Top 15 Best Films of 2009
2009 proved another good year at the movies, with the likes of Danny Boyle’s multiple Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire, Sean Penn’s Milk and Mickey Rourke’s comeback The Wrestler all setting the pace early on. The summer blockbusters then delivered the likes of Star Trek, Transformers and Harry Potter as well as a World War II movie from Quentin Tarantino, before James Cameron rounded things off with his epic, game-changing sci-fi movie Avatar. But none of those movies have made it into our top 15 – so, why not find out which ones have…
15) The Good, The Bad, The Weird
Starring: Lee Byhung Hun, Jung Woo-sung, Song Kang-ho
What’s the story? In Japanese-occupied Manchuria in the 1930s, three men – ruthless bandit leader and killer, Chang-Yi (Lee Byhung Hun); ice cool bounty-hunter Do-Weon (Jung Woo-sung), and accident-prone train robber Tae-Gu (Song Kang-ho) – hunt a mysterious treasure map.
Why so good: Kim Jee-Woon’s affectionate homage to the Spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone was a fast, furious and totally insane Oriental Western that delighted from start to finish. As well as tipping his hat to Leone, Jee-woon also nodded to the films of Tarantino, Blade Runner and Mad Max: Road Warrior without ever feeling like he was ripping them off. The result was fast, brutal and utterly breathtaking.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
What’s the story? James is forced to take a summer job at a two-bit Pittsburgh theme park to pay his way through summer. Once there, however, he makes a series of friendships that will change the course of his life, including a romance with fellow worker Emily.
Why so good: Greg Mottola’s Adventureland is excellent proof of how a little imagination and attention to detail can go a long way in making a genre-specific film rise above the norm. Essentially a coming-of-age tale, the film benefits from largely eschewing the usual rules of gross-out humour and outrageous set pieces in favour a more intimate, character-driven approach. It helps, too, that it’s semi-autobiographical.
Starring: (The voices of) Dakota Fanning, Ian McShane
What’s the story? Coraline moves to a rickety new home with her busy mum and dad and quickly feels isolated and bored. When she discovers a door leading to a happier version of her own world, populated by a loving ‘other mother’ and jovial, fun-loving father, it seems too good to be true. But then Coraline is asked to allow them to replace her eyes with buttons and the chilling reality of her dangerous predicament becomes clear.
Why so good: Henry Selick’s delightfully dark Coraline is enchanting, bewitching, funny, scary and, quite possibly, one of the animated films of the year. Using stop-motion animation, Selick has crafted a film in the style of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas that, if anything, surpasses even those achievements using this particular medium. It’s destined to become an instant classic of enduring appeal.
12) The Hangover
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis
What’s the story? Two days before his wedding, Doug (Justin Bartha) heads to Vegas with best friends Phil and Stu and future brother-in-law Alan for a final bachelor blow-out. Waking up the next morning, however, Phil, Stu and Alan have no recollection of what happened the night before or, more importantly, where Doug has gone.
Why so good: The Hangover is a proper guilty pleasure – a riotous comedy about men behaving badly by resorting to their inner child. Yet it’s also pretty clever too, taking on a mystery element that elevates it above the norm for this kind of thing… It thrives by keeping its viewers as much in the dark as the principals themselves, as each new clue brings about a hilarious revelation that’s often as surprising as it is inspired.
11) Inglourious Basterds
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz
What’s the story? Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France, a band of rogue American-Jewish soldiers ventured behind enemy lines to take Nazi scalps. At the same time, a Jewish girl bides her time to seek revenge against the German officer responsible for murdering her family.
Why so good: Tarantino bashers may insist that the writer-director needs to get his ego in check and hasn’t made a good film since Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown. Inglourious Basterds may do little to adjust their opinion. But if you like cinema that dares to be different, that’s knowingly reverential and fiercely unique, and which boasts a cavalier spirit that’s second to none, Inglourious Basterds is hard to beat.
10) Public Enemies
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale
What’s the story? Based on Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, the film chronicles John Dillinger’s Depression era crime spree and how it brought about a change in tactics by the FBI.
Why so good: Public Enemies is every bit as special as its set-up suggests. It’s a fascinating, emotionally complex and downright riveting insight into the rise and fall of one of America’s most notorious criminals… This is intelligent, adult cinema that grips from start to finish. At a little under two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel long enough and is quite comfortably one of the year’s best movies.
Starring: Sam Rockwell, (the voice of) Kevin Spacey
What’s the story? Astronaut Sam Bell is just days away from ending his three-year tenure on the moon, where he’s been the sole man in charge of mining energy for the ailing Earth. After a freak accident, however, Sam wakes up on his lunar base and finds out that he’s not alone… and that getting home isn’t as easy as he thought.
Why so good: Director Duncan Jones took his love of classic sci-fi films such as Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Outland and turned them into one of the most inventive and thought-provoking films of the year – and all for a budget of just $5 million. Essentially a one-person movie, the film benefited from a terrific central performance from Rockwell, whose lonely astronaut (and his subsequent clones) really provided audiences with a central character to sympathise with and root for, as his quest to get back to Earth became increasingly desperate. In emulating the classics, Jones created one of his own.
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg
What’s the story? Geeky teen Columbus bids to exist in a world populated by zombies by strictly adhering to his own survival guide. Hooking up with a self professed zombie killing expert named Tallahassee to further improve his chances, Columbus seeks to reunite with his family while Tallahassee seeks out the elusive fresh Twinkie.
Why so good: Where Zombieland really makes the leap from 4 star to 5-star recommendation is in its glorious extended cameo from Bill Murray, which is guaranteed to raise the roof. It ensures that Zombieland emerges successfully as one of the most enjoyable blockbusters of the year… smart, funny, violent, sexy – and utterly unmissable.
7) 500 Days of Summer
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel
What’s the story? When shy, Smiths-obsessed greetings card writer Tom falls in love with Summer, things don’t go according to the romantic dream he has in mind. She likes him… but wants to remain friends despite sleeping with him!
Why so good: (500) Days of Summer proved itself to be one of the hippest, smartest romantic comedy-dramas of recent years. Marc Webb’s movie took a familiar concept – boy and girl fall in love – and turned it on its head, while remaining impossibly romantic in the process. A split-screen sequence in which Tom attends a party in the hope of re-igniting his relationship with Summer is a classic case in point, unfolding from both a real-time perspective and the “perfect” imagined scenario that Tom has envisaged. The result was an effortlessly fresh take on a well-worn genre that was a deserved box office hit.
6) In The Loop
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini
What’s the story? When incompetent minister Simon Foster lands in trouble for making contradictory comments about the possibility of war in the Middle East, he suddenly finds himself sent to Washington on a fact-finding mission, during which he becomes both a pawn for America’s secret war committee and a poster-boy for a high-ranking general.
Why so good: The team behind BBC TV hit The Thick of It – including writer-director Armando Iannucci – transformed their biting political satire into one of the funniest big screen movies of the year. Hence, Peter Capaldi’s acid-tongued Scottish spin doctor Malcolm Tucker was given an even grander stage upon which to gush forth expletive-ridden put-downs to whoever got in his way. The result was utterly hilarious, totally un-PC, intelligent, clever and a sure-fire way to broaden your swearing vocabulary whenever you next need to throw a tantrum. Just make sure the kids’ ears are turned away!!
5) Let The Right One In
Starring: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson
What’s the story? Oskar, a shy and bullied boy, finds love and revenge through his new neighbour Eli, a beautiful but peculiar girl who turns out to be a vampire.
Why so good: Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish masterpiece quite possibly rates as one of the finest vampire movies of all-time. At the centre of it is the relationship between a 12-year-old boy and the vampire girl who reluctantly befriends him and then serves as his protector. It’s a touching, edgy relationship that’s beautifully played by the two child actors. Alfredson also ensures that the snowy settings are well used to heighten the atmospherics, while the blood-letting is suitably violent when it arrives, with several set piece sequences for vampire fans to sink their teeth into. A US remake from Cloverfiend’s Matt Reeves is already in development.
4) Pixar’s Up
Starring: (The voices of) Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
What’s the story? By tying thousands of balloons to his home, 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen sets out to fulfil his lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America – only he didn’t figure on taking Russell, a wilderness explorer 70 years his junior, along for the ride. .
Why so good: Any film that can have you crying your eyes out in the first 20 minutes has got to be doing something right! But Up was further compelling proof that Pixar only make masterpieces. Co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson created a genuinely emotionally involving experience that combined knockabout fun and spectacular animation for the kids, as well as heartfelt observations on the nature of life and love for older viewers. And while 78-year-old curmudgeon Carl Fredricksen may have seemed like an odd choice for a Disney-Pixar hero at first glance, he quickly became one of the most richly rewarding characters of the year.
3) Gran Torino
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Ahney Her
What’s the story? Disgruntled Korean War vet Walt Kowalski sets out to reform his neighbour, a young Hmong teenager, who tried to steal his prized possession: a 1972 Gran Torino.
Why so good: After seemingly entering acting retirement following Million Dollar Baby, screen icon Clint Eastwood returned for another memorable performance in Gran Torino. His grouchy Korean war veteran Walt Kowalski played like a greatest hits compendium of all of his great roles, from the steely silence of his Man With No Name, to the no-nonsense Dirty Harry Callahan, right through to his haunted William Munny in Unforgiven. The story also cleverly combined comedy, social observation and personal redemption, culminating in a poignant final act. Eastwood was overlooked for even an Oscar nomination… cruelly so.
2) The Hurt Locker
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
What’s the story? A trio of bomb disposal experts led by the cavalier Staff Sergeant William James and also comprising Sergeant Sanborn and youngster Eldridge try and survive in war-torn Iraq even as tensions among them run high.
Why so good: Kathryn (Point Break) Bigelow further enhanced her reputation as one of the best action directors in the business with this searing portrait of bomb disposal in Iraq. Working from a painfully authentic script from journalist Mark Boal, who was himself embedded with a real-life bomb disposal unit in Iraq, Bigelow created an extremely tense, even draining experience, that will have you on the edge of your seat for the better part of two hours. What’s more, the film showed no room for sentimentality or jingoistic flag-waving, offering an authentic look at modern combat that regularly delivered jaw-dropping surprises when dealing with bigger name stars. Quite apart from being one of the movies of the year, it’s also one of the best war movies of all time.
1) District 9
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, William Allen Young
What’s the story? In present-day South Africa, an extra-terrestrial race that’s been forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth suddenly finds a kindred spirit in a government agent who is unwittingly exposed to their biotechnology….
Why so good: Neill Blomkamp burst onto the world stage with his breathtaking sci-fi movie, having been given his shot by producer Peter Jackson. The ensuing film cleverly combined issues of racism, human rights violations and his own country’s history of Apartheid with exhilarating action and genuine emotion. What’s more, it contained a killer final scene. In science fiction terms, few films even came close to its brilliance this decade – except Duncan Jones’ Moon, which also shone by virtue of its technical achievement and emotional quality.
The worst films of 2009: Click here