2009 a year in review: Sleeper hits make for strong film year

2009. What a great year for movies — but not to hear the pundits tell it.

This past year was hastily branded as an “off year” in cinema, as if the absence of a glut of great films by established masters somehow consigns an entire year to mediocrity. While there were some disappointments in 2009, writing off the hundreds of films so simply would be a great mistake.

We eagerly awaited Clint Eastwood’s latest outing, Invictus, which somehow arrived as just the second-best film about South Africa of the year (after District 9, of course). And two years after There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis finally turned up in Rob Marshall’s truly awful musical, Nine. Peter Jackson released The Lovely Bones to widespread critical scorn and Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Shutter Island postponed its release until February 2010.

2009 was not the year of epics or blockbusters. Nor was it the year that the Coen brothers competed with Paul Thomas Anderson for our utmost admiration. Instead, 2009 was the year of the great psychological portrait; many of the best films unearthed the deepest workings of the most fragile or closed-off minds. They looked into human relationships with horrifying clarity.

Best of all was The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke (Caché), cinema’s greatest psychologist. Haneke’s latest masterpiece peeled back the veneer of a small village in pre-World War I Germany to reveal wounds festering with envy, mistrust and hatred. Haneke’s film was ostensibly about conditions that might have led to the rise of fascism in Germany, but his thesis that nobody is innocent ­— especially children — resonated brilliantly in today’s world.

Critics referred to Jason Reitman’s excellent Up in the Air as the only film with the courage to really look at the American economy. While that is certainly true, Haneke’s film, in looking at the darkness of the human condition, was subtly just as relevant.

Still Walking, by the great Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda, also probed the depths of human relationships, particularly within one traditional, dysfunctional Japanese family. While Koreeda’s film lacked the devastating social implications of Haneke’s, the semi-autobiographical nature of the story gave it a personal gravitas all its own.

Kathryn Bigelow’s thrilling The Hurt Locker was another filmmaker’s examination of the mind of an unstable man — a bomb squad veteran on a long tour in Iraq. Bigelow’s film was, simply put, one of the most thrilling works of cinema of the decade: an action film built around an emotionally complex performance by Jeremy Renner.

Performance also helped define Tom Ford’s excellent first effort, A Single Man. Anyone who cried “style over substance” at Ford’s portrait of a depressed college professor (Colin Firth) contemplating suicide simply wasn’t watching the actors closely enough.

The slow-paced Police, Adjective, by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, looked at a good-hearted cop ordered to bust a teenager on dubious drug charges. The officer, played by Dragos Bucur, spends most of the movie staking out the suspect before finally engaging his superiors in a thrilling and absurd verbal tussle over the nature of his job and the nature of language.

Three of the year’s best films came from Britain. Lone Scherfig’s An Education was a great storybook relationship with all the romance surgically removed to reveal the unfortunate mistakes of a brilliant 16-year-old girl who falls for a charming businessman. A lot of credit has been given to Carey Mulligan as the leading lady, and for once it really is more than hype.

Both Tom Hooper’s The Damned United and Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop were distinctly British comedies about what happens when several big personalities grind up against one another. Hooper’s film, about a soccer coach’s doomed tenure atop the country’s most popular club, easily beat Invictus as the year’s best sports movie.

And anchored by another of the year’s best performances — Peter Capaldi as a wonderfully foul-mouthed Scottish public servant — Iannucci’s vicious satire poked fun at the lead-up to the Iraq War with just enough realism to make it all frighteningly believable.

While many films were character-driven dramas, another noticeable trend of 2009 movies was the resurgence of animated movies, particularly those aimed at both adults and children. The strength of Pixar’s early year release, Up — and the simultaneous weaknesses of both Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are — was it’s ability to lay on the median between the cinema of children and adults, appealing to both at the same time.

Up perfectly juggled cute, talking animals — Dug the dog is one of Pixar’s most memorable characters — with more mature moments, such as the utterly perfect montage of romance, loss and remorse that opens the film.

Like Ratatouille and The Incredibles in their respective years, Up was one of the most purely original films of 2009. Hopefully, Pixar will emerge from its upcoming run of sequels to create more new characters and worlds.

In a year when American animation trended toward maturity, leave it to the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki to come out with one of the decade’s purest children’s movies in Ponyo. Miyazaki’s ode to the world under the sea is his first film aimed almost entirely at children since My Neighbor Totoro in 1988.

Ironically, for all the nostalgia that Spike Jonze’s hipper-than-thou adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic story attempted to evoke, nothing could compare to entering the original world the children of Ponyo live in. Miyazaki’s film was not made for adults, but it had an almost unmatched power to appeal to the child in our psyches.

It would be impossible to end a survey of the year in film without a nod to James Cameron’s Avatar. Sad proof that a reported $250 million budget can’t buy a good screenplay, Cameron’s hopelessly derivative film was nonetheless wonderful visual candy more than worth the price of admission. As was true of past leaps forward in special effects technology, someone is going to apply Cameron’s wonderful visual innovations to a truly original narrative and make a new masterpiece.

Very little of the films that came behind a trail of hype met their expectations in 2009, but as with all years, there were also many unexpected surprises.