Making a "Top Ten Films of the Year" list is always an exercise in frustration and futility — what about the movies you didn't see? Who cares about this stuff, really? Isn't it silly to judge movies, a shifting and quicksilver art form, in such a hard-hearted and mathematical fashion? And yet, I read through the "Top Ten" lists of critics and writers I admire to get a sense of what I may have missed, or what I may have overlooked, or what I may have misjudged, and it's in that spirit — not that of a harsh judge who claims to know it all, but rather that of a helpful guide who knows he knows a few things– that I present my picks from 2009, a year full of so many good movies that, frankly, narrowing a list down to ten is an exercise in and of itself. …
Rian Johnson's follow-up to Brick twists and turns the con game flick just as skillfully as his debut shifted and twisted the private eye film — turning what could have been a purely mechanical exercise in genre-bending into a truly funny and, more importantly, truly touching look at the similarly-complex challenges of family and storytelling. Rachel Weisz steals scenes as a meek heiress who discovers love and life through conning and being conned, and Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo's work as the title brothers has warmth and heat; add in Rinko Kikuchi in the sassiest supporting performance of the year, and you get a funny, frantic tale about what the stories we tell say about us.
Of all the films on this year's best-of list, The Maid may have had the most limited distribution — a pity, as it's a knockout drama that, literally, had me on the edge of my seat because I had absolutely no clue what was going to happen next, and also because I needed, desperately, to know what was going to happen next. In an upper-class home in Chile, Raquel (Catalina Saveedra, in one of the year's best performances) has been serving her employers for almost 20 years — and, breaking under the strain of exhaustion (and being exhausting), refuses to take on any help or call a truce in the long-running passive-aggressive struggle she's trapped in with her employers. I can't say much more for fear of ruining the film, but I didn't know what The Maid was going to be — a thriller, a comedy, a family drama, a personal story, a romance — and The Maid's carefully-drawn performances and impressive sense of realism had me desperatley waiting to find out what was going to come next.
You could play The Messenger in sequence with the next two movies on this list, and you'd have a great triple-bill. Like Up in the Air, The Messenger is about doing difficult work; like In The Loop, The Messenger is about language and society in the face of war. But for all its big ideas, The Messenger is a movie of small moments, as Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson play soldiers on notification detail who deliver the bad news to families that their loved ones have fallen in war. Some critics call The Messenger overly showy and mannered, but I found it immensely engaging — and a movie that's real, raw and honest about the challenge of our present moment in a way that few other movies dare to be, bolstered by impressive acting work from both Foster and Harrelson.
If you wanted to demonstrate to some hypothetical future citizen what life felt like in mainstream America in 2009 within the space of two hours, you could do much, much worse than sitting them down to watch Up in The Air. Jason Reitman moves past the hip cynicism of Thank You for Smoking and the easy-breezy glibness of Juno to make a real film, with George Clooney as a high-flying consultant who fires people, but when facing the axe himself squirms and dances to hang on to the gig while realizing everything else he's lost his grip on. Dry, funny and invisibly smart, Up in the Air is a breezy, light movie about some heavy stuff that dances along with grace and charm until it socks you in the jaw.
6) In the Loop (Director: Armando Iannucci)
Another little-seen import, but well worth tracking down — if only because no other comedy this year literally hurt until you laughed with such brute blunt force, bad language and battered brilliance. A low-level British public servant gets on the radio and actually says something ("War is unforeseeable. …") and then has to not-quite-recant what he said, because as the Prime Minister's snapping, snarling right-hand man (Peter Capladi, in the knockout supporting performance of the year) explains, the war may be inevitable or unforeseeable but that's neither here nor there and definitely not something that needs to be said on the public record. … Full of unprintable insults, whip-crack sarcasm and very real points about public service, the power of lies and how political maneuvering can, regrettably, lead to troop maneuvers, In the Loop plays like an episode of The Office written by George Orwell.
Tomorrow: The final countdown!