It’s not every year that picking a top 10 list becomes difficult. Usually, one scrambles just to come up with 10 quality releases. And this year seemed much of the same: a slog through the early part of 2009, a summer filled with mindless blockbusters and occasional surprise gems, and a fall spiked with Oscar wannabes and never-bes. Only this time, it was tough to whittle a list of 20 very good movies down to ten. But we finally managed to get the chore done anyway, resulting in the following list, which, for better or worse, stands as a testament to quite an eclectic year of moviegoing. So here goes, in order of preference:
A Serious Man: Ethan and Joel Coen get a little more serious after their throwaway Burn after Reading with this look at the life of a dysfunctional Jewish family (is there any other kind?) in mid-1960s Minnesota. Darkly humorous, wonderfully acted by a no-name cast and offering great period schtick, this Orthodox version of Barton Fink will leave you with an appreciation of the Jefferson Airplane and rabbis that you may not have had before.
Taking Woodstock: Another 1960s reverie, Ang Lee’s meditation on the landmark concert happening could be the most misunderstood film of the year. Those who complained that there wasn’t any concert footage in the film just didn’t get it. The movie chose instead to focus on the machinations behind the scenes to get the concert staged, and how a group of diverse real people got caught up in the monumental project at that magical moment in time.
Avatar: You hated him for stating he was “King of the World,” but 12 years later, you forgive, especially when he delivers this revolutionary action-fantasy-adventure that plays like Apocalypto on acid. Forget some of the creaky dialogue, stock characters and allusions to Dances with Wolves and James Cameron’s own cinematic repertoire. Settle back and be dazzled by nothing less than the most visually amazing movie ever made.
Anvil: The Story of Anvil: Documentaries don’t come any funnier—or sadder—than this look at a now-forgotten Canadian heavy metal band and its two key members, who attempt to make a comeback. Their European tour, filled with bad management decisions, poor attendance, and rifts between band members, is the stuff that appears so Spinal Tap it’s hard to believe it really happened. The happy ending is that this sad-sack chronicle received enough attention that Anvil actually recharged their moribund career.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson brings his brand of idiosyncratic family fable into the old-fashioned realm of stop-motion animation with this totally enchanting saga of a fox clan’s foibles. Smart, witty and wonderfully voiced by George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray and company, the film delivers the fully realized promise Anderson has tinkered with since Rushmore and then some.
The Hurt Locker: They don’t come much more intense than Kathryn Bigelow’s study of bomb demolition experts’ death-defying existence in Iraq. Bigelow’s economical style is perfectly suited to the hellish sights and sounds experienced by the soldiers who put their lives on the line, as well as their hearts and minds, each day. The breakout cast features Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. War is a drug, indeed.
(500) Days of Summer: A rollercoaster romance properly fitted to a rollercoaster movie, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a change-of-pace role as a nice guy aspiring architect/greeting card writer who falls for company secretary Zooey Deschanel and discovers the painful pangs of romantic obsession. Sharply written, observed, and acted, this is a winning first-time feature effort from music video vet Mark Webb.
The Hangover: A really funny guy’s guy movie that works wonderfully, thanks to its no-hold-barred attitude and amazingly gung-ho ensemble cast. Lewd, crude and rude, the film huffs and puffs to be funny—and succeeds almost all of the time. And Judd Apatow wasn’t even involved!
In The Loop: More Wag the Dog than Dr. Strangelove, this spinoff of the British series The Thick of It presents an eye-opening, oft-hilarious look at the politics of war—and the politicians who’re capable of screwing up the world because of pettiness, jealousy and ego. The crack cast includes James Gandolfini as a U.S. military officer, Peter Capaldi as the profane British press secretary, and Tom Hollander as the minister of development who continually puts dress shoe in mouth.
Sugar: A baseball movie that’s not just about the national pastime, Sugar is a quiet, brilliantly observed look at the odyssey of a Dominican pitching prospect’s adventures in America. Showcasing several newcomers in lead roles, the beautifully realized work from Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) presents an affecting outsider’s perspective on baseball and America from the view of two perceptive insiders.