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The best films of 2009

hurt.jpgSince Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain, lists have come in tens, not that we couldn't have done with several more commandments. Who says a year has Ten Best Films, anyway? Nobody but readers, editors, and most other movie critics. There was hell to pay last year when I published my list of Twenty Best. You'd have thought I belched at a funeral. So this year I have devoutly limited myself to exactly ten films.

On each of two lists.

The lists are divided into Mainstream Films and Independent Films. This neatly sidesteps two frequent complaints: (1) "You name all those little films most people have never heard of," and (2) "You pick all blockbusters and ignore the indie pictures." Which is is my official Top Ten? They both are equal, and every film here is entitled to name itself "One of the Year's 10 Best!"

Alphabetically:

The Top 10 Mainstream Films

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"Bad Lieutenant." Werner Herzog's edgy noir fed off Nicolas Cage's flywheel intensity in a portrait of a cokehead cop out of control in post-Katrina New Orleans. He starts out bad and, driven by a painful back and pain meds, goes crazy and gets away with it because of the badge. Herzog paints the storied city in dark shadows and a notable lack of glamour, and when he involves Cage in a stare-down with an iguana it somehow needs no explanation. I predict they'll work together again. They probably got along at least as well as Herzog and Klaus Kinski.

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"Crazy Heart." This year's late-opening sleeper, built on a probable Oscar-winning performance by Jeff Bridges. He plays a nearly-forgotten C&W singer, touring nasty dives and smoky honky-tonks for a few dollars and change. He had hit songs, but alcoholism eroded him. Maggie Gyllenhaal is inspired as the woman who cares for him but doubts his newfound sobriety--and no, this isn't a cornball story about romantic redemption. After the screening a critic said: "This year's "The Wrestler." That sounded about right. Astonishing debut by Scott Cooper.

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"An Education." A star is born with Carey Mulligan's performance as a 16-year-old schoolgirl who is flattered and romanced, along with her protective parents, by an attractive, mysterious man in his mid-30s (Peter Sarsgaard). He's sophisticated, she's not; she sees him as a way out of London suburbia and into the circles she dreams of entering. He's not a molester but an opportunist and role-player, and Lone Scherfig's film is wise about what people want in a relationship and what they get. Faithfully adapted by Nick Hornby from the memoirs of the well-known British journalist Lynn Barber.

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"The Hurt Locker." "War is a drug," the opening title informs us, and in one of the best war movies ever, Jeremy Renner plays an expert member of an elite bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Somewhat guarded by a protective suit, he handles delicate mechanisms designed to outwit him. It's like chess. He's very good at his job, but is that what drives him to put his life on the line hundreds of times? Not pro-war, not anti-war, not about the war in Iraq, but about the minds of dedicated combat soldiers. Directed flawlessly by Kathryn Bigelow; as one critic's group after another honored it in their year-end awards, it became a sure thing for picture, actor and director nominations.

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"Inglourious Basterds." Quentin Tarantino is a natural and joyous filmmaker who feeds off his own tory story that fearlessly rewrites history. It finally comes down to a conflict between a fatuous Nazi monster (Chrisophe Waltz) and a fearless French Jewish heroine (Mélanie Laurent), with Brad Pitt as a knife wielding American commando leader. You have to hand him this: it's one World War Two movie where we don't know the ending. Waltz won best actor at Cannes 2009, has swept the critic's awards, is a shoo-in as best supporting actor.

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"Knowing." Among the best of science fiction films--frightening, suspenseful, intelligent, and, when it needs to be, rather awesome. In its very different way it's comparable to the great "Dark City," by the same director, Alex Proyas. That film was about the hidden nature of the world men think they inhabit, and so is this one. I loved the film's extravagance of energy, and the hard-charging Nicolas Cage performance (so different from his work in "Bad Lieutenant.") My praise stirred up a fierce pro and con debate among readers: http://j.mp/4MmMss

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"Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire."  The heart-rending story of an overweight, abused young teenager and the support she finds from a teacher and a social worker, who both glimpse her potential. Harrowing, depressing, and yet uplifting, as director Lee Daniels uses her fantasies to show the dreams inside. What a sure and brave lead performance by newcomer Gabourey Sidibe, and what a powerful one by Mo'Nique, as her heartless mother. She, Mariah Carey, Paula Patton and Sherri Shepherd are all but unrecognizable as they disappear into key supporting roles.

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"A Serious Man." Another great film the Coen Brothers, returning to their homeland of the Minneapolis suburbs to tell the story of a modern-day Job who strives to be a good man, a "serious man," and finds everything--but everything--going wrong. Michael Stuhlbarg gives a virtuoso lead performance as the suffering man, who earnestly tries to do the right thing. Fred Melamed is inspired as his best friend, who, he discovers, is having an affair with his wife. The friend tries to console him; he is grief and grief counselor at once.

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"Up in the Air." George Clooney plays a man for the first decade of this uncertain century. "Where do you live?" he's asked while seated in a first class airplane seat. "Here." He wants no home, no wife, no family, and says he is happy. His job is depriving others of theirs; he's a Termination Facilitator. He fires people for a living. Vera Farmiga plays his friendly fellow road warrior who sleeps with him on the road. Anna Kendrick is the sincere young college grad whose first job is terminating others. The third wonderful film by Jason Reitman, after "Thank You for Smoking" and "Juno."

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"The White Ribbon." The subterranean and labyrinthine secret history of a German village in the years before World War One. A mysterious series of deaths descends like a vengeance. Michael Haneke's elegant b&w photography etches the rural community in striking portraits of sinister normality. We become familiar with the important villagers, we follow their stories, we comprehend everything hat happens -- but something else is happening, something unspoken, kept secret from them, among them, and from us. Infinitely tantalizing.

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Now you are thinking, hey, what about "Avatar?" Faithful readers know of my annual Special Jury Prize. This year it goes to James Cameron's ground-breaking epic. No, that doesn't mean it's the best film of the year. It means it won the Special Jury Prize.

The Top Ten Independent Films

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"Departures." In Japan, a young man apprentices to the trade of "encoffinment," the preparation of corpses before their cremation. It is the only employment he can find, after he loses his job as a cellist in an orchestra that goes broke. The company owner approaches the job as a sacred vocation, and although the hero and his wife find the task unsettling, he slowly learns a new respect for himself through respect for the dead. A visually beautiful and poetic film by Yojiro Takita. Winner of the 2009 Academy Award as best foreign film.

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"Disgrace." A masterful performance by John Malkovich as a disgraced Cape Town English professor, forced to resign during the first years of Nelson Mandela's administration. He goes to live with his daughter (Jessica Haines) on her remote farm, where the manager (Eriq Ebouaney) seems to be establishing an independence of his own. The hard, ambiguous issues of the new South African world are squarely engaged in Steve Jacobs's film, based on the novel by Nobel winner J.M. Coetzee.

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"Everlasting Moments." The great Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell ("The Emigrants" and "The New Land") tells the story of the wife of an alcoholic dock worker in Malmo in 1911. He's not a bad man, except when he drinks. She wins a camera in a lottery and tries to pawn it, but the camera store owner develops the one photo she took, looks at it thoughtfully, and asks her to keep taking pictures. Her inner life is transformed by discovering that she has an artistic talent. A luminous performance by Maria Heiskanen.

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"Goodbye Solo."  The third remarkable film by Ramin Bahrani, after "Man Push Cart" and "Chop Shop." In Winston-Salem, NC, a straight-talking man around 70 (onetime Elvis bodyguard Red West) gets into the taxi of an African immigrant (Souleymane Sy Savané, from the Ivory Coast). For $1,000, paid immediately, he wants to be driven in 10 days to the top of a mountain in Blowing Rock National Park, to a place so windy that the snow falls up. He says nothing about a return trip. As a friendship develops between them, the days tick inexorably away.

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"Julia." The most striking performance in Tilda Swinton's exciting career. Only poor marketing prevented this from succeeding as the thriller of the year. Swinton plays an alcoholic slut who agrees to help kidnap a child, and ends up with him on an odyssey in Mexico through a thorn thicket of people you do not want to meet. If there's one thing consistent about her behavior, it's how she lies to all of them. Directed by Erick Zonca.

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"Silent Light." A story of romance and conscience set among the Mennonites of Mexico. A happily married man falls in love with a single woman, and she with them, and they are both haunted by guilt. Their gravitas is a stark contrast to the casual attitude toward sex in most films; they are violating rules they respect, hurting people they love. Such matters are rarely taken so seriously in films. Carlos Reygadas tells his story with a clarity and attention worthy of Bresson.

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"Sin Nombre." Atop the fright cars of a train running north through Mexico, hopeful emigrants ride toward their dream of the United States. Two stories: We follow a young woman from Honduras, and Casper, a young gang member who robs those riding on the cars. During the odyssey, scenes of great beauty join with others of the horrifying closed world of gangs. We realize that the difference between the two worlds is the scope of their dreams. An extraordinary debut by Cary Fukunaga, only 31. Won for direction and cinematography at Sundance 2009.

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"Skin." The Sandra Laing story obsessed South Africans in 1965. She was the daughter of white Afrikaners. She didn't look white. Her father fights to the Supreme Court to have her reclassified as white, and then when she falls in love with a black man she tries to have her classification changed. A wrenching dilemma, starring Sophie Okonedo ("Dirty Pretty Things") in a tricky and compelling role, and Sam Neill as her deeply conflicted father.

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"Trucker." Michelle Monaghan is remarkable as a truck driver who has just paid off her own rig. She's 30ish, hard-drinking, promiscuous, estranged from the father (Benjamin Bratt) of her 12-year-old son. In an emergency she has to take the boy back, and that leads from an arm's-length relationship to difficult personal discoveries. A powerful debut by writer-director James Mottern, who avoids the obvious gurns this story could take and follows the characters wih empathy.

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"You, the Living."  In a sad world and a sad city, sad people lead sad lives and complain that they hate their jobs and nobody understands them. The result is in some ways a comedy with a twist of the knife, and in other ways a film like nobody else has ever made--except for its director, Roy Andersson of Sweden. Fifty vignettes, almost all shot with a static camera, in medium and long shot. You laugh to yourself, silently, although you're never quite sure why. Flawless in what it does, and we have no idea what that is.

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