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10 Best Films of 2009 (1st Half Edition)

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The movie year has reached the halfway mark -- which, in terms of the Oscar and most critics' year-end 10-best lists, means it hasn't even started.

But I always find it instructive to use July 1 to ask this question: If the movie year were to end right now -- like the baseball season of 1994 -- what would be on my top-10 list?

Or, ignoring that hypothetical, another question: How many of the films on a top-10 list for the year's first half will survive to make it to year-end lists? Or receive Oscar nominations -- even in a year when the Academy has made the chuckleheaded decision to water down the best-picture category by expanding to 10 nominees?

So here's my list -- the best films of the first half of 2009:

10. Watchmen: Derided by any number of critics who simply could not plug in to director Zack Snyder's rich visual approach, this comic-book movie masterfully adapted a tricky, digressive graphic novel into a dark, provocative viewing experience that told a rich story about the nature of and need for heroes.

9. The Hangover: A great movie? No -- but absolutely the funniest film of the year's first half. This is how you make a raunchily hilarious movie -- by crossing the line. And then crossing another one. And another. Special kudos to Ed Helms for huge comedic balls and a killer lack of vanity.

8. Anvil! The Story of Anvil: There are serious nonfiction films that choke you up. But this one, a portrait of a not-quite-has-been heavy metal band whose leaders fruitlessly pursued stardom for decades, not only made you laugh but had you rooting for them to finally catch a break. Which they did, thanks to the efforts of this affectionate film.

7. Departures: Oscar-winner as best foreign film, this affecting Japanese film looked at the creative impulse from an unusual angle: that of a former cellist, forced to take a job with an undertaker that becomes as artistically fulfilling as playing music. Beautifully shot and scored, it blended humor with deep emotion in unexpected ways.

6. Two Lovers: Director James Grey used Joaquin Phoenix in a new way, drawing a layered and moving performance from him as a man torn between two women. The set-up seemed familiar but Grey infused it with more raw emotion than seemed possible, with Phoenix gripping as an emotionally unstable guy who puts the nice, available girl on hold to pursue the unattainable one (Gwyneth Paltrow).

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