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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:

Robert Levin's Top Movies of 2009

UP IN THE AIR First, a prediction: Jason Reitman’s third film — his most complex and mature — will someday be considered an heir to the great humanist Hollywood tradition begun by Ernst Lubitsch, perfected by Billy Wilder and present in the best work of Cameron Crowe. “Up in the Air,” which reverberates with empathy and an acute awareness of the particular burdens of these uncertain times, is both decidedly modern and old-fashioned, a high-wire act pulled off with aplomb.

A SERIOUS MAN For an ostensibly small, personal picture set in the Joel and Ethan Coens’ hometown, “A Serious Man” thinks big — as big as they come. Through the story of an everyday Minnesotan professor named Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg, who would win the Academy Award were there any justice in the world), the Coens develop a narrative that does nothing less than confront the very meaning and nature of god. Often funny, occasionally horrifying and — in its depiction of the close-knit nature of a typical Midwestern Jewish community — consistently true, it’s a vintage work from the best, most unpredictable American filmmakers.

THE HURT LOCKER Kathryn Bigelow’s intense, visceral war movie forgoes politics and sermonizing to hit at the existential core of the matter: the high-wire, life-or-death balancing act experienced by members of the bomb squad every day on the job. With cinematography that emphasizes the setting’s surreal dangerous nature sans superfluous flourishes, terrific performances that encapsulate various methods for coping with such an impossible mission and some truly gripping action, the picture illuminates the genre’s grandest potential.

OF TIME AND THE CITY Terence Davies returns to the Liverpool of his youth and finds it a much changed place in this deeply personal, lovingly-constructed documentary that conveys the complicated ways our memories become bound up in their settings.

AVATAR Much hyped, eagerly anticipated and every bit worth the wait: A James Cameron movie has again come in massively over-budget, with the weight of a major studio’s faith and dollars on its shoulders, and exceeded expectations. His 3-D thrill ride is a true cinematic spectacle, an immersive achievement that might just revolutionize the way we see and understand movies made on a major scale.

THE MESSENGER An ideal companion to “The Hurt Locker,” Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger” offers a stark, nonjudgmental look at another brutal facet of military life. In this case, it’s the unhappy, emasculated existence of the casualty notification officer, assigned to drive around typical army towns and notify next of kin of the deaths of their loved ones. Starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, Mr. Moverman’s picture is a patient character study made with a welcome measure of restraint. Its story’s emotional implications build slowly and take the narrative to a profound place.

THE COVE A movie that highlights the documentary’s greatest potential, Louis Psihoyos investigative look at the illicit dolphin slaughtering being conducted by fishermen of Taiji, Japan works as a thriller, a character study and an impassioned call for social justice.

UP Pixar could very well lease an annual spot on this list. In 2009, it released another highly polished, deeply smart and wholly affecting effort, a grand 3-D adventure that also boasts a 15-minute montage that sums up the entirety of a decades-long marriage in one of the most profoundly moving segments in, dare I say it, the history of cinema.

SIN NOMBRE Set primarily atop a train speeding through Central America towards the U.S.-Mexico border, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s accomplished debut is an exercise in filmmaking economy, a compelling thriller and an effective character study that would have made Hitchcock proud.

BIG FAN Several worthy films could have claimed the final spot on this list, but the earnestness of Patton Oswalt’s performance and the honesty with which writer-director Robert Siegel observes its depressed blue-collar Staten Island milieu give the edge to the criminally little-seen “Big Fan,” which would have been a big hit had it been released three decades ago, when such subtle character based fare was en vogue in Hollywood.


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