A marvelous film about a woman (Amy Adams) who teams with her ne’er-do-well sister (Emily Blunt) and finds a niche in the job market-cleaning up crime scenes. A comedy with some decidedly touching elements, another marvelous performance by Alan Arkin (playing a more ambitious variation on his character in “Little Miss Sunshine”), and plenty of quirk, as well as a nice performance by the increasingly-busy Clifton Collins Jr., who was in pretty much ever film released in ’09, including “Star Trek,” “Crank: High Voltage,” “Extract,” and “Boondock Saints II.”
9. Inglourious Basterds
Yeah, so Brad Pitt and his Basterds are in the movie for about 15 minutes all told. Quentin Tarantino still crafts a marvelous taut-as-a-snare-drum revenge yarn set mostly in WWII France. Christoph Waltz gives one of the best performances of the year as the feared Col. Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter,” who engages in warm, friendly conversation with his enemies before coldly killing them, and Melanie Laurent is terrific as the woman who wants to kill him. Yeah, Tarantino loves to amuse himself with his films, sticking references to obscure 70s action films in at will, and not letting a little thing like history keep him from making a fun movie, and we’re all the better for it.
8. Away We Go
Another underappreciated gem by Sam Mendes (“Revolutionary Road,” “Road to Perdition”) about an earthy couple (John Krasinski of “The Office” and Maya Rudolph of “Saturday Night Live”) who, suddenly unemcumbered and pregnant, tour the country for a place to plant roots for their gestating child. Along the way they run into friends and learn about themselves and what they want to do with their lives.
7. The Cove
One part loving nature documentary, one part spy thriller, two parts social justice pic, “The Cove” highlights the rampant slaughter and other mistreatments by local fishermen in a small Japanese town, and warns . When a group of activists, including Ric O’Barry, who had a hand in starting dolphin mania (he trained Flipper for the 60s TV show), discover that a group of fishermen have been slaughtering dolphins en masse for years, they set out to prove it. They run into apathetic governing bodies and adversaries so rough and brutal the mafia would tell them to chill out, and eventually plant hidden cameras in the cove where the dolphins are herded and butchered to expose the atrocities that extend even to dolphins kept in zoos. A must-see for any dolphin lover, zoo-goer or anyone who loves justice.
6. District 9
The best pure science fiction film of the year. Neill Blomkamp’s film lands aliens in Johannesburg, South Africa, ground zero for some racial tension you may have heard about. When an alien race is marooned in Joberg, they’re herded into ghettos and generally treated like second-class citizens. When the citizens decide they want this riff-raff out of their hair, the local government decides to forcibly move them out of town, leading to tension and strife. Along the way, the bureaucrat tapped to head the relocation (Sharlto Copley) is infected with some sort of virus that quite literally helps him understand what it’s like on the other side of the fence. An ambitious, wonderfully-shot and thrifty film that is thrilling, brutal, and heartbreaking at the same time.
5. The Hangover
The funniest film of the year is a pull-no-punches affair that turns a Las Vegas bachelor party into a groom- and tooth-losing, cop-car-stealing, Mike-Tyson’s-tiger-kidnapping, stripper-marrying, naked-Asian-man-in-the-trunk romp that never quits. The three leads all become instant headliners, but it’s the peripheral actors, including Ken Jeong, Heather Graham, Mike Epps, and Tyson himself, who raise “The Hangover” to the next level.
4. Fantastic Mr. Fox
George Clooney’s second-best performance of the year is no less impressive than his first, but it’s Wes Anderson who crafts this version of the well-known children’s story about a domesticated family fox who can’t resist the call of the wild, declaring war on three ruthless farmers by stealing and eating their chickens. Anderson’s signature deadpan style pays off in spades, and features a stellar voice cast that includes Jason Schwarzman, Bill Murray, Willen Dafoe, and, of all people, Meryl Streep. This is the animated film that children and adults can watch, and enjoy equally, but for completely different reasons.
“Zombieland” definitely wins the award for cameo of the year, but it also blends comedy with zombie apocalypse better than even Friend of the Yap Simon Pegg did in “Shaun of the Dead.” “Zombieland” finds straightlaced Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) establishing rules for surviving the end of the world, then seeing blunt instrument Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) breaking most all of them but still thriving. It’s the most fun you’re likely to have with zombie clowns, strippers, fat guys and exploding heads this side of the nuthouse.
2. Star Trek
It ain’t my dad’s “Star Trek”; heck, it’s not even MY “Star Trek.” What it is is the most thrilling summer blockbuster of the year. Director JJ Abrams managed to do what most Trekkers thought impossible: make our beloved franchise mainstream without sacrificing what made it unique. It may not be quite as cerebral as its forebears, but it manages to push the reset button without undoing the previous 30 years, and sets up a whole new timeline while nodding to the previous one. Its action sequences blow away everything Trek has offered in the past, and the film’s awesome opening sequence is the most emotional “Trek” movie moment since Spock died in “Wrath of Khan” (I’ve seen it probably upwards of a dozen times between theaters and DVD, and the room gets curiously dusty every time). To top it all off, it’s my 2-year-old daughter’s choice for movie of the year.
1. Up in the Air
A film that says a lot about life, work and love without shoving any of it in your face. George Clooney is at his aloof best as Ryan Bingham, who has the unenviable but apparently lucrative job of firing people for a living (when their employers don’t have the stones to do it themselves) and lives on the road and in the nation’s airports. When a well-schooled upstart (Anna Kendrick) threatens to make Ryan obsolete, he is forced to take her on the road with him to show her the error of her ways. Along the way he meets a kindred spirit in the sexy Alex (Vera Farmiga of “The Departed,” who wears a necktie better than anyone I’ve ever seen) and makes time with her. It’s breezy, whip-smart, tack-sharp, and makes a great statement about the importance of human connections in the interconnected digital age.