — lasts forever. It’s a film that knows both a child’s drowning sense of trying to hold together a broken family and also the comfort of a mother’s embrace, a calm center in a storm of uncertainty.
The following films are not necessarily inferior to the ones above; many if not all titles here could easily have been chosen in place of films in the top list, and I went back and forth in my mind on some of them while drawing up these lists. (Where the Wild Things Are or Coraline? The Informant! or Star Trek? Passing Strange or Lorna’s Silence? I could see going either way.) If there’s something you don’t like in the top list, something here may make it up to you!
- Avatar, James Cameron’s spectacular sci-fi action-fantasy about a life on a fantastic jungle planet
- The Class, Laurent Cantet’s engrossing drama of public education in today’s ethnically diverse France (Teens & Up)
- Coraline, Henry Selick’s darkly surreal fantasy about young girl in a magical but sinister alternate world
- District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s caustic and gory but morally resonant sci-fi action film about an alien ghetto in downtown Johannesberg
- Earth, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s feature-length distillation of the magisterial “Planet Earth” nature documentary miniseries
- Lorna’s Silence, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s morally charged tale of a young woman in a criminal conspiracy whose moral awakening has unexpected consequences (Adults)
- Moon, Duncan Jones’s engagingly modest sci-fi fable of personal dignity and the commodification of human life
- Munyurangabo, Lee Isaac Chung’s debut film about post-genocide Rwanda and hope for healing and forgiveness (Teens & Up*)
- Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s charmingly childlike, surreal fish-out-of-water tale about a magical sea-girl and a human boy
- Star Trek, J. J. Abrams’s rousingly entertaining reboot of the classic sci-fi franchise
Others Worth Mentioning
Angels & Demons, G-Force, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Monsters vs. Aliens, My Life in Ruins, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, 9, Public Enemies, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, 2012, Watchmen.