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January 2010

Raise the Stakes Through the Hearts

Daybreakers (2010)

Ben Rothstein/Lionsgate

On its mission to suck the unoriginality out of the vampire canon, “Daybreakers” can’t avoid the familiar altogether. Traces of Alfonso Cuarón’s future-citizens-in-revolt “Children of Men,” itself an adaptation of P. D. James’s 1992 novel, are all over this breakneck action-horror hybrid written and directed by Australian brothers Michael and Peter Spierig. Both follow a disenchanted brainiac (here, Ethan Hawke’s reluctant bloodsucker Edward Dalton) who’s also humanity’s last hope. In the 2019-set world of “Daybreakers,” vampires have taken over, leaving only 5 percent of the human race still breathing — which, in turn, means that the now-rulers’ life liquid (human blood) is running out. Dalton, a top-ranked hematologist, stumbles across a cure, though vampires toting automatic weapons and sporadic geysers of dark-red blood make enacting the solution difficult as expected.

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Au revoir, l'enfant terrible

Youth in Revolt (2010)

Chuy Chávez/Dimension Films

The big-screen-bound “Arrested Development” was in limbo because Michael Cera had declined until recently to reprise the role of George-Michael Bluth that he played in the cult TV series. It’s almost reprehensible, because every movie role Mr. Cera has had since the cancellation of the series has been a variation on that character.

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Murder, He Wrote, Directed and Starred In

A Film With Me in It (2009)

IFC Films

An off-kilter dark comedy, “A Film With Me In It” establishes a high concept premise and follows it through without compromise. Imbued with the spirit of Martin McDonagh, director Ian Fitzgibbon and screenwriter-star Mark Doherty feature the ultimate depressed protagonist and setting — a lazy, struggling actor living in a flat that’s literally crumbling to pieces — and run both through the proverbial ringer. It’s a small picture that embraces its smallness, centered on a self-reflexive premise and some twisted, punishing campy humor.

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What Women Wish

It's Complicated (2009)

Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Studios

“It’s Complicated” might take place in Santa Barbara, but it’s really set in movie land. You know where: Rich, luxurious homes, picturesque families, helicopter shots of resplendent scenery and a plot full of idealized romantic comedy. Writer-director Nancy Meyers has made such a milieu her specialty, and here she populates it with a cast rife with potential: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin earn top billing.

Yet even they can’t keep the film from escaping the staleness of the formula, the sense that such white bread flights of fancy have become hopelessly dated at the close of the aughts. With films such as “(500) Days of Summer” reinvigorating the romantic comedy genre, there’s not much room left for movies that refuse to acknowledge that diversifying and changes are afoot.

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Show Me the Mileage

Up in the Air (2009)

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures

As A. O. Scott and perhaps others have presciently observed, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is this decade’s Jerry Maguire. The hero in “Up in the Air” is a self-made American corporate go-getter, whose sole mission in life is career success and the attainment of elite status (here via the rapacious accumulation of frequent flyer miles). Ryan is no stranger to director Jason Reitman, who brought us the soulless spinmeister Nick Naylor in “Thank You for Smoking.” Ryan’s eventual realization of the importance of family and companionship is similarly familiar territory for the man who also helmed “Juno.” This is a movie of few surprises, as our protagonist ultimately achieves self-actualization without compromising his capitalist principles.

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Reality Rain Check

Festival de Cannes

I am slightly ashamed to admit that many of 2009's more lauded pictures have passed me by. Whether by circumstance or design I shirked away from such heavyweights as "A Serious Man," "The Hurt Locker" and "District 9." Upping my game, I took in almost 30 films in October at the Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival and Raindance Film Festival in what was truly a joyous month.Both festivals were brimming with gems, although sadly 99 percent of what I saw is not scheduled for release until 2010, which by the way looks like it's shaping up to be a vintage year.

So back to 2009, which for me personally was a far from classic cinematic year; it's particularly telling that of my top 10, the two standouts were documentaries and that four were comedies. So I bid farewell to a limp(ish) 2009 and welcome 2010 with open arms. It should be a standout year, but for now here's the best I bore witness to in 2009:

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The Doomed Generation

Here Media/Regent Releasing

The past decade marked a remarkable transformation in the way we experience movies. It was the decade of the iPod after all. In an attempt to compete with the convenience of home entertainment systems and combat piracy, Hollywood once again embraced the 3-D format. Meanwhile, independent distributors utilized video on demand to reach a broader audience while cutting distribution costs.

Gone is the Miramax business model, and along with it boutique distribution arms such as Fine Line Features, Fox Atomic, Paramount Classics, Paramount Vantage, Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures. Miramax itself, once untouchable, is now on life-support. Several smaller outfits that did not jump on the VoD bandwagon also failed to make it: Cowboy Pictures, New Yorker Films, the Shooting Gallery, THINKFilm and Wellspring.

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Blasting Off and On Again

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures

I’m rather adverse to the perfunctory duty of producing an introduction to the yearly top ten list, as those opening salvos all tend to read like a laundry list of gripes: Movies mostly stunk this year; there was a surprising lack of great films; what’s going on with Hollywood etc. Here’s the reality: It was an up and down year for big studio pictures, but despite the significant strife befalling the independent apparatus, there was still a surplus of top-notch indie productions that graced cinemas and video-on-demand menus everywhere. In other words, 2009 was in large part not much different than any other recent year. Without further ado, here are my picks for the best it had to offer:

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Fear the Best

Francois Duhamel/The Weinstein Company

This list must be prefaced with the following: Each of these films should be happy (if cinema could actually emote, that is) that Martin Scorcese's "Shutter Island" got pushed back to February 2010. Something tells me that I'm going to adore that one like none other, and that something hopefully isn't the fact that the same-titled, original Dennis Lehane novel is a personal favorite. The point being here that "Shutter Island" could have easily knocked one of the following flicks off this rundown had it made its once-scheduled October release date.

Missed opportunities aside, cinema in 2009 was all over the place, in a good way. Combing through the year's list of eligible films, I found it difficult to select a dime's worth of standouts. Really, these kinds of lists are hopeless endeavors; the second you submit or post your own, a good five or six films tap your shoulder and whisper, "You forgot about me, sir. I thought you loved me?" Like a neglected lady friend, only less affectionate. The forgotten films go on to torment your thoughts, remind you of your now-sealed 2009-filled time capsule. Sadly, there's no Wite-Out available here.

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Getting So Tired and Emotional, Baby

Kerry Brown/Sony Pictures Classics

The year 2009 has been an unusual one at the movies. Enormous blockbusters and children's animated series have held their usual sway at the box office, but they have done so while actually being good — and some of them have even been British. Women have been more visible in movies, as actresses and also behind the camera. I am so happy that women directed three of the movies on my list. What unexpected feminist joy! Things are also changing when a movie such as "The Hangover" — on the surface a totally macho film — is really about men failing miserably at taking a quick break from the women in their lives. The fact that two on my list are animated is also a surprise — when Hollywood seems determined to devise totally separate films for every possible marketing niche, it's wonderful to see that quality family films will always have a market.

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