AP critics Germain, Lemire pick top films of 2009


The top 10 films of 2009, according to AP Movie Writer David Germain:

1. “The Hurt Locker” — The first great Iraq war film proves so universal that it can stand among the classics from past wars. Director Kathryn Bigelow drops viewers in at ground zero for a disturbingly close and claustrophobic look at the stresses and strains of disabling bombs for a living. Ably supported by Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, Jeremy Renner is fierce, frightening and fearless as a sergeant so addicted to the adrenaline rush of defusing explosives that he can no longer conceive of another way of life.

2. “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” — An HIV-positive, illiterate Harlem teen impregnated by her father, twice, and relentlessly abused by her abominable mother. Out of this nightmare, director Lee Daniels crafts a magnificent story of resilience about a girl who discovers there really are decent people out there — lots of them. Gabourey Sidibe bursts forth with a masterful screen debut in the title role, while Mo’Nique makes up for a career of lowbrow comedy, performing like a woman possessed as the hateful mom.

3. “The White Ribbon” — Director Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, a grim yet glorious study of guilt, distrust and malice as unexplained violence and other mishaps befall a pre-World War I German town. A portent of things to come, the mystery seems rooted in the town’s children, a generation destined to unleash savagery such as the world had never known. Yet Haneke points a finger at everyone, his closing image in the film’s gorgeous black-and-white palate an unforgettable tableau of reproach and incrimination.

4. “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” — Some films are just a hoot, and this is one of them. Filmmaker Werner Herzog takes the notion of a corrupt cop from 1992’s “Bad Lieutenant” and twists it into one of the most blackly humorous crime tales ever. Nicolas Cage does his best work in years as a maniacal, drug-gorging detective racing through a murder investigation in a hallucinatory haze, playing every angle, dodging every impediment and spouting such wicked gems as, “Shoot him again. … His soul’s still dancing.”

5. “Up” — By now, saying “the latest from Pixar Animation” should be enough to justify a movie’s top-10 status. Director Pete Docter and his Pixar pals beguiled young and old with this story of a bitter widower who renews his sense of adventure by airlifting his house via helium balloons on a romp to South America. Voice star Ed Asner conjures up the patron saint of lovable grouches, and a segment encapsulating the lost decades with the love of his life is one of the sweetest, saddest montages in film history.

6. “An Education” — Carey Mulligan is exquisite as a whipsmart 1960s British teen who jeopardizes her Oxford college future by taking up with a slick-talking older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Working from a sparkling script by Nick Hornby, director Lone Scherfig creates a rich portrait of free-spiritedness in stuffy Britain before the sexual revolution. Buoyed by Sarsgaard’s slippery charm and an impeccable supporting cast led by Alfred Molina, Mulligan graduates to the big time with a star-making performance.

7. “(500) Days of Summer” — What guy could resist a woman who thinks “Octopus’s Garden” is the Beatles’ best song and declares that sexual gymnastics in a porn video look “pretty doable”? Zooey Deschanel bewitches as the dream woman of a lonely romantic (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the “3rd Rock From the Sun” co-star who reveals depths his sitcom never plumbed). First-time director Marc Webb’s clever rewind, fast-forward style and enchanting fantasy moments capture the soaring highs and miserable lows of that thing called love.

8. “Passing Strange” — Spike Lee oversees a blast of stage energy, his filmed version of the Broadway show so up-close and intimate that the players’ sweat practically drips onto the audiences’ lap. Musician Stew is the big-voiced master of ceremonies for his play, whose final performances Lee filmed to craft the movie. The small cast leaps seamlessly through multiple roles as they trace an artistic young black man’s journey to find his creative soul with grand humor, deep insight and songs that truly rock.

9. “Anvil: The Story of Anvil” — THIS is Spinal Tap. Rob Reiner’s mockumentary about a band’s hapless struggle to regain past glory has a real-life counterpart in Sacha Gervasi’s documentary about metal band Anvil. It’s a fantastic chronicle of the fraternity and enmity of close friendship as singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner (really, that’s his name) toil on nearly 30 years after an early brush with success. Whether or not you think Anvil’s music is art, this portrait of the artistic spirit is not to be missed.

10. “The Damned United” — Michael Sheen cops an ego the size of Montana as British soccer coach Brian Clough during his short, disastrous tenure with Leeds United in the 1970s. Sheen is a marvel of hubris as the new cock of the walk trying to erase — and sully — the memory of his predecessor (Colm Meaney). With Timothy Spall providing the heart as Clough’s underappreciated deputy and Sheen providing everything else, director Tom Hooper lovingly presents a friendship that somehow survives the most self-destructive brazenness.


AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire:

1. “Moon” — The year’s best film upends your expectations about science fiction and repeatedly surprises you. Melancholy and mesmerizing, equal parts mystery and character drama, it keeps you guessing until the end. The intelligent, assured debut from director Duncan Jones harkens to the fundamentals of the genre, in which people and provocative ideas mattered more than splashy effects. Sam Rockwell gives a subtle yet powerful performance, doing double duty as an astronaut working on the moon and a younger, fitter version of himself. Clint Mansell’s haunting score fits the beautifully bare-bones visuals.

2. “An Education” — Carey Mulligan is radiant as Jenny, a curious, clever teenager in 1961 London who gets whisked away to an exciting new life by a glamorous and much older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Director Lone Scherfig and writer Nick Hornby find just the right touch here with some tricky material. The challenge: how to make this man, and this ill-advised relationship, seem thrilling rather than creepy? Through Jenny’s eyes, we get caught up in the excitement, too, but as bystanders we know it can’t last. That gives “An Education” an inescapable tension.

3. “The Hurt Locker” — Director Kathryn Bigelow’s film is by far the most effective yet on the Iraq war, but its insights and reach extend beyond what’s happened there over the past several years. Jeremy Renner dazzles as the swaggering sergeant on an elite U.S. Army bomb squad. The other members of his team (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, both solid) don’t quite know what to make of him; he might be a genius at his job, an egomaniacal show-off or a little bit of both. The script from journalist Mark Boal, who spent time embedded with this kind of bomb squad, presents him as a fascinating but always believable jumble of contradictions.

4. “Up” — The title is deceptively simple, which is fitting, because the latest achievement from Pixar Animation is deeper and more complex on every level than it would initially appear. It’s a classic B-movie exotic adventure, but it’s told through the most high-tech, gorgeous 3-D animation. It’s a mismatched buddy comedy, but the buddies are a curmudgeonly 78-year-old man (voiced by Ed Asner) and a tubby 8-year-old boy (Jordan Nagai) — who wind up together in a flying house, traveling to South America. Between the richness of the characters, the meatiness of their interaction and the authenticity of the details, it doesn’t take long to forget that “Up” is a cartoon and become immersed.

5. “District 9” — An intense, intelligent, well-crafted action movie — one that dazzles the eye with seamless special effects but also makes you think without preaching. Like “Moon,” it has the aesthetic trappings of science fiction, but first feature from commercial and music-video director Neill Blomkamp is really more of a character drama. Aliens who arrived in their spaceship more than 20 years ago have now been quarantined in cramped and dangerous South African slums; the nerdy bureaucrat charged with moving them to new quarters (the tremendous Sharlto Copley) is transformed in the process.

6. “A Serious Man” — The Coen brothers’ most personal film yet ties together some of their frequent themes: The universe is random, it gives you insurmountable challenges, and there’s nothing you can do about it. They’re clearly having a little fun in making life so difficult for the nebbishy Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor raising his family in a predominantly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis in 1967. Watching and wondering how and when he’ll snap provides laughs, but also a mounting sense of unease, and it should provoke lengthy debate about the nature of faith.

7. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — With its deadpan humor and minute details, this is a Wes Anderson movie through and through. But it’s also crammed with the kind of heart and humanity that have been missing from the director’s most recent offerings. That’s ironic, given that Anderson’s latest is a stop-motion animation version of Roald Dahl’s illustrated children’s book about wily foxes. George Clooney’s smooth voice work is as good as his starring performance in “Up in the Air,” with Meryl Streep and Anderson pals Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman all excellent in supporting parts.

8. “Sugar” — In telling the story of a Dominican pitcher rising through baseball’s ranks, writing-directing partners Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have taken an overly familiar, potentially cliched sports story, stripped it down and, in doing so, completely reinvented it. The filmmakers take the same no-nonsense approach they used with “Half Nelson,” their 2006 feature debut, and their gimmick-free storytelling only makes the trajectory of Miguel “Sugar” Santos seem more dramatic. But “Sugar” is also about immigration and, more universally, finding your place in the world.

9. “Passing Strange” — It’s easy to see why Spike Lee was drawn to Stew, the one-named musician and mastermind behind the Broadway production “Passing Strange.” Like Lee, the artist formerly known as Mark Stewart possesses a powerful and singular voice, one he uses to express vividly his own experience of growing up black in America. In bringing Stew’s Tony-winning musical to the screen, Lee took the wise and uncharacteristic step of staying out of the way. The crisp, intimate result makes you feel as if you’re on stage with Stew and his formidable cast.

10. “Drag Me to Hell” — Sam Raimi takes all the technological tricks he picked up while directing the blockbuster “Spider-Man” franchise and applies them to the horror genre he loves, the one he made his name with decades ago. But typical of Raimi (and his brother Ivan) and their cheeky sense of humor, this story of an innocent bank loan officer (Alison Lohman) under a gypsy’s curse is packed with absurd images and twists. You’ll squirm, you’ll scream, you’ll laugh your butt off and beg for more.