Yesterday, I shared the first half of my list of the top ten best films of 2009; without much more ado, here's the remainder of the countdown. …
The latest film from the Coen brothers seems to offer it all — the strange surrealism of Barton Fink, the quotability of The Big Lebowski, the social satire of Burn After Reading and the slice-of-life close-up view of Fargo — but it's still unlike anything the Coens have done before, following physics professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) as his professional, personal and spiritual lives all … melt … down. Based in no small part on the Coen's own experiences growing up in Minnesota, A Serious Man isn't just a great comedy of suburban manners; it's a sincere look at the benefits — and curses — of a spiritual life, as God moves in mysterious ways and Larry Gopnick is Job in horn rims, wondering why the universe seems to be picking on him and never wondering if, in fact, it's because he deserves it.
Director Sacha Gervasi tracked down his favorite band from his youth to find out what happened to them; the answer wasn't some sob story about breaking up or packing it in, but, rather, the slightly sadder, and scarier proposition that 20 years after the peak of their success, Canadian heavy-metal band Anvil were still plugging away. Gervasi joined them for a tour (disastrous) and the recording of a new album (contentious) and got past the real-life Spinal Tap absurditity to show us two friends and, yes, artists who refused to give up in a world that says "quit." Gervasi knows and loves his subjects — drummer Robb Reiner and guitarist/singer Steve 'Lips' Kudlow — but that doesn't mean they get off easy in his film, and that honesty — painful at times — is what makes Anvil! The Story of Anvil more the story of a friendship than the story of a band, more a story of hard work than the story of an idle dream.
Why would anyone want to watch a 144-minute story of repression, sadness and man's inhumanity to man, shot in black-and-white and unfolding in a small German town before the outbreak of World War I? The simple answer is: Because it's fascinating. Michael Haneke's unblinking eye has always made his films hypnotizing works of cruel genius, but even with all of The White Ribbon's more tense and unhappy moments (the children of the town turning on each other is chilling and yet never phony or fake), the movie's methodical, precise pace makes it a magnetically glowing thing of stark wonder. Yes, there are explicit parallels to history– the kids we see lashing out at each other will, inevitably, grow up to make Hitler possible — but Haneke's story works like an x-ray, showing us the stark bone-white truths that lie under the happy flesh of any town at any time.
The biggest, brightest piece of pure comedy and joy at the movies this year – and, at the same time, a serious look at family, at friendship, at community, at being true to who we are. There are at least three vocal performances (Jason Schwartzman, Meryl Streep and Wally Wolodarsky) that put 90% of the Oscar-nominated performances you're going to see this year to shame with their heart, soul, timing and warmth. Director Wes Anderson's fuzzy, controlling ways have strangled some of his films — see, for one example, the claustrophobically micro-managed and airlessly art-designed The Life Aquatic — but here, they serve him and the audience extraordinarily well as a talking fox (George Clooney) shoots for a better life by pulling one last job. …
Following a team of bomb-disposal technicians in Iraq (and written by journalist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with a real Army EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit in the field), Kathryn Bigleow's movie isn't just a hurtling, tightly-coiled thriller that pushes you to the edge of your seat; it's also a portrait of why both men and nations go to war. Superbly shot, surprisingly funny (A superior officer asks about bomb disposal: "What's the best way to go about disarming one of these things?" Jeremy Renner's Sgt. James answers quietly: "The way you don't die, sir …") and startlingly engaging, The Hurt Locker shows us men who choose to face death in the name of duty, and more importantly actually asks why they do it.
Runners-Up: Moon, The September Issue, Up, Inglourious Basterds, Where the Wild Things Are, The Missing Person, Every Little Step, The Escapist, Humpday, Adventureland, Funny People, The Girlfriend Experience, Tokyo Sonata, Police, Adjective and The Informant!