- #1. The Hurt Locker
There was no better action film this year than Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. By far the best Iraq war movie to date, it follows an elite team of soldiers whose sole job is to diffuse IED’s on the streets of Baghdad. There’s no easing in to this movie. Your nerves are shot after the opening sequence and you’re watching the rest of the movie shell-shocked. Hand-held camera and eye-level p.o.v’s make the audience an embedded member of the squad, feeling the stress and tension alongside their fellow soldiers. Each mission is more horrific than the last and it’s no wonder some of these soldiers are starting to crack. Every character is disposable, so don’t get too attached to anyone – yet that’s exactly what Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) does when he befriends a young Iraqi boy. A triumphant return to the big screen for Bigelow and long overdue recognition for Renner.
- #2. A Serious Man
Funny, weird, bizarre, odd, mystical, tragic and completely original. For a couple of hours, you’re given a slice of American Jewish life in the 1960s – authentically and personally viewed through the eyes of Joel and Ethan Cohen. You never know what’s next around the corner for poor Larry Gopnik. Will it be disaster or comedy? This constant gearshift keeps viewer on their toes and completely engrossed. There doesn’t appear to be any pay off for any of the characters and the movie comes to an end rather abruptly – kind of like life itself sometimes. Still, one can’t help but wonder if Larry dodged some major bullets, or if he’s just a guy who happens to have the worst luck of any human being. You’ll enjoy figuring it out.
- #3. A Single Man
Tom Ford’s directorial debut is just as exquisite as his fashion designs. The film is impeccably shot and styled by someone who is confident and sure in his work. So confident, that he hired some of the best actors in this business and let them do what they do best: act. Colin Firth gives the best performance of his career as the title character, a gay man who loses the love of his life. Firth plays the reserved Brit as a man of very few words or emotions, yet we can see the agony and heartbreak that’s screaming loudly inside. Set in Los Angeles in the 1960s, Firth’s character is not even allowed attend his partner’s funeral because the family doesn’t consider him a spouse. The film couldn’t be more topical – 40 years later Proposition 8 was passed in California, proving that we have not come as far as we should have.
- #4. An Education
Newcomer Carey Mulligan in a breakout performance as Jenny, a teenage girl in the 1960s who is romanced by a mysterious man in his 30s, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Jenny is already wise beyond her years, yet not wise enough to see that David is too good to be true. She’s simply too fixated on seeing him as a way out of her suburban life. He seduces Jenny, her parents and even the audience. Still, there is a beauty to Jenny’s maturation and the heartbreak she goes through. At the end, she’s back at square one leading the student life, but inside, she’s grown exponentially. Life is cruel, life is not fair but life truly is beautiful. One of the best coming of age films of all time.
- #5. Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Most movies are a great form of escape, but this is not one of them. In fact, it takes you to a place that few would like to visit. Yet for some people, including the 16-year-old title character, this is the only life they know. Precious is an obese, illiterate teen who is pregnant by her father for the second time. She is also verbally, physically and sexually abused by her own mother. This is not a Lifetime movie of the week, but a gritty indie film that makes you feel like you’re watching real people rather than actors. Precious’ life is not something you’d want to wish on anyone, yet her resilience amazes even the strongest. Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the title role, gives a performance that touches even the coldest heart. Comedian Mo’Nique is so frightening as her mother, her verbal slings and arrows are enough to leave you psychologically wrecked.
- #6. Inglourious Basterds
After faltering with Grindhouse, Quentin Tarantino is back better than ever. With his signature dialogue and story telling, only he can make a Nazi-hunting film this awesome and entertaining. Casting is key here, especially with European actor Christoph Waltz as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. He spits out Tarantino’s dialogue in a way that has you nervously laughing even as the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Movies are meant to be an escape and here, Tarantino manages to create a world where, for an all-too quick two and half hours, the reality of a horrific history was actually re-written and replaced. Too bad it’s only a movie.
- #7. The Hangover
Not since Borat has a comedy captured the hearts – and wallets – of so many Americans. The film is so wrong on so many levels. It is immature, tasteless, crass, idiotic, juvenile, ridiculous and over-the-top. But at the same time, it is so laugh-out-loud hysterical, you’ll be rolling in the aisles, clutching your sides and hoping your stomach muscles don’t ache the next day. Nothing makes sense here and that’s part of the charm. Mike Tyson’s tiger, a naked Chinese guy, a baby in a carrier and a missing tooth are just part of the non-sensicals that come together to make Hangover the funniest comedy of 2009. It is also the first movie to properly showcase the talents of Zach Galifianakis, launching a film career that’s been long overdue.
- #8. The Cove
The year’s best documentary does not feel like a documentary. Rather, The Cove plays more like a horror-thriller about an unthinkable massacre (dolphin killing) and the Ocean’s 11 –type crew of real-life people who try and stop it. You’ll never sob so hard and you’ll never feel so angry. Powerful, informative, intense and entertaining, the film empowers even the most passive viewer to do something. Like what, you ask? For starters, text “dolphin” to 44144 now. The rest is up to you.
- #9. Avatar
There’s no better way to finish off the year than with James Cameron’s visual masterpiece, Avatar. Don’t let the TV and newspaper ads with the weird blue creatures dissuade you from seeing something that looks “weird” or “bizarre.” I promise you, by the time they’re introduced in the film, you’ll hardly bat an eyelash at their appearance and they will feel as real and alive as the human beings around you. Cameron has made a spectacularly entertaining film that feels both futuristic and prehistoric. At the same time, it takes a stance on the war in Iraq and the environment among other issues. Sure there’s been a whole slew of movies available on 3D this year, but none have used the technology like Cameron – to subtly enhance an already stunningly beautiful world, rather than to pop out and shock an audience. Cameron proves once again that he truly is a master filmmaker.
- #10. Up
We knew it was going to be good because, after all, it’s Pixar. But on paper, a film about a grumpy old man, a floating house on balloons, a female bird named Kevin and dogs with taking collars sounds like a mish-mash of bad ideas. Yet these are all the things we accept without question in Up. The film is so touching and so beautifully rendered, one can see the care and craftsmanship put in to it by the filmmakers. At first you think you’re watching one movie, but within minutes, a brilliantly executed and emotionally heartbreaking montage changes everything. It’s a surprisingly adult sequence, but something we haven’t seen in a Disney movie since Bambi lost her mother, Dumbo’s mom was locked up and the young fox from Fox and the Hound was orphaned. All of them, including Up’s Carl, find a way to overcome and move on. There’s a lesson in there for all of us.