One critic’s best films of 2009 |

One critic’s best films of 2009

Betsy Sharkey
L.A. Times/Washington Post News Service

“Up in the Air.” This evocative blend of mood, material and actors, with a far more confident Jason Reitman in the director’s chair, made for an extremely satisfying flight of fancy where emotion and insight, comedy and drama were always in balance. Excellent performances all around, but George Clooney is at his best as a traveling corporate downsizing whiz, which means, sadly, the timing couldn’t be much better either.

“Precious.” Difficult truths and actors willing to push into that heart of darkness came at me with such furious power in director Lee Daniels’ provocative film that I couldn’t turn away. Newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as an obese, illiterate, pregnant, abused teen and Mo’Nique as her nightmare of a mother are as fearless as they are fierce.

“The Hurt Locker.” As much a character study as a war movie, director Kathryn Bigelow’s tightly wound drama of military bomb squads in modern desert wars was brilliantly executed. It brought the realities into achingly sharp focus through the remarkable Jeremy Renner, who was unforgettable channeling the adrenaline rush and fearless insanity of holding a bomb in your hand.

“The Beaches of Agnes.” “Beaches” proved a masterwork from French New Wave auteur Agnes Varda, who, at 79, turned the camera on herself and found new ways to deconstruct her subject as well as film itself. A mention, though, for director Geoffrey Smith’s “The English Surgeon,” with humanitarian neurosurgeon Henry Marsh a central character every bit as engaging as any fiction could conjure, and director Louis Psihoyos’ difficult “The Cove,” on dolphin slaughter in Japan, a reminder that Michael Moore has no lock on potent activist filmmaking.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Animation has been incredibly rich this year, swept aloft early on by the remarkable “Up.” But it was the stop-motion artistry of Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that surprised and charmed me the most. “Fantastic” felt like the avant-garde rebel out to stir things up. So despite “Up’s” polished perfection, it was impossible not to go with the “cussing” bad boy.

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“An Education.” A smart, sophisticated coming-of-age story, a lovely ingenue in Carey Mulligan, a devilishly duplicitous lover courtesy of Peter Sarsgaard, a terrific supporting cast, a 1960s-era London and Paris beautifully captured, and a very clever director in Lone Scherfig. She played all the right notes so that Mulligan and her character, to say nothing of the rest of the film, would turn out to be quite brilliant.

“District 9.” What an unexpected surprise Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi thriller turned out to be — inventively fresh, a terrific look from its hovering space ship to its alien Prawns, at the same time reflective of the best of the genre’s social commentary traditions. And while we’re off the beaten track, it was hard to top the black absurdist fun of “The Hangover.” With apologies to the decorum police, nothing made me laugh harder, so thanks to director Todd Phillips and his four drunken fools.

“Bright Star.” This is a film that reminds what a singular voice filmmaker Jane Campion has, and how much richer we are when she’s at the top of her game. With the gentlest touch, she spins a romance out of gossamer that requires her young lovers — Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, both excellent — to let us feel their passion without so much as a bared shoulder, much less a ripped bodice.

“A Single Man.” Although it’s his first film, director Tom Ford exhibits a sure hand. The result is a movie of mesmerizing beauty, from Colin Firth’s performance as George, the single man in question, exquisite at every turn, to all the things that frame him on the day in his life he’s decided will be his last.

“Two Lovers.” There’s nothing quite like the elegant performance pieces small films can give you. Another tough choice, particularly after guitar-playing Jeff Bridges’ portrait of redemption in Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart” showed up, but I’ll stay with director James Gray’s “Two Lovers” and the space Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow had to create indelible characters within desperate lives. It left me hoping this would not be Phoenix’s last film, despite what he has said, and that Hollywood would remember why we should see more of Paltrow.

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