2009: The Year’s Best Movies

The Register’s film critic recommends last year’s standouts — which include The 13th Day, “the best movie ever made about Fatima,” and Up, “the latest gem from Pixar” — as well as other noteworthy films.

In 2009, humans were the new alien invaders. No fewer than three times, peaceful computer-animated alien civilizations were invaded by human beings, provoking hostilities until an open-minded human astronaut and open-minded members of the alien race connected and began to work together against hostile, close-minded military forces. Two of those films (the ambitious sci-fi actioner Battle for Terra and the modest family flick Planet 51) vanished without a ripple, but the third, Avatar, is well on its way to becoming the biggest-grossing film of all time.

It was a year of quirky, darkly mature childhood fantasy adaptations. Neil Gaiman’s juvenile horror–thriller Coraline, Maurice Sendak’s picture book Where the Wild Things Are and Roald Dahl’s young reader Fantastic Mr. Fox were each made into unique, challenging films in radically different styles by directors Henry Selick, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson, respectively. Not that all family films were dark; Up, Ponyo and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs brought (no less quirky) lighthearted fun to family audiences.

It was a good year for science fiction. Besides the jaw-dropping spectacle of Avatar, there was also the rip-roaring escapist fun of Star Trek, the harsh political allegory of District 9 and the thoughtful minimalism of Moon (as well as, again, Cloudy, which definitely qualifies as sci-fi).

There are still many films I have yet to see, but below, in alphabetical order, are 10 of the films I have seen that I consider most deserving of special recognition, followed by 10 more that are also noteworthy. As always, not all can be recommended to all tastes or viewers, but there’s something here for nearly everyone. All are available on DVD unless otherwise noted.

10 Standouts

Bright Star: “The point of diving in a lake,” explains the Romantic poet John Keats (Ben Wishaw) in Jane Campion’s poetic romance, “is not immediately to swim to the shore — it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. … It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” Plunging into Bright Star, the tale of Keats’ romance with Fanny Brawne is just such an experience.

A bad word and a few sexual references; an out-of-wedlock pregnancy; bloody linens (in connection with tuberculosis). Teens and up.

Crazy Heart: Jeff Bridges thoroughly embodies hard-drinking, once-successful country singer “Bad” Blake in writer-director Scott Cooper’s tale of self-destruction and second chances. Blake plays small gigs, resents the Nashville success of a one-time protégé (Colin Farrell) and romances a pretty small-town reporter and single mom (Maggie Gyllenhaal) with a penchant for making bad decisions about men. Despite Blake’s downward spiral, the door to redemption remains open, but actions have consequences that can’t always be undone.

Recurring obscene, profane and crass language; a couple of brief nonmarital bedroom scenes (no nudity, but one scene is unnecessarily explicit); heavy drinking, drunkenness, vomiting, etc. Mature viewing. Not yet on DVD.

Katyn: Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s devastating drama commemorates the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre in which Stalinist forces systematically murdered thousands of Polish military officers and other POWs, intellectuals and other leading figures, then blamed the crime on the Nazis. A film of extraordinary moral clarity, Katyn is suffused with the national Catholic spirit that sustained Poland through its dark night of the soul.

Explicit scenes of mass murder; archival footage of forensic examination of remains; some language. Subtitled. Might be okay for teens.

Passing Strange: It’s laced with obscenity, profanity, promiscuity and more, but Spike Lee’s film of writer-musician Stew’s riotous Broadway musical is also something else: one of the most philosophically and existentially searching films of the year. Narrated by Stew, the semiautobiographical tale follows a black youth on a picaresque journey of self-discovery, rebelling against his middle-class South-Central L.A. upbringing and dabbling variously in religion, drugs, music, art, hedonism and radicalism. Definitely not for all tastes, but a remarkable document of the quest for authenticity.

Much obscene and profane language; some bawdy musical theater, including brief allusions to homosexual and polyamorous liaisons. Mature viewing; discretion strongly advised.

Summer Hours: French director Olivier Assayas’ familial drama of a matriarch whose three adult children live on different continents is an exquisite meditation on the passage of time and the passing of worlds. Family members go separate ways, pages are turned, and both memory and the things remembered slip through our fingers.

Discussion of a possible scandalous affair in a character’s past; brief recreational drug use and references; references to shoplifting; liberal drinking, including a depiction of a teen party with alcohol. Subtitled. Might be okay for mature teens.

The 13th Day: First-time filmmakers Ian and Dominic Higgins depict the 1917 Marian apparitions and “miracle of the sun” at Fatima in moody, impressionistic images and vignettes distilling the childhood memories of Lucia dos Santos, who recounts the story in flashback while writing her memoirs. Spiritually rich as well as artistically sensitive, it’s the best movie ever made about Fatima.

Fleeting infernal imagery; imprisonment and verbal menacing of children. Fine family viewing.

The Informant! Matt Damon’s whimsical, unglamorous performance highlights Steven Soderbergh’s fact-based dark comedy about international corporate crime, embezzlement and espionage. It’s a striking depiction of the human capacity for self-justification and self-deception and our ability to construct narratives for ourselves in which we are always the hero of our own drama and the victim of our own tragedy.

Limited profane language and a number of obscenities; brief crass remarks and language and a comment about a perverted practice. Should be okay for teens. On DVD Feb. 23.

Tulpan: Set among the yurt-dwelling shepherds of the vast, bleak expanse of Kazakhstan’s Hunger Steppe, Kazakh director Sergey Dvortsevoy’s fictional feature debut is at once an en--grossing ethnographic drama, an ab-surdist deadpan comedy and an unsentimental coming-of-age tale. Less picturesque and uplifting than The Story of the Weeping Camel, it’s also less archetypal and more individually personal.

Repeated glimpses of a character’s nudie pin-up images; an instance of obscenity and a few crass sexual remarks; a couple of explicit animal birthing scenes; images of dead animals. Subtitles. Fine for mature teens.

Up: The latest gem from Pixar, Pete Docter’s charmer is an oddball blend of genres: a bittersweet love story, a high-flying poetic fantasy, a goofy funny-animal cartoon, a cross-generational odd-couple buddy movie, a geriatric swashbuckler, even a burial quest. A flying house becomes an astonishingly potent and fluid metaphor for stages of grief and healing.

Some scenes of menace and peril; an offscreen action death; sober depiction of mortality and grief. Fine family viewing.

Where the Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze reimagines Maurice Sendak’s classic tale of high-spirited rebellion as a meditation on childhood sadness and insecurity in a messy world in which nothing —families, forests, even the sun — lasts forever. It’s a film that knows both a child’s drowning sense of trying to hold together a broken family and also the comfort of a mother’s embrace, a calm center in a storm of uncertainty.

Some frightening moments; a few objectionable phrases. Might be too intense for sensitive youngsters.

Another Noteworthy 10

The following films are not necessarily inferior to the ones above; many, if not all titles, here could easily have been chosen in place of films in the top list: Avatar, James Cameron’s spectacular sci-fi action-fantasy about life on a fantastic jungle planet (teens and up; in theaters); The Class, Laurent Cantet’s engrossing drama of public education in today’s ethnically diverse France (okay for mature teens); Coraline, Henry Selick’s darkly surreal fantasy about a young girl in a magical but sinister alternate world (okay for adventurous kids); District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s caustic and gory but morally resonant sci-fi action film about an alien ghetto in downtown Johannesberg (mature viewing; discretion strongly advised); Earth, Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield’s feature-length distillation of the magisterial “Planet Earth” nature documentary miniseries (fine family viewing); Lorna’s Silence, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s morally charged tale of a young woman in a criminal conspiracy whose moral awakening has unexpected consequences (mature viewing; discretion advised); Moon, Duncan Jones’ engagingly modest sci-fi fable of personal dignity and the commodification of human life (teens and up); Munyurangabo, Lee Isaac Chung’s debut film about post-genocide Rwanda and hope for healing and forgiveness (mature viewing); Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s charmingly childlike, surreal fish-out-of-water tale about a magical sea-girl and a human boy (fine family viewing; on DVD March 2); and Star Trek, J. J. Abrams’ rousingly entertaining reboot of the classic sci-fi franchise (could be okay for mature teens).

More Worth Mentioning

Family: Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs; Disney’s A Christmas Carol; Fantastic Mr. Fox; The Princess and the Frog. Teens and up: Amelia; The Blind Side; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Invictus; My Neighbor, My Killer; The Soloist; The Young Victoria. Mature viewing: Adam; Goodbye Solo; Julie & Julia; 35 Shots of Rum.

For more, including content advisory information for additional films, go to DecentFilms.com.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor

and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.