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The 20 Best Films Of 2009

The 20 Best Films Of 2009

With 2015 upon us, we figured it was a good time to look back on the movies the millennium has brought us. We’ve dug into the archives and are re-running our Best of the 2000s pieces, from way back in 2009 when the Playlist was a little Blogspot site held together with tape and string. Each list runs down the top 10 films of each year (it’s possible that, half-a-decade on, we’d put them in a different order and even change some of the movies, but we wanted to preserve the original pieces untouched as far as possible). Check out 20002001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 if you missed them, and today we continue with 2009. FYI, unlike the other pieces, which were compiled by group, 2009 were the picks of Editor-In-Chief Rodrigo Perez only, and also went to twenty picks. If he were to do them again, they’d probably look very different, too…

Getting a definitive top 10 out of the Playlist team is hard.

There’s a lot of differing opinions and due to the locations of our writers (we’ve got people in the UK, Australia, Canada and U.S. places other than NY/LA), some don’t get to see most of the year’s films until January 2010. While we’re deep in January now, some are still making their way through everything.

While 2009 in many ways was a weak year for movies, at least in the mainstream, if you looked into international cinema, there were lots of films to be admired. Here’s my personal top 20 films of 2009 —they’re the ones that were the most emotionally affecting and psychologically haunting. The tried and true formula: the experience + the resonance= great movie. It has to be great in that moment and months later, unlike say, “Avatar” which was fun but forgotten about an hour later.

Unlike our 2008 picks, we stuck explicitly to 2009 films, not including pictures that are set for a 2010 release that we saw earlier this year at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival (Nicolas Winding Refn‘s spiritual horror viking film, “Valhalla Rising” and Bong Joon-Ho‘s oedipal murder mystery drama, “Mother” being the two that would easily penetrate this list if they were technically not 2010 films).

20. “Tokyo Sonata”
A family drama like none other done by former J-horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to grandmaster Akira), the only reason this film is so low on our list is that I saw it over a year ago. ‘Sonata’ is a sprawling saga about a father too ashamed to admit he’s been fired and the aftermath that effects his family. And if Kurosawa was once the maestro of Japanese horror, this is internal terror of another kind: a disquietude that haunts even as it defies categorization, veering into absurdist comedy and social commentary before finally settling on a graceful, quivering and jaw-dropping solemnity.

19. “The Cove”
How do you treat a potentially bleeding-heart, environmentally-friendly save-the-dolphins type hot-button issue documentary? If you’re director Louie Psihoyos, you check all the angles and realize the only true way to expose the dirt behind what’s actually going on in an illegal fishing cove in Taijii, Japan, is to go stealth and infiltrate from the inside with all the logistics and planning of a special ops team a la Jason Bourne. Using state of the art technology (plus help from Industrial Light & Magic) and Ric O’Barry, one of the world’s preeminent dolphin advocates, “The Cove” becomes a riveting spy-like thriller and one of the most truly captivating documentaries of the year. It’s also a powerful examination of redemption. O’Barry became famous (and rich) by capturing and training the dolphins that starred in the T.V series “Flipper.” Eventually he realized the show was a catalyst for the abuse and captivity of dolphins worldwide, and this film depicts a passionate man dedicated to righting former mistakes.

18. “Two Lovers”
If Joaquin Phoenix sticks to his guns and does end up retiring from acting (he didn’t – Ed.) then his incredibly manic yet vulnerable final performance in James Gray‘s “Two Lovers” is certainly not a bad way to go out. A loose remake of Luchino Visconti‘s 1957 film “Le Notti Bianche” (starring Marcello Mastroianni), Phoenix plays an emasculated man-child torn between two women: one that represents chaos and lust (Gwyneth Paltrow) and one that symbolizes stability and open-heartedness (Vinessa Shaw). The right choice isn’t quite so easy, and watching Phoenix grapple with his decision is remarkable.

17. “Goodbye Solo”
An old man wants to die and a relentlessly optimistic Senegalese cab driver tries to convince him otherwise in a hands-off, round-about way. Ramin Bahrani‘s acute, occasionally funny and well-observed examination of loneliness and friendship is incredibly thoughtful and textured. Tags of neo-neo realism aside, it’s easily his best work thus far, showcasing an incredible touch with finding untapped talent and quietly guiding them to greatness.

16. “The Limits Of Control”
Perhaps the most misunderstood film of 2009. A swirling, mantra-like dream and a deceptively funny piece of minimalist art, Jim Jarmusch‘s “The Limits of Control” stars a stoic Isaach de Bankolé in a performance sorely undervalued this year by impatient, short-sighted critics. Mark my words, like mind-benders such as David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Drive,” Alain Renais’Last Year At Marienbad,” or even Jarmusch’s own “Dead Man” (which also received poor reviews and now is a cult classic), this psychedelic masterpiece will one day get its proper due. In some circles, it already has.

15. “Tetro”
Francis Ford Coppola‘s sophomore, “return to filmmaking” effort (no one noticed “Youth Without Youth“) might have been maddeningly uneven, but damn if it wasn’t lasting and affective. Vincent Gallo expertly plays… himself…a highly irritable artist incensed at the unannounced arrival of his younger brother, fantastic newcomer Alden Ehrenreich. Gallo’s Tetro abandons his family and left his sibling years ago, and this return brings a flood of unwanted memories. Put aside the color flashbacks and the preoccupation with dream sequence homages to Powell & Pressburger, and you have a near perfect serio-comic picture about family bonds. At times riotously funny (thanks to Gallo) and tremendously moving (thanks to everyone, including wonderful supporting actress Maribel Verdu), “Tetro” is a stirring account of familial discord and the costs of indulging an artistic temperament.

14. “Where The Wild Things Are”
Intuitively rendered with childlike curiosity and handcrafted lo-fi charm, Spike Jonze‘s scrappy ‘Wild Things’ was an extraordinarily captivating version of Maurice Sendak‘s classic kids book that extrapolated the boy-in-the-woods-with-monsters tale into an intimate, raw and extremely honest depiction about the traumas of childhood. With an emphasis of mood over plot (which was a dealbreaker for some), Jonze’s bittersweet look at how kids play and bruise each others feelings may have been pervasively melancholy but was still incredibly rich and emotionally contoured.

13. “Revanche”
A slow-burning meditation on revenge and ultimately forgiveness, Götz Spielmann‘s Austrian drama is an intense, taut but patiently-building thriller cum Greek tragedy about a man seething with vengeance and simmering with an anger that is his own fault. It’s almost two films in one. After admirably trying to give his girlfriend a better life and afford her salvation from a soul-crushing life of acceptable prostitution (Act One) he attempts one last bank job so their life on the run can be sustained (Act Two). But the heist goes terribly awry, and the guilt-ridden protagonist (a fiery Johannes Krisch) decides to hunt down the police officer who has robbed him of the one true thing he loved. The Criterion Collection were so moved by this haunting film that they nabbed it before it was even ever released in theaters. That should tell you all you need to know as it’s a rare move on their part.

12. “Sin Nombre”
While it made a splash at Sundance Film Festival early in the year, Cary Fukunaga‘s arresting first feature was overlooked as the year went on, which is a shame. An occasionally harsh and almost documentary-like immigration drama about a Central American girl trying to illegally emigrate by train to the U.S. and the Mexican ex-gang member on the run that she falls in with, ‘Nombre’ is an unflinching, harrowing chronicle of the brutality and indignities endured in the hopes of pursuing the American dream.

11. “An Education”
Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig‘s celebrated coming-of-age film has its flaws: a weak, wrap-up-too-quick ending and a Hallmark-like tone in spots. Yet the tremendous Carey Mulligan imbues every blush, giggle and rush of awe she feels with an irresistible potency. As her caged character wakes up to the world around her — swinging London in the early ’60s — you cannot take your eyes off her. Mulligan’s magnetic presence pushes this film forward with a terrific, career-making performance that won’t soon be forgotten.

10. “A Single Man”
An incredibly elegant and moving look at emotional devastation via loss, former Gucci fashion designer Tom Ford‘s debut feature-film resembles the work of a filmmaker midway through a consistent career, not the work of a newb just out of the starting gate. And Colin Firth  — an actor who never quite fully impressed previously — is outstanding as a dead man walking; a teacher reeling from the death of his male lover. It’s a splendidly crafted, immaculately detailed film that thankfully doesn’t trade style over substance and soul.

9. “Anvil! The Story Of Anvil”
Yeah, Sacha Gervasi‘s metalhead documentary about loveably lunkheaded Canadian metal heads Anvil was included in our best of 2008 list, but technically came out this year. The doc is so good and affecting that even if you loathe metal and are intolerant of loser schlubs, I daresay you will still love this winning, touching and funny documentary to death. It’s a tribute to brotherhood and the well-worn resilience required in the face of massive adversity in order to keep chasing your dreams.

8. “A Serious Man”
An inscrutable treasure from the Coen Brothers. If you thought the ending of “No Country For Old Men” was puzzling but breathtaking, then the awe-inspiring conclusion of this suburban, comedic drama about universal punishment will leave your jaw on the floor. Michael Stuhlburg puts in a breakthrough performance as the loyal husband and devout Jewish father trying to be a good man, but is still punished by the universe at every turn. The film also features one of the most puzzling prologues of any film this year. It’s the Coen Brothers’ modern-day “Barton Fink,” an odd but wonderful puzzle that likely will be studied for ages.

7. “Bright Star”
Jane Campion returns to her element — the romance period piece — with stunning results. Abbie Cornish has always been good, but here she’s commanding and outstanding — she carries this lovely film (the cinematography, music and general aesthetics are exquisitely crafted). However, its greatest strength is its delicate carefulness, as if you can feel porcelain fingers move and eyelashes flutter. Campion conveys the butterflies flush of emotion in your stomach and the crestfallen rush of heartache devastatingly.

6. “The Hurt Locker”
Kathryn Bigelow‘s ‘Hurt Locker’ is a kind of reverse action film. While heart-pounding detonations go off and shots are fired, this film, set during the conflict in Iraq, is actually more powerful for the action that doesn’t happen. Defusing bombs is the name of the game for enlisted adrenaline junkies who get off on handling live wires —  damn if there has been an “action film” this tense, riveting and intelligent in years. Bigelow excels in setting pulses racing when seemingly nothing is happening. Case in point? Jeremy Renner‘s paralysis in a grocery store, overwhelmed by the choice of cereals in the real world, is one of the most breathtaking scenes in the film. Living with a job where every day might be his last, he’ll never be the same.

5. “The Headless Woman”
An eerie and intentionally disorienting experience about the after affects of a woman undergoing a random car accident, Lucrecia Martels film enigmatically places you in a claustrophobic mental crawlspace that blurs the lines between reality and depth perception autism. It might be the first film that frighteningly (and subtly) makes you feel like you’re taking on the first symptoms of schizophrenia. A disembodying and haunting piece of cinema.

4. “Bronson”
A wickedly delirious, gleefully vicious and hypnotically operatic look at one of the UK’s most notorious prisoners. While the music and clinical aesthetics of the picture are very Kubrick at times, sonically there’s some sexy “Trainspotting” textures going on (the pulsating electro score), plus a Lynch-ian absurdity. It comes courtesy of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, whose bold style is so audacious and idiosyncratic that if he doesn’t watch it, someone is going to try to convince him to take on “Batman 3” if Nolan bails. Or at least he would be my pie in the sky first choice.

3. “Still Walking”
Hirokuza Kore-eda‘s carefully observed family drama may owe its simple aesthetic to the great Japanese master Yasujirō Ozu, but nonetheless this film is tremendously moving, intricately nuanced and emotionally textured. A son returns home to visit his elderly parents and long-simmering bitter family issues begin to surface over the course of one hot summer day. Has there been a film that accurately yet compassionately illustrates the irritation, affection and sadness of our complicated relationships to our loved ones better this year? No. A beautiful, yet painfully honest portrait of family.

2. “35 Shots Of Rum”
Leave it to the venerable doyenne of the French arthouse Claire Denis to make an exquisite film ostensibly about nothing and yet about everything. Guided by a wistful soundtrack by the Tindersticks and the warm, intimate lens of cinematographer Agnes Godard, Denis’ film about the relationship between a daughter, her father and a man who lives in their apartment complex is, as per her usual work, tactile, sensual and flush with magnetic, intoxicating moments of real human connection. It’s also a captivating picture about what’s said behind the lines. A masterful piece of work.

1. “Summer Hours”
This warm, humanistic, sentimental, yet never treacly, drama is about a trio of middle-aged siblings that, in the wake of their mother’s death, are forced to sell the family summer home and for the first time face their lives on their own. Tender yet matter of fact, Oliver Assayas does a wonderful job of balancing the joys and pains of life without manipulation, and captures the shifting values of contemporary French life with graceful subtlety. What “Summer Hours” does better than any film this year is capture the bittersweetness in endings, the quiet fear of new beginnings, the passing of seasons and the melancholy, inevitable changing of the guard.

Honorable Mentions: First and foremost, there’s Oven Moverman‘s “The Messenger,” an excellent film that features tremendous performances by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, but for whatever reason it didn’t stick with me. Other mentions need to go to Judd Apatow‘s overly long but still comical and moving, “Funny People“; Duncan Jones‘ wonderfully eerie and lugubrious space oddity “Moon“; the hickory smoked Southern Gothic drama “That Evening Sun” containing a stellar performance by Hal Holbrook; Lars Von Trier‘s off-the-rails “Antichrist” (if the second half was as good as the first, it would have been top 5); Pedro Almodovar‘s “Broken Embraces” (flawed but very memorable and impeccable aesthetics all around); Greg Mottola‘s understated and low-key teen dramedy “Adventureland“; John Hillcoat‘s bleak and ashen “The Road” (which was tremendously moving in the moment but the experience has diminished for me); and Gerardo Naranjo‘s “Voy A Explotar” which I still like, but on a second viewing has fallen off in my estimation.

Also props to Christian Petzold‘s “Jerichow“; the truly compelling documentary “Food Inc.”; estimable doc-filmmaker Frederick Wiseman‘s captivating, almost-3-hour-long ballet documentary “La Danse“; Christophe Honoré‘s “La Belle Personnes“; the super twisted, pitch-black Russian comedy cum serial killer communist screed “Cargo 200“; and Jan Troell‘s ambrosial and affecting “Everlasting Moments.” Slight but still warm and winsome is Shane Meadows‘ “Somers Town” and Terence Davies’ deeply poetic and nostalgic paean to his Liverpudllian upbringing in the documentary “Of Time and the City.” Gotta give some love to “District 9” for being the most inventive and entertaining tentpole of the year, and the audacity of “World’s Greatest Dad” which by no means was perfect but certainly made me laugh out loud a few times.

Ok, I haven’t seen everything. I didn’t see “Paris” starring Juliette Binoche, but most people seemed to think it was mediocre (I love Binoche, so I will see this eventually). The Cannes 2009 runner-up “Un Prophete” has been seen by many (including several other Playlist members), but technically does not come out in the U.S. until February, 2010, so it wouldn’t be included here. Many critics, including Roger Ebert are including “Silent Light” in their 2009 picks, but it came out for a week in New York during Christmas of 2008, so I included it in those picks. I suppose if I included it here, it would crack the top 5, but again, for my specific purposes, we’re going to consider it a 2009 film. Go see it, as it is a radiant picture.

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