Happy New Year, and welcome to my annual movie round-up. If I saw a movie in the theater in 2009, I consider it fair game for this column, even if it was technically a 2008 release. I saw 62 movies in the theater last year, and these are the most worthy of your attention.
Movie of the Year: My pick is The Hurt Locker, a taut thriller about the Iraq War that has a strong documentary feel to it. The actor who carries the movie, Jeremy Renner, does a heck of a job as a bomb-defusing expert. I think the movie recently came out on DVD, so check it out.
Runner Up: The number 2 spot goes to a 2008 release, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke. He should have won the Oscar for his moving portrayal of a washed-up professional wrestler. The scenes in which he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, are especially moving, but the whole movie is excellent.
Best Action/Adventure Flick: And my pick for the 3d best movie I saw this year would be District 9, the out-of-nowhere sci-fi movie about a shantytown of extraterrestrials living outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, and the clueless bureaucrat whose job is to push all the aliens into an even more remote concentration camp. I’m crossing my fingers for a sequel to this one! Honorable mention goes to J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek franchise, even if he rewrote Trek history in the process.
Best Animated Feature: With the caveat that I haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog yet, I’ll go with the obvious choice of Up, in which a grumpy old man ties enough helium balloons to his house to fly all the way to South America. But except for the awesome opening montage that tells the whole story of the man’s life in just a few minutes, I didn’t think Up was really all that great.
Best Comedy: I’ll stretch this category a teensy bit and pick My One and Only, a winsome little movie that is supposedly based on episodes in the life of George Hamilton during his teen years. The redoubtable Renee Zellweger plays George’s mother, a hapless Southern belle searching for love in all the wrong places. I’m probably exaggerating its merits, but I really liked it at the time. Same goes for Management, a romantic comedy starring Steve Zahn and Jennifer Aniston. It involves a totally impossible romance, but the leads are so likable I just had to like the movie. In the category of crude yet funny, I liked I Love You, Man.
Best Documentary: Let’s go with the obvious choice and pick Disney’s Earth. Who doesn’t love a good nature documentary? I love ’em, and I’ll go ahead and mention Under the Sea 3D as being worthwhile too.
Best Drama: Or maybe it belongs in the comedy category, but either way I really enjoyed Up in the Air starring George Clooney and directed by Jason Reitman. It’s still in the theaters, so get out there and see it! Another movie that straddles the dramedy line is the quirky (500) Days of Summer, starring the quirky yet adorable Zooey Deschanel. While you’re at it, check out the CD she sings on, under the name She & Him. I was also grabbed by the 2008 release The Reader, although I still don’t know quite how I feel about that movie. It’s a strange one.
Best Foreign Film: I don’t think I saw too many foreign films this year, but I liked A Woman in Berlin, about the Russian conquest of Berlin in 1945 as seen through the eyes of one German woman. It was brutal without ever feeling exploitative. I also recommend the book, which I think is still listed as authored by “Anonymous” even though the woman’s identity is known. Another good one was The Class, or Entre les murs, about a French teacher trying to deal with a very fractious and multicultural classroom. Also, Summer Hours, a French movie that’s just a simple little family drama, well-told.
Honorable Mentions: I have a bunch of them. There’s Wendy and Lucy, a little movie about a sad, down-on-her-luck young woman played by Michelle Williams, and her beloved dog. Adventureland is a good little coming-of-age story starring Jesse Eisenberg of Zombieland fame. Moon is a thought-provoking little sci-fi movie. In the Loop is a funny look at the run-up to a fictitious (?) war as seen through the eyes of low-to-mid-level American and British government staffers. The Informant! is a straight movie about a bizarre guy; you just can’t help asking, “Is this really based on a true story? No, really?” Ellen Page scores again in the roller derby movie Whip It. The Coen brothers ask unanswerable questions in A Serious Man. And finally I will mention, based solely on the strength of their visual effects, Disney’s A Christmas Carol and Avatar. See them in 3D, I insist!
First seen on video this year: I haven’t done this before, but I’ll go ahead and recommend a few movies I saw on video this year. The animated feature Bolt is a cute one, about a dog who thinks he has super powers — kind of like a canine Buzz Lightyear. The original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still is still surprisingly good, and the 1963 version of The Haunting is still surprisingly scary. I also enjoyed the little-seen Luke Wilson movie Henry Poole Is Here, the classic Western The Gunfighter starring Gregory Peck, and the classics From Here to Eternity and To Have and Have Not.
So that’s my 2009 in a nutshell. Please post your comments and voice your own opinions!