The Best 30 Films of 2009

In one of the rarest rating periods ever, several on the staff could successfully argue for any of the Top 30 choices as a potential number one. While not all classics, they remain the consistent cream of 2009's crop.

Film: Public Enemies

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, Jason Clarke, Stephen Dorff, Stephen Graham


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Public Enemies
Michael Mann

One could make a case for Michael Mann as the most consistent American film director of the past 15 years. Heat(1995) and Collateral(2004) enlivened the visual and narrative possibilities of cat-and-mouse plotting, and 1999's The Insider set a ridiculously high bar for future corporate intrigue thrillers and biographical pictures. But Mann solidified his ability to revise well worn genres into high art with Miami Vice, the noirish 2006 adaptation of his own television series. In many ways, Public Enemies continues the chief concerns of the Miami Vice feature film. John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), like Colin Farrell's Sonny Crockett, is a man increasingly boxed-in by the criminal life. Yet in both films are women who motivate the men towards redemption, even if their love is certainly doomed. This romantic take on a historical gangster is somewhat controversial, but Mann executes his vision with uncompromising verve and balances the romance with bursts of action and violence (such as a completely arresting night exterior shootout) that foreground the real stakes of the revisionist treatment. Thomas Britt


Film: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Director: David Yates

Cast: Danielle Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Bonnie Wright, Rupert Grint, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent


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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
David Yates

It turns out the resident director for the final acts of the Harry Potter film saga just needed one movie to get his feet under him. After his clumsy-but-occasionally-inspired Order of the Phoenix, David Yates goes full-on inspired with Half-Blood Prince, crafting Steve Kloves' spare but potent script into a moody, murky stunner. Like the best films in the series, the sixth instalment shaves off all the knobby bits of J.K. Rowling's overstuffed novel. It leaves us instead with astounding art production (witness the sinuous lines of Slughorn's hourglass or the wrought-iron intricacy of Malfoy's Vanishing Cabinet), crisp cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel, performances of broad commitment (especially from Michael Gambon and Jim Broadbent), and delicate visual metaphors. The Half-Blood Prince is sly and charming, replete with mythic scope, human dimension, and aesthetic resonance. It is, in a word, magical. Ross Langager


Film: Paranormal Activity

Director: Oren Peli

Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Michael Bayouth


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Paranormal Activity
Oren Peli

It seems such a rare thing these days to find a horror movie that actually works and Paranormal Activity is probably worth being talked about solely because of that. Yet, it is also a resounding success on its own merits, with some genuinely scary moments. This lo-fi production –- made for just $15,000 -– knew better how to frighten audiences than all the big-budget horror this year, making the most out of the unblinking eye of an amateur camera, and the constant, unsettling hiss it emits when recording. It's an astounding concept, forcing its audience to look on as terrifying things happen to a couple who move into a new house. First-time director Oren Peli is expert at maintaining an eerie disquiet, building a sense of tension and inexorable dread as each day elapses into night, and things go from bad to worse. Andrew Blackie


Film: Zombieland

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, Bill Murray


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Ruben Fleischer

I'll be honest, Zombieland is on my list of favorite films of the year for two very obvious, very simple reasons: I love zombies and I love Woody Harrelson. That Zombieland is a road-trip comedy and a coming of age tale is just gravy. Although, I don't think I'd like it half as much if it were a standard fright-fest-style zombie flick and I can't imagine Tallahassee as a serious sort of slayer. I like my Woody Harrelson characters cracking wise and coming unhinged, thank you very much. Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) as the center of the story is brilliant. He gives the others license to go all out, whether that's with well-timed one-liners or well-aimed shotgun blasts. Some people might say Zombieland belongs on a year-end list of Guilty Pleasures, but I disagree. I don't feel guilty at all. Zombieland is pure pleasure, pure, giggly, glorious, gory pleasure. Christel Loar


Film: The Informant!

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Rusty Schwimmer, Melanie Lynskey


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The Informant!
Stephen Soderbergh

Unfairly overlooked as too many of his non-Oceans projects tend to be, Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! is a cleverly pitched satire on corporate greed and individual hubris that runs circles around most other films of its kind. Matt Damon puts on a brushy mustache and a gee-whiz demeanor to play a clueless executive whistle-blower who turns out to have a few skeletons of his own to hide. Soderbergh plays this stranger-than-fiction true story swiftly, with a cock-eyed grin -– an intertitle at the start notes that some incidents in the story have been changed for dramatic purposes, "So there." He wryly undercuts this seemingly mundane drama about corn price-fixing with a jazzy Marvin Hamlisch score, a corps of comedic vets in supporting roles, and Damon's hilariously meandering, beside-the-point narration. This is a cutting comedy, with some teeth behind the smile. Chris Barsanti


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