The 20 Best Films of 2009

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12/23/2009 5:30 AM |

Fourteen critics ranked their favorite 2009 theatrical premieres and currently undistributed films for our first annual(?) film poll, which yielded a Top 10, especially, more demographically on-point than we had expected, given the diversity of sensibility demonstrated in the film writing published this year in The L. In 2009, a disproportionate number of Filmmakers We Grew Up On—Tarantino, Anderson, the Coens, Jarmusch, perhaps also Mann, Bigelow and Pixar (whose Up would have leapfrogged more than a half-dozen films if we had scored on number of votes rather than points)—released mature works; contrastingly, all but two of the foreign films on this list were 2008 (and in one case 2007) festival premieres, which delayed-release exposure underscores the usual distribution struggles contributing to the diffusion of votes among non-Hollywood/indiewood films. That said, The L’s best film of the year—world premiere in August ’08 in Venice, US premiere this March at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, NYC theatrical run in September—was the only film to receive more than one first-place vote: it received five.

1. 35 Shots of Rum
(Claire Denis)

Like Hou Hsiao-hsien did in Cafe Lumiere—another of the decade’s best, hardest-to-quantify films—Denis jumps off from Ozu’s Late Spring to tell a story of father-daughter bonds tenderly loosened, and unspoken intimacies exchanged or considered in intermediate spaces, like over rice or in commuter trains. With houseboat-rocking, light-rippling long takes, Denis (with cinematographer Agnes Godard) caresses the textures of people spending time in place, a full sensory immersion conductive to something like telepathy between character and viewer. Ask not why you should spend time with a movie whose chief achievement is its evocation of everyday experience—ask whether it’s even possible for a movie to do anything more.
Mark Asch

2. Inglourious Basterds
(Quentin Tarantino)

The movies drop like a bomb to end World War II, as history’s rewritten in a celluloid inferno cued from the projection booth—which is no more or less reprehensible than most historical fictions, it’s just that QT’s more honest than most about how filmmakers use their medium to satisfy private desires. He’s also better than most at contriving fetish scenarios: delayed-gratification suspense set-ups and genre role-playing; masturbatory dialogue and orgiastic violence; inside references peeking through the movie like handkerchief code.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
(Wes Anderson)

It’s obvious now: of course Wes Anderson’s masterpiece would be his stab at stop-motion animation! The technique not only lends itself to but demands meticulous control over the minutiae—Anderson’s specialty. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is more than a delight of details: it’s endlessly hilarious and steeped in pathos, most of which emerges from the film’s complex struggle between civilization and human, er, vulpine nature. And, thanks to its Roald Dahl origins, it’s Wes’ first political film, a bold and serendipitously timely statement about wealth redistribution that sticks it to the fat cats.
Henry Stewart

4. Two Lovers
(James Gray)

Before disguising himself with a shaggy beard, Joaquin Phoenix allowed an excess of childlike vulnerability to twist his mouth into a permanent pout. Gray’s riskiest work yet finds the actor pushing the archetype of the sullen, pallid, pleading-eyed romantic to new heights, walking that dangerous line between unabashed melodrama and grotesque self-parody. The result is a rare modern love story that combines the headiness of infatuation with a disgust at the infantalizing¬†nature of raw human emotion.
Andrew Chan

5. A Serious Man
(Joel and Ethan Coen)

Amid gathering storms in a complacent suburban Jewish milieu where a tradition of skepticism has become institutional (and where even uncertainty is formulaic), the Coens search not for certainty—which A Serious Man’s merchants of ambiguity possess in abundance—but for authentic doubt. A work of moral philosophy more profound than Manichean pulper No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man doesn’t lament the collapse of the order imposed on chaos—it satirizes chaos’s domestication. (Don’t call the Coens glib ironists: they take irony seriously.)

6. Summer Hours
(Olivier Assayas)

After kicking off the decade with a turn-of-the-century period piece (Les destinees sentimentales), France’s preeminent neo-New Waver spent the rest of the aughts dividing his fans and critics with oft-outlandish DV experiments (demonlover, Clean, Boarding Gate). In his latest, the Chekhovian story of bourgeois siblings forced to liquidate their family estate after their mother dies, Assayas triumphantly returns to the domestic sphere, while retaining his unparalleled eye for globalism’s discontents.
Benjamin Strong

7. The Headless Woman
(Lucretia Martel)

Martel fashions ultra-realistic narratives of visceral unease like no one else—here, a bourgeois woman’s internal dissolution after a car accident we only half-perceive is a lean-forward-and-hold-your-breath nightmare in which every off-kilter composition and cut is engineered as an unemphatic WTF mystery. Is it amnesia, or something about our viewer’s lust for omniscience? That it has rankled so many is a testament to what’s unsaid and to the secret superpowers of off-screen space.
Michael Atkinson