It seems to be a critical tradition to bewail the awfulness of each year's movies. But how often is this really true? With the annual caveat that it's impossible (and meaningless) to designate one movie or filmmaker as the "best," here are a number of 2009 pictures I liked a lot in various aspects, with one entrant in each category selected, fairly arbitrarily, as the "best," and equally worthy contenders noted below them.
"Up in the Air" A mainstream film with a complex heart and a brain, too. Not exactly a comedy, not precisely a drama, but as close to a perfect movie as any other this year.
Also really good: "The Hurt Locker": Can it actually have been seven years since Kathryn Bigelow's last picture? This scrappy low-budget film, with a breakthrough performance by Jeremy Renner, marks a directorial "comeback" that should have been unnecessary.
"The Lovely Bones": A terrifically menacing performance by Stanley Tucci, and more-imaginative digital effects than the over-hyped "Avatar."
"Precious": A movie unlike any other, out of nowhere. First-time film actress Gabourey Sidibe made the year's most stirring debut.
Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air" On the heels of "Juno" and "Thank You for Smoking," Reitman established himself as one of the best directors of a new Hollywood generation.
Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart" One of his most moving performances in a long and adventurous career.
Also: George Clooney for "Up in the Air," a remarkable exercise in carefully modulated star power; Sam Rockwell for single-handedly anchoring the memorable "Moon"; and Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker," playing a bomb-squad soldier whose life only acquires meaning when it's hanging in the balance.
Michelle Monaghan, "Trucker" Finally getting the kind of richly conceived role she deserves.
Also: Penélope Cruz in "Broken Embraces"; Carey Mulligan stepping into stardom in "An Education"; and Meryl Streep nailing the part of Julia Child in "Julie & Julia" — the best thing in an otherwise conflicted movie.
Best Supporting Actor:
Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds" This multilingual Austrian actor managed the demanding feat of being both creepy and funny in Tarantino's World War II comedy, which wasn't quite as successful itself in doing the same.
Also: Stanley Tucci in both "The Lovely Bones" and "Julie & Julia"; Jackie Earle Haley bringing Alan Moore's unbalanced Rorschach to full, furious life in "Watchmen"; and Christian McKay for his on-the-nose impersonation of the Great Man in "Me and Orson Welles."
Best Supporting Actress:
Mo'Nique, "Precious" Her devastating monologue toward the end of the film is the most powerful scene in an already powerful picture.
Also: Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in "Up in the Air"; Rachel Weisz and Rinko Kikuchi in "The Brothers Bloom"; Marion Cotillard in "Public Enemies"; and Sofia Vassilieva as the slowly, sadly dying girl in "My Sister's Keeper."
Rodrigo Prieto, "Broken Embraces" Another master-level entry on a résumé that already includes "Brokeback Mountain," "Babel" and "Lust, Caution."
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, "(500) Days of Summer" For their wonderfully bubbly take on young love gone wrong, and for creating such appealing characters for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel — who knew exactly what to do with them.
Also: James Mottern for "Trucker"; Tony Gilroy for the delightfully complicated "Duplicity"; Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for "Up in the Air"; Olivier Assayas for "Summer Hours; Rian Johnson for "The Brothers Bloom"; and Kent Harper and Jennifer Chambers Lynch for "Surveillance."
Brian Eno, "The Lovely Bones" The soundtrack includes some of his old stuff along with new material — all in all, an inspired recontextualization.
Best Foreign Language Picture:
"Summer Hours" A mesmerizing study of a troubled family on the verge of calling it quits, with yet another probing performance by Juliette Binoche.
Best Animated Film:
"Tyson" Usually written off as a primitive palooka, Mike Tyson emerges in James Toback's revelatory doc as a man with unexpected poetry in his soul.
Worst Art Movie:
Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist"
Ones That Got Away:
Every year there are great little films that get lost in the crush of higher-profile, bigger-budget or just better-promoted movies. This year's candidates for delayed discovery on DVD:
"The Brothers Bloom": The second feature by Rian Johnson ("Brick") has a wonderfully whacked-out plot and an unexpected, free-at-last comic performance by Rachel Weisz.
"The Uninvited": This creepy first feature by the Guard Brothers rivals its South Korean source in the beauty of its pictorial design, and demonstrates why the striking young Australian actress Emily Browning deserves to get a lot more work.
"Surveillance": Director Jennifer Chambers Lynch has some of her father's flair for the surreal, but the twisted sensibility she brought to this tricky serial-killer flick is her own. Features wonderfully demented performances by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond as a pair of FBI agents you'd never want on your case.
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