With the Oscars coming this Sunday, here are my (extremely late) picks for my favorite movies of 2009. A few caveats: I have yet to see Crazy Heart, Precious, and both of the Man films (A Serious and A Single), so adjust your expectations accordingly. And before anyone asks, Avatar is definitely in my Top 10 for the year; I'm not sure it's worthy of a Best Picture accolade, but the sheer 3-D IMAXed spectacle of it certainly left me entertained for 162 minutes. (I also wish Oscar had found space in its ten nominations for two more equally enjoyable choices, Star Trek and 500 Days Of Summer.)
5. District 9
In a great year for sci-fi, this debut from director Neill Blomkamp stands the tallest, an equal balance between crowd-pleasing popcorn flick and astute social commentary, delivered with eye-popping effects that bely the (relatively) miniscule $30 million budget. And throughout, its scrappy energy leaps off the screen, making District 9 one of the best "genre films" in years.
4. The Hurt Locker
Talk about tension; The Hurt Locker delivers in spades, to the point where the atmosphere itself—all desert grit and stinging sweat—practically becomes another character. Credit Jeremy Renner's knockout performance and Kathryn Bigelow's claustrophobic, near-documentary direction for making this one the odds-on Best Picture favorite; while it's not my personal pick, you won't hear any objections from me if The Hurt Locker walks away with the big prize come Sunday.
3. Up In The Air
After coming close with Thank You For Smoking and Juno, director Jason Reitman finally knocks one out of the park. Up In The Air is, at its heart, a small character study writ larger by uncomfortably prescient current events, with a core trio of completely natural performances—from Clooney, of course, but also Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick—giving the film a quiet sort of honesty... and ultimately, its heartwrenching power.
2. Inglourious Basterds
Not just the best Quentin flick since Pulp Fiction, the wild, woolly, and devilishly funny Inglourious Basterds is also the most Tarantino-y of all Tarantino pictures, a movie drunk on its own go-for-broke enthusiasm and deeply in love with language: dialogue, accents, and everything in between. Quentin's fascination with all things cinematic seeps into every second, and with Col. Hans Landa, Christoph Waltz has crafted a villain for the ages; like Anton Chigurh or Hannibal Lecter, you can't take your eyes off him.
I've watched Pixar's masterpiece on four separate occasions since its release in the summer of 2009, and damn if that (now justifiably famous) ten-minute stretch didn't move me to tears every time. Up was as exuberant, beautiful, and hilarious as anything I saw last year, with an added emotional resonance that no other film—animated or otherwise—could match. Bravo to Pixar for topping themselves yet again, and bravo to Up for providing a fitting cap to the studio's remarkably consistent decade.