The 25 Best Movies of 2009

Movies Lists Best Movies

Our favorite movies of 2009 belie a diverse appreciation ranging from a quiet rumination on death to gruesome horror; from a partly ad-libbed, low-budget character study to the most expensive movie of all time. There are four movies made, at least in part, with children in mind. There are several Hollywood movies alongside films from the rest of the U.S., Austria, the U.K., Japan and South Africa—plus three from France. Our top pick was a late addition to the list, so the print version looks a little different than what you see here. We love most types of movies and believe each of these to be among the best of its style from 2009.

25. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi) [Universal]
Drag Me to Hell is a delirious horror film, but it’s no trifle, for the sole reason that Raimi’s creativity suddenly seems reinvigorated, no longer bound by a comic book template. Each action sequence is a model of wit. You can almost hear Raimi laughing when his heroine, Christine, discovers that her assailant is standing conveniently beneath an anvil hung from the ceiling by a rope, or when a fierce fight in the interior of a car manages to incorporate both staples and dentures as weapons, or when a creature tries unsuccessfully to gum its victim’s face off because said dentures are at large, or when a possessed goat calls our heroine a bitch in exactly the way you’d expect a goat to speak: bi-ii-ii-ii-tch. —Robert Davis

24. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski) [The Cinema Guild]
In his first two features, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, lo-fi trailblazer Bujalski spearheaded the mumblecore movement, funneling untrained actors and quarter-life ambiguity into a surprisingly rich product. Beeswax continues Bujsalski’s history of creating domestic visual poetry that borders on novelty. The story documents the relationship of twin sisters Jeannie and Lauren (Tilly and Maggie Hatcher) as they cope with twentysomething trials of lost wallets, lukewarm lovers and tentative lawsuits. While the script (or lack thereof) reins in its players from divulging openly, each subtle facial expression and stuttered line is its own monologue in this affectionate anti-drama. Despite the ADD conversations and lax plot, the earthy performances are endearing enough to reverse years of big-budget desensitization. —Sean Edgar

23. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki)
Like Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Ponyo is the story of a fish-person who becomes a human and must find true love. But Miyazaki’s take is personal and whimsical. There’s an irresistible passion to every frame, regardless of whether or not what’s happening onscreen makes any sort of sense. Even as he ages, Miyazaki’s children remain an accurate portrait of youth without becoming mere nostalgia. Simply put, no one seems to understand the wonders of childhood better. Sometimes it’s enough to just sit back and let a beautiful work of animation wash over you, letting the troubles of the world slide past as the pictures take you out of this world. Ponyo is just that sort of film. —Sean Gandert

22. Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner) [Magnolia Pictures]
Kenner creates a persuasive and utterly effective diatribe against 21st-century food production and eating practices in the U.S. He travels from slaughterhouses to agricultural conglomerates to family farms to explore the fallout of the ways we consume food. Discussing the obesity epidemic, health disasters like e. coli outbreaks and political apathy, Kenner highlights the crises that have come from the corporatization of food production in this country. Kenner makes no attempt to veil his personal opinions on the subject, but his effective interviews make a convincing argument. He uses witty illustrations and some eccentric but lovable small-time players in the production chain to make an impressive case for a movement to non-mass-produced food. —Emily Riemer

21. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze) [Warner Bros.]
Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers’ re-imagining of a childhood classic garnered a wide range of reviews and opinions, even within our office. It’s not just that the film isn’t really geared towards kids—mine fidgeted throughout. It’s the complete absence of the feeling the trailer gave us—one long wild rumpus coming to life to Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” a song that doesn’t actually appear in the film. That sense of triumph and whimsy is the exact opposite of the actual movie. It’s an angry, frustrated angst-filled movie because it’s a angry, frustrated, angst-filled book. Jonze masterfully brings all of the inner turmoil of Max’s childhood to life as Maurice Sendek’s creatures make a glorious jump onto the screen. They have names now! And they’re every bit as wild as we all imagined. —Josh Jackson

20. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp) [TriStar Pictures]
District 9 begins with a classic science-fiction premise. A flurry of documentary-style interviews and mock TV news footage recap the chaotic recent events: a giant alien ship appeared over South Africa, and after months of watching it hover silently, human soldiers cracked it open to see what was inside. They found a large number of malnourished, human-sized, insect-like aliens. They’re intelligent enough to speak a language and build space ships, but on earth the “prawns,” as the aliens are called derisively (they look like giant shrimp), have become a societal burden. The film provocatively makes its aliens and their twitching mandibles excessively disgusting, more like Brundlefly than E.T., so that anyone who wants to side with these sentient creatures needs to have strong enough moral principals to overcome the gag reflex. It’s a fantastic idea for a thinking creature’s action film, but in its rush through the climax, District 9 favors loud blasts over logic. It might have been a modern science fiction classic if it had spent a little more time in the incubator. —Robert Davis

19. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince (David Yates) [Warner Bros.]
It only takes five minutes into the new, sobering adventure of everyone’s favorite boy wizard for a startling realization to form: not only is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince an excellent translation of J.K. Rowling’s addictive canon, but it’s also the first entry to shine on its own devoid of its backdrop mythology. The sixth chapter reaches a new, dark pinnacle in its maturity, abandoning its former Roald Dahl-inspired whimsy to focus on the growing peril facing the hardening protagonists at Hogwarts. Whether it’s the exclusion of John Williams’ fanciful overture or the staple Benny Hill shenanigans between Harry and his cartoonishly-enraged uncle, Harry and his filmmakers have put their toys away and grown up. Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith and Jim Broadbent make superb acting look as easy as downing a round of butter beer, and Michael Gambon’s ferocious turn as Dumbledore gives Gandalf undeniable competition as the reigning white wizard. —Sean Edgar

18. Still Walking (Hirokazu Kore-eda) [IFC]
A dozen years after their eldest son dies, a family comes together to grieve, but also to remember in Hirokazu Koreeda’s sixth film.

17. Forbidden Lie$ (Anna Broinowski) [Roxie Releasing]
It’s hard to imagine a more compelling liar than Norma Khouri, the subject of Anna Broinowski’s irresistible portrait, Forbidden Lie$. In 2003 Khouri wrote a nonfiction account of the murder of a childhood friend in Jordan. Ostensibly published to expose the injustice of an oppressive, misogynistic society, the book, entitled Forbidden Love, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But when Khouri became a touring speaker, a few of the book’s details fell apart under the harsh light of scrutiny. One reason the portrait is so much more fun to watch than the straightforward exposé of a publishing fraud is that Khouri herself is such a consummate spinner of tall tales. She doesn’t slam the door in the face of the documentary crew but cooperates fully, laying ever more complex explanations over her inconsistencies. It’s a stunning display of mendacity. But beyond her participation, the reason the portrait is so much more satisfying than the typical investigative documentary is that Broinowski neither backs down from nor colludes with her subject. Broinowski and Khouri, thankfully, approach the film as a duel. Broinowski thrusts, Khouri parries. Finding out what, if anything, is true about Khouri’s story is simply the Macguffin for a filmmaker more thrilled by the hunt. —Robert Davis

16. Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi) [Abramorama]
The story of a hugely influential but largely forgotten Canadian heavy-metal band now in their fifties, might seem like the Spinal Tap sequel, complete with aging rockers suffering through demeaning gigs, the memory of the big show in Japan, the visit to Stonehenge, even an amp that actually goes to 11. But director Sascha Gervasi is playing those cards very deliberately, and Anvil! The Story of Anvil is moving and very real. When we find Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner (yes, his real name) at the present-day beginning of the film, they’re stuck in dead-end jobs in Toronto (Lips drives a delivery truck; Robb works construction). But they’re still rocking together, just as they made a pact to do 36 years ago in high school. And Lips’ and Robb’s tireless devotion to their dreams, and to each other, is Gervasi’s secret weapon. He draws you in with the silliness, but sets his hook with the sweetness. —Michael Dunaway

15. Revanche (Götz Spielmann) [Janus Films]
Unlikely circumstances serve to illustrate Spielmann’s’s thoughts on interconnected relationships and morality. Revanche’s slow burn allows the guilty to fester in their thoughts of a tragic day and watch how it changes their lives and feelings about the world. The word “revanche” means “revenge,” and what each character deserves is central to the film, with no easy answers in sight. Beautifully shot with nuanced performances, at moments, the film captures harrowing feelings of guilt, betrayal and anger better than nearly anything else out there. —Sean Gandert

14. Star Trek (JJ Abrams) [Paramount Pictures]
J.J. Abrams’ slick movie reboot of the iconic Star Trek franchise is essentially a louder, flashier and sexed-up take on the ‘60s television show. While it eschews the series’ usual M.O. of sci-fi-as-social-commentary, it’s largely faithful to the source material and features a top-shelf ensemble cast. Star Trek resurrects the idealistic flights of fancy of pre-’70s sci-fi, and offers us a compelling glimpse at what a multicultural (not to mention multicivilizational) utopian future might look like. And perhaps more importantly, this movie takes a franchise that’s seemingly indelibly stamped with the scarlet letter of geekdom and gives it mass appeal. —Michael Saba

13. Sugar (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) [HBO Films/Sony Pictures Classics]
The second film by the young writer-director duo Boden and Fleck follows a promising baseball pitcher named Miguel—nicknamed Sugar—from his home in the Dominican Republic through a series of minor league teams in the U.S. This isn’t The Natural, but rather a naturalistic view of the underside of professional baseball, where young men are chasing the American dream in its most iconic form, facing culture shock and loneliness in the process. And as you might expect from the writers and directors of Half Nelson, the film pays far more attention to the details of Miguel’s life than it does a dramatic arc. Boden and Fleck have quickly established themselves as an emerging force in American film and have set and met a high standard for their work. And whether the conclusion is a frustrating side step or a personal triumph depends on whether you’ve taken the film’s many opportunities to understand Miguel. I found it sublime. —Robert Davis

12. A Serious Man (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen) [Focus Features]
Working with few recognizable stars, the Coens have made a funny but odd and inquisitive film about guilt. They’ve made their most Jewish film to date, a film about physics professor Larry Gopnik and the Jewish subculture of a medium-sized late-’60s American town. Larry’s life begins to fall apart when his wife says she wants a divorce, and in the great unraveling that follows, the Coens have made Kafka’s implications explicit. The K word is often slapped onto any old symbolic nightmare, but Kafka’s own work was actually very funny, even though he could slip into gray areas without much warning. The Coens can, too. A Serious Man is one of the most fascinating, maybe even heartfelt, renderings of a Kafkaesque sensibility that I’ve seen. —Robert Davis

11. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson) [Twentieth Century Fox]
A match made in heaven? Wes Anderson’s trademark ironic eccentricity and Roald Dahl’s vaguely menacing but entirely lighthearted surrealism combine to form Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s ostensibly a children’s film (Mr. Fox and his family and friends try to outrun the mean farmers), but rather transparently aimed at their parents, who likely read Dahl’s books in grade school, remember stop-motion when it didn’t feel vintage, and have been following Anderson’s work for years now. The tale has been greatly expanded from the Dahl original to cover familiar Anderson themes of family, rivalry, and feeling different. And with its lush autumnal palette and hijinks worthy of Max Fisher or Dignan, the result is a film that only Wes Anderson could have made. —Alisa Wilkenson

10. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas) [IFC Films]
After making several films about cat women who jet across the globe and slink through buildings of glass and steel, Olivier Assayas has returned to the lower-key interests of his earlier films with Summer Hours. When Hélène reunites with her grown, far-flung children at their old home in rural France, the siblings remember growing up on the estate. And when she dies shortly thereafter, they must decide what to do with the house and its contents now that they’ve all moved on. Films about families often depict melancholy souls who reach under old beds for shoeboxes of curled photos and yellowing mash notes. Assayas has made an entire film around that moment—it’s a meditation on how objects carry history, how they reflect our decaying bones, and how they sometimes outlive us. —Robert Davis

9. Coraline (Henry Selick) [Focus Films]
Stop-motion animation is a misleading descriptor for the stunning visual style of Coraline, the latest masterwork from visual auteur Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) and acclaimed author Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, The Graveyard Book). While the film is the product of a technique that strings together still images of incrementally changing 3-D figures, there is absolutely nothing about it that is stationary. Selick and his team of animators have propelled the art into a kinetic experience of intoxicating wonder, where everything from melting snow to a cooking omelet moves with a fluidity previously unseen in the genre. The movie possesses such an originally frightening mix of swirling sprites and whimsical novelty, adults will find themselves just as enchanted by this wondrous spook show as their kids. —Sean Edgar

8. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) [Summit Entertainment]
Kathryn Bigelow’s jerky, zoomy, dusty new film features 10 nail-biting displays of limb-risking bravery by an Army bomb squad, each one followed by two, maybe three minutes of downtime—tops. It’s a joyride across the desert, with the top down and a rattlesnake in the glove compartment. And yet The Hurt Locker hones in on the fatalistic psychology of the Iraqi war zone more convincingly than any other recent film about soldiers on the battlefield. —Robert Davis

7. 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis)
A quiet movie called 35 Shots of Rum is traveling around the country, a film of uncommon grace. The most curious feature of world-class filmmaker Claire Denis is that her films sneak up on you, without fail. 35 Shots of Rum is about a daughter who lives with her widower father. Their bond is strong, their life is comfortable, but the father feels that the young woman needs to move on. It’s that simple, as simple as unspoken nudges, as simple and heartfelt as a film by Ozu. Her natural impulse is to let audiences discover rather than be told, and she’s not afraid to let a mystery remain a mystery. —Robert Davis

6. The Road (John Hillcoat) [Dimension Films]
A combination of unflinching brutality and father-of-the-year tenderness lies at the heart of the latest film inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s apocaliterature, and the result is a victory in every sense. Mortensen’s performance humanizes the experience, but the real star—and omnipotent villain—is Hillcoat’s geographic skeleton of a world, stranding its travelers in a horizon of bleached Appalachian ruins and physical entropy. Ultimately, the only thing more extreme than these desolate visuals is the father’s desperate love, and both merge harmoniously to make this difficult journey worth the emotional toll. —Sean Edgar

5. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino) [The Weinstein Co.]
Quentin Tarantino’s dual loves of vengeance and cinema have never had a purer expression than the face of a Jewish cinematheque owner projected Oz-like onto the smoke of Nazis aflame. It’s hard to say whether Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s best film, but it’s certainly his soberest. To an almost touching degree, Inglourious Basterds recognizes that the vengeance driving so many films—and certainly Tarantino’s own—is a cinematic impulse, a fantasy of light and sound, a bonfire of highly combustible nitrate film stock, cleanly separated from common sense and actual history. For once, Tarantino doesn’t allude left and right to other movies, but instead makes celluloid itself a literal part of the story. —Robert Davis

4. That Evening Sun (Scott Teems) [Freestyle Releasing]
Scott Teems’ subtle little wonder is an exquisitely crafted adaptation of a William Gay short story that’s fundamentally rooted in the real-world South, and every single element works. Music from Michael Penn and Patterson Hood set the portentous mood. Character actors like Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins, and Barry Corbin play supporting roles to perfection. Up-and-comer Mia Wasikowska is excellent. But the real surprise 84-year-old Hal Holbrook, in his first leading role in a major film, giving the best performance of his 55-year career. —Michael Dunaway

3. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci) [IFC Films]
If clever verbal humor were easy, we’d have more comedies like In the Loop. But it’s not, and this one stands in a class of its own. It’s the most quotable film of the decade—by miles—and the cynical potty mouths on screen are so articulate and creative that, after the avalanche of witticisms, you’re left with the lingering sense that you’ve seen not just a funny movie but also a wicked political satire of the highest order, the kind where the absurdity speaks for itself. —Robert Davis

2. Up (Pete Doctor, Bob Peterson) [Walt Disney/Pixar]
In an oeuvre already overstuffed with classics (The Incredibles, Wall-E) that enchant both children and parents Pixar’s Up towers. Instilling heart into a trash compactor was a feat, but a comedic triumvirate consisting of a septuagenarian curmudgeon, a boy scout and an androgynous bird makes for a truly uncanny combo. That the film gracefully alights on abandoned dreams, old age, loss and the burden of domesticity is just the cherry on top. —Andy Beta

1. Avatar (James Cameron) [Twentieth Century Fox]
Never before have so many cynics wanted to hate a movie, and never have they been so thoroughly thwarted, as with James Cameron’s Avatar. Despite my own cynicism, I walked out of the theatre with the full realization that the cinematic experience had changed. I felt like those early moviegoers at the turn of the last century, who ducked as the train sped toward the camera. I was transported back to 1977, watching the Imperial Cruiser loom onto screen, seeming to go on forever, and later lost in amazement at the cantina scene. James Cameron has created the first cinematic world that truly captures the otherness of an imaginary world, the first to compete with the rich world that, previously, only the mind’s eye, fed by the best science fiction writers, could construct. It’s more than eye candy and technical wizardry. Avatar is a testament to power of imagination. While the story structure may be paint-by-numbers epic archetype, it hardly matters. You’re quickly dazzled, lost in wonderment and fully committed to this beautiful, expertly paced and epic thrill ride. —Tim Regan-Porter

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