by Sanriel Chris Ajero

Simply put, 2009 has not been regarded, both by film enthusiasts and a majority of film critics, as a strong year for film. I, for one, personally disagree. I say these people must be watching all the wrong films. Under that realization I required myself to be of aid. For the past few weeks, I’ve been troubling myself trying to fit (not fill) all the films I enjoyed into a top 30 recommendation list like I did last year. I failed. So for this year, I’m giving 40 of the best films I’ve seen in all of 2009 instead. Rest assured that these are films I truly and genuinely enjoyed. But then I failed again. As I’ll also present 5 more films I tremendously like but I believe many have not even heard of.

Looking past all 2009 films made me notice and realize a lot of trends. Films from 2009 seem to perfectly capture, and continuously remind us that it is the year of the 9. We’ve seen a Tim Burton presentation of a technically flawless but emotionally flawed animated film called 9. We’ve seen a riotously hyper and unforgivably disappointing musical called Nine. We’ve also seen an Israeli stop-motion animated film called S9.99. We’ve also seen a German import that deals with sex and infidelity amongst the elderly called Cloud 9. There’s also 9.9.09 and The Nine Lives of Marion Barry. And finally, we’ve seen a surprise sci-fi hit and now Oscar Best Picture nominee District 9.

Confused? Well, you should be. Because more than that, 2009 also introduced A Serious Man, A Single Man and yes, The Other Man. We’ve also met two very distinct Julias, both in the persona of two of the best working actresses today – Tilda Swinton in Julia and Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia. This trend seems to extend to the end of the film season as it takes flight in the Best Picture nominees Up and Up in the Air.


Speaking of the brilliance of our Julias, it seems like female lead performances have been in fantastic display in 2009. From bad films with great lead turns (Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side), average films buoyed by great female performances (Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique in Precious), to outstanding films coupled with outstanding talents (Carey Mulligan in An Education, Abbie Cornish in Bright Star). Among these, we’ve also had the privilege of meeting wonderful female characters – a detached Lorna (Lorna’s Silence), a scheming maid (The Maid), a social-climbing artist (Seraphine), an unnamed mutilation-obsessed anti-heroine (Antichrist), and a bouquet of gorgeous female singers (Nine).

Aside from the ladies, the children also took spotlight in 2009 – be it as a thematic trend or a common target audience. A banner year for animated films, indeed, 2009 saw the release of the re-launched traditional 2D Disney classics vehicle (The Princess and the Frog); of the visually engaging stop-motion animation (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline); of the endearing tenderness in characters molded through claymation (Mary and Max, A Town Called Panic); of the sweeping modern 3D technology (Up, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs); and even 4D in select theaters (Avatar, well some of it is, in its strictest form, animated).

Well, it’s not always nice to be a child – as we’ve seen in children-themed films in 2009. We’ve seen children tortured, beaten and tied (The White Ribbon). We’ve seen them get lost and almost eaten by wild things (Where the Wild Things Are). We’ve seen them fall dead from a windowpane (Antichrist). We’ve seen their eyes taken and sewn with buttons (Coraline). We’ve seen them raped, murdered, and left out on a field (The Lovely Bones). We’ve seen them battle the cruelest of diseases (My Sister’s Keepers). And finally, we’ve also seen them get dragged by a group of intoxicated guys in Las Vegas (The Hangover).

It has been a fun year for film. And however one thinks of it, 2009 produced some of the best of the past decade. And as I wrap this lazy introduction up, I’m leaving you with what I think (with much bias) are the Best Films of 2009. I’ll be starting with 5 films that I thought were really good but didn’t get the attention they rightfully deserve (just yet). This will be followed by 40 of my favorite films of 2009. Links on IMDB details, Rotten Tomatoes score, Metacritic score, and Youtube trailer video will also be provided. As I’m feeling really generous, you can leave a message if you would want download links (or copies even) of the films in the list.

So on with the list!


To start, here are 5 films I tremendously enjoyed that you might not have heard of, well, just yet.

Terribly Happy
(Frygtelig lykkelig)
Dir. Henrik Ruben Genz
Cast: Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen
90 mins
IMDB ¦ Trailer

Villa Amalia
(Frygtelig lykkelig)
Dir. Benoit Jacquot
Cast: Isabelle Huppert
94 mins
France, Switzerland
IMDB ¦ Trailer

Sweet Rush
Dir. Andrzej Wajda
Cast: Krystyna Janda, Pawel Szajda
85 mins
IMDB ¦ Trailer

Room and a Half
 Dir. Andrey Khrzhanovskiy
Cast: Aleksandr Bargman
130 mins
IMDB ¦ Trailer

City of Life and Death
(Nanjing! Nanjing!)

Dir. Chuan Lu
Cast: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan
132 mins
China, Hong Kong
IMDB ¦ Trailer

TOP 40


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40. The Limits of Control

Dir. Jim Jarmusch

 Cast: Isaach de Bankole, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, Bill Murray
116 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-40% ¦ MC-41% ¦ Trailer


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39. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans

 Dir. Werner Herzog

 Cast: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer
122 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-85% ¦ MC-69% ¦ Trailer

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38. Passing Strange

 Dir. Spike Lee

 Cast: De’Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Eisa Davis
135 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-100% ¦ MC-85% ¦ Trailer

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37. Cargo 200

(Gruz 200/Груз 200)

 Dir. Aleksey Balabanov

 Cast: Agniya Kuznetsova, Aleksei Poluyan
89 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-76% ¦ MC-80% ¦ Trailer

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36. A Prophet

(Un Prophète)

 Dir. Jacques Audiard

 Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup
155 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-95% ¦ MC-89% ¦ Trailer

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35. Antichrist


 Dir. Lars von Trier

 Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
108 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-49% ¦ MC-49% ¦ Trailer

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34. Goodbye Solo

 Dir. Ramin Bahrani

 Cast: Souleymane Sy Savane, Red West
91 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-95% ¦ MC-89% ¦ Trailer

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33. Séraphine

 Dir. Martin Provost

 Cast: Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur
125 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-89% ¦ MC-84% ¦ Trailer

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32. Up

 Dir. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

 Cast: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
96 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-98% ¦ MC-88% ¦ Trailer

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31. Samson and Delilah

 Dir. Warwick Thornton

 Cast: Rowan McNamara, Marissa Gibson
101 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-100% ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

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30. Where the Wild Things Are

 Dir. Spike Jonze

 Cast: Max Records, Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Paul Dano, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Chris Cooper
101 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-73% ¦ MC-71% ¦ Trailer

“As wish-fulfillments go, this is a movie lover’s dream.”
Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal

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29. Up in the Air

 Dir. Jason Reitman

 Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman
109 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-90% ¦ MC-83% ¦ Trailer

“Up in the Air is light and dark, hilarious and tragic, romantic and real. It’s everything that Hollywood has forgotten how to do; we’re blessed that Jason Reitman has remembered.”
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

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28. Mary and Max

 Dir. Adam Elliot

 Cast: Toni Collette, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eric Bana
80 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-90% ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

“Mary and Max share loneliness, souvenirs, and a cock-eyed optimism to survive their two eccentric claymation, stop-action animation worlds on their own colorful terms.”
Nora Lee Mandel,

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27. Lorna’s Silence

(Le silence de Lorna/The Silence of Lorna)

 Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

 Cast: Arta Dobroshi, Jeremie Renier
105 mins
Belgium, France
IMDB ¦ RT-86% ¦ MC-80% ¦ Trailer

“A gritty, deceptively low-key, no-fuss, no-frills movie of consistent originality and surprise in which suspense arises straight up from the heroine’s evolving character.”
Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

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26. Julia

 Dir. Erick Zonca

 Cast: Tilda Swinton, Saul Rubinek
144 mins
France, USA
IMDB ¦ RT-72% ¦ MC-62% ¦ Trailer

“Tilda Swinton hasn’t often been more fascinating than in Julia, a nerve-wracking thriller with a twisty plot and startling realism.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

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25. Thirst


 Dir. Park Chan-wook

 Cast: Song Kang-ho, Kim Ok-bin
133 mins
South Korea, USA
IMDB ¦ RT-82% ¦ MC-73% ¦ Trailer

“A brilliant and gruesome work of cinematic invention as well as a passionate and painful human love story.”
Andrew Hehir,

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24. Nymph

(Nang Mai)

 Dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

 Cast: Jayanama Nopachai, Porntip Papanai
109 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-N/A ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

“A reflective mood piece, creating a very particular image of the jungle that transcends narrative or even meaning.”
Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy

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23. Polytechnique

 Dir. Denis Villeneuve

 Cast: Maxim Gaudette, Sebastien Huberdeau
77 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-60% ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

“Polytechnique is a sharply-observed piece of cinema if a simplistic exploration of the gender divide.”
Denis Seguin, Screen International

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22. Red Riding: 1974

 Dir. Julian Jarrold

 Cast: Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey
102 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-77% ¦ MC-75% ¦ Trailer

“The powerfully disturbing Red Riding trilogy will haunt you waking and sleeping, night and day. If you survive the watching of it, that is, which is no easy thing.”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

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21. Summer Hours

(L’heure d’été)

 Dir. Olivier Assayas

 Cast: Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, Jeremie Renier
103 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-92% ¦ MC-84% ¦ Trailer

“Writer-director Olivier Assayas crafts a near perfect blend of humor and heartbreak, a lyrical masterwork that measures loss in terms practical and evanescent.”
Peter Travers, Rolling Stones

TOP 20



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20. An Education

 Dir. Lone Scherfig

 Cast: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike
95 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-95% ¦ MC-85% ¦Trailer

“An Education shares with Hornby’s best work trenchant insight into the way smart, hyper-verbal young people let the music, films, books, and art they love define themselves as they figure out who they are and what they want to be.”
Nathan Rabin, The Onion (A.V. Club)

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19. Somers Town

 Dir. Shane Meadows

 Cast: Piotr Jagiello, Ireneusz Czop, Perry Benson
71 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-96% ¦ MC-77% ¦ Trailer

“A disarmingly slight tale of adolescent friendship, Somers Town is one of those rare movies that seems to discover itself as you watch it.”
Ty Burr, Boston Globe

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18. Two Lovers

 Dir. James Gray

 Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Gwyneth Paltrow, Vinessa Shaw
110 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-84% ¦ MC-74% ¦ Trailer

“As in a good European film, shots are allowed to breathe. The focus is on character and human emotion. At the same time, the movie shows an American concern for pace and story development. The result is the best of both worlds.”
Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

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17. In the Loop

 Dir. Armando Iannucci

 Cast: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini
106 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-93% ¦ MC-83% ¦ Trailer

“A sharply written, fast-talking, almost dementedly articulate satire on modern statecraft.”
A.O. Scott, The New York Times

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16. The Hurt Locker

 Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

 Cast: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie
131 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-97% ¦ MC-94% ¦ Trailer

“A near-perfect movie about men in war, men at work. Through sturdy imagery and violent action, it says that even Hell needs heroes.”
Richard Corliss, Time

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15. 35 Shots of Rum

(35 Rhums)

 Dir. Claire Denis

 Cast: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue
100 mins
France, Germany
IMDB ¦ RT-96% ¦ MC-92% ¦ Trailer

“You can live in a movie like this.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

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14. Tulpan

 Dir. Sergei Dvortsevoy

 Cast: Tolepbergen Baisakalov
100 mins
Germany, Kazakhstan
IMDB ¦ RT-97% ¦ MC-88% ¦ Trailer

“This is a difficult film to pigeonhole, an indefinable mixture of genres and attitudes that is by turns off-the-wall and serious, comic and sad.”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

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13. You, the Living

(Du Levande/Das jüngste Gewitter)

 Dir. Roy Andersson

 Cast: Jessika Lundberg, Elisabeth Helander
95 mins
Sweden, Germany
IMDB ¦ RT-100% ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

“Andersson is, at heart, an expert absurdist; to him, there is meaning in the meaningless and salvation in the ridiculous.”
Chris Cabin,

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12. Bright Star

 Dir. Jane Campion

 Cast: Ben Whishaw, Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider
119 mins
UK, Australia, France
IMDB ¦ RT-83% ¦ MC-81% ¦ Trailer

“Intimate as a whisper, immediate as a blush, and universal as first love, the PG-rated film positively palpitates with the sensual and spiritual.”
Carrie Rickey, Philadelphia Inquirer

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11. Mother


 Dir. Bong Joon-ho

 Cast: Won Bin, Kim Hye-ja
128 mins
South Korea
IMDB ¦ RT-93% ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

“Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho affirms his place among the art cinema masters with his latest endeavour, Mother.”
Barbara Goslawski, Boxoffice Magazine


TOP 10

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10. Inglourious Basterds

 Dir. Quentin Tarantino

 Cast: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender
153 mins
USA, Germany
IMDB ¦ RT-89% ¦ MC-69% ¦ Trailer

“It’s not enough to say that Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s best movie. It’s the first movie of his artistic maturity, the film his talent has been promising for more than 15 years.”
– Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Tarantino’s vast cult following spawned from his profile rooting from the pop culture smashing Pulp Fiction and extending to the edges of his razor-sharp Hatori Hanzo samurai. 2009 marked his much-awaited return to form with a historical epic – something we all wish he would never even lay a hand on. After receiving mixed reviews, one thing is certain – his genre-smashing, history-bending version of WWII is nothing like we’ve ever seen before. Fueled by three fictional story lines, we catch a peek into the lives of another bouquet of Tarantino characters whose influence will perpetually be remembered and etched in cinematic books – the leader of the basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine; the conniving beauty of Bridget von Hammersmark, the batting of the Bear Jew, the escape and subsequent revenge of Shosanna Dreyfus, and bingo, the now Oscar winning (oh yes, I’m proclaiming it) pitch-perfect-down-to-every-smirk performance of Christoph Waltz as probably the most fascinating, and most realized film creation of 2009 – the Jew Hunter himself, Col. Hans Landa. Tarantino’s trademarks can be spotted long before the opening credits – his allure for smart dialogues is in stylish display (like his now iconic 20 question guessing game and the opening conversation over milk and tobacco), as well as his penchant for brutal but graceful action sequences (well, you know – bats, knives, guns – you name it). Despite being offhand upfront, the film expands and develops into something much more coherent, plot-wise, than anything Tarantino has ever done before, capping the film off by a memorable and highly rewarding sequence. Tarantino impresses as he offers an in-your-face look at how he sees the past, and how easily and confidently he bends it – as if telling us, rightfully so, that Inglourious Basterds is his misspelled version of history.

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9. Love Exposure

(Ai No Mukadashi)

 Dir. Shion Sono

 Cast: Takahiro Nishijima, Hikari Mitsushima
237 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-91% ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

“A strange, deftly scripted brew, alternately involving and distancing, and often very funny.”
Philip French, Observer UK

Four hours is probably not the typical attention span you’ll give a foreign independent interplay on sexual awakening and spiritual expedition. However, if these four hours offer a bizarre landscape into a world as sick and crazy as what Sono visualized – filled with red blood, black humor, white religious cults and a vast array of colorful panties (the most you’ll probably ever see in a film) – you might want to give it a try. This overtly freaky epic revolves around the story of Yu, a do-gooder adolescent boy whose quest to please his Catholic priest of a father has gone way far-flung than what the miracles of the Catholic Church could ever bargain for. His unforgettable pursuit involves cross-dressing vigilantism, cult membership, masked lesbians, bizarre erections, a crazy step mother, and an addiction to the skill of up-skirt photography. As many people claim, the film is a mess – switching genres and character perspectives as transitions – but perfectly messy as any adolescent boy’s life, quite literally and allegorically. This fact, however, never gets in the way of realizing the emotional conquest of the film. Endlessly arresting, the playful three-fourths of the film was capped off by an emotionally resonant final chapter, weaving all the pieces together, exposing all the layers to surface, until finally looking boldly at love – at its rawest, at its most exposed.

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8. Fish Tank

 Dir. Andrea Arnold

 Cast: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender
123 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-88% ¦ MC-81% ¦ Trailer

“What makes the picture feel special is its unflinching honesty and lack of sentimentality or moralizing, along with assured direction and excellent performances.”
Leslie Felperin, Variety

Fish Tank, in a nutshell, is a ruthlessly honest examination of an immature and inarticulate young girl wanting so hard to break free. Mia (played with much strength and resilience by the young Katie Jarvis), a teenage girl yearning for the world – be it her dream of becoming a hip-hop dancer, or perhaps something else, probably anything just to get her out and free her from herself. She fits the very definition of a loner, not because she creeps people out; but because she refuses to be associated with their immature company. For the most time, we see Mia lash out to people and keep herself in isolation – mostly with her music. Her world got stirred, however, upon the advent of her mother’s new-fangled lover. This new world opens many a possibility for Mia, and she can’t get enough of it. Only to find out, too little too late, that she is just too young to swim up and out her fish tank – which serves as her locked-in cage, and consequently her much-wanted protection.

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7. The Fantastic Mr. Fox

 Dir. Wes Anderson

 Cast: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Scwartzman, Bill Murray
87 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-93% ¦ MC-83% ¦ Trailer

“You don’t want to watch this movie, you want to climb inside it and play.”
Dana Stevens, Slate


Consistency is a key to loving Wes Anderson pictures. Not thematically, but stylistically. He makes breathing, living people out of the weirdest and quirkiest creations – be it a dysfunctional family, an aquatic documentary film team, a high school loser, or even an outrageous set of foxes. For the adaptation of the well-loved classic children’s book, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, probably his most technically challenging film to date, he uses the painstaking process known as stop-motion animation. From the very Anderson-ian characterization – that almost always shifts perspectives and focus, to the highly intelligent and sharp script, to the exceptionally perfect voice talents, this could probably spell one of Anderson’s best films to date. The story may not be perfect a message to send the children. It is, bluntly speaking, about stealing, and subsequent revenge. This, however, was presented in such a manner that is both highly enjoyable and painfully heartbreaking. Who would have thought foxes could touch our hearts? Behind the madcap chase sequences and deafening explosions lies a tender, and very much human tale of family that needs careful digging (quite literally) in order to uncover.

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6. Police, Adjective

(Politist, adjectiv)

 Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

 Cast: Dragos Bucur, Vlad Ivanov
113 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-75% ¦ MC-81% ¦ Trailer

“Police, Adjective is a deadly serious as well as dryly humorous analysis of bureaucratic procedure and, particularly, the tyranny of language. Images may record reality, but words define it.”
J. Hoberman, Village Voice

Not all detective stories need to answer its mysteries – that is the important underpinning supporting Corneliu Porumboiu’s follow-up to the bleakly humorous 12:08 East of Bucharest. Awkwardly thrilling and rightfully ironic, Police, Adjective treads the prolonged path of a small time policeman and the banal details of his highly ordinary case. Investigating on three high school kids that have been reported smoking weeds is not the type of case a policeman would be ecstatic about. This, however, is not the case for Cristi (Dragos Bucur). Espoused by stirring long takes, we see him walk around the blocks as if spying on a gang operation; we watch him as he carefully sneaks around the school grounds as if investigating a big scale lawsuit; we gaze with him as he contemplates on clues and mysteries he uncovers as if tomorrow’s headlines depend on it – all these grueling police procedure in the name of justice. However, supplied with minutiae of irony, it seems that his patience (probably a trait the audience might need as well) for his highly technical craft does not fully translate to his life. We see him easily gets annoyed by a love song’s seemingly superficial lyric without giving his innately scrutinizing self some time to ponder upon it. Ending his self-effacing quest is an even more awkward and ironic sequence of dictionary reading which reads so much more than surface level – what could simply convey issues as simple as misunderstanding can also suggest a bigger-scale case as that of dictatorship. Like its main character, this small film weaves details meticulously and patiently to form a flawless commentary on society driven by oppression by the authorities.

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5. Still Walking

(Even If You Walk and Walk/Aruitemo Aruitemo)

 Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda

 Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Yui Natsukawa, You
114 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-100% ¦ MC-89% ¦ Trailer

“The tone is perfect; this is one of those rare films that, despite being rooted firmly in the world around us, is utterly absorbing and capable of reducing the immediacies of life into abstract thoughts in the back of one’s mind.”
– James Berardinelli, Reel Views

Capturing the mystery, beauty, and the tragedy that comes with having a family has always been a preferred theme of filmmakers, much so here in the Philippines, and with Still Walking, Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda has grown to be the latest to join the master class of this subtle art. For 24 hours in their lives, we get to know – through watching, following and walking with – the Yokoyamas. With their long overdue reunion finally coming to pass, the entire family gathers together for a modest fête. Ryo’s turnout is the fundamental thread of the film – having recently wedded a widowed woman with a son in tow – which obviously, his parents do not endorse. Instead of the usual family squabble and riotous showcase of dramatic wits, Koreeda staged everything – both the cheerful hellos and the somber confrontations – in a calm, reflective manner. This has been the reason for Still Walking’s comforting, meditative experience. We walk through a day in the life of a family, and as the day draws to a close, we wind up knowing, and caring for every single one of the Yokoyamas as if we’ve been acquainted for so long. Throughout its runtime, Koreeda deliberately saturate the story with Japanese-specific cultural references – the traditions, the food, the music. Despite cultural hurdles, at the end of the day, it is ultimately a portrait of a universal story – that each and every one of us can step in and walk right through.

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4. A Serious Man

 Dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

 Cast: Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind
106 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-87% ¦ MC-79% ¦ Trailer

“A Serious Man is an exquisitely realized work; the filmmakers’ technical mastery of their craft, always impressive, has become absolute. The script reads like a novel, densely allusive, funny, and terse.”
– Dana Stevens, Slate

Based loosely on the Book of Job, the latest from the notorious Coen Brothers is a work of a confident but difficult comic talent – one that would impress some, and leave others dumbfounded. Fact is, the Coens couldn’t care less what you think. The peculiar tale of Larry Gopnik (played pitch-perfectly by the criminally underrated Michael Stuhlbarg), an earnest college physics professor who seems to be drawing all the misfortunes that fate could muster, brings us all the way back to the 1960s, and exposes his Jewish family of screwball characters – his wife who wants to leave him for a widower, his son who is about to be bar mitzvahed, his self-absorbed, nose job-obsessed daughter, and his brother who seems to be living on his couch and who won’t vacate their bathroom. All these quirky but believable characters meet up, weave, collide and explode in the year’s most destructive (quite literally), and just utterly mindf*ck of a finale – that expectedly, the Coens refuse to tip their hand to, admitting to all interpretations and none. Watch this unbelievably original and awkwardly fresh ode to misfortune, faith, madness and morality, and I’m certain you’ll have a hard time ticking it off your mind. Yes, seriously.

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3. The Maid

(La Nana)

 Dir. Sebastian Silva

 Cast: Catalina Saavedra
95 mins
Chile, Mexico
IMDB ¦ RT-93% ¦ MC-82% ¦ Trailer

“Saavedra, in an incredibly vanity-free performance, never shies away from Raquel’s darkest edges and still forces us to empathize with the frustrations and stunted loneliness of a life lived in servants’ quarters.”
Karina Longworth, Time Out New York

A simply plotted, but complicatedly characterized film dealing with a live-in maid for a bourgeois Chilean family, The Maid is a showcase of superb character development, and the gem of a talent in Catalina Saavedra. From its first frame, we witness a relationship as close but strangely as detached as that of Raquel (Saavedra) and the Valdez’s. Her attachment to the family is almost always fueled with insecurity, envy, and sabotage – vindicated by her overtly strict rules, screaming favoritisms, and scheming demeanor. This, however, does not spiral the film into truism. The first half perfectly gels her brute rigidness with the seemingly quirky persona Raquel strives so hard to conceal. Thanks to Lucas, a Valdez son, and his irresistible charm, we get to chance upon Raquel’s sweet spot – however rare that is. Her defenses finally break loose upon a sudden plot development that shifts the humor from bleak, to something more heartwarming – to something that wholly changes Raquel’s being, and turns her character into a full graceful swing. Interestingly, aside from the unconventional look into the soul of a character, The Maid also underscores the contemporary blur of class lines in most of South America, proven by her often obtrusive relationship with Pilar, the head of the Valdez household. This just happens rarely in films today – cinematically satisfying and complete, but still manages to carefully keep grasp of its social nuances. Add to it a spectacularly buoyant turn by an actress at the top of her game, and you get one of the year’s most important and serviceable films.

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2. Tales from the Golden Age

(Amintiri din epoca de aur)

 Dir. Cristian Mungiu, Hanno Hofer, Razvan Marculescu, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru

 Cast: Diana Cavallioti, Vlad Ivanov, Radu Iacoban
155 mins
IMDB ¦ RT-100% ¦ MC-N/A ¦ Trailer

“While this wry, sometimes poignant collection ultimately runs a little long, it serves as a useful introduction to the talent that makes Romania the place to look for exciting new voices in cinema.”
Wendy Ide, The Times UK

Ironically, the year’s funniest film comes from a country currently in its cinematic renaissance for its dark and gritty neo-realism. After experiencing the dark Ceaucescu regime, it seems as if Romania is ready to skewer political issues, and even spot the funny side of it – thus loosely referring to it as the Golden Age. With Cannes Palme d’Or 2007 winner Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) leading this omnibus effort, we know we are in for quite a ride – be it in an unending circus ride, a truck carrying thousands of chickens (and eggs), a car hiding a live pig, or a container filled with used (but clean) bottles. Brimming with confidence and eloquence, Tales from the Golden Age shares six absurdly famous Romanian legends that draw implications on how these molded a history – be it good or otherwise. At first glance hilarious, but a much deeper look would reveal an open secret, an unsolved mystery, an open wound – still throbbing from pain after all these years, still waiting to be healed, still waiting for answers.

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1. The White Ribbon

(Das weisse Band)

 Dir. Michael Haneke

 Cast: Christian Friedel, Ernst Jacobi
144 mins
Austria, Germany
IMDB ¦ RT-83% ¦ MC-82% ¦ Trailer

“We don’t go to Michael Haneke films for comfort, but to gaze through a glass darkly. That vision — tense, provocative and unnerving — is on full display in The White Ribbon, which could be considered a culmination of this difficult director’s brilliant career.”
Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times

Shot in stark black and white, almost evocative of the desolate implications of the tale, The White Ribbon weaves vignettes of the simple and quiet existence of a feudal northern German community right before Hitler would drag history and Germany down. Probably Haneke’s most realized, confident and aesthetically enthralling vision yet, the film follows the daily routines in the seemingly uneventful lives of the village folks – stunning photographs of school days for children, secret encounters for lovers, rewarding harvest for workers, calming embraces for families – up until a troubling news of random strange acts of violence seemingly disturb and affect everyone – from children, animals, and even their properties. On the onslaught of this beguiling mystery, we dig deep down for answers, as well as for rotting secrets beneath this ostensibly postcard-perfect haven. Sheets of brutality start to uncover as the town teacher initiates his quest to unearth the perpetrator – until guilt gets in the way and impedes his purpose. The reason is the answer, and it is far from what he and any one of us expected. This disbelief, however, turns into disregard – one that the world will eternally regret after it heralds the explosion and rise of Nazi Germany and the men of the Fuhrer. That final portrait suggests the unnerving series of events to follow, none that any white ribbon can restrain. None that even history can control. Only a film of such staggering approach and reach can rightfully be labeled the year’s best film.

Well, that’s it. Feel free to share your picks on the best films of 2009. Until next year (or next month if I get around doing the lists I promised myself to compile). Let’s hope this 2010, and this coming decade be a great one for films! 🙂