Sometimes, Hollywood finally gets it right after getting it wrong for quite a while.
Take, for instance, the Iraq war. After stymieing filmmakers for years, the war has suddenly inspired not one but three of the year's best films — and a drama, a comedy and an action flick at that. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker brought the action, following a bomb squad more closely than any moviegoer could possibly find comfortable.
Then audiences got a close-up view of the home front in the sharply acted drama The Messenger. Ben Foster turned in a riveting performance as Sgt. Will Montgomery, a decorated war hero who must learn to deal with the most difficult task of his military career: informing families that their loved ones have died.
Where The Messenger looks at war's effects, the causes of war are the subject of the British comedy In The Loop, about idiot bureaucrats screwing up in public and taking heat from their sometimes profane handlers. In The Loop prompts plenty of laughs while leaving you with the sinking feeling that this may actually be how global decisions get made. If there were still theaters that played triple features, these three — Hurt Locker, The Messenger and In The Loop — would be a scarily potent trio.
Also potent is Precious, with an unexpectedly moving performance by comedian Mo'Nique, who plays the abusive mother of a Harlem teenager.
Precious prompted much talk in the media about child abuse. Another splash came midway through the summer when a documentary called The Cove turned the camera on systematized animal abuse — the annual capture and killing of dolphins off the coast of Taijii, Japan. The filmmakers assembled what they called an Oceans 11-style team of divers and technicians to get footage of what Japanese authorities didn't want to let them see.
The Cove's release was timed to halt this year's dolphin slaughter, and at least in the cove in question, the film seems to have actually accomplished just that.
That's five of the year's best. Now let's head into more familiar territory, at least for a minute. In the Pixar film Up, an elderly widower's house gets lifted by thousands of balloons. Only after the old man is up does he discover he's not alone: There's an adventure-prone stowaway on his porch.
Also airborne this year: frequent flier George Clooney. In the comedy Up In The Air, Clooney jets all over the country to fire people. He qualifies as a pretty chilly customer, until he meets someone who's attracted to his ... mileage.
Hollywood might have its head too far up in the clouds to make much art come alive in the cinema, but French films were especially grounded this year. In fact, two French films were uncommonly artful: Seraphine tells the true story of a maid whose gift for naive painting was only discovered in 1912 because an art critic stayed in rooms she was cleaning. And the Chekhov-like drama Summer Hours — sort of a French Cherry Orchard — centered on a family of grown-up kids weighing what to do with the museum-quality paintings and furniture that clutter their mother's estate.
Not art, but art-direction is what animates A Single Man, in which Colin Firth plays a closeted '60s professor grieving the death of his lover. And that rounds out my Top 10 — but 10's an arbitrary number, so forgive me if I keep going.
The Honorable Mentions
This was a great year for turning classic children's stories into movies with enough heft for adults. Spike Jonze made a visually exquisite rumpus out of Where The Wild Things Are, 3-D animation enhanced a trip through the looking glass in Coraline, clever screenwriting spiced up Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox was the very image of hip.
Striking acting graced a number of 2009's best foreign-language films, including Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces, about a filmmaker and his muse, and Japan's Departures, about a man who thinks he's taking a travel-industry job when in fact he has signed on with a funeral parlor.
Meanwhile, the bachelor partiers who lost their groom in The Hangover were a hoot and a half. And a pair of independent movies gave audiences a taste of Broadway: the documentary Every Little Step, which showcased the auditions for a revival of A Chorus Line, and Spike Lee's electrifying filmed-onstage version of the musical Passing Strange.
We can also mark this year by some remarkable science fiction. First there was the rebirth of the Star Trek franchise. Then came the birth of two new potential franchises, both centering on huge corporations that run into trouble when they try to relocate alien villagers — District Nine, set in South Africa, and Avatar, extravagantly visualized by James Cameron on the planet Pandora.
That's an additional 12 films to add to the Top 10, and yet another 22 reasons to keep our eyes peeled for the new year. Not bad, 2009.