What to say about film in 2009? It was clearly a transitional and scary year for independents and biggies alike, with an uncertain theatrical future leading to (exciting? underwhelming?) developments in film availability online and on demand and via your computer. Some of the stories that we clung to this year echoed that uncertainty, from Precious to Up in the Air. Other stories, like this summer's Transformers 2, simply blew stuff up. And then there's Avatar... already #21 in IMDB's top 250.
The films we wanted to highlight in our Movies We Love piece are not necessarily the "best" or buzziest of the year; those lists, after a while, all start to sound the same. We wanted to focus on the films that touched us, moved us, and maybe changed the way we saw the world for a little while. Movies are a powerful art form and our picks—Amreeka, Big Fan, Disgrace, Hunger, In the Loop, Medicine for Melancholy, Moon, Racing Dreams, Two Lovers, Whip It!—are all films that are worth seeking out.
(A shout out to Entre Nos, Bright Star, Adventureland, and The Road—all films that didn't quite make this list due to technicalities like distribution or assumptions about whether they'll be mentioned in year-end awards or not. What do they have in common? They're all films that are worth seeing.)
Dir. Cherien Dabis
Newcomer Cherien Dabis found her way onto more than one “directors to watch” lists in 2009, starting with the Sundance premiere of her debut feature, Amreeka. In the touching and timely film, a Palestinian mother and son find their way to the US, only to face an uphill battle in their search for the American dream. It may sound clichéd, but Dabis’ story is anything but—rather, it’s refreshing, honest, funny, and very slice-of-life. Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour has the maternal warmth and lush loveliness to make us want to see her again and again, and we are also big fans of her elegant costar Hiam Abbass, whom you’ll recognize from The Visitor, one of our Movies We Love from 2008. An indie success story, Amreeka continues to make its way to theaters across the country, and will also be on DVD January 12. —Kristin McCracken
Read more: Chasing the American Dream: Amreeka—January 13
Dir. Robert D. Siegel
Sometimes powerful performances come in the most unlikely of packages, and such was the case with Patton Oswalt’s turn in Big Fan. The directorial debut of Robert Siegel, who also wrote last year’s The Wrestler, Big Fan is a small film that seethes with quiet desperation and rabid fandom, which will feel familiar to anyone who really, really, I mean really likes a team, a musician, a movie franchise (Star Trek, anyone?)—you name it. It’s not a football movie, but there is certainly football involved, as Oswalt’s Paul Aufiero from Staten Island (great, realistic name, par for the movie) and his equally-loneresque buddy (played by indie favorite Kevin Corrigan, aka “the ugly guy” from Walking and Talking) eat, drink, and sleep the New York Giants. When a chance meeting with their idol goes horribly wrong, the two are caught in a downward spiral that will break your heart. Rounded out by a fantastic cast of mostly unknowns, Big Fan can still be found in theaters as it continues its slow-but-steady national rollout, but it will also be out on DVD January 12. —Kristin McCracken
Read more: Tragicomedy: Big Fan—August 24
Dir. Steve McQueen
Speeding onto the list of "Great Films that are Harrowing Experiences to Watch and I Probably Can't Do it Again," Steve McQueen's Cannes-friendly debut hit American shores properly in 2009 thanks to IFC. The incredible Michael Fassbender stars (who is hale and hearty in Inglourious Basterds, happily) as Bobby Sands, the IRA member who led the prisoners' hunger strike in 1981 Ireland. McQueen, a Turner Prize-winning British visual artist, has a knack with visuals, and there are loads of horrifying, stunning scenes in this film: a prison guard smoking against a wall, snow falling on the ground, a man smearing his shit on the walls, the visual rot of Sands' body as he achieves some sort of peace in death. A film that turns human strife into something like poetry. Hunger will be available on DVD through the Criterion Collection on Feburary 16, 2010.—Elisabeth Donnelly
Read more: Hunger Strike—March 18
Dir. Armando Iannucci
You know how the Eskimos have 40 words for snow? In the world of In the Loop, there are over 40 different and ever more colorful ways to say "f*** off!" A joy to watch, and you can get the DVD on January 12, Iannucci's feature-length variation on his BBC series The Thick of It is a word-mad rush to war. With an ensemble cast (including My Girl's Anna Chlumsky) led ably by the angry sexy Scotsman Peter Capaldi as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, the film follows bumbling British politicos as they're used as pawns for America's hawk agendas. The script is particularly brilliant, with the charge coming from the pleasure of watching people play around with words, words, words as they verbally eviscerate each other. Yet the screwball comedy set-up, the barrage of insults and one-liners, hide the scathing message at the heart of this merciless, truly-black hearted satire (one of the few films deserving of the word "satire")—that through forces of ego and one-upmanship, these horrible, well-meaning idiots have just authorized a war that will kill thousands of innocent people, civilians and soldiers alike. In the Loop is a work of genius, and if we weren't living in such idiotic times, it would be mentioned in the same breath as Dr. Strangelove. As it should be. —Elisabeth Donnelly
Read more: The War of the Words: In the Loop—July 20