There could have been so much disappointment to chew on at the movies this year. Cinema's two big seasons — summer and December — mostly turned out thudding clangs of awful. From X-Men Origins: Wolverine to Terminator Salvation to — shudder — the Transformers sequel, Hollywood's big summer money grab left audiences feeling violated rather than captivated. The end-of-the-year scramble for Oscar votes didn't look good either, with prestige fare like Invictus, Nine and Amelia failing hard, not just as awards bait but as artistic films at all.
Some found hope in easier-to-digest nuggets like The Hurt Locker, but even that wasn't without major problems. Locker, while entertaining, was riddled with clichés: a fully clothed, crying-in-the-shower scene; the obligatory "renegade confronts authority expecting to be dressed down only to find an appreciative handshake awaiting him" scene. I love movies like Point Break (also directed by Locker's Kathryn Bigelow) and Top Gun as much as the next guy, but don't pretend it's somber art-house fare just because it takes place in Iraq. Other films, like Up and Precious, seemed to bully their way onto the nation's top shelf instead of earning it.
So where does a cinephile — or even just a casual moviegoer in search of a good time — look? As with most art, the answer is in the margins. With the exception of one heavily hyped success (Star Trek), the films that captured our hearts and minds this year trended toward the unheralded, the mis-marketed and the movies with a strong enough story to survive (or not) impossible opening dates.
All of the following films opened in 2009 in the Orlando market; some of them, you would never know it, which is a good lesson to take into next year. Don't let the millions of studio dollars spent in advertising for a select few blind you to the precious fewer that slip quietly into the multiplexes and single-theater houses. The best entertainment needs to be dug for sometimes. We'll keep trying to help you do so.
1. An Education Luxuriously designed, exquisitely executed with a mined humanity unrivaled in theaters this year, writer Nick Hornby and Danish director Lone Scherfig's portrait of a girl's transition to womanhood plays like a snapshot of tumult in a greater collage of grace. As the girl, Jenny, young actress Carey Mulligan fiercely lays herself bare on the screen without a trace of actorly self-awareness, and the camera rewards her with a penetration that John Cassavetes would be proud of.
2. In the Loop From James Gandolfini's decorated war general counting potential casualties on a child's see-and-sound calculator to a U.S. State Department official's bleeding gums, no aspect of the planning of a (barely) fictional war is held sacred in this jaw-dropping skewering of international politics by Scottish director Armando Iannucci. And no part of In the Loop passes by without slice-and-dice wit, either. In what's both the funniest movie of the year and the most bitingly pointed (and doesn't the best comedy come from sad realities?), stars Peter Capaldi, as the iconically foulmouthed Malcolm Tucker, and Tom Hollander, playing a deer-in-the-headlights British government officer, jump headfirst into a hurricane and come out as 2009's breakout across-the-pond stars.
3. Where the Wild Things Are Director Spike Jonze set out to adapt this beloved children's book into "not a children's movie, but a movie about childhood," and by that measure he succeeded beyond the highest expectations. Hauntingly photographed and delicately handled, Jonze pulled out of star Max Records, a 12-year-old beginner, a child-star performance unequaled since Anton Glanzelius' turn in My Life as a Dog. Wild Things roar, little Max runs free, and in the process, emotion explodes to the surface.
4. The Cove When dolphin activist Ric O'Barry introduces filmmaker Louie Psihoyos to his world of sometimes fatal, always dangerous rescue attempts in Japan, hysterically mindful of conspiratorial police officers, murderous fishermen and the Yakuza, the inclination is to chalk him up as another wacko do-gooder. When O'Barry assembles a team of super-skilled professionals to capture footage of the alleged dolphin slaughters he's so wild-eyed about, The Cove becomes a thrilling mission film. When the reality sets in that everything O'Barry has rambled about is true and that this crew is genuinely at risk, this documentary turns out to be one of the best movies of the year.
5. Star Trek For all of its high- minded social consciousness, sci-fi intellectualism and faithful following, the Star Trek lineage has always played second fiddle to Star Wars when it comes to old-fashioned fun at the cinema. No longer. Mastermind J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise this year was all swagger, both from the storytelling side (the script was penned by Abrams' Alias and Fringe collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) and from the butts in the Enterprise's command chairs. The electricity between Chris Pine's Kirk and Zachary Quinto's Spock seemed ripped right out of classic collabs like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Holmes and Watson, even — gasp! — Skywalker and Solo.
6. Adventureland Tenderness may be the trickiest weapon in a filmmaker's arsenal: It can bleed over into rote sentimentality so easily if the characters aren't true to themselves. Luckily, writer-director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers) toes that line like a world-class trapeze artist in his semi-autobiographical '80s-era picture of unwitting social adjournment, Adventureland. Boasting career-best performances by Twilight's Kristen Stewart and Zombieland's Jesse Eisenberg, Mottola wrings poignancy and truth out of one college kid's summer slumming it at a local carnival.
7. Funny People Detractors of the third directorial effort by Judd Apatow point to the dramatic shift in narrative in the third act of the comedy memoir, in which Adam Sandler's villainous, über-successful movie star, George Simmons, goes from mentoring (actually, tormenting) rising writer Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) to pursuing (actually, tormenting) his married ex-girlfriend and her family. But, as in all aspects of this excellent dramedy, Apatow stays painfully true to life: People, especially those of the funny kind, make horrific mistakes and, more often than not, fail to learn from them. It's the wreckage of those choices that brings the heartbreak and laughter.
8. Moon This meditative twist on 2001: A Space Odyssey sees celestial day-and-night laborer Sam Rockwell at a turning point: Excruciatingly close to the end of his three-year job contract on the moon, he yearns to be with his family again when a horrifying truth comes crashing down on him. Struggling to regain his emotional footing in a weightless environment, he makes choices that enlighten him and set him on a course of doom. Rockwell has never been better, and newcomer director Duncan Jones (David Bowie's son) proves his mettle with a simple rendering of a mind-bending dilemma.
9. The Brothers Bloom Sophomore writer-director Rian Johnson dazzles with this con movie in which the con is far from the point. Liberally decorated with whimsy and cinematic elation, Johnson supports his passion with delighted turns from star Rachel Weisz, as the "mark" with more personality than a con game would ever welcome, and on-screen brothers Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo. Throw in a hilarious, mostly silent performance from Rinko Kikuchi and an obligatory appearance by David Mamet player Ricky Jay, and this deceptive romp really takes flight.
10. Taken A year at the movies is never complete without a sleeper B-movie hit, and this revenge fantasy from Luc Besson and Pierre Morel serves that need better than it had any right to. Hitting the screen at the very beginning of the year after a seemingly endless purgatory that hinted at a direct-to-DVD release, the film, starring the inimitable Liam Neeson as the raging father of a missing teenage girl, went on to easily surpass the $100 million mark and earned a place as a guilty pleasure with audiences and critics alike.
Drag Me to Hell: Sam Raimi's return to cheesy horror was a riotous time at the movies.
Away We Go: Where the Wild Things Are scribe Dave Eggers' small film about an expectant couple was stirring.
Two Lovers: If not for his complete personal breakdown, star Joaquin Phoenix would be the talk of this year's awards season.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.