At year’s end it’s traditional to look back and make Ten Best Lists. The problem is that in the flurry of award season—and its attendant hype—one tends to forget how many mediocre films have come and gone, or how many months there seemed to be nothing worth going out to see. I wish I could forget suffering through Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for two and a half miserable hours, but that’s another story.
This was not an outstanding year for moviegoing. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t some excellent work,
but most of the year-end lists I see are filled with good films, not great ones. The only titles I would refer to as great this year are Up in the Air, Up, and three imports, the remarkable District 9, the Chilean film The Maid and Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces (which, I’m sorry to see, is getting very little attention despite a sensational performance by Penélope Cruz. I fear that its distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, has succumbed to awards fever and is paying more attention to other entries.) I also liked Olivier Assayas’ quietly profound Summer Hours, and the outrageous political saga from Italy, Il Divo.
Casting a wider net, I was very fond of An Education, Coco Before Chanel, The Hurt Locker, and even some mainstream Hollywood fare like Star Trek, The Hangover, The Proposal, and the spectacular musical Nine. Another of my favorite films this year was Steven Soderbergh’s loopy The Informant!, with a wonderful performance by Matt Damon.
As usual, some of my favorites were smaller, offbeat titles: James Gray’s Two Lovers, with Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a revelatory Vinessa Shaw; The Messenger, with great performances from Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, directed and co-written by Oren Moverman; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, about a baseball player from the Dominican Republic; and such worthwhile indies as Goodbye Solo, Trucker, Sin Nombre, Sunshine Cleaning, Julia (with a go-for-broke performance by Tilda Swinton), In the Loop, Five Minutes of Heaven, and Bobcat Goldthwait’s fine black comedy World’s Greatest Dad, starring Robin Williams. I wish more people had paid attention to that movie, as well as Nicolas Cage’s sensational work in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Some of the best acting I saw in 2009 took place in films I’m less than wild about. Watching Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci in Julie & Julia was a rare treat, even though the film was less than perfect. Helen Mirren is being trumpeted for award consideration for her work in The Last Station, and indeed she is great; so is her costar Christopher Plummer. The film, about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, starts out well but drops the ball and goes on far too long. (I’m told that Plummer is being shoehorned into the Supporting Actor category, which is absurd: the movie is about Leo Tolstoy, and he plays Tolstoy!) I loved watching Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and Jeff Bridges as weather-beaten country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart. Michael Sheen is marvelous as an obsessive football coach in The Damned United. I loved all three leading performances—by Sophie Okonedo, Sam Neill, and Alice Krige—in one of the most underrated films of the year, Skin, from South Africa.
Perhaps the finest performance I saw in 2009 was honored back in January at the Sundance Film Festival. Catalina Saavedra plays the title role in Sebastián Silva’s The Maid. While the film itself took home the Grand Jury Prize, Saavedra was voted a “Special Jury Prize” for her amazing portrayal of a woman whose inner thoughts and peculiar behavior make her one of the most fascinating characters of the year.
The one real distinction 2009 can claim is the high-water mark set by animation. An imposing array of feature films from around the world showed that animation can be a highly personal medium, capable of embracing a wide variety of approaches and techniques. Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Ponyo, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and The Princess and the Frog constitute an honor roll that should make live-action writers and directors jealous. And any year with that many good cartoons can’t be all bad.