It was quite easy to come up with a list of 50 movies from 2009 that I could highly recommend. That's the good news, and a refutation of those who complained that it was a bum cinematic year. I suspect those who gripe simply haven't been looking very hard, or consider only big studio product in their gloomy assessment. And that's the bad news: if you want something more from the movies than industrial product, you can pretty much write off Hollywood. To my astonishment, out of the 50 movies I liked best this year, only five (or six if you count District 9, a Sony pickup of a New Zealand film made in South Africa) can be counted as major studio films. And of those five, two were animated, and a third, Avatar, was a hybrid of animation and live action. I fear this is no anomaly but the wave of the future, as the corporate arbiters of big-budget filmmaking consider creative risk an affront to their stockholders.
These are strange times indeed, when the $350 million Avatar dukes it out with the $15,000 Paranormal Activity for box-office domination. The unprecedented profit margin of that shoestring production, however, is not quite the grassroots Internet phenomenon the press would have you believe: the Paramount marketing department found itself with lots of time on its hands when the studio canceled the year-end release of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, and put its might behind this little horror film. It's yet further proof that marketing, not moviemaking, is the true art form of 21st-century Hollywood.
Here are the movies and performances that lit up an overcast year. Instead of a top 10 in each category, I've made it a dozen—there was a lot to celebrate.
1. The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow's nail-bitingly intense Iraq War movie works on multiple levels: it's at once a smashing action film, an astute study of warrior psychology, a tribute to the courage of the men who risk their lives working on bomb-detonation squads, and a cautionary tale about a man's addiction to danger. War, for Jeremy Renner's adrenaline-hooked hero, is the ultimate drug. Bigelow has always been a superb director of action; here she surpasses herself.
2. Summer Hours
The death of the family matriarch—played by the wonderful Edith Scob—sets off a familial tug of war over the rare spoils of her beautiful country home. Olivier Assayas's luminous, elegiac film conjures up a subtle Chekhovian mood while contemplating a new world order of globalist economics, shattered traditions, and far-flung families. The movie raises big questions, but never raises its quietly observant voice.
3. Up in the Air
George Clooney gives his finest performance as a man whose dream is to be perpetually in motion, with no emotional commitments to tie him down. This sharp, funny, bittersweet Jason Reitman dramedy couldn't be more timely—Clooney makes his living firing people—but it's got the makings of a timeless Hollywood not-so-romantic comedy.
4. In the Loop
The leadup to a war suspiciously like Bush's war in Iraq is the background of this scurrilously funny English satire, which skewers politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. The hilariously foul-mouthed Peter Capaldi and James Gandolfini as an American general lead a superb ensemble in director Armando Iannucci's first film, a comedy with very sharp teeth.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson reinvents himself as a stop-motion-animation director, making his first mass-market movie without losing any of his idiosyncratic sensibility. Witty, touching, and original, this adaptation of a Roald Dahl children's book (co-written by Anderson and Noah Baumbach) has the feel of an instant classic family film.
It's another unlikely Pixar premise turned into another wondrous Pixar triumph. A widower, an Asian-American Boy Scout, a flying house, a hilarious bird, and an aviator turned evil emperor are the oddball ingredients of this uplifting, funny, and touching ode to the fulfillment of old dreams.
A singular French movie about a singular artist—the early-20th-century "neo-primitivist" painter Séraphine Louis, a poor housekeeper who secretly created magical visions of nature, was championed by a wealthy art patron, and descended into madness. Yolande Moreau's performance is both heartbreaking and scary. Martin Provost directed this revelatory movie, which swept the César Awards in France.
8. Rudo y Cursi
Y Tu Mamá También's Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna reteam in Carlos Cuarón's enormously entertaining saga of two hicks from the Mexican provinces who rise to fame as soccer stars and see it all slip away. A movie about brothers and broken dreams, this quick-on-its-feet satire never reached the audience it deserved.
James Cameron knows better than anyone that special effects and the latest breakthroughs in movie technology are meant to serve the story, not the other way around. This spectacular 3-D futuristic adventure tale transports you to a planet where the natives are threatened by rapacious American capitalist warmongers, and gets you firmly on the side of its gigantic blue aliens. It's an oft-told tale, but in Cameron's expert hands the oldest movie tropes seem newly imagined. It's the movie-movie of the year.
10. An Education
"Irresistible" and "sophisticated" describe both Carey Mulligan's precocious teenage schoolgirl and director Lone Scherfig's coming-of-age drama, set in early-'60s England, in which the smart heroine throws away her schoolbooks in favor of a whirlwind affair with a much older man of the world, wonderfully played by Peter Sarsgaard. Nick Hornby's wise screenplay imbues every character with fascinating moral ambiguities, giving the terrific cast plenty to chew on.
Set on the vast, harsh, empty steppes of Kazakhstan, this astonishing movie, cast with actors who lived as nomadic sheepherders and an unforgettable menagerie of animals, tells of a young shepherd who longs to marry the region's only available single woman, Tulpan. The gifted, dedicated director, Sergei Dvortsevoy, creates images and events that blur the line between fiction and documentary, and blow your mind with their "how did they film that?" audacity.
12. Sin Nombre
The impressive debut of 31-year-old American writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga, the Spanish-language Sin Nombre, filmed in Mexico with a cast of non-pros, follows a young gang member who tries to flee La Mara after the murder of his girlfriend, joining a Honduran family making its way north toward the U.S. atop the trains that carry illegal immigrants willing to risk their lives to cross the border. Constructed as a thriller, but informed with documentary detail, this stunningly shot indie is the work of a natural-born filmmaker.
Best Nonfiction Films
1. The Beaches of Agnès
2. Anvil! The Story of Anvil
3. Unmistaken Child
4. The Garden
5. Of Time and the City
7. The Cove
8. Prodigal Sons
9. The English Surgeon
10. Food, Inc.
And a special mention to Spike Lee's inspired movie of the Broadway musical Passing Strange, which doesn't quite fit either the documentary or the original-narrative category.
1. Yolande Moreau (Séraphine)
2. Catalina Saavedra (The Maid)
3. Tilda Swinton (Julia)
4. Carey Mulligan (An Education)
5. Helen Mirren (The Last Station)
6. Meryl Streep (Julie and Julia)
7. Charlotte Gainsbourg (Anti-Christ)
8. Gwyneth Paltrow (Two Lovers)
9. Nisreen Faour (Amreeka)
10. Gabourey Sidibe (Precious)
11. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)
12. Abbie Cornish (Bright Star)
1. Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
2. Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)
3. Colin Firth (A Single Man)
4. Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer)
5. George Clooney (Up in the Air/Fantastic Mr. Fox)
6. Nicolas Cage (The Bad Lieutenant)
7. Michael Sheen (The Damned United)
8. Ben Foster (The Messenger)
9. Adam Scott (The Vicious Kind)
10. Morgan Freeman (Invictus)
11. Souleymane Sy Savane (Goodbye Solo)
12. Matt Damon (The Informant!)
Best Supporting Actress
1. Samantha Morton (The Messenger)
2. Edith Scob (Summer Hours)
3. Mo'Nique (Precious)
4. Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air)
5. Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air)
6. Jane Lynch (Julie and Julia)
7. Vinessa Shaw (Two Lovers)
8. Mariah Carey (Precious)
9. Rosamund Pike (An Education)
10. Mimi Kennedy (In the Loop)
11. Pell James (Surveillance)
12. Catherine Keener (The Soloist)
Best Supporting Actor
1. Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles)
2. Peter Capaldi (In the Loop)
3. Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)
4. Peter Sarsgaard (An Education)
5. Jason Bateman (State of Play)
6. Woody Harrelson (The Messenger)
7. Guillermo Francella (Rudo y Cursi)
8. Joshua Leonard (Humpday)
9. Stanley Tucci (Julie and Julia/The Lovely Bones)
10. Christopher Plummer (The Last Station)
11. Frank Wood (The Missing Person)
12. Paul Schneider (Bright Star)