The Best 30 Films of 2009

by PopMatters Staff

7 January 2010


25 - 21


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The White Ribbon

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur, Ursina Lardi, Fion Mutert, Michael Kranz


The White Ribbon
Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s marvellously measured thriller was the deserved recipient of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Set in a German village just before the outbreak of World War I, it centres on a series of malicious, unattributed crimes which eerily anticipate the wider horrors to come. It is as taut and sinister as its opening mystery: a length of trip-wire malevolently positioned to take down the village doctor’s horse. With The White Ribbon Haneke once again demonstrates his mastery of the medium as the narrative is fastidiously, methodically unfurled before us. The picture is bolstered by nuanced performances from an often startlingly young cast, who give us everything from heart-wrenchingly curious and sensitive to remote and unreadable. This is both the most thrilling of mysteries and the most strange and beautiful of dramas. It is an absolutely remarkable achievement and this reviewer’s undoubted film of the year. Emma Simmonds



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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Jennifer Coolidge, Vondie Curtis Hall, Shawn Hatosy, Xzibit, Brad Dourif
Review [23.Nov.2009]


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s acuity for the exotic could probably unearth some sort of revelation in any environment. After all, his La Soufrière succeeded despite its “inevitable catastrophe” failing to materialize. Yet the mere suggestion of Herzog cutting loose in a Ferrara title-aping police procedural starring Nicholas Cage in post-Katrina New Orleans already maximizes the unhinged possibilities. Could the sum of those parts live up to the imagined potential? Yes, and exceedingly so. Cage plays junkie lieutenant Terence McDonaugh with an energy and bravado that probably no other contemporary American actor would dare to invest. The plot is ostensibly about McDonaugh’s search for the killer of a Senegalese family, but Herzog uses Cage, a dynamite supporting cast, and various reptiles to send the story in rousing directions that might be totally dissonant in another director’s hands. Herzog’s sensibility is well suited for the madness of the environment, and with thumbs firmly thrust in the eyes of genre, he takes us on a trip of desperation, addiction, and exhilaration that radically redefines the cop drama. Thomas Britt



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Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Director: Lee Daniels
Cast: Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz
Review [6.Nov.2009]


Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire
Lee Daniels

In Precious, director Lee Daniels chose to go for power rather than perfection and ends up achieving greatness with a film which leaps across the gulf normally separating audiences from the events they view on the screen. There’s nothing ennobling about poverty in the life of Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe): the pain is raw, the violence shocking and hell is not just other people, it’s your own family. Mo’Nique delivers a truly horrifying performance as a woman determined to make her daughter’s life more miserable than her own while Daniels allows us glimpses of hope as Precious awakes to her own personhood with the assistance of several members of New York City’s much-maligned bureaucracy including an unconventional schoolteacher (Paula Patton) and social worker (Mariah Carey). Sarah Boslaugh



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A Single Man

Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Matthew Goode, Ginnifer Goodwin, Nicholas Hoult
Review [22.Dec.2009]


A Single Man
Tom Ford

There are far worse sins than being gay at the start of the 1960s, but for depressed, grieving college professor George (Colin Firth), his hidden homosexuality is becoming almost too much to bear. Having recently lost his lover, and lost in a world that relegates his lifestyle to the most scandalous of social evils, he’s at his wits—and decidedly, his own life’s—end. What designer turned director Tom Ford finds in this highly stylized and yet completely straightforward illustration of one man’s path to personal self-destruction is a kind of beautiful grotesquerie. Every time we think George will find a means of solace—in the arms of a drunken gal pal (a juiced Julianne Moore) or those of an obviously interested young student, we pray for some peace. And then the strident prejudice of the era reemerges, and we sense how hopeless such a plea really is. Bill Gibron



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Bright Star

Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox
Review [27.Jan.2010]
Review [25.Sep.2009]


Bright Star
Jane Campion

If any movie from 2009 is guaranteed to make you “swoon to death”, to borrow a phrase from the poet John Keats, it’s Jane Campion’s Bright Star, the tender and ravishing telling of Keats’s love affair with fashion plate Fanny Brawne. Campion delivers on the artistic promise she demonstrated so memorably in The Piano conveying the rapturous highs and agonizing lows of romantic love. Though Keats and Brawne’s relationship remained chaste, Campion creates moments between the two characters that are so heart-stoppingly intimate, you may feel compelled to turn away to let these wonderful creatures breathe each other in, in the privacy they so deserve. And then there is the exquisite interplay between Keats’s lyrical poetry and Campion’s gorgeous compositions of the English countryside, with its shimmering lakes, vividly colored blossoms, and snow-dappled trees. Though the romance takes center stage, Campion also illustrates the pleasure that comes from solitary contemplation of nature in all its glory. And upon multiple viewings, Bright Star‘s loveliness only increases. Marisa Carroll


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