'Where the Wild Things Are''In the Loop''Sita Sings the Blues''Harry Potter'

What better time than the start of August 2010 to announce my choices for the best films of 2009?

I fell uncharacteristically behind on films last year, but with the help of Netflix I took a crash course and exposed myself to cinema from around the world. The seventy or so 2009 releases I’ve seen are far from comprehensive, but they don’t pay me for this, so I get to avoid stuff like Transformers 2 and Couples Retreat. (Though I still managed to subject myself to Antichrist and The Blind Side.)

I saw more good movies than bad, though no masterpiece on the level of recent year-bests like WALL-E, No Country for Old Men, or United 93. I was disappointed more than usual by the majority of last year’s awards contenders; on my list, you won’t find the likes of Up in the Air, Avatar, or Precious.

This year I found the movies the Academy missed.

Directed by Nina Paley – What’s fascinating about Paley’s multicultural hybrid goes beyond what’s on the screen to what went into its making. Paley fought a lengthy legal battle to secure the rights to the jazz songs that give voice to her protagonist before finally deciding to give the film away for free online. The result: a visually enchanting gem that blends hand-drawn, collage, flash, and rotoscoped animation to tell a story of heartbreak across continents, cultures, and time. In it, Paley finds kinship with the classical Hindu heroine Sita as both endure a loss of love.

Directed by Pete Docter – Working with a budget exponentially greater than Nina Paley’s, Docter helmed this entry from animation giant Pixar. Telling the story of an elderly widower longing for his wife and a boy longing for his distant father, it develops grown-up themes alongside its kid-friendly whimsy. Widower Carl (Edward Asner) holds onto his floating house at the expense of all else, trying to make his wife’s dream come true after her death. They had planned to build a home on Paradise Falls in South America; life was what happened in the meantime.

Directed by Robert D. Siegel – Siegel made an appearance on my list last year as the writer of The Wrestler and this time assumes the director’s chair as well, once again looking at the sports world from the outside in. Patton Oswalt gives one of the best performances of the year as Paul Aufiero, who is devoted to the New York Giants at the expense of his own life. After he is assaulted by the Giants’ star player, the film becomes a sad character study about how fanaticism can mask loneliness.

Directed by Robert Kenner – I was angry after watching this sobering documentary about how the food industry has changed over the last fifty years, and not for the better. Like many recent films about corporations with unchecked power, this one sheds a blinding light on how the world’s biggest companies fix the system. The food conglomerates exploit farmers and victimize the poor, who consume Happy Meals and soft drinks because they can’t afford fruits or vegetables. You’ll never buy groceries the same way again.

Directed by Spike Jonze – The Maurice Sendak children’s book is less than 350 words long, but somehow this 100-minute feature version feels just as concise. The plot remains simple: Max (terrific newcomer Max Records), after a fight with his mother (Catherine Keener), runs away to the island of the wild things. Jonze creates a dreamy, melancholic atmosphere and with co-screenwriter Dave Eggers develops Max’s adventure as an allegory of childhood yearning. The wild things themselves are an offbeat bunch, deeply expressive, longing for family and the comfort of home.

Directed by David Yates – I was knocked back in my chair. I hadn’t expected a Harry Potter film to be made with this much visual grace and storytelling verve. David Yates, in his second at-bat — he helmed Order of the Phoenix in 2007 — created the most exciting film in the series with the help of a terrific cast, Steve Kloves’s character-rich script, Stuart Craig’s detailed production design, and Bruno Delbonnel’s evocative photography. Hogwarts has never come so thoroughly alive.

Directed by Ross Katz – Starring Kevin Bacon in a reserved but highly emotional performance as a military officer escorting the body of a fallen soldier back home, this economical 77-minute HBO film observes the journey with the quiet reverence of mourning, but also an intimacy that makes us a part of every step along the way: the meticulous processing of remains, the respectful procedures at airports, the uneasy glances of civilians. A spontaneous funeral procession on a desert road is one of the year’s most powerful shots.

Directed by Ramin Bahrani – William (Red West) announces his plan to kill himself in the very first scene of Bahrani’s third feature film, which is not so much the story of whether he goes through with it as it is the chronicle of his grudging friendship with cab driver Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), who tries to change his mind. This subtly heartrending film makes special emphasis of the actors’ faces; a late scene cuts back and forth between William and Solo, whose eyes express more than any words could say.

Directed by Armando Iannucci – The language in this biting political satire will floor you, and not just the profanity. The screenplay — credited to four writers, including director Iannucci — is a tempest of back-talk, double-talk, obfuscation, equivocation, and downright lies. This is what fuels the political machine, the film posits. It’s set in the halls of power in England and the US, where middlemen and sycophants jockey for position as their countries prepare for war. It’s like Dr. Strangelove, but alarmingly plausible.

Directed by Marc Webb – “This is not a love story,” the narrator tells us up front, but make no mistake, this exceptional film is about love. Or rather, how we experience love through the exaggerated prisms of our memories and change it into an elevated version of itself. It tells the story of the romance between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) over the course of five-hundred days, told out of order and in heightened emotional detail; when cartoon birds sing on our shoulders, they really do sing on our shoulders.

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber is insightful about the ways we approach love — whether we believe in fate or chance, whether we embrace commitment or shrink from it. Near the end of the film, the love-phobic Summer says something so pure and honest that it is simultaneously lacerating and liberating. The truth about love as revealed by this film: it’s in the eye of the beholder.

SECOND STRING

Steve Kudlow, in 'Anvil! The Story of Anvil'

Anvil! The Story of Anvil – This humane music documentary works as a portrait of an embattled friendship — between lead singer Steve Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner — as a look at the hard-luck reality of the recording industry, and most of all as an expression of all our stubborn aspirations. To persist after thirty years is folly, but there’s something heroic about it.

Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, in 'Humpday'

Humpday – Bromance is taken to its logical extreme in this frank, intelligent comedy about male relationships from writer-director Lynn Shelton, who suggests a subjugated erotic tension between straight men and wonders whether it can be resolved. There’s a heated basketball game that plays like the most absurd kind of foreplay.

Matt Damon, in 'The Informant!'

The Informant! – The slight of hand that distinguishes Steven Soderbergh’s artfully deceptive film is to introduce us to a hapless corporate whistle blower (Matt Damon) and then blur his edges of his story until the truth gets lost in a cloud of self-delusion and greed. The closer we look, the less we know, and that’s what makes it so fascinating.

Askhat Kuchencherekov, in 'Tulpan'

Tulpan – Rural life in the steppes of Afghanistan is brought vividly to life in this slice-of-life film by Sergei Dvortsevoy. Telling the story of a young man tempted by the city after being rejected by the only eligible woman for miles around, it illustrates a cultural shift that threatens to extinguish the traditions of the past.

Isabella Rossellini and Joaquin Phoenix, in 'Two Lovers'

Two Lovers – James Gray’s somber drama about a suicidal man (Joaquin Phoenix) and the two women he is torn between (Vinessa Shaw and Gwyneth Paltrow) has such a keen understanding of its characters that we can sense how their story will unfold. They follow their hearts, and ours break for them when they follow into harm’s way.

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