Stop-motion Roald Dahl, a revisionist war caper, a bittersweet friendship between penpals, the job somebody’s gotta do, isolation on the moon and early wartime in Germany. 2009 is a year that tends to sneak up on me. It doesn’t have much that would be considered classics in years to come but it has a lot of treats. Its biggest films are rarely its best, with Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, The Hangover, The Blind Side, Harry Potter, Twilight and Transformers being quite unsatisfying to the most critical viewers. I can give a pass to Star Trek which was quite entertaining. But otherwise the treats come from below the radar. Here are the essential films of 2009:
Fantastic Mr. Fox (directed by Wes Anderson)
The pairing of Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl made mutual fans of both salivate uncontrollably. Fantastic Mr. Fox had always been my favorite Dahl book back when Dahl was the only books I’d read. I adored the simplicity and charm of its world. We knew that Anderson’s meticulous nature would be ideal to bringing it to life in a rich unique vision and he provided his most detailed work yet. Not only does he capture the heart of its story but he adds new wonderful things that appeal to nostalgia hunters and kids too. Most certainly Alexandre Desplat’s best score of his career so far too.
Inglourious Basterds (directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Coming off the back of a failed Grindhouse experiment, one where the plan was to make a deliberately mediocre film and make it look smuttier (perhaps the experiment was a success), Tarantino quickly saved face with one of his dream projects. A project that any Tarantino fan knew he had in his back pocket. And it ended up being his best film, even better, in my opinion, than Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It’s full to the brim of a love for cinema, full of tension, anticipation and glorious payoffs. The discovery of Christoph Waltz is definitely the biggest gem among the treasure chest.
Mary and Max (directed by Adam Elliott)
Having won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2003 for Harvie Krumpet, Elliott took the style and mood of that short to the big screen with Mary and Max. A wise man knows when a style ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Mary and Max has everything Harvie Krumpet has and more. The best thing it has is an intimacy with the characters that Krumpet fails to offer in its brevity, and you feel yourself growing very close to the characters that their joys and tragedies are felt with full power. Brilliant and cinematic use of the gentle music of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, who’ll now give everyone chills when they listen to them.
The Messenger (directed by Oren Moverman)
Everyone seems to have forgotten about The Messenger. It’s such a shame, it’s not only a film that can be considered one of the best of the year but it’s a fond favorite of the decade for me. The beauty is in the simplicity. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, who was Oscar nominated for his role, star as soldiers who have to deliver the news of a deceased comrade to their relatives. It’s a brutal and sensitive film packed with raw emotion and energy to match. The scenes where relatives are told are often in one unbroken shot and you can tell it’s just an actor’s playground. Dazzling screenplay too.
Moon (directed by Duncan Jones)
You could say that Moon helped change today’s cinema. Today we get stand-alone sci-fi movies all the time. Just five years ago it felt very rare. In the face of the writer’s strike, David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones took the opportunity to take the best creative minds and do a very small scale indie project that would eventually collate a passionate fanbase. Sam Rockwell is the star of the show, taking on many personalities at once, the film is carried by the charm of his shoulders.
The White Ribbon (directed by Michael Haneke)
It felt like Michael Haneke had hit a creative peak with Cache, a film incredibly popular with critics at the time. However, each film since he’s grown and grown. I’m a big fan of the Funny Games remake and Amour got the acclaim it deserved even if it wouldn’t be my choice, but The White Ribbon will certainly and always be his masterpiece. It’s an ambitious film, with an assortment of characters and themes under its weight, but it delivers them with a cinematic elegance that is so hard to find these days. Couldn’t be happier that its cinematography got the recognition from the Academy.