1.) Up In The Air. Up until last week I thought my #2 had this in the bag, and then Jason Reitman had to come along and be brilliant and shit. Way to go, Jason Reitman, fucking up my list and making me have to juggle shit around! Anyway, George Clooney (who is undoubtedly the Actor of the Decade, incidentally – there just isn’t any goddamn competition for the title and you have to recognize that fact sooner rather than later) leads off a collection of nigh-perfect performances strung together by a narrative that shouldn’t work but in context seems not only believable but indeed natural. Illuminating and thought-provoking, and underrated by many critics simply because Reitman is comfortable with comedy and most critics have issues with that.
2.) (500) Days of Summer. I get that this is a polarizing picture and that there are people who absolutely hate this movie, or at the very least don’t understand what its proponents see in it. However, I am one of its proponents, so if you are one of those hating people, tough shit, this is my list. I adore how this movie plays with time in clever ways, how it builds a narrative out of barely connected moments by gradually building a web, how it’s not afraid to take a dumb risk now and again, how the performances are so damned strong. And it still has the best final line of a movie since The Apartment.
3.) The Hurt Locker. Winning a shitload of critical acclaim, because Serious Movie Critics, deep down, love to see shit blow up like everybody else, but this is finally the movie they’ve been waiting for all along: a movie that blows shit up but does so to assist the development of complex characters. A limited budget gave Kathryn Bigelow the perverse freedom to avoid name actors and instead hire Jeremy Renner, who delivers a blistering performance as the lead bomb tech/thrill junkie, but it didn’t stop her from blowing shit up real good. Making an Iraq war movie seems like an invitation to disaster with all the terrible ones that have come out in the last few years; this movie is proof that it’s not the setting that’s the flaw.
4.) Up. It’s Pixar. What the fuck did you expect? And it’s not just that it’s Pixar, but that Pixar have been on a real hot streak the last few years (ever since Ratatouille).
5.) Fantastic Mr. Fox. In a non-Pixar world, this would be the best animated film of the year without question: a Wes Anderson film, translated to all-ages stop-motion animation. The kids in the audience when I went loved it; so did their parents. It’s a fascinating fusion of Anderson’s style with Dahl’s source material, resulting in something that’s equal parts of both and incredibly entertaining; it’s almost weird to see Anderson go for running gags as he does in this movie with such gusto, but he pulls it off so well that you wish all his movies were stop-motion.
6.) The Cove. Quite simply, this doesn’t feel like a documentary; it feels like a thriller, a very nasty dark thriller with extremely bad guys, and you can be forgiven every once in a while for forgetting that this is really real – especially considering that Hayden Panettiere, of all people, shows up on the side of the good guys. (For which, I might add, she gets a lifetime pass from me, no matter how many shitty movies she makes.) Intense, gripping, and one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in years.
7.) Adventureland. Jesse Eisenberg seems prepared to star exclusively in movies that end in “-land,” but so far they’ve all been good; Zombieland was highly entertaining for what it was, and Adventureland just about perfect for what it attempted to be: a nostalgic reflection on growing up in the mid-80s that also serves as a classic examination of young-man-at-crossroads syndrome. Gets everything just about exactly right, and serves as confirmation that, Twilight aside, Kristen Stewart can actually act really well.
8.) The Lovely Bones. This currently has a low rating on Rottentomatoes, and the gripe from the critics disliking it is almost uniformly the same: they hate that Jackson shifts gears in mood and tone from horror to fantasy to drama to light family quickly. These are the exact same complaints that were made about The Frighteners; they were wrong then and they are wrong now. The Lovely Bones works precisely because it never stops being a horror film, in a way; even the family-friendliest of scenes are overlaid with the murder that exists at the heart of the film, which is the entire point. When I read the book, I thought it was unfilmable; I should have remembered that Jackson can make a movie out of anything.
9.) District 9. Questionable racial politics aside, this is a brilliant sci-actioner, with real and genuine emotion pushing it to its climax – the transformation of Sharlto Copley’s hapless government servant, both emotional and physical, never stops being immersive and powerful. Also, it has big alien gun that go ZWAAAAAM. It’s the perfect mix of the deep well of drama combined with high-quality FX pyrotechnics.
10.) Anvil! The Story of Anvil. The second-best documentary of the year is about some washed-up rockers who never stopped believing in rock, and who as a result of this movie suddenly found they had a career again. Personally, the music is not the best I’ve heard, but you can’t help but get dragged along with these lovable loser/freaks who keep pushing for their dreams even if they might not make it. Documentary as inspirational tract.
11.) Inglourious Basterds. I wanted to dismiss Basterds, but I just can’t – there’s too much art here to dismiss it. There’s not enough to put it into a top ten when the questions of substance (the lack of action, for one thing) are so numerous, but nobody has better style than Tarantino – absolutely nobody – and nobody makes his films as distinctively his own without sticking to a formula. The only movie in the top twenty I am still not sure if I actually liked on its own merit, but… it lingers, in the right ways, and that’s always a sign of greatness.
12.) Drag Me To Hell. Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots and it is fucking great. That is all.
13.) Summer Hours. Devastatingly honest family drama which asks penetrating questions about the nature of family and home, and permanescence of same. I know “it makes you think” is a horrible cliche, but this one really does make you think – it’s not a comfortable film to watch but it certainly qualifies as an important one.
14.) Mystery Team. Virtually ignored in theaters, which is a shame because Derrick Comedy’s first big-screen foray is goddamned hilarious – easily the best gutbuster of the year for me in a year where there were quite a few quality comedies. I nearly choked at many points during the flick, and just as importantly it’s not simply a stalking horse for a bunch of funny quips but instead a story (with a surprising amount of dramatic heft to it).
15.) Moon. Extremely smart sci-fi movie of the sort that makes you wonder how it even got made. Almost entirely a one-man show, and Sam Rockwell finally puts up the bravura performance we’ve always known he could manage but never really brought to the fore. Also, Kevin Spacey is a surprisingly convincing beneficient robot overseer, and I say that with all due respect.
16.) Coraline. Henry Selick is the fucking shit, yo.
17.) The Brothers Bloom. Maybe the idea of a movie about cons being in many ways a con itself isn’t new, but the execution here is refreshing and the lack of determinate resolution for much of the picture even moreso. Special recognition is due to Rinko Kikuchi for making Bang Bang a completely engaging and original character without saying a single word, which in a movie about lying is especially merited.
18.) Away We Go. Many people complained about the “smug hipster” vibe of this movie, because, I dunno, David Eggers wrote it and John Krasinski had a beard or something like that. But it’s not about smug hipsters; it’s about being terrified in the face of the awesome responsibility of parenthood, and coming to terms with that fear. The entire movie is a collection of pre-parental fears (partner abandonment, child death, becoming one of those horrible couples you always justifiably hated) and coming to terms with it; it’s travelogue as therapy.
19.) The Invention of Lying. Incredibly underrated movie – it’s frequently extremely clever and goes places one wouldn’t expect it to go. (Hint: religious satire of the most vicious variety imaginable, which likely has something to do with its abject box-office failure.) It’s very, very funny, and has a lot of good performances in it, and deserves to be slotted up with Ricky Gervais’ other accomplishments; it stands alongside them very well.
20.) Star Trek. All of the other films on this list merely had to be – nobody had any expectations for them beyond the hopes of a good time out at the theatre. Star Trek came with a horde of baggage: it had to satisfy fanboys and newbies, classic Trekkers and new-skool Trekkers, people wanting a good entertaining adventure flick and people wanting a good blow-up-shit-with-space-lasers movie (these are not necessarily the same thing). JJ Abrams managed to satisfy pretty much everybody beyond a few nitpickers and complainers, and delivered one of the most thoroughly fun blockbusters to come along in a good long while. And sometimes that’s all you need.