I used to do this feature on a regular basis, looking back on my Top 10 list from 10 years earlier, but that temporarily ceased after I changed computers and neglected to back up my old files onto my new laptop. However, Todd Jorgenson (the president of the DFW Film Critics Association) recently relocated his list of movies released in 2009, so now I get to resume. I give him thanks for allowing me to revive this feature. You can give him thanks or blame as you wish. I didn’t consult my top 10 list from 2009, but if you want to refer to it, click here.
1) Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl turned out to be a perfect match in this animated fable. No one saw the movie at the time, but Anderson got his due soon afterwards. Noah Baumbach worked on this, too — something to remember this Oscar season.
2) Il Divo
I wish Paolo Sorrentino were more consistent, but he turned this story about institutional corruption in his country’s government under Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti into flashy, flamboyant Italian opera. It’s my favorite of his films.
3) Jennifer’s Body
What I originally pointed out as a flaw in this dark, sexy teen flick has been a key to the film’s cult following in the years since. Was Amanda Seyfried ever better than in this movie?
Greg Mottola was at his best and Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Ryan Reynolds were all near theirs in this indelible coming-of-age story revolving around a hellish summer job at an amusement park.
5) An Education
Carey Mulligan broke through in Lone Scherfig’s adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir of being seduced by a 30-something man while she was a teenager. I saw great things in the lead actress’ future back then, and she hasn’t disappointed.
The Pixar film would make this list just on the strength of that crushing opening sequence. The rest of this animated adventure doesn’t droop, either, as it tells the story of an old man and a young kid who take a most unexpected journey.
Comic takes on zombie movies have become more common, which dims our appreciation of this comedy’s originality when it came out. Even so, the interplay among the cast of past and future Oscar nominees is still something to savor.
8) The Hurt Locker
Ten years later, Kathryn Bigelow is still the only woman to win an Oscar for Best Director, and so it will remain for at least another year. She well deserved her trophy, too, for this masterpiece of slow-moving angst set in the Iraq war.
9) The Maid
Before there was Roma, there was this Chilean film that Sebastián Silva dedicated to the two domestic workers who helped raise him. His story of a maid (Catalina Saavedra) close to a breakdown ends with a calm state of grace.
This underwater adventure is weird even by Hayao Miyazaki’s standards, which is probably why it didn’t draw much attention when it came out. It’s worth its standing in the anime world, thanks to Miyazaki’s visuals and Joe Hisaishi’s music.
11) Up in the Air
Jason Reitman is in his groove in this story of a corporate shark looking for a frictionless life in his air travel. My review back in 2009 turned out to be wrong about the future direction of Reitman’s career, but there’s a point to the slickness of his direction.
12) Summer Hours
My favorite Olivier Assayas film (non-Kristen Stewart division), this generational drama about the life of a French vacation home and its inhabitants is solid stuff.
13) Goodbye Solo
I continue to hold out hope for Ramin Bahrani. The Iranian-American filmmaker made one of his best films with this drama about a Senegalese cab driver in North Carolina. Maybe he could revisit Solo and see whether he’s driving an Uber or living his dream of being a flight attendant.
14) The Damned United
Yes, this soccer film glossed over Brian Clough’s alcoholism and racism, but it remains a compelling sports drama about Clough’s failed stint as head coach of Leeds United. It was all downhill for first-time director Tom Hooper after this.
15) (500) Days of Summer
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are still an irresistible couple, and this is still a highly original romantic comedy whose non-linear timeline makes it a brilliant entry into the genre.
Neil Gaiman’s novel received a properly spooky animated film version courtesy of Henry Selick and Laika Animation in the studio’s early palmy days.
This remains an underappreciated musical that goes beyond the familiar tropes of teen movies, thanks to writer-director Todd Graff. Whatever happened to Gaelan Connell?
18) Where the Wild Things Are
James Gandolfini gave one of his greatest performances in Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book. The director brought dazzling visuals to the movie without ignoring the heart of the beloved children’s book.
19) Inglourious Basterds
When I first watched this, I wondered how the Basterds would screw up their mission, because they couldn’t kill Hitler. Then they killed Hitler, and I laughed and laughed. Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy is one where movies can actually kill the Nazi regime.
20) The Headless Woman
This isn’t a horror film (as the title might imply), but Lucrecia Martel’s unsettling disquisition about a car accident and racism in her native Argentina. The cosseted protagonist descends into mental instability while her family connections shelter her from the consequences of possibly killing a child.
Honorable mention: Lynn Shelton’s Humpday; Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon; Jody Hill’s Observe and Report; Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective; Tom Ford’s A Single Man; Robert Siegel’s Big Fan; Neill Blomkamp’s District 9; Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces; Stephen Frears’ Chéri; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar.
While I’m at it, let’s look at documentaries, too. Compare the list I compiled 10 years ago to this one.
1) The Beaches of Agnès
This was supposed to be the last film of the late Agnès Varda, but she turned out to have more films in her. Still, this look back on her life is a stunning opus.
2) The Cove
Documentaries always get extra points for effecting change in the world, and Louie Psihoyos’ graphic documentation of whale massacres caused international incidents and lowered attendance at SeaWorld.
3) Passing Strange
Spike Lee is a great documentarian, and one of his best films was this witnessing of the last performance of the Off Broadway musical, which deserves a better reputation.
4) Afghan Star
A contestant on Afghanistan’s version of Pop Idol starts singing, and men watching her on TV say she’s really good. Then she removes her hijab and starts dancing, and those same men say she should be killed. Havana Marking examines how fraught it is to dance and sing in a theocracy.
5) Anvil! The Story of Anvil
One of the seminal bands of heavy metal music find it hard going decades later, not only because of recurring trends but because of lead singer Steve Kudlow’s temper.
6) Of Time and the City
Terence Davies must be the only Liverpudlian who hates the Beatles. Still, the director of remarkable fiction films (The House of Mirth, Sunset Song) delivers a moving tribute to his hometown.
7) Good Hair
Chris Rock and Jeff Stilson might have gone deeper on the political implications of African-American hairdos, but they still give an informative glimpse on the history of black people’s relationship with their hair.
8) Every Little Step
Among other things, this Broadway documentary about a production of A Chorus Line brings home just how emotionally draining it is to listen to 50 actors deliver the same teary monologue. Like the song says, “Kiss today goodbye and point me toward tomorrow.”
9) Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love
The legendary Senegalese musician is profiled by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who’d later go on to win an Oscar for Free Solo). His pleas for tolerance both within and on behalf of Islam make for inspiring viewing.
10) Act of God
Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary interviewing people who have been struck by lightning occasionally comes near to the mystical experience that her subjects describe.
Honorable mention: Kenny Ortega’s This Is It; Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story; Morgan Dews’ Must Read After My Death; Robert Kenner’s Food Inc.; Lee Chung-ryoul’s Old Partner; R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue; Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud; Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ.