Best of 2009 The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (#1)
This Iraqi war drama about a company of bomb disposal technicians recalls the best of classical Hollywood action cinema (i.e., Ford and Hawks), in spite of the near-constant use of handheld cameras, and offers an intriguing critique of masculinity besides. Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant William James is like an Ethan Edwards for the YouTube age.—Michael Smith, Chicago, IL

Kathryn Bigelow is Queen of the World!—Alice Whitmore, New York, NY

I’m not understanding the love for The Hurt Locker. The film, while intense at times, gives us thin characters and throws veracity out the window. The film seems to believe that “An Army of One” truly exists. If this is the way any of the armed forces actually operate, we should be terrified. That this film could be taken seriously after the excellent Generation Kill is puzzling. A weak movie.—Randall Yelverton, Camdenton, MO

Inglourious Basterds (#2)
While the first two hours are a wild ride that proves the World War II genre is much more accommodating to Quentin Tarantino’s usual stylistic flair and cinema-drenched dialogue than it has any right to be, it’s the gleefully over-the-top climax that signals Tarantino’s growth as a filmmaker. Channeling his cinematic obsessions into great filmmaking that goes beyond the “here’s some cool shit I took from other movies” approach and into a “here’s why this shit is cool” approach, Tarantino turns an orgy of bullets and flames into an ode to the possibilities of cinema. It certainly isn’t the most reverent approach to the war, but it’s an assured, thought-provoking, and wholly entertaining representation of Tarantino’s love of cinema.—Jon Marquis, Severn, MD

After a decade and a half of treating filmgoing primarily as an academic exercise, ironically beginning around the release of Pulp Fiction, I find it fitting that it’s Quentin Tarantino who brought me back to the pure kick of watching movies. There’s so much going on in this dense pastiche, but I love it most for being so damned entertaining. The fun starts early, with taut scenes and expertly crafted dialogue, but it’s fresh faces Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz who offer the biggest surprises, as they gleefully steal the movie from their more bankable co-stars.—Jeff Jewell, Howell, MI

A Serious Man (#3)
An utter joy from it’s opening scene to its jawdropping last, this is perhaps the Coen Brothers’ most personal and humorously serious film yet. Tackling the subject of faith in a way unlike any other film before, the troubled little man at its center searches for the Big Answers and ultimately gets none. Thankfully, the Coens supply no answers of their own either. Does God even exist, and if so, what sort of hubris allows some of us to believe he’s interested in our tiny little lives anyway? I mean, seriously.—Steve Striegel, Seattle, WA

The Coen Brothers’ best film. I’m in the minority who thinks most of their clever, technically pristine contraptions are facile, shallow, and empty. But in this one, the darkness and the hilarity of both the visuals and the acting reinforce each other, in a scarily funny cascade of doom.—Randall Byrn, New York, NY

Fantastic Mr. Fox (#4)
No one does awkward as artistically as Wes Anderson, and his foray into stop-motion-generated storytelling raises his lovable, damaged characters to a new level. The challenge of appreciating Anderson’s work depends on how willing the audience is to acknowledge their own faults in the self-deprecating humor that drives his movies. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, he ingeniously disguises that premise behind fuzzy animals with human qualities. However, the film never sugarcoats their animal behavior with innocent cuteness. The sharp delivery of dialogue between the characters sometimes slips toward wild unpredictable primal behavior, which wittily treads the line of silliness and danger. Unlike so many movies for kids, this movie felt organic and authentic, and what do kids need most but true, heart-felt honesty, even if that truth might have its dark places?—Hans Morgenstern, Miami, FL

Summer Hours (#5)
From a schizophrenic thriller to this… Assayas has talent to burn.—Joe Baker, McKinney, TX

The White Ribbon (#6)
A black-and-white masterpiece of the sins of the fathers, in this moral tale in pre-WWI Germany.—Kevin Riggenberg, Denver, CO

Up in the Air (#8)
We all need someone to share life with when the economy is shit!—Brian Mendoza, San Pedro, CA

The Headless Woman (#9)
Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel is the master of creating atmosphere on film. Despite the lack of action, this film is soaked in dread and denial.—Courtney Lanz, Madison, WI

Where the Wild Things Are (#10)
It is, quite simply, about a child who is going through a hard time in his life. His single mom is dating, and the attention is no longer on him, so he escapes to his imagination. The wild things come across as genuine imaginative figures, and Jonze does a great job making sure these creatures come from the mind of Max. It felt almost strange to see beautiful images, great use of lighting, and handheld shots in a movie starring costumed creatures. This movie is completely for adults, but completely from the mind of a child, and it’s somewhat difficult to penetrate. But I have a feeling this will be a film I like even more on re-watches.—Chris Weseloh, Kansas City, MO

Spike Jonze restored the sense of wonder to screen fable—just to implode it with a devastating shot of despair.—Michal Oleszczyk, Krakow, Poland

Avatar (#12)
Does this mean the luminous art form that once gave voice to the genius and humanity of Kubrick, Hitchcock and Kurosawa is being retooled to produce only witless, soulless, bloodlessly violent, high-tech, computer-generated video games for geeky teenagers? Now there’s a chilling thought.—Richard Gerdau, Convent Station, NJ

Cinema will never be the same after Avatar. A new way of cinematography that proves technology has no limit. James Cameron will inspire filmmakers who wish to explore worlds beyond our imagination. This movie marks a beginning for audiences of all ages who will view cinema with new eyes.—Roberta Seret, New York, NY

District 9 (#16)
The most fun I had at the movies this year. So many great sci-fi adventures this year.—Edward Meier, Rochester Hills, MI

Public Enemies (#17)
Mann’s film is an epic hail of tommy-gun fire. As with his similarly under-appreciated Miami Vice, the director’s relative inattention to the execution of cops-and-robbers conventions throws into relief that this is large scale filmmaking at its most composed, controlled, and masterful.—Stephen Brower, Santa Monica, CA

An Education (#18)
I hate putting this on my list, but I loved Carey Mulligan as much as I hated the sexist premise of the movie.—Alice Whitmore, New York, NY

Adventureland (#19)
Pitch-perfect, thoroughly personal filmmaking at its finest. It was as if you could smell the corn dogs. And any film that fetishizes Big Star, the Replacements, and Lou Reed, and features a score by Yo La Tengo is okay in my book! I can go on and on… if only this film was sold to the right audience and not to the American Pie crowd.—Neil Marks, Hoboken, NJ

Police, Adjective (#21)
This low-budget film illustrates that millions of dollars are not needed to create a powerful film. The first question we ask ourselves is when is the film made? We could understand if it were filmed under Ceausescu’s tyranny and paranoia. But now? Too bad nothing has changed in defining Romania’s “secret police.”—Roberta Seret, New York, NY

The Limits of Control (#23)
Best thing ever by Jarmusch. He does take a lot of inspiration from French literature but this film is the zenith of what he has studied. Defend this film! This is the anti-Antichrist.—R. Lonak, Chicago, IL

(500) Days of Summer (#24)
This film is arguably not the most sophisticated or stylistic or even original of 2009, but it was the most fun I had at the movies this year, and it lead me to re-discover the magic of Hall & Oates.—Courtney Lanz, Madison, WI

Star Trek (#27)
What’s so wonderful and brilliant about this reboot of this holy franchise of geekdom is it in no way invalidates the previous history and continuity of the TV series and movies. Plus it was just so darn fun!—Ted Haycraft, Evansville, IN

Drag Me to Hell (#30)
This provided me with the most enjoyable moviegoing experience of ’09. So hilarious and bonkers!—Joseph Vosti, Springfield, VA

Sin Nombre (#32)
Initially, it looked like one of those medicinal films you see to become a better person, albeit without actually having to do anything difficult. Boy, was I wrong! What I found bracing and original is that Sin Nombre manages to exude the delicious kind of fatalism usually found in the film noir genre. I was not prepared for a film as beautifully moving and human as Sin Nombre was.—Michael McGonigle, Philadelphia, PA

The Road (#35)
Hillcoat is fast becoming the best purveyor of barren landscapes and harsh survival lessons. This film deserved better.—Joe Baker, McKinney, TX

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (#37)
As a teen, I felt like the leads in both Precious (unworthy and mistreated, using fantasy as a lifeline) and An Education (demonstrably bored and striving, waiting for adventure and culture, romance and poetry).—Frank J. Miles, Plainfield, NJ

Sugar (#38)
I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to go do a good sports movie, and it turns out it is when the right people are doing it. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden have made a baseball movie that’s realistic, beautiful, and worth watching by many audiences. What makes this so well written is that it’s not about a can’t-miss prospect out of the DR, but instead about a normal kid with some nice talent. The movie has its fair share of poetic and tender moments both in style and substance. Most importantly though, Fleck and Boden never give in to a generic storyline, and that’s what makes this film so good.—Chris Weseloh, Kansas City, MO

Still Walking (#40)
Quiet, beautiful, and heartwarming—or heart-wrenching, not sure which one.—Edward Meier, Rochester Hills, MI

Crazy Heart (#45)
It may not be revolutionary, but I’m so happy to see that the down-on-his-luck entertainer story is still around. I was a bit concerned at first that Bad Blake was closing in on parody, but Jeff Bridges really won me over here.—Tony Larder, Bathurst, New Brunswick, Canada

Julia (#48)
I had been curious what Erick Zonca was doing just before Julia came out, but I was still ill-prepared for the kind of crazy, exhilarating film it turned out to be, nor for Tilda Swinton’s daring, career-best performance. I wasn’t sure how much interest I could generate for this way-out film, but happily everyone I recommended it to was enthusiastic.—Jim Faller, Woodside, NY

Invictus (#50)
Straightforward, beautifully realized film about the early years of Nelson Mandela’s presidency using rugby as a symbol of the newly (and uneasily) unified S. Africa. This picks up where Gran Torino left off; after the renunciation of violence comes forgiveness and reconciliation.—Michael Smith, Chicago, IL

Yes! Some reviewers saw a totally different movie than I did (including Dave Kehr in your Jan/Feb issue). My friends and I loved Nine; I also bought a CD of the soundtrack. In fact, it is my personal favorite for Best Picture of 2009.—Linda Warren, Garden Plain, KS

The revered Hayao Miyazaki returns with another animated fable that deals with man’s ecological impact on the planet couched within a love story at its most innocent. Miyazaki and his team at Ghibli Studios indulge in their talents of hand-drawn animation that eschews technology with just as much sincerity and pure love as that between the boy and the fish. The results are amazing and beyond what digital work can capture.—Hans Morgenstern, Miami, FL

The Box
I feel like the lone voice crying out in the wilderness with this selection. No other film I saw last year in the theater juiced me as much. Such a potent mix of horror, science fiction, spirituality, and mystery, along with an amazing visual strategy and in-your-face (in a good way!) music soundtrack. I can only hope some years down the road I’ll be confirmed by others that this is such an amazing film.—Ted Haycraft, Evansville, IN

Frontier of Dawn
While I enjoy Philippe Garrel’s films, I also find them verbose; nothing some editing wouldn’t fix. Maybe it’s because he revisits the same ideas so often that his movies become indistinguishable from one another. Frontier of Dawn is a beautiful standout that did not have me looking at my watch. The ghost of the self-destructive Nico figure provides a welcome—albeit heavy-handed—touch to a beautifully photographed late-career gem.—Alan Hoffman, Cicero, IL

The Song of Sparrows
Apart from Kiarostami’s Ten and Panahi’s films, we don’t often see the city of Tehran in Iranian cinema. Traditionally the films are set in the countryside where it could be anywhere or nowhere. But Majid Majidi is determined to use his film to tell the truth: Tehran is booming with goods and crates labeled “Made in China” despite an international embargo. Majidi is a master of fooling the censors.—Roberta Seret, New York, NY


best movies of 2009 where the wild things are

This year was a great one. I saw over 60 films and enjoyed 50 of them. I was the most impressed this year by the films that were adapted from kids’ books. So many of these stories are adapted into crap to hold the attention of 5-year-olds. Where the Wild Things Are, Coraline, and Fantastic Mr. Fox are all family films that stayed true to the source material without dumbing down for the audience. A great year and there are still many films I didn’t get to see that could knock any of these out of my top 20.—Edward Meier, Rochester Hills, MI

The only rant or rave I have is that I’m tired of people ridiculing each other for films they like or hate. I believe film, like most art, is a lot like food. You, more often than not, need to give it time to digest. Also, like food, one thing may taste absolutely delicious to you, but the next person may not find the exact same dish all that savory at all; and I find that concept completely acceptable. There is no right or wrong. What makes it interesting is that you like it. A list that is a viewer’s favorites of the year is much more interesting that of what they think is the best of the year, because a list of favorites gives you insight into that person, but when you do “the best” you’re trying to turn art into a mathematical process which it isn’t.—J.P. Schmidt, Mount Airy, MD

More interesting films came out of Film Comment Selects than from the New York Film Festival. Whereas those I saw at the latter seemed either diffuse (The White Ribbon), pedantic (Police, Adjective), or perverted (Life During Wartime), the former provided my #1 (The Hurt Locker), #7 (Jerichow), #17 (The Chaser), and best undistributed (The Mugger) films. If FCS stays at this level, it’s a hidden treasure.—Jim Faller, Woodside, NY

Obviously, Film Comment should do a “hottest guys of the year” top 10 as well…—Johnston Connelly, Palmerston North, New Zealand