As always, the focus has been on major releases from major studios with major stars. Truth be told, this year's best films came from across the board. Big budget or small, the best films of the year achieve something the others couldn't -- they grabbed us tightly and wouldn't let go. In a season that gave us Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra, The Unborn and not one, but two flicks about mall security personnel, good films were hard to find.
Welcome is a French film from director Philippe Lioret and stars Vincent Lindon and Firat Ayverdi as an unlikely duo who befriends one another, ultimately resulting in tragic consequences. It focused on the plight of illegal immigrants in Calais, France and the lengths they'll go to in order to reach the United Kingdom. Underneath this heavily messaged film is the love story of Bilal (Ayverdi) and Mina (Derya Ayverdi), who are closer than ever to being together, the only thing standing in their way is the English Channel. Bilal's only option is to swim the channel, so he convinces Simon (Lindon) to coach him in swimming and teaching the elder more about love than he could imagine.
9. Inglourious Basterds
Tarantino's Basterds was a self-indulgent tale that twisted history and delivered us a bloody good time. The cast, led by wonderful performances by Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt, was right on target and split time making you laugh and cringe at the unabashed violence that filmmaker and cast obviously took delighted in. It was shocking that the Basterds played such a small role in a movie bearing their name, but the time Pitt and crew spend on screen is great. Rumor is there's a prequel in the works that will focus mostly on the exploits of the Basterds. I'm already lining up.
8. The Lovely Bones
What makes The Lovely Bones one of the top movies of '09 is the superb performance that Saoirse Ronan gives in the role of Susie Salmon. Ronan has put together an impressive career in a very short span of time and is a young actress that literally could bring Hollywood to its knees. In addition to Ronan, Stanley Tucci turns in a performance that is devilishly creepy. I might be the only critic to say so, but I thought Mark Wahlberg gave a solid performance at Susie's anguished father who struggles to put the pieces together and find his daughter's murderer.
7. 500 Days of Summer
The little film that took the romantic comedy and turned it upside down was an unexpected delight this year. I loved the fact that filmmaker Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber used a timeline that wasn't linear and let the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zoeey Deschanel) play out in a beautifully chaotic sonata. Levitt proves once again that he's an actor whose talent could carry any part thrown his way. We'll forgive you for G.I. Joe, Joseph -- this time.
6. The Hangover
What can you say about The Hangover that hasn't been said already? Hands down the best comedy of the year, bolstered by top notch performances from Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and the undeniably insane Zach Galifianakis. Not only did it bring people to the theaters, it brought them to the theater over and over. The allure of the film was the ability to convene with 350 of your closest friends, let go and howl with laughter. This was the first film in a long time that you felt guilty if you weren't laughing out loud.
This is a film that will not show up on many critics' list -- mainly due to the fact that most critics want film legends to repeat themselves and give us what we've all seen before. Fortunately in this case, Francis Ford Coppola made the film he wanted to make and produced perhaps the most beautiful film to hit the silver screen in '09. The movie is presented entirely in black and white and gives us all a glimpse of what a real director can do given a limited budget and a dream that has no limit. The film is powered by a wonderful performance by Vincent Gallo. I wish all aging filmmakers would take a page from Coppola and deliver us some of the strongest work of their career. George Lucas, I hope you're listening.
On my first viewing of UP, I thought it was the first time we saw Pixar drop the ball. It looked like the magical coach turned into a pumpkin and for the first time; Pixar wouldn't reign supreme in the animated world. Thank goodness for my four-year-old daughter and a little drive-in 20 minutes South. I reluctantly went to give UP a second viewing and much to my surprise; I found I truly liked the film. So much so, I saw it again in the theater and have watched it at least four times on DVD. The story, like every Pixar flick it seems, is a timeless tale of discovery, and in this case, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) finds the most unlikely thing on his journey to Paradise Falls -- himself.
3. Star Trek
With the Star Trek franchise essentially dead, director J.J. Abrams enlisted a new fleet of actors to portray the iconic figures of the Trek universe, promised us something new and exceeded all of our expectations. For the first time in its history, Star Trek finally was able to achieve what made a certain other space saga so popular and show that the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise was the swashbuckling space adventurers we all dreamed they were. While the cast overall were good, Karl Urban and Chris Pine stood out as the clear cut stars of the film.
2. Up in the Air
George Clooney doing what George Clooney does best -- charming the socks off of us. In a time where unemployment is definitely not something to be taken lightly, Clooney and filmmaker Jason Reitman put a story on the screen that had every opportunity to put us off, but was so likeable that we couldn't stay away. Clooney headlines a cast that brought heart to a story of a man who would rather be alone in a crowded room than spend "43 miserable days at home" in his apartment in Omaha. Costar Anna Kendrick gave one of my favorite performances of the year. She's smart, she's witty and her comic timing is spot-on.
The sad thing about the awards season revving up is the fact you're likely to find the film Moon on little to no Top-10 or awards list. The directorial debut from Duncan Jones uses the stark landscape of the barren moon to weave the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a Helium-3 harvester whose three-year tour on the moon is coming to an end. As the days leading up to his departure approach, an accident on the lunar surface leads Sam to a revelation that changes life as he knows it forever.
Rockwell is able to run the gamut of emotions in this film, making us laugh, then twisting us at our core and leaving us wide-eyed concerned as his quandary runs its course. Rockwell gives by far the best performance of the year and I hope when Oscar nominations are announced, they have the courage to nominate him. So far, I've found one other critic who has Moon at the top of their list and that's AP Film Critic Christy Lemire. This movie has been overlooked for much of 2009 and it's a shame that the best offering to hit the screen has to be overshadowed by mediocre flicks such as Julie and Julia.
Other Notable Happenings
Best Performance Actor -- Sam Rockwell, Moon
Best Performance Actress -- Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones
Best Documentary -- The Cove
Worst Film of the Year -- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Best OK Performance in a Bad Flick -- Sienna Miller as the Baroness in G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra
Best Comedic Performance by Someone Not Named Galifianakis -- Ken Jeong, The Hangover
Most Anticipated Flick Not Screened in Indiana -- Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges
Most Anticipated Flicks of 2010 -- The Wolfman, The Book of Eli, The A-Team, Alice in Wonderland, Tron Legacy, Toy Story 3, Iron Man 2, Inception, Crazy Heart and Red Tails.