Best of 2009 – Top 25 Films

Finally I’ve come around to making my selection for the best of the year and it was, to say the least, a daunting task. The year produced a good deal of fascinating and thought provoking films that I thought it would be a shame of leaving a bulk of them by narrowing it down to ten films; Instead I will countdown from 25 films. Each film, while some flawed, I believed were either strong enough technically or conceptually to leaving a lasting impression on me. I did however exclude a few films that were released here this year, but were originally considered 2008 films to give room for other films. One in particular is Steve McQueen’s masterpiece Hunger which I consider the one of , if not, the best film I saw this year. With that said, lets begin:

25.  The Girlfriend Experience – Steven Soderbergh, USA

A flawed gem to say the least, but nonetheless one that I couldn’t exclude from my list. With the help of a RedOne Camera and a budget of 1.3 million, Soderbergh brings us an experimental indie film that follows Chelsea, a high priced escort (played surprisingly well by porn star Sasha Grey) and her personal trainer boyfriend Chris during the days leading up to 2008 election. Where the film is lacking in narrative (told in a jumbled time line), it makes up with it’s spot on exploration of America during the economic crisis through very convincing conversions between the protagonists and their clients. Soderbergh juggles a lot of subjects and at times there is a lack of coherence, but the film still manages to say a lot and concludes with a fantastic ending sequence.

24. Fish Tank – Andrea Arnold, UK/Netherlands

A gritty look at the life of fifteen year old Mia and her impoverished life in Essex with her abusive single mother and sister. Arnold’s film follows Mia as her life is turned upside down with the arrival of her Mother’s new boyfriend (played by none other than the always great Michael Fassbender). The film isn’t really new, especially in Britain where directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach perfected urban coming to age stories like these, but the film is still well made and features one of the best female performances of the year from unknown, Katie Jarvis. Fessbender also proves he’s one of the great young talents in film today with another great performance.

23. Observe and Report – Jody Hill, USA

No comedy this year, or maybe even decade, has been so misunderstood than Jody Hill sophomore feature Observe and Report, or, as it’s known to many, the other mall cop movie. The film follows the mentally unstable Ronnie Barnhardt, the head of mall security at Forest Ridge Mall, as he is assigned to find a flasher who’s been exposing himself to shoppers and tries to pursue his dream of being part of the police force. Many didn’t like the dark brand of humor and some even took offense to a humorous sex scene that was misinterpreted as “rape.” But with a bad-ass soundtrack and  strong performance from Seth Rogen, I believe this film has enough potential for a great cult following. Observe and Report is this generation’s Cable Guy.

22. Tetro – Francis Ford Coppola, USA/Argentina

Since 1979, many have waited for the great Francis Ford Coppola to give us another masterpiece worthy to stand aside the four masterpieces (The Godfather I & II, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now) he released in the 70s.  After a serious of disappointing films from bad (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) to worse (Jack), was Tetro the film that all us cinephiles have been waiting for? No, but it’s easily the director’s best film since. The film follows Bennie, played well by newcomer Alden Ehrenreich, who finds himself in Buenos Aires in search of his brother Angelo, now named Tetro, who he hasn’t seen in over a decade. The film transforms into a mystery with Bennie trying to find out why Tetro left and of dark secretes he doesn’t know about his own family. The film is far from perfect, but with great acting, beautiful black and whit cinematography (easily some of the best I’ve ever seen), spectacular visuals, and a very experimental approach to the narrative make the film one of the more fascinating of 2009. It’s also nice to see that Coppola hasn’t forgetten how to make an engaging film.

21. House of the Devil – Ti West, USA

I think I’ve covered my appreciation for this film already, but lets do it again one more time. One of the best horror films of the decade and hopefully the arrival of a great auteur in Ti West. For any horror fans who missed out on this gem, I urge them to get it whenever it’s released on DVD.

20. Adventureland – Greg Mottola, USA

Here is a film that I believe would have garnered a lot more money at the box office and a much stronger fan base had the film not been so poorly advertised. Marketed as been a sort of semi-sequel to Mottola’s previous feature, Superbad (a film I truly loved), many were disappointed to see that this wasn’t quiet as reliant on jokes and gross out moments. But Mottola did the right thing not to remake Superbad, and instead focus on a more mature coming of age story. Taking place in ’87, the film follows James and his summer job at Adventureland. The film has a strong script, good performances, and an incredible soundtrack.

19. Up – Pete Docter & Bob Peterson, USA

In a year where there have been more critically acclaimed animated films than maybe any other year ever, Up has been the easy favorite for almost everyone as the best animated film of the year. While I don’t totally agree, I cant overlook the beauty of Pixar’s newest opus. It’s a one of Pixar’s greatest achievements, but like last year’s Wall-E, I found myself more interested in the first 30 minutes, rather than the adventure. The silent opening montage which shows the relationship between Carl, the film’s protagonist, and his wife Ellie aging together is easily one of the highlights of this year.

18. Zombieland – Ruben Fleischer, USA

Maybe I’m overrating this film, but Zombieland was my pick as the biggest surprise of the year. After watching the trailer, I winced, feeling that there was nothing new more that could be done in the zombie-comedy genre. But Fleischer’s film was a refreshing take and one of the best comedies this year. Woody Harrelson gives one of his best performances ever (in a year where he actually might get nominated again for The Messenger) and Jesse Eisenberg also proves to be having one of the best breakout years with this and Adventureland.

17. Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos) – Pedro Almodóvar, Spain

Pedro Almodóvar’s beautifully filmed psychodrama/soap opera was one the most interesting films I’ve seen all year. This is the first of Almodóvar’s features I have seen, and after watching this strange Wells-ian structured mystery of Fidelity, film making, and murder, I can surely say that it won’t be my last. The story follows a blind writer who calls himself Harry Caine, but tells us that he was once Mateo Blanco, a famous filmmaker in the 80s.  But once a mysterious director, who refers to himself as Ray X, appears to ask Caien to write a screenplay for him, a mystery develops about Caine’s past and the woman he once loved (played by Penélope Cruz).

16. Goodbye Solo – Ramin Bahrani, USA

A film that proves American Independent Cinema is producing better and richer dramas than the endless Hollywood clunkers that end up getting nominated for Academy awards year after year. The simple story of a relationship between a Senegalese cab driver named Solo and a man named William, who offers Solo a thousand dollars to take him to Blowing Rocks for mysterious reasons. The film is a human drama that is able to make the audience care about the characters without the use of overly dramatic music or long over written monologues. Its a great film and Souleymane Sy Savane, who plays Solo, gives one of the best performances of the year.

15. Of Time and the City – Terence Davies, UK

A portrait of not only Liverpool, the city of which the director was born, but also a portrait of the director himself. The film has been categorized as a documentary but never does the film feel that way at all. Its far more poetic and personal. Davies narrates during the journey as we are shown religious imagery, British architecture, and archival footage. Not unlike Su Friedrich’s fantastic Skin or Swim, Davies uses this images to tell a personal story about his own  sexual discovery and loss of faith while alluding to T. S. Elliot and Emily Dickinson.

14. District 9 – Neill Blomkamp, South Africa/New Zealand

District 9 joins Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Richard Linklater’s under appreciated A Scanner Darkly as one of the best science fiction films of the decade.  Exploring the notion of how our planet would treat extraterrestrial beings, Blomkamp’s film turns the idea of a martian invasion, shown in films like Independence Day, on it’s head as we are portrayed as the antagonizing figures. The film, shot in a gritty documentary style, shows the aliens, described as “prawn,” brutally treated and forced into slums and treated as second hand citizens. It’s quiet phenomenal watching how the film captures xenophobia and poverty so well through the treatment of the prawns.  The film is a smart science fiction film that worthy of attention.

13. Coraline – Henry Selick, USA

The best animated film of the year. Based on the book by Neil Gaiman, Henry Selick’s masterpiece is a worthy return to form for the director, his last full length feature being the atrocious Monkeybone, is as good as his two best films The Nightmare Before Christmas and his underrated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach.  The is the height of stop motion animation and easily one of the scariest animated films ever made. While Up will most likely get the Oscar, critic awards, and a place on almost every top ten list everywhere, I still have faith that Coraline will be viewed as the better film in retrospect.

12. The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow, USA

The easily the best reviewed American Film of the year and my prediction for the Best Picture Oscar. I’ve wrote extensively on why this is great movie and believe it to be one of the best war films of the decade. Then why not in the top ten? There were just 11 films I liked a bit more than this one. Maybe in the future I’ll re-evaluate this film and may come to the consensuses that almost every other critic has come to, being that its a stable in most top 5 lists; but till then, I can place it higher than 12.

11. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – Werner Herzog, USA

This should probably be more tied for tenth place rather than an eleventh spot, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still one of the best films I’ve seen all year and easily the most entertaining. I’ve already written a huge essay on this film, so I’ll keep it short. It’s my favorite of Werner Herzog’s recent American films, its the best performance Nic Cage has given since his fantastic performances in Adaptation and Matchstick Men, and it has psychedelic iguanas. Whats not to love?

10. Big Fan – Robert Siegel, USA

Here’s an American film that no one talked about. Robert Siegal, after writing the script to one of my favorite films last year, makes his directorial debut in this dark tragedy…or maybe even comedy.  The film’s protagonist, Paul Aufiero (played by Patton Oswald in one of the most overlooked performances of the decade) is a die hard Giants fan who’s life is turned upside d0wn after he is involved in an altercation with his favorite Giants player, linebacker Quantrell Bishop. The film is great character study and, speaking as die hard football fan myself, captures sports fandom perfectly (though I’m a Dallas Cowboy fan, I still enjoyed it). It’s brilliant and sadly was overlooked by almost everyone this year.

9. The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band) – Michael Haneke, Germany/Austria/France

Haneke’s newest film, unlike Siegel’s Big Fan, was far from overlooked. Winning the prestigious Golden Palm, its one of the most haunting films I’ve seen all decade. Beautiful shot in black and white, the film takes place in post WWI Germany as mysterious happenings take place in little village: first the village doctor suffers an accident when he and his horse trip over an thin wire and second when brutal beatings are given out to several of the young children. The cause behind this isn’t really the director’s aim; Instead Haneke follows the lives of the town’s citizens and focuses on the chilling atmosphere. The film’s exploration of child abuse and nature of evil is fascinating and will surely leave many viewers cold. While I did feel this way after my first feeling, the film has not left my mind since. it’s thought provoking and every time I think about, the better and scarier the film gets. This is a masterpiece.

8. Drag Me To Hell – Sam Raimi, USA

The best horror film of the year and the return to form for director Sam Raimi. I’ve already talked about why I love this film and believe that it still hasn’t picked up it’s audience yet despite it’s phenomenal reviews. It’s also a reminder that Raimi is a master in the genre, creating silly, absurdist horror films that are still able to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

7. The Headless Woman (La Mujer Sin Cabeza) – Lucrecia Martel, Argentina

It’s been a while since I’ve come across a film that has been referred to as either “pretentious,” “boring,” “dull,” and “underwhelming,” or one of the “masterpieces” of the year. I obviously belong in the ladder. Martel channels the late great Michelangelo Antonioni as she presents us with a slow, brooding mystery and critique of the bourgeoisie. The premise is simple:  A woman runs over something and keeps going. From then on, we witness the woman, played in a fabulous performance by María Onetto, struggling to figure out what it was she ran over, a dog? or maybe even child? The film portrays the characters in a daze throughout the film, as if shes sleepwalking through her own life, and Martel tests her audience’s patience and film’s it that way. While it might not sound fun to sit through, it’s an experience I treasured this year.

6. Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino, USA

A timeless masterpiece or an offensive childish view on one of the biggest moments in history? Maybe a bit of both, but time will tell if it truly lasts. For now though, I’ll say its more of the former. Tarantino’s revisionist WWII film will probably not have changed many minds of his detractors, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t the director’s greatest achievement this decade.

5. Thirst (Bak-Jwi) – Park Chan-wook, South Korea

One of my favorite directors today delivers one of his greatest films. Since becoming fan favorite at Cannes with his masterful Oldboy, Park Chan-wook has been one of the most consistently brilliant and experimental directors of the decade. His newest film Thirst maybe the director’s most ambitious film to date. After finishing what might be his critically acclaimed vengeance trilogy, Park sets his eyes on exploring the recent vampire resurgence and creating a mature and bizarre film, taking from many different works and styles of narrative to tell the story from slapstick comedy to Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The film takes a lot of plot turns, which left some critics complaining, but I was always in a perpetual state of excitement. Song Kang-ho delivers another good performance (as he did n many of Park’s other films as well as Bong Joon-ho’s great creature film Host) and Kim Ok-bin redefines the femme fatale role in her sexy performance. Like my favorite film last year, the Swedish horror masterpiece Let the Right One In, vampire films aren’t just for Twilight fans.

4. Limits of Control – Jim Jarmusch, USA

I’m not sure if anyone liked this film when it came out, and question if anyone has changed their position on it yet. But I think it’s one of Jarmusch’s best films ever. A hitman film where action is almost nonexistent and it’s characters are basically stripped down to the most basic form of their archetypes, as well as a celebration to art. Shot by Christopher Doyle, who deserves an Academy Award for cinematography this year, Jarmusch continues his streak of underrated films (starting with his brilliant and quirky serious of shorts in Coffee and Cigarettes and then with his brilliant deadpan drama Broken Flowers). The film also features a short but great performance by the one and only Bill Murray.

3. Mother (Madeo) – Bong Joon-ho, South Korea

South Korea’s two best auteurs both released films at the Cannes film festival this year and  both ended up in my top ten: Pank Chan-wook’s Thirst and Bong Joon-ho’s Mother. But it was Mother, Bong’s follow up to his great creature film Host, that will be the country’s submission for the Academy Awards for the foreign film nominee and it also happens to be the better of the two films. Like Host, the film is both a devastating drama and at times a quirky comedy. The film is about a mother whose trying to help her mentally retarded son get out of prison after he was linked to the murder of a random school girl. Kim-Hye-ja gives my favorite performance of the year as the mother and the film is one of the great modern murder mysteries.

2. The Prophet (Un Prophete) – Jacques Audiard, France/Italy

Not since the Godfather II has a gangster film excited me so much. Gritty, realistic, haunting, psychological and intense; this is truly one of the great film experiences of the year. Audiard’s crime thriller takes place mostly in prison where a the main character, Malik El Djebena, has been sentenced to six years. While imprisoned, Malik falls with a group of Corsicans, led by the vicious César Luciani. The film follows how Malick makes his way up and journey is incredible. The film doesn’t get a US release until next month, nd I urge everyone to catch it.

1. A Serious Man – Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA/UK/France

After watching the Coen Brothers’ masterful A Serious Man, I felt cold. I knew I either watched another one of their masterpieces or their worst film. The film had such an effect on me, I kept thinking about it for almost a week straight. After a second viewing, I knew, this was the best film this year, and maybe the best film they have ever made. Written off by some as just another one of the Brother’s wacky dark comedies, I believe there’s more going on in a single frame of A Serious Man than 99 percent of films this year. The film, which has been called a 60s’ interpretation of the Book of Job, portrays one of the most devastating depictions of  a man struggling to keep his faith, as well as one of the funniest. While I admitted in my original review that I didn’t really find as much humor in the protagonist’s, Larry Gopnik, suffering, it’s sort of grew on me as did the incredible dialogue expected from the Coens. It’s my favorite film of theirs this decade, which is saying a lot since they did No Country for Old Men, and is my pick for the best movie this year.

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4 Responses to “Best of 2009 – Top 25 Films”

  1. Great great list. Nice to see you putting things aside from the usual stuff.

    I’ve seen most of these films, but haven’t seen HOUSE OF THE DEVIL which I now want to check out thanks to you.

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks Indie Genius, its always great to get positive feedback. House of the Devil is also one of great gems of the decade. An independent film that is deserving of a cult following and I hope it gets one. Thanks for the comment and hope I hear from you again.

  2. Yes, I do agree that HOUSE OF THE DEVIL is one of the great horror films of recent years, and a deserved inclusion on this Top 25.

    But what a great list here, and one that I’m sorry I came to this late. I’ve long known of your affinity for A SERIOUS MAN, which is perhaps the most philosophically profound of all the Coen brothers films (coming as it did after two off-Broadway shows written by Ethan that broached some of the issues on display in the film) and one that stands at the first-rank of their distinguished career. You exhibit terrific taste throughout this list, and I only would question THIRST, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL and THE HEADLESS WOMAN, which are films I have spoken against, and then there’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, where I just about stand alone on. Well not exactly, but I’m in the extreme minority. I still have not seen the Korean film MOTHER, but your capsule sure makes it appealing.
    And I really cannot wait to see THE PROPHET, as I have always been a big fan of Audiard and know of the film’s excellent critical reception. Was thrilled to see DISTRICT 9, OF TIME AND THE CITY and UP on the list.

    I was a bit surprised that you didn’t have BRIGHT STAR, AVATAR, 35 SHOTS OF RUM, SUMMER HOURS, A SINGLE MAN and POLICE DETECTIVE, but maybe you haven’t gotten to these yet.

    But this is a wonderful and insightful Top 25.

  3. While all those films were high on my list to watch, I never got a chance to watch any of them. I will however get around to watching Bright Star (if I remember correctly it was your number 1 pick of 2009) and reviewing the film by the end of the month. I already left my comment about Basterds at WondersintheDark when you reviewed it, but I wanted to take a little bit of time to discuss the other three films you mentioned because they aren’t the most critically acclaimed films: Thirst was a film I’m sad to see it hasn’t picked up an audience here in the states like some of Park’s other great achievements (like his critically acclaimed Vengeance trilogy). But I think the film is a near masterpiece by one of my favorite directors working today, Park Chan-wook. The Headless Woman is a film that I thought was misunderstood by many American critics. A great throwback to the great classic European art house films by great auteurs like Luis Buñuel and Jean Renoir who loved to scrutinize the bourgeoisie. The film, along with Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, is much like the great Michelangelo Antonioni’s existential mysteries of the 60s like L’avventura or Blowup. The Limits of Control, however, is harder convince. It’s slow, not much happens in it’s 116 minute run time, and the film has probably some of the worst reviews this year. But man did I love the film. It’s been a while since I watched a film that truly celebrated art, and for me that what the Limits of Control is (not an assassin film like it was marketed as).
    I also wanted to congratulate you and the staff at WondersintheDark for the Kreativ awards and here are my top ten most creative films:

    – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
    – Rope (1948)
    – Rashomon (1950)
    – Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
    – Made in U.S.A. (1966)
    – A Clockwork Orange (1972)
    – Eraserhead (1977)
    – The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989)
    – My Own Private Idaho (1991)
    – Naked Lunch (1991)

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