The Rocchi Files: The Top Ten Films of 2009, Part One

by | Dec 29th, 2009 | 8:00AM | Filed under: Theatrical Reviews

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. …

10) The Brothers Bloom (Director: Rian Johnson)

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.

Maid 9) The Maid (Director: Sebastian Silva)

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.

TheMessenger 8) The Messenger (Director: Oren Moverman)

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.

UpIntheAir 7) Up in the Air (Director: Jason Reitman)

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)

IntheLoop 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!

2 Responses to “The Rocchi Files: The Top Ten Films of 2009, Part One”

  1. Koutchboom
    Posted on December 30, 2009 at 10:39 am

    How is Up In The Air is about doing difficult work? There is only 2 scenes showing them doing their job. Discounting the Zach Hangover scene which is played more for laughs. And the only REAL scene in the movie (the one with JK in it) gets CUT way to short for it to have any impact. Just like every scene in this film, it gets cut right when we are about to care about anything thats happening. Unless the point is not to care about anyone, then it does make sense.
    Saying this movie is a movie for the times is just horrible, wrong and misleading. Its typical Oscar bait trite that isn’t worth anything. The book was written in 2001 and maybe had the movie come out then it would have made sense. Now, it just shows how little Hollywoodland knows about the real world.

  2. Rebecca
    Posted on December 30, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    I love me some George and had been looking forward to seeing “Up in the Air” based on his presence and all the positive reviews I’d read from both redblog and other movie critics. Yet upon seeing “Up in the Air” today with a friend, we both couldn’t understand why it’s received so many awards nominations. There are a few scenes in which George Clooney displays some great acting talents, e.g., the airport tram ride phone call. And using real individuals who lost their jobs in the downsizing scenes was quite touching. (The African-American man who talked about the pride he takes in his children all the while trying hard not to cry moved me most especially.) But I didn’t feel that it was a film worthy of all the overwhelmingly positive reviews it has received. Can someone help me understand why this is supposed to be such a great film?