Top Films of 2009 | Pete Timmermann

film_an-education_sm.gif24-year-old Carey Mulligan as 16-year-old Jenny, the lead in An Education, is one of the best performances of the year.

Rereading my top ten films list for 2008, I complain in the intro that there were a lot of good films, but very few great films. Damn! Do I think that every year? Actually, this year I would say that there are quite a lot of good films, but maybe not a single great film, and a higher than average number of absolutely heinous films (the key offenders in this category are Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Avatar, Nine and The Lovely Bones).

There is also a higher-than-usual number of films I want to see that were 2009 releases, but haven’t had a chance to catch up with yet: The White Ribbon, Broken Embraces, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, Collapse, The Yes Men Fix the World.  That’s seven films right there; how different would this list be if  we had better access to limited release films in St. Louis?

And yes, I did see and quite enjoy Up in the Air. Apparently I didn’t love it quite as much as everyone else in St. Louis did (or the rest of the United States, for that matter); it would land somewhere around the 11-15 range on my list, alongside (in no particular order) Where the Wild Things Are, Still Walking, The Messenger and In the Loop.

The best films of 2009, in order of preference:

1. An Education (Sony Pictures)

While 2009 might have been a subpar year for movies, it was a very good one for performances, and 24-year-old Carey Mulligan as 16-year-old Jenny, the lead in An Education, is one of the best. One of the film’s great tricks is while normally it would feel entirely creepy and unnatural for Jenny and Peter Sarsgaard’s thirtysomething David (also excellent) to be together, the film kind of makes the viewer fall in love with Jenny, too, so David gets a little bit more of a pass than he might otherwise. An out-of-nowhere success from director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners), whose films I’ve never liked before, and writer Nick Hornby (High Fidelity), whom I haven’t liked in quite some time.

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Fox Searchlight)

Easily the most fun film of the year, Wes Anderson’s first foray into feature-length stop motion animation is also the return to form from him that we’ve been looking for, after the failure of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the slightly-above-averageness of The Darjeeling Limited. It’s also his first adaptation of previously existing material (the source being the young reader’s book by Roald Dahl); maybe Anderson should take leaps such as these more often.

3. Up (Pixar Animation Studios)

While nowhere near as good as Wall-E, my favorite film of last year, Up maintains Pixar’s ridiculous reliability. It starts off a little slow and has a weird dearth of female characters (how do those dogs reproduce, anyway?), but the montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage is the single best scene of the year, and quite possibly the single best scene Pixar has ever put on screen, which is not a statement that I take lightly.

4. Adventureland (Miramax Films)

Although Adventureland‘s plot synopsis and marketing campaign makes it sounds alarmingly like director Greg Mottola’s last film, 2007’s Superbad, it is actually one of the best coming of age films to come out in recent memory, and not always as much of a comedy as its distributors might want you to believe. Bonus points for showing that Kristen Stewart (Bella from the Twilight films) can actually act and maybe has a decent career ahead of her (once she can divorce herself from the Bella image, that is), and for finding a great role for the fantastic, underused Martin Starr.

5. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Abramorama)

While it might have seemed reductive of all of those critics that likened Anvil: The Story of Anvil to a real-life This is Spinal Tap, it is also amazingly accurate, if you just add a lot of heart and insight into the mix. One interesting thing both films have in common is that the music the two respective bands make is actually pretty good, which makes Spinal Tap all the more impressive as a fiction film and Anvil all the more moving as a nonfiction film.

6. Taxidermia (Regent Releasing)

No hard feelings if you didn’t see this one; no one did. It hasn’t had one theatrical screening in St. Louis, it is not yet out on DVD, and even the cities that did get a theatrical run this year only barely did. That doesn’t make it any less great: who couldn’t love a film whose main characters (three generations of a single family) include a compulsive masturbator who at one point ejaculates fire and competitive eater who has a vomiting technique named after him?

7. Treeless Mountain (Oscilloscope Pictures)

Like 2004’s great Nobody Knows, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain concerns two children, Jin and Bin, whose parents are absentee, leaving the children to try to fend for themselves. The film is told from their point of view and is actually surprisingly joyful a lot of the time, but the whimsy that it sometimes finds doesn’t keep it from being devastating when it needs to be.

8. Big Fan (First Independent Pictures)

Although Martin Scorsese could practically sue for plagiarism from his 1982 film The King of Comedy, Big Fan finds enough new to say by making its lead a loser sports nut instead of a loser stand-up comedian wannabe. Comedian of Comedy Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero turns in my single favorite male performance of the year; he really sells Aufiero’s happiness with his station in life, and his sort of martyrdom for his favorite team.

9. Ponyo (Walt Disney Pictures)

Like Pixar (who sometimes takes cues from him), Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki can’t seem to hit a false note. Ponyo feels about as slight as any of his films have felt in about 25 years, but it’s still miles above just about everything else you’re likely to see in the movie theatre, which is a testament to how successful and reliable Miyazaki is.

10. A Serious Man (Focus Features)

The Coen brothers have always been good at defying expectations, and A Serious Man is one of their better examples of this tendency. While the story is thoroughly engaging you’d be hard pressed to actually make sense of it all, nor do the Coens presumably want you to. Few others have the sway the Coens do to get a film like this made, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to make it this good.


Pete Timmermann

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