Saving some of its best for last, the film industry finished 2009 with a bang-helped in large part by the biggest Christmas day and Christmas week box office results in history. “Avatar,” “The Blindside,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and Disney’s “A Christmas Carol,” were all still doing boffo business at year’s end.
With less reliance on superhero themes and sequels, this year’s best films got back to the basics of excellent original screenplays and strong storytelling. While few of last year’s films-save maybe one or two-would be considered instant classics, at least 10 stood apart from the rest. Even in tough economic times, going to the movies was still at the top of most people’s favorite leisure time activities. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has increased its best picture nominees to 10, so here are my picks in that expanded category (in no particular order):
“Avatar”: In a breakout year for 3D technology, James Cameron’s vision of Pandora came like a bolt from the blue…literally. Setting a new standard visually for sure, but a good story and memorable characters help. (Just ask George Lucas.)
“The Hurt Locker”: There is a reason this limited release film about a bomb disposal unit in Baghdad is on every critic’s “best of” list. Heart pounding suspense and a high stakes thriller.
“Up”: Proving again its mastery, Pixar also continues to surprise with this sentimental and joyous story about elderly widower Carl and his accidental passenger Russell and their memorable flight to Paradise Falls.
“Inglourious Basterds”: Quentin Tarantino finally lives up to his reputation by making a suspenseful, well-acted, complete film about Nazi killers led by Brad Pitt and one unforgettable and seriously scary S.S. Colonel.
“The Blindside”: This true story about a projects kid-turned-pro football player is grounded in a solid performance by Sandra Bullock and maintains just enough grit without sacrificing its mass appeal.
“The Princess and the Frog”: Disney’s first black princess is a secondary reason to see this throwback to vibrant hand painted animation. Great bayou characters and delightful Dixieland music make it a must-see.
“Star Trek”: Few films lived up to such immeasurable hype as this re-booted franchise winner. The action and actors boldly went where even non-nerds agreed the Enterprise had never gone before.
“Up in the Air”: Sharply written and superbly acted story featuring George Clooney at his most charismatic and vulnerable as a corporate hit man. At times tragic, at others touching, but couldn’t be more timely.
“Sherlock Holmes”: Maybe it’s the genius pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, but this fun, detailed, impressively shot, fast-paced update of Doyle’s classic gives birth to film’s first super-sleuth.
“(500) Days of Summer”: How can a date movie make you think? By flipping conventions on their ear and still speaking truth about today’s relationships.
Just missed the cut: “State of Play,” “Whip It,” “Drag Me to Hell,” “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Taken,” “Public Enemies.”
If you see just one documentary: “The Cove”
Magnificent Meryl: “It’s Complicated,” and “Julie & Julia”
Most Underrated: “Fame”
Worst Movie of the Year: “Observe and Report.” Is Seth Rogen’s 15 minutes up yet?
Here’s Hoping: Instead of building more screens, our local theater companies will invest in renovating and cleaning up our existing theaters.