Editor’s Picks: The Ten Best Movies of 2009

By  · Published on December 27th, 2009

Perhaps one of the greatest honors, yet most difficult tasks of my year is the creation of my annual top ten list. As this site’s editor in chief (or whatever title suits me this week), I get to kick-off our Year in Review every year with my picks for best of the year. And of the 200+ movies that I saw and reviewed in various forms this year, it was even more difficult this year to break it all the way down to ten.

Make no mistake, my friends: it was one hell of a year for movies.

In fact, the most difficult part of this year’s list wasn’t locking in my ten best films, or even my number one. Those seemed to reveal themselves quickly, with little debate. The tough part was narrowing the rest of the field down to a few honorable mentions. The best of the rest was a strong segment this year, one that has left me with ten honorable mentions. Yes, ten. That might be cheating, but it’s my list. So that is where we begin, with my ten honorable mentions – a group of movies that tied for 11th place on my year’s best list. All of the titles below are linked to our coverage, reviews and more information about the films.

Honorable Mentions:

Up in the Air // Jason Reitman’s tale of the corporate road warrior was more than just a character piece driven by an award-worthy performance from this generation’s last great movie star (George Clooney), it was perhaps the most honest and earnest tale about our economic situation yet. And it was entertaining, thoroughly. Go figure.

An Education // Everyone’s heard about the breakout performance of Carey Mulligan, but how about the work of director Lone Scherfig and the production team that vividly delivered 1960s Britain? Theirs is a great achievement, as is the wonderful story. Mulligan’s stardom will be the byproduct of their superb work.

Moon // Director Duncan Jones is here, take note. With miniatures, imagination and the true grit that it takes to make a truly inspired indie slice of sci-fi, Jones created one of the year’s great surprises and allowed Sam Rockwell to deliver one of his best performances. He also gave us a preview of what is to come from such a promising filmmaking career.

A Serious Man // There’s no denying that the Coen Bros. are (and have been) at the top of their game. And with this film, they told us a very personal story that fulfilled our needs as an audience. We laughed, we cried, and we (especially those of us who didn’t understand the inside-growing up Jewish jokes) were quite perplexed as the credits rolled. Typical Coen Brothers.

Antichrist // It was the most controversial pic of the year, being that it involved an assortment of mutilation, penetrating imagery and chaos. But if Lars von Trier’s story set inside grief was anything, it was a piece of art – an abstract work of emotion painted with visceral imagery. It dared us to look away, and we did nothing of the sort.

World’s Greatest Dad // You wouldn’t think that Bobcat Goldthwait’s tale of a man who loses his son to auto-erotic asphyxiation would be funny, but it is. It is the darkest comedy made in a long time, and one anchored by a masterful performance from Robin Williams. Twisted, inappropriate and oddly touching, this film was one of the first of ’09 to really knock me out of my seat.

Coraline // Sweet, dark and clever, Henry Selick’s latest is a beautiful visual achievement. It is also a great story, taken from the mind of Neil Gaiman. It’s an adult-level story told via a medium that has captivated me since childhood – stop motion ain’t an easy way to make a movie, and Henry Selick has done it better than so many others for a long, long time.

500 Days of Summer // Some say it is too quirky, others don’t like the hipster soundtrack, but no one can deny the uncanny charm of this debut from director Marc Webb. With a stellar screenplay and two enchanting leads (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel), this off-beat romantic comedy is the anthem of ’09, a year when the anti-romance took center stage.

Away We Go // Speaking of offbeat, charming movies, this showcase for the talent of John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph was also a return to the sweeter side of Sam Mendes. Gone is last year’s heartstopping story of relationships eradicated, and here we meet a couple, in-love, just trying to find their place among the crazies. It was a wonderful story, directed and acted to near perfection.

Zombieland // Sometimes a movie is just fun. Simple, restraint-less fun. And with Ruben Fleischer’s feature debut, the often overplayed zombie genre gets a refreshing, hilarious and energetic lift. Complete with a crazed performance from Woody Harrelson and the year’s best cameo. Which I’m still not spoiling, by the way.

And now, we move on to my ten best of the year, which can be found by clicking through to the next page.

10. Up

The indelible charm that Pixar’s movies possess has never been stronger than it was with this simple human story. Few films ever capture the life of one person so eloquently, and few films ever great such a vast, high-flying adventure. With up, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have accomplished both. And if you’ve seen it, you understand their accomplishment, because you’ve lived through not only the laughs, but plenty of tears as well.

9. Anvil! The Story of Anvil

For the first 20-minutes of this film, I thought I was watching another revision of the This is Spinal! tap formula. But I wasn’t – I was watching the true story of a pair of 50-something heavy metal rockers from Canada, still trying desperately to live their dream. Theirs is a sad story, but one of hope – hope because we should all aspire to follow our dreams with such unwavering fervor. Because in the end we can’t all be rock stars, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying.

8. Star Trek

From the opening battle scene that pounded away at the audience to the epic scale of the USS Enterprise, first seen docked in space awaiting its maiden voyage, J.J. Abrams’ Trek is a beautiful renewal of an immensely popular franchise. But what it accomplished was much more than fan-service, it was a rebirth. We now have a Star Trek franchise that is more than just a thinking man’s science fiction series, but an exciting big-budget action franchise that will thrill audiences with giant space battles. And for those among us in the nerd corps, we couldn’t be more tickled by its success and reverence.

7. Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino promised a great movie, and delivered just in time. A brutal, and brutally hilarious take on the second World War, Basterds is a pitch-perfect and not-so-accurate tale of Nazi hunting in France. It is also, without a doubt, the year’s most vibrant, episodic period piece. And like Chris Nolan did with The Dark Knight in ’08, Tarantino creates the ultimate good vs. evil – two giants of idealism and valor (Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz) engaging in the ultimate bullet-riddled game of chess. It is the best of Tarantino, in every possible way.

6. Avatar

If there’s one thing we know about James Cameron, it is that his movies are always significant. And through all of the talk about Avatar – the hype, the expectation and the inevitable blow-back – we knew that going in. Coming out, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the immense technical achievement. In the way the he won with Titanic, rooting a solid love story inside a gigantic visual feast, Cameron has delivered a movie that could be the game changer it claimed to be. History will tell that story. The story that we know now is that he’s given us a new look into the realm of what is possible in the next century of cinema.

5. Mystery Team

2009 might ultimately be the year known for breakout filmmaking performances. But while solo directors were cutting their teeth with groundbreaking sci-fi, the Derrick Comedy group delivered a pitch-black comedy about the arrested development (and obliviousness) of youth. It was one of the most clever, refreshing and deviously raunchy comedies of the year. A tough sell for mainstream audiences, but a sensational debut with serious cult following potential. Mark my words, you will remember the day you met the Mystery Team.

4. The Hurt Locker

Perhaps the most intense action experience seen in theaters in many, many years, this Kathryn Bigelow directed actioner gave us an all-too-intimate peek into the world of an Army bomb squad in Baghdad. It also showed us that unfound talents like Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie could light the big screen on fire, and rivet us to our seats for over two hours. It’s the odds-on critical favorite of the year. And for once, all of those stuffy, crotchety critics are right. The Hurt Locker is pure intensity, committed to celluloid.

3. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Here comes the part of the list where I get some strange looks from the readership. Perhaps because I, like so many who saw this movie, am in love with it to the break of dawn. The insanity and balls-out performance of Nicolas Cage, combined with the oft-muzzy storytelling of Werner Herzog and an intense dedication to chaos on the Bayou make for one helluva good time. An edgy noir, but one with a devious streak fueled by its drug-amplified central character. Beware, the birth of a new Bad Lieutenant franchise could be upon us (hopefully).

2. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Going into this stop-motion animated film from Wes Anderson, I was skeptical. But after 2–3 viewings, I can’t help but be charmed by the attention to detail and the simple, upbeat nature of this tale. The celebrity voices, the Anderson-esque quirks and the odd Willem Dafoe-voiced rat with the French twang all work perfectly where no-one expected them to work. What Anderson has done is delivered his most restrained, but lively effort. And with every additional viewing, I find more to love. That’s a quality that isn’t easy to achieve – it’s almost magical.

1. District 9

No movie surprised us quite like this well-marketed little science fiction epic from director Neill Blomkamp. We can thank our sci-fi loving stars that Peter Jackson found this guy, then found $30 million dollars for him to shoot this alien adventure guerrilla-style. It was a civil rights allegory that told the story of apartheid better than more focused tales, and delivered alien adventure that rivaled that of the master who also delivered his alien story this year. There were a lot of secrets in District 9, but what we found most of all was that under the surface, this was a high-concept, low-fi masterpiece of epic, near-perfect proportions.

So there you have it. My ten best films of the year. For reference, here are links to my previous year lists:

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)