1. Up in the Air
At one point this was poised to be the one to beat for best picture, and I'm not really sure why that changed. Up in the Air is a movie that feels simultaneously timeless and timely. It's the kind of impeccably written and acted adult comedy/drama that they just don't make like they used to, and the movie to best use our current economic troubles in a meaningful way. It was a very tough choice between this and my #2 pick, but ultimately this is the one I'll keep re-watching in years to come.
2. The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker's had so much acclaim elsewhere it can settle for #2 on my list. Still, in so many ways this is the movie people have been waiting for. For those craving a classic war like the Vietnam films of the 1970s, here you go. For those wondering if anyone could find a way to turn the Iraq War into art instead of a sermon, here's your answer. And if you want to see the most suspenseful movie of the year with the kind of knockout breakthrough performance that comes along very rarely, well, this is the one.
There's a reason this is now the highest grossing movie of all time: it offers a cinematic experience unlike anything I've had before. It's easy to laugh off 3-D as a gimmick meant only for kids at an amusement park until you see how James Cameron used it to such stunning effect in creating an entirely original and believable world. Avatar certainly doesn't feature the most original story of the year, but it is the kind of big, epic narrative that demands to be taken seriously. In a year where so many big blockbusters failed to deliver, Cameron proved that the popcorn flick can dazzle instead of just amuse.
Pixar has had such an insanely consistent record of excellence that Up isn't even my favorite of theirs and it still makes my top 5. It earned its spot with that early five-minute sequence alone, which created such a strong foundation for the rest of the movie you felt you knew everything about the character. Easily the best sequence of any movie this year. But they went the extra step in making sure the quality lasted for the rest of the film, giving a fun update on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World along with one of animation's best characters ever in Dug the dog. I may be too old for the Happy Meal toy, but I still love shouting "Squirrel!"
5. A Serious Man
The Coen Brothers love to spice things up, playing with different genres and styles in every one of their movies. Yet despite returning to the world of their youth, every frame still feels like a Coen Brothers movie, with the same wry and absurd sense of humor and same attention to visuals. There's a lot of ways this movie divides people, but its intelligent and hilarious script combined with the extraordinary way the Coens captured this time period proves they should keep trying new things, as I'll certainly be watching.
6. Inglourious Basterds
When I first heard this movie announced, I thought "Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt, and World War II. None of these things go together." I was wrong. Tarantino took the set-up of all those old classics and gave it his own unmistakable spin. He created so many amazing characters they could probably front their own movies, and his signature dialogue is far better served than in the unfortunate lark that was Death Proof. Here he definitively silenced anyone calling him a director of the '90s, as he once again created a defining movie for this past decade.
7. (500) Days of Summer
Following Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, some felt Summer was just another overly precious indie that wasn't as good as its fans made it out to be. Obviously I'm not of that camp. Summer took the most traditional of movie plots and made it feel fresh. Sure, gimmicks like the time jumping and split screen scene helped, but what really caused all the love was its sincerity. In a time when so many similar movies are filled with quirkiness and snark, real characters and feelings make this one stand out.
8. District 9
The other big alien movie of 2009 was pretty much unlike Avatar in every other way, with its relatively tiny budget, no name cast, and grittier style. It was also the far more successful allegory, teaching me more about apartheid in South Africa than Invictus ever did. Everything about District 9 was untraditional, from its unlikable protagonist to its documentary style opening. Which is why District 9 kept me guessing more than anything else from the year.
9. An Education
Like (500) Days of Summer, An Education is a movie that seems simple at first but actually has more going on. The traditional coming-of-age movie has been done to death, but rarely with all the elements in such fine form. Between Nick Hornby's humorous and touching first screenplay and Carey Mulligan's breakthrough role, there was plenty to freshen up this tale. And by really going into the time period, it played almost like a British, female Mad Men. With such a strong supporting cast, this gem still feels overlooked despite the Oscar nods.
10. Star Trek
To this day I've still never seen a single episode of any Star Trek TV show nor any of the other movies. So the fact that I was able to enjoy this just as well as hardcore Trekkies (or, sorry, Trekkers) shows J.J. Abrams can do a reboot like no other. With its very appealing cast and great action, it was both a perfect summer movie and the kind of strong franchise-starter that leaves me eager to see what comes next.
Honorable Mentions: The Hangover, Food Inc, The Princess and the Frog, The Informant, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Best Picture: Up in the Air
Runner-Up: The Hurt Locker
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Runner-Up: James Cameron, Avatar
Best Actor: Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Runner-Up: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Best Actress: Carey Mulligan, An Education
Runner-Up: Maya Rudolph, Away We Go
Best Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Runner-Up: Peter Sarsgaard, An Education
Best Supporting Actress: Mo'nique, Precious
Runners-Up: Anna Kendrick & Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Best Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Best Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Runner-Up: An Education
Best Animated Film: Up
Runner-Up: The Princess and the Frog
Best Documentary: Food, Inc.
Best Song: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
Runner-Up: "All Is Love," Where the Wild Things Are