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Getting So Tired and Emotional, Baby

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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.

The most spectacular performance of the year was by Lady Gaga, but the second was Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker;" he deserves all the plaudits that can be awarded for carrying a difficult film about an impossible person and making him both likable and believable. The best by a woman was that of 10-year-old Bailee Madison in "Brothers."

The peculiarities of British film distribution continue to annoy: Why has "Ponyo" not been released here yet? Separately, the upcoming merger of the British Film Institute (the archivists) and the U.K. Film Council (the funders) continues to raise questions about how Britain will continue to balance the need to fund quality films with the need to preserve the national film heritage. British movies this past year were not very spectacular, but at least they seem to be moving away from their regional-movie, lowest-common-denominator model. After last year's "Mamma Mia!" triumph, the failure of Richard Curtis's latest and the ongoing appetite for the "Harry Potter" films, there also seems more interest in exploring fresh new talent.

On a personal note, why is my local video store closing down? I can't be the only person who doesn't want to join LOVEFiLM. I want to walk to a store and browse the DVD boxes. I want to listen to the clerks debating the new releases with customers, and to parents arguing with Rupert and Jemima over what to pick. But most of all, why am I balking at spending 4 pounds per DVD in their sale? The U.K. pricing of DVDs is skewing almost too radically — it seems to be 13 pounds for new releases and 3 pounds for everything else. Even though box office takings are up and my husband is still showing off the 3-D glasses he liberated from a screening of "Avatar," independent distributors who must price realistically are still struggling. Even without acknowledging the massive problem of illegal downloading, why have we lost the willingness to pay fairly for content? And what will the studios do to restore our interest in doing so again?

Amelie-Photo_1
Buena Vista Home Entertainment

The two major trends of the noughties have been the reboot and the mash-up. It does sometime seem as if there are no new plots and few truly original ideas. Of course, it is not true that everything has been done before, and some of the movies below clearly demonstrate this. Some of them take an older idea — whether a mostly forgotten film, a creaky franchise or simply a standard plot — and start over again. Others travel widely or use clever artificial techniques to wow with amazing images.

It is also the decade in which Anglophone prejudice against movies with subtitles has begun to fade. More people are willing to enjoy movies filmed not in English. Interestingly, remakes of "foreign" films seem to be done more quickly, as if the initial idea was so inspiring as to prompt the creaky filmmaking process into higher gear.

This list is based on those movies which I enjoyed when they came out, which have to my mind stood up to repeated viewing, and which I believe have affected the wider industry in some way.

On looking it over, I am surprised that fully half of them focus on girls' coming of age stories. I suppose that is because I was once a girl myself. But in an attempt to speak objectively as a critic, another reason for this is that movies cannot all be designed to appeal to American teenage boys. Even those that do are slowly learning not to sacrifice their individuality and human appeal to the needs of a blockbustingly explosive plot.

Sarah Manvel's Top Movies of 2009 in alphabetical order

AN EDUCATION Carey Mulligan you want to take home in your pocket after seeing this. She is so adorable and so smart, you know that she'll get through what happens to her okay; with a lesser actress we would have been too worried to enjoy the film. Rosamund Pike proves you have to be very smart to play dumb (and the in-joke of her sneering at Oxford wasn't overdone). The men, Dominic Cooper and Peter Sarsgaard, are also just right, although Alfred Molina did overplay it a bit — but I am sure that is just what director Lone Scherfig wanted. Her previous film, the Scottish misery-drama "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself," really didn't prepare me for this a bit. I think her willingness to work with a script by someone else — Nick Hornby in this case — made the difference.

FANTASTIC MR. FOX Wes Anderson seems to specialize in movies about men finding their place within their families, and ensuring that the choices they make bring their families closer together. Only this time, he did it in stop-motion animation about a family of anthropomorphized foxes. Well, why not? He hit the right balance of style and substance, managed to make a Roald Dahl story entirely his own without sacrificing anything, and introduced a clever new way of getting adult language into a kids' film. Also, he did it with an A-list cast. So much fun.

FISH TANK Michael Fassbender is quickly becoming the most interesting actor working in Britain. Half Northern Irish and half German, it seems he can do what he likes. In this movie, he is the device the plot rolls around, as the new boyfriend of a teenage girl's mother. Katie Jarvis as Mia, the unhappy teenager, is this year's breakout success, who took a difficult part and dominated the movie with it. No other British director films working-class stories with such a sense of belonging. Mike Leigh laughs at his characters and Ken Loach puts his on pedestals, while Andrea Arnold observes with understanding, but doesn't interfere with her own opinions. Her movies are painfully recognizable to those of us who don't live in Notting Hill, and all the more powerful for it.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER I knew I'd like this movie when I saw the still of Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a Joy Division t-shirt, and I was right. It's so nice to see a rom-com from the male perspective. It's also nice for a mainstream movie be accurate about the relationships people have with their choice of music, and how music can be shorthand for everything else that defines us. The movie's of-the-moment accuracy will make it timeless. And I liked how the color scheme was based around Zooey Deschanel's eyes.

THE HANGOVER I haven't laughed as much at a movie in a long time.

THE HURT LOCKER People have been staying away from the current crop of Iraq movies, and understandably so. They sound depressing; there are going to be explosions; people are going to die; and who needs to pay to see what you get on the evening news for free, thank you. But "The Hurt Locker" really is different, albeit with the Iraqi setting. It's about one bomb specialist (Mr. Renner) and his relationships: first, with the bombs he blows up; second, with the men in his unit charged with keeping him alive; third, with his wife and life back home. It's the first time I've seen an accurate depiction of the mindset of a good soldier' and what's even better about it is that Mr. Renner's character has no interest in explaining or apologizing for his feelings. He just wants to stay alive, and diffuse bombs. Kathryn Bigelow is very good at making interesting movies, and she really gets the military mindset ("K-19: The Widowmaker" is a terrific, and unjustly neglected, movie). See it now, before Mr. Renner wins the Oscar, so you can brag to all your friends.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN This has been embraced in America in a way that it has not in Britain but really should be. It's a very peculiar film. It's about two 12-year-olds, one of whom happening to be a vampire, and their blossoming relationship in 1980s snowbound Sweden. It's violent and threatening with death at every step, but the violence and death are simply there, in the air, and accepted as such. Such a lack of sugarcoating is unusual. It's also the most realistic film about early adolescence that I can remember — the violence and isolation kids experience at a total remove from the world of adults around them is keenly depicted. It's a sad and strange story, and of course being remade by Hollywood. Can't wait.

MILK It won Sean Penn his second Oscar shortly after this was released here in Britain. At last, American movies are starting to treat gayness as just another aspect of the human condition. The tremendous courage and directness of Harvey Milk has finally gotten the wider respect he deserved in this terrific film. It was this movie, as well as the election of President Obama, that pointed out to the world that, at last, America was starting to change.

STAR TREK First, I was the older sister of a rabid Trekkie. Now, I am also the wife of one. Bad luck for me. They each have seen every episode of every TV show as well as every movie, and I have been their unhappy, fidgeting companion. When my husband bought himself the DVD, he practically had to staple me to the sofa, but to my shock I was very pleasantly surprised. What a great cast! Where the hell did Karl Urban's performance come from? And who knew Zachary Quinto could be so funny? Here's a movie that respected the nerd fanbase without alienating those of us who couldn't care less about "series mythology," and which hit all the summer blockbuster standards without being stupid. You got your action, excitement, explosions, manly fistfights, homoerotic subtext, C.G.I., Winona Ryder (!!!!!), and a green-skinned lady in her knickers. What's not to like?

UP I wish I could stop crying at Pixar movies. They're cartoons with talking animals, and yet I can't help it. It's been a long time since I have seen a movie that works so well on two such thoroughly different levels. "Up" is about grief and the process of adjusting to a new life after a major loss. It's also about an elderly man who floats his house to South America using a billion balloons, and a nine-year-old stowaway to find his childhood mentor before fighting him to the death using talking dogs, dinosaur skeletons and a zeppelin. And me, in tears, again. I would have liked to have seen this as a child. And when today's kids see "Up," once they have grown up themselves and lost someone, they will be seeing a wholly different film.

Sarah Manvel's Top Movies of the 2000s in alphabetical order

AMÉLIE I saw it in the cinema on release and remember noticing at the end how an entire roomful of jaded Londoners were holding their breath in sympathy and anticipation for "Amélie." When she did open the door, I wasn't the only person to break down in tears. I own the DVD and I watch it every time it comes on TV, and I still cry every single time. It is embarrassing, but "Amélie" is a movie unusual in its emotional impact. Few films come together to create a mood so perfectly — for all Jean-Pierre Jeunet's shortcomings as a director that must be acknowledged – and few people deliver a performance as aligned with a film's intentions as Audrey Tautou does here. The fantasy picture of Paris that this movie paints does raise several alarming questions about France, its attitudes toward ethnic minorities and women, but the picture is so uplifting on the surface that it takes very close attention — or seeing it at least 10 times, as I have — for these to become apparent. The core issue of striving against isolation and loneliness by reaching out to others is nearly universal. "Amélie" is now in the top 100 names for baby girls in Britain — it's been a long time for a movie to cross over into mainstream culture in this way.

BLUE CAR It was not released theatrically in Britain, but I saw some American reviews and was delighted to catch it in an after-midnight showing on BBC2 a few years ago. I spent most of the film in tears of shock and recognition, something that has happened less than five times in my film-watching life. This is one of a very few films that truly understands the teenage female experience, and one of fewer that understand how girls mature into women in the face of a culture and a world that wants to damage them. Agnes Bruckner depicts Meg's awful time realistically and with great intelligence; and David Strathairn is enormously brave for having taken on the part as the teacher. But the best thing about this movie is that Meg comes out of her bad experience injured but not broken. The movie makes it clear she will be able to recover and move on, and this bad thing that has happened will not be the focus of her life. This is not a lesson many movies are interested in teaching, but "Blue Car" seems to be at the forefront of smaller movies made specifically for women. It was obvious that a woman directed "Blue Car," but I only learned later that Karen Moncrieff played Cassandra Benedict Lockridge on "Santa Barbara," a character I hero-worshiped as a teenager. This non-traditional career path has me in awe.

CASINO ROYALE Remember all the fuss about casting a blond as James Bond? Daniel Craig, who is indeed blond, ate the screen alive in "Casino Royale;" and there are many, many people who remain grateful for the thoughtful scene in which he strolls on the beach in those blue trunks. "Casino Royale," Mr. Craig and director Martin Campbell sharpened up the whole franchise, keeping the product placements and ridiculous predicaments, but managing to do so in a way that felt surprisingly organic and fresh. (Have you seen "Die Another Day" since? Now it seems staler than leftover Christmas turkey.) The stunts — especially the initial parkour chase sequence on the construction cranes — were jaw-dropping, and what tries hard to be one of the most enjoyable franchises in movie history got a new lease on life, enough to ensure that other filmic franchises decided they could risk "rebooting." Old Hollywood used to do this all the time, so it's nice to see that current players can still learn from the old tricks.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND It's rare to see a film in which it's almost impossible to guess what will happen next. This movie was so strange and yet so sweet in its tale of the collapsing love between straight-laced Joel (Jim Carrey) and punky Clementine (Kate Winslet) and their attempts to erase their memories to remove all traces of each other. The whole film just amazes, but I especially liked the setting of workaday Long Island, where people live in a recognizably real world of crummy apartments, fights over the car and bad hair days. Charlie Kaufman is clearly a genius with words and ideas; and Michel Gondry has a gift for making complicated, complex images simple and heartbreaking.

THE FALL A strange and astonishing film, made as a labor of love by director Tarsem through 12 years, filming in beautiful and bizarre locations around the world, to tell what is at core the simple story of the power of love to help heal even the most major wounds. Childhood is at the heart of the film — I especially liked the part where the adult princess does a potty dance because the little girl, listening to the story, is also squirming. The movie is also rare for a Western film in that it acknowledges both the cinematic and the cultural traditions of India, enriching the story through these multicultural influences but also allowing the movie to be more deeply appreciated by a global audience. It could not have been made sooner, due to the C.G.I. and the global locations, and another film like this is not likely to be made again for the same reasons.

INFERNAL AFFAIRS This action-packed, cleanly-plotted movie has a gimmick so good it prompted a fawning Hollywood remake (what if, just as cops go undercover into gangs, a gangster went undercover as a cop?), multiple sequels and ripoffs, and inspired many other worldwide filmmakers to trust their audiences to keep up with multiple plot twists. The conflicted characters never lose their instincts to do good, even while doing some very bad things indeed. And it's even more interesting to watch a second time, when you can see the twists coming.

PAN'S LABYRINTH A creepy and beautiful film in which the supernatural is used as a metaphor for political disturbance in a way that is accessible for those of us who were not personally affected by the Spanish Civil War, and also wholly appropriate for the 11-year-old heroine. The movie is dark and disturbing, and Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is equally at risk whether among vindictive fairies, talking frogs and a creature with eyes on his palms or watching her new town seethe with hatred of her stepfather. But director Guillermo del Toro's huge achievement is that it does these things without ever being inappropriate to the age of the heroine or the specificity of its setting. Its influence is clear on how genre lines are starting to blur in movies for adults; how movies for kids are now willing to tackle riskier, more emotive subject matter; and how Anglophone audiences are willing to ignore the subtitles if the story is strong enough.

THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS Wes Anderson has a gift for taking disparate characters and peculiar scenarios and pulling them together in a way that feels both intimately personal and ornately dramatic. This is his best film (although "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is growing on me) and it works because of the enormous talent within it pulling their wildly different characters together in the New York house I have always dreamed of having. Clearly influenced by J.D. Salinger as well as Paul Thomas Anderson, and able to have a brother-sister incest storyline without being perverted, its real success is its uplifting ending for all of the characters. Happiness abounds; and I feel better every time I watch it.

SPIRITED AWAY Hayao Miyazaki was a Japanese treasure long before the rest of the world woke up to his amazing movies. "Princes Mononoke" gained the initial attention, but "Spirited Away" blew everyone away. With a little girl needing to draw on all her resources to save her parents and leave the magical world in which she finds herself, Mr. Miyazaki drew a completely recognizable place out of a combination of Japanese mythology, modern pop culture and childhood dreams. My nieces and nephew are obsessed with it, as am I.

3:10 TO YUMA The Western genre has been in decline for some time. It had seemed that every possible black-hat, white-hat, farm wife, whore permutation has been examined in detail. Then James Mangold decided to remake a 1957 B movie starring Glenn Ford which most people had forgotten. The movie reminded the audience that the struggles of the Wild West were played out in the context of survivors from the Civil War, and then skills and enmities from the 1860s were being exercised afresh out in places such as Arizona. But mostly, the movie gave us Ben Foster's performance as Charlie Prince. Wearing a Confederate jacket and unable to acknowledge that he is hopelessly in love with Russell Crowe's amoral thief Ben Wade, his refusal to accept Wade's capture and sentence is the anchor for the whole film, and the making of a new movie star.

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