The Best Movies of 2009 … So Far

Editor’s note: This list kicks off RELEVANT’s coverage of the best of progressive culture in 2009—so far. Check back again soon for the best books and albums of the year.

So here we are in the middle of August, at the tail end of the summer blockbuster season. 2009 hasn’t been the greatest year for film (so far) but there are more than enough pictures to list our front-runners for best of the year. As with any list, there are some omissions to the list (ones that we’ll probably remember later and think "D’oh!"), but here are RELEVANT’s top 10 of 2009:

10. Public Enemies

The story of John Dillinger’s historic bank robbing spree of 1933, directed by Michael Mann and starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, doesn’t really impress at first. But as the film goes along, it grows on you. There are still some big problems with this movie; even though it provides some striking imagery, the decision to shoot on video instead of film really takes away from the look of the film. Regardless, Mann shows us he can still shoot a crime thriller unlike anyone else.

9. The Brothers Bloom

Rain Johnson’s second feature is much more daring of a film than many releases this year. The film tells the story of two brothers (Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo), who happen to be con men, and their last job with an eccentric shut in played by Rachel Weisz. Johnson, who also wrote the film, shows that his first picture Brick was no fluke. His ability as a storyteller is a refreshing change to all the remakes and sequels that are coming out this year.

8. Coraline

Neil Gaiman’s novel is perfectly realized in this stop-motion
animated film directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare before
Christmas
). After moving into the Pink Palace Apartments with her
parents, Coraline Jones finds a doorway to a world that mirrors her own
boring life. After a few trips through the doorway, Coraline realizes
that maybe her better world might not be exactly what she thinks it is.
This film is pretty dark for a kid’s movie—but, then again, it’s not really a kid’s movie. The subject matter is geared toward a younger crowd but
the story is a “cautionary tale” like Grimm’s Fairytales. The stop motion
animation in the film is beautiful. The textures and feeling of space
is something you just don’t get with regular animation, at least not yet.
Along with The Nightmare before Christmas and James and the Giant
Peach
, Henry Selick is one of the few directors still working with the
stop-motion medium, and with a film like Coraline we’re glad he still is.

7. Away We Go

Director Sam Mendes is mostly known for his films chronicling the disintegration of marriage in the suburbs (Revolutionary Road and American Beauty). So it was a surprise when he quietly released Away We Go, a quirky indie-dramedy starring John Krasinski (TV’s The Office) and Maya Rudolph (SNL). They play a couple on the verge of having their first child who set out on a road trip to find the best place to raise their baby. The film offers a fairly accurate glimpse into modern relationships—and all of the complexities, family and otherwise, that those relationships contain.

6. The Hangover

No, The Hangover isn’t terribly insightful (except as a two-hour warning against the idiocy of the man-child cult that takes over Vegas). But the sleeper hit of the summer is also very, very funny. The film shows the story of three friends (Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and breakout star Zach Galifianakis

) who wake up after a bachelor party in Vegas with no memory of the night before—and no sign of the groom. As they begin to piece together the night before, the results are more and more outrageous and also laugh-out-loud funny. Remember, it’s an R-rated comedy, so there’s certainly some raunchy bits, but in general, the movie never strays into truly offensive territory—until the closing credits. Seriously, leave before they start. Not joking. 

5. Star Trek

You don’t have to be a Star Trek fan to like this movie. You don’t even have to have seen more than a few episodes. J.J. Abrams was able to do something not many
directors can do: make a movie that satisfies both  diehard fans and
newcomers to the series. Though this is only his third film in the
director’s chair, Abrams shows his love for the material and his eye for
action. There is never a time that the action feels forced or repetitive
in this film. Oh yeah, and the space battles; did we mention there are
space battles?

4. The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, K19) brought us a
stunning view of the war with The Hurt Locker. Staff Sgt. William James
(Jeremy Renner) is an explosives expert with a bit of a wild side.
While going out on missions to diffuse bombs of all shapes and sizes, he
sees the true nature of war in his surroundings and himself. This film may be the first honest film about the Iraq war. There are
no politics, skewed views, or personal agendas behind this film. The
story is the story and nothing else. Another striking thing about the film is its theme of the monotony of war. Even though things are constantly
happening around the soldiers, there is a sense of boredom and tedium
between missions. With the events of the film separated between tense,
life-and-death situations and the monotony of waiting for the unknown,The Hurt Locker is a very different and welcome look at the war in Iraq.

See Also

3. Moon

This film will blow you away. Duncan Jones’ directorial debut asks us
some big question about big things. With a five million dollar budget
and only one main character in the story, Jones used very little to
make a very impressive film. The less you know going into the film, the better, so we won’t spoil anything here; and by all means stay away from the trailer—it gives away a
gigantic spoiler of the film. Moon is a nice look back on how good
science fiction can be. We’d trade laser pistols and reptilian alien
races for a good story any day.

2. Up

Pixar once again shows that substance over style goes a long way.
Carl Fredrickson is an old man with a dream of adventure. Due to the
struggles of his day to day life and the untimely death of his wife and
best friend Ellie, Carl’s dream was put on hold and ultimately
forgotten. But when Carl is forced to give up his house for a
retirement home he takes his last chance for adventure. Along with
Russell, a boy scout looking for his last merit badge, Carl sets sail,
literally, to South America to fulfill his lifelong dream. If you can, make sure to check it out in 3D—it is a
beautifully-animated film and the 3D never feels gimmicky or
over used. Like all Pixar films, UP can be enjoyed by
kids and adults alike.

1. (500) Days of Summer

This charming little film is a microcosm of a 21st-century romance. It stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a greeting card writer who falls hard for a coworker (the charming-as-always Zooey Deschanel) and begins a relationship with her. The film is remarkable for its realistic (and generally unsentimental) treatment of the ups and downs in a relationship—from the soaring highs of the first date to the crushing lows of a date gone bad—and its exploration of how our thinking about love has been so changed by the media we consume. The ending might take you by surprise, but this incredible movie ought to make you anticipate the unexpected. It’s sure to be a seminal film for this generation.

Honorable mentions:  Lorna’s Silence, Earth, Food Inc., I Love You Man, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Adventureland

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