Top 10 Movies of 2009

by Eric Melin on December 22, 2009

in Top 10s

This year will be remembered as the year that in-theater experiences went mainstream. Not only did James Cameron’s much-hyped IMAX 3D spectacular “Avatar” open to $77 million this past weekend, but movies in these formats were coming out on a consistent basis all year long and doing great business. Hopefully, filmmakers will continue to use 3D to enhance storytelling like “Coraline,” and not just use it as a gimmick. That said, the movies that made my list this year that were released in 3D or IMAX (#8 and #1) work just as well without them. Nothing beats a well-told story.

Runners-up: “The Road,” “A Serious Man,” “The Messenger,” “Coraline,” “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Bruno,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Star Trek,” “District 9,” Drag Me to Hell.”

the hurt locker 200910. The Hurt Locker

Anchored by a quiet and commanding Jeremy Renner (as an Iraq War bomb diffuser), Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting movie works as both a suspense film and a character study. As Renner’s confident but dangerous veteran joins a new bomb squad, his conflicts with his new teammates begin to reveal the true nature of the man who must lead them. Bigelow is no stranger to men with adrenaline fetishes (she directed “Point Break” and “Strange Days”), but this movie is in a whole different ballpark. It’s a serious examination of what makes a man like him (no pun intended) tick.

bad lietenant herzog cage9. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Nicolas Cage is delightfully unhinged in this bizarre movie from iconoclast Werner Herzog that, despite its title, is not a remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara film. Instead, it’s a noirish thriller that disregards the tenets of the genre about halfway through and heads down its own twisted, irresistible path. Cage hasn’t been this funny or riveting in years, and Herzog regards his protagonist with way more sympathy than one might expect for a guy who abuses hard narcotics and regularly hallucinates about lizards and breakdancing souls.

up pixar 20098. Up

The seven-minute montage of a married couple’s entire life together in this latest triumph from Pixar is the most moving short film in recent memory. What follows is a story about loss and learning to live that could have felt awfully familiar in lesser hands. Co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, however, combine expert storytelling with a crisply rendered animation style and enough clever ideas to fill three movies. Only Pixar would be able to make a movie where a man literally carries around his all of burdens—in the form of his house, elevated by balloons—on his back.

 Sin Nombre 20097. Sin Nombre

Cary Fukunaga’s powerful directorial debut tells the story of a wary Mexican gang member and a teenage Honduran girl stowing away on a train bound for the American border. The beautiful outdoor cinematography is a stark contrast to the hellish situations they find themselves in, while the naturalistic acting style lends more authenticity to the characters. It is an assured piece of work for a first feature film, and Fukunaga has a bright future ahead of him.

The Brothers Bloom6. The Brothers Bloom

Doing a 360-degree turn from his minimalist teenage noir “Brick,” writer/director Rian Johnson turns to the con-man genre for this mischievous treat. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody are artists—crooks who treat the long con like a literary work. In the middle of carrying out their masterpiece, one brother gets cold feet and falls in love with the intended victim (an eccentric heiress played by Rachel Weisz). Johnson mixes slapstick comedy, old-world European locations, and a surprising amount of danger into a clever and layered concoction that always keeps you guessing.

anvil the story of anvil 20095. Anvil! The Story of Anvil

The best documentary of the year is a moving tale of determination, friendship, and courage—and it’s about a Canadian heavy metal band still plugging away at their career in their fifties. Director Sacha Gervasi was blessed not only with an infinitely charming main character (lead singer/guitarist “Lips”), but because he roadied for the band in his teens, he had their trust. This resulted in loads of revelatory interviews and fly-on-the-wall scenes that paint a fascinating picture of a band that refused to give up.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire4. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

It may be a realistic portrait of an illiterate Harlem teenager, but director Lee Daniels’ “Precious” is also surprisingly impressionistic, getting inside the head of the title character (played so convincingly by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe). Mo’Nique is unflinchingly ferocious as Precious’ abusive welfare mother and Daniels coaches gritty performances out of an unrecognizable Mariah Carey and charming Lenny Kravitz as well. The movie is a disturbing yet somehow hopeful cry for help that suggests there may be a larger population of “precious” girls out there than anyone would care to admit.

adventureland 2009 stewart eisenberg3. Adventureland

Although it was marketed as a raunchy teenage comedy a la “Superbad,” this subtle film is actually a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story from writer/director Greg Mottola. The movie doesn’t break new ground, but it captures all the apprehension and awkwardness of impending adulthood perfectly. A dialed-down cast (including Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, and Ryan Reynolds) hits all the right notes, as does its time-specific soundtrack. “Adventureland” is set in the pre-digital 80s, when personal connections were made face to face and, as such it retains a kind of nostalgia for those times.

inglourious basterds 20092. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino combines his love for spaghetti westerns and exploitation films to create a World War II film like none you’ve ever seen. More than a Jewish revenge fantasy, “Inglourious Basterds” is a love letter to the cinema that’s all about storytelling and the power of myth. Characters live and die by their reputation. Almost every scene is an interrogation of sorts with unforgettable performances from Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt that go from menacing to hilarious in the same moment. In Tarantino’s world, the movies are always better than real life, and “Basterds” is no exception, with movies garnering the ultimate win.

Where the Wild Things Are 20091. Where the Wild Things Are

Spike Jonze’s movie of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book is a shining example of the perfect adaptation. Parents were up in arms this year about how scary the film was and how it encouraged kids to act out—the same things that parents said about the book 46 years ago. What better compliment could there be? The film itself may be the most honest representation ever put to film of what it’s like to grow up. It doesn’t pander to kids. Rather, it takes those confusing and conflicting emotions very seriously. In the end, runaway Max (in an astonishingly naturalistic performance by newcomer Max Records) reconciles himself and—in the wordless closing scene—his relieved mother falls asleep watching her son eat. Beautiful.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Gary December 22, 2009 at 10:46 am

I’ll admit I didn’t get a chance to see all of the movies on the list (three kids have put a damper on my movie watching time) however I would have put Star Trek higher than a runner-up. Maybe it’s because I’m not a huge Trekkie but I thought JJ Abrams put together an excellent story and visual presentation.

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2 kt edmiston December 22, 2009 at 11:14 am

nice list, there are a few i still need to see. my favorite movie going experience of the year was seeing Away We Go. I thought it was heart felt, funny, real, and moving. I left with complete warm and fuzzies.

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3 Reed December 22, 2009 at 11:26 am

I’ve only been able to see three of these films (including runners up) because most of the rest have not arrived in Argentina yet. We tend to get the “mainstream” pictures a lot sooner. Perhaps, therefore, this indicates that the major projects have landed with a thud in 2009. I actually found all three to be somewhat overrated as well. Maybe I’m getting curmudgeony…

But Eric, I must ask. Based on this top ten, do you feel it was a relatively weak year overall? 2007 was one of the best in history – 2008 a step backwards. I guess I feel like 2009 didn’t exactly leave us with a long list of future classics. Whaddya think?

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4 amber December 22, 2009 at 11:30 am

i only saw two of your top ten! i still can’t believe i haven’t seen where the wild things are because i was so excited to see it but alas, no one ever wanted to go to that so we saw other less awesome movies instead. jerks! i really liked inglourious basterds as well. some of my favorite movies this year were also away we go which left me feeling the same way as kt above. it also gave me a good idea for our next move since we usually just go somewhere without knowing what we are in for :) and i loved 500 days of summer. the music, the story, just loved it.

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5 trustthedust December 22, 2009 at 11:58 am

I was really thinking it was a weak year, but looking back on all these really makes me feel better about the year as a whole.

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6 Stig December 22, 2009 at 12:00 pm

What about The Hangover? Only the most sucessful R Rated comedy ever made.

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7 James December 22, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Still need to see Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Where The Wild Things(was going to, but didn’t find the time) and Sin Nombre on the list, but pretty damn good list. I need to revisit the expertly made Hurt Locker, Bad Lieutenant is one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year with Cage in prime form, and the first few minutes of Up is better than the entire film of Benjamin Button easily.

Love the locations, the performances, and the witty writing for Brothers Bloom, but for whatever reason the script started to get old for me in the last half hour. Adventureland was one the most misunderstood films of the year. Its a shame people didn’t see it cause they missed out on a rather sweet, coming of age tale that surprisingly subverts from most cliches and has fully realized characters. Remember that scene with the alcohol being his father’s? An interesting little detail that is left open and no need to close. I like that.

I wasn’t as positive about Precious as others. Perhaps I just didn’t make an emotional connection, but screenplay is well told, the performances are strong, and avoids being the film that is only heavy and lacks authencity. Enjoyed the humor within it. Oh and of course Inglourious Basterds might have been the most fun I had all year. Just the last line puts a huge grin on my face. Love that film. Its so refreshing to see a movie set in that time period that doesn’t feel self pretentious or oscar baity(Defiance and The Reader), and that actually bares tension(unlike Valkyrie). Oh, and how great is it to see german actors playing german characters, speaking for the majority of the film in their language? Thank you Tarantino. Sorry for that rant. Here would probably be mine, though not entirely sure on the order. Still need to see more.

A Serious Man
Up in the Air
Inglourious Basterds
Up
The Hurt Locker
District 9
500 Days of Summer
Adventureland
Precious
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Also really enjoyed Star Trek, An Education, The Messenger, and Avatar(though like you said despite a great movie experience, I prefer a better story anyday)

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8 Xavier December 22, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Mine would have to be
1. Inglourious Basterds
2. Where the Wild Things Are
3. The Hurt Locker
4. Adventureland
5. Up
6. Balibo
7. Moon
8. An Education
9. Bad Lieutenant
10. Precious
To everyone in america if you can get your hands on it I thoroughly recommend Balibo a great australian film about a group of journalists captured during the indonesian invasion of east timor, great film making, definitely worth a look.
Eric are we going to get a best of the decade list for next week?

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9 Adam December 22, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Wow, your description of “Up” is right on point, though I never really saw the “carrying all his burdens on his back” until just now. Gonna have to go watch it again.

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10 L. Keene December 22, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Hangover and Zombieland made me laugh

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11 Eric Melin December 23, 2009 at 12:51 am

Reed- I have to agree with Dustin. Looking back on the list, there were a lot better movies in general than I had first realized. That said, you’ll have to check back next week to see which film(s) from 2009 made my best of the decade list!

Amber- I liked (500) Days of Summer quite a bit, but it just didn’t quite make my runners-up list either. I really hated J G-L’s sidekick friends and thought some of the film was a little forced. Overall, though, it was a nice antidote too the typical Sandra Bullock romcom.

Stig- The Hangover had some very funny moments, but its remarkably sloppy and overrated. It benefited tremendously from a good “high concept” and a great cast (especially Zach Galifainakis), but the execution was just plain mediocre.

James- The ending of Brothers Bloom is somewhat problematic if only because its such a shift in mood. But if you watch it again, you may notice that Ruffalo has been telling you all along about his final masterpiece. I’m glad you pointed out the scene with Eisenberg and his dad in Adventureland–yet another example of how real those characters were.

Xavier- Oh yes you will. Writing it right now!

Adam- I should also have mentioned Michael Giacchino’s emotional score. That guy is having a banner year, having also scored Star Trek as well.

L- Zombieland was a lot of fun and I can’t believe it wasn’t nominated for Comedy at the Golden Globes!

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12 Xavier December 23, 2009 at 6:05 am

ugh I just saw that the hangover made afi’s top 10 for the year, such an average film

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13 Eric Melin December 23, 2009 at 9:41 am

Agreed.

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14 Gooch December 23, 2009 at 12:51 pm

I love this list Eric. You’re one of the few critics that would reward a movie like Adventureland and Anvil on year-end list. Awesome.

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15 chip December 23, 2009 at 2:07 pm

I just saw Where the Wild Things Are and didn’t really care for it but after reading your thoughts, I think maybe I was too hard on it. I “missed” the point of it (growing up).

Also, agree with you 100% on Adventureland. Loved it.

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16 ChrisKnudsen December 24, 2009 at 1:29 am

Here is my top 10 so far Eric but still need to watch stuff like An Education (Nick Hornby is one of my favorite authors), Sim Nombre, The Maid, and plenty of others. As it stands this is it:

10. White Ribbon – Probably my least favorite of Haenke’s (and yes I did love the shot by shot remake of his own Funny Games), it is truly hard to find someone that would actually love this film since it isn’t as bold as something like the Piano Teacher of Cache. Everything is covered into a fog of mystery where most of the answers are actually outside of the picture when you think more about the setting.

9. Bronson – More than a great character piece for Thomas Hardy (who will great get overlooked come awards season), I hope this starts the trend of biopics to come. Vastly different even when some things don’t always work (some scenes in the theater) but its energy is chaotic and never lets you go. The more I think about Bronson, the more I love it.

8. Stingray Sam – The American Astronaut is in my top 10 films of the decade so when I was finally going to get a chance to see this (having been waiting years for a new Cory McAbee film), you can say I was a little hyped. Stingray Sam is pretty much a remake of the American Astronaut with it being another space western surrealist comedy musical rescue tale and is quite shorter too (Sam runs a little over 60 minutes and is cut into 6 episodes but is getting theatrical runs like this)but hell, why wouldn’t I want to get on this ride again?

7. Where the Wild Things Are – A gorgeous study about how children act and really Eric, I couldn’t say what you said any better. I would love to add though that one of my favorite things about Where the Wild Things Are is that they don’t make Max any smarter than a kid his age. For people who didn’t like it the first time, my 2nd viewing is when I realized how great the film was.

6. Fish Story – I am calling this the anti-Synecdoche New York mostly only because of its message of where something that might not seem to have any importance can save the world while Synecdoche painstakenly tells us that nothing at all matters while “none of them would be extras in their own lives.” Shut up Charlie Kauffman and suck an egg. You have no idea what you are saying. Regardless, if you believe that one song can save the world, then you need to watch Fish Story.

5. Observe and Report – I had no fucking idea of what I was getting into when I went and saw this. I just heard the film was a lot funnier than the trailers made it to be and I had an extra 10 dollars that day in Philadelphia so I was like, “Why not? I can shut off my brain enjoy a couple of jokes here and there.” What I didn’t expect was one of the darkest funniest black comedies I have ever seen where I laughed so hard at a date rape scene that the couple behind me said, “Jesus christ, that is some sick fuck in front of us.” So many people have called this comedy version of Taxi Driver and never has that claim been so right. My biggest complaint of the film though was towards the end they played Where is My Mind? and not even the Pixies version either. Whatever though, beggers can’t be choosers.

4. A Town Called Panic – Call it Murakami for kids, A Town Called Panic is thi s wonderfully clever stream of conscience stop motion animated tale that is oddly, one of the most beautiful things you will see in the cinema this year. Sure to be a massive cult fiilm for years to come.

3. Love Exposure – Some of you might have heard about this 4 hour epic about a boy who masters the art of panty shots and falls in love with a girl but really words can’t describe its shear lunancy. It goes all over the map and never, not even for a minute does it feel like 4 hours. One of the greatest moments I have ever witnessed while watching films period was how the first hour was this big long build-up and then bam, the opening title finally comes up. AFTER ONE HOUR! Fuck awesome.

2. Adventureland – I felt bad when I finally caught Adventureland on DVD. I decided to see Observe and Report three times in theaters while two of those times, I was like “Maybe I should see Adventureland finally, oh wait, I really loved Observe and Report, I need to watch this again.” I have now seen Observe and Report 7 times. When I finally watched Adventureland, I didn’t expect to see one of the most charming and touching coming of age stories since Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart. Incredibly geniune and timeless. Did I use enough adjectives? I believe so.

1. Breathless – Perhaps can be compared to like minded Gran Torino but replacing racism with abuse, this Korean film is a brutal drama while letting enough humor in to keep you going. One of the more unsettling tales of redemption I have seen in a long time while aknowledging the destructive cycle of misguided hate. Yang Ik-june (director, writer, producer, and star) supposedly sold his house so he can fund Breathless, his first feature. So sad that it doesn’t have US distro (at least to my knowledge). I am pretty sure it has left the festival market but you can catch the film through an import DVD and it is very much worth the purchase.

Honorable mentions: Mystery Team (minute for minute the funniest comedy of the year), Crazy Racer (nice asian ode to Guy Ritchie films), Down Terrace (a little seen UK black comedy that was a favorite at Fantastic Fest), Rampage (Uwe Boll’s masterpiece?), The Revenant (best horror comedy since Shaun of the Dead, hands down), Inglorious Basterds (QT’s best since Pulp Fiction), Up in the Air (after the greatly overrated piece of crap Wall-E, Pixar redeemed themselves in my eye), and the Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson’s best since Royal Tenenbaums). It feels like I might be forgetting some things at the moment but this is how the list stands now.

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17 ChrisKnudsen December 24, 2009 at 1:29 am

Oh add, Star Trek to honorable mentions. My favorite big blockbuster of the year for sure.

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18 ChrisKnudsen December 24, 2009 at 11:18 am

I forgot about adding Whip It to honorable mentions. It is formulaic to a T but it is hard not to just completely fall in love with the film. A great love letter to Austin too.

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19 RCM December 24, 2009 at 1:54 pm

Small mistake, I think you meant “Up” where you wrote “Up in the Air”. Interesting list all the same. There’s some stuff on there I want to check out from you descriptions.

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20 ChrisKnudsen December 24, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Whoops, I did. I wrote it late last night. I didn’t care for Up in the Air all that much.

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21 Ryan December 24, 2009 at 7:12 pm

@ChrisKnudsen I felt the same what about Up in the Air, though it did make our top 10 list.

I agree with your pics Eric one thing though, I thought Mr. Fox holds up better than UP. I still don’t get that feeling I did when I first saw it. I think the shock of the deep Disney film just wore off.

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22 wayne swab December 25, 2009 at 4:43 pm

Melin, where is Public Enemies and The Hangover? Should be 1 and 2 on this list respectively.
I saw both films, twice in the theatre. Public Enemies should win best picture, but will probably lose to some lame, period drama starring Kiera Knightly.

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23 JoJo Longbottom December 25, 2009 at 8:50 pm

I watched ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ tonight for the second time in a movie theater in Spain and I have to agree that this is my favorite movie of the year. Before the movie came out, I read that Jonze felt that he was making more of a ‘feel’ movie than a classic story line and I think he achieved exactly that. This movie evokes raw emotions that can come from a variety of places: divorce, lonliness, loss, hate, love, etc. The beauty is that everyone connects to this movie in a different way based on their experiences in their own personal lives.

As it turns out, I liked the movie even more the second time around. It really revolves around perspective (a point Jonze hits on in the scene with Carol and Max in the desert with the ‘tiny’ sun and ‘giant’ dog) where size, age, and experience become relative, and thus meaningless. This movie surveys an entire spectrum of emotion, but inevetably boils down to the simplistically complicated relationship between love and hate. When someone becomes hurt or finds themselves lost, they become blinded to love and guided by rage and insecurity. Sometimes it takes a little boy snarling in a dirt-clodded suit to help you realize how to recognize love and joy again in your life.

I am happy that you thought this was the best movie of the year and I hope that it recieves many awards. The cinematography was really moving, especially combined with the score, and all of the actors did an amazing job of telling such an open-ended story (even those who could only use their voices) and delivering it in such a powerful way. Bravo Jonze and bravo Scene Stealers!

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24 Eric Melin December 25, 2009 at 9:01 pm

Chip & Gooch – Nice to see some Adventureland fans out there.
Chris- Thx for the detailed list, man. That’s great stuff. I have a feeling I’ll be seeing many of these as soon as they’re available on DVD…also, props for charting Adventureland high on the list.
Ryan- I went with Up only because it had a deeper emotional impact than Fox, but both are eminently watchable; seen ‘em both twice!
Wayne – In an earlier comment, I mentioned that I thought The Hangover was way overrated, but I will say this: Public Enemies wasn’t perfect, but it was an interesting way to present that story and I really appreciated Mann trying something different. It maybe should have ended up on my runner-up list, I’ll grant you that, but definitely not in the Top 10 for me.
JoJo – I liked it better the second time too. Watching it a third time this weekend. Can’t wait. You’re right, it’s not a “plot”-oriented film. Insecurity is usually what makes kids act out, and it’s as honest a portrayal of that as I’ve ever seen on film!

Thanks everybody for the great comments. It’s so nice to have a mature discussion that doesn’t devolve into name-calling and whatnot. Scene-Stealers sitegoers are tops.

Next week: Best of the Decade. Get ready to argue…

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25 Xavier January 2, 2010 at 9:10 am

I gotta say that after reading both roger ebert’s and afi’s top 10 for the year I like your top 10 far better even when I disagree with your choices I respect how you came to the decision, which I just cannot do for the aforementioned lists, I mean how Ebert can justify knowing and afi with the hangover. Thank you for your lists and your rational appreciation of film.

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26 Stig May 31, 2010 at 8:04 am

Other good choices

A Christmas Carol (Robert Zemeckis is a MoCap God)
The Hangover (set the standard for stag comedies)
Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen is comic gold)
Avatar (changed 3D forever)

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