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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009 02:44 pm

The best films of 2009

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If I learned one thing about the movies this year, it’s that digital 3-D films are here to stay and I, for one, am happy about it. The multiplexes have been getting a steady stream of these features and while none of them made my top 10 list (a couple were tied for 11th place) the quality of these films — both narratively and visually — have exceeded my expectations. This is no fly-by-night gimmick but a major step forward in film technology rife with possibilities. Check out James Cameron’s flawed but fascinating Avatar — you’ll see what I mean.

The average American filmgoer continued to embrace empty fare (Transformers 2, etc.), while more challenging movies (The Hurt Locker, etc.) were ignored and struggled to find an audience. This is no real surprise and neither is the fact the attendance at the movies is up, despite the ever-shrinking gap between when a film is released and when it appears on home video.

Was it a great year at the movies? Not really. Was it awful? While it started out that way, the overall quality improved as the year went on, yielding unexpected delights and crushing disappointments. (More about those next issue). Below are the 10 best films of the year. While it would be foolhardy to think everyone will agree with these picks, at the very least seek out the ones you haven’t seen and give them a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

1. Up in the Air – Jason Reitman’s character study of a man who spends his time constantly on the move, shuttling from one city to the next working as a corporate downsizer, is the film of the year because it taps into our fear of loneliness, isolation and insecurity in a way that is subtle and ultimately poignant. George Clooney has never been as good, playing Ryan Bingham, the character in question who extends sympathy and caring in his job but chooses not to do the same where his fractured family is concerned. Great support from Vera Farmiga, as his sexy love interest, and Anna Kendrick, as the new-kid-on-the-block who threatens to make him obsolete, help make this human dramedy a true winner.

2. The Hurt Locker – Kathryn Bigelow takes us where no other filmmaker has, to the front lines of the Iraq War, in this tale that focuses on the daily trials of a three-man bomb squad whose job it is to diffuse explosives at a moment’s notice. Gritty and white-knuckle tense, the movie is driven by the performance of Jeremy Renner as the adrenaline junkie who puts his comrades in harm’s way by taking unnecessary risks. Uncompromising, this film reminds us that war’s most harmful wounds are often unseen by the naked eye.

3. Up – Is there a more consistent film production company than Pixar Animation? I can’t think of one. This feature about a widower who decides to finally embark on the sort of adventure he should have taken with his wife is not only a visual delight but also a moving testament to love and redemption. The Pixar humor is intact, what with dogs that can “talk” and playful banter between crusty old Carl and his Boy Scout stowaway Russell. It’s the film’s portrayal of love and life that makes it soar. Try not to shed a tear during the film’s opening that recounts the relationship between Carl and his wife – it can’t be done.

4. The Messenger – Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson star as two Army officers whose job it is to notify the next of kin when a soldier has been killed in the line of duty. They encounter wives, parents and children along the way, but who they’re really informing is us. The war and its casualties, which the Bush administration tried to hide, is front and center here. Brilliantly acted by its two leads, whose characters approach their task in different ways, this heartbreaking film is necessary viewing for all. It reminds us of the sacrifices, not only of those on the frontlines, but on the home front as well. The Messenger will be released in Springfield in late January.

5. The Hangover – Did I laugh harder at any film this year? Absolutely not. But what is a true testament to this film is that I laughed during my second and third viewing of it just as hard. Three mismatched buddies (Bradley Copper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifainakis) try to locate their missing friend who is to be married the next day, after their evening in Las Vegas goes horribly awry. No other film had the sort of word-of-mouth buzz that this film did and it was well deserved. It is the rare comedy that doesn’t run out of steam but continues to deliver the laughs even through the end credits. An instant comedy classic.

6. Fantastic Mr. Fox – Director Wes Anderson’s best film since The Royal Tenenbaums is this adaptation of the Roald Dahl book about a fox (George Clooney) who’s feeling restless after having settled down. To shake his midlife crisis, he embarks on a plan to steal from the three farmers in his neighborhood, who retaliate with disastrous results. In this era of computer-generated animation, Anderson resorted to stop-motion animation and the results are astounding. Visually fun and with a message for kids and adults, this is the one film that needs to be discovered by a wide audience.

7. Precious — This harrowing tale from director Lee Daniels is difficult to watch but the compelling story of its subject – 16 year-old Precious – screams out to be witnessed. Impregnated by her father twice, obese and illiterate, this young lady is seemingly at a dead end. However, a placement at an alternative school and the guidance of a caring teacher (Paula Patton) may provide her with the means to escape her abusive mother (Mo’Nique). In the title role, Gabourey Sidibe gives a compelling performance, telling in that she makes us believe this young woman retains a flicker of hope, despite her trials.

8. An Education – Coming-of-age stories don’t get better than this. Lone Scherfig’s film tells the tale of Jenny (Carey Mulligan) a 16-year-old living in the London of the early 1960s who longs to escape her humdrum life and experience the world. She gets her chance when an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) woos her and promises to show her the world. Needless to say, not everything is as it appears with this gent and the lessons Jenny learns are made all the more poignant thanks to Mulligan’s honest, touching turn. A true charmer.

9. It Might Get Loud – Yeah, it was cool seeing Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), the Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes) get together and jam. But what makes this documentary special is director David Guggenheim’s ability to get each of them to open up about what drives them artistically and reveal the impetus that inspired each to take a radical approach in creating their art and living their lives. Far from being just a lesson on how to do a successful chord change, it is a primer on how to approach life.

10. Knowing – The world was destroyed quite a few times this year, but this thoughtful approach from director Alex Proyas (Dark City) was perhaps the most profound. Its main character, a widowed physics professor, begins to question his lack of faith in the face of Armageddon. This is not an empty special-effects extravaganza, but rather a thoughtful mediation on the comfort faith can provide in the face of personal and societal disaster. Nicolas Cage, the film’s star, has had a rough year, but his performance here is a reminder of how effective he can be.

11. Seven-way tie – Henry Selick’s haunting 3-D nightmare Coraline… Duncan Jones’ existential space odyssey Moon…Sam Raimi’s fun horror flick Drag Me to Hell…Clint Eastwood’s rugby drama Invictus… J.J. Abrams’ inspired Star Trek reboot… Oren Peli’s low-budget fright-fest Paranormal Activity… Phil Lord’s funny and inspired 3-D flick, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

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