Ten Best Films of 2009

By Dwight Brown Film Critic NNPA

In this sweeping year of change, good films have remained a constant.  Looking back on the high-quality movies of 2009, there are memorable stories, outstanding performances, high-drama, romance, lots of laughs and wild thrills. Certain films stand out and will vie for OscarÆ awards.  Some may never win a trophy but still have a lot to offer audiences in theaters, on DVD, or Video On Demand. These top ten movies deserve praise on many levels.

The Ten Best FilmsÖ

Avatar (***1/2) Director James Cameron (Titanic) mixes live action and animation to create a 3-D sci-fi epic about a paraplegic marine who inhabits the body of a blue, nine-foot-tall, indigenous droid warrior, an Avatar. The Avatarís job is to infiltrate an indigenous tribe group called Naívi on the moon Pandora so greedy capitalists can steal buried treasure. A chiefís daughter (Zoe Saldana) deters bad intentions. The live-action shots are engaging but donít hold a candle to the make-believe, idealistic world of Pandora where astonishing creatures, both prehistoric and jungle-like, roam. Visually stunning. Eco-friendly. Groundbreaking technology.  An ambitious, groundbreaking film on the level of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (***1/2) ñ Wes Andersonís films (The Royal Tennenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited) are a bit quirky and not everyoneís taste. This animated movie is his most accessible and clever film yet.  A sly fox (George Clooney) swears to his wife (Meryl Streep) that he is so over his dangerous habit of stealing chickens. But like a junkie needing a fix, heís back to scoping hen houses and pissing off farmers who have a vendetta. The script was adapted from a childrenísí book by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Odd, jerky animation, compelling voiceovers and droll dialogue appeal to kids and adults.

Hunger (****) ñ The ìtroublesî between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are an enigmatic social issue to most Americans.  African heritage director Steve McQueen and his writing partner Enda Walsh put a face on the suffering of the Catholic contingent when they penned and made this riveting film that chronicles the last six weeks of the life of the Irish republican political prisoner and hunger striker Bobby Sands. McQueenís directing debut is intuitive and polished. Michael Fassbender as the emaciated Sands turns in the most challenging male performance of the year.

The Hurt Locker (***1/2) Director Kathryn Bigelow injects a steely, cinema veritÈ style in this Iraq war film that puts the audience in the boots of a rebel-rousing, adrenaline-junkie Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) who has the plumb assignment of defusing bombs. She deglamorizes combat and creates teeth-grinding suspense with a could-get-killed-any-minute rhythm that keeps you looking over your shoulder. Anthony Mackie plays the Staff Sgt.ís antithesis, as the levelheaded, war-weary Sgt. JT Sanborn.  Maverick, in-your-face filmmaking.

Invictus (***) ñ Former South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela emerged from two decades of prison with saintly virtues. Morgan Freeman masterfully channels the thoughtful leader as he uses the sport of rugby and a formerly, nearly all-white national team to propagate his message of truth and reconciliation. Clint Eastwood directs. His son Kyle Eastwood provides a winsome musical score. Matt Damon, with a pitch perfect South African accent, gives a superb supporting performance as the rugby captain.

Precious: Based on the novel ìPushî by Sapphire (****)
ñ Something in this very specific urban drama about an over-weight, abused African American teenage mother touches audiences.  Credit a strong script (Geoffrey Fletcher) that pits a vulnerable adolescent (gracefully played by Gabourey ìGabbyî Sidibe) against a demonic mother (MoíNique, sheís a hurricane).  Lee Daniels, an uncompromising director, artfully intertwines winsome, escapist imagery among the nightmarish tragedy.  Yes, the film depicts an African-American family gaming the welfare system.  Yes, black men are demonized  (the father in this films does everything but steal his childís purse).  Even with these transgressions, PreciousÖ is an emotionally satisfying, inspiring and enormously courageous film.

Public Enemies (***1/2) ñ Director Michael Mannís (Heat, Ali) exhibits certain artistry in this crime story that follows J. Edgar Hoover (Bully Crudup) and F.B.I. agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) as they track down notorious American gangsters John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum). Awe-inspiring filmmaking showcases Depp in one of his most charismatic portrayals. Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotlillard plays Dillingerís love interest.  Gorgeous cinematography.

Star Trek (****) ñ A brazen, young Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), an enigmatic Spock (Zachary Quinto) and a spunky new Uhura (Zoe Saldana) rejuvenate the USS Enterprise crew, making Star Trek last summerís best adrenalin-pumping blockbuster. An ingeniously conceived plotline weaves in and out of the past and present and is mind blowing. Heart-racing action at warp speed.  Perfectly choreographed by director J.J. Abrams.

This Is It (***1/2)
ñ Arguably the best swansong musical documentary made.  An engaging combination of live rehearsals and MTV-like footage along with the grueling performances of a pop culture icon whose music, dancing and stage performances have touched people around the world in ways he could never fathom. This concert movie, with no live audience, will become a DVD classic.

Up (****)
ñ Pixar Animation Studios hits the jackpot again with this funny, adventurous romp that teams a grouchy 78-year-old widower (Ed Asner) and an overzealous 8-year-old explorer scout (Jordan Nagal).  They take a trip in his house, suspended by thousands of balloons, to Paradise Falls South America to fulfill a dream of his late wife.  Lively, edgy and heartwarming family entertainment.

Good Films Hanging Off the Top Ten:
500 Days of Summer, Everybodyís Fine, Tyson, Soul Power, Up In The Air, Paranormal Activity, An Education, More Than A Game, Coco Before Chanel, Summer Hours, Sin NombrÈ, Tyler Perryís I Can Do Bad All By Myself, The September Issue, Flame & Citron, Hurt Locker, Departures, American Violet, Crank: High Voltage, Gomorrah, The Class, Taken, Notorious, ChÈ, Sherlock Holmes, A Single Man, The Princess and the Frog.

Disappointing Films That Couldnít Find A Groove:

Good Hair, Fame, Bright Star, The Informant, Men Who Stare @ Goats, Taking Woodstock, Bruno, Dance Flick, Angels & Demons, Next Day Air, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Soloist, Watchmen, Nine, The Road.

Pass along the good word on the good films.  Better yet, see them yourself.  And above all, have aÖ

Visit NNPA Film Critic Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com