1.) Where The Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze)
After being delayed for re-shoots (the studio thought it was too scary) Spike Jonze finally delivered his much anticipated adaptation of Maurice Sendak's book in December of last year, and did not disappoint. Co-written by Jonze and Away We Go scribe Dave Eggers, it's a beautiful, honest study of childhood and family. Max (Max Records, in a stunning debut performance) is an ordinary kid - confused, lonely and attention-seeking. He cries and has tantrums and it's to the young actors credit that we still want to stay with the character and see where he goes. And where he goes is the beautifully shot land of the Wild Things (captured by Lance Acord, who did a great job on Lost In Translation). Here, Max's emotions are personified by creatures of all shapes and sizes. We first meet leader Carol when he's smashing all the Wild Things houses in a temper. He fits the personality trait that Max feels the most so they make an instant connection and instead of eating the boy, Carol persuades the Wild Things to crown him King. Of course, during the building of a fortress, Max's now external emotions fight with each other and become jealous. The intricate, layered screenplay ensures that the film will appeal to children but also challenge them and adults will connect with a part of themselves that they probably considered lost. The soundtrack by Karen O and Carter Burwell is also wonderful and by using loud clashes, upbeat riffs and the sounds of children's laughter and screams, perfectly suits the tone of the film. It's also a beautiful, tender record in its own right and its nomination snub at this years OSCARS is a real shame. Jonze has crafted his finest film yet, further displaying why he's one of the most interesting, original talents of his generation.
2.) Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Tarantino, one of the most talked about filmmakers of the last twenty years, blasts back onto top form in his best film for twelve years. That's not hard though, as it seems he's been contractually obliged to make rubbish for the past decade. He turns down the endless movie referencing to tell a story that we can take seriously (well, not too seriously) and invest ourselves in. It's his best looking film (cinematographer Robert Richardson is a veteran of Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese) and also his richest, dialogue wise. The opening scene, capturing the French countryside beautifully, is the best thing Tarantino has ever written (even he thinks so) and from then on it's an unforgettable, exhilarating, hilarious and bloody journey, punctuated by interesting soundtrack choices and superb performances. Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger impress as beautiful, deadly and cool women...typical Tarantino? Yes, but they actually sound like people we care about. The show belongs to Christoph Waltz though, as the incredible Col. Hans Landa, who keeps the whole thing together. Is it a little too long? Yes. Do a few of the scenes still feel like filler? Yes. But is it the best thing the talkative auteur has ever done? By far...
3.) Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
The latest controversy baiter from Dane auteur Lars von Trier set Cannes alight last year, when Charlotte Gainsbourg took home the Best Actress award and audiences spat their popcorn out over her mutilation scenes. It's not an easy watch, that much is certain, but it's deep, intelligent and atmospheric. There are two characters in the film, named He and She, and after the death of their son they travel to a place called Eden (typical von Trier humor, much like the meaningless title) to grieve. The film owes a lot to other horror films, and this much is clear by now - Evil Dead, Don't Look Now, Possession...they're all part of the mix, and von Trier also owes something to Tarkovsky style wise (the film is also dedicated to him). The actual study of grief is brilliantly acted with minimal dialogue. It's harsh, raw and emotionally powerful - and then it becomes something else entirely. Eden is a strangely beautiful place (Anthony Dod Mantle, take a bow) but what happens there is anything but. To say any more would be to give it away, but Antichrist is a screaming harpy of a movie - it grabs you by the jugular and then really gets to work. By the end of the film you'll be confused, offended, mesmerised and you'll rush to the sink to wash the blood off your hands.
4.) Watchmen (Zack Snyder)
Zack Snyder proves himself as a director, making "the unfilmable" look effortless, creating a comic-book movie so intelligent, dark and epic in scope that it makes The Dark Knight look like Batman & Robin. From the prologue to the epilogue every frame is perfection, echoing the graphic novel and also feeling like its own creation, welcoming newcomers into the bloody, complex world of the Watchmen. Multiple story strands lap over each other as the fraternity team back together to discover who's "picking off costumed heroes". It's a drama, a detective story, a parodic period piece, a superhero movie, a revenge story and above all, a character piece. It's like Old School with buzzsaws. It's rare for a movie of this type to have as much brains as brawn but this story balances them in a way to make you think they were never apart. From the cinematography (Larry Fong) to the soundtrack (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix) to the performances (Jackie Earle Haley, perfect) an era and feeling is captured beyond what the fans could have ever expected. It twists, turns and above all, impresses. If there's any justice (and here's a movie that proves there often isn't) superhero movies will never be the same again.
5.) Moon (Duncan Jones)
Inspired by the classic sci-fi of his youth, Duncan Jones' thoughtful debut homages Silent Running, Outland and 2001: A Space Odyssey, managing to mix an original plot and evoke feelings of nostalgia. Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, at the end of a three year contract on the moon. After an accident in a moon buggy he is confronted with the idea that he's perhaps not alone, and his robot companion GERTY (a direct nod to HAL) isn't particularly helpful. Of course, there's a twist involved, and it's an absolute blinder, but the real joy is in watching the story unfold so carefully, really taking time to understand character and present some back-story. The score by Clint Mansell (a modern master) is set to become an all-time classic. It's ambient, haunting and beautiful. It echoes loneliness, at times sounding almost mechanic, but at the same time lulls you into a sense of security...and home. Minimal CGI adds to the experience and the smooth direction by Jones is remarkable for a first time director. The main event though, is one man show Rockwell, absolutely outstanding in the lead role. His slow transformation is really something to behold...every blow, physical and metal, is implanted onto his body. He shuffles around, more paranoid by the second, frantic and bloody. And then there's the other side of him...if you haven't done so already, be sure to stop off at Moon sometime soon.
6.) (500) Days Of Summer (Marc Webb)
Probably the most lighthearted, charming, funny and re-watchable movie of 2009, this reinventing-the-wheel rom-com makes a nice change of pace for my so-far so-dreary list. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the best actor of his generation, see Mysterious Skin) and Zooey Deschanel (criminally underrated, see All The Real Girls) strike sparks with each other, easily convincing with a chemistry years in the making (they first worked together on the underrated Manic in 2001) and it's this that makes the film so likable and so real. This isn't to slight the wonderfully heartfelt script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber though, which is clearly drawn from real life experience. By presenting the 500 days of their relationship in non-linear order and using editing to create sequences such as 'Expectation vs. Reality', the film definitely feels fresh and it's these little tricks that will make you come back again and again. You could describe it as nothing more than a story written into a music video and the ending might a little too sickly for some, but if you're not charmed by it in some way, you're likely not human. And it's a sign of a great film if you can, when listening to the soundtrack, not only remember every single scene the songs went to, but also exactly how you felt at the time.
7.) Coraline (Henry Selick)
Much like Antichrist, Coraline focuses on a small house in the middle of nowhere and sends its female protagonist through hell at the expense of a loved one. Of course, being a kids movie, it doesn't feature any arty penetration shots, but Coraline is definitely a movie with a dark side. The idea of having buttons sewn into your eyes isn't what most would consider PG material after all. The stop-motion style works a treat here and gives everything a really cold, eerie atmosphere, and the fact that Coraline is followed/haunted by a doll (and we know how Coraline herself is made) gives the film an even more nightmarish quality. But for a film with a colour scheme of mainly blacks and grays Coraline is strangely beautiful, especially the wonderful scene where she sees the flowers in the Other Father's garden form her face and light up. It's a wonderful moment of juxtaposition, and is repeated in the warm, inviting Other Mother's kitchen. It's rare for a kids movie to place its young lead character in a world so gothic, uncompromising, psychologically challenging and, well...scary. Everything from the soundtrack by Bruno Coulais to the voice work by Dakota Fanning is pitch perfect and Selick has proved himself as a master storyteller.
8.) State Of Play (Kevin Macdonald)
Based on the British TV series of the same name, and harking back to the classic journalism/procedure thrillers of the 70s (All The President's Men), Macdonald has struck gold with a thriller so tense you barely have time to breathe through its two hour running time. The script by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Billy Ray and Tony Gilroy (undoubtedly the screenwriter to go to for intelligent thrills) is tight as a drum and allows for characters to develop through the plot, as they make their latest discovery. Of course, the plot twists and turns every couple of minutes and as every character gets deeper and deeper into a mess they didn't see coming, it seems less likely that they will ever find their way out. Russell Crowe turns in his best performance in years, growing more determined by the minute but slowly deteriorating before our eyes. It's a performance of physical and mental power and we get a true insight in what it means to be obsessed. He keeps working until there's nothing left but the case. The scene where Crowe follows a lead to a suspects apartment and is confronted by the possible killer is perhaps his greatest moment yet - as the smooth, cocky reporter suddenly turns white and realises he might not get out of there alive. It's claustrophobic, engaging and has several scenes that will have you gripping your seat. It's the best thriller since Zodiac, and, most importantly, ranks among the best thrillers of all time.
9.) The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson)
Peter Jackson's ambitious adaptation of the 2002 novel of the same name is one of the best cinematic achievements of the year. James Cameron promised us a unique, all new world with Avatar but it's Jackson who really creates the visual experience of 2009. How seriously you take this world will depend on your belief of the afterlife, but on a technical level it's a stunning achievement with particularly impressive lighting. There are elements of the book sadly missing (the affair) and some parts aren't as prominent as others (the grief of the family and police procedure is terribly underplayed) and even people who haven't read the book may be left wanting more. The elements it does focus on though, are brilliant, especially the portrait of a serial killer, played by the underrated but impressive Stanley Tucci (earning an OSCAR nod). It's a performance that proves he's one of the best actors of his generation and in a year without Christoph Waltz, I think he would have won. The soundtrack by Brian Eno is also a thing of beauty and captures the feel of Jackson's heaven perfectly. If a few of the books elements had been kept intact this could have been a masterpiece, but as it stands it's just very, very good and a cinematic achievement beyond the worlds of Cameron.
10.) Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Wes Anderson brings his unique, literary style to his first (loose) adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic. It's probably more Anderson than Dahl (a family unit falling apart, existential doubt, hip soundtrack and panning shots) but enough of the feel of the original book is kept to make it feel magic. The lush greens of the British countryside are abandoned for a warm, orange glow that feels more at home with the story than would be initially imaginable. George Clooney is perfect as Mr. Fox (Anderson wanted to search for the modern day Cary Grant) and his usual band of cronies including Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray turn up and provide the vocals that the witty, literate script requires. It's not 100% loyal to the book but the changes that have been made liven the story up and make for a much more cinematic experience - the action sequences are handled well and are very inventive (soap and cotton wool for fire and smoke). Even where the dialogue doesn't exactly play to kids, there's something happening on-screen to keep them enthralled. Wes Anderson showed an interest in stop motion with The Life Aquatic, but here he fully realises a wonderful, natural world, that I could have happily spent another hour in.