In our annual "best" and "worst" lists, Weekly film critics Jeanne Aufmuth, Peter Canavese and Susan Tavernetti give the lowdown on the good and the rotten in 2009's movies. Meanwhile, critic Tyler Hanley rounds up the best cinematic heroes and villains of the year.
Jeanne Aufmuth's top films
10. The Cove Intrepid activists set out for Japan to rescue dolphins being slaughtered for "pest control." Louie Psihoyos' harrowing expose of courage and might is a heroic and unforgettable (and terribly gruesome) tribute to those trying to make the world a better place by preserving all of God's creatures.
9. The Hangover Snaps to the movie that made me laugh longest and loudest in 2009. But Todd Phillips' whacked-out buddy pic is more than genre formula; its unique narrative structure and "Where's Waldo?" intrigue make for compelling movie-going. And Bradley Cooper in that sexy black suit — can I hear a hallelujah?
8. This Is It I was haunted by Kenny Ortega's behind-the-scenes homage to the departed King of Pop. The sheer force of Michael Jackson's gargantuan talent combined with his laser-focused physical effort left me frozen with joy and grief. An essential tribute to the world's all-time greatest act.
7. An Education Carey Mulligan's blistering performance as a brilliant and bored English high-schooler who falls for an older man is fiercely pitch-perfect. Peter Sarsgaard chews up the scenery with his silky veneer. Betrayal never looked so good.
6. Ponyo Hayao Miyazaki's crafty take on the Little Mermaid legend is a magnificent master class in surreal Japanese anime featuring a clever and calculating goldfish as its perky protagonist. A strikingly poignant study of skill and will.
5. A Single Man Colin Firth gives the performance of a lifetime as a gay English professor suffering the jagged slings and arrows of grief. Designer Tom Ford's gauzy visuals and stream-of-consciousness approach lend stylistic beauty to the subtle notion of veiled passion and existential desperation.
4. Away We Go Sam Mendes' little movie-that-could puts tight focus on dark humor tinted with the desperation and anxiety of laying down roots, drawing on rich reserves of drama and family history to shape a dogged desire for a happy home. All packaged with a fresh indie feel more Coen brothers than classic Mendes.
3. Coraline Henry Selick snares a timeless disenfranchised youth theme and turns it on its ear with psychotic angst and spooky dark corners. Moody, brilliant and eminently frightening, this one will leave its mark on me.
2. (500) Days of Summer Not your mother's romantic comedy! Newbie helmer Mark Webb takes square aim at the ups and inevitable downs of Gen-Y relationships featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as young lovers on different quixotic planes — or is it planets?
1. The Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner turns up the heat and puts the S in swagger as a hyper-intense military bomb specialist who can't let go of the job. Director Kathryn Bigelow (woman does war!) gets to the heart of the matter with sensitivity, brutality and an unerring sense of futility and despair. Say hello to Oscar!
Jeanne Aufmuth's pans
Nine Rob Marshall lays a big Christmas goose-egg with this frazzled and frenetic adaptation of the 1982 stage play that features a petulant philanderer, his curiously cloying harem, tired scripting and a migraine-inducing score. Clunk.
Public Enemies My husband claims it's the one and only time he's heard me complain of wanting three hours of my life back. What should have been A-list magic (Michael Mann! Johnny Depp!) is soporific slop.
The Soloist Joe Wright's mawkish melodrama is desperately seeking visceral effect, but Robert Downey Jr.'s magnetic charms and concentrated scrabble up a slippery ethical slope can't salvage the wreckage.
Two Lovers I wanted to love James Gray's twisted ensemble drama of unrequited love, but Joaquin Phoenix's disingenuous oddities and Gwyneth Paltrow's overcooked pretension did me in.
Where the Wild Things Are Granted, it's a challenge turning a 48-page classic into two hours of silver-screen magic. But Spike Jonze's take on Maurice Sendak's timely standard is maddening, self-serving and downright dull.
Peter Canavese's top films
10. A Single Man Colin Firth shot to the top of the Best Actor short list with his performance as a gay professor reeling from the death of his lover. Julianne Moore, equally good, nails the role of his boozy bosom buddy. First-time director Tom Ford overdoses on style, but "A Single Man" is also a thinking person's picture about love, loss and the mortal ravages of time.
9. Where the Wild Things Are How do you make a 95-minute film out of a 10-sentence children's book? Very carefully. At least that's what we can gather from Spike Jonze's well-considered, well-designed, well-performed youth psychodrama. Taking its cues from Maurice Sendak's book, the screenplay by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers projects childhood emotions onto a not-terribly inviting landscape and its monstrous denizens. For the inner child in all of us.
8. Up Pixar, on the other hand, tapped into our inner senior citizen for its annual gift to the masses. Few images were as indelible this year as the four-minute montage that economically dramatizes the 60-year relationship between Carl and Ellie, or the keen symbol of an elderly, grief-clouded Carl dragging the baggage of their lives — a home lifted by thousands of balloons — toward the destination of their dreams.
7. The Hurt Locker The top suspense picture of the year turned out to be this well-wrought Iraq War drama from Kathryn Bigelow. In Mark Boal's script and Jeremy Renner's leading performance, we got more than an armrest-gripping workout. We also got a pithy representation of the modern grunt: sadly disposable, highly skilled, soul-bruised, and with each tick of a bomb timer, just a bit more addicted to the drug of war.
6. The Road Screenwriter Joe Penhall and director John Hillcoat dared scale the lofty terrain of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and the resulting film packs a gut punch. Astonishing performances (particularly those of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son) power this morality play about humanity's emotional and behavioral limits.
5. In the Loop One part "Dr. Strangelove" and two parts "The Office," "In the Loop" was the year's top comedy, a political satire savaging government movers and shakers on both sides of the Atlantic. This loose spinoff of the BBC comedy series "The Thick of It" is the brainchild of director Armando Iannucci and his team of co-writers, though it also benefits from improvisational flexibility.
4. Tokyo Sonata Though "Up in the Air" is hoarding all the awards-season attention with its disingenuous concern for the downsized, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's domestic drama puts it to shame. Kurosawa explores a family under strain as a shamed father attempts to hide his joblessness: Disturbed by the duplicity they intuit, the man's wife and children lose their moorings and begin to act out.
3. Still Walking Taking an understated tack, Hirokazu Kore-eda delivered another affecting domestic drama from Japan, this one taking place over a period of one day in the life of a family. When grown children grudgingly visit their parents, generational conflict arises as young and old sift through past and present only to find that their individual hopes and family ties have mostly escaped them.
2. Coraline Local hero Henry Selick helmed this stop-motion animated adventure distinguished by its serious girl-power and otherworldly circus vaudeville. Based on the Neil Gaiman book, "Coraline" offers up a wild and woolly wonderland while also telling a tight tale that looks like Halloween but endorses thanks-giving. It's like "Faust," if it were a comedy ... for kids ... in 3-D.
1. Sita Sings the Blues Notice a theme here? 2009 was a banner year for animated films, and the most creative was this little charmer written, directed, produced and animated by Nina Paley (it's legally available for free online, but don't be a cheapskate; make a donation or buy the DVD). Paley approaches the Indian epic "The Ramayana" from a number of angles, all thought-provoking and highly entertaining.
Peter Canavese's pans
Bride Wars Four things we hate about so-called "chick flicks": anti-feminism, shrill characters, rampant superficiality and consumerism, and behavior too weird for Venus, much less Earth.
I Love You, Beth Cooper Did director Chris Columbus lose a bet? It's the only explanation for this odious teen comedy.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop Who wants their kids to grow up to be idiots? Have I got the movie for you! (Parental guidance suggested.)
Hannah Montana: The Movie A crassly commercial enterprise that's supposedly about embracing authenticity: confused and confusing (but candy-colored ... yay!).
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Everything that's wrong with the movie industry today in an efficient ... 150 minutes?! Wake me when it's over.
Susan Tavernetti's top films
10. Precious Dedicated to "Precious girls everywhere," the powerhouse indie deals with a Harlem teen struggling with illiteracy, poverty, unwanted pregnancy and abuse. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe in the title role and mommie dearest Mo'Nique deliver performances of unflinching honesty. The gritty subject matter transcends the unnecessary fantasy scenes that first-time scribe Geoffrey Fletcher and director Lee Daniels tacked on to the novel "Push" by Sapphire.
9. Up in the Air Things click like airplane seatbelts in Jason Reitman's dramedy. Although based on Walter Kirn's 2001 novel, the film rides the zeitgeist of the current economic downturn. George Clooney has never been better. Playing a carefree traveling man who would rather fly the friendly skies than befriend a neighbor, he effortlessly folds all of his talent into one piece of luggage. His job is to inform others that they no longer have one. Up in the air at best and in free fall at worst, ungrounded characters define the postmodern condition. Never has a movie about detachment and failed relationships been so enjoyable to watch.
8. The Maid (La Nana) Catalina Saavedra burns up the screen in her riveting portrayal of a middle-aged housekeeper who has cooked and cleaned half her life away for an affluent Chilean family. With anger bubbling beneath the surface, she's a woman on the verge — of who knows what. Writer-director Sebastian Silva conjures up a drama boasting one of the most fearless performances of the year.
7. The White Ribbon Michael Haneke invites reflection. With the painterly look and understated eloquence of a Bresson classic, this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner focuses on the puzzling acts of violence in a northern German village before World War I. As in "The Time of the Wolf" and "Funny Games," Haneke examines the dark side of society. The menacing political parable allows you to ponder issues of patriarchy, class, religious beliefs and collective cruelty. Only the film stock is black and white.
6. The Beaches of Agnes (Les Plages d'Agnes) "To love cinema is to love Jacques Demy, painting, family and puzzles" — and Agnes Varda's autobiographical documentary. The octogenarian French New Wave filmmaker walks through the sands of time, free-associating and re-imagining her past in the most inventive ways. A spirited and curious sprite, she pieces together shards of memory from Belgium to Cuba, from Jean-Luc Godard to Harrison Ford. Her elan for the cinema and life, underscored by the sadness of loss, makes for an affecting, mature masterpiece.
5. Fantastic Mr. Fox Imaginative, quirky and brimming with visual wonder, Wes Anderson's tale about a fox that loses his tail — but gains the love and respect of wild things — epitomizes Fantastic-ness. The stop-motion adventure of furry creatures outwitting corporate farmers digs deep beneath the surface of Roald Dahl's beloved children's book. The insightful "Mr. Fox" runs with this year's pack of strong animated features.
4. (500) Days of Summer Marc Webb's charming comedy is both "Annie Hall" retro and playfully original. The boy-meets-girl story features lovesick Joseph Gordon-Levitt and love-skeptic Zooey Deschanel in an impish office romance that joyfully shuffles time, splits the screen and mounts the most gleeful musical number of the year. Expectations clash with reality, but the Generation-Y love story offers solace that for everything there is a season.
3. An Education Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig and screenwriter Nick "High Fidelity" Hornby team-teach the life lessons outlined in British journalist Lynn Barber's memoir. A smart English schoolgirl falls for a charming older man in the soon-to-be-swinging '60s. Carey Mulligan earns top marks for her portrayal of the sweet 16 who thinks she knows all the answers. The complex, cautionary coming-of-age tale should be required viewing for young women on both sides of the pond.
2. A Single Man Fashion designer Tom Ford's auspicious directorial debut rivals "Mad Men" in stylish look and "Brokeback Mountain" in tenderness. Adapted from Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, the drama focuses on a gay British professor who has lost his partner. In the role of a lifetime, Colin Firth wears loneliness, grief and heartache on his French-cuff sleeve. The film's emotional power and political subtext emanate from Ford caring as much about the protagonist as his impeccable clothes.
1. The Hurt Locker In the fog of the Iraq War, everyone is a potential enemy. Action director Kathryn Bigelow expertly modulates Mark Boal's taut script, creating white-heat suspense one moment and sudden death the next. Hair-trigger bombs detonate with explosive power. Anything can happen. There's no safety zone for the Baghdad-based Bravo Company, an elite bomb-defusing unit, or for viewers placed within the combat boots of these American soldiers. But gut-wrenching situations spawn provocative questions: Is Jeremy Renner's cocky bomb-disposal specialist a brave hero or danger junkie? And how does one cope with the pain of war? "The Hurt Locker" makes you think and sweat bullets at the same time.
Susan Tavernetti's pans
This year, just one film stood out for Tavernetti as particularly awful.
Nine Add these up: A narcissistic film director (Daniel Day-Lewis) with writer's block; a parade of scantily dressed female stars (Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie); a nonsensical narrative; show-stopping (in the worst way) musical numbers; and a mountain of hype courtesy of the Weinstein Company. The sum equals Rob Marshall's disastrous, disappointing "Nine" — a jazz-hands insult to Federico Fellini's narrative and stylistic 1963 groundbreaker, "8 1/2." Marshall should have stuck to "Chicago" instead of venturing to Rome.