It is traditional amongst those who write about movies that as one year ends and another year begins that there is a certain amount of reflection that goes on about the year that has just passed and the movies seen in that period. In this list-happy society, most critics put together a list of the top ten movies of the year in order to give their readers some sense of perspective about the year in review.
Far be it for me to argue with tradition. I have always found top ten lists to be somewhat arbitrary – for example, why choose ten movies? What if there are more movies worthy of being honored as the year’s best than just ten? What if there are fewer? How does one distinguish between a big budget Hollywood epic and a micro-budget indie? How can you compare a romantic comedy with a historical drama?
I’ll admit the system isn’t perfect. Although I’m calling this piece the Top 10 Movies of 2009, what it really should be called is an arbitrary list of ten movies I thought worth singling out. Certainly, these are the movies that I found most praiseworthy of those released in Orlando theaters during the calendar year of 2009 – at least the ones that I saw (I was unable to see the very much acclaimed Up in the Air by the time this was written). These are all movies that, in some way large or small, affected me the most or I found to be the most innovative.
2009 will go down in the record books as a record box office bonanza as movie theaters took in over $10 billion in box office receipts for the first time in the history of the movies. Some of the movies on this list contributed a good deal to that bottom line, while others barely made a dent. It was a year of giant robots and of heart-fluttering teen vampires. Franchises were reborn while others were shown the door.
Hollywood continued to be youth-driven as movies tended to be skewed towards teen and family markets, the two demographics that tended to be responsible for the most repeat business. Studios resorted to innovative and alternative methods of marketing their films, sometimes eschewing traditional mean of marketing entirely in lieu of internet and viral campaigns meant to generate buzz. The stakes for the publicity machines have never been higher; most big budget releases have to make at least one third of their budget back in the opening weekend in order for the movie to have even a small chance of making back their budget. Hollywood began to live and die on a steady diet of buzz.
The Internet and sites like Latino Review, Ain’t It Cool News and Collider began to be major players in determining the marketability of films to the target audience of internet-savvy young people, whose buy-in to a movie was critical to a film’s success – and whose lack thereof could be lethal. Movies like Paranormal Activity became critical and commercial successes despite having almost no budget and no star power, being solely driven on a clever internet marketing campaign and word of mouth as generated over the net. Studios took note of the success of the movie and are quietly gearing up sub-divisions to develop smaller-budget movies for niche audiences.
While many complained that Hollywood relied too heavily on concept films, sequels and merchandising-driven films in an overall litany of accusations that there is no originality in Hollywood anymore (a claim, ironically enough, that is unoriginal in itself), certainly there was plenty of innovation to go around. From new means of storytelling to breakthroughs in special effects, movies continued to push the boundaries of filmmaking in 2009. Avatar released near the end of the year ended years of speculation and delivered on director James Cameron’s assertion that it would change moviemaking forever – and it will. That is why it is on the list below.
As with most lists, this is meant to generate discussion and I invite you to participate by adding your comments. Certainly, you won’t agree with every movie on this list – I can almost guarantee you that even I won’t agree with every movie on this list in a week’s time. What I can guarantee is that every one of these ten movies deserves at least a viewing, whether in a theater if the opportunity is still there, or at home on DVD, Blu-Ray, On-Demand or Cable. I’m sure you’ll find something worthwhile about all of them. Therefore, without further ado, here is my list. Enjoy.
(Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Sasha Barese, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong, Rachel Harris, Mike Tyson, Mike Epps, Jernard Brooks, Ken Jeong. Directed by Todd Phillips
Released June 5, 2009 In a summer crowded with sequels, big budget science fiction and action movies and high concept films, this comedy from the people who brought you Old School didn’t attract a lot of attention; that is, until people actually saw it. One of the funniest movies to come along in years, it took the conventions of male buddy movies and turned them on their ear. It would establish the three leads of Cooper, Galifianakis and Helms as legitimate box office stars and establish box office records for “R” rated comedies.
WHY IT IS HERE: We’ve all had lost weekends, but none like this. Waking up with no memory of what happened the night before in a totally trashed suite at Caesar’s Palace is the stuff that dreams are made of, or in this case box office gold. As the events of a wild night of debauchery are slowly pieced together, everything becomes significant and nothing is left to chance. This is as well-written and well-conceived a comedy of this type as I’ve seen in decades.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The madness of Ken Jeong, as a kidnapped Asian high roller who leaps out of the trunk of the Mercedes stark naked and screaming invectives. It is one more surreal moment in a movie filled with them.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $277.3 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $459.4 total.
BUDGET: $35 million.
STATUS: Currently available on home video. A sequel is scheduled to be released Memorial Day weekend, 2011.
(Magnet) Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chang Chen, Zhao Wei, Hu Jun, Zhang Fenyi, Lin Chiling, Shido Nakamura, You Yong, Ba Sen Zha Bu, Hou Yong, Philip Hersh (voice), Jiang Tong, Song Jia, Tong Dawei. Directed by John Woo
Released November 18, 2009 John Woo was once the most acclaimed action movie director in Asia, with some of the best movies of the ‘90s to his credit. Hollywood beckoned, and Woo went on to make memorable movies like Face Off and Mission: Impossible II. In his first movie in his native country in more than a decade, Woo surprisingly did an epic period movie, something he wasn’t particularly known for. With his action movie flair and his over-the-top visual style, Woo would create the most expensive movie ever made in Asia but the gamble paid off when it became a huge hit there.
WHY IT IS HERE: Hollywood has not made many movies with this kind of scope except in replication by CGI. Here, there is literally a cast of thousands. Every scene is filled with subtle visual nuances as well as grand, epic scale. Soldiers march in disciplined formations, a massive flotilla floats majestically down the Yangtze River and arrows fly like a swarm of deadly locusts. These kinds of movies are prohibitively expensive to film, so chances are we won’t see many of them ever again.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The sea battle scene in which Zhuge Liang entices Cao Cao’s forces to loose 100,000 arrows at his straw bale-covered ships.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $485,186 domestic (as of 12/27/09), $531,538 total (note that these figures are for the truncated single-film release here in the States, not the massive, two picture extravaganza originally released in Asia where it set box office records).
BUDGET: Not available.
STATUS: Playing in limited markets. Aired on HDNet cable in December. Scheduled for home video release March 23, 2010.
(Paramount) Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison, Rachel Nichols, Faran Tahir. Directed by J.J. Abrams
Released May 7, 2009 When Star Trek: Nemesis tanked and the television ratings for “Star Trek: Enterprise” were disappointing, it appeared the franchise had lost its steam. Paramount, not willing to give up on one of its most important assets, took some time off to retool and put the fate of the franchise squarely in the hands of producer-director J.J. Abrams, creator of such television fare as “Lost” and “Alias,” as well as movies like Cloverfield and Mission: Impossible III. The move proved to be a wise one as anticipation grew among not only diehard Trekkers but among summer action movie junkies as well, especially once the trailer hit. Paramount was rewarded with the biggest box office for any Star Trek movie.
WHY IT IS HERE: While I admit to having a bit of a blind eye when it comes to Star Trek, this really is a terrific movie. It is action packed and character driven, a rare combination. Perfectly cast, the actors recreate the roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew with nary a false note, adding the actors’ own takes while remaining true to the spirit of the character. Dizzying special effects, a script that paid respect to the original Federation mythos while making logical sense was a feat in itself. This is a movie even non-Trekkers can love.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The halo dive from a shuttle craft to the mining platform by Kirk, Sulu and an expendable security officer was breathtaking.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $275.7 million domestic, $385.4 total.
BUDGET: $150 million.
STATUS: Currently available on home video. A sequel is in the planning stages.
(Weinstein) Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, Samm Levine, B.J. Novak, Til Schweiger, Michael Fassbender, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, Mike Myers, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth. Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released August 21, 2009 Tarantino can always be counted upon to take something conventional, turn it on its ear and then give it a Wet Willie besides. Here, he takes the war movie, revs it up a notch, dials up the amp to 11 and unleashes it on the late summer audience. The result is Tarantino’s best opening weekend ever and one of his biggest grossing movies to date. He also gave us Christoph Waltz, one of the nastiest villains since Goldfinger and certain to get an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor next month.
WHY IT IS HERE: You have never seen a movie like this. You will never see a movie like this again. Hip and retro and intelligent all at once, nobody can make B movie conventions seem so damn smart like Tarantino. His movies are maniacal grins, fueled by tequila and mescaline, meant to be experienced as the kick-off to a weekend-long bender. Did I mention this movie rocks?
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There are several, but the one that made me sit up and take notice came near the end when Hans Landa interrogates Bridget von Hammersmark in the theater office. He knows, you know he knows, she knows he knows but what follows is still shocking and brutal.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $120.5 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $311.7 total.
BUDGET: $70 million.
STATUS: Currently available on home video.
(20th Century Fox) Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Peter Mensah, Matt Gerald. Directed by James Cameron
Released December 18, 2009 They say that James Cameron’s entire career has pointed to this. When the dust settles, it will undoubtedly be the phenomenon of 2009, the movie that changed everything. It is expected to be second only to Cameron’s own Titanic on the all-time box office list and is almost certain to spawn several sequels – Cameron himself said that it would be a waste if the programs that created Pandora were not used for a second movie at the very least.
WHY IT IS HERE: This is the most fully-realized alien environment ever captured. The ecology makes sense; the technology makes sense as well. Earlier, we talked about traditional epic movies going out of fashion; this is what will replace them. Worthington delivers a star-making performance that is sure to elevate him to the top echelon of Hollywood actors.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Where to begin? I love some of the scenes in the forest as the various phosphorescent flora are explored, but the last battle sequence will take your breath away.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $352.1 million domestic (as of 1/4/10), $1.018 billion total.
BUDGET: Not available, but the general consensus in Hollywood is that it is north of $300 million.
STATUS: Still in wide release, as well as selected IMAX and 3D venues.
(Warner Brothers) Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, McNiel Hendricks, Louis Minaar, Zak Feaunati. Directed by Clint Eastwood
Released December 11, 2009 As an actor, Clint Eastwood could be counted upon to display toughness. As a director, he can be counted upon to create compelling movies that are Oscar contenders year after year. This one is no exception. While it hasn’t gotten the box office love that many of his other efforts have created (see below), it is nonetheless a brilliant movie that gives us a peak into a time and place most of us have little or no knowledge of.
WHY IT IS HERE: It’s Clint Eastwood, right? As underdog sports dramas go, most have little impact beyond the moment they portray in the community that is depicted. The moment here shows a country, once bitterly divided, coming together and learning to co-exist. If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The final scene, which portrays a moment of historic importance in the history of South Africa. It will send chills up your spine.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $30.89 million domestic (as of 1/4/10), $30.89 worldwide.
BUDGET: $60 million.
STATUS: Still in wide release. General release has yet to take place overseas.
(Regent) Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasato, Taro Ishida, Yukiko Tachibano, Genjitsu Shu, Sanae Miyata, Toru Minegishi, Tetta Sugimoto. Directed by Yojiro Takita
Released May 29, 2009 The winner of the 2008 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was this entry from Japan. Reviewed recently on this site, it deals with mourning and death in a way that Western filmmakers would never have even considered. Because so few movies deal with the grief of losing a loved one in a truly realistic way, it makes movies like this one all the more impactful.
WHY IT IS HERE: This is a movie about dealing with death in our lives, and as such can be a really useful tool. It is beautifully made, covering the gamut of human emotions. There is some surprisingly subtle humor, as well as pathos that will make your heart ache and your throat constrict. There are tears and laughter and turmoil, and this is as cathartic a movie as you will find ever.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There is a scene where a husband, who has berated the lead characters for being five minutes late, breaks down at the funeral of his wife. Even just writing about it here is bringing tears to my eyes.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $1.49 million domestic (as of 1/3/10), $67.9 total.
BUDGET: Not available.
STATUS: Currently available on home video.
(Disney) Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary, Mickie McGowan, Danny Mann. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Released May 29, 2009 Year after year, Pixar outdoes itself not only in the look of their animated films, but in the complexity of their stories. This is their best outing yet, a movie that appeals not only to children with its exotic locations, sense of whimsy, talking dogs and brightly colored big birds but also to adults. The relationship between Carl and Ellie Fredericksen is real, believable and something we all aspire to. The regrets of Carl Fredericksen are the regrets we all feel as we age.
WHY IT IS HERE: Quite simply, it is perhaps the best animated feature ever made. It is certainly in the running for a Best Picture nomination for the Oscars later this month, and it is a shoe-in to win the Best Animated Feature. There are plenty of animated movies that have made me laugh; there is only one that has made me cry. All right, two if you count the time I saw Bambi when I was four years old and was devastated by the death of his mother.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: The opening montage that depicts the life of Ellie and Carl together; it is one of the most emotionally effective sequences of any movie, let alone an animated feature.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $293.0 million domestic (as of 1/6/10), $683.0 total.
BUDGET: $175 million.
STATUS: Currently available on home video.
(Overture) Michael Moore, Wallace Shawn, William Black, Marcy Kaptur, Elizabeth Warren, Baron Hill, Elijah Cummings, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Robert Powell, Sarah Palin, John McCain. Directed by Michael Moore
Released September 23, 2009 Some movies are just going to be polarizing no matter what. Conservatives hate this movie with a passion while extreme liberals tend to love it. I guess its placement on this list gives you an idea where my political beliefs lie. Moore, one of the most controversial documentarians of all time, takes on one of the most sacred of cows in the American landscape – capitalism itself. Long held as the source of our freedoms and prosperity, Moore skewers it on the lance of logic and humor and shows that it is the source of freedom and prosperity only for a very few.
WHY IT IS HERE: When I heard about this movie, even I thought he was going over the top. Like most people in America, I had always believed capitalism to be a good thing, and socialism and other economic systems to be failures. However, Moore is able to show very effectively how the system has failed us and how it has become a monster, designed to keep the very wealthy in power and to make them wealthier. It is a compelling argument, even if you don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions. He also makes me hope that Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) runs for president someday; she would make a far more effective leader than Secretary Clinton or even, IMHO, President Obama.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: Moore’s attempted citizen’s arrest of banking executives.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $14.3 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $15.9 total.
BUDGET: Not available.
STATUS: Scheduled for home video release on March 9, 2010.
(Fox Searchlight) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Clark Gregg, Minka Kelly, Matthew Gray Gubler, Chloe Moretz, Rachel Boston, Geoffrey Arend, Patricia Belcher, Yvette Nicole Brown, Maile Flanagan. Directed by Marc Webb
Released July 17, 2009 There are a lot of critics who have declared the romantic comedy is dead, and certainly it appears to be a bloated corpse in many ways. Hollywood seems to be content to churn out formula rom-coms with the same attractive stars and the same invariable results. They continue to do it because we, the audience, gobble them up like a kid with his candy bag on Halloween. Perhaps that is why Webb decided to make an anti-romantic comedy. Despite the presence of the hysterically funny The Hangover on this list, this is what makes the top spot as not only the funniest movie of the year but also the best.
WHY IT IS HERE: Webb takes filmmaking conventions and turns them on their ear, telling a non-linear story using a variety of techniques and makes each of them work. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel make the most attractive couple of the year and even after they explain why it would never work, you nonetheless root for it to. There isn’t a false note in this movie; from the moment I saw it at the Florida Film Festival back in April of 2009, I knew this was something special. Some people look at indie movies with the same high regard they hold picking up dog feces in and I will admit, this is as indie a movie as it gets – still, it is a groundbreaker and a game-changer in the way cinematic storytelling is done, perhaps not as obviously as Avatar is but still. When choosing the best movie of the year, it has to meet the criteria that if you were going to recommend only one movie made in 2009 for someone to see, which one would it be. I chose this one. I hope you take the opportunity to go see it on home video if you missed it in the theaters (and many of you did, given its limited release). You won’t regret it.
HIGHLIGHT SCENE: There are a ton of them, but for me the best scene was the one in which Tom goes to a party that Summer is hosting; shown on split screen are what he is anticipating will happen and what actually does. The differences are subtle but devastating.
BOX OFFICE RESULTS: $32.4 million domestic (as of 12/17/09), $46.6 total.
BUDGET: $7.5 million.
STATUS: Currently available on home video.