Best of 2009: #11-20

Before I get into the rankings, allow me to elaborate on how I got here. I arrived at this list based on the extent to which each of these films affected me. That’s really the only way I can distinguish between the nonfiction and fiction, the comedies and the dramas. I thought about how each film hit me in the moment, how much I laughed or cried while first taking it in; how I felt in the days after seeing it, if I couldn’t stop thinking about it or if it slipped away; and if I wanted to experience it again, to soak in the nuances, find pieces I missed and delight in what I liked best.

There are several documentaries on my list. I’m not trying to be artsy; I just saw a bunch of really fantastic films. Maybe it was an exceptionally good year for docs, or perhaps, through some of my work-related festival experiences, my eyes were opened to the extraordinary nonfiction films that are (quietly) out there. More likely, it’s both. But you’ll also find blockbusters, indies, Oscar winners and assorted favorites. I tried to be as fair and honest as possible, but in the end, it’s all my opinion.

So, without further ado, here, in descending order, are numbers 11 through 20, with a few honorable mentions. Enjoy.

Honorable Mention: Sherlock Holmes, Julie & Julia, Public Enemies, Away We Go
These were good, just not quite good enough. Sorry, folks. Especially you, Johnny. No hard feelings.

#20: The September Issue
I’m not a high-fashion connoisseur; my limited knowledge of the industry is based on Heidi Klum telling burgeoning and emotionally fragile fashion designers that they’re “out.” And yet, even I found The September Issue’s glimpse into the inner workings of Vogue to be completely fascinating. Anna Wintour emerges as a complex, powerful figure, both as icy as and more human than you’d expect, and those within her iron grip (poor, poor Grace) are equally as intriguing. It’s an engrossing film even for fellow members of the Gap set, and a must-see for anyone interested in fashion.

#19: We Live In Public
Two docs in a row; like I said, it was a really good year for nonfiction. We Live In Public tells the story of Josh Harris, an early internet pioneer who kept envisioning future uses of the web years before the world was ready for them, forming a streaming video site in the early ’90s and then ushering in the age of reality television by creating an art project where subjects’ lives were filmed around the clock. It’s a vivid, surprising film that ultimately becomes a cautionary tale of privacy in the information age. Yes, I appreciate the irony of blogging about it. Still: rent the movie. You’ll think about it every time you update Facebook.

#18: Adam
Confession: I love Hugh Dancy. He’s British and adorable – two of my favorite traits – but he’s also an incredibly underrated actor. This was a tiny little indie, a sorta-romantic comedy, sorta-drama in which he plays a guy with Asperger’s Syndrome who is trying to connect with his pretty neighbor; and even though you keep waiting for the movie to turn into a sappy “love conquers all” cliche, it never does. The acting in Adam is impeccable, and if I was a one-woman Oscar committee, Dancy certainly would’ve been up for Best Actor – and not just because he’s British and adorable. Okay, maybe a teeny bit. But still – he should be a much bigger star.

#17: Invictus
This was a film that I expected to love. “Matt Damon + Clint Eastwood + Morgan Freeman = uplifting sports movie” should have resulted in a top 5 film, right? While Invictus was very, very good, it just didn’t stick with me in the way the best films do. The actors were great, particularly Freeman as Mandela; that couldn’t have been easy to pull off, and he does so with a considerable amount of grace. I liked the film very much, and would certainly recommend it; I just badly wanted to like it more.

#16: The Hangover
Crude, insane, and funny as hell. The Hangover also gets extra credit points for being a “guy’s movie” that’s actually funny to women, too. Please take notes, Mr. Apatow. But however bizarre it gets – do you, too, get Stu’s tiger lullaby stuck in your head? – it’s seriously entertaining. And I have to say, the following exchange cracks me up every time I hear it:
Stu: “She’s got my grandmother’s Holocaust ring!”
Alan: “I didn’t know they gave out rings at the Holocaust!”
Okay, it’s not exactly a life-changing film. But it will make you laugh. A lot.

#15: Up In The Air
Like Invictus, another film that almost, but didn’t quite, live up to my expectations. It’s funny, sweet, suitably heartbreaking at points. George Clooney is excellent – but let’s be honest, he’s always playing subtle shades of George Clooney – and the supporting actors all deliver. The movie passed one test: I thought about it a lot after seeing it. However, I didn’t think about the poignancy of Clooney coming to terms with his isolation, but rather the nameless man who sobbed as he was fired via webcam and then stumbled, broken, out of his office. He’s the one who stuck with me, more than anyone or anything else. Maybe that was the point, but I wish that the whole film had struck the chord with me that he did.

#14: A Single Man
A Single Man is another – and, for my money, better – portrait of a profoundly lonely man. It’s simply beautiful, in tone and look (which is not at all shocking, since it was written and directed by a fashion designer, Tom Ford), and reminiscent of Mad Men in its pacing and early ’60s style. Colin Firth is superb, as he – like the film itself – projects the turmoil beneath a sheen of pure elegance. The bittersweet ending stayed with me for days. If you require action scenes, the film won’t do; but if you don’t, it’s worth a look.

#13: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Like the books, each of these films is better than the last. The filmmakers have really found a perfect blend of everything that makes the books so, well, magical: the visuals bring the wizarding world to life in a way that’s both fantastic and tangible; the storytelling is crisp and suspenseful; and the clever, often downright hilarious school scenes remind you that even though Harry Potter is a wizard messiah, he’s also a teenaged boy. Most of all, the young actors – particularly Daniel Radcliffe as Harry – have really come into their own. When the last film comes out, I finally believe that the characters on screen will move me as much as those on the page do – and that the movie, like the book, will be the best yet.

#12: Food, Inc.
This documentary pointedly asks, “Do we know what’s in the food that we eat, or where it comes from?” Most of us don’t – at all. Food, Inc. is revealing and alarming, showing everything from the corporate stranglehold on the food supply to its real human consequences: obesity, E. coli outbreaks, and the extinction of the family farm. Sound boring? It’s not. A friend of mine asked, “Does it make you want to stop eating?” No; it makes you want to eat better, and smarter. After all – what could be more important than knowing the truth about the food that we eat?

#11: Avatar
Yes, the film is kinda visionary. The graphics are stunning, the 3D remarkable. I left the theater thinking, Wow. That was an experience. So why isn’t this higher? Well, for one, the film felt as if it was the length of a Ken Burns miniseries, and half of it was spent watching blue people leaping through trees. Oh good. Another Tarzan sequence. Awesome. Not that I’m opposed, if it serves a purpose; it was just a lot of leaping. But here’s the thing: ultimately, I want to be moved by more than the pretty pictures. I want the characters to shake me to the core. I want a story with nuance and heart. Avatar walloped me over the head with stunning graphics and and a wildly unsubtle message – which I agreed with, incidentally – but not its broadly-sketched characters. Blue or otherwise.

So, now that you’ve seen the back half, what do you think? Is there more to Avatar than I’m giving it credit for? Is The Hangover funny enough to deserve a Top 10 spot? Wondering what the hell Harry Potter is doing here? Holler back! And keep an eye out for the next installment, the #2-#10 Movies of ’09, premiering on Wednesday.

Important note: I grabbed the movie poster images from the great site All credit to them for the images.


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