I've got a bunch more '09 releases to catch up with on DVD before I offer a definitive top five for the year, but in the interest of completing the decade retrospective, here are my preliminary picks.
1. Inglourious Basterds
This movie, more than any other I saw this year, sticks in my mind. The brilliant suspense set-pieces, the dense web of film allusions that, for the first time in Tarantino's filmography, have a relevance beyond the director's compulsion to make them, wall-to-wall memorable performances and an insight into the power of narrative to shape memory that I frankly didn't think Tarantino was capable of. It's a bingo.
2. The Hurt Locker
Jeremy Renner's Sgt. James lives as the hero of his own personal action movie. He risks his own life and the life of his men, and chases the rush of danger without a second thought. He can't die because he's the hero. He can't do wrong, because he's the hero. It's a non-stop blast (in all senses) until he gets his friends hurt and begins questioning his own perceptions. Then, there's a moment of repentance and humility, a brief attempt at returning to the safety and tranquility of domestic life, but before long, the itch returns, and he's back in the war zone, disarming bombs with a smile on his face. In short, he's a stand-in for the American attitude and history with warfare. We're drawn to the excitement and imagined moral clarity, we get our initial thrill and indulge a fantasy of absolute victory, then slowly come to the realization that we're hip-deep in blood shed for no good reason. Then, it's a brief moment of caution, a "Vietnam syndrome," before all that unpleasantness is forgotten and we plunge headfirst back into the fray, chasing the same heady rush we remember from the last time.
3. A Serious Man
Second only to Basterds as brain-stickiest movie of the year. There's nothing in it that the Coens' haven't done before, but this is the most vivid and chilling explication of some of their favorite themes. It's confounding and somewhat off-putting, but also genuinely thoughtful and, in a weird, Coen-ey way, offers a glimpse of the cosmic unknowable.
4. Crank 2: High Voltage
Making perhaps the best action film of the decade has got to be worth something.
5. In the Loop
Of all the earnest, dewey-eyed documentaries and docudramas that tried to make sense of the Iraq war, it took a troupe of British sitcoms shenanigans to cut to the heart of the matter. Armando Iannucci and company lay out the craven self interest and fortuitous idiocy in the inner circles of government that paved the way to war. As a bonus, it's also maybe the funniest movie of the year. It's certainly the most quotable.
The End of the World for Dummies: Knowing and 2012. Never before have two films so thoroughly failed to earn the right to kill billions of people on screen.
"Modern Classic" I just can't get behind: Gomorrah. It's definitely a good film, but I suspect that the subject matter (the corrosive social impact of the Naples-area mob) and the pseudo-documentary style make it seem 'important' enough to merit raves. The "you are there" immediacy is bracing, but too much screen time is wasted on uninspired retread characters.
"Modern Comedy Classic" I just can't get behind: The Hangover. Is it really THAT easy to get young dudes chuckling across the nation? Never mind, of course it is.
Best Science-Fiction film of the year: 2009 was definitely the year of science fiction films, between Star Trek and Avatar and Terminator: Salvation and, to be pedantic about it, Transformers and GI Joe. The best of the lot, though, was the low-budget South African production District 9. It's instructive to compare District 9 and Avatar: on a basic story level, they're strikingly similar, but filmmaker Neil Bloomkamp and his collaborators invest the story with so much inventiveness and wit that nobody thought to call it a Dances With Wolves ripoff.
Best Opening Credit Sequence: Watchmen. There's a lot of things wrong with Zack Snyder's adaptation of the classic graphic novel, but the brilliant collection of meticulous tableau that run behind the opening credits sure as balls isn't one of them.
The Unjustly Overlooked: Observe and Report is a genuinely daring comedy that didn't get nearly enough recognition as such. Duplicity, lame title and typically bland Julia Roberts performance aside, is a crackling, grown-up, well-constructed grifter's tale that fell down the memory hole unjustly. And Julia Roberts' lameness is more than cancelled out by the sheer awesomosity of Paul Giamatti.
Two horror films that demonstrate conclusively that "less is more" when you're trying to scare people: Paranormal Activity and House of the Devil.
Line of the Year: "Totally...Totes McGoats!" --I Love You, Man