To put it plainly: 2009 was a great year for movies. There were so many worthy films to choose from, a handful of gems didn’t quite make the cut (Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, District 9, Julie & Julia). On the other hand, you won’t find overrated, buzz-heavy titles (like Precious) here.
Some of these movies you’ve heard of and seen; others you’ll hopefully seek out and treasure as much as I do.
1. Public Enemies
Michael Mann’s best film since Heat feels like a classic the whole way. It pays tribute to gangster movies both past and present, has a mesmerizing performance by Johnny Depp at its center, underrated support from Marion Cotillard, Christian Bale, Stephen Lang and Billy Crudup and you-are-there digital cinematography that puts you in the action and highlights how timeless the story of this spotlight-loving crook is. One terrific set piece follows another, in this surprising, exciting and heartbreaking love story, with the year’s most unforgettable climactic scene. This is why we go to the movies.
2. The Young Victoria
I was expecting a stiff, boring pageant. What I got was the most thrillingly alive historical drama since Braveheart. Not only will you understand this engrossing story of early royalty—you’ll care about it. Emily Blunt’s performance in the title role is the real deal, but Jim Broadbent brings down the house, playing a literal party crasher.
Last year’s you-gotta-see-it DVD sensation was Let the Right One In; this year, it’s Jamin Winan’s incredible, one-of-a-kind fantasy thriller. See it for three knockout action sequences, the clever, homegrown f/x and a stunner of an ending.
4. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Nicolas Cage has finally found his Pulp Fiction in this dark comedy from directing genius and madman Werner Herzog. It parodies the cop movie genre with hilarious and shocking results, with Cage going for broke in his best performance and film since Matchstick Men.
5. Star Trek
This year’s Iron Man, both rich in emotion and packed tight with giant thrills. Not a bad performance or dull moment—just the best Trek film in almost two decades.
Clint Eastwood’s genuinely inspiring, true-life sports drama emphasizes the need for racial unity, change after years of a poisoned moral climate and taking pride in who you are. Morgan Freeman, playing Nelson Mandela, gives an uncanny, enormously affecting performance.
The first 20 minutes are the year’s most wrenching, touching love story. What follows is a crazy, wildly imaginative comedy with talking dogs, a flying house and a geriatric action hero.
8. Where the Wild Things Are
Audiences turned against this moving, emotionally honest, highly stylized children’s fantasy, which will age well but was too out-there for some. For adults and kids ready to deal with something richer than G-Force, Spike Jonze’s inimitable film is a must-see.
9. Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino’s latest love letter to the movies is full of grand scenes that catch you off guard and directorial pizzazz to match his brilliantly offbeat dialogue. The trailer made it look dumb and gory, but it’s actually spellbinding and kind of brilliant.
10. The Hurt Locker
This is the return of Kathryn Bigelow, our only female action movie director. Her comeback is a masterwork of suspense and character, an Iraq war movie that avoids political speechifying in favor of white-knuckle thrills and potent human truths.