I thought about not bothering with this sort of list this year since my theater experience in 2009 was thoroughly disappointing and--oddly and frustratingly so--very different from the average moviegoer's and critic. But I've been writing these recaps for years now, so why break with tradition?
First I'll list my favorites in various categories, then I'll break down all the films I saw last year in order of merit, with brief reviews.
Best Film: Where the Wild Things Are
Best Male Lead Performances: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart; Max Records, Where the Wild Things Are; Colin Firth, A Single Man; Nicholas Cage, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans
Best Female Lead Performances: Gabby Sidibe, Precious; Carrie Mulligan, An Education; Catalina Saavedra, La nana (The Maid); Alison Lohman, Drag Me to Hell; Zooey Deschanel, 500 Days of Summer
Best Male Supporting Roles: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds; Jim Broadbent, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles; Robert Duvall, Crazy Heart; Zach Galifianakis, The Hangover
Best Female Supporting Roles: Mo'Nique, Precious; Zoe Saldana, Avatar; Julianne Moore, A Single Man; Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Best Adaptation: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, Where the Wild Things Are
Best Original Screenplay: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Up
Most Interesting Directors: Werner Herzog, The Bad Lieutenant; Sam Raimi, Drag Me to Hell
Best Editing: Chris Innis, Bob Murawski, The Hurt Locker
Best Artistic Design: Ian Phillips, A Single Man
Best Cinematography: Lance Acord, Where the Wild Things Are
Most Important Documentary: Food, Inc.
Best Animation: Coraline
Best Soundtrack: The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Best Original Song: "Hold on You", Crazy Heart (not "The Weary Kind")
Best Villain: Mrs. Ganush, Drag Me to Hell
Worst Everything: My Bloody Valentine 3D
All the Movies, in order of best to worst
Where the Wild Things Are: An emotionally raw, transfixing, and quietly uplifting fantasy of the responsibilities of attachment and the fear of abandonment.
Precious: Controversial subject matter that's typically reserved for melodrama is handled with a touch of humor and dogged determination that refuses to let it sink into the dredges of bathos, providing real solutions instead.
Up: The mostly silent beginning is one of the most elegantly composed and heartbreaking moments of cinematic history. The Apocalypse Now-meets-talking-dogs middle parts can be a bit silly, but the overall story of seeing every life as a worthy adventure is moving and memorable. Plus, aging, death, fatherhood, abandoned dreams, lost innocence, and a hundred other subjects.
Drag Me to Hell: A perfectly toned blend of comedy, horror, suspense, romantic drama, and capitalist commentary.
Food, Inc.: A quite disturbing condemnation of mindless consumption, urging viewers to remove their gullets from the feeding machine and begin thinking about what they put in their bodies. Even the scene that features a conscientious, organic farmer is horrifying as he butchers a screaming chicken.
The Fantastic Mr. Fox: Perhaps a little too quickly paced at times and sometimes a bit too quirky for its own good, but this anthropomorphic adventure tale about self-identity and failed expectations is hysterically funny.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans: One of the oddest movies I've ever seen: an unbelievable, over-plotted, melodramatic crime thriller that realizes how ridiculous it is yet plays it straight anyway. Perfect satire--because even if you don't get the joke, then it still works well as a rugged cop mystery.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: The first of the series that I actually enjoyed, this beautifully filmed fantasy blends the magic and the real world, the comedy and the drama more seamlessly than previous attempts.
A Single Man: A heartfelt tale of despair that urges viewers to seek out the beautiful moments in life. Also, one of the few gay movies that isn't obsessed with its gayness.
The Hangover: It's just a raunchy romp, but it's hilariously executed.
Crazy Heart: Believable little touches, excellent performances, and a great soundtrack make a tired, predictable tale of a washed up man's man a standout in its genre.
Goodbye, Solo: A quiet, convincing, and
original story about suicide that doesn't offer trite solutions to a complex problem.
La nana (The Maid): A rewarding little film from Chile in which a woman begins the search for joy and identity amongst the stressful grind of routine, obsession, and isolation.
Moon: A trippy, claustrophobic science fiction thriller that offers interesting observations on the essence of humanity and our short lives.
Teza: From Ethiopia and highlighting its culture and political history of the past few decades, this interesting response to communist tyranny illustrates how the "otherness" and ongoing struggle of dialectical Marxism eventually defeats the aspirations it once had in mind, substituting one bureaucratic oligarchy for another. What's born in violence cannot end in peace, and an ideology focused on a black-and-white opposition between "oppressors" and "oppressed" eventually branches out into endless arbitrary divisions between "true" and "false" communists. A powerful if overlong film, it also examines racism and superstition.
The Hurt Locker: A tense study of bomb defusers in Iraq, this nerve-racking drama never quite took hold of me like it did to many others, though its exploration of life-gambling adrenaline addiction is interesting. In the end, as the main character walks the sterilized, organized aisles of an overstocked grocery store in his hometown before requesting another return to duty, it's an interesting lesson that people who have faced death can never quite return to life the same way.
The Cove: An interesting--albeit too self-serious--examinations on illegal dolphin abuses in a coastal town in Japan and it's deleterious effects on human health, wildlife, and basic justice.
Sugar: From the makers of Half Nelson, another poetically-filmed story about down-and-outs with wasted potential in New York City. Depicts the American professional sports as the horse race that it is, where players can easily be discarded for a broken leg, and where steroid abuse (effectively filmed in a way I've never seen before) is both necessary and prohibited. Sometimes in life the possible dreams are better than the impossible ones.
Bruno: Not as good as Borat, and a bit more stagy than the previous film, but its look at American superficiality and mindless, contradictory homophobia is pretty funny throughout.
500 Days of Summer: Only at the end of this movie do we realize that Summer isn't a villain or a heartless monster. Levitt's character was too preoccupied with himself (his boring, immature self) and too in love with love to spend any time actually getting to know or love Summer. Summer knew this all along and never pretended to offer anything more than friendship. By breaking his childish heart, she provides the sturdiest foundation for his character development. Only at the end does he--and we, through his eyes--see reality as it truly is instead of through the blurred filters of epic romantic comedy. An original story, even if the direction and screenplay have some serious flaws.
An Education: A well-made coming-of-age story (based on a memoir) that provides a conflict between the easy, fun, carefree life and the world of hard work and organization. It's really too specific and on too small a scale to be very memorable or important, though there's nothing particularly wrong with it, either.
Up in the Air: I'm not really sure why people were so taken with this film. The time-sensitive, attention-grabbing scenes of layoffs and economic recession don't really jibe with the main plot, and it's obvious that they were overemphasized later in the film's development as they became more timely. The main story is a predictable, pat set-up: George Clooney is presented as a strong, modern man who has all the answers, but his life philosophy--which involves avoiding all relationships, emotion, and real responsibility in favor of the latest technologies--is obviously destined for failure from the very beginning. When he finally realizes that sometimes pausing for a moment of human tenderness and connection can be a good thing--perhaps the very best thing--is anyone in the audience really surprised? Was anybody really nodding along with his speeches about sharks and severing ties in the beginning of the film? Did anybody really learn anything they didn't already know, or do people just like this film because it reaffirms something they unthinkingly knew all along? The film's quirks were obnoxious, and George Clooney's acting was much better in Michael Clayton, which examined somewhat similar themes a much more exceptional way.
Star Trek: Fun, involving, and original, but really nothing too special, and it never seemed very realistic.
Coraline: Eye-popping stop-motion animation, spectacular set pieces, clever touches, hilarious characters, and moments of genuine horror. Unfortunately, some of the voice acting is weak, and the plot--about a girl who must choose between the doldrums and disappointments of reality and the sinister illusion of utopia--is somewhat jumbled and unconvincing.
Inglourious Basterds: Man, I don't even know what to say about this movie anymore. Some of it I loved. Some of it I despised. Some of it was brilliantly orchestrated. Some of it was self-indulgent and distracting. I think its intent is interesting, and yet I disagree with it. Maybe I'd like it better a second time, or maybe I'd just hate it more.
Me and Orson Welles: You've seen it all before in a dozen similar movies, but at least it's watchable and fun. It comes close to achieving greatness, but it cuts itself short. Two important complexities are missing. First, the movie assumes we already know how brilliant Orson Welles was, and so it spends a lot of time highlighting his flaws without ever effectively showing us just what was so brilliant about his genius. Second, it sets up the talented Claire Danes as a smart woman willing to prostitute herself to succeed, but it never really reflects on the seriousness of that.
The Road: Viggo Mortenson is good, and the book it's based on is beautiful, but the movie's oddly unengaging and the kid can't act.
Watchmen: About the best film that could've been made from the source material, which is to say that the source material is much too expansive to really suit any filmed adaptation, regardless of length. The art direction is good, the casting is mostly appropriate, the violence is cool, the soundtrack is evocative, but I can understand how someone who hasn't read the graphic novel would have no idea what the hell was happening.
District 9: File this with Up in the Air under movies with obvious yet overly preachy lessons. Apartheid is bad. Killing babies is bad. Being ignorant and racist is bad. It's 2009. How many people don't know this already?
Avatar: The last twenty minutes or so are great, but the rest is tedious, calling attention to itself and never really convincing the viewer that it's reality. The acting, except Zoe Saldana, is dreadful. The plot is the same old predictable Chosen One/Messiah parable. The screenplay is awful--it's a couple hundred years into the future, but everyone talks like it's 1998 (eternal literature is written in language that never sounds dated; that's why Burgess made up the Nadsat argot in A Clockwork Orange, because he feared that if he just used normal slang then the future would seem awfully dated after a few years... how is Avatar, with all its annoying slang, going to sound in ten years?). All the characters are caricatures, so it achieves the impressive feat of being offensive from all angles--from a leftist viewpoint, I'm offended that the Na'vi's chosen hero, who they all bow down to, is a white earthling who delivers a rousing speech in his own language instead of theirs (which, clearly, is only done for our benefit, since he can speak their language perfectly fine)--I guess the Na'vi were just a little too primitive to produce their own Messiah. Even from a conservative viewpoint, we see the military, the American government, and American business as wholly evil, capable only of atrocities, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And everyone says, screw that, it was visually captivating! He created such beautiful sights out of nothing! That's never been done before! First off, I wasn't that captivated. Second off, yes it has--Pinocchio was more visually rich, created out of "nothing." Coraline was more eye-poppingly interesting. Beowulf used 3D IMAX technology in a more stirring way, even if it didn't look as realistic. Screw Avatar.
A Serious Man: For me, this was like watching a foreign film without subtitles. A chore to watch, as I constantly felt that everything was going over my head. Is the only lesson "God works in mysterious ways," or is there more? Is that nihilistic, depressing lesson really worth sitting through?
Zombieland: The picture that effectively killed the zombie movie trend. Not a single joke that hasn't been done before in better films. The set design and direction is extremely fake, and Jesse Whatshisface comes across as an unattractive, unfunny imitation of Michael Cera. Just watch Shaun of the Dead instead.
Angels & Demons: It's completely ridiculous from beginning to end, but it's really not so bad. Sometimes making a pizza out of a piece of bread, some tomato sauce, and a piece of sliced cheese and throwing it in the microwave is just what you're craving, you know?
The Soloist: Melodrama.
2012: OMG, I would have loved this movie when I was nine! The end of the world is choreographed specifically for John Cusack's viewing pleasure. For someone lucky enough to narrowly escape imminent, catastrophic death three dozen times, you'd think he'd get better roles. My favorite moments: the majority of the world's population is eliminated (think September 11 times five hundred million), everyone cries for a couple minutes, and then everyone's emotions are back to normal, with ample one-liners; at the very end of the movie, having seen the destruction of America, Brazil, India, China, Russia, and key points in Europe, the scientists realize that Africa has remained completely unscathed. Throughout everything, not one person bothered to check on Africa. Figures.
My Bloody Valentine 3D: Some movie tickets should come with mail-in rebates. It did have the greatest tagline of the year, though: "Because nothing says 'date movie' like a 3D ride to Hell."