There’s something in the air in the movies of 2009: An elderly man takes flight with a thousand balloons, a suburbanite climbs to his rooftop and sees the world anew, George Clooney lives on an airplane and a fleet of bombers approaches a city to put an end to all this nonsense.
Those situations (from, respectively, “Up,” “A Serious Man,” “Up in the Air” and “You, the Living”) provide some bird’s-eye perspective on the best films of 2009. And maybe the movies, at their best, can provide a little perspective on life as we know it at the end of the decade — certainly those four movies do.
Of course, along with thoughtful offerings, Movie Year 2009 brought plenty of the usual craziness, some of which was fun (“Inglourious Basterds,” which re-wrote the history of World War II, or “2012,” which demolished the globe), some of which was grueling. The year’s biggest box-office hit was also possibly its worst picture: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which wasn’t terrible because of its violence, sexism or juvenile humor, but because it didn’t do even those things competently.
Sequels almost always make money, because fans need to find out what happens. But except for a decent “Harry Potter” installment, most of this year’s sequels felt obligatory, even when they made a haul: “New Moon,” “Wolverine,” “Angels &Demons,” “Terminator Salvation.” Will anybody remember these a year from now, unless you’re on Team Edward, or Team Kenny, or whatever it is?
Much of what was interesting came from people trying something new. This could happen in the indie world or a big Hollywood budget.
On the micro-level, Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton dreamed up something new with a low-budget, mostly improvised comedy about male embarrassment, “Humpday,” and darned if she didn’t get a national release out of it.
On the macro-level, Michael Mann took an eccentric approach to the gangster picture in “Public Enemies” (a mixed bag, but interesting), Sam Raimi went grindhouse with “Drag Me to Hell” (released at exactly the wrong time of year) and Wes Anderson went animated with “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (also a mixed bag, but charming at times).
Who were the year’s big winners? Well, “Transformers” director Michael Bay seems to have his contract with the Dark Lord in order. Also, the year bodes well for technicians: If you’re employed in the making of motion-capture animation or 3-D, you’ve probably got a secure future.
Sandra Bullock was a 2009 winner. Not only has “The Blind Side” turned into a major late hit (already in the top 10 for the year and still earning), but her blah summer comedy “The Proposal” pulled in enough to make it (currently) the No. 13 biggest grosser. It’s enough to make you overlook Bullock’s aggressively weird “All About Steve,” which came and went without a ripple.
Science fiction had a good year: The “Star Trek” reboot was enormous fun, and “District 9,” “Avatar” and the low-budget “Moon” proved the adaptability of the genre to technology and political ideas.
And speaking of “Avatar,” you’d have to say James Cameron came out a winner. The pitfalls were there — too much anticipation, too many costs — but audiences are flocking to his head trip of a movie.
We pause briefly to mention the year’s losers. The environmentally concerned cartoon — admittedly a small genre — did not do well, as the dullness of “9” and “Battle for Terra” proved. Of course, you might argue that “Avatar” is an enviro-cartoon, too.
Pity poor Eddie Murphy. After years of making bad family movies that made money, he finally did a good one — “Imagine That” — and audiences stayed away. I guess they’d lost patience with him.
And prehistory did poorly. Will Ferrell visited the dinosaurs and flopped with “Land of the Lost” and Jack Black trudged through the mild yuks of “Year One.” So you can forget about a remake of “Caveman.”
But let’s get to the numbers. In listing the best, I found fewer Hollywood biggies and more small-scale offerings, which is the way it goes some years. And overall, I thought this year was less than great. Except at the top, of course. An all-expenses trip to the planet Pandora to the best movies of 2009:
1. “A Serious Man.” No stars in this latest Coen brothers picture, just a very funny look at one man’s woes in the summer of 1967. A physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to find the answers to life’s puzzles — but even if you find them, you still might get blown away, as this movie’s genuinely startling ending suggests.
2. “You, the Living.” Don’t worry, most film people I know haven’t seen this barely released Swedish movie either. But it’s a classic. Roy Andersson’s dark comedy is composed of 50 separate vignettes of everyday joys and frustrations, each of which moves us toward a conclusion quite similar to the ominous end of “A Serious Man.”
3. “Inglourious Basterds.” When it comes to sheer moviemaking bravado, few directors top Quentin Tarantino, who creates his own la-la land each time out. While this movie appears to be a “Dirty Dozen” thing with Brad Pitt braying about Nazis, it’s actually a clever and suspenseful talkfest dominated by a little-known actor, Christoph Waltz. And by the way, Hitler gets his just desserts — and it ain’t apple strudel with whipped cream.
4. “Summer Hours.” Nice to see this wise French film, directed by Olivier Assayas, get the love at awards time; it’s been winning some best-foreign nods and actually topped the Indiewire critics poll for best movie of the year. The subject is universal: how a family deals with its own history, the objects and property accrued over a couple of generations.
5. “The Hurt Locker.” Will Kathryn Bigelow be the first woman to win the best director Oscar? Don’t bet against it. Her ground-level look at bomb-squad soldiers in Iraq is a taut experience throughout.
6. “Up.” The Pixar people triumph again (how often have I written that line?), this time with a wonderful tale of a man who takes a lifelong dream aloft — and finds a kind of child’s adventure waiting for him at the other end of his trip. Also contains perhaps the funniest excuse ever for talking cartoon animals.
7. “Ballast.” Small American indie, but what a wallop. Director Lance Hammer surveys a delicate family situation in the depressed flatlands of the Mississippi Delta and finds a kind of sad poetry there.
8. “35 Shots of Rum.” My other favorite French movie, an example of director Claire Denis making films that seem more like music than storytelling. Although, among the faces and gestures, there might be a story in there.
9. “Up in the Air.” George Clooney is a corporate hatchet man whose rootless life is about to get taken down to earth. In another year this movie would be a second-10, but I do like its timeliness and its end-of-decade summation of where we are these days.
10. “Taking Woodstock.” Since I ran out of real Top Ten titles a couple of rungs ago, I will sneak in a flawed film that nevertheless created more good vibes than almost any other movie that wasn’t from Pixar: Ang Lee’s sad-happy look at a minor player in the Woodstock phenomenon.
Just missing the cut: two mysterious films from Argentina, “Liverpool” and “The Headless Woman,” Jane Campion’s “Bright Star,” the curiously undervalued “An Education” (especially Carey Mulligan’s breakout performance), the brainy Julia Roberts-Clive Owen spy picture “Duplicity,” the better-than-it-sounds “Sunshine Cleaning,” the very fun “Star Trek,” the stunning Austrian film “Revanche,” “Moon,” Michael Keaton’s muted directing debut “The Merry Gentleman,” and the hothouse collision of Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage, “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.”
A few nominations for good popcorn movies: “Fired Up,” “2012,” “A Perfect Getaway,” “Ponyo” and “Drag Me to Hell.”
And now let us close the year and lower the boom, scolding the 10 worst movies of 2009. These are in no order — they’re equally unworthy.
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Worst of the year? Honestly, no — but it was plenty witless enough to take on all comers.
“The Taking of Pelham 123.” Remake of a decent 1970s hostages-on-a-subway-car picture. As I noted in my review, I had the distinct feeling I knew how the hostages felt.
“The Unborn.” Worst 2009 movie with a dybbuk in it (“A Serious Man” is the best); here, Gary Oldman plays the rabbi investigating a possession and threatens to become Rod Steiger in the process.
“Little Ashes.” Hopeless look at the Spanish surrealists of the 1920s, with “Twilight” vamp Robert Pattinson as wildman painter Salvador Dali.
“The Fourth Kind.” More imagination went into the marketing — the attempt to convince moviegoers that real footage of alien possession was being used — than in the storytelling.
“Nine.” Sorry, musical-theater fans, but this one gets just about everything wrong. Could this be the worst movie ever made with six Oscar-winning actors in the cast?
“The Mysteries of Pittsburgh.” Unfair to pick at little indie productions, perhaps. But not if you’d had to sit through this one.
“New York, I Love You.” A truly dreary collection of short episodes by different directors, in which we frequently are reminded how great New York is. By the end of the movie, you’re seriously doubting it.
“Love Happens.” Pure factory product, a therapy movie about a self-help guru (Aaron Eckhart), a florist (Jennifer Aniston) and healing. Oh, the healing.
“Blood: The Last Vampire.” I gotta be honest, when you review 300 films in a year, you sometimes zonk out a little. At some point during the utter incoherence of this one, I began daydreaming, and I don’t think I ever quite made it back. Blood? Vampires? Sounds like another year at the movies. Bring on 2010.