top 10 movies of 2009: the whys and wherefores

If you regularly check my on-the-fly ranking of new theatrical releases as I see them, then my top 10 movies of 2009 are no surprise: I shuffled a few titles around a bit last month, but the films ranked in the top 10 for 2009 haven’t changed much in months. (The 2009 ranking is here; I may add a few more titles to the ranking over the next few weeks as I catch up with a few final films, and hopefully none of them will blow my mind so much that I’ll wish I could redo the top 10. I’m not expecting that to happen, but you never know. The 2010 ranking is already underway here.)

Here, some words of explanation, beyond my reviews, on why each film is one of the best of the year.

10. The Brothers Bloom
All con movies are about conning the audience, too, but Rian Johnson’s delightful example of the genre makes us realize that all storytelling — including movies — are cons we willingly give ourselves over to in the full expectation that we will be tricked… and that we’ll love it. Plus: It features two of the most uniquely intriguing women on film this year in Rachel Weisz’s naif and Rinko Kikuchi’s silent explosives expert.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson took a charming children’s book and spun it into a wildly inventive rumination on commitment — to loved ones, to community, and to oneself — couched in the most enchantingly stylish animation of the year. Plus: This could be George Clooney’s best performance of the year.

8. Inglourious Basterds
From his insanely brilliant extrapolation of ultimate revenge to his reminders of what it is that makes movies so addictive, Quentin Tarantino pulls off an unlikely combination: an ultraviolent movie that ends up indicting our bloodlust… unless we limit it to the fantasyland of the multiplex. Plus: Christoph Waltz’s Colonel Landa is the Evilest Nazi Ever.

7. Up
Pete Docter and Bob Peterson took Pixar to a lofty new realm with this buoyant tale of dreams deferred finally chased, and realized. The bittersweetness of its regrets is forgotten in its optimism and cheerfulness, which made it the perfect distraction for hard times. Plus: Oh, that talking dog!

6. Bright Star
As poetic as cinema gets, this beautiful film romances love itself, by sharing with us the passion it inspires. Jane Campion is wise indeed, prompting us to remember that sex and love are not necessarily the same thing — this is as chaste, and as hot, as filmic romance gets — and that the past was inhabited by people as alive as we are. Plus: Abbie Cornish *sigh*…

5. A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers reinvent cinema for the next decade with this unclassifiable dramedy that wraps up modern angst with ancient religion to come to the conclusion that we’re on our own, life sucks, and ain’t it wonderful? Plus: Tornado?

4. The Soloist
Why is the world so screwed up, and what can we do to fix it? Distressingly, suggests Joe Wright, there may be nothing at all we can do… except to reconsider our notions of “broken” and “fixed,” even of “natural” and “unnatural.” And all in a film that defies clichéd notions of race and class, too! Plus: Here’s the other great performance this year by Robert Downey Jr.

3. The Road
John Hillcoat shakes up the postapocalyptic genre by dispensing with everything that makes it “enjoyable,” leaving us with gray despair and little else. How do you make a purposeful film about pointlessness and hopelessness? Like this. Plus: If Viggo Mortensen winnows himself down to an intensity any denser, he’s gonna collapse into a black hole.

2. District 9
South African Neill Blomkamp combined his love of Hollywood fare with his outsider perspective to remind us that freshness can be found in familiar stories. And he struck a blow against Hollywood’s obsession with The Movie Star by casting his pal, filmmaker and FX expert Sharlto Copley, in the lead; gave Copley his head; and let the nonactor demonstrate how badly creativity and imagination and craft have slid away from lazy celebs letting their faces and their fame do their jobs. Plus: How nice to see a first-contact story that was neither about invasion nor set in New York or Los Angeles.

1. The Hurt Locker
While her male colleagues with similar track records get A-list treatment and megabudgets from the studios, Kathryn Bigelow was forced to produce this knowing ode to male testosterone outside Hollywood, on the cheap with money raised the hard way. And she blew them away — or up! — with a story both intimate in its scope and broad in its thesis (ie, war will never end as long as there are men who get off on it). Plus: Jeremy Renner’s performance is a starmaker.

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