Better Late Than Never: The Best Movies of 2009

Pardon the obvious tardiness, but as often occurs, life got in the way. So, no more procrastination, here are my favorite films of the just finished year, in alphabetical order, with my very favorite pick singled out at the end. And away we go...

James Cameron wasn't lying. The hype was real. It may very well be a game-changer. The 3D effects were completely immersive. The special effects and motion capture performances were seamless. The film did become a phenomenon, becoming the second-biggest grossing film of all time, just behind James Cameron's Titanic. It wowed and touched audiences all around the world. James Cameron promised the moon and delivered in spades. It may not be the most original story ever told, and I have no idea how it will age, for now Avatar is a terrifically exciting and compelling journey to another world, as well as a (not-subtle) political parable and a slam-bang action flick.

Coraline 3D
If Avatar is a new benchmark in live-action 3D technology, then Henry Selick's Coraline can stand alongside it as the high-water mark in animated 3D effects. Aside from being a deliciously scary children's fable, Selick's adaption of Neil Gaiman's novel is a true wonderland of impossible sights and astounding visuals, made absolutely real by the 3D effect. I have never felt more 'inside' a movie, and I have never seen a film that felt more like a dream or a hallucination. The world of Coraline is absolutely intoxicating and unlike anything I have ever experienced. Oh yeah, and it's also the best stop-motion animation film ever made.

Food Inc.
Robert Kenner's occasionally humorous and often terrifying look into the industrialized food industry is the year's best documentary. It's an angry call to arms for consumers to make smarter choices in what they put into their stomachs, as well as a sober reflection that superior technology has somehow made our food less safe and less healthy. Like the best food, it's delicious as well as nutritious. Now you know, and as they say, and knowing is half the battle.

The Hangover
This insanely popular R-rated comedy succeeds as much for what it doesn't contain (overt vulgarity, misogynist humor, gay-panic jokes, endless improv riffs) as for what it does contain (solid actors playing real characters, a genuinely compelling mystery, a truly plausible comic narrative). It's a wonderfully funny comic-thriller that works because director Todd Phillips and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore concentrated on making a good film first and a funny movie second. So instead of a bunch of gags that happen to be contained within a feature film, we get a wonderful movie that happens to be very, very funny.

The Hurt Locker
Countless others have already spent countless words fawning over Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq bomb-squad thriller. So, let me just say that it's the most intense movie of the year, and it comes out on DVD on January 12th. Judging by its puny box office, you probably didn't see it. Don't make the same mistake twice. If Kathryn Bigelow makes Oscar history in February, wouldn't you like to be able to say that you know why?

I Love You Man
This is one of the best romantic comedies ever made. Paul Rudd, Rashida Jones, and Jason Segal all shine in this delightfully upbeat mediation on bromance, romance, and just-plain friendship. Not only does it hilariously detail the similarities between adult friendship and adult romance, it also dares to be a story without villains and without romantic comedy cliches. There are no third-act misunderstandings. There are no devious suitors that must be defeated and no childhood traumas that need to be overcome. Three cheers for not turning Jones (Rudd's fiancee) into a villain, and four cheers for making everyone genuinely likable. This is just a wonderfully funny and insightful movie about good things happening to good people.

The Informant!
Just as Nicole Kidman was wrongly nominated for Moulin Rouge instead of The Others in 2001, there stands a chance that Matt Damon will receive Oscar love for his merely-ok turn in Invictus and not this wonderful comic creation, easily his best turn since The Talented Mr. Ripley. Based on a story so insane that it has to be true, this Steven Soderbergh triumph gives Damon his best role to date, as a seemingly overeager corporate whistle-blower. The movie isn't exactly lovable, but it's a twisty and laugh-out-loud funny portrait of a most complicated individual. And three cheers to Soderbergh for casting Clancy Brown, Thomas F. Wilson, Scott Bakula, Tony Hale, and voice-over god Frank Welker in what I believe is his first live-action film appearance ever.

Observe and Report
A film of its time, this one may just be this generation's Taxi Driver. This pitch-black portrait of a clueless, obsessive, violent, and possibly psychotic mall cop is both bitterly humorous and brutally honest, an acting tour-de-force from Seth Rogen. Anna Faris also scores as a somewhat more realistic version of that unattainable dream girl, and writer/director Jody Hill crafts a sobering character study of a distinctly American kind of loser. Many audiences and critics were turned off, not knowing full-well what they were getting into despite an honest trailer. Don't expect Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Expect something kinda brilliant.

State of Play
A top-notch example of a forgotten genre, this star-studded potboiler is wonderful adult entertainment. With great work from Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman, Helen Mirren, and more, this political journalism thriller is whip-smart, unveiling its twists and turns at just the right pace, so the film actually makes more sense as each layer is peeled back. It's not art, but it's a beautiful reminder of the sheer joy of quality craftsmanship. And is there any movie that Jason Bateman can't steal?

Up in the Air
I don't think Jason Reitman's drama is particularly groundbreaking, and I'm not sure it tries to say anything that hasn't been said many times before. But it's a top-notch motion picture, with razor-sharp dialogue, rich character-development, and terrific performances all-around. In an age where Tyler Perry and Clint Eastwood are the only directors who make mid-budget dramas, movies like this are to be treasured for their existence and for their quality. It's just a darn good movie, and sometimes that's enough.

Whip It
Arguably the best 'chick flick' of the year, Drew Barrymore makes a directorial debut that stands alongside Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone and Tom Hanks's That Thing You Do. This insanely fun confection, about with a young girl's discovery of a female roller derby league, is both light as a feather and painfully honest about the very real cost of 'going for your dreams'. While the story is relatively well-worn, the characters are all sharply-written, the atmosphere is authentic, and no one has the monopoly on morality at any point in time. It gets bonus points for the most down-to-Earth romantic subplot of the year. This is just top-notch mainstream entertainment. Its box office failure was the most painful and unfair of the year. It comes out on DVD and Blu Ray on January 26th, so do redeem yourself and check it out.

This one snuck up on everybody, but it may just the finest zombie film ever made, as well as one of the funniest horror films of all-time. Star Jesse Eisenberg makes a smashing mainstream debut, having previously been hidden in indie-land (Adventureland, The Education of Charlie Banks, etc) and Woody Harrelson steals the picture with a performance every bit as movie-star great as Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean and Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man. By keeping the focus on the characters' upended lives and creating a surprisingly plausible post-apocalyptic dead zone, director Rueben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have crafted a horror comedy that is actually scarier and more moving than most conventional horror tales. This is wonderful mainstream pop-entertainment that through sheer force of quality becomes a work of art.

And the best film of the year... it was an easy call.

The first time I saw up, I was swept up in the sentimental emotional journey of the bitter widower and his seemingly suicidal quest to die on the far-away land that he and his wife dreamed of vacationing. But on the second viewing, I was able to truly appreciate the utterly bizarre and genuinely twisted world that Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy have created. But make no mistake, this is a stunningly powerful experience no matter how many times you've seen it. It's a heart-wrenching and heart-warming journey into the five stages of grief. I can't decide if this is Pixar's best film or not, as I rather love Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles as well. But Up was easily the best, most compelling, and most emotionally powerful cinematic experience I had all year.

And that's a wrap for this year, folks. For my picks for worst of the year, the runner-ups of 2009, and the year's best trailer (one that ruined the movie for me in an unusual way), check out Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson