Best films of 2009

By Russell Baillie, Francesca Rudkin, Peter Calder

Avatar. Photo / Supplied
Avatar. Photo / Supplied

1 Avatar
Director: James Cameron
USA

Yes, its story about nature-worshipping creatures from another planet suffering ecological terrorism at the hands of plundering Earthlings proved there was nothing new under the sun - even if we are in a whole different solar system. But James Cameron's mega-budget, Weta-shaped epic was the most mind-blowing cinema experience of many a year. On screen, the 3D world of Pandora and its lithe blue residents the Na'vi, rewire your suspension of disbelief. And for a love story, the treetop romance at the centre between a human-alien hybrid "avatar" being driven by the mind of a paralysed marine and a Na'vi warrior princess sure beats a couple of kids running around a sinking ship. (RB)

2 Gomorrah
Director: Matteo Garrone
Italy

An unflinching vision of hell on Earth, this unsentimental and angry film was a fiction in which every frame had the unmistakable ring of truth. Working from an expose by a journalist, it stripped the Neapolitan mafia of any sentimental Godfather sheen as it evoked with a chilling detachment the casual brutality of their world.

A bona fide masterpiece. (PC)

3 Up
Director: Pete Docter
USA

After toys, bugs, cars, superheroes, monsters, robots, fish, and rats, the hero of the 10th film from computer animation hit factory Pixar was its weirdest yet - a grumpy old man. Who wants to see one of those in a cartoon? Plenty apparently. Especially when the coot in question, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) decided to fulfil a promise to his late wife by ballooning his house to South America. There, he and a young stowaway embarked on a jungle adventure that did madcap things with an endangered species, a pack of talking dogs and a baddie in a blimp. Like all Pixar flicks, Up was a visual wonder, but it also had as much heart as hilarity. (RB)

4 District 9
Director: Neill Blomkamp
South Africa

Costing a fraction of the year's many dumb and derivative blockbusters, this was a thrilling rethink of the alien invasion movie. Director Blomkamp - backed by producer Peter Jackson - delivered a first feature that was both splatter-happy action flick and a socio-political allegory about life in post-apartheid South Africa where a spaceship of insectoid aliens have taken up refuge in a Johannesburg shantytown. While the set-up was imaginative, the film's canniest trick was telling its story through the eyes of Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a nobody from the corporation charged with policing the ETs, who finds out what a bug's life is really like. (RB)

5 An Education
Director: Lone Scherfig
UK

Danish director Scherfig worked from Nick Hornby's pitch-perfect script to create an emotionally intelligent screen version of journalist Lynn Barber's coming-of-age memoir. Perfectly evoking its time and place and driven by a star-making turn from Carey Mulligan, it was irresistible and beautifully paced entertainment. (PC)

6 The Class
Director: Laurent Cantet
France

More than a docudrama, this Cannes Palme d'Or winner did not recreate observed reality but let a particular kind of reality be born anew. The result, a portrait of classroom life dripping with authenticity, achieved a cinematic alchemy that verged on the miraculous and was the most exhilarating movie experience of this reviewer's year. (PC)

7 Mary and Max
Director: Adam Elliot
Australia

This claymation black comedy had it all - Asperger's syndrome, obesity, addiction, agoraphobia, low self-esteem, depression and loneliness. But its story of unlikely penpals, 8-year-old Aussie girl Mary (voiced by Toni Colette) and 44-year-old New Yorker Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) was a heartening portrait of a long-lasting friendship in a film that was both wicked and witty. And one featuring, despite being made of plasticine, two of the year's most memorable characters. (FR)

8 Man on Wire
Director: James Marsh
USA

The documentary about "the artistic crime of the century" - a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center - was unhampered by the lack of a moving image record of the feat. Still toe-curlingly dizzying at times, it captured the audacious escapade mainly as a triumph of the poetic imagination. Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending never sounded so sublime. (PC)

9 Samson and Delilah
Director: Warwick Thornton
Australia

This grimly beautiful drama about teenage aboriginal lovers in central Australia told its story with great precision and scarcely a word of dialogue. The bleak lives of the title characters were infused with a faltering sense of hope in a film of subtlety and skill which had its share of whimsy and wicked humour. (PC)

10 I've Loved You So Long
Director: Philippe Claudel
France

Kristin Scott Thomas has emerged as one of the French cinema's best actresses in recent years and she was at the top of her game here, playing a woman with a past who returns after a long absence to her dysfunctional family. Her frighteningly contained performance was a revelation to those who have known her only as an icy, aloof beauty. (PC)

11 500 Days of Summer
Director: Marc Webb
USA

In a year of remarkably stupid romantic comedies, this oddball unrequited love story stood out for not playing it dumb. It also played it honest with truthful observations about the nature of relationships and heartbreak in its non-chronological recounting of the on-again, off-again affair between Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a guy who believes in destiny and commitment and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a gal who doesn't and isn't about to have her mind changed. (FR)

12 Hunger
Director: Steve McQueen
UK

Short, brutal and brilliant, this work by a Turner Prize-winning artist focused on the fatal 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands, not taking sides but unflinchingly confronting the reality of the experience. An 18-minute single-shot scene was one of many things that made this one of the year's most striking films. (PC)

13 In the Loop
Director: Armando Ianucci
UK

The feature-length spin-off of the BBC series The Thick Of It was a cynical, acid and gleefully profane satire on power politics driven by a 150-watt performance by Peter Capaldi as an Alastair Campbell clone. This was Yes, Minister with an overdose of steroids, so funny it hurt. (PC)

14 The Cove
Director: Louie Psihoyos
USA

An unabashedly polemical eco-documentary with the pounding heart of thriller, this zoomed in on a small village in Japan which captures dolphins for marinelands and slaughters, 20,000 at a time, the animals that don't sell. In daring raids captured on infra-red film, the activists highlight a world trade of which this is just a small part. (PC)

15 Star Trek
Director: J.J. Abrams
USA

This 11th feature successfully rebooted the age-old spaceship saga with a prequel which tapped into all that Trek history but bent it to its own ends and timeline. And while its big action had the USS Enterprise on its first mission under the captaincy of James T. Kirk up against rogue planet-destroying Romulans, the film was just as much fun for depicting Kirk and Spock's early years - and via a nifty time loop, bringing back Leonard Nimoy as the original Vulcan first officer to impart some words of wisdom and logic. (RB)

16 Tyson
Director: James Toback
USA

More than a biopic, this portrait of one of the most ferocious fighters in the history of boxing was as revealing as it was dazzling. Avoiding both high-mindedness and special pleading, Toback, a longtime friend of Tyson's, made no attempt at balance, instead letting the faded fighter riff on his favourite subject - himself. The result was an instant classic of the genre. (PC)

17 Julie & Julia
Director: Nora Ephron
USA

The first mainstream feature based on a blog, this portrait of one woman's passion for French cooking maven Julia Child was also a portrait of Child - and Meryl Streep was beyond fabulous as the TV chef. Channelling the screwball comedies of the mid-century it was infused with a warm and generous spirit all of its own. Delicious. (PC)

18 Milk
Director: Gus Van Sant
USA

Sean Penn's Oscar-winning incarnation of the first openly gay man elected to public office in the US, was the heart of a project that avoided canonising its subject, showing him as a flawed, extravagant, uncompromising, even slightly messy idealist but a man of boundless charisma. A landmark film. (PC)

19 Inglourious Basterds
Director: Quentin Tarantino
USA

As with his previous genre forays, Quentin Tarantino's World War II raid was a very movie kind of movie - its adventures in Nazi-occupied France were pure cinematic invention. But what outlandish fun they were across its Pulp Fiction-like five chapters which took its own grandly indulgent time to plot a collision between the titular squad of Jewish-American commandos, Diane Kruger's German film star cum spy, Christoph Waltz's SS colonel and Melanie Laurent's vengeful cinema owner. (RB)

20 Frozen River
Director: Courtney Hunt
USA

The blink-and-you'll-miss it indie cracker of the year was an assured feature debut set in snowbound upstate New York, where a hard-pressed solo mum was drawn into a scam. There are debts to Ken Loach, but the film avoided preachiness and piety and its implications in a post-9/11 world were disturbing. (PC)

- NZ Herald

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