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The Oklahoman's film critics pick the best of 2009

Gene Triplett Modified: May 15, 2013 at 11:40 am •  Published: January 19, 2010

Best MOVIES OF 2009

Gene Triplett’s Top 10

I still haven’t had the courage to ask what that yellow stuff really is on my “buttered” popcorn, but I kept coming back for more in 2009, and here are 10 of the best reasons why.

 

1. “Up in the Air.” Director Jason Reitman piloted George Clooney to new heights of acting excellence as a guy who flies from city to city, firing employees of downsizing corporations while reveling in his mobile lifestyle, free of such excess baggage as family or personal commitments — until he learns the hard way that he’s missing the most important connection of all. It’s a timely comedy-drama with a big, heavy heart that’s bound to land its participants on the red carpet runway come Oscar night.

2. “Precious.” Fledgling actress Gabourey Sidibe found the deeply lost and hopeless soul of the title character and held it up for all to see in director Lee Daniels’ emotionally bruising screen adaptation, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” about an obese black Harlem teenager who’s been impregnated by her father and constantly battered by her addict mother (a sensationally loathsome Mo’Nique). Cast and director pulled no punches in this harsh masterpiece of relevant drama, showing what it’s like to be a helpless young victim at the bottom of America’s social heap.

 3. “The Hurt Locker.” Director Kathryn Bigelow, who seems keenly attuned to the workings of the male mind (“Point Break,” “K19: The Widowmaker”), delved sharply into the fears, feelings, motivations and behaviors of a squad of bomb-defusing soldiers in Baghdad, working from a script wired with suspense and explosive thrills by Mark Boal. Jeremy Renner as the risk-taking unit leader sets fire to the message that war is like a drug to many of its voluntary front-line participants.

 4. “Inglourious Basterds.” Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s audacious rewrite of World War II history, centered around an elite force of Jewish-American soldiers bent on killing and scalping all the Nazis they can lay their hands on, was at turns gripping, thrilling, deliciously over-the-top and brutally funny, with a kind of stylized comic look and feel that only Q.T. can pull off so successfully, and a priceless performance from Brad Pitt as the hard-core hillbilly leading the charge. This offered some of the purest cinematic pleasure of the past 12 months.

 5. “District 9.” Here’s how our fearful and prejudice-wracked world would treat extraterrestrial life if it showed up on our earthly doorstep, wretched, homeless, sick and in need of help, according to the rich imagination of new film auteur Neill Blomkamp: We’d exile them to a slum and treat them like contaminated vermin. Shot in shockingly realistic, documentary style, this was the sci-fi sleeper surprise of the year.

6. “The Soloist.” In his finest performance since “Ray,” Jamie Foxx disappeared into the role of a Juilliard-trained cellist reduced to a homeless skid-row existence due to severe schizophrenia. Robert Downey Jr. is controlled and compelling as the Los Angeles Times columnist who at first sees a prize-winning story but ultimately forges a deep friendship with the lost genius and crusades to find a home and help for him in this soulfully moving, fact-based story from screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) and director Joe Wright (“Atonement”).

7. “A Serious Man.” Joel and Ethan Coen mined their shared childhood experience of growing up Jewish in 1960s Midwestern America to draw a seriously funny portrait of an ordinary suburban-dwelling guy who can’t catch a break in life despite his devotion to his faith, his academic profession and an ungrateful family. Tony Award-winning screen newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg gives an amazingly understated, hilarious performance as a man struggling to cope and become a mensch — a righteous, respected man — teaching mathematical certainties in an uncertain world where his personal life is spinning out of control. Coen-quirky characters abound in this personal and telling parable on the human condition.

8. “Public Enemies.” Johnny Depp fired off a high-caliber performance, capturing all the dangerous magnetism and cocky, Thompson-toting toughness of the real John Dillinger, even managing a spookily accurate physical resemblance to the smartest and most elusive celebrity criminal of the Depression era. At the same time, director Michael Mann, known for some of the most memorable, stylized crime thrillers of the past 20 years (“Thief,” “Heat,” “Collateral”) was at the top of his game with this brutal, handsomely crafted, heart-pounding re-creation of one of the harshest chapters in U.S. history.

 9. “Moon.” Too-seldom-seen Sam Rockwell made a superb dramatic feast of his meatiest role as solitary working-class astronaut Sam Bell. During a three-year stint manning a mechanized corporate mining operation on the far side of the moon, his only companion has been vigilant computer “Gerty” (voiced by Kevin Spacey), his only link to Earth an occasional delayed one-way message from his wife and child. With his contract time almost up, a terrible accident and a disturbing discovery threaten his safe return home, sparking paranoid panic and a corker of an existential dilemma in writer-director Duncan (Zowie Bowie) Jones’ gritty and supremely haunting sci-fi thriller.

10. “The Young Victoria.” Emily Blunt brought to the ball all the regal presence, royal radiance and strong-willed, youthful, feminine spirit required of the title role in this handsomely mounted story of how England’s longest-ruling monarch ascended to the throne at age 18, despite her calculating and ambitious mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson). Rupert Friend was a stalwart charmer as Victoria’s ally and the love of her life, Prince Albert. Screenwriter Julian Fellowes and director Jean-Marc Vallee infused just enough romance and political intrigue to create an entertaining period piece, but Blunt was its crowning glory, making yet another trip to the neighborhood movie palace worthwhile.

George Lang’s Top 10  

Discerning cinephiles might look upon 2009 as an abject, big-budget disaster, the year clanging computer-generated robots ruled the multiplexes and gave Michael Bay carte blanche to detonate impressionable brain cells from here to Cybertron.

But look just a little deeper: Great films actually ran in commercial movie houses in 2009. Every film on this list played in major theaters. Sometimes it was only for a week, but they were there. Furthermore, not all of these were year-end prestige releases, though each elevated its genre, whether it was romantic comedies or politically resonant science fiction.

1. “Up in the Air.” Everyone who flies alone, and frequently, feels a little like Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) at times, but the slick, corporate hatchetman in Jason Reitman’s devastatingly truthful comedy-drama is addicted to that detachment he finds in his airport-to-airport, hotel-to-hotel life. Then a seductive fellow traveler (Vera Farmiga) breaks through his carefully constructed emotional shell, and a chirpy newbie at his firing company (Anna Kendrick) plans to permanently ground him, and this suave, purposely shallow man must confront the world outside his bubble. Clooney has been working up to this mesmerizing performance his entire career. Unless the Oscars are unexpectedly abolished this year, he will win one – and after “Thank You for Smoking” and “Juno,” Reitman is three-for-three with this sophisticated, funny and emotionally honest film.

2. “Inglourious Basterds.” At the end of Quentin Tarantino’s bold and bracing piece of World War II revisionism, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) turned to one of his subordinates after executing a perfectly permanent torture on a Nazi and said, “You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.” It’s not hard to imagine Tarantino saying this to himself as he completed this triptych about a Jewish-American Army company trained to kill Nazis with unflinching brutality, a French renegade, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), exacting revenge for the killing of her family, and a Nazi “Jew hunter” (Christoph Waltz) whose intimidation skills are without parallel. Is “Inglourious Basterds” Tarantino’s masterpiece? Maybe. But Tarantino’s collecting masterpieces like Aldo Raine collects Nazi scalps.

3. “Avatar.” The computer revolution in movie effects seemed to permanently remove the sense of wonder filmgoers enjoyed when seeing “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “The Empire Strikes Back.” Thanks to James Cameron’s demands for technical revolution, that sense of wonder is restored. “Avatar” envelops viewers in a fully realized world while telling the story of a paraplegic marine (Sam Worthington) fighting in a battle between humans and the indigenous population of a lush, faraway moon. Not only is “Avatar” visually astounding, its story and execution succeed in making viewers occasionally forget about the effects.

 4. “(500) Days of Summer.” Director Marc Webb’s debut film takes the heady rise and bruising demise of a 500-day romance and artfully shuffles the deck, mimicking how the human mind recalls events by juxtaposing days of great joy with emotional cataclysm. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel play lovers who will not work things out, but that is the good news, since “(500) Days of Summer” says far more about the true nature of romance than 98 percent of happy-ending romantic comedies.

 5. “The Hurt Locker.” Staff Sgt. Will James (Jeremy Renner) is a master of one thing: defusing bombs. In fact, he makes the world’s most dangerous job look like such a casual act that he makes everyone around him uneasy. Director Kathryn Bigelow keeps the tension cranked as she focuses on James’ strange gift and how a series of improvised attacks shape Bravo Company’s last month of deployment. “The Hurt Locker” is so honest and incisive, great actors such as Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce took walk-on roles just to be close to its blast radius.

 6. “An Education.” Carey Mulligan’s performance as Jenny, a teenager seduced by a cultured but manipulative older man (Peter Sarsgaard), is genius in its balance. She is a teen blessed with intelligence but lacking maturity, and in “An Education,” viewers can see her true age, the age she wants to be and wages of the war between them. Nick Hornby’s script, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir, is filled with insight and sharp exchanges, and the supporting performance by Alfred Molina as Jenny’s disturbingly pragmatic father is as outrageous as it is subtly funny.

 7. “Moon.” Director Duncan Jones’ existential science-fiction debut delivers an icy love letter to the sci-fi films his father, David Bowie, brought home for him to see, especially “Silent Running” and “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and carries the distinct echo of one of his dad’s own creations, Major Tom. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a lonely worker at a lunar station who learns the harrowing truth about his mission and his own reality. To say that Rockwell gives one of his best performances in “Moon” is to simply lose count.

8. “Where the Wild Things Are.” With Maurice Sendak’s blessing, Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers took the author’s defining story about childhood alienation and imagination and plumbed the psychology behind Sendak’s wild rumpus. “Where the Wild Things Are” is not a children’s film – it is a film about the heartbreak of being a kid and the uncontrolled emotions that have yet to be tamped down by the onset of adulthood. It is not the film that many people (movie executives, parents looking for a safe time-waster) wanted it to be. For that reason, it has all the fuzzy earmarks of a troubled classic, a divisive movie in its own time but widely beloved by future generations.

 9. (tie) “Zombieland” and “Adventureland.” In “Adventureland,” virginal James Brennan faces a bleak post-adolescence working at a Pittsburgh amusement park in 1987 and finding true love with a troubled, post-modern goddess (Kristen Stewart), and director Greg Mottola beautifully captures the era and the age. Then in “Zombieland,” virginal “Columbus” faces a bleak post-adolescence while driving cross-country to an amusement park and finding true love with a troubled, post-modern goddess (Emma Stone) while battling the ravenous undead. Both James Brennan and “Columbus” are played with impeccable geekitude by Jesse Eisenberg, who finds the inner truth about growing up whether he is surrounded by corn dog-munching idiots or brain-munching corpses.

 10. “District 9.” Neill Blomkamp’s full-length debut about aliens treated as second-class citizens in Johannesburg, South Africa, said far more about the ugliness of apartheid than Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” did, and it delivered emotional and political gut-checks while ratcheting up the tension and action almost nonstop. Furthermore, “District 9″ accomplished all this for about one-tenth the budget of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and did it without causing aggregate SAT scores to fall.

Brandy McDonnell’s Top 10
 
For cinephiles, 2009 got off to a slow start but fortunately finished strong, with many memorable movies finally filling multiplexes.

 Several directors offered innovative takes on tired genres, from J.J. Abrams’ thrilling “Star Trek” reboot to Ruben Fleischer’s uproarious horror-comedy “Zombieland” to Sacha Gervasi’s shockingly touching rock-doc “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” And those are a few of the fantastic films that didn’t make my surprisingly, and thankfully, competitive top 10 list for ’09.

 1. “Inglourious Basterds.” Auteur Quentin Tarantino offers his magnum opus with his history-rewriting World War II revenge fantasy about a ruthless Nazi Jew hunter (the Oscar-worthy Christoph Waltz), an orphaned French Jew (Melanie Laurent) hellbent on retribution and a bloodthirsty group of Jewish-American guerrilla fighters led by a hick lieutenant known as Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt). Tarantino demonstrates his usual penchant for outlandish violence, hilarious dark humor and near-torturous pacing, but his vision has never been bigger or bolder.

 2. “The Hurt Locker.” Director Kathryn Bigelow and embedded-journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal deliver not only the best film about the war in Iraq to date but also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking combat movies in recent memory. Jeremy Renner gives a career-defining performance as the maverick leader of an Army bomb-disposal unit working the dangerous Baghdad streets in summer 2004.

 3. “Up in the Air.” Writer-director Jason Reitman improbably soars even higher than his unforgettable 2007 Oscar contender “Juno” with this affecting dramedy. And star George Clooney elevates his game beyond even his intense turn in ’07′s “Michael Clayton” as a consultant compelled to rethink his disconnected existence as a frequent flier who fires people for a living.

 4. “(500) Days of Summer.” In his feature film debut, Marc Webb casts off the wretched conventions of modern-day romantic comedies, crafting an emotionally resonant love story with a nonlinear plot line, amazing soundtrack and strong performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.

 5. “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” This harrowing but ultimately uplifting drama about a pregnant Harlem teen (astonishing newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) trying to overcome incest, abuse, obesity, illiteracy and poverty may be stomach-turning and heart-breaking to watch but should be required viewing in the so-called land of plenty. Mo’Nique deserves an Oscar for her bowel-loosening turn as Precious’ vicious mother.

6. “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Auteur Wes Anderson shows a delightful knack for animation, using eye-popping stop-motion techniques, along with his trademark dry wit and quirky sensibilities, to craft a subversively funny film based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book about a chicken-snatching fox (George Clooney) and the farmers who want to kill him.

7. “Up.” The brilliant minds at Pixar continue to propel animated films to new heights with the imaginative, tender and madcap tale of a grieving balloon peddler (voice of Ed Asner) who turns his house into a makeshift airship and takes an exotic journey to South America.

 8. “District 9.” Writer-director Neill Blomkamp revolutionizes the alien-invasion subgenre while mining the classic tradition of the best science-fiction films. His feature film debut employs immersive, documentary-style realism to tell an otherworldly tale with relevant themes about the human capacity for prejudice, exploitation and cooperation.

 9. “Invictus.” As a director, Clint Eastwood is renowned for dark fare such as “Gran Torino,” “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.” With help from stalwart stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, Eastwood proves he can make an inspiring yet meaningful crowd-pleaser with his true-life story of South African President Nelson Mandela’s (Freeman) efforts to use the power of sport to unite his divided nation.

 10. “The Brothers Bloom.” Watching the first half of writer-director Rian Johnson’s con-man caper was the best time I had at the movies all year. Through the intricate plot twists of the second half, the film’s eccentric characters, raucous good humor and magical realism keep it a sublime cinematic experience.



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