You should know a couple of things before you read the list of my favorite movies of 2009. First, this list will be subject to change. There are still lots of great 2009 movies I have yet to see, either because they have yet to premiere in Norway, I simply don’t know about them, or because I just haven’t gotten around to them yet. I know, everyone speaks glowingly about The Hurt Locker, Adventureland, Inglourious Basterds (etc., etc., etc.), but I haven’t seen any of them (or many other essentials, shame on me). This is a ranking of the movies I was in a position to have an opinion on as of today. Glaring omissions may be fixed later, as they were last year, but to my defense I’ll say that I’ve spent quite some time rewatching classics of the 00’s in the last couple of months, in preparation for the upcoming Movies Of The Decade list.
Second, this list follows the Norwegian release schedule. Generally, this means two things. End-of-the-year releases in the U.S. (like Up In The Air, for instance) will not premiere in Norway for several months, and are ineligible. On the other hand, movies that competed for the 2009 Oscars (like Milk) do qualify for the 2009 list, for the same reason. This means that the rules are pretty much the same as last year. To qualify, the movies will have to have had a theatrical release, or at least a screening, or a first-run airing on national television between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009.
And now, the list:
1. Milk (Directed by Gus van Sant)
One of those annual Oscar contenders getting delayed in Norwegian theaters to get the most out of the awards buzz of February, Gus van Sant’s masterful biographical drama was my best movie experience of the year. I’ve often discussed with myself whether a movie that fulfills impossibly high expectations still may be at a disadvantage to movies whose brilliance take me utterly by surprise, but if so, it doesn’t seem like Milk has suffered much. Having seen the movie three times by now, and twice in a movie theater, I love Milk first and foremost for what it is, not what it means: Van Sant packed his drama with memorable performances and images down to the smallest detail, and even Sean Penn landed safely on the right side of intense.
2. Three Blind Mice (Dir: Matthew Newton)
This is the single reason why I asked if complete surprises can sometimes have the upper hand on lists like these. I knew absolutely nothing about debut writer/director/actor Matthew Newton’s smart comedy drama before I caught a nearly empty late night screening at the Bergen International Film Festival in October. I agreed to see it only reluctantly, but he blew me away. A story about the crossing loyalties and social codes of three young soon to be deployed back into a war zone, Three Blind Mice is sharp, quick and thoughtful in a way that almost makes you feel bad for laughing. You should cherish the challenge.
3. Zombieland (Dir: Ruben Fleischer)
It would be tempting to just quote Slate deputy editor Julia Turner’s assessment of Zombieland (‘It’s just so fucking short and perfect!’) and leave it at that, but it deserves so much more. After all, this is a splatter movie that managed to thrill someone who entertains only the vaguest familiarity with splatter conventions through second-hand references, to the tip of my seat for eighty minutes. Or so I thought, the first time around. On second viewing, it turned out Zombieland is not so much a splatter comedy per se, as it is a love story, or a story about loss and loneliness – all wrapped inside a zombie movie; one of the funniest comedies in years. I’ve sensed for years that Jesse Eisenberg could do just about anything. This year’s Adventureland/Zombieland double bill makes that point pretty self-evident.
4. The Time That Remains (Dir: Elia Suleiman)
Actor/director Elia Suleiman is back, and with a movie that deserves just as much international acclaim as 2002’s Divine Intervention. Again it’s a melancholic comedy in the absurdist/magic realist vein, and again Suleiman carries the comedy on his stoic shoulders. The Israeli occupation of course provides a rich backdrop, but it’s a huge achievement by Suleiman to make two so touching comedies about the same subject, and with so many similarities, without ever coming even close to feeling repetitive. He’s a true humanist filmmaker.
5. True Adolescents (Dir: Craig Johnston)
I guess a real movie critic is not supposed to fall endlessly in love with pretty much every tale of smart coming-of-age story that’s sent his way, but then maybe that was never my calling after all. The cross-generational feel of True Adolescents (heck, even the title sounds transparently earnest!) is sure to grate any cynic, but it felt real enough to me. The simple setup (slackery male thirtysomething learns a thing or two about Life and Taking Responsibility as he takes his nephew and his best friend for a hike in the woods) is nothing new, but the result is a surprisingly sweet and wise little movie. Mark Duplass shines as the slacker. He’s like Jack Black, only good.
6. In The Loop (Dir: Armando Iannucci)
Two months on, I’m still laughing. Armando Ianucci’s movie version of his British television series is to political comedy of the 2000’s what Wag The Dog (Barry Levinson, 1998) was for the 1990’s. A profane, over-the-top-and-further satire about a war buildup eerily similar to Iraq, he peppers his movie with one great laugh every thirty seconds, all while never straying so far into absurdity that we forget this may have been pretty much what happened. After you’ve seen Tom Hollander’s British Secretary for International Development, metaphor will never mean the same again.
7. Humpday (Dir: Lynn Shelton)
More than a Mark Duplass year, 2009 was actually more like a Duplass festival for me. The Bergen International Mark Duplass Film Festival, to be precise. A couple of days before I saw him in True Adolescents, he co-starred with Joshua Leonard in the refreshingly mature bromance Humpday. Instead of inviting a series of puns (‘This is gonna be hard’, etc.) the story of how two old best friends decide to record a amateur gay porn movie (‘It’ll be beyond gay, cos we’re, like, two straight friends’), Humpday is the least forced exploration of male/male friendship I’ve seen since the arrival of the bromance. Downside? Reminds me of what I Love You, Man got wrong.
8. Coraline (Dir: Henry Selick)
One of the great achievements of animation these days, apart from the constantly improved technology, is that filmmakers now have finally decided you don’t always have to treat a young audience with children. Coraline is a real suspense-builder, and a visually gorgeous, small-scale horror story. The fact that the very youngest audience members might find it a little threatening should be to the benefit of everyone else in the large audience this movie deserves.
9. Up (Dir: Pete Docter)
One starts to wonder if the string of modern classics from Pixar is ever going to end. While the meditative epilogue may be the single best thing about Up, this colorful and imaginative tale of never giving up is breaking even more new ground, putting an old man front and center. Without encountering pacing problems, the movie seamlessly incorporates old people’s somewhat slower life rhytm into its very fabric, and the result, as we’ve come to expect, is great.
10. Art & Copy (Dir: Doug Pray)
Doug Pray’s upbeat cultural history of the modern television commercial was yet another festival treat. Whether exotic for a European audience or nostalgic for an American, Pray’s interviews with some of the most successful people of the ad business for once, and thankfully, steers clear of the moralism of the conversation about ads, to instead investigate how many of them have become cultural institutions. ‘Doing a movie about how bad ads are for you would have been the easy thing to do’, he explained in a post-screening Q&A. We should be glad he decided to do the hard thing instead.