Originally, my list of 2009 favorite films was published as a three-part series at Image’s Good Letters blog. You can read that here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.

But as promised, I’ll be revising the list as I catch up with 2009 releases that I missed during my long hours of writing Raven’s Ladder.

Here are a few thoughts on 2009’s moviegoing year, and the latest version of my list.


That’s a word I’ve read in several critical summations of 2009’s movies. And there were a lot of stinkers out there—films made by committees trying to recreate What Worked Before.

For me, 2009 served up a feast so rewarding that it’s tough to choose highlights.

In this three-part series, I’ll recommend twenty films that I’d like you to purchase for my DVD collection next Christmas, as well as a pile of leftovers—almost twenty more—that deserve praise for their considerable strengths.

You may observe some conspicuous no-shows on this list.

What can I say? Art speaks differently to all of us. A film that I find formulaic and forgettable may be a revelation to the viewer sitting next to me.

For example: I was amused, but unimpressed, by Up in the Air, a film by Juno’s Jason Reitman. Its simple lessons were all obvious in the first ten minutes. Its supporting characters were as flimsy as cardboard cutouts. And it leaned so heavily on clichés, that I’m confounded by the critical chorus hailing it the “Best Picture of the Year” and even “The Grapes of Wrath for our time.”

But the most likely explanation for no-shows is this—moviegoing takes time and money. The Movie City News “Scoreboard” of the year’s most celebrated movies includes 125 titles. That means, just to see the “serious contenders” I’d need to watch about 3 movies a week. I want movies to enhance my life, not consume it.

The reviewers and friends I trust most keep recommending certain titles, including Julie and Julia; Invictus; Sugar; The Sun, Revanche; Liverpool; 35 Shots of Rum; You, The Living; Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; Jerichow; The Headless Woman; Il Divo; Police, Adjective; The Beaches of Agnes; Three Monkeys; The Last Station; Hadewijch; and Mother, to name a few. I’ll revise my list when I catch up with those.

I’ll describe 25 favorites. But first, here are several “runners-up,” all worthy of study and discussion.

The first four—Treeless Mountain, Inglourious Basterds, The Road, and Avatar—I’ve discussed in previous Good Letters and reviews.

Here are some thoughts on the rest.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam): Returning to the thematic territory of Baron Munchausen, Gilliam spins a whimsical tale about an ancient mystic (Christopher Plummer) who makes a deal with the devil (Tom Waits). He asks us if humankind can survive without storytelling. Then he asks if storytellers can survive the compromises and bargains that are required of them as they seek to earn a living. The film’s so overstuffed with Python-esque lunacy that it’s disorienting. But Heath Ledger’s last performance proves again that he was a remarkable talent.

An Education (Lone Scherfig): This modest British drama scripted by Nick Hornby is winning praise for the charming lead performance by Carey Mulligan. She plays a young schoolgirl convinced by an older man to abandon her academic ambitions and enjoy reckless, high-life indulgence. It’s also worth seeing for the underrated turn by Rosamund Pike as a woman who was similarly seduced, and lives a life of tragic emptiness.

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow): Likely to win Best Picture at the Oscars, this is an admirable examination of adrenalin junkies, the addictive nature of war, and the damage it can do to soldiers’ minds and hearts. It’s compelling, but I found its suspenseful action too often predictable, and its thought-provoking epilogue was too little, too late for me to join the “Movie of the Year” chorus.

The Informant! (Steven Soderbergh): Matt Damon delivers an inspired comic performance in this tongue-in-cheek nod to early ’70s espionage films like The Conversation. As an exasperated FBI agent, Scott Bakula is hilarious. If only it was about fifteen minutes shorter.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann): Mann’s epic about John Dillinger’s last days delivers a late-night shootout I’ll never forget and a breathtaking getaway made all the more thrilling by an ill-timed red light. I laughed out loud at Dillinger’s audacity in touring the office of the detectives who pursue him. But I didn’t buy the romance. And Mann seemed a little too enamored of Dillinger.

Hunger (Steve McQueen): It missteps in making a saint of IRA rebel Bobby Sands for his hunger strike, and veers into Passion of the Christ territory in its prolonged attention to scenes of physical abuse. But the film’s centerpiece—a riveting argument between Sands and a priest—may be my favorite standalone scene this year.

Still Walking (Hirokazu Koreeda): The latest from this masterful Japanese filmmaker serves as a fine tribute to Yusujiro Ozu in its delicate scenes of a family recovering from the loss of a son to drowning. It’s a fascinating study of generational differences in values, relationships, and manners of expression.

25. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci):

A wicked, abrasive British satire of political ineptitude in the events leading up to the U.S. invasion of the Middle East. It’s a spinoff from the popular BBC series The Thick of It, with humor that makes The Office seem gentle. Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Gina McKee, and Steve Coogan are all splendid, but the film belongs to Peter Capaldi as the Prime Minister’s perpetually infuriated, obscenity-spewing director of communications.

24. Departures (Yōjirō Takita):

2008’s Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, the story of a concert cellist forced to take a job as an undertaker, is well worth seeing. It manages to be both a delightful comedy and a thoughtful meditation on meaningful work.

23. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp):

What begins impressively—with awe-inspiring special effects, cutting humor, a tour-de-force turn by Sharlto Copley, and a complicated political allegory about prejudice and immigration in South Africa—devolves into typically relentless action-movie antics. It’s more thoughtful than most sci-fi filmmaking. But after a while, the machine-gunning expletives made me wonder about the range of the screenwriters’ vocabulary, and the constant explosions gave me a headache.

22. Ponyo (Hayao Miyazaki):

Miyazaki returns to the simpler, hand-drawn imagery of earlier, smaller films without losing any of the majesty of his recent epics. How often do I get to call a movie “enchanting for all ages”? Very rarely.

21. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams):

Reinventing Star Trek, J. J. Abrams proves that he knows how to build an adventure movie that will last. What is more, he knows why the Star Trek films have always seemed disposable.

You can serve up standard-setting digital animation, but if you lack a script that sparks and smokes, and an ensemble cast with chemistry that commands our attention, your movie will evaporate when the credits roll.

At first I was aggravated by obvious plot holes, and I started to get snarky. Then I saw it again, and again, and had more fun each time. Every scene is infused with contagious enthusiasm and a love for the genre. Even the goofy guys in rubber alien suits are used to great effect. It’s so colorful, lively, and funny that it accomplished something I’d thought impossible: It made me eager to see future Star Trek movies.

20. Duplicity (Tony Gilroy):

I thought Julia Roberts had disappeared, leaving only layers of makeup and collagen lip injections behind. But the real Roberts shows up in Duplicity, reminding me that she really is a natural leading lady. And her chemistry with Clive Owen is combustible.

Roberts and Owen play competitive super-spies whose fierce battle of wits is complicated by—what a surprise!—love. As the warring corporate CEOs who hire them, Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson go over the (balding) top. But that’s all part of the fun in this enthusiastic genre film.

There’s that word again—enthusiasm. Like Star TrekDuplicity embraces its genre conventions and reminds us why the formula became popular in the first place. For all of its commentary on corporate enmity, it’s a romance at heart, asking whether love is even possible in a competitive marketplace. And it proves that Hollywood can still deliver classy, excess-free movies that engage the grey matter as much as the eyes.

19. The Maid (Sebastián Silva):

The most delightfully unpredictable film I saw all year came from Chile.

Raquel (Catalina Saavedra) is a 41-year-old maid who has served an upper class family for decades. But the teenagers have grown old enough to contend with her, and she’s begun to suffer fainting spells. She’s losing her grip on order.

So, when the family begins hiring “extra help,” Raquel feels threatened and conspires to scare new maids away. Her attempts to regain solitary control are audacious, frightful, and hilarious. And yet, it becomes clear there’s more than jealousy at the root of her wicked strategies.

What follows is a story told with great tenderness and insight. Silva could easily have steered us to some shocking, tragic end. But the conclusion is as memorable for its modesty as for how very true it feels.

18. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani):

Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane)—Goobye Solo’s main character—is the opposite of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle.

Solo’s an African immigrant driving a cab in New York who brings life-changing optimism to every situation. Where disappointments drove Bickle to violence, Solo takes every dispiriting discovery as a challenge.

His latest fare, a tight-lipped grouch named William (Red West) who looks like Richard Farnsworth’s mean-spirited twin, is a challenge indeed. Solo’s determination to connect with this prickly old codger leads to a startling request: William wants help with what may be a plan for suicide.

In another director’s hands, this would have become a sentimental American take on Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry. But Rahmani captures characters and environments that feel authentic, and a story that is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

17. The Song of Sparrows (Majid Majidi):

Iran’s most accessible and popular filmmaker delivers what may be his least sentimental film. It’s a comical, surprising, and profound parable about a family man seduced by the appeal of capitalism. John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture, calls it “a film of surpassing visual splendor, yet so self-effacing as to seem artless.”

16. Moon (Duncan Jones):

Sam Rockwell is brilliant in a demanding solo performance as Sam Bell, a man who lives alone on the moon harvesting an energy source for earthlings. He connects with his wife and daughter by video, and chats with the smiley android Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey).

I don’t want to spoil anything. Suffice it to say—there’s a nasty surprise waiting for Sam, and it’s going to mess with his mind.

Jones clearly reveres the thoughtful, low-budget, sparsely decorated, 1970s science fiction like Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Moon earned a flurry of comparisons to Silent Running. But it has a tension and a particular ethical inquiry all its own.

15. The Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson):

There are so many reasons to marvel at The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Imagine the endless hours of tedious work that went into this feature-length stop-animation film. It’s confounding to see how Anderson applied his peculiar aesthetic idiosyncrasies to this form, making a film that looks and feels just like his live-action comedies.

Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic story seems to suggest that we accept our beastly tendencies. We are animals after all, right?

But I can’t get too worked up about that, because the form of the film is a triumph of childlike imagination. There’s something magical about figures crafted by hand that no digitally animated character can duplicate. And the film’s climactic moment, which involves a big bad wolf, made me laugh a little too loudly for joy.

14. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh):

I described this film previously in a Good Letters post and a review at, and Laura Good considered it in a Good Letters post as well.

13. Lorna’s Silence (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne):

I discussed this film in a previous Good Letters post.

12. Bright Star (Jane Campion):

Jane Campion’s celebration of John Keats’ poetry and his romance with Fanny Brawne is as passionate and intelligent a love story as I’ve seen in years. Abbie Cornish makes a radiant Brawne, and the film is a triumph for Campion, who stifles her often-distracting audacity, composing scenes with a delicate, painterly grace.

Here are lovers who go farther than angst and lust. Theirs is a dance of intellects, imaginations, and bodies. They treat each other with dignity and respect, and remember to consider how their relationship affects others.

Keats describes poetry like this: “A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.”

He may as well be talking about this movie.

11. Phoebe in Wonderland (Daniel Barnz):

Phoebe (Elle Fanning) is a girl whose mental illness sends her running into fantasy in order to make sense of the world.

But Phoebe in Wonderland is not a “disease movie.” Nor is it a sentimental platitude that Fantasy Can Cure Your Ills. It paints such believable, nuanced portraits of a child, a marriage, and a family that I could hardly believe the film was made in America.

When Phoebe upsets her schoolteachers with shocking obstinacy, her principal lectures her. Her distracted father is pushed to the edge of his patience. And her drama teacher understands her, but she’s not the typical Mary-Poppins savior figure.

But the most memorable character for me is Phoebe’s devoted, oversensitive mother. Felicity Huffman is brilliant as a frustrated writer who puts her ambitions aside in order to help her daughter, bravely resisting the dismissive diagnoses of pop psychology, and struggling to understand if her daughter is sick or merely imaginative.

10. Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze):

I discussed this film in a previous Good Letters post. It still haunts me, like a sad and wonderful dream. I’m grateful that Spike Jonze showed so much respect to Maurice Sendak’s artwork, and that screenwriter Dave Eggers adapted Sendak’s simple story into something so mysterious, melancholy, and meaningful.

9. Coraline (Henry Selick):

I also discussed Coraline in a previous Good Letters post, and compared it with another extraordinary film based on a Neil Gaiman story—Mirrormask. I’ve seen Coraline twice since then, and I’m even more impressed with its visual artistry, humor, and storytelling. But you may want to check it out before showing it to your children; it has some intensely frightening sequences.

8. Gomorra (Matteo Garrone):

Martin Scorsese was so impressed by this Italian mafia movie that he stamped his name on it to attract a larger American audience.

And yet, it’s so very different from the gangster epics directed American filmmakers. This isn’t a story about how a young punk gained power and became a monster, or how somebody went undercover to bring down a mob boss, or how the sins of charismatic bad guys finally found them out.

The title is a clever reference to a famously cursed city, and to a network of crime lords known as the Camorra. It’s a confusing film at first; Garrone drops us into crowded scenarios in medias res. We’re left to work out who’s who and how they’re connected to the gangsters.

At first, this feels like a foreign film about a foreign problem. But you’ll feel heartsick as the distance between us and them is slowly erased.

7. A Serious Man (Joel Coen):

Often described as the Coen brothers’ “most personal film,” A Serious Man is also their most directly theological. And in time it may well be regarded as their best. Its dark comedy is probably too unsettling to win major awards, but it is a better-crafted work than their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. I discussed this film in a previous Good Letters post.

6. Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke):

A lanky, mournful young man named Juan emerges from a car wreck and wanders through a quiet Mexican town, looking for a mechanic to fix what’s broken. But what’s really broken?

At first, Juan’s somnambulistic demeanor seems like shock brought on by the wreck. But it soon becomes clear: Something else is going on here. Is he dreading punishment for crashing the car? Is he prone to accidents? Did he hit his head?

What seems a slow, almost arbitrary meander through an unusual community is eventually revealed to be a carefully composed meditation on grief and healing.

Some of the most surprising episodes—a sudden breakfast in a strange home, a discussion of Christian faith, a visit to the cinema, a young woman undressing—become subtle scenes of awkward but effective repair.

Eimbcke gives us a lot of screen time to the scenery, and I suspect that he considers this location—it’s almost a ghost town—to be the film’s main character. If so, then this story of a troubled boy is really the story of a troubled community that has lost something precious and necessary for life. This town is broken, and needs a mechanic.

5. The Class (Laurent Cantet):

The Class is a compelling depiction of one Parisian middle-school teacher’s experience. But no, it’s not another inspirational movie about a teacher who transforms the lives of his students.

It’s fictional, and yet it’s convincing for several reasons. The film is based on the memoir of François Bégaudeau—Entre les Murs. And its main character is not only based on Bégaudeau himself, but played by him as well. The students are real Parisian students playing characters based on themselves. And they’re a fascinating crowd, an almost unmanageable, multi-ethnic group of boisterous and beautiful personalities.

The result is as compelling as any of this year’s thrillers. It’s no wonder that the 2008 Cannes film festival jury granted The Class their highest award—the Palme d’Or.

The Class is both a tribute to today’s brave schoolteachers and a dispiriting portrait of a broken educational system. Yes, cultural diversity can be a very good thing. But how can a teacher be effective when he’s not even sure how his words will be interpreted by students from different ethnic backgrounds? What can he hope to teach them when they constantly confront his own cultural traditions and assumptions?

The movie makes it clear that this generation needs teachers who can be many things at once: educator, referee, disciplinarian, translator, social worker, and…artist.

4. Up (Pete Docter):

While the Disney logo and the merchandising make us think that Pixar is producing “kids’ movies,” these remarkable artists are quietly becoming some of the most compelling filmmakers for adult audiences.
Was any big-screen storytelling this year more efficient or thoughtfully composed than Up’s wordless but heartbreaking prologue about Carl Fredrickson’s young love, marriage, and the loss of his wife?
The rest is splendidly entertaining, hilarious, and heart-warming, but it also cleverly revises common American storytelling themes: it celebrates “adventure,” but it redefines adventure as a life of courageous investment in family relationships. For more, see my previous Good Letters post.

3. Seraphine (Martin Provost):

If Image were to publish a list of the most important films about the intersection of faith and art, I would expect Seraphine to be on that list. As a troubled and neglected painter who worked to honor the Virgin Mary, Yolande Moreau gave the most astonishing performance I saw all year. See my previous Good Letters post.

2. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung):

We’ve seen some powerful, horrifying films about the war in Rwanda. But we’ve never seen anything like this—a film made with the help of Rwandans, informed by their own experiences, and performed in their own language.

An American filmmaker who grew up in South Korea, Lee Isaac Chung made this film in order to teach Rwandans the craft of filmmaking. The movie they made is poetic, meditative, and powerful. Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece” in his year-end reflections on the best movies he saw this year.

I discussed this film in a previous Good Letters post, and interviewed director Lee Isaac Chung for

1. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas):

A beautiful estate in the countryside outside of Paris. A brilliant ensemble cast, including Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jeremie Renier. A meditation on art: What makes it valuable? How is globalization changing the role of art in culture, the way art is made, and what people do with it?

This sounds cerebral, but Summer Hours is an emotional family story about a woman with a scandalous secret; the haunted works of art she guards in her home; the challenges facing her children as she prepares for her own death; and what happens to her treasures when she’s gone.

© Jeannick Gravelines / IFC
© Jeannick Gravelines / IFC

I wrote much more about this, my favorite film of 2009, in a previous Good Letters post and this extensive article at Filmwell.


(Films that would have rated highly, but were released in Seattle too late for consideration.)

  • Police, Adjective did not have a non-festival release in Seattle until 2010. It will be listed then as a 2010 release.