My resistance to formulating these year-end lists has come to feel almost ceremonial, like a houseguest insisting she’s not hungry before polishing off three plates of stew. I continue to maintain that there’s something humiliating about the practice of holding up something as intimate as one’s deepest moviegoing pleasures for public approval and/or mockery. It’s almost like publishing a list of favorite sexual practices—what, she likes to do that? But once you get started compiling these things, they take on a momentum of their own. And, anyway, I can’t enjoy the fun of reading other critics’ lists till my own is done, so in alphabetical order, here are my favorite films of the year and decade.
Best of 2009
Adventureland:Greg Mottola’s comeback movie (forget Superbad) is everything a coming-of-age comedy should be, with an appealing young cast (Jesse Eisenberg is our next Dustin Hoffman) and a nostalgic yet utterly fresh-sounding soundtrack of late ‘80s pop.
The Beaches of Agnès: Agnès Varda, a pioneering director of the French New Wave and the widow of Jacques Demy, is quietly inventing a genre, recording her memories and documenting her old age (she’s 81) in a filmed diary that’s an unpretentious marvel of cinematic craft.
Crazy Heart:I make no apologies for putting Scott Cooper’s first feature film on my list, sentimental excesses and all. The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.
Drag Me to Hell:The legendary horror director Sam Raimi should get a patent on his signature technique: the scream/laugh combo. Watching Alison Lohman’s freaked-out bank loan officer try to shake a gypsy’s curse (good luck with that one, Al) was easily the most pure fun I had at the movies all year.
Fantastic Mr. Fox:Wes Anderson’s sixth film was the surprise of the year. Each of Anderson’s movies since Rushmore has offered diminishing returns, and I expected, at most, to admire this stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation from a cool aesthetic distance. Instead, I adored it from a toasty warm proximity and am still noticing fresh details in near-nightly viewings with my daughter.
The Hurt Locker:Kathryn Bigelow managed to make the first feature film about the Iraq war that mattered by reducing every war-movie convention down to a minimalist and unbearably suspenseful game of Russian roulette: Will all (or any) of the members of an elite bomb-defusing squad survive their last few weeks of duty?
In the Loop:The British TV directorArmando Iannucci’s feature film debut is a political satire that’s smart and silly in the same breath, with an amazing Peter Capaldi as a foulmouthed communications director at 10 Downing St.
Lorna’s Silence: TheDardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, add another chapter to their book of austere moral tales with the story of an Albanian immigrant who’s forced to reassess her green-card marriage to a Belgian drug addict after he nearly dies of an overdose.
The Maid:The Chilean director Sebastian Silva based the title character on two women who kept his family’s house while he was growing up. What could easily have been a crudely schematic class satire is instead a delicate portrait of a domestic employee’s slow emergence from depression and isolation, with a fearless lead performance from Catalina Saavedra.
Ponyo:Hayao Miyazaki’s tale of a goldfish who, for love of a human boy, transforms herself into a girl against her father’s will demonstrated its power right away. Within 24 hours of seeing the movie with my daughter, it had become part of our imaginary world, and, for months, every day started with the words “Pretend I’m Ponyo.” Even if you’re not 4, you won’t soon escape the spell of this wildly imaginative eco-fairytale.
Avatar, James Cameron
Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Sacha Gervasi
Bright Star, Jane Campion
The Cove, Louise Psihoyos
The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
Police, Adjective, Corneliu Poromboiu
A Serious Man, Ethan and Joel Coen
Still Walking, Hirozaku Kore-Eda
Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas
Up, Pete Docter
Best of Decade
My decade list goes to 11, Nigel Tufnel-style, because even after multiple passes I couldn’t bear to eliminate any of the following:
4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days(Cristian Mungiu, 2008): This Romanian drama about a college girl helping her friend obtain an illegal abortion during the days of the Ceaucescu dictatorship is the furthest thing possible from an eat-your-broccoli social-issues movie. It’s emotionally devastating and aesthetically daring. Unforgettable.
Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)(Zacharias Kunuk, 2002): This retellingof an Inuit folk tale felt like an entirely new form of filmmaking on its release in 2002: an ancient myth turned suspense thriller, shot on high-definition digital video in a part of the world most of us never get to see. The barefoot-on-the-ice chase sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
Children of Men(Alfonso Cuarón, 2006): Cuarón’s adaptation of P.D. James’ dystopian novel about a worldwide infertility epidemic works equally well as a chase movie or a religious allegory, and throws in some formal innovations along the way, including two of the most astonishing long takes in recent cinema history.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004): I considered leaving this one out because it seemed too unoriginal—everyone’s going to have it on their lists. But there’s a reason why. Gondry’s collaboration with the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman gets at a truth about modern romance that no other movie has ever even tried to tell. Like Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Eternal Sunshine’s story traces and retraces the Möbius strip that connects memory and love.
Gosford Park (Robert Altman, 2001): Altman’s last great film, this upstairs/downstairs story of a cacophonous weekend gathering at a British country house showcases everything the master did best: There’s slyly funny class analysis, deceptively casual overlapping dialogue, and an ensemble of marvelous actors given free rein to improvise and create.
Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005) There are good documentaries, there are great documentaries, and then there’s Grizzly Man, in which Werner Herzog turns the video diaries of the doomed grizzly enthusiast Timothy Treadwell into a meditation on nature, culture, art, and death. One of the all-time great marriages of filmmaker and subject.
L’Enfant(Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne, 2005): Any one of the Dardenne brothers’ films from this decade could have made my list, but this story of a young father who sells his child on the black market shows their style at its most elemental and pure.
Lilya 4-ever(Lukas Moodysson, 2002) The Swedish director’s exploration of the child sex trade in Eastern Europe is searingly bleak and incongruously beautiful.
Mulholland Dr.(David Lynch, 2001) Unlike many Lynch acolytes, I consider Mulholland Dr. (spelled with the abbreviation, the way Lynch likes it) to be a gloriously imperfect film. No one’s ever been able to explain to my satisfaction what the whole subplot about that Dumpster-dwelling guy is about, or why Justin Theroux keeps running into that cowboy dude. But it makes my list for the sublime central love story between Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring, and for being the movie that’s inspired more and better dinner conversations than any film, perhaps, ever.
Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001): This animated fairy tale about a young girl who tries to break a spell on her parents by working in a bathhouse catering to forest spirits is as close as you can get to living inside someone else’s dream.
There Will Be Blood(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007): Once again, this choice won’t earn me any points from counterintuitive cool-hunters. It’s bound to appear on best-of-decade lists from sea to shining sea. But Anderson’s tale of an oil tycoon driven mad by his own success is as magisterial an American epic as The Godfather.
Before Sunset, Richard Linklater, 2004
Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa, 2006
The Gleaners and I, Agnès Varda, 2000
Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes, 2002
I Heart Huckabees, David O. Russell, 2004
Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro, 2007
Ratatouille, Brad Bird, 2007
Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright, 2004
The Triplets of Belleville, Sylvain Chomet, 2003
Time Out, Laurent Cantet, 2001