The Ten Best Movies of 2009

It's the talk of the 'toon.

It was the Year of Animation. More than one critic has compared the past twelve months to the magical year of 1939 in Hollywood. In that fabled release period during the golden age of the big studios, all of the great films (Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, etc.) were live action.

In 2009, however, the dynamics of filmmaking and distribution have changed almost as much as the technology. An astounding percentage of the finest feature films have been animations of one kind or another, and many of those have come from independent or boutique distribs.

Once the province either of major studios, at one end of the scale, or visionaries of the art-school or homemade variety at the other, animation has matured steadily into something resembling a “people’s art form.” It still takes a lot of folks and a modicum of cash to produce a modern animation, but tech advances have freed filmmakers’ imaginations to the point that if it can be conceived in the mind, it can be produced. The question is as always: Whose minds are doing the imagining?

Five of this extraordinary year’s Top Ten are animations. Listed in more or less the order in which I saw them, the Ten Best Movies of 2009 are:

Coraline dir. Henry Selick

Tokyo Sonata dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa

In the Loop dir. Armando Iannucci

Summer Hours dir. Olivier Assayas

Lorna’s Silence dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus dir. Terry Gilliam

Fantastic Mr. Fox dir. Wes Anderson

A Town Called Panic dir. Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar

A Christmas Carol dir. Robert Zemeckis

Sita Sings the Blues dir. Nina Paley

This bumper crop of animated wonders came in every size and shape, in a phantasmagorical array of styles and techniques. No film is a better example of 2009’s richness and diversity in the animated field than writer-director-producer-animator-editor Nina Paley’s seductive fantasy, Sita Sings the Blues.

Subtitled “The Greatest Breakup Story Ever Told,” Sita has two parallel plot lines. In the front story, a contemporary woman named Nina (based on the filmmaker) is left alone with her cat in San Francisco when her husband, Dave, goes to India for work. While away, he becomes emotionally distant as well. Dreaming lovesick dreams, Nina conjures up the legend of Sita, wife of the god Rama from the Ramayana of Valmiki, who goes through a bewildering series of trials and transformations in a Hindu mythological version of Nina’s plight — both women are separated from their men, and “even gods can’t make their marriage work.”

Paley’s artwork is simple but colorful and splendidly knit together, blending animated hand-painted line drawings with collage and wayang kulit puppets in a silky montage. That would be enough to make this movie special, but her inspired touch is to set the animated Sita’s lonely situation to 1920s-era bluesy torch songs sung by a wonderful period chanteuse named Annette Hanshaw (1901-1985). Thus we get the heavenly beauty Sita flying through the air, battling Hanuman the monkey god and his furry armies, and being swallowed up by Mother Earth, all to the tune of such gin-soaked melodies as “Moaning Low” and “Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home.” Brilliant.

Sita played SF’s Red Vic Movie House earlier this year, but Paley evidently ran into trouble securing music rights for the old-time songs and now the film cannot be shown publicly. In a deal with the copyright holders, Paley is making the film available online ( for viewing and downloads under a “Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike License.” Which means she and the songs’ owners share whatever profits there are on a film that only a few dedicated seekers will see. Forget about an ad budget. Stop what you’re doing now, visit the film site, and see this 82-minute charmer. Thanks to my SF Film Critics Circle colleague Dennis Harvey for hipping me to this one.

Henry Selick’s teen dream odyssey/psychodrama Coraline, the very best film of the year, shares with a few of its list-mates a general anxiety over relationships and the unreliability of “loved ones” — hence the escape into alternate realities where everything is made plain. Or more confused, as the case may be. What distinguishes Selick’s parable of a sensitive, affection-starved schoolgirl is his patented combo of gorgeous visual conceits and emotionally disturbing imagery, leading to a gratifyingly humanistic ending — sort of an island of personal salvation in a sea of threatening impersonality. Selick, the genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, makes the world safe for doubt, no matter what your age.

I reviewed Coraline and Wes Anderson’s delightful stop-motion barnyard epic Fantastic Mr. Fox at length during the year, and I’ll catch up to the manic French absurd-o-mat A Town Called Panic when it finally opens in the Bay Area on January 22. Suffice to say that Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s herky-jerky, stop-motion adventures of three plastic toys — Cowboy, Indian, and Horse — is crazy enough to undo all the cheap “goodwill” of middle-of-the-road cartoons without breaking a sweat.

As for Mr. Fox, it suggests that Anderson, former phenom auteur of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, may have been a frustrated animation freak all along. If all his future films have the wit and verve of his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story of a sly, vengeance-minded henhouse raider, we’d almost be disappointed if they were live action. Stands up to repeated viewings.

2009 bulged with worthwhile animated features. Planet 51, Battle for Terra, 9 (not to be confused with the dreadful live-action holiday release Nine), Mary and Max, and even the dorky but fun Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel provided further evidence that 3-D and CGI aren’t necessarily incompatible with thoughtful storytelling and imaginative characterization. At least three animated movies — Hayao Miyazaki’s ecological fable Ponyo; Ron Clements and John Musker’s hand-drawn Louisiana idyll The Princess and the Frog for Disney; and Disney/Pixar’s sentimental travel yarn Up — made our short list for the Ten Best. Actually, we could have filled the entire year-end honors list with animations and not been ashamed. The field was that strong.

We caught Disney’s A Christmas Carol a little late, in IMAX 3-D at the Metreon in SF, and were bowled over. What a pleasant surprise. Even at his best (the Back to the Future franchise, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) Zemeckis seems overly satisfied with himself and his toys, and at his worst (Forrest Gump) he’s hard to stomach. But lately, with the iffy Beowulf and The Polar Express, he’s become devoted to performance-capture animation, particularly in 3-D.

A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis’ straightforward rendering of the Charles Dickens holiday heart-tugger (well, relatively straightforward; there are a couple of unnecessary whoopee-doo chase sequences), is simply the most impressive piece of techno-mad tinkering of the year, all in the service of a 19th-century cautionary tale about a mean old man. If we didn’t know it beforehand, we’d never suspect Jim Carrey was Scrooge. He, Gary Oldman, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright Penn, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth knock themselves out in the voice cast — several of them play multiple roles. And the capture work is remarkable, with every pore and nostril hair on the old miser’s face in sharp detail. One minor complaint: In secondary characters, the technique still can’t compensate for those hideous, doughy, semi-human, theme-park-style facial features so notably missing from Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Marley, and the ghosts.

If there’s one common denominator among the top ten, it’s writing. Selick and Neil Gaiman for Coraline; Dahl, Anderson, and Noah Baumbach in Fantastic Mr. Fox; Aubier and Patar in A Town Called Panic; Paley reworking Hindu religious works for Sita Sings the Blues; and of course Dickens the master in A Christmas Carol — they move us from one place to another with minimum self-consciousness and maximum human interest. The same could be said for Kurosawa, Sachiko Tanaka, and Max Mannix (Tokyo Sonata); Iannucci and his squad of TV writers (In the Loop); Assayas (Summer Hours); the Dardenne brothers (Lorna’s Silence); and Gilliam and Charles McKeown, ringmasters of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Every year, one or two French-speaking films make the honors list. It’s not just because we like the gratinée. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, from Belgium, and the French Olivier Assayas, both veteran filmmakers with the requisite European social eye, subscribe to the notion that yes, things are bad and getting worse, but that no, we don’t have to panic like Indian and Horse do when all those trucks start delivering all those bricks in Panique au village. Take a deep breath and do the right thing, no matter what.

The protagonists of Lorna’s Silence, like those in almost all of the Dardennes’ films, live on the bottom rungs of society and take their lumps accordingly, but even in the gutter there exists honor — among the illegal immigrants, junkies, shakedown artists, and Russian gangsters scuffling for a Euro in the world of Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian newcomer in the city of Liège who finds herself pregnant with the wrong guy at the wrong time.

Much higher up on the food chain are the upper-middle-class family members of Assayas’ L’heure d’été aka Summer Hours, played by Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jérémie Renier (coincidentally, the junkie in Lorna’s Silence). Their big problem seems to be what to do with an embarrassment of artistic riches their late mother — the niece of a famous artist — has left them, inside her treasure-filled country home. But of course the real problem is what happens with your stuff when you grow old and fade away. What do all these beautiful things mean? Ask the housemaid who took home the rare Braquemond vase because she liked the way flowers looked in it. Assayas ascribes the Buddhist-like tone of this drama to his fondness for Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien.

We reviewed Lorna’s Silence, Summer Hours, and Armando Iannucci’s uproarious cross-Atlantic political satire In the Loop earlier this year. The targets of Iannucci’s blistering dialogue were the Blair and Bush governments and the toadies and bullies they not only tolerated but rewarded, in the run-up to the Iraq war we’ve mostly forgotten about. However, some ugly things refuse to go away quietly. Like the bad economy, and the story of a Japanese salaryman (Teruyuki Kagawa) who loses his job and is reduced to mopping the floors at a shopping mall. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata is probably the best of the current spate of recession films, the story of a particularly pathetic dysfunctional family and what it takes to restore its functionality. Hats off to actors Kagawa and Kyoko Koizumi.

The battered caravan of Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus inhabits only the scruffiest corners of the city, and that for only a night or two before it’s forced to move on. No one wants to hear what the Doctor (Christopher Plummer) and his troupe have to say. Their act is old and worn. And yet for those who step right up and dare to pass through the magic mirror, to break on through to the other side, the future is limitless and free. We’ll review The Imaginarium at length next week. Until then, may your future be just as vast and full of promise as your dreams.

Chacun à son goût:

Most underrated film of the year: James Gray’s Two Lovers, with an intelligently emotional screenplay by Gray and Ric Menello, and flavorful performances by Gwyneth Paltrow and Joaquin Phoenix.

A socially conscious investigative documentary that tickled us: Jeff Stilson’s Good Hair, featuring Chris Rock.

Best acid trip of the year: Henry Goodman, Paul Dano, and Kelli Garner in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock.

He’s been so good for so long we don’t even notice him any more. But we’re grateful to have him on our side: Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story.

Portrait of the artist: Martin Provost’s Séraphine, with a memorable performance by Yolande Moreau.

Dan Fogler is the new Curtis “Booger” Armstrong (Fanboys).

Character-acting comebacks of the year, cont’d.: Will Patton in American Violet and The Canyon.

The real (unseen) star of Angels and Demons: Giulio Andreotti of Il Divo, as portrayed by Toni Servillo.

The real best vampire movie of the year: Park Chan-wook’s Thirst.

Enough already: Kevin Spacey in Shrink and The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Dead poet’s anxiety clinic: Jane Campion’s Bright Star.

Do not go gentle into that good night: Tom Hardy in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson.

Your dreams are not our dreams. And we’re happy about that: Where the Wild Things Are.

Best low-budget horror flick: Ti West’s The House of the Devil.

Best baseball movie of the year: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar.

Best cricket movie as well as one of the most thought-provoking docs in general: Shashi Buluswar and Renato Velarde’s Leg Before Wicket, at the Oakland International Film Festival.

Best South African sci-fi, hands down: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.

It’s either the new Claire Denis film or Keith Richards’ breakfast: 35 Shots of Rum.

Worst Movie of the Year: Nine.

Runners-up: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, The Informers, The Stoning of Soraya M., Surveillance, and The Road.

Triple-dipper deluxe: Woody Harrelson in The Messenger, Zombieland, and 2012.

When does this guy find time to eat dinner?: George Clooney in Up in the Air, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Ditto this gal: Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and It’s Complicated.

Don’t make an animation without the voice of Keith David: Coraline and The Princess and the Frog.

The Incredible String Band lives!: Summer Hours and Pirate Radio.

Having an off year: Joel and Ethan Coen (A Serious Man), Jim Jarmusch (The Limits of Control), Pedro Almodóvar (Broken Embraces), Peter Jackson (The Lovely Bones).

Having an off decade: James Cameron (Avatar).

After a fashion: R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue, and Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor.

This land is your land, this land is my land: Adventureland, Zombieland, Absurdistan, 24 City, City of Borders, Land of the Lost, A Town Called Panic.

Life during wartime: The Hurt Locker, The Messenger, Brothers, The Way We Get By, New American Soldier, The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Art School Confidential goes for its doctorate: Jonathan Parker’s (Untitled).

The real-life, sweet flip side of (Untitled): Megumi Sasaki’s Herb and Dorothy.

Local man finances his own movie from proceeds of his wine business. And the film is very good: Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro.

He helped out, too: Mihai Malaimare Jr., cinematographer of Tetro.

Six other DPs of the gods: Christian Berger (The White Ribbon), Greig Fraser (Bright Star), Roger Deakins (A Serious Man), Nicola Pecorini (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), Anthony Dod Mantle (Antichrist), and Chung Chung-hoon (Thirst).

Eight other must-see documentaries of 2009: Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil at the SF Jewish Film Festival; Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc.; Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town at the SF International Film Festival; Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès; Robert Stone’s Earth Days; Yoav Shamir’s Defamation, also at the Jewish FF; Havana Marking’s Afghan Star; Joshua Tickell’s Fuel.

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