Here is my (when I think of it) annual list of best movies of the year. My criteria for the list is different from most others, since I consider any films that I see for the first time that particular year to be eligible.
10. NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2 (2009)
For anyone who knows me, this probably seems like a really odd choice for my "best of" list, but when I actually decided to give the film a chance (and I still haven't seen the first Night at the Museum) I found that I not only laughed really hard during most of it, but I really enjoyed the entire experience. I enjoyed it enough to actually go see it again in the theater a week later when my parents decided to see it, and I found that I enjoyed it just as much the second time. I realize that Night at the Museum 2 probably isn't on any other critic's Best of 2009 list, but a film that gave me this much pleasure just from a simple story and funny characters (Hank Azaria's Karloff-esque take on "Kahmunrah" had me in stitches for most of the film) deserves a spot on my list.
9. UP (2009)
While I do enjoy some hand drawn animation, actually, mostly just the films of Hayao Miyazaki, this admiration has not extended to most Pixar films with the exception of The Incredibles. Trust me, I consider this more of a fault in my own makeup than an indictment on Pixar animation; I can only seem to get into stories that are a little more "grounded" than talking cars or a rat who loves to cook. The story of an old man who attaches balloons to his house and then proceeds to carry it around, followed by an annoying kid doesn't sound like something that I normally would have gone for, but Up is truly an amazing film that made me a sobbing mess in the beginning, and laughing and emotional for the rest of the film, all the while, completely riveted. Up is a beautiful film that I would feel comfortable recommending to "people like me".
8. THE WRESTLER (2008)
It was a no-brainer that I would like The Wrestler. I love strong, character-driven stories, and Randy "The Ram" Robinson is one hell of a character. I'm also a sucker for dark stories, and I'm pretty sure The Wrestler was one of the darkest films of the year. I also love great comeback stories, and no one had a better comeback story last year than Mickey Rourke, whose performance is honest, gritty and completely balls to the wall. The Wrestler doesn't sugar coat anything, and even when you kind of secretly wish the camera would cut away, it doesn't. After seeing this film, my boyfriend Chris and I stopped for a soda, and as we were talking about the movie, I found myself getting choked up when I was talking about the character of Randy Robinson, because he truly is a great, tragic character in a great, tragic movie.
7. MILK (2008)
I've always found Harvey Milk's story to be interesting, inspiring and tragic, and I looked forward to seeing the big screen interpretation. Lovingly helmed by Gus Van Sant, with a fantastic cast led by Sean Penn, (love him or hate him, the guy can act) Milk was an outstanding film that kept me interested throughout, despite my familiarity with the subject. Milk is also responsible for getting the best performance out of James Franco in any film he's been in before or since. Certainly a heavy film, but it was absolutely beautiful and full of heart, much like the subject himself.
6. IN BRUGES (2008)
Two hit men are relegated to Bruges, Belgium, forced to lay low after a particularly hairy job. While Ken (Brendan Gleeson) tries to take advantage of the situation by seeing the sights, Ray (Colin Farrell) grows increasingly restless and pissed off at their circumstances. Throw in a crazy mob boss (Ralph Fiennes) and a fabulous script, and you have one of the most under appreciated, overlooked films of the year, In Bruges. The film had been on my radar since the previous Oscar season, but when it was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for the 2009 awards, I finally watched it and loved it. As full of conflict as humor, In Bruges is a great film.
5. HERB & DOROTHY (2008)
Herb & Dorothy is a documentary about the Vogels, and elderly couple who, over the course of over 40 years, have managed to build the greatest personal collection of modern art, all on a mail sorter's salary. While they lived on Dorothy's salary as a librarian, the Vogels used Herb's wages to purchase pieces from up and coming artists who they ended up befriending. Though completely unassuming and as down to earth a couple could be, Herb & Dorothy have become great patrons of the arts and philanthropists; having donated much of their collection to the National Gallery of Art. Megumi Sasaki's documentary takes us into the Vogels' lives and gives the audience a little lesson in art history and appreciation. I saw Herb & Dorothy at the Milwaukee Film Festival this year and it's the best movie you never heard of - but it was just released on DVD in December, so rent it.
4. BRONSON (2008)
Another Milwaukee Film Festival gem, Bronson is the true story of Michael Peterson, England's most violent prisoner, who parlayed an original 7 year prison term into a (so far) 34 year sentence, 30 of which were spent in solitary confinement. Peterson's alter ego is Charles Bronson, and his need for attention and fame is insatiable. Bronson is an intense, entertaining and violent film that is like a big tasty mash-up of films like Snatch. and A Clockwork Orange, with a lot of theatrics thrown in. I loved its flash and I worshipped Tom Hardy's performance as the psychopathic Bronson. Full of scenes that were striking and breathtaking, if you can handle some violence, Bronson is a must-see.
3. NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957)
Though I love to discuss films any time, any place, for as long as I can, I find that there are few films that I actually have a physical need to discuss after viewing them, since I tend to internalize the experience until I have (mostly) figured out what I thought. When I recently watched Nights of Cabiria, however, I found that I had a deep need to talk about it. Like, right then. Unfortunately, there was no one I could call, e-mail or text who I knew had seen it, so I dramatically chalked it up as a personal tragedy, dismissed everyone as philistines and went to bed. The reasons that Nights of Cabiria is so discussion-worthy are numerous, but it is its rich, tragic story of an aging streetwalker in Rome who has had a hard life and somehow manages to come out of it every time. Or it could be what is perhaps the best part of the film, Giulietta Masina, and her incredible portrayal of the strong title character. Further still, it could be director Federico Fellini's superb and nearly flawless direction. There are so many great things about Nights of Cabiria, and it should be seen. Just don't make the mistake I made - watch it with someone, and don't forget your hanky.
2. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)
Quentin Tarantino has proven to be a master of layering different stories within a film, and his latest film, Inglourious Basterds, is another culmination of two different stories (not quite halves) of a film that simultaneously transpire and then meet up in a satisfying ending. A reimagining of history with wonderfully satisfactory results, Inglourious Basterds surprised me with it's full and compelling story, without losing the humor and flashiness of a standard Tarantino film. I was expecting a lot of violence, and indeed, there was some, but I realized fairly quickly that Inglourious Basterds was a bit more "grown up" than the usual Tarantino fare. I didn't walk out of the film jumping up and down excitedly like I did when I came out of Kill Bill Vol. 1, but I sure was raving about the film, and in the days following the screening, my appreciation grew, the more I reflected on the film as a whole.
1. THE HURT LOCKER (2008)
A lot of praise has been bestowed upon Kathryn Bigelow and her film The Hurt Locker, and I'm here to tell you that it is all warranted. The Hurt Locker is a feature film that is so straightforward it seems like a documentary, and the experience of following the elite Army bomb squad as they do their work in Afghanistan is almost painfully tense and suspenseful; there were several scenes when I had to remind myself to breathe. Though the action was obviously compelling, the glimpses into the private lives and psyches of the main characters are just as interesting, believable, and at times, heart breaking. Though I am not a fan of war films as a genre, there are a few, such as Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now that I do really like and offer more than the traditional fare. I have never seen a war film like The Hurt Locker, and it is one of the best films of any genre that I've seen in a decade. The impact of this film will not fade quickly.