Up until about four months ago, I kept a (fairly up-to-date) movie blog over at “I Watch Movies and Then Talk About Them.” When I graduated college, and found that real life was limiting my ability to add anything worth adding to the conversatons about movies floating along the internet, I hung up my blogging hat, and even on My TV only occasionally threw my five cents (inflation!) into the popular culture conversation. But I have remained, and will always remain, an enthusiast for all things popular and cultural, and as the new year comes into clearer view, I find myself drawn to reflect on a year that was, I believe, a very good one for movies, if not in the obvious ways of some years past.

So here it goes, my not-at-all-exhaustive list of the best movies of a year that saw my lowest consumption of movies since the age of 12. Feel free to add your voice to the mix to praise movies that I missed out on or to criticize the movies I’ve overpraised.

Interesting Trend: While compiling my list, I was overwhelmed by the number of movies that made my list that were ostensibly aimed at children. Either this is a disturbing indicator of my lack of maturity, or a sign that this year was a golden one for the younger set remains to be seen.
INTERESTING TREND NUMBER TWO: I saw practically no “serious” movies. I’m going to try and catch up on a few of the more prestigious films of the year (Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker) over the next couple of days, but my movie watching has been fairly limited to the things I thought I would enjoy, rather than movies that I thought were “good” for me. This means that I’m missing quite a few of the movies that seem to be swarming onto most people’s best of 2009 lists, but that’s okay. It also, I think, makes my list a lot more fun to read, because instead of discussions of apartheid, we get conversations about zombies being beaten with metal bats.

10. (500) Days of Summer This could be the most joyful break up movie ever made. When I was in Freshmen Screenwriting, I wrote a script about a boy who falls ridiculously in love with a girl who never quite returns his feelings. We watch him go through the process of getting over her, until finally it all sums up in a big cathartic moment where he realizes everything that went wrong in the relationship and in himself and with the girl. And just when we think he’s had his big moment of self-actualization, the final scene leaves us with the impression its all about to happen again. That’s, for the record, how I read (500) Days of Summer. It’s a testament to the lovelorn and pathetic. Joseph Gordon Levitt is at his loveable best playing the boy who “misread the Graduate” and took all his ideas about love from the movies. And Zooey Deschanel rescues a character that could, in a less adept actress’s hands, seemed pretty repugnant. The story of the rise and fall of their relationship is painful, adorable, and semi-realistic, but above all its entertaining. (500) Days never really tells us something radically new about relationships; it doesn’t need to. Like any good romantic comedy, it makes us buy into these characters and wish them happiness. In the end, it has us wishing them happiness even if not with each other. add to that the ridiculous fantasy sequences (especially that one set to Hall & Oats “You Make My Dreams Come True”) and you’ve got the makings of semi-independent sleeper classic.

9. Avatar it’s a uniquely painful job trying to separate Avatar from the hype that surrounds it. The arguments on both sides of the debate (“it’s an overblown, effects-heavy piece of sentimental crap!”, “It’s the greatest movie ever created!”) can seem ridiculous and heavy handed, and having only seen the movie once (and recently) I’m finding it hard to separate out what I think about the movie from what I’m being told to think about the movie. So here’s what I know: Avatar was a moving two hours and forty minutes that managed to completely suck me into a movie where the main inhabitants are naked blue guys who have braided pony tails that can connect with horses. That’s quite the achievement. Not only did the two hours and forty minutes that I spent with Avatar fly by, it was also such a visual wonderland that I could spend decades wrapped up in the imagery. Some of the more negative reviews have argued that if you take away all the special effects wizardry from Avatar you’re left with nothing. Maybe that’s fair enough, but you absolutely can NOT divorce Avatar from the visual. What’s so amazing about Avatar is the way that Pandora (its alien landscape and setting for 95% of the movie) is the most fully realized, visually stunning and totally immersive world to ever have been created for the big screen. It’s at once endless and painfully intricately described. While I’m not willing to say that James Cameron’s 250 million dollar passion project has changed movies forever, I do think it has expanded what we can and should do with the new technology coming our way faster than you can say “obsolete.” Cameron’s joy in movie making, his twelve-year-old-boy glee at finding the newest and best toy to create pictures, is infectious, and the movie he created is a testament to the power of cinema. *

8. Where the Wild Things Are I like to think of Where the Wild Things are less as a movie, more of an emotional roller coaster. Although the movie does have a plot (rebellious Max travels to the land of the Wild things, is briefly their king, is shown as a fraud, and eventually goes back home), it’s more interested in the emotions of the characters. The land that Max travels to is a land of rampaging ids without the norms of social niceties to interfere with say eating a false-king when he is revealed as such. It’s a land of bruised emotions and bruised enemies, where the path to forgiveness and acceptance is fraught with physical perils. Somehow, Spike Jonze makes this metaphorical land seem like a magical and terrifying wonderland, and keeps you so deeply engrossed in the movie that the final cathartic moment feels every bit as heartbreaking and hopeful as childhood.

7. I Love You, Man– The most controversial member of this list (haha), I Love You, Man has stuck with me throughout a year that saw my beloved Apatow-esque genre begin to wane. If The Hangover is a sign of comedy to come (and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed The Hangover), then it means the end of sympathetic, sentimental gross out comedy like I Love You Man. Which is a shame, because this buddy comedy about two guys who are almost-this-close-to-being-normal-adult-men is about as funny and as heartfelt as they come, and features a truly endearing performance by Jason Segel (where it could have been a sleazy and annoying performance) and a surprising performance by Paul Rudd, showing us an adorably irony free candor as the man with no guy friends. Isn’t it (ugh) bromantic, indeed.

6. Coraline this movie scares the crap out of me. It makes me giggle. It makes me think. It makes me simultaneously nostalgic for the age of endless imagination and grateful that strange other-mothers no longer want me eyes. In other words, it’s a perfect adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s beautiful and terrifying short novel. It’s also some of the best stop motion work of all time, with every inch of Coraline’s world worthy of torrents of praise.

5. Zombieland Zombieland is fun. It’s well written. It’s ridiculous. It features a Woody Harrelson performance so zany bat shit perfect that it rivals anything the man’s done before. It also features a balls-to-the-walls ending at an amusement park that’s a great bookend for the other big Jesse Eisenberg vehicle of the year (Adventureland). Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin are perfect as bad-ass girl con artists teetering on the brink of despair, Eisenberg is affably neurotic as a loner whose survival has been greatly increased due to the fact that he didn’t particularly like people before they started trying to eat his face, but this movie belongs to Harrelson in his gun-toting, zombie-smashing glory. And that’s as it should be.

4. The Fantastic Mr. Fox George Clooney as a sly, fast-talking fox who longs for the good old days when he was a master thief? No, that’s not a metaphorical take on Ocean’s 11, that’s the plot of Wes Anderson’s newest, gleeful masterpiece. The movie is a lot like Anderson’s other films, and yet the new format, great source material, and truly exceptional voice work by the likes of Clooney, Meryl Streep and Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman help to elevate so far beyond what could have been expected in the first place. It’s a great character study of a man trying (and failing) to overcome the wild animal in his heart, and it’s also a fantastic children’s movie that features ridiculous feats of strength and a character who spends the entire denouement of the movie in his underwear. What the cuss indeed.

3. Star Trek It’s hard to reboot a franchise. Fans get pissed, newbies get confused, and after boffo opening weekend numbers, that viewers tend to trickle out of the theater. And yet J.J. Abrams and the whole cast and crew of Star Trek made success look easy, like it was a foregone conclusion from the moment Zachary Quinto figured out how to cock one eyebrow. In the process, they made a movie that was at once true to (and almost reverent of) its source material while being easily, beautifully accessible to a new generation. Plus, it’s a damn fine movie, filled with an arrogant ease and sense of fun that made it the perfect summer movie. Every actor was well cast, every one liner well crafted- Star Trek may not have the deep pathos to be this summer’s The Dark Knight, but it was easily this year’s Iron Man, a movie so fun and perfectly done that it soars to cinematic heights without ever feeling burdened by a dour profundity.

2. Inglorious Basterds – I first stumbled upon Quentin Tarantino’s misspelled masterpiece while working as an intern at a video production company. It was a 300+ page opus, full of ridiculous violence, kick ass female heroines, and soaring emotions. Even in screenplay format, I could tell that Inglorious Basterds was going to make for an amazing movie. But Tarantino went above and beyond even my imagination, finding the perfect cast (both unknown, and most-well-known-in-the-world) and his usual penchant for masterfully blending his own unique vision with an encyclopedic knowledge of films past. But Basterdsgoes even further than Tarantino’s earlier work, and achieves something damn near cathartic. It’s a clear cut, often hilarious, bloody revisionist history of World War II (which is, by far, the war most over-covered by movies) that is at turns stomach-churning and emotionally satisfying. When Soshana’s final revenge plays out in firey theaterics, its as much a testament to the power of moviemaking as it is to Tarantino’s well established lust for kickass female heroines. A movie this bloody and violent may never be exactly mainstream, but Tarantino has certainly elevated his particular brand of arthouse fare to a simultaneous normality and grandeur that can not be copied. In other words, this movie rocked.

1. Up I understand much better why the Academy Awards has decided to create an entire category for animated movies, even though I think it ultimately disparages the true value of these films. But when I set about compiling this list, I found it nigh impossible to figure out where the emotional magic of seeing a Pixar movie ended and my film critic mind could take over. “Really?” I asked myself. “A Pixar movie winning the best of the year two years in a row? I might as well be honest and name my best of list ‘Rachael Ranks Other Movies As Less Awesome than Whatever Pixar Puts Out.'” But the thing is, I truly believe in the power of Up. It’s this gorgeous, terse, goofy and imaginative love letter to love, in all its forms. It’s about hope in the least likely places, joy in the smallest things, and redemption at the point when we need it the most. Every inch of Up creates in me a profound sense of joy that permeates the entire motion picture. It’s in the smallest things (the way the dogs’ butts wiggle when they’re exited, the fact that they refer to Russel as “the small mailman”) and the biggest things (the gorgeously realized Pixar landscapes, the beautiful, profound and heartbreaking first fifteen minutes. I said it best right after first seeing Up, when I immediately knew that I had just experienced something magical in that theater, and so I direct you back to my first, longer, more immediate review:http://rn4-8-7.livejournal.com/tag/up/

HONORABLE MENTIONS: I really enjoyed Sherlock Holmes when I saw it Christmas Day, and was greatly impressed by the melding of Guy Ritchie’s pop-violent pastiche with the intellectual mastery of the Holmes story, but it’s too fresh in my mind to know if Sherlock was anything mroe than an excellent vehicle for Robert Downey Jr.’s particular brand of down and dirty cool. I also really liked Monsters Vs. Aliens and The Princess and the Frog, but in a year this packed full of kids movies that made me laugh, cry, and think, i had to eliminate the two that only made me laugh, no matter how funny (MVA) or beautiful (The Princess and the Frog) they were. I also really wanted to put District 9 on this list, because I’m fairly certain that after another viewing I will consider it within the top 5 for this year, but when I sat down to write the review I couldn’t remember what had made it so awesome. It feels like I saw it another lifetime ago. So it’s relegated to the Honorable Mentions, at least until I get a chance to see it again and really disect what made the story about aliens/apartheid so interesting and refreshing.
*I’ve read some really awesome deconstructions of the politics of Avatar, both positive and negative, on Cinematical.com and the Avclub.com, that do a much better, succinct and profound job of unpacking that particular can of worms. I was only interested in pointing out how pretty it was.