The Top 10 Movies of 2009

December 21, 2009

2009 has seen some pretty great movies, which makes it hard to whittle everything that’s been released this year down to a list of 10. But here at Spike we don’t shy away from difficult tasks...we take them by the horns and wrestle them to the ground with our brute strength. And then we make them cry uncle before we send them to the slaughterhouse to make an angry, horned-animal stew.

Source: Paramount Pictures

10. Watchmen


Say what you want about Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, but the movie was if nothing else extremely faithful to the comic book (the ending notwithstanding). And you sure got your money’s worth of effects, fight scenes, and running time. No one can accuse Snyder of making films that are short on content.

But more than anything we love Watchmen because of Jackie Earle Haley’s performance as the dangerous, enigmatic Rorshach. There have been few actors who have brought a comic book character to life as perfectly as Haley did Rorshach. For all the glowing blue men and stilted line readings that peppered Watchmen, Haley was the frightening embodiment of a man living on the very edge of society, waiting and watching to bring the pain to a city full of sinners.

Oh, and let’s not forget the sex scene in mid-air with Malin Akerman. This movie belongs in any cinephile’s library.

9. The Hangover


A lot of people who either haven’t heard of the Internet, or simply don’t keep track of up and coming talent, had no idea who Zach Galifianakis was before The Hangover. But there’s no missing him now. The same can be said of Ed Helms, though he had a good deal of exposure as Andy Bernard on The Office long before this movie hit screens.

The Hangover was a hit in part simply because it wasn’t yet another comedic disappointment, of which 2009 was full. Between Funny People (arguably the least funny movie ever made with the word funny actually in the title) and Extract, there was a lot to dislike this year, but The Hangover delivered. You’ve got missing teeth, unleashed tigers, and Mike Tyson – when was the last time you saw a comedy that had any of those things?

This was one of those rare instances of inspired casting and great writing that combined to make us laugh our asses off. Rumor is there’s a sequel in the works. Whether or not that’s a great idea is another matter entirely, but The Hangover was one of the few comedies of 2009 that didn’t leave us wishing we’d just stayed at home and re-watched season two of Arrested Development.

8. Up


Can Pixar make a bad movie? Are they even capable of it? Or have they become the King Midas of studios, where everything they touch turns into computer-generated awesomeness? So far Up is more evidence that the latter is closer to the truth. The only competition Up will probably have for best animated film at the Oscars this year is Coraline (also a great film), and since Pixar is beloved by all you can guess how that’s going to turn out. The only question at this point is what happens when they finally do make a bad movie? Will the universe implode, will children all over the world come down with an epidemic of sad-pox? Hopefully we’ll never have to learn the answer to that question.

7. The Invention of Lying


Ricky Gervais writes, directs, and stars in The Invention of Lying, one of the most original comedies to come out of 2009, or really the better part of this decade. Like The Hangover, this was one of the few comedies to be released this year that wasn’t a huge disappointment. The story is kind of like the reverse image of Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar, and is so simple you’d think someone would have made it before now, but thankfully no one did. No one plays the wise-cracking loser better than Gervais, and no one can make the banality of every day life look as funny.

The fact that the British version of The Office ended as quickly as it did is a tragedy, but if we can’t have any more of that show – or Extras, for that matter – then all we can hope is that Gervais continues to make movies as hilarious as this one.

6. Up in the Air


Jason Reitman’s third movie, Up In the Air, has all the humor of Juno minus the obnoxious, Diablo Cody-infused hipster talk. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a guy who’s figured out how to spend the rest of his life avoiding meaningful relationships by racking up 10,000,000 frequent flier miles and spending his life in hotel rooms.

This movie manages to be funny, intelligent, and believable, not to mention actually making us care about the main characters. On top of everything else, despite its unrushed pacing, the story stays unpredictable and we’re genuinely surprised several times throughout the film.

There’s a lot of buzz about Oscars for this movie, particularly a Best Actor Oscar for Clooney, and rightly so. This is one of the few dramatic comedies of the year that takes itself seriously enough to make us laugh in spite of ourselves. Whether you’re feeling disconnected, unemployed, or both, Up in the Air succeeds at making us feel better without tricking us into thinking life is warm and fuzzy.

5. The Hurt Locker


It’s probably safe to say at this point that movies about the Iraq war have not been major hits at the box office. That hasn’t kept Hollywood from trying over and over, but it was a film made outside of Hollywood by director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) that finally broke the mold.

The Hurt Locker follows a group of soldiers who make up an elite bomb-defusing squad, arguably the most dangerous job that exists in the world. Most people hear “bomb” or “fire” and run in the opposite direction; these guys pick apart bombs like they’re tinker toys. Jeremy Renner stood out as an actor we’d all recognized, but hadn’t ever seen in a major role before. After his performance as bomb-defusing adrenaline junkie Sgt. William James – a performance that will likely be compared to Willem Dafoe’s in Platoon or Martin Sheen’s in Apocalypse Now – we’re going to be seeing a lot more of him from here on out.

If there’s only one movie you ever see about the current war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker’s your flick. Not only will you get a glimpse of the hell our soldiers go through in Iraq and Afghanistan, but you’ll also have seen one of the best films about war to have been made in a long time.

4. The Road


Make sure you don’t watch The Road on a bad day – this movie will make your day a lot worse. But, ironically, not in a bad way. You don’t have to have read Cormac McCarthy’s book to soak up all the despair and terror from this movie, you just have to sit in your seat and watch. In many ways this post-apocalyptic tale of survival is one of the most terrifying horror films ever made, if only because, unlike most horror films, the premise of this film is actually plausible.

Throughout the movie we watch as an unnamed man and his son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander south along the eastern seaboard, searching for nonexistent succor from the charred remains of the apocalypse that’s burnt every last scrap of life on the planet to a crisp. But for all the terrifying scenarios these two find themselves in, the film retains a kind of burnt up beauty. Standing atop deforested hillsides as the earth shakes beneath them, you can’t help but appreciate the stark simplicity the world now holds. Eat, walk, survive: this has become the new world order.

3. District 9


It’s hard to believe that director Neill Blomkamp only had $30 million to make District 9. There have been films with more than five times that budget *cough* Transformers II *cough* that looked a hell of a lot worse, and were a hell of a lot less entertaining *cough* Terminator Salvation! *cough* than Disctrict 9.

Aside from the fact that this was probably the third best sci-fi flick to come out of 2009, it also brought us the new talent of Blomkamp and his thespian muse, Sharlto Copley. Alien films have come back into vogue with a harshness, but they’re so often clichéd and go by the standard formulas we’ve come to expect. Blomkamp (with a lot of help from his friend Peter Jackson) threw these formulas out the door and gave us not just one of the best alien movies to come out in the last decade, but he also made an intelligent film that got people to think about the politics of segregation, racism, and political repression. I don’t remember the last time I saw a film about aliens or politics that didn’t make me want to walk out of the movie.

District 9 marks the mainstream debut of some formidable talent, and serves as a necessary reminder that some of the best films are originating from outside the United States.

2. Star Trek


No one should be surprised that J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek franchise was as much of a hit as it was, but we were all very, very surprised. Maybe that’s because the last few Star Trek movies have been borderline ridiculous. Maybe that’s because the last few Star Trek TV series have been absolutely ridiculous. Or maybe that’s just because the last time anyone mentioned Star Trek outside of a Trekkie convention without getting promptly ridiculed by any red-blooded American was sometime in the early ‘80s.

This year’s Star Trek film changed all of that. Trekkies can once again hold their nerdy heads high, assuming they were ever able to. Abrams turned a geeky franchise aimed at a tiny demographic of fanboys, virgins, and baby boomers into a mainstream action-fest full of incredible effects, hard-hitting action, and, believe it or not, great performances. In short, Abrams made Star Trek the Bourne franchise of sci-fi. Well done, sir.

Of course, by now we should realize that everything Abrams touches turns to gold. By now we should realize there’s not much he can’t do. You probably never thought you’d be more excited about the next Star Trek sequel than the next Terminator sequel, did you? Join the crowd.

1. Avatar


So, I’m obviously taking a risk in putting a movie that I haven't even see in its entirety at number one. Like Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize, this is kind of my way of hoping that James Cameron really made sure Avatar is awesome. Is it a drama or an action movie? Is it a video game or a sci-fi epic? At this point I don't really know, except that it’s potentially all of these things.

It’s an understatement to say a lot is riding on this movie. Cameron has supposedly been working on it in one way or another for the better part of a decade, and the production is so huge it makes Titanic look like a student film. To date the budget, including marketing, is in excess of half a billion dollars. We could have bailed out a fraudulent financial institution with that kind of dough. Okay, so maybe we couldn’t, but we could have at least paid a few CEOs bonuses.

In the end, no one really cares if Cameron invented a camera or used mo-cap to simulate real boogers. All that matters is if the characters are interesting and the story gripping. If he does this, and if people aren’t turned off by watching a bunch of blue cat-people, and if he taps into a resurgent zeal for environmentalism, Avatar has the potential to be one of the most successful movies ever made.

But why take my word for it? Steven Spielberg, arguably the most respected filmmaker of the past 30 years, said that "the last time I came out of a movie feeling that way it was the first time I saw Star Wars." If that's not a ringing endorsement, then I don't know what is.