Bartleby’s Best Films of 2009

24 Jan


Yes sir, I know I’m quite late with this, but this past month has been loaded down with surprises—both good and bad—that have drawn my attention away from the blog. Hopefully, this will be the last bit of procrastination the site sees for awhile. The plan is to get back into a daily posting framework, and if that’s successful, move to a legitimate website sometime in February. Until then, here’s my belated list of  2009’s best films.

I’ve heard many complain that this past year was a weak one cinematically speaking, and in a late scrabble to identify the potential ‘award winners’ for Oscar season many are coming up short with candidates. Well, bah! to that I say. Regarding the medium of film as a whole, I see 2009 as nothing less than a fantastic success.

This is one of the first times in quite awhile where I was consistently surprised by the quality I was seeing across the board in all genres. Directors who had long been absent or shooting blanks returned with works that were as strong and creative as their best efforts. Newcomers to the game were knocking it way out of the park on their first swing.

Overseas, there was a treasure trove of worthwhile film and one of my favorite genres, science fiction, had a stellar time. In fact, this might have been one of the all-together standout years for science fiction since sometime in the late 70s or early 80s. There were so many good films that even superbly compelling stuff like Sleep Dealer, Cold Souls and Shane Acker’s animated 9 failed to make the list year.

Animation too had a heyday, even seeing the return of Disney to the world of 2-D animation with the sublime The Princess and the Frog. Internationally, it was a great year too, with films like The Book of Kells and A Town Called Panic finding new ways to express themselves visually and breathing fresh life into antiquated animation forms.

In whatever form film presented itself,there was something wonderful and often progressive to be found  onscreen. In order to properly cover this embarrassment of riches, I’ve broken this list down into 20 top films and four additional categories. These categories are not runners-up, but films that are every bit as worthy of honor as the ones in the top 20, but due to their nature would have slipped right off a more general list. Everything that’s here comes highly recommended in my mind, so don’t let the numbers distract you too much.

So, with that, lets start with those narrow categories and work our way up…

Best Beer and Pizza Flick: Outlander (Dir: Howard McCain)


Since I started writing the blog in May, the sentiment I hear most is that I’m too hard on movies that exist simply to have a good time. In an attempt to honor that idea of the goofy crowd pleaser, I introduce this category and its first winner, Outlander. Combining Viking warriors with a science fiction take on the Beowulf story, Outlander is one of the most purely entertaining films I’ve had the pleasure to see this year. Jim Caviezel, John Hurt, and Ron Perlman all bring a bit of class and camp to this whacked-out monster hunt that sports a gorgeous production design, a glorious creature, and a geek-infused epic score. Outlander is a beautiful throwback to the 80s sword and sorcery flick that’s addictively fun to watch.

Best Film I’ll Never Watch Again: City of Life and Death (Dir: Lu Chan)


  Often, I think of the ‘best’ movies in terms of the ones I’m most likely to return to, over and over. Every once in a while though, I’ll stumble upon a film that is both powerful and repellant. It says what it wants to say and shows what it wants to show with such force that a single viewing is often all one can manage.  Lu Chan’s black and white dramatization of the infamous rape of Nanking during the Japanese occupation of China is one of the saddest, most brutal war films I’ve ever experienced. It’s a microscopic and sensitive look at both the occupiers and the occupied, the heroic and barbaric on both sides of the equation. Powerful, moving, with characters we truly come to care for and an haunting beauty that is hard to look away from.

Best Independent Achievement: Ink (Dir: Jamin Winans)


Jamin Winans’ Ink is an impressive and ambitious debut film. Winans attempts the kind of dreamlike splendor that usually only a larger budget can achieve. In his reaching he doesn’t quite accomplish all he sets out to do, but for his efforts—and the efforts of his team—Ink is a dazzling bit of fantasy adventure. It is well written and visually inventive with a graphic-novel style that works wonders with its dark tale of of a despondent father’s search for his young daughter. In between this real-world tale is another, featuring the ephemeral Storytellers facing off against the nefarious Incubi in order to rescue the girl’s soul from a shadowy figure known as Ink. Terry Gilliam has recently talked of films as imagination expanding. No doubt about it, Ink is one of those films.

Best Documentary Film: The Cove (Dir: Louie Psihoyos)


 There may have been more important documentaries made this year, but I personally didn’t see one as riveting and engrossing as The Cove. It takes a story that could have been a throwaway headline or an overly earnest environmental diatribe, and creates a satisfying and entertaining adventure out of it. I enjoyed the dynamics between the film crew and Richard O’Barry’s team of ‘specialists’ out to get footage of dolphin massacres in the town of Taiji, Japan. What follows is part caper-heist, part ocean documentary, and part tragedy as O’Barry and Psihoyos close in on the bloody reality of Taiji’s fishing practices. Regardless of your thoughts on the event itself or the rightness or wrongness of the Japanese fisherman, The Cove has the power to grip you and bring you inside the mindset of its central characters.

And now the top 20 in ascending order…


20. Somers Town (Dir: Shane Meadows)


Meadows follow-up to his terrific and powerful This is England, Somers Town is a lighter and more superficial film than its predecessor. Using an iconic and starkly lovely black and white photography, Meadows swaps out the troubling tone of his last pic for a an airy slice-of-life comedy that keeps bringing to mind French New Wave classics like Band of Outsiders. Young, snarky Thomas Turgoose returns from TIE to steal the show here as Tomo, a shiftless youth whose always just a bit too plucky for his own good. Piotr Jagiello as his foreign friend and Elisa Lasowski as the girl they both fixate on are both great additions to the cast. Somers Town also manages to unearth a great deal of emotional resonance in it’s scant 71 minutes. The cinematography is strong enough to justify it’s own coffee table book. A wonderful little movie.


19. In the Loop (Dir: Armando Iannucci)


It isn’t often I see a comedy that actually makes me laugh. It’s even less frequent that I see one like In the Loop, that doesn’t just deliver the humor but also manages the difficult feat of actually saying something on its way. Stacked out with herds of great British and American performers, and featuring some of the most scattershot but on-point political/wartime satire I’ve seen since Dr. Strangelove, In the Loop is both frightening and energizing. There is a dark, creepy truth that sits at the center of Iannucci’s view of political maneuvering and decisions of social convenience. But when it starts hammering away at its well plucked targets, In the Loop can leave you breathless with its marvelous, acerbic insights.


18. Knowing (Dir: Alex Proyas)


I was not prepared for how much I ended up liking Alex Proyas’ Knowing. Long a huge fan of his brilliant Dark City, I’ve been waiting for Proyas to produce another science fiction humdinger. Here it is.  Despite trailers that were selling some high-octane disaster movie, Knowing is an unnerving, thought-provoking, and imaginative look into the contradicting worlds of science and religion. Instead of choosing a single side and running with it, Knowing branches its story out and interweaves biblical symbology and scriptural prophecy with mathematical theory and scientific speculation. If you get hung up on the brainier stuff, there’s plenty more, including a delightfully un-hinged Nicolas Cage, an apocalyptic event to rival all others, and three suspense sequences so effective that it isn’t hyperbole to describe them as Hitchcockian.This is a thriller with skill and substance.


17. The Square (Dir: Nash Edgerton)


Nash Edgerton’s The Square is a modern Australian crime drama that plays like someone crossed Dante with Rube Goldberg and then filtered it all through the work of Elmore Leonard. The near closest comparison I can think of is Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, where the pursuit of a bag of cash and well-meaning intentions brings endless misery down on the protagonists. Edgerton is far more exacting, poetic, and divisive  than Raimi when it comes to pitting his various characters against themselves and their deeply cherished desires. Edgerton finds cheerfully dark pathos in watching salt-of-the-Earth blue collar blokes make tragically fateful mistakes. He smashes us in the face with the various ways in which the plan goes wrong, but where he really drives it home is in the aftermath. Best among the cast is lead David Roberts, who sympathetically stares down the barrel of advancing consequences and understands that what’s coming belongs to him.

16. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Dir: Terry Gilliam)


‘Dream world’ isn’t even quite the right word for what Gilliam has cobbled together for Dr. Parnassus. This one is more like a wild, fever-induced reverie that keeps breaking up amidst the static of the real-world. Now, after surviving the blow of Ledger’s death, he’s brought us Parnassus and the film is a completely delightful treat of myth-making, visual feast and archaic flight of fancy. The performers are all tuned into Gilliam’s wavelength, especially Waits as a particularly smarmy and oily Devil who deals in souls like one might used cars. Lily Cole and Ledger have good screen chemistry together and the three stand-ins for Ledger bring his character’s arc home with style and poignancy. The imaginarium sequences are definitely the highlight and bring the film enough moments of wild wonder that a newbie to Gilliam will be able to instantly grasp the director’s appeal and long-time fans will rejoice that he’s done it again. Welcome back, Terry.

15. Pontypool (Dir: Bruce MacDonald)


The best horror movie of the year, hands down. Pontypool isn’t just an effective piece of fright—although it’s that too—it’s also an honest to goodness original idea that combines science fiction with linguistic theory and old-school paranoia. The effect of stranding all of the characters in a church basement where they have command of the radio airwaves reminded me of the Orson Welles rendition of War of the Worlds. Then, like now, we are given an entertainment that achieves all of its tension and hysteria from the hushed, panicky tones of human speech crossing a gulf of darkness to reach our ears. Stephen McHattie deserves  a nomination he won’t get for his stellar work as a crusty shock jock who is faced with the potential end of civilization and his role in it all. At once both thought-provoking and anxiety-inducing, Pontypool is a work of mad genius.


14. Goodbye Solo (Dir: Ramin Bahrani)

solo and william motel

Goodbye Solo is the real deal; an intimate and rewarding character study that uses its indie pedigree to create an entire universe of intrigue within the cloistered spaces of seedy hotel rooms and the backseats of cabs. Souleymane Sy Savane as Solo the cabbie is one of the year’s most memorable characters; fully realized and growing in ways he isn’t even aware of. Red West is fascinating and complex as the elderly fare who requests he be driven to a mountain top on a particular date and not brought back. Shot on location in North Carolina and capturing a unique snapshot of life in that part of the country, Solo is worthy of praise because of how lovingly it crafts its characters and how skillfully it draws us into its story. By the end of the picture I felt like I knew these two men and understood their complicated family issues. The atmosphere that Bahrani gives the film is sometimes enticing and sometimes oppressive. Those final fifteen minutes are a thing of haunting beauty.


13.Up (Dir:Pete Doctor)


At this point in the game it would be easy for Pixar to rest on their laurels. They have yet to make a bad film and much of their output is downright wonderful. They could surely coast on goodwill for several films if they were a mind to. Instead they continue moving forward, and with Up they have crept even closer to a more adult-oriented entertainment. Make no mistake, Up is still a family film but it understands the hardships of life, the fragile nature of dreams, and the importance of the memories we make. It’s also a grand adventure that uses animation to tell a story that would have been right at home in old pulp novels. For the first time ever the human characters are given an emotional depth that feels plausible and true-to-life. That opening sequence that recounts the Fredrickson’s life together is heartbreaking and the firm foundation upon with Doctor builds his house and then lifts it into the air to soar.

12.The White Ribbon (Dir: Michael Haneke)


Typically, I despise the works of Michael Haneke. He’s the kind of director who seems to simultaneously look down on his audience while  welcoming them in with the warm promises of edgy violence and tragedy. And yet, here he delivers a picture of strange mystery, patient resolve, and substantial restraint. It still revolves around the allure of evil and the seemingly innocent places it might spring up, but Haneke has not only grown as an artist, he’s seemingly grown as a showman too. The White Ribbon is telling a real at the same time it’s revealing itself to be an intricate metaphor for Germany and the rise of the Nazi regime. The acting has pathos and purpose, the black and white photography is as exquisite and imaginative as the best from Bergman. Finally, Haneke creates a unique structure by which he explores the inner landscapes of townsfolk who appear frustratingly austere on the outside. The White Ribbon is a mystery with no reasonable resolution, but it continues to build long after the final frame plays.


11. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Dir: Wes Anderson)


What the cuss? Wes Anderson directing stop-motion animals? How does that work? Surprisingly great is the answer. Growing in my esteem each time I see it, FMF is a true classic of animation and imagination. It feels like a world we have already visited many times over even as we are visiting it for the first time. Yet, instead of being dull or overly familiar it possesses a feel of wonder and surprise. As quirky, eccentric and endearing as anything Anderson has ever done, Fox manages to honor and embellish the original Dahl source material and still exist on its own terms as another of its directors off-beat treatises on the sometimes intangible connections of family. I can’t think of a recent children’s film so chock-full of invention and detail. Even Jonze’s Wild Things settled for dreamlike ambience instead of picture-book conglomeration. What is so decidedly different and special about Fox is that it makes that conglomeration a thing of real beauty.


10. Bright Star (Dir:Jane Campion)


A lovely and wistful picture about the life of poet John Keats that has such an alluring visual presence that it might as well be a poem itself. Romantic and lush, wearing its heart joyfully on its sleeve, Bright Star has such an understanding of its primary subject that every scene of it echoes his sensibilities as an artist. Perhaps the best period drama since Joe Wright’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Bright Star is a romance with passion and conviction to spare, although the relationship between Braun and Keats was ultimately a chaste one. It replaces carnal action with heartfelt longing and what emerges is a honest and tender ode to the endurance of true love. That might sound melodramatic, but the script will have none of that. It carefully and confidently crafts a picture where each and every character feels real and alive. Abbie Cornish as Fanny Braun is a wonder and one can only hope the Academy remembers her come award time.


9. Mary and Max (Dir: Adam Elliot)


Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max is a sublime piece of art. It uses a clumpy, hand-made claymation to tell its story of the pen-pal relationship between a young Australian girl and a New York bachelor living with Asperger’s and delivers twice the emotion that a live-action film would have had. Its amazing to see Elliot at work here as both Mary and Max come alive via his expressive, rough-hewn handiwork and the talented, emotive voicing of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette. The decision to give everything a gray, noirish feel works for the film and the dreariness and anxiety of Max’s existence is expertly contrasted against the curiosity and resolve of young Mary. Animation usually imagines for us in clear detail, worlds we cannot see otherwise. In this instance Elliot is imagining for us the real world through a lens by which we do not often look. Here then, is a story about two people that feels completely authentic with a friendship that is as compelling as any ever put down on film.


8. Where the Wild Things Are (Dir: Spike Jonze)

Where The Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are turns out to be an emotionally turbulent and melancholy experience. It isn’t exactly a kid’s film but it is true to the mindset of a child and the experience of growing up. It isn’t seen from what we think of as a childlike perspective (which we can carry on through adulthood) but rather it’s about shedding that inquisitive innocence that all of us eventually lose in the process of living life. There is both wonder and sensitivity applied in adapting Sendak’s book and the dreamy surreal land of the wild things has been conceived as a rocky, sandy world of deserts, forests and craggy caves. The Wild Things are facets of Max’s own person and are sad and fearful, caring but stand-offish, and the movie itself manages to be both downbeat and occasionally frightening. This, however, is it as it should be. In Max Records Jonze has found the perfect conduit for Max’s pre-adolescent energies and his own fond recollections of a childhood faded into memory. A dazzling and special film.


7. Red Cliff (Dir: John Woo)



Although I saw the first installment of Red Cliff in 2008, the second part and the U.S. theatrical release hit here in 09. Which is all the reason I need to spend a little more time singing the praises of this grand spectacle of epic adventure filmmaking. John Woo may have burned out hard here on U.S. shores, but he finds the spark needed to once again illuminate the cinema screens in Red Cliff. Spinning a comic-book style adaptation of the historical and mythic ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ Woo singlehandedly eclipses the recent wuxia efforts of all his countryman by making a film both thrilling and stirring. The cast is marvelous, the special effects eye-popping and the battle scenes retain a fierce splendor that has all but been wiped away from cinematic warfare after Lord of the Rings. Staged like an Old Hollywood blockbuster with the style and verve of an Asian master, Red Cliff is a monumental work and good in any version which you happen to say. The longer cuts are better, but the U.S. edit is also surprisingly effective.


6. Moon (Dir: Duncan Jones)


The hard sci-fi surprise of a year bursting with quality work within the genre. Moon is not only a great bit of speculative fiction—considering how our expansion into space might conceivably play out—but it’s also a taut and reflective thriller that plays with perception, memory and the guideposts to what we consider traditional morality. The station on the moon has been created with unrelenting attention to detail and it is one of the most plausible outer spaces I’ve seen captured on film. The work that Rockwell’s Bell is performing is also a neat bit of science fiction and his only companion, GERTY, the onboard A.I. voiced by Kevin Spacey, becomes a wonderful foil. You could go on and on about the things Moon gets right, but chief among them is Rockwell’s performance. It’s trickier than I can reveal here, but it is perhaps the best he has ever given. He makes his character out of whole cloth and then when Bell’s psyche seemingly starts to shatter, he adapts and starts all over again.


5. Departures (Dir: Yôjirô Takita)


Simple, wise and moving, Departures was the winner of best foreign film at the last Oscars and it proves that best Foreign picture is the only category that the Academy gets consistently right. Oscar or no, this is a complete and satisfying film experience. Wearing an outer skin of comedic drama, Departures is about an out-of-work cellist who takes a job as a nokanshi, or encoffiner. The nokanshi’s job is to prepare the bodies of the deceased for burial, and encoffining rituals take place in the presence of the family, prior to the funeral. At first, Daigo doesn’t take to it, but he’s working under the tutelage of an old master who uses the job as a way to embrace and appreciate the life he’s been given. Intentionally funny, subtly profound, and fearlessly melodramatic, Departures is one of the finest dramas to come out of Japan in some years. I stupidly forgot it when compiling a best asian films of the decade list, but rest assured, it belongs there.

4. Coraline (Dir: Henry Selick)


Although not impressed upon my first viewing, Gaiman and Selick’s Coraline grew significantly in my esteem up a second visit. Transporting, twisted and understanding of the way children sometimes see their parents and themselves, Coraline is a kid’s movie with teeth. As magical as any Miyazaki, as mad as the best of Gilliam, this animated fantasy never fails to enchant me each time I see it. And, to date, I’ve seen it five times. The character design is fabulous, the voice casting tops and both worlds—Coraline’s and the dreamscape of the Bell Dam—are some of the richest and most fully realized film spaces to appear this year. The tone is witty, mysterious and even creepy. Scenes like the Other Father’s garden and the mouse circus are enriching to our imagination. It helps too that Gaiman’s story is a strong one and his Coraline a convincing and worthwhile character. As wonderfully expansive as The Wizard of Oz or Spirited Away, Coraline is a dream worth having again and again.

3. The Hurt Locker (Dir: Katherine Bigelow)


Plainly put, The Hurt Locker is one of the most suspenseful films I have ever seen. A masterpiece of filmmaking and one of the most involving looks at modern warfare I’ve ever seen. Sure, I come to the film as a layman, but there’s a sensory immersion at work in Bigelow’s picture that suggests the hungry claws of reality gripping at your sanity. The streets of Bagdad aren’t just a newspaper headline or an political quibbling point in Hurt Locker. Instead, we feel the blistering heat, hear every gasping breath and deafening gunshot and when the bombs go off, it’s like the entire world is being pulled out from under us and then pulled down over our ears. This is as close as the movies ever get to simulating real world violence and chaos. Also, kudos to Bigelow for making an action film where forward motion defines and expounds her characters instead of a hollow shell of spectacle and noise. The war in Iraq has inspired several tedious and stilted dramas, but The Hurt Locker is not one of them. It’s a brilliant but savage kick in the face.


2. Tie: Avatar (Dir: James Cameron) District 9 (Dir: Neil Blonkamp)


A man finds himself separated from his own culture and then thrown violently into the orbit of an oppressed alien one, and somewhere in between he comes to learn how the other half lives and their troubles become his. Now take that bit of plot, season it different ways, and you have both Avatar and District 9, two astounding pieces of sci-fi escapism that riveted me when I first saw them and continue to entertain with their encompassing visions and powerful filmmaking. You can call either of them silly, flawed or overblown, but for me these represent the reason I go to the movies in the first place. To see things I can’t see, to consider a perspective I haven’t considered, and to experience the visceral thrill of a story well told. While one is more Star Wars and the other Blade Runner, these are popcorn classics for our time.

1. The Clone Returns Home (Dir: Kanji Nakijima)


Sometimes I see a movie that is difficult to describe using the typical superlatives or usual adjectives. The Clone Returns Home, a riveting, quiet and meditative film, is one of those. A science fiction story about the clone of a dead astronaut returning to his childhood homestead becomes so much more than it’s intriguing premise. First time director Nakijima has made an achingly lovely visual feast that captures the majesty of the natural world at the same time it conveys the fascination of the technological and the cosmic. This one begins where most films of its ilk stop and it progresses through a flurry of emotions, ideas, and images, blending a variety of competing elements together in a way that meshes in true harmony. More coherent than Solaris, more inviting than 2001, and deeper than any sci-fi film made in the last 30 years, Clone is a work to treasure. I’ve seen it twice and its joys and secrets only expand upon closer examination. Of all the film experiences I had during 2009, this was richest.

10 Responses to “Bartleby’s Best Films of 2009”

  1. lord bronco January 22, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    Wow-excellent layout upgrade-and excellent writing as well as picture layout. Best wishes on the professional posting upgrade. Huffington post has been hiring bloggers who you would never in a thousand years deserve national United Staes attention. Apply with this article immediately-i think you have a legitimate shot.

  2. Frank Marmoset January 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    Excellent list, Bartleby, and the wider layout looks really good.

    There area few there I haven’t seen, but I can’t disagree with any of the rest except maybe for Knowing, which slipped quietly out of my brain about five seconds after it ended, and the shiny blue film everyone liked except me (still a bit bummed about that).

    It’s hard to choose between either Red Cliff or Moon as my favourite from last year. Red Cliff for the massiveness and Moon for the Sam Rockwellness. Both great, though.

    It was a pretty good year, I reckon. Balls to those people who are always moaning about how ‘things ain’t what they used to be’.

  3. koutchboom January 24, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    OK finally looking at it at home its a lot better. Stupid work.

  4. koutchboom January 24, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Hmmmmm White Ribbin and Bright Star? Those looked like total critic bait? A no love for D9? Ohhh wait cool saw it now Tie, good call. I just heard about departures the other day I’ll have to hunt it down.

  5. hagiblog January 25, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    Now that is a list that I’m not used to seeing. I haven’t even heard of half these films and it’s nice to see a best of list that doesn’t contain the same old stuff. Great work!

  6. Hawaiian Organ Donor January 25, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    Great to see the Pontypool, In the Loop, Moon, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Red Cliff love. Considering how great some of the big releases were last year (Avatar, District 9) it’s hard not to a have a few of them on a best of list, but this one is easily the most varied I have seen yet. Excellent work.

  7. goregirl January 25, 2010 at 3:41 pm #

    Most of the films on your list are still on my “to see” list. I’ve seen so few of these I can’t even really comment. I have so many non-horror films to see! I don’t think I will ever ever ever catch up! I FINALLY seen MOON though and loved it. Sam Rockwell is absolutely brilliant. Can’t believe I’m not seeing his name on any award nomination lists. And of course Pontypool rocked!

  8. Aiden R January 29, 2010 at 1:03 pm #

    Wow, never heard of Clone Returns Home, but I’m totally intrigued right now. Glad to see Knowing on the list, too. Finally I don’t feel like an idiot for liking that one. Awesome list, need to get around to seeing some of these. Keep it up.


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