Year of the Talking Fox: The Best (and Worst) Films of 2009

As Roger Ebert recently tweeted, 2009 has been “one of those magic movie years, like 1939 or 1976.” He’s not wrong; here are my picks for…

The ten best films of the year:

  1. A Serious Man (dir. & scr. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
  2. In which Roger Deakins (once again) delivers some of the most beautiful cinematic images of the year; Michael Stuhlbarg gives the performance of the year, and in which the Coens once again deliver a helping of Minnesota nice—except this time, it’s painfully (and hilariously) Jewish.

  3. (500) Days of Summer (dir. Marc Webb, scr. Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber)
  4. In which a marquee reads “Part Vampire, Part Giant: VAGIANT.” Also, Zooey Deschanel is very attractive, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is quite the song-and-dance man.

  5. The Limits of Control (dir. & scr. Jim Jarmusch, inspired by William Burroughs’ essay of the same name)
  6. Stunning scenery meets sparsely-populated script. Cinematic perfection ensues. “La vida non vale nada,” indeed.

  7. Moon (dir. Duncan Jones, scr. Jones, Nathan Parker)
  8. In which Sam Rockwell confronts his own mortality. One of the best science-fiction films since Primer.

  9. Where The Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze, scr. Jonze, Dave Eggers from the book by Maurice Sendak)
  10. In which a kid sails across the sea to a land of outsized, loveably manic-depressive monsters. A sense of child-like wonder and boundless enthusiasm seeps from every gorgeous frame. One of the most faithful feature-length adaptations ever—a task made all the more difficult by the fact that the source text runs not much longer than a haiku. An impressive, lush soundtrack and score by Karen O. and Carter Burwell—but the film’s too scary for young kids, and occasionally snooze-inducing in adults.

  11. UP (dir. Pete Docter, co-dir. Bob Peterson, scr. Docter, Peterson, Thomas McCarthy)
  12. In which a chubby Asian-American kid latches onto the side of an octogenerian’s house. The old coot has attached thousands of helium-filled balloons to the fireplace in order to finally travel to his late wife’s holiday spot; beautiful adventure ensues.

  13. Adventureland (dir. & scr. Gregg Mottola)
  14. In which Kristen Stewart plays a cute-as-a-button stoner (maybe not acting?), and Jesse Eisenberg cements his place as his generation’s Anthony Michael Hall. Eisenberg’s second flick this year ending in -land and set at least partly in a theme park. Perfect casting all-round, and a lovingly-detailed ’80s milleu to match.

  15. Inglourious Basterds (dir. & scr. Quentin Tarantino)
  16. In which Nazi-scalping Jews scalp Nazis, and it is awesome.

  17. Star Trek (dir. JJ Abrams, scr. Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman)
  18. In which frenetic camerawork and an abundance of lens flares dazzles and pummels the audience into orgiastic submission. Abrams’ franchise reboot was one of the most exciting cinema experiences of the year.

  19. Antichrist (dir. & scr. Lars von Trier)
  20. In which that crazy mofo Charlotte Gainsbourg violently attacks genitalia (both her own and her husband’s) with rusty garden tools. The thirteenth feature film by the Danish auteur terrible, and this year’s Cannes scandal, turns out to be not actually so shocking as to cause physical reactions, and quite beautiful to boot.

Honorable mentions, in no particular order:

  • 2012 (dir. Roland Emmerich, scr. Emmerich, Harald Kloser)
  • Only German master of disaster Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow) could take such a ludicrous concept—the ancient Mayan end-times prophecy—and make it so deliriously, spectacularly entertaining. John Cusack is perfectly cast as the hapless has-been writer who has to save the day, and so is Woody Harrelson as an AM-radio transmitting nutbar living in out of an RV in Yellowstone. At the other end of the casting scale, having a French actress badly voice a Ruski Paris Hilton wasn’t a good call—and I’d like to have seen the ending where everyone dies because, like, there’s really no way anyone’s that into the film that they’d actually be rooting for Amanda Peet, the rest of her family and that blonde bimbo and her yappy little handbag-sized bitch. Also, you know you’re taking your solar apocalypse movie a little too seriously when you make Danny Glover an ersatz Obama but fail to give him the chance to say “I’m getting too old for this shit!” You’re a-splodin’ the whole wide world; at least let us laugh a bit—not at the movie, but with the characters/actors trapped inside it. Hopefully J.B. Smoove and Jimmi Simpson are cast in the Lost-esque spinoff TV series, 2013.

  • 意外 (Accident) (dir. Soi Cheang, scr. Szeto Kam-Yuen, Nicholl Tang)
  • Soi’s masterfully-directed film about a gun-for-hire who frames his hits as if they were accidental is a ponderous and oftentimes wonderfully philosophical character study.

  • Public Enemies (dir. Michael Mann, scr. Mann, Ronan Bennett, Ann Biderman)
  • Mann’s eye for detail is put to good use, but the film ultimately seems like a collection of vingettes, albeit very entertaining ones; characters aren’t developed enough for us to care about them, but at least we have fun watching Dillinger doing what he does best: robbing banks and making love.


  • I Love You, Man (dir. John Hamburg, scr. Hamburg, Larry Levin)
  • The Hangover (dir. Todd Philips, scr. Jon Lucas, Scott Moore)
  • Both were very funny, but despite an awesome cameo from Andy Samberg, Paul “Slappin’ da bass” Rudd and Jason Segel narrowly lose out to Zach Galafinakis’ innate awesomeness, and Ken Jeong’s wise career change.


  • Coraline (dir. & scr. Henry Selick from the novella by Neil Gaiman)
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson, scr. Anderson, Noah Baumbach from the novel by Roald Dahl)
  • Mary and Max (dir. & scr. Adam Elliot)
  • 9 (dir. Shane Acker, scr. Acker, Pamela Pettler)
  • 崖の上のポニョ (Gake no ue no Ponyo/Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea) (dir & scr. Hayao Miyazaki)
  • Selick’s film beats both Mr. Fox and Mary and Max on technical competency and storytelling alone, but Anderson’s film is more spritely, and has his usual British Invasion soundtrack, and some awesome voice work—Elliot’s, though, is more emotionally resonant than either Fox or Coraline. Meanwhile, Acker’s CGI/craftwork mashup should have remained in short-film purgatory, and Miyazaki delivers a beautifully pastel-toned but disappointingly one-dimensional re-telling of the Hansel & Gretel fable.

The undead:

  • Thirst
  • Jennifer’s Body
  • Zombieland
  • All three of these were scary, stylish and hilarious. Sometimes they were all three at once: stylarious. (Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, is funnier than it is scary—largely because of a changed ending that whacks the audience over the head unnecessarily.)

  • Away We Go (dir. Sam Mendes, scr. Dave Eggers, Vendela Vida)
  • A hipster-targeted road rom-com with more than enough entertaining cameos—Allison Janney, Catherine O’Hara, Jim Gaffifigan, Jeff Daniels, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Maggie Gyllenhaal—to keep it chugging along.

  • Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon) (dir. & scr. Michael Hanneke)
  • L’heure d’été (Summer Hours) (dir. & scr. Olivier Assayas)
  • Aruitemo aruitemo (Still Walking / Even if You Walk and Walk) (dir. & scr. Hirokazu Kore-eda)
  • Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women/ The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) (dir. Niels Arden, scr. Oplev Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg, from the novel by Stieg Larsson)
  • Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (dir. Uli Edel, scr. Edel, Bernd Eichinger from the book by Stefan Aust)

Films that would be on these lists, had they been released in New Zealand:

  • Whatever Works (dir. & scr. Woody Allen)
  • House of the Devil (dir. & scr. Ti West)
  • A Town Called Panic (dir. & scr. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar)
  • Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (dir. Werner Herzog, scr. William Finkelstein, partly from an earlier film written by Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Abel Ferrara and Zoë Lund)
  • The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (dir. Neil Brennan, scr. Andy Stock, Rick Stempson)
  • Me and Orson Welles (dir. Richard Linklater, scr. Vincent Palmo Jr., Holly Gent Palmo from the novel by Robert Kaplow)
  • The Road (dir. John Hillcoat, scr. Joe Penhall from the novel by Cormac McCarthy)
  • Black Dynamite (dir. Scott Sanders, scr. Sanders, Michael Jai White, Byron Minns)
  • The Box (dir. & scr. Richard Kelly from the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson)
  • The Messenger (dir. Oren Moverman, scr. Moverman, Alessandro Camon)
  • The Girlfriend Experience (dir. Steven Soderbergh, scr. David Levien, Brian Koppelman)
  • A Single Man (dir. & scr. Tom Ford from the novel by Christopher Isherwood)
  • La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman) (dir. & scr. Lucrecia Martel)
  • Tetro (dir. & scr. Francis Ford Coppola)
  • The Last Station (dir. & scr. Michael Hoffman from the novel by Jay Parini)
  • The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, scr. Mark Boal)
  • Nine (dir. Rob Marshall, scr. Michael Tolkin, Anthony Minghella from the Broadway musical by Arthur Kopit, Maury Yeston and Mario Fratti) (Opens limited January 28)
  • Julia (dir. Erick Zonca, scr. Zonca, Aude Py, Roger Bohbot, Michael Collins, Camille Natta) (Opens January 28 at the Academy)

[Ineligible, because they were released in 2008 in the US: Rachel Getting Married, Synecdoche, New York, Milk, Revolutionary Road, The Wrestler, The Class, Wendy and Lucy, In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Doubt, Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon.]

The worst films of the year:
Red Cliff, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, Year One, Taking Woodstock, The Founding of a Republic, The Informant!, Funny People, Religulous, Easy Virtue, The Boat That Rocked, The Invention of Lying, I’m Not Harry Jenson, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, The Wackness, Paper Heart, The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, Duplicity, Capitalism: A Love Story.

The absolute rock-bottom worst films of this or any year:

The Vintner’s Luck, Feng sheng (The Message), Knowing, Surrogates, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Shinjuku Incident. (I haven’t seen Twilight: New Moon, but I’m gonna go ahead and assume it’s un-watchably bad.)


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