The best (and worst) of 2009

  • MAN ON WIRE(S) Jeremy Renner, right, tries not to blow a fuse in 'The Hurt Locker'.

  • TRUE ROMANCE Joaquin Phoenix rises to the occasion with Vinessa Shaw in 'Two Lovers'.

  • BRIEFCASE ENCOUNTER Michael Stuhlbarg holds on to his bag for dear life in 'A Serious Man'.

MAN ON WIRE(S) Jeremy Renner, right, tries not to blow a fuse in 'The Hurt Locker'.

The Best

David Fear, Film editor

1 35 Shots of Rum
Claire Denis delivers a touching, tender story of paternal affection, as a single father bids adieu to his nest-leaving daughter. It’s the sort of nuanced, heartfelt filmmaking that leaves you intoxicated.

2 Summer Hours
This sublime French family drama asks: What happens when a country loses its cultural heritage? And who knew that Gallic provocateur Olivier Assayas might really be his generation’s Renoir?

3 The Hurt Locker
Hawksian he-men engage with IEDs, existential ennui and the warped mind-set of the perpetual warrior. Kathryn Bigelow delivers an Iraq War film that jangles your nerves and defies easy political didacticism.

4 Sugar
The first couple of indie humanism—Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden—follow up Half Nelson with the story of a Dominican pitcher inching his way through baseball’s minor leagues and the American Dream.

5 The Headless Woman
A stellar throwback to yesteryear’s foreign-film heyday, Lucrecia Martel’s class parable proves that art-house modernism is alive, well and apparently based in Argentina.

6 A Serious Man
Couched within Joel and Ethan Coens’ absurdist comedy about growing up Jewish in ’60s Middle America is a profound exploration of the moral order of the universe and the purpose of faith. No kidding.

7 Hunger
British video artist Steve McQueen transforms IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’s hunger strike into a gut-wrenching meditation on self-annihilation and sacrifice. Michael Fassbender’s performance is one for the ages.

8 Still Walking
Those of us who’ve been trumpeting Hirokazu Kore-eda as modern Japanese cinema’s MVP were rewarded with this demure but devastating tale of a family observing an annual funereal ritual.

9 Treeless Mountain
How So Yong Kim managed to make a kids-in-peril melodrama that skirts clichs so gracefully, while still delivering an emotional payoff, baffles us. But we’re eternally grateful that she did.

10 Bronson
Tom Hardy’s immersive, transformative turn as Britain’s No. 1 celebrity convict is both the last metaword on self-determination and the beating heart in Nicolas Winding Refn’s expressionist biopic.

Joshua Rothkopf, senior Film writer

1 A Serious Man
The Coens wind their way backward to their own Minnesota boyhoods, yet the movie is a giant leap forward for them, matching their style to a deep inquiry into the limits of spirituality.

2 Still Walking
A single day in the life of a Japanese family dealing with long-harbored grief, this quiet domestic drama takes its place alongside the work of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi.

3 Two Lovers
Bad rapper and guest-couch-snoozer Joaquin Phoenix nearly eclipsed his own performance in James Gray’s romance, an emotional powerhouse of rebirth and resignation.

4 Star Trek
A perfect example of Hollywood done right, the rebooted franchise manages the impossible: pleasing the Vulcan-eared fanboys, while also drawing new viewers to the spark of youth in self-definition.

5 The Hurt Locker
The comeback of a Hollywood outsider, Kathryn Bigelow, takes on an explosive subject—the anxiety of today’s career soldier—and strips it to the basics of suspense and release.

6 Anvil! The Story of Anvil
Metal music was never meant to sustain the livelihoods of the semitalented, but the sight of these middle-aged Torontonians keeping it real spurs massive amounts of affection.

7 Summer Hours
Finally, Olivier Assayas drops the vinyl-clad nonsense and rises to his considerable potential—as a sensitive chronicler of a family stowing away its own legacy.

8 The House of the Devil
Wunderkind director Ti West plunges horrorheads into a fully working replica of a high-’80s babysitter thriller—a total treat for the serious connoisseur.

9 Somers Town
Leave it to England’s Shane Meadows to whittle down his preoccupation with sensitive thugs and end up with a tender tale of two teens in working-class London.

10 Funny People
A movie that will doubtless be reconsidered, Judd Apatow’s difficult comedy about the double comeuppance of a jerk is exactly what his decriers have been wanting.

Keith Uhlich, Film writer

1 The Limits of Control
Jim Jarmusch sends a mystery man on a leisurely murderous mission and makes a masterpiece—his best alongside Dead Man (1995). Usted no habla espaol, verdad?

2 Night and Day
A disgraced Korean artist wanders through Paris and his own twisted mindscape in Hong Sang-soo’s finest deconstruction yet of the male psyche.

3 California Dreamin’
We lost someone special in writer-director Cristian Nemescu, who died in a car crash during postproduction of this ebullient comedy-drama, about a U.S. military convoy stuck in a Romanian village.

4 Two Lovers
The supremely talented James Gray brings new resonance to the one-man-caught-between-two-women paradigm. If this is indeed Joaquin Phoenix’s acting swan song, he picked a hell of a performance to go out on.

5 My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
God’s in his oatmeal, the ostriches are running wild, and all is right with the basketball. It’ll make sense after you see Werner Herzog’s deceptively routine police procedural.

6 Lorna’s Silence
The brothers Dardennes patiently observe an Albanian immigrant and con artist, whose role in a green-card scam slowly chips away at her sanity—even as it brings her closer to the divine.

7 Public Enemies
Michael Mann explores the presentness of the past in his DV gangster picture. The exploits of outlaw John Dillinger unfold right in front of us, with untold intimacy and ceaseless forward motion.

8 A Christmas Carol
The Charles Dickens perennial is as familiar a yuletide offering as It’s a Wonderful Life. Robert Zemeckis, with a motion-capture assist from plastic man Jim Carrey, gives it a thrilling vitality.

9 The Box
This bizarre mlange of trippy science fiction and small-town melodrama is a defiantly personal project that solidifies writer-director Richard Kelly’s talent, even as it surely pushes him further toward the filmmaking fringe.

10 Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino bloodily rewrites World War II, but as usual, his violence masks something deeper: the way we use words and images to create (un)official histories.

The Worst

David Fear, Film editor

Paper Heart
Charlyne Yi’s nails-on-chalkboard giggle is actually the least grating aspect of this faux-doc rom-com; still, at least now we have a definitive test for toxic-twee tolerance.

Joshua Rothkopf, senior Film writer

Masquerading as a serious psychodrama (and received as such by dupes), Lars von Trier’s disaster is even worse than imagined. For chaos to truly reign, you’d have to first drop the revenge-for-dummies theatrics.

Keith Uhlich, Film writer

A Single Man
Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel is an essential work of queer portraiture and activism. Tom Ford’s film adaptation is a fashion-spread pity party that regressively turns its protagonist into a token gay martyr.

Report card:

Depending on whom you asked, several iconoclastic American filmmakers—Michael Mann, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Kelly, Wes Anderson—delivered either masterpieces or monumental disappointments (the truth is somewhere in between). It was easy to be infuriated by the co-opting of film comment by the Twitter crowd, who inevitably skewed real debate toward knee-jerk insta-reactions. Comebackwise, it was a good year to be a Canadian metal band, a veteran female action director or James Cameron. Amerindie’s next wave—dubbed by A.O. Scott “the neo-neorealists”—delivered exceptionally strong work, as did foreign filmmakers like Claire Denis, Oliver Assayas and Michael Haneke. How the failing economy will affect both camps’ chances of coming to a theater near you in the future remains to be seen.

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