Best of the 2010s: My Favorite Films of 2009

As I prepare to present my favorite films of our past decade, I feel the need to visit the last year of the 2000s. The best films list you make at the end of a year is never the same list a year later. New films are seen, and so these lists are living things, changing and reforming based on your tastes at the moment and altered by new cinema. I wrote up an ambitious 50 Best Films of the 2000s in 2009, and one day I’ll revise that list, but I thought to present a revised and updated 2009 list would be a great way to lead into our examination of the decade. Here are my thoughts on the fifteen films I find to be my favorites from 2009.

15. Brüno
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, & Jeff Schaffer
Directed by Larry Charles

Borat was a cultural phenomenon that had such a widespread influence that you could argue it effectively ruined Sacha Baron Cohen’s career, or at least his ability to do work that could exist outside of continual references back to Borat. Brüno was his less successful follow-up, but l would argue his more important comedic work. Yes, the film traffics in lots of shock-based humor, but once you get past that content and re-examine the picture, the comedy comes from the discomfort of bigots. It would be incorrect to believe the jokes are built on the “gayness” of Brüno. His encounter with Ron Paul and the cage wrestling match that serves as an epic denouement are intended as confrontations of bigotry. Cohen and Charles are also asking us what we believe should indeed be offensive: the jokes being made by Bruno or showbiz parents so desperate for fame they agree to get their child to lose weight for a role and wear Nazi paraphernalia.

14. Big Fan
Written & Directed by Robert Siegel

Paul is a parking garage attendant who has not made much of his life, so instead, he has shaped himself as a contentious call-in personality on a local sports radio show. He’s a devoted fan of the New York Giants and even has an on-air rival “Philadelphia Phil.” Paul cannot afford tickets to any games, so he watches from a battery powered tv in the parking lot of the stadium. His life drastically changes when he crosses paths with his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop. Paul follows Bishop and his entourage into Manhattan, approaching them in a strip club. When Paul slips up and mentions he followed them from Staten Island the group freaks out and leave Paul a bloody beaten. He refuses to press charges afterward because he believes the ensuing criminal case would harm his beloved team. However, something in Paul is broken, and he is hurtling towards an explosive ending. Big Fan is a film that has been profoundly overlooked but contains a masterful performance by Patton Oswalt typifying the dark obsessions fans of all hobbies can devolve into.

13. Fish Tank
Written & Directed by Andrea Arnold

Mia Williams is a 15-year-old resident of an East London council estate who is brimming with volatile energy. Her friends have drifted by the wayside, and she frequently ends up in screaming matches with her mother. Mia discovers a tethered horse in an empty lot and befriends one of the young men who own her. He informs Mia that this horse is old and dying and not worth her time. Meanwhile, Mia’s mother brings home her new boyfriend, a slightly younger and very charming man who seems to understand Mia. Fish Tank does such an excellent job conveying the sense of claustrophobia that low-income people, especially teenagers experience. Mia lives in a place that is intentionally left to decay and become ugly. The horse becomes a visible manifestation of how Mia sees herself, being left to slowly die, tied up to a place she doesn’t belong. Filmmaker Andrea Arnold never offers us an easy path to the beautiful but leaves the audience with a sense that life could be better one day for Mia.

12. Drag Me To Hell
Written by Sam and Ivan Raimi
Directed by Sam Raimi

When I went to see Drag Me To Hell during the summer of 2009, I had no idea I was going to watch a movie about eating disorders. However, Sam Raimi managed to make a very affecting horror movie that personifies one young woman’s struggle with food as a genuinely terrifying demon. Christine Brown is a bank loan officer who is encouraged to become more aggressive in her foreclosures if she wants to get a promotion. Christine decides to take this route when dealing with elderly Eastern European immigrant Sylvia Ganush. Ganush doesn’t take the foreclosure of her home lightly and proceeds to curse Christine for this humiliation. Drag Me To Hell evokes the classical elements of ghost story horror with creepy seances and mediums, but also shares a direct aesthetic line with Raimi’s early works in the Evil Dead Trilogy. The horrors in this film attack with a lightning-quick ferocity and we get lots of cackling hags (a la Evil Dead). The best part is that Raimi doesn’t pull punches with his ending and gives us a genuinely demented note to pin the whole story on.

11. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Written by Wes Anderson & Noah Baumbach
Directed by Wes Anderson

I’ve been a tremendous fan of the writing of Roald Dahl since my mom first read Charlie & The Chocolate Factory to me. I’ve loved introducing my students to Dahl through works like The BFG, The Witches, and The Twits. Wes Anderson may not have been the filmmaker I would have picked to capture the off-kilter sensibilities of Dahl, but he manages to do it. Both Dahl and Anderson have a penchant for intricate world-building, and Anderson has, as of late, really brought out the darker comedic elements of his work. There’s a messiness to the stop-motion animation employed in the film which further reminds us of the Quentin Blake illustrations, an artist who never shied from showing children the scarier side of Dahl’s world. There isn’t an effort made to try and present Fox as saintly, and our “heroes” are sneaky and not above arguing with each other. Fox is without a doubt one of the better “kids” films made in the last few years.

10. Moon
Written by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker
Directed by Duncan Jones

Moon is essentially a one-person show with Sam Rockwell playing opposite himself. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the lone operator of a mining outpost on Earth’s moon. His only companion is GERTY, the artificial intelligence that runs almost every aspect of the mining operation. Things change when Bell begins having hallucinations and causes what should be a fatal accident while out gathering elements from a harvester. He wakes up without any memory of the crash and should be dead. Instead, Sam goes about his routine. This begins the great mystery at the core of Moon, the debut feature of Duncan Jones. Jones has not lived up to the high bar he set with this film, having three movies since with diminishing returns (Source Code, Warcraft, Mute). Sam Rockwell continues to remind us why he was one of the best actors in the business, someone who can be a leading man but I believe will have a long influential career as one of the great character actors.

9. Thirst
Written Chan-wook Park and Seo-kyeong Jeong
Directed by Chan-wook Park

The South Korean film industry came onto my radar near the end of the 2000s and has become one of my favorite non-English language cinema producers today. Their filmmakers understand the visual language of cinema and how not to use dialogue as a crutch, letting the images tell the story instead of rote exposition. While Hollywood was presenting us with the elegant, angsty romantic vampire, Park opted to give us a grisly, ugly vampire story centered around the loss of faith of a Catholic priest. While Park still adheres to the erotic subtext of the vampire in popular culture his vision is one of longterm sexual suppression being released violently. Sang-Hyun, the central figure of the movie, has had his desires stamped down for so long that, as he loses control, he cannot help but harm and ruin those around him. This tale of corruption inevitable ends in tragedy, but it is a glorious, operatic finale.

8. Antichrist
Written & Directed by Lars von Trier

Antichrist is a movie that from its opening frames makes it clear to the audience this will be a descent into obscenity. That doesn’t mean we’re assaulted with gore and violence; instead, we are set on an unsettling path where the norms in a relationship are broken down to the point that Earth becomes a shade of Hell. The unnamed couple at the center of the film is responsible for the accidental death of their child as they were making love and failed to attend to him when he climbed out of his crib. A year later the man, a psychotherapist by trade, brings his wife to a remote cabin in the woods to work through her resonant grief. Things devolve quickly as nature itself seems to be encroaching, threatening them. No figure represents the Antichrist in this film; instead, we are viewing the antithesis of Genesis, a shadow creation myth where our Adam and Eve are destroying each other. Here nature is not a blessing from Yahweh but is an ever-present menace that will devour you. Antichrist is an incredibly tough watch but an excellent meditation on depression and self-destruction.

7. Amer
Written & Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Ana is a little girl whose grandmother has died and whose ghost torments her. Ana is a teenage girl, awakening to her sexuality and drawn towards a dangerous man while her mother tries to hold her back. Ana is an adult woman returning to her family home only to be menaced through the night by a blade-wielding figure. This triptych of stories make up the three acts of Amer, an homage to the stylish horror of Italian giallo. Giallo is a sub-genre of horror that incorporates highly stylistic elements, often borrowed from filmmakers like Hitchcock. Amer is a silent film, there is not a single line of dialogue from any of the characters, and the only thing we hear is a soundtrack of repurposed Italian cinema tracks. Even without the characters speaking, we can understand the full scope of this story. This is an unabashedly avant-garde film experience, and that can rub some viewers the wrong way, but it’s a hypnotic film experience that had me completely captivated.

6. Mother
Written by Eun-Kyo Park & Joon-ho Bong
Directed by Joon-ho Bong

The second South Korean film on this list, was the first film from that country I think I ever saw and completely floored me. An unnamed widow has only one person left in her life, Yoon, her mentally disabled son. Her son hangs out with a local juvenile delinquent so when a young woman ends up dead, and Yoon is named as the only suspect, Mother immediately believes his friend is responsible. She begins her investigation after the authorities ignore her and Mother discovers the dark secret life of the young murdered girl. Mother keeps seeking some piece of information that will point towards a more obvious suspect and help her troubled son be released. Actress Kim Hye-je who plays Mother delivers such a strong performance, determined and willing to cross lines she had never realized she was capable of. She becomes a figure much like Walter White, a mild-mannered person who feels justified in violating the lives of others, pure in her mission. Director Bong Joon-ho is my favorite South Korean filmmaker and went on to make Snowpiercer which has been his major breakout feature in the states. His early works are definitely worth a revisit and are crime/mystery stories told with deep intelligence.

5. I Am Love
Written by Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, Walter Fasano, and Luca Guadagnino
Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Emma Recchi is a Russian immigrant who married into a wealthy and powerful Italian family almost thirty years prior. She has given her husband two children, a boy and a girl, who are adults now and forging their ways in the world. Emma feels an emptiness inside and finds fulfillment when visiting her son’s friend Antonio. Antonio is a chef, and after having lunch in his restaurant, she finds herself awakened by the dishes he’s served, a reflection of his philosophy of life and freedom. While dealing with her affair, Emma also learns her daughter is a closeted lesbian, terrified to come out to a family she knows will judge her. This was my introduction to the work of Luca Guadagnino, and I was captivated by the energy and momentum that can erupt from his work. There are lots of intimate, personal moments but when the story calls for a sudden surge of catapulting emotion no one quite delivers like Guadagnino. I Am Love has one of the most beautiful and stunning final acts of any movie I’ve seen.

4. In The Loop
Written by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci & Tony Roche
Directed by Armando Iannucci

From my review: “What impresses me about Iannucci and his team of writers is their ability to report the reality of behind the scenes political machinations while mining it for some of the best comedy present in film and television. My absolute favorite moments of In the Loop come from Steve Coogan, in a tiny supporting role as a concerned constituent of Forester’s in Northhampton. Coogan’s Paul wants the wall of Forster’s offices in Northampton repaired because it is crumbling and about to collapse on his mother’s greenhouse. In the midst of a high-speed race through the United Nations to negotiate on when a vote for a war resolution might come about, Forster and Toby are still forced to handle incoming phone calls from Paul about the shoddy work done to remedy the wall. Iannucci seems to be asking the audience that if these idiots can’t fix a broken wall why should they be trusted with the safety of the world.”

3. The White Ribbon
Written & Directed by Michael Haneke

How does an event like The Holocaust and the rise of the Nazis happen? Filmmaker Michael Haneke doesn’t believe such a horrendous event occurs in a vacuum but is the result of generations of evil heaped upon evil. This evil is subtle and pernicious, cracking away our humanity and making us complicit in an ongoing system of brutality. The White Ribbon is the memories of an aged man who recalls his year as a schoolteacher in a remote German village. This was in the very midst of World War I but very far removed from those events. Three men rule over every aspect of the villagers lives the pastor, the baron, and the doctor. They are the most learned men and therefore believe they can humiliate, and breakdown anyone they think is transgressing. Seeming accidents begin to occur injuring and then killing random members of the village but it becomes evident that the children, taught to use cruelty as a means of correction, are responsible for the killings. Haneke isn’t a director who gives his audience concrete absolutes and so the mystery of how all these horrible events are occurring is left up in the air. Our narrator ends up leaving after being drafted into the war yet it is this enigmatic year faced with the mundanity of evil that lingers with him.

2. A Serious Man
Written & Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Larry Gopnik is a physics professor at a Minnesota university. He learns very early in the film that his wife is leaving him for family friend Sy Ableman. Larry’s brother, Arthur, has sunk into mental illness and does nothing but lay around and scribble away his thoughts on a “probability map of the universe.” Larry’s teenage kids have nothing to do with him. On top of all of this, he is up for a tenured position, but an anonymous person has begun mailing disparaging letters about Larry to his department head. The Coen Brothers manage to take all of this bleakness and turn it into a richly entertaining dark comedy. Additionally, they have made a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the story of a man who for no real reason has become the punching bag of the universe. Larry searches for a meaning behind all of this sudden bad fortune and goes from rabbi to rabbi who offer him only empty platitudes, even appearing annoyed that they have to deal with this man. A Serious Man is a rare comedy that is genuinely funny, employing slapstick and more cerebral wit, yet has a powerful ending that will stay with you and hook you into revisiting the film again and again.

Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

A couple decided to raise their three children in complete seclusion, behind the walls of a fenced compound where the trio of kids is homeschooled and taught a twisted version of the universe. When the son has reached sexual maturity, the father finally agrees to allow one person inside, a prostitute named Christina. Christina’s presence ends up becoming the catalyst that brings the whole demented experiment crashing down. The eldest daughter becomes our eyes into this bizarre world, becoming skeptical of her father’s claims that the cat is the most dangerous animal in the world and the cause of the brother they never met’s death. Dogtooth is a horror film without the gore or the monster, substituting the natural insanity of humans for the focus of its terrors. Much like A Serious Man, Dogtooth walks the tightrope of comedy and horror allowing us to experience a perfect balance of the two. Lanthimos’ aesthetic style recalls Wes Anderson with is rigorous staging and framing which adds to both the horror and comedy of the events as they unfold.

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