Editor's Note: Our top ten of 2009 series concludes with luminary journalist Jen Yamato's list!
Ah, the joy and the agony of young love. Marc Webb's anti-romance captures the lifespan of a relationship between twentysomething Los Angelenos Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his manic pixie dream girl, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). Yes, the hipster cutesy-ness abounds, but who can resist Gordon-Levitt dancing to Hall and Oates through downtown L.A. in his ecstatic morning-after musical number?
9. District 9
Sharlto Copley makes an impressive debut as the unlikely hero Wikus Van De Merwe in Neill Blomkamp's highly entertaining South African sci-fi parable. Though its social commentary still feels only skin deep, District 9 transcends the trappings of the genre film and features alien creatures so well-realized they push the boundaries of believable CG.
8. An Education
Another smashing 2009 debut came in the form of Carey Mulligan, the luminous star of Lone Scherfig's 1960s coming-of-age tale, An Education. The effervescent 24-year-old anchored an excellent cast as Jenny, a smart English school girl who allows Peter Sarsgaard's dashing older man to teach her the life lessons she can't find in books. Oh, the hair, the clothes, the period detail ... I want it all for myself.
In his first lead role, Ben Foster gives a tenacious performance as a young Iraq veteran who battles his own post-traumatic demons while serving casualty notifications to the families of soldiers killed in action. What's even more miraculous than Foster's revelatory turn is the light observational touch of director Oren Moverman, who had his actors improvise their highly-charged scenes; as a result, The Messenger is one of the most quietly moving and authentic-feeling films of the year.
"Let the wild rumpus begin!" So says the little runaway Max to the gentle but terrifying band of monsters he meets in Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, which pays spiritual homage to Maurice Sendak's literary classic while carving out a dreamy, sun-spotted sense all its own. Karen O's whimsical score and Jonze's airy visuals made WTWTA wistful, playful, sad, and nostalgic all at once, reminding us of the wild rumpuses we all had in our long-forgotten youth.
Stylistically brazen and gloriously violent, Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson revels in its quasi-fictional treatment of Britain's most notorious criminal, career troublemaker Michael Peterson (aka Charles Bronson). As he traces Bronson's life from his capricious childhood to his present and future in solitary lockdown, Refn recalls the virtuoso stylings of a latter-day Kubrick, displaying the tragic-comic truth of his subject's perverse desire for celebrity status. Never has male aggression been treated with such elegance as it is when the incarcerated Bronson (played charismatically by Tom Hardy in a career-making role) takes a hostage, strips nude, war-paints his body with grease, and launches himself joyously into a fray of angry, club-toting prison guards.
Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq actioner offers a compelling, heart-pounding glimpse into military life overseas, where so many men and women have lost their lives in recent years. But while the ticking-clock nature of bomb diffusal work and explosive set pieces sets your pulse racing with visceral energy, special appreciation goes to actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty for bringing a subtle intensity to their characters, making The Hurt Locker at once a riveting action thriller and a sensitive study of the personal stakes and sacrifices made by the modern soldier at war.
It's funny to look back to a time when Pixar fans feared that an animated film about an elderly man, a Boy Scout, and a bunch of balloons might fail to attract an audience. Over $683 million dollars later, the adventurers-at-heart of the world brushed those worries aside. The story of Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner), his stowaway Russell (the excellent, adorable Jordan Nagai), a talking dog named Dug, and a colorful bird named Kevin touched hearts and tickled fancies and gave us one of the most emotional, tear-jerking sequences of the year without uttering a single line of dialogue.
This was a banner year for animation, especially for fans nostalgic for the days before Pixar dominated the scene with artfully crafted pixels. Wes Anderson's meticulously detailed adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox was a joy to discover, a charming stop-motion variation on familiar Anderson themes: foolish dreamers, dysfunctional families, and the pursuit for greatness in an ordinary world. Excellent voice work and a stylish knack for whimsy make this an unconventional caper that feels at once fresh and new, and yet a fitting entry into Anderson's oeuvre.
1. The Beaches of Agnes
French New Wave fixture Agnes Varda turns her lens inward yet again to revisit the places and people she's encountered during her 80-odd years (and counting!) of life, imagining the landscape of her memories as a beach where she re-creates events and feelings in art installments. Treading with reflective curiosity from her childhood home in Belgium to Los Angeles, France, and beyond, the legendary filmmaker and documentarian ponders the nature of memory as she re-examines old photographs and buildings, visits friends and family, and waxes sentimental over the films she and her husband, Jacques Demy, made during their parallel careers as the most adorable couple of the nouvelle vague. Varda's visual flair and introspective self-examination make The Beaches of Agnes a truly personal meditation, one of the best and most stirring works of her career.