Cinema Guild

The 25 Best Films of 2009

The 25 Best Films of 2009


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Defying critics to once again trot out lazy “down-year” grousing, 2009 delivered a cinematic bounty for those intrepid enough to venture outside their staid megaplex comfort zones. A raft of daring indies and foreign imports brought the real thunder—provided, of course, one could access them, a difficulty that plagued boundary-pushing works by both renowned filmmakers (The Hurt Locker, A Serious Man, Tetro) as well as lesser-known auteurs whose gems vanished from theaters with such rapidity that it begged the question of whether any noise is heard when a niche-audience release falls in an empty art house. While Lars von Trier futilely sought controversy with Antichrist’s genital mutilation, Steven Soderbergh’s latest jazzy lark, The Informant!, was met with muted disinterest, and Pedro Almodóvar engendered mostly ho-hums for his umpteenth kaleidoscopic noir melodrama Broken Embraces, Michael Bay reconfirmed that IMAX-sized juvenile action incoherence still rules the box office roost. Nonetheless, ticket-counter returns remain only a fool’s benchmark of quality, and aside from Quentin Tarantino’s surprisingly commercial WWII revenge opus Inglourious Basterds and the rare blockbuster offering (Up, Star Trek), most banner efforts seized attention not thanks to monetary gain, but via critical huzzahs and infectious word-of-mouth, be it Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum or Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman. Save for Jia Zhang-ke’s fiction-doc hybrid 24 City, nonfiction generally underwhelmed, and awards-season contenders largely proffered drama of an either exploitative (Precious: Based on the Novel ’Push’ by Sapphire) or merely middling (Up in the Air, Invictus) sort. That left the heavy lifting to the eccentrics, and whether it was James Gray’s decidedly old-school Two Lovers, Werner Herzog’s bonkers Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Robert Downey Jr.’s superlatively idiosyncratic turn in Sherlock Holmes, 2009 again established that risks reap the greatest artistic, if not necessarily financial, rewards. Nick Schager.

The 25 Best Films of 2009


Coraline (Henry Selick)

A 3D CG marvel conceived in writer-director Henry Selick’s traditional stop-motion aesthetic style, this visually rich adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline proves a dark and magical portrait of adolescent sorrow and identity development. With sumptuous imagery that twirls and tumbles with delirious abandon, Selick’s story about a young girl who discovers a doorway to a mysterious, seemingly idyllic alternate reality brings real menace back to the too-often innocuous kid’s film. A wondrously creepy trip down the rabbit hole, it’s a film seemingly born from its plucky heroine’s psyche, overflowing with surrealist flourishes and carnival-barker showmanship. Schager

The 25 Best Films of 2009


The Box (Richard Kelly)

An astute political pulse-tester in a wonky, thriller chassis, The Box ingeniously employs a bicentennial setting characterized by suburban triumphalism and scientific optimism to illustrate a robust democracy nevertheless beset by opaque, external pressures. Richard Kelly’s signature stirrings of cosmological imbalance presage the arrival on a family’s doorstep of a miraculous button unit-cum-ballot box, its consistently obfuscated ownership and crassly-appealing security-for-indirect-murder proposition serving as a biting critique of modern, buffered democracy. “Can’t I be forgiven?” is the regretful plea of Cameron Diaz’s Virginia belle after opting in, to which Frank Langella’s hideous, interdimensional PR man memorably responds with an affronted, I-just-work-here shrug. Ryan Stewart

The 25 Best Films of 2009


Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu)

It takes commitment to turn the act of leafing through a dictionary into a riveting cinematic moment, but Corneliu Porumboiu’s great, deadpan moral inquiry, Police, Adjective, is a work of such concentration. Structured as a dreary police procedural, it slowly weaves a Kafkaesque cosmos as its protagonist, a drudging Bucharest cop reluctantly investigating a minor case of pot-smoking high schoolers, gradually grows engaged in the interpretation of the signs and meanings around him. Not just a wry portrait of the clash between changing attitudes and rigid laws, but also a call for active consciousness in life and in cinema. Fernando F. Croce

The 25 Best Films of 2009


Antichrist (Lars von Trier)

It’s hard not to take Antichrist as a mythically macabre put-on. Only Lars von Trier would pepper an incoherently spooky gore-horror flick with such perplexing embellishments—from the coruscating black-and-white opulence of the humpfest prologue to the clumsily allegorical Eden where He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lock horns in a grisly, grief-provoked battle of the sexes. But the ramshackle, surrealist humor isn’t mocking the audience: It’s obscuring the fidgety undercurrent of yonic apprehension that drives the plot’s feverish mutilations. We laugh at the fox who intones “chaos reigns” in a gravely basso; we might laugh even harder if we recognized his accuracy. Joseph Jon Lanthier

The 25 Best Films of 2009


Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda)

A family drama that gets the family dynamic exactly right, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s triumphant Still Walking brings three generations of the Yokoyama clan under a single roof for a round of tearful remembrances, unspoken resentments, and domestic rituals. Unfolding over the course of a single day, the film lays out the family’s decades-old beefs but never brings them to a point of crisis, instead suggesting—through its generous fixed-camera framings, its witty-wise screenplay, and the subtle interplay of its characters—the ways that unresolved conflicts tend to harden into regrets and how, for all our sorrows, life continues heedlessly on. Andrew Schenker