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Top Ten Greatest Films of 2009

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It's that time of year again, the time when film critics and aficionados remind you of those great films in the past year - most of which you've missed - thus adding to your sense that you aren't living life fully.

Here are my criteria for inclusion:

  • Good things and bad thing happen in the film - just like in life.
  • They're about relationships.
  • They are engaging visually, thematically, morally, and in terms of plot and character.
  • They are soul-enhancing (no downers here - like Antichrist).
  • They were released in 2009 or 2008, but screened in New York in 2009. In any case, these films aren't likely to be playing in your Cineplex, so you'll have to rent DVDs of them anyway.
  • Oh, and I only include American-European films - I can't claim to do justice to Middle Eastern, Asian, African cinema - so why try?

Here are the top 10 movies of 2009.

10. Uncertainty. A film by the duo of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, directors of The Deep End (2001) (a Tilda Swinton vehicle that remade Max Ophul's 1949 The Reckless Moment- you missed those two also?) about two completely distinct story lines with the same lovers, one a chase movie, the other a family reunion.

9. Broken Embraces. Unlike some of Almodovar's past work, this one presents a (largely) linear story line, involving sex, greed, family, love, and work - and two beautiful bare-breasted women (one of them Penelope Cruz). That's enough to keep your attention, don't you think?

8. Lion's Den (Argentina, 2008). A film about a woman from a society background with problems - big problems - and yet who seeks and finds human warmth and love. Although it has standard prison fare (e.g., lesbian love, punishment and redemption), it is more - much more - than the sum of its parts.

7. Summer Hours. About three siblings - their lives and their connections to one another - as they sort through their mother's estate. Oh, and it has Juliette Binoche, and traipses you through beautiful parts of the French countryside and Parisian interiors.

6. Amreeka. An immigrant story - okay, it's got its heart-warming elements. But it is also harrowing and true to life.

5. A Woman in Berlin. You want harrowing? And even the main, harrowed character is not above reproach. But the film is human, engrossing, and ultimately shines light on the human spirit - if only to show how much it can successfully endure.

4. Lemon Tree. So I lied - I did include a Middle-Eastern film. The power of the leading character - Hiam Abbass - is overwhelming, and - while not overtly political - you'll never think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the same way after viewing it.

3. Man on Wire. The only documentary on the list, this film depicts the incredible history of Philippe Petit, who in 1974 walked across the World Trade Center towers on a wire. Unbelievable to contemplate even now - right? And the more you learn about the feat, the more incredible it becomes.

2. Goodbye Solo. No, this has nothing to do with Star Wars. Solo is an African immigrant cab driver in North Carolina who, with plenty of issues of his own, takes the risk of caring for an older, closed-off loner. A breathtakingly, mind-bendingly humane film.

1. A Christmas Tale. Worth viewing every holiday season - I mean, haven't we seen It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Story enough?. So you thought your family was dysfunctional? Yet, they love one another - perhaps a little too much and unwisely. And the mother is Catherine Deneuve - who somewhere along the line became a great actress as well as a world-class beauty.

Special mention. Here are two animated movies. I hate animated movies. Except these two. Coraline - a remarkably inventive (visually and emotionally) parallel-universe, neglected-child story; Sita Sings the Blue - incredibly creative, combining Indian mythology, American blues, a personal (failed) love story - overall, a tribute to an individual artistic vision.

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