Now that you've read not only one million Best Movies of 2009 lists, but also another million Best Movies of the Decade lists, and are completely over the whole year/decade and Sandra Bullock and $16 3D movies and loving Avatar and hating Avatar and you just want to leave the past behind and go see some cool Australian vampires in Daybreakers, here's what I have to offer you: my dumb top movies list.
I'm bad with making a firm commitment to something as important as a movie list, so this list is not really strictly speaking ranked, though it does flow more or less from my very favorites on down.
A Serious Man
Larry Gopnik fails to understand life's mysteries in the same way other Cohen characters fail to obtain a lot of money or hatch their ambitious schemes: spectacularly. This movie is the funniest meditation on the inescapable and inexplicable miseries of living I've ever seen. Why do bad things happen? Does having a spiritual belief system help us endure life's hardships or does it just set us up for being disappointed by a cryptic and uncaring deity? Is God punishing us for something or are we alone in the universe? Either way, there's nothing we can do about it, so you might as well enjoy the rare good, happy moments, then go around the next corner and get kicked in the face. The Sy Ableman scenes were some of the funniest scenes I saw all year. Bring on the Meshbesher drinking game!
As Roger Ebert said, it's one World War II movie where we don't know the ending. The Shoshanna storyline was my favorite part, and as many times as we've seen scenes like the one of her getting ready for her final cinematic victory, it just totally knocked me out anyway. I love all the big cinematic, old Hollywood stuff, the hyper-movieness of those last scenes in the theater. I also loved the slow, careful way the Christoph Waltz scenes rolled out, as he edged closer and closer to destroying his victims with perfect, deliciously evil elegance and confidence. The Basterds themselves were sort of a waste, though.
It's pretty amazing that Pixar can keep making these fantastically successful movies that appeal to so many people yet somehow completely avoid feeling obvious or trite. Up was original and surprising and way more touching than I expected. The visuals, characters, story and structure were all right on. I didn't see it in 3D and don't feel like I missed anything.
A small movie by Olivier Assayas about a family dealing with a country house full of objects that could be regarded as beautiful artifacts to be appreciated and preserved or as junk to be unloaded for the highest price. It asks lots of questions about how values change over time, like, how much do history and family matter? Is stuff that connects you to the past valuable or is it ultimately just stuff? It's sad to watch three siblings realize they don't care about spending time together in their mother's country house enough to keep it. I really like the scenes of their young kids running around outside and having parties at the house -- a good reminder that old things still matter if you stop worrying about if they're valuable or not and just enjoy them.
The Hurt Locker
Probably the first good movie about Iraq because it's not about politics or culture or strategy, it's just about soldiers who are really good at what they do. Tense and tight; even if I felt like some of the sequences were too similar every now and then, it was still really nicely structured. Not a lot happens in the way of characters changing through the course of the movie, but we gain an understanding of why these people do their incredibly difficult jobs.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Nicolas Cage is a bad cop who goes crazy, and Werner Herzog eats it up with a spoon. You don't see a performance this wildly unhinged every day, but Herzog knows how keep it from derailing the movie and to make it part of a structure that holds together. No one can play a maniac like Nicolas Cage, and lately it seems like those are the only performances of his worth seeing.
A super-small movie that was largely improvised, so I've heard, that is just fantastically subtle and funny. It's worth seeing, especially if you don't know too much about it in advance, so I'll just say that it's about two old friends trying to prove to each other how open-minded and comfortable with themselves they are, while also being far more conventional and predictable than they would like to think. Both of the two main actors and the woman who plays the wife give some really natural and believable performances.
Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi lets his inner 80's horror fan out to play, and it's so freaking fun to watch. He could make this kind of movie in his sleep, but he doesn't skimp on bizarre details and fresh, disgusting ideas to gross the audience out. The confrontation in Alison Lohman's car with the old woman was one of my favorite scenes of the year, particularly all the face-gumming.
Goodbye Solo and Sugar
These last two are both little independent movies about immigrants in America, both very different stories than we might be used to seeing. Goodbye Solo is about the ebullient Senegalese cab driver Solo and the grizzled old bastard he calls "Big Dog" who becomes his client. This little movie just rolls along quietly until you get to the end and the emotional impact hits you and you realize your mind has been blown. Sugar is about Dominican ball players in the States, and follows a really different path than I thought it was going to. It's just about all amateur actors in this one, and was so natural it hardly feels like you're watching people act.
Here are a few other movies I liked a lot: Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, which is as filled with misanthropic dread as anything he's done but I didn't quite connect with as much as his other recent ones; Adventureland, with an outstanding supporting cast and soundtrack; Moon, Sam Rockwell in an unsettling one-man identity confusion show in space; Funny People which is so damn hilarious for the first half, then falls off a cliff; An Education, a good story of middle-class self-deception, that Carey Mulligan is great; Big Fan, Patton Oswalt turns out to have some real chops; In the Loop, stunningly funny swearing and an unusually dark view of how politics happens; Precious, Jennifer's Body, and Soderbergh's double bill of arm's-length protagonists, The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant!
Watching Avatar was a completely amazing and immersive experience because of the 3D effects and CGI that finally look as gorgeous as we all hoped it could look. But I sometimes got pulled out of the experience by a story and premise that made no sense and Cameron's brand of pretend feminism and respect for indigenous cultures that's so simplistic it's borderline offensive. And a few lines that sounded like they were taken from Can't Buy Me Love, the one that goes like, "I was only pretending to like you at first, but then once I got to know you, I really fell in love with you!" Anyway, it was a lot of fun to watch.
I wasn't so into Up in the Air, it was often either too cheesy or too relentlessly dark to be believable. Like, I can't see even the most cold-hearted business executive actually finding Clooney's backpack metaphor of jettisoning all people from your life useful. But the acting was fantastic and a few scenes were awesome.
A couple movies I missed, regrettably: The Beaches of Agnes and Lorna's Silence.
Here's the list from 2008.
What movies did you like this year?