Staff Picks: The Best Movies of 2009

By  · Published on January 1st, 2010

In the last month of the past decade, we put our readership through the ringer. We unleashed list after list of our favorites of the decade and the year. It was a tumultuous time at Reject HQ, as many battles were waged and whiteboard markers were thrown over who should write the lists and what movies should make it to the top. And while all of that is not gone – you know we keep the magic experience of listmaking going throughout the year – the storm is over. And we finish with a new list this year, a round of staff picks.

At the beginning of the week, I laid down my Editor’s Picks to kick off our Year in Review. To close down the Year in Review, I asked seven of our most prolific contributors of 2009 – the seven gentlemen who bled through the most reviews – to each deliver their top five movies of the year. We even let Dr. Abaius participate. What can I say? It’s the season of giving.

So without further adieu, the pièce de résistance of our Year in Review…

Robert Fure
Associate Editor, Los Angeles

District 9 // Most definitely on virtually every best of the year list, District 9 is one of the best science fiction movies of recent memory. Mixing cool commentary with awesome explosions, great characters (best performance in the film is by an alien even), and stunning visuals, this is easily the best movie of the year.

Taken // Released in 2008 in most of the world, we Americans didn’t get it until January 2009 and it’s such an awesome film that I’m going to bring it up. Taken has become one of those films you must watch whenever you see it. A realistic take on the ultimate bad-ass kind of movie, this movie is as hard as they come.

Star Trek // From a non-Trekkie perspective, I can easily say that this is my absolute favorite Star Trek movie, and a perfect example of fast paced, exciting, fun sci-fi. There is no heaviness to the story, just escapist fun at Warp Factor 5.2

I Love You, Man // While most end of the year lists are probably picking up the more recently released The Hangover, I Love You, Man started the year with a bunch of quotable phrases, a guest appearance by Lou Ferrigno, and, like Role Models made KISS cool again, ILYM made Rush acceptable to rock out to.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen // You either loved it or you hated it and half the reason I’m putting this on the list is to piss off critics that don’t have a sense of fun. While Transformers wasn’t the best movie the year, or the most coherent, it was definitely a very fun flick with plenty of laughs, lots of low angles on hot chicks, and some of the craziest and explosive battle scenes committed to film.

Brian Salisbury
Columnist, Austin

Up // While Pixar has often been the standard for stunning, effective animation, no animated film has ever spoken to me on such a deeply personal level as up. This film is so fantastic that even though this has been a sort of banner year for animation, Up secured its Oscar as soon as the credits rolled.

District 9 // Science Fiction, as depicted on film of late, seems to have become inextricably linked with either action or horror. District 9, while providing enough action to bolster its blockbuster status, brought back the thoughtful, cerebral quality that made the genre what it is. It’s been a long time since Sci-Fi was culturally relevant and socially meaningful, but District 9 navigates those waters with ease; remarkable considering it’s the first film from director Neil Blomkamp.

Inglorious Basterds // Like him or loathe him Quentin Tarantino has proven himself a master storyteller. Here he brings us his requisite geek homage, this time for the macaroni combat genre, while at the same time eliciting some phenomenal performances and weaving a series of wholly engaging subplots that culminate into his most explosive of finales.

Star Trek // It is never easy to tread on holy ground, and J.J. Abrams risked career crucifixion when he shouldered this sacred, though dying, franchise. The result was an engrossing epic perfectly blending beloved cannon with untold origins to establish a whole new layer of myth to the series. It is entertaining enough to appeal to the popcorn set while creative enough to satiate even the most hardcore of Trekkie/Trekker. The effects and sound design are also worthy of scores of accolades.

Fantastic Mr. Fox // I am frustrated that this came out in the same year as Up because any other year it would have taken the title of best animated film hands down. The style of animation in this film is something marvelously unique and represents a daring undertaking by Wes Anderson. Wonderful characters, immaculate dialogue, and a medium that allowed Anderson to explore his favorite themes while also removing his typical level of moroseness.

Landon Palmer
Columnist, Austin

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza) // Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s hypnotic tale of a socialite trying to make sense of her life after an unusual car accident is the most convincing cinematic manifestation of what it would be like to experience memory loss since Memento. Calculated and accomplished in its daring experimentation as well as haunting in its meditative beauty, The Headless Woman immersed me in the subjective experience of a fictional character like no other film this year.

The Hurt Locker // There’s nothing more I can say about this film than reverberate the heaps of well-deserved praise it’s been getting since the festival circuit. Kathryn Bigelow (who I would love to see become the first female Best Director Oscar recipient) knows how to control suspense like no other living American filmmaker, showing a firm understanding that plot-moving narrative action and thorough character development never have to be mutually exclusive. It’s just damn good filmmaking.

Inglourious Basterds // QT has always made movies about cinephilia and for cinephiles, but Inglourious Basterds finds him finally reigning his indulgences in (for the most part) and delivering a movie not meant simply as an homage to movies, but an ode to the incredibly powerful manipulative influence of the big screen. Further divulging into themes of power, Inglourious Basterds also fascinatingly explores the tenuous structures of language(s), rhetoric, and “passing,” and the wealth they can bestow onto those who wield them with care – but, most importantly, it’s easily the most entertaining two and a half hours to be had at your local 350-seat movie theater this year.

A Serious Man // The Coen brothers give us a characteristically odd, pitch-black funny, head-scratching story about the worst two weeks of any man’s life and, in the process, deliver what is possibly their most personal film to date as well as their most accomplished character study since Barton Fink. It’s a formally complex and thematically dense film that adamantly refuses to give easy solutions to complicated problems, the kind of film that generously rewards revisitation. A Serious Man features the Coens working joyfully on all cylinders, and the “goy’s tooth” sequence alone is incredible enough for this gem to make a my list.

Hunger // Between District 9 and A Single Man, 2009 was an unusually strong year for first-time directors, but no debut impressed me more than Irish video installation artist Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a pristine work of pure, assured cinematic artistry chronicling the 1981 hunger strike led by IRA icon Bobby Sands as embodied in a remarkably transformative performance by Michael Fassbender. The film is neither biopic nor history lesson, but a profoundly affecting marriage of beautiful and challenging imagery. It’s the closest thing I endured this year to the perfect cinematic experience.

Robert Levin
Critic, New York

Up in the Air // Jason Reitman’s observant, empathetic masterpiece enthralls on a deep, human level and as a microcosmic depiction of the times we live in.

A Serious Man // The Coens’ most personal film brilliantly subverts cinematic conventions as it tells a story rooted in complex philosophy, with a realistic rendition of the tight-knitted insularity that so often permeates Midwestern Jewish life.

The Hurt Locker // A movie about the current war in Iraq that’s not concerned with politics and not interested in sermonizing. Kathryn Bigelow’s film conveys the profound existential torment of the soldier on the front lines, when mere seconds determine life and death.

Of Time and the City // Terrence Davies’ remarkably personal documentary combines found footage, a wide-ranging soundtrack and the filmmaker’s reflections in a nostalgic look back at the Liverpool of his youth and the much changed city of today.

Avatar // James Cameron’s pet project, years in the making, is every bit the game-changing 3D epic spectacle it was cracked up to be. The dialogue might be silly and the story a bit trite, but it’s a grand entertainment if ever there was one.

Kevin Carr
Critic, Columbus

Star Trek // I have very fond memories of watching the original Star Trek series on the weekends while I was a kid. Sure, it doesn’t totally hold up today, but it is a fantastic chapter in cinematic (or at least television) science fiction. But what J.J. Abrams and company did was, to quote Mr. Spock, fascinating. They managed to make a brand new movie with a young, hip cast that was more-or-less consistent with the original series without alienating its fan base. When the biggest complaint Trekkers have is that they don’t build ships on the ground, you’ve got a four-quadrant, widely-appealing film that rocked the hell out of science fiction action. What a fantastic reboot!

District 9 // Forget that other Oscar-bait South Africa movie. This is where it’s at. Like good speculative fiction, District 9 was able to take real-world issues of racism, classism, segregation, corporate greed and moral relativism and put it into a more digestible context. District 9 wasn’t just a kick-ass action film with big frakking robots, lethal aliens and wicked-cool boom sticks. It was also a mirror for us to look into as human beings so we can consider our actions against one another. Easily one of the most impressive and surprising movies of the year.

Fantastic Mr. Fox // As a die-hard Wes Anderson fan and also as someone who read Roald Dahl’s books as a kid, Fantastic Mr. Fox was a giant bundle of friendly fun for myself to enjoy. It managed to capture the flavor of both Dahl’s book and Anderson’s quirky filmmaking style. The voice cast was amazing, and the retro stop-motion look of the film gave it an endearing quality that was fresh and nostalgic at the same time. Fantastic Mr. Fox works both as a kids film and as something grown-ups can love, and it’s one of the best feel good movies of the year.

Coraline // Coraline represented another home run for the stop-motion animation artistry, which seemed to have all-but-disappeared after CG animation took over the industry. But thanks to the visionary brilliance of Henry Selick, we were given a fascinating look into an alternate reality. Like last year’s Spiderwick Chronicles, Coraline was a bit too dark to be a widely successful kids’ movie, but it was a unique movie all to itself because it had such heart and art to its formulation. And let’s not forget about the brilliant use of stereoscopic 3D in its initial release.

Up // I know. This is just too easy. Who doesn’t want to put Pixar’s latest film as their favorite movie of the year – or at least somewhere in the top five. However, I refuse to grade this movie down because Pixar has done so many fantastic films over the years. Up had a lot of hurdles, being Pixar’s tenth outing and the first one in 3D as well as the fact that it had some very non-traditional story elements to it. But Pete Docter and the Pixar team did an amazing job telling a story that tugs at the heart strings and is infinitely optimistic as well. It was a love story, a jungle adventure, a touching story about a boy needing a father and a silly film about talking dogs. What’s not to love about that?

Rob Hunter
Associate Editor, San Francisco

(500) Days of Summer // Probably the best romantic comedy of the past few years even if most folks insist on calling it an ‘anti-romantic’ comedy. Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are the couple in and out of love, just not at the same time or with the same people. Director Marc Webb turns the standard rom-com formula on its head not only through the perfectly jumbled narrative but also with brief sidesteps into dance, illustration, split screen and more. Add in one of the years best soundtracks and you have a movie that will have you smiling, laughing, and remembering your own lost loves.

Away We Go // This little movie from director Sam Mendes looks like it may have been forgotten if the web’s plethora of best-of lists is to be believed, but it deserves to be seen by anyone who loves movies. It’s another oddball romantic comedy, but one where the couple in love are never reduced to fights or misunderstandings in order to service a plot. Instead, the expectant pair wander the country meeting friends and family in the hopes of understanding their concerns over starting a family. Along the way they grow up and make several discoveries about themselves and others. A small, sweet, fun little movie.

Inglourious Basterds // Favorite movie of the year? Yup, this is it. Most suspenseful scenes of the year? Yup, they’re here too… and they consist of little more than two people talking. Before this Quentin Tarantino was little more than an occasionally interesting filmmaker as far as I was concerned, but his WWII mash-up is a near perfect movie that impresses me more and more on each viewing. Tarantino leaves behind much of his usual shtick and instead crafts a fascinating and entertaining story that doubles as a message about the power of movies themselves. Fantastic (albeit recycled) score, incredible acting (Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent), beautifully shot, surprisingly funny, occasionally bloody… this is a love letter to movies and movie-makers.

Moon // This debut film from Duncan Jones was the best science fiction movie of the year. There were no lasers, explosions, or evil villains to be found either. Instead, Jones uses sci-fi to give us a smart look into what it means to be human. The heart and soul of the movie is brought to life by a stellar performance from Sam Rockwell (that deserves Oscar consideration goddamnit!) as a man nearing the end of a solitary two-year stretch on the far side of the moon. That’s all you need to know (aside from knowing that Clint Mansell contributes another incredible score too)…. just go watch this movie.

Up In the Air // Jason Reitman’s third movie received almost unanimous praise leading up to its release, and my normally contrarian nature was salivating at the chance to be the voice of dissent… but the movie is just too damn good. George Clooney gives his strongest performance yet as a man whose life plan involves never standing still. Two women come into his life that challenge that attitude in completely different ways, and he soon realizes that a life on the move is no life at all if no one else is moving with you. Funny, sad, incredibly honest, and easily Reitman’s best and most assured film.

Cole Abaius
Managing Editor (a.k.a King Awesome), Austin

The Hurt Locker // Despite mentioning this film every day, shoehorning it into news articles that only tangentially dealt with Kathryn Bigelow, Jeremy Renner and lockers – I still can’t say enough great things about this film. It’s shot tightly and with purpose. It’s a harsh story, told unflinchingly, that takes a belt sander to the rough edges of three characters to round them out. Plus, there’s explosions. That’s right. An action film with depth – time to change your world view.

Up // While walking out to the giant pile of DVDs we have here on the Reject Headquarters property, Neil Miller was listening to the score for this movie and burst into tears. I realize this is a story about Neil Miller, and not a story about me, but it serves my point well: this movie is brilliant.

Where the Wild Things Are // We’re moving into an era where children’s movies are being made for adults, and this movie is a grand example of how beautiful and child-like these new monsters can be. Spike Jonze delivered a story where a young mind controls everything, is free to run rampant over the landscape, doing something that’s never quite been done so well before.

Antichrist // After seeing this movie, I’m still baffled as to why any actor or actress would sign up to work with Lars von Trier. The man is a brutal, heartless director who puts his personnel through nine levels of hell in order to get the story he wants, and the story he wanted here treats its audience with even less care. But the film is incredibly rewarding if you give it the chance, and if you’re okay wincing every once in a while.

Goodbye Solo // In a year marked by grand technological advances, this movie is a return back to intimate character study and hits like an emotional hammer that you can’t hear coming. Unlike more average attempts to tell a personal story, the meaning is never hidden behind faux-important subtext or pretension. Director Ramin Bahrani puts everything right there on screen to impress effect, letting the audience become family to a fast-talking cabbie trying to change his station in life and an old man trying to leave his.

Read more of our Year in Review

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)