(Order is alphabetical)

Avatar (dir. James Cameron)

After a conspicuous twelve-year break from filmmaking, James Cameron is back with the visually rousing if not redefining Avatar. Cameron proves his knack for superb casting with the gamely Sam Worthington as the crippled soldier-turned-avatar Jake Sully, and show-stealing Zoe Saldana as a beautiful Na’vi warrior.  While the oversized blue inhabitants of the planet Pandora were the centerpiece of anticipation and skepticism leading up to the film’s release, the true stars of the spectacle are the exquisitely (almost pathologically) detailed CGI world of Pandora and the subtle, mind-expanding use of three-dimensional technology.  A three-dimensional rendering of filmic space only pushes boundaries if its initial jolt of surrealism is overtaken by a sense of total absorption.  In other words, a 3-D film is a true success if the viewer, like Jake Sully, shakily and then excitedly slips into the role of avatar, traversing a wildly foreign yet all-encompassing universe.  Cameron achieves this admirably, and in doing so, has created a new world of which he is king.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (dir. Werner Herzog)

Werner Herzog loves self-isolating individuals, individuals on the brink of either breakdown or epiphany (or both).  How perfect, then, that he would direct the marvelously kooky, acid-laced Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a trip into a southern lieutenant’s freakishly corroding mental interior.  Nicholas Cage (unhinged and hilarious without resorting to hamming) owns the drug-addled lead role to an awesome, unnerving extent.  Herzog’s preferred location of intrigue-fear is typically the wilderness, but here it is a city in the immediate aftermath of having been ravaged by nature.  New Orleans’ streets and neighborhoods, littered with the occasional midget and haunting burial ritual, seem bizarre and detached, like an exotic specimen that can only be observed and never understood.  Much buzzed-about moments in the film, such as a delirious iguana sighting, prove Herzog’s deft ability to meld terror with pleasure, insanity with beauty, and kitsch with artfulness.

The Beaches of Agnès (dir. Agnès Varda )

Few directors can communicate the poignancy of aging quite like Agnès Varda.  Over the past decade Varda has proved herself as skilled a documentarist as she is a weaver of provocative feminist narratives, and The Beaches of Agnès, an artful docu-diary that spans the gains and losses of her life thus far, is no exception.  With her two-toned bob haircut and winsome self-reflection, Varda creates installation pieces in the meaningful places of her past as a means of paying homage to lingering memories.  A jumbo whale is constructed, and a shrine-like parade is set in motion.  A Paris boulevard is turned into a sandbox so that Varda’s coworkers might have a trip to the “beach.”  Beaches are Varda’s self-proclaimed soulmates, and when, in a particularly fascinating scene, she sets up numerous oppositional mirrors on the local shore, the reflections of waves and a petite old woman with a camera mingle together in strange harmony.

Broken Embraces (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Almodóvar’s most recent melodrama-noir delicacy, Broken Embraces, is a starkly melancholic ode to the magic of movies and the pain of irretrievable love.  Penélope Cruz , who has hit her stride as the Spanish auteur’s multi-faceted muse, is visually delectable and emotionally laid bare as Lena, a mildly aging actress torn between her husband and lover.  As Almodóvar matures as a director, he seems to expect more patience from his audience.  This has the double-effect in Broken Embraces of creating an overly verbose opening twenty minutes, and sequences of such staggering beauty that the bloated introduction is immediately pardoned.  Dissolving images of x-rays have never portrayed so achingly (or, possibly, at all) the broken nature of a life.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (dir. David Yates)

Yates’ installment in the sprawling, epic and increasingly interesting Harry Potter franchise is somber and malevolent, capturing perfectly the chill-turned-horror that is overwhelming Hogwart’s and its inhabitants.  “Horror” is indeed the word to most adequately describe the not-in-the-book flourishes (which, to stodgy Harry Potter purists, is a horror on its own) added to this sixth film, the best of which involves a cornfield chase with increased frames-per-second evocative of the zombie genre.  Unfortunately the series’ greatest fright, Voldemort (or more accurately, the terrific Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort), isn’t granted a scene, yet two younger, equally creepy pre-Voldemort versions of Tom Riddle are given screen time in flashbacks that are perhaps the most artful, sinister moments from the Harry Potter films thus far.

Julie and Julia (dir. Nora Ephron)

Meryl Streep proves yet again that overacting– when in experienced hands– can be a glorious thing.  Streep’s Julia Child is a falsetto-voiced tooting teapot of cheer and resilient ambition, contrasted elegantly with Stanley Tucci as her confidently quiet and exceptionally loving husband.  Though the character of Julie has been critically harpooned as the whiny lesser half of the film, Amy Adams tackles the challenging role with aplomb and restrained charm, perfectly embodying the narcissism of blog culture while also portraying a woman who is struggling to carve both ducks and an identity for herself.  Though Julie and Julia is formally unremarkable, hats off to Ephron for whipping up a mainstream film in which women desire (and know they deserve) more than men, engagement rings, and shoes.

Public Enemies (dir. Michael Mann)

A period piece shot on digital is inevitably a gamble, but one that pays off in alternately cool and pulse-pounding spades in Mann’s most recent master work about the enigmatically glamorous gangster, John Dillinger (played by the equally enigmatically glamorous actor, Johnny Depp).  Depp’s Dillinger is quietly calculating while sincere and chivalrous, a character’s whose grace is matched only by an inscrutable, beautiful blankness, much like Brad Pitt’s 2007 portrayal of Jesse James.  Meanwhile, Christian Bale’s turn as the gangster-hunting FBI agent Melvin Pervis is an exhilarating return to form for a superb actor who in recent years has been all but swallowed by a batman suit.  Mann’s innate talent for shoot-outs is not neglected in Public Enemies, as evidenced by the brilliant decision to locate the most breathtaking semi-automatic showdown in a forest– the sound of stray bullets smacking wooden tree trunks is too sickeningly visceral to be imagined.  The best film of the year.

A Serious Man (dir. Ethan Coen & Joel Coen)

Though falling short of their 2007 stunning cinematic achievement,  No Country for Old Men, the Coen duo nonetheless delivered a fitfully excellent, tonally varied, and surprisingly sympathetic work in 2009 with A Serious Man.  Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg in a remarkable performance of stammering, nebbish haplessness) is the serious man in question, a middle-aged Jewish academic in 1960’s Minnesota whose life disintegrates before his Ray-Bans when his wife informs him she is having an affair.  The Coens’ scathing humor finds a soulmate in the ruthlessness of academia, so much that one wonders if passive-aggressive professors have existed solely so that they might this year be featured in the wide frame and orange-yellow color palette of a Coen film.  The first thirty minutes and final sequence of A Serious Man make up for its meandering middle, and are a reminder that, in the bleak, wickedly absurd terrain of Coenland, it’s always darkest before the night.

Sin Nombre (dir. Cary Fukunaga)

A smash at Sundance 2009 and a barely detectable ripple in mainstream distribution, Sin Nombre is a pitch-perfect suspense thriller with the ecologically lush, economically impoverished landscape of Central America as its backdrop.  The film follows interestingly in the footsteps of Touch of Evil and No Country for Old Men, noirs that feature the Mexican-American border as a location of sinister threat and vague, hardly tangible freedom.  Paulina Gaitan and Édgar Flores excel in the lead roles of Sayra and Willy, an illegally immigrating Honduran girl and a young gangster on the run who begin a sincere romance as fleeting as their sense of safety and hope.  The crime genre’s oft-used image of bodies silhouetted against the lights and steam of a night train takes on new significance when those bodies are neither vigilante robbers nor sly crooks, but rather families scrambling for a chance at the increasingly bleak prospect of a better future.  It indeed makes one question the “crime” of illegal immigration.

A Town Called Panic (dir. Vincent Patar & Stéphane Aubier)

Classic American pop culture is given a hilariously quirky, relentlessly hyper Belgian-French makeover in the stop-animated delight A Town Called Panic, a feature length contribution to the cult television show of the same title.  Cowboy, Indian and Horse are the inept heroes of this absurdist misadeventure, and, when not shrieking at each other, they deal with such pressing difficulties as catastrophic brick purchasing, underage water monsters, and a gigantic robotic penguin.  It’s a little bit Terry Gilliam, a little bit French lunacy, and a little bit 1950’s toystore.  The simply elegant, Pixar-obscured craft of stop-motion animation is at peak form in this lovingly crazy film.

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*Films from 2009 already written about on this blog have been excluded from the above selection.  These excluded films are, of course, notable nonetheless!

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