What a strange year it’s been at the multiplex. In real life, the biggest celebrity stories in 2009 were calamities that struck two black superstars: the King of Pop and the King of Golf. But onscreen, African-Americans played inspirational heroes defying vast odds—the abused teen saved by literacy in Precious; the homeless musician saved by a newspaperman in The Soloist; the homeless football player adopted by a white family in The Blind Side; and Nelson Mandela using a rugby team to heal the wounds of apartheid in Invictus. These Oscar-buzzed titles are all rousing tales trafficking in the triumph of the human spirit. Yet oddly enough, for all their powerful performances and heavy themes, these earnest dramas lacked weight. And, as it turns out, none of them has landed on my Top 10 list.
I was, however, wowed by the most earnest spectacle of all—Avatar’s rainforest fable of blue-skinned aboriginal aliens. Any Top 10 list is subjective, and it’s an uneven playing field. Some titles I saw nine months ago, some last week. Until you see a film twice, you can never be sure. But here are the movies that made the deepest impression at the time, and that I’d be happy to see again. The order is whimsical, but the list happens to begin and end with movies directed by Canadians.
1. Up in the Air.The movie of the year. Jason Reitman (Juno) wrote it for George Clooney six years ago, but it captures the zeitgeist with uncanny precision. As a high-flying commitment-phobe who fires folks for a living, Hollywood’s primo bachelor plays himself and drops his guard. Both Reitman and Clooney go beyond their default glibness to find emotional maturity. As the dames who throw our anti-hero off balance, Anna Kendrick and Vera Farmiga are dead-on.
2. Fantastic Mr. Fox. I guess I’m on a Clooney kick. In comedies, George usually plays it dumb and deadpan. But as the voice of Mr. Fox—family man as compulsive bandit—he lets fly with a wild, rambunctious wit. The stop-motion animation is a retro delight. In adapting Roald Dahl, director Wes Anderson crafts sophisticated wit with the handmade charm of a Rushmore school project..
3. An Education. Hailed as the new Audrey Hepburn, Carey Mulligan shines in a star-making role as an impressionable teen in pre-Beatles London who is seduced by art, jazz, Paris—and a silver-tongued lech (an oddly sympathetic Peter Saarsgard). Nick Hornby’s script nails the naive excitement of Britain on the cusp of the swinging sixties.
4. The Road. Viggo Mortensen deserves the Oscar for his role as a desperate father in a harrowing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic saga, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is just as good as his son. This painterly vision of a destroyed America has the austere beauty of Edward Burtynsky’s photography.
5. Bright Star. Jane Campion bounces back with a pure story of young love nipped in the bud, starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish as poet John Keats and the girl next door. This lush, literate picture embraces romantic love and Romantic poetry in the same sweet, tragic breath.
6. A Serious Man. But if it’s irony you want, no one does it better than the Coen brothers, who are in classic form with a suburban gothic comedy that’s seriously bleak and deliciously black. Energized by the Jefferson Airplane, this tale of a square Jewish dad in 1967 Minnesota is as close as the Coens get to memoir.
7. Inglourious Basterds. It’s big and sloppy and far from perfect, but you have to admire Quentin Tarantino for getting away with a multi-language blockbuster that’s mostly dialogue. His Holocaust revenge fantasy is a flamboyant feat of audacity, galvanized by the amazing Christopher Waltz, who is funny and scary in three languages.
8. The Hurt Locker. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s story of a U.S. bomb-disposal unit in Iraq couldn’t unlock the curse that hurts war-on-terror flicks at the box office, but it’s the year’s most riveting suspense thriller. It has swept the major U.S. film critics awards.
9. The Cove. As much as I loved Michael Moore’s Capitalism: a Love Story, Louie Psihoyos, with his super-spy exposé of Japan’s secret dolphin slaughter, made the year’s most stunning investigative documentary.
10. Avatar. I approached James Cameron’s opus as a skeptic and emerged a convert. The dialogue is wooden, the Dances With Aliens plot clichéd, but who cares? No one directs action like JC. And his rainforest fantasia is 3-D on every level—a mix of tree-hugging and testosterone, flora and fireballs.