Hindsight is 20/20. That is exactly the basis for this list and all the other ones like it I have made (1988, 1997, 1998, 2007, 2008). One of my major criticisms of awards season is that it is too close to the actual release of the movies to be able to make an evaluation of their quality. Too often it is either the most crowd-pleasing movies or the ones who create the nosiest buzz that rise to the fore and succeed during awards season on the basis of snap judgments. Movies that require more thought, are complicated, underseen, or, dare I say it, need to be seen more than once are the ones that fall by the wayside. But it is precisely the passage of time that allows the movies in the latter category to rise to the fore and allow the shine to come off some of the more conventionally acclaimed movies. So without further ado lets get to it:
(Full disclosure: just to show that I too am not immune to this lack of hindsight, let me for the record state that I originally counted Crazy Heart and Up in the Air among the best of the year and HATED The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, and Avatar. As you can see, the passage of time has forced some reevaluations.)
The Top Ten Box Office Movies (courtesy of Box Office Mojo)
1. Avatar ($750 million)
2. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ($402 million)
3. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ($302 million)
4. The Twilight Saga: The New Moon ($297 million)
5. Up ($293 million)
6. The Hangover ($277 million)
7. Star Trek ($258 million)
8. The Blind Side ($256 million)
9. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel ($220 million)
10. Sherlock Holmes ($209 million)
Looking at the box-office of 2009 is to realize just how insanely much the industry has changed in the intervening decade. In many ways 2009 represents a last calm before the storm as most of the major studios had not had enough time to piggyback on the success of the 2008’s mega-blockbusters Iron Man and The Dark Knight.
As a result the box-office is shockingly littered with a bunch of original movies! What is most striking looking at this top-10 is the variety of type of movie that proved successful at the box-office. In 2019 there is currently only one movie (Us) in the top-10 that is not a sequel, remake, spin-off, or based on another intellectual property, 2009 provided four such movies (Avatar, Up, The Hangover, The Blind Side). Besides your usual four-quadrant fare, there was space for R-rated comedies (The Hangover), adult-oriented dramas (The Blind Side), and blatantly kid-oriented material (that infernal chipmunk movie).
Now granted, most of these movies also fall into the category of “Forgotten Blockbusters”; when was the last time you thought about The Blind Side and who even remembers that Robert Downey Jr. once played Sherlock? Even Avatar, the only-recently-dethroned all-time box-office champ, has a shockingly small lasting cultural imprint (although I have a theory why that is so which I may or may not expound upon in a future post).
Even in terms of franchises, there was room for female-driven fare (Twilight), high fantasy (Harry Potter), and Michael Bay. Depressingly today, three of the top 10 are based in one franchise (Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Far From Home), two are weaponized-nostalgia cash-grabs (The Lion King, Aladdin), and 5 of the top 6 spots are occupied by one studio (that mouse-loving one). Even if 2009 is far from the strongest movie year ever, it is hard not to look back and not think that our modern box-office landscape is just a little bit poorer today.
Best Picture Winner: The Hurt Locker
Best Picture Nominees: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
It is hard to believe that we are officially ten years into the grand experiment to expand the Best Picture Oscar nominees from 5 to (up to) 10. And ten years later, it is certainly a mixed-bag. On the one hand it has made Oscar-nomination day a lot less controversial as fewer egregious snubs are made. On the other hand, it has sort of backfired on the Academy since instead of opening the door for more blockbuster fare to get it, it in fact has opened the way for critical but almost anonymous movies instead.
Nowhere is this most apparent than with the 2009 Oscars where The Hurt Locker earned the distinction of being the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever. This was also the year that (at the time) the highest grossing movie ever was also nominated (Avatar) and the Academy chose differently. Now don’t get me wrong, The Hurt Locker is the better movie and a worthy winner (not least for being the only Best Picture movie directed by a woman). But that decision no doubt set the tone for the future of the Academy and the movie industry as a whole, where the chasm between what is financially successful and critically successful are increasingly mutually exclusive.
25. MOTHER dir. Bong Joon-Ho
In even the most grounded of Bong Joon-Ho’s movies, one cannot help but feel unhinged, as if the world is slightly askew. Nowhere is that more true than in Mother where Bong takes a mother’s love for her son – one of the most pure and natural things in the world – and twists it just enough to leave you unsettled as he weaves a story about a mentally disabled boy who is accused of murdering a teenage girl in a small and insular village and his mother’s quest to exonerate him. Much like Bong’s previous crime movie Memories of Murder the movie has all the satisfying joys of a procedural as missing pieces fall into place but inevitably leaves you feeling all the more compromised once it’s ethically murky conclusion is reached.
24. WATCHMEN dir. Zack Snyder
Laugh all you want, but there is a reason that Zack Snyder eventually got handed the keys to the DC cinematic universe. With Watchmen it could be a case of Alan Moore’s graphic novel being rich enough a source material that even Snyder couldn’t screw it up too much. Or it could be the case that for all of Snyder’s faults, he is in fact a master visualist able to conjure epic imagery from even the most banal setting. His problem has always been that he himself seems to lack the storytelling panache to match his visuals. But pair his unique visual style with what is arguably the most complex and thought-provoking superhero story ever told and you have all the makings for the first (and probably only) superhero movie that can properly fit into the “epic” genre.
23. ADVENTURELAND dir. Greg Mottola
The classic definition of a movie benefitting from the passage of time. When it was released Adventureland fell into several problems. First it was lumped into the “quirky” comedies of the noughts (of which 2009’s (500) Days of Summer was the apex) giving it instant mockability status. It also starred a Jesse Eisenberg who was still only known for playing precociously smug roles. Worse still, his co-star was Kristen Stewart who at that time had the distinction of being the Twilight-girl, an unfair and temporary kiss-of-death to her credibility. The intervening years have first proven that the movie is at best only tangentially connected to “adorkable” comedy. But more importantly the years inbetween has revealed that Eisenberg (The Social Network, Zombieland) is one of the best actors of his generation and that Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria, Certain Women, Personal Shopper) might just arguably be the best actor of her generation. Viewing Adventureland through the prism of their future successes reveals that they were already at the top of their game in this modestly ambitious comedy.
22. FISH TANK dir. Andrea Arnold
No one could ever accuse Andrea Arnold of engaging in escapism. In this, her first of three (!) movies to win the Cannes Jury prize, she tells the unflinchingly grim story of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a young 15-year old girl living in the rough housing projects of Essex and dreaming of becoming a hip-hop artist herself. Arnold has made a career of creating portraits of women in the margins that somehow skirt the line between being frank in the many obstacles standing in their way but without begging pity. Mia is volatile but sympathetic, mostly because Arnold never lets us forget that she is a young girl trying to figure out her place in the world. And unlike Mia, who seemingly has to navigate tricky waters alone, what makes the movie such a rewarding watch is that we are always in the hands of an assured director. Also I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention an excellent but chilling performance by Michael Fassbender here.
21. HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE dir. David Yates
Most of the good Harry Potter movies, even the best one (Prisoner of Azkaban obviously), have the distinction of more or less being able to come close to or equal the source material. Half-Blood Prince is the only movie that is somehow better than the book that inspired it. Part of that had to do with David Yates finally perfecting his own aesthetic for the series after taking over the series after The Goblet of Fire, striking the perfect balance between mysterious and menacing. Part of that has to do with the screenplay that distills the essence of the book’s sprawling and slightly overwritten narrative to focus in on a story of the sins of the past coming to roost. And part of that has to do with the main cast, who by this point have inhabited the roles for so long that they are able to flex all of their characters into new and interesting directions. Plus any movie that includes Jim Broadbent automatically moves up in my book.
20. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT ORLEANS dir. Werner Herzog
The thing about an unhinged and over-the-top Nicolas Cage performance, as mockable as such performances often are, is that there is literally no one in the world who can give a similar performance. And when that kind of performance meets the kind of gonzo material that demands it, as Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant does, the results are entertainment gold. Bad Lieutenant is a fantastic throwback, a 1950s-esque hard-boiled film noir in every way except that it is unhindered by any production code, meaning it is allowed to enter murky the moral and ethical waters that allow for Cage to go fully Cage. In short, a cult classic.
19. DRAG ME TO HELL dir. Sam Raimi
With Drag Me To Hell, Sam Raimi cements himself as the master of the horror-comedy. Fresh off his unceremonious end to his mostly brilliant Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi returned to his Evil Dead horror roots to whip up a frightening and hellish camp-fest that doubles as a wonderfully tight allegory on the nature of systemic evil. Alison Lohman stars as a loans officer who gets cursed when she is forced, due to her competitive work environment, to turn down an elderly lady’s extension of her mortgage. Coming just off the heels of the financial crash, it has an unexpected satirical bite as Raimi expertly calls his shots, scaring you when he means to and making you laugh nervously whether you want to or not. It was an instant horror classic and the decade has done little to change the movie’s position.
18. MOON dir. Duncan Jones
It is hard to remember these days, especially in the wake of the middling Warcraft (2016) and disastrous Mute (2018), but there used to be a time when Duncan Jones was heralded as one of the most promising directors working today. Returning to his debut Moon today is to be reminded that our collective excitement of Jones’ potential career wasn’t unfounded. This isolated and claustrophobic tale about a lone astronaut on a three-year mining tour on the dark-side of the moon is a masterclass of restraint and patience, while serving as the perfect launchpad to propel Sam Rockwell from bit-time character actor into one of the best actors working today.
17. THE INFORMANT! dir. Steven Soderbergh
In most of Steven Soderbergh’s wider releases (the Ocean’s Trilogy, Out of Sight, Logan Lucky) there is the undeniable feeling of riding a roller-coaster; Soderbergh is going to toss unexpected curve-balls, reversals, and sneak attacks, but always in such a way as to remind you that he is in supreme control of the story he is trying to tell. Nowhere is that more true that in The Informant!, where Matt Damon stretches the concept of an unreliable narrator to its absolute limits portraying Mark Whitacre, a whistleblower in the lysine price-fixing conspiracy of the mid-90s who proves to have a pathological inability to tell the truth. Damon proves here that behind his A-list star looks is a born comedian, and the cast reads like a who’s who of funny people, creating in The Informant! the closest thing Soderbergh has ever come to an out-and-out comedy. An underrated gem.
16. A PROPHET dir. Jacques Audiard
Where The Shawshank Redemption told a prison story dripping with rose-colored nostalgia and sentimentality, A Prophet is a cold and unflinching tale of the ways prison turns a relative innocent into a cold-hearted killer. Malik (Tahar Rahim) arrives in prison for attacking some police officers and quickly gets taken in by a Corsican gang who groom him into an assassin and drug trafficker. It has all the tense and grounded action befitting a Michael Mann movie, and had it been in the English language would’ve no doubt been lauded as a modern crime classic. As it is, it’s a gem to whoever is willing to take the easy extra effort of just reading some subtitles.
15. THE ROAD dir. John Hillcoat
The power of The Road lies in its unswerving commitment to bleakness. This post-apocalyptic tale repeatedly has chances to give us moments for levity and hope, but chooses instead to stick with the integrity of the bleak world it has built for itself. The central performances of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee may be austere but they are also endlessly compelling, keeping us engrossed in the narrative even while we know nothing will eventually turn out all right.
14. THE SECRET OF KELLS dir. Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey
The end of Disney Animation Studios as a traditional animation company came with an unexpected blessing in that it paved the way for highly-personal micro-budget traditionally animated movies to come out of the woodwork to fill the vacuum left by Disney’s considerable footprint. The Secret of Kells was one of the revelatory first to do so as its dove deep into Celtic mythology to tell the enchanting and tragic story of the completion of the Book of Kells, an illuminated depiction of the gospels. The animation is stunningly original, borrowing heavily from the flat dimensionality of Celtic and medieval art, creating a vibrant tapestry to tell this haunting story and push traditional animation into new and bold directions.
13. WHITE MATERIAL dir. Claire Denis
Claire Denis’ filmography is littered with movies that reckon with the effects of colonialism in West Africa (Chocolat, Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum). White Material is perhaps her clearest distillation of that theme as the movie is set on the coffee plantation of Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) in an unnamed African country breaking out in civil war. Huppert puts in a powerful performance as a white farmer who is so determined to get her coffee harvested that she seems oblivious of willfully ignorant of the increasing danger she, her family, and the native African workers she employs are in. It is a tense and terrifying movie of a white European family so ingrained in the exploitation of the land and the privilege that exploitation affords them that its matriarch seemingly cannot comprehend the land, and the people of that land, literally moving to reject them and the way of life that propped them up – an ignorance that has a deadly high price.
12. AVATAR dir. James Cameron
Say whatever you want about James Cameron, but the man knows how to make a blockbuster. With Avatar he has the distinction of being the only person to twice claim to have made the biggest movie ever and had the box-office back him up. And sure, we can mock the fact that Avatar’s storyline (with its blend of Pocahontas and Fern Gully) isn’t perhaps the most original ever made, but the fact still remains that, away from the insane hype and backlash to the hype, this movie is still pretty good. Ten years later, the visuals still hold up, a claim that many movies released after cannot claim. And for how basic the story is, it is still arresting, letting its nearly three hour runtime fly-by effortlessly. I wonder if the only reason its become a “forgotten” movie is simply because Cameron is taking his own sweet time making the sequels (apparently the first is being dropped next year), and I also wonder that once we become inundated with the upcoming FOUR sequels if we won’t come around and finally acknowledge what a masterpiece the original movie is.d
11. I AM LOVE dir. Luca Guadagnino
While Call Me By Your Name cemented Luca Guadagnino’s status as one of the premier directors working today, I Am Love is what put him on the map and for good reason. Tilda Swinton magnetically stars as the Russian wife who marries into a wealthy and powerful Italian textile family, a position that gives her great power and a position she sits in uncomfortably. With an incredibly lush visual landscape and musical score, this movie hypnotically lures you into its melodramatic story replete with family scandals, forbidden loves, and jealous rages. And at the center of it all is Tilda Swinton, who here proves not only proves that she is more than a mere character actor and can in fact be a leading lady, but that she is one of the greatest actors of our time.
10. DISTRICT 9 dir. Neill Blomkamp
Like Duncan Jones, Neill Blomkamp is a contender for the M. Night Shyamalan Award for “Most Promising Director Who Wasted Their Potential”. To call Blomkamp’s follow-up projects Elysium (2013) and Chappie (2015) disappointments would be an understatement. I would give the award to Blompkamp instead of Jones simply because Blomkamp’s debut District 9 is so much more impressive. Weaponizing the found footage style, Blomkamp uses his story of aliens to weave a story about xenophobia and segregation that has perhaps only gained more resonance in the intervening years thanks to the refugee crisis and the attitudes of certain current political leaders. But Blomkamp’s success in District 9 is not in his unique storytelling style utilized here but it is because the man knows how to direct an action scene, creating a sci-fi spectacle that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking.
9. ZOMBIELAND dir. Ruben Fleischer
Zombieland is a movie that is so confident of it’s coolness that it would be off-putting, if not for the fact that it has every right to be confident in it’s coolness. Featuring a cast brimming with future ubiquitous stars (including eventual Oscar-winner Emma Stone) and a completely on-brand Woody Harrelson, it is the perfect, and very American, companion piece to Edgar Wright’s very British Shaun of the Dead. Come for the very wisecracking humor and the brain-splattering violence, stay for its subtle critique of American consumerism and excess (as well as the very best Bill Murray cameo).
8. UP dir. Pete Docter
While the pinnacle of Pixar’s creative happened a year earlier with the release of WALL-E, their next movie Up proved that they were still a studio very much in their golden age. Up also cemented the studio’s status of being master of the high-concept storyline as the movie’s central story of an old man and his young latchkey friend being transported by their balloon-anchored house to the great sight of Paradise Falls is the definition of a story we’ve never seen told before. The opening five minutes of the movie is perhaps the best example of visual storytelling ever animated, even if the mere mention of the sequence is enough to get most of us misty-eyed (it is also an open question if Up’s success hinges entirely on us getting misty-eyed in the opening sequence).
7. AN EDUCATION dir. Lone Scherfig
What makes An Education interesting is that it is an unassuming, charming, and pleasant comedy about how easily one can be lulled into being sexually manipulated by the charismatic charms of an otherwise unassuming con-man. Carey Mulligan’s debut as Jenny is captivatingly believable because she understands the inner contradictions of being a teenager: wise and curious enough to want to desperately step into the adult-world, and yet naive enough to have no clue how to navigate it. Peter Sarsgaard meanwhile navigates his tricky role seamlessly, being objectively creepy and yet charming and funny enough to trick you into thinking you’re watching a romantic comedy. When the movie does take a turn for the tragic and Jenny and her family wonder openly why they didn’t realize the wool was being pulled over their eyes what makes it especially chilling is that we as viewers find ourselves asking the same question too.
6. IN THE LOOP dir. Armando Iannucci
In the Loop is the classic example of why trying to evaluate a movie’s greatness in its own time is such a hard task. When the movie came out, it was a little indie comedy spin-off of a British comedy (The Thick of It) dripping with cynicism and pessimism seen Stateside only by those in the know during the (relatively) calm wake of a brand-new and optimistic Obama presidency. In the intervening years, that little-seen British comedy got remade into HBO’s Veep and Armando Iannucci’s feature-film follow-up The Death of Stalin proved to be the timeliest of political satires in 2018, and in light of that, as well as a dire turn in our modern global political climate, In the Loop can finally be seen as the minor classic that it is. Iannucci’s skill is in assembling all-star casts and then giving them the most creative and acerbic diatribes to utter, and In the Loop far from disappoints in that regard. As with all of Iannucci’s work it also a sobering reminder that our political fates often lie in the egos of petty people more than any sense of democratic principles.
5. THE HURT LOCKER dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Ten years later, it is altogether too clear that Kathryn Bigelow did in fact make the definitive movie about the Second Iraq War. While Jeremy Renner’s bomb-diffuser expert William James may be a soldier of pure fiction, his disaffected and bored attitude towards his deadly job perfectly encapsulates an American public’s indifference to a war that *checks notes* we are apparently still somehow currently in. Bigelow’s war movie tragically follows James’ team of highly competent soldiers who find their wills slowly ground down because they increasingly have no idea why they are on the ground. The movie’s many tense and explosive action scenes are a testament to Bigelow’s unparalleled ability to direct an action set-piece, where she seamlessly eliminates the space between us and the screen and embeds us in some of the most dangerous places on earth. While I obviously rate some movies from 2009 higher than this, it is still a worthy Best Picture winner.
4. CORALINE dir. Henry Selick
Even ten years ago, the concept of trying to start a studio dedicated solely to stop-motion animation, easily the most time-consuming way to animate a movie, is something akin to madness. Fortunately Laika Studios swung for the fences with their first effort, creating what is still their best film in the creepy and oft-kilter Coraline. Of course hiring stop-motion legend Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach) to adapt a Neil Gaiman novel certainly puts you on solid ground from the offset. But what sets Coraline apart from the stop-motion that has come before is the vibrant and dynamic camera, creating some truly stunning set-pieces and an atmosphere that is both unsettling and hypnotic. It is also the very rare children’s movie seemingly committed to terrifying children, and, as I have said many times before, being terrified as a child is severely underrated experience.
3. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS dir. Quentin Tarantino
History and spelling be damned, Inglourious Basterds revels in exploiting something undeniable about human nature: we love for the bad guys to get what’s coming to them. But what sets Inglourious Basterds from the World War II-revenge fantasies that obviously inspired it (like The Dirty Dozen) is the myriad of performances bringing A+-grade class to this decidedly B-movie material. Whether it’s in the chilllingly charismatic performance of Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa (making you almost root for a Nazi), the nuanced performance of Melanie Laurent as the insurgent Shosanna who has to make us sympathetic to her plight even as she plots a monstrous end for her enemies, and Brad Pitt who here proves that he is so much more interesting a leading man when he’s weird and slightly unhinged. And this is to say nothing of the supporting roles and cameos by the likes of Daniel Bruhl, Michael Fassbender, or Eli Roth. Tarantino has made a career out of eking out brilliant performances from great actors and actresses; Inglorious Basterds just might be the best acted of them all.
2. FANTASTIC MR. FOX dir. Wes Anderson
Granted, a stop-motion adaptation of a Roald Dahl children’s book by Wes Anderson starring the charismatic George Clooney as a fox might be the definition of a movie tailor-made for my interests. But Fantastic Mr. Fox is an important movie in Anderson’s filmography for several reasons. After a series of minor critical and commercial flops with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited where his brand of comedy of highly affected adults behaving childishly was wearing thin, Fantastic Mr. Fox gave Anderson the outlet to evolve his comedy (who would’ve guessed that highly affected children’s characters would prove such comedic gold?). The stop-motion medium also helped to confirm that the way forward for his hyper-controlled aesthetic was not to loosen up, but to simply double-down so that nothing shows up onscreen that isn’t designed to death. If there isn’t a more natural pairing than Wes Anderson with the sardonic work of Roald Dahl, I haven’t met it yet.
1. A SERIOUS MAN dir. Joel and Ethan Coen
“This is the kind of picture you get to make after you’ve won an Oscar” Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety about A Serious Man. Taking all the goodwill garnered off their masterpiece No Country For Old Men, the Coens decide to cash in on this very small story about Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish midwestern Mathematics professor in the 1960s whose only certainty is found in his equations. It is a modern-day retelling of the Book of Job, where Gopnik is a man full of quiet hope, but a severely misplaced hope as happiness eludes him in every aspect of his suburban life from his marriage to his kids to his career. Stuhlbarg is a revelation and the Coens, so often the purveyors of sardonic humor, find a perfect home in his character and take great pleasure in providing us a glimpse into the kind of gallows humor that must have permeated their own Midwestern childhoods.