The Year in Movies: Blockbusters, Genre Flicks, Indie Dramas, and Foreign Titles

Big Fan

The Wrestler screenwriter Robert D. Siegel turned his eye to the bleachers in his directorial debut, following New York Giants fanatic Paul Aufiero (funnyman Patton Oswalt) through the toughest season of his life. A fine recipe for comedy, but Siegel treats it as another melancholy character study, contrasting Paul's scripted confidence in sports radio call-ins with the meek depressive living in his mother's upstairs bedroom. Oswalt turns in a performance nearly as good as Mickey Rourke as Randy the Ram, and twice as surprising. (Nick Huinker)

Crank: High Voltage

Avatar came pre-slathered in "game-changing" hyperbole, but for my money the mainstream American film that pushed cinema forward the most in 2009 was the breathless, balls-silly sequel to 2006's Crank, which finds casually superhuman hitman Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) in search of his own stolen heart. The gimmick (Chev has to find varying sources of electricity to keep an artificial heart pumping) would be suitably batty by itself, but writing/directing team Neveldine/Taylor's endlessly inventive visual barrage—think Michael Bay pumped full of PCP and comic book ink—announces the duo as prankster virtuosos. (N.H.)

District 9

Sharp-edged social commentary and creepy body horror don't exactly sound like a recipe for a fun movie experience, but Neill Blomkamp's grisly creature feature turned out to be one of the most satisfying genre films in recent memory. Making truly clever use of the now-familiar faux documentary/found-footage gimmick, the film has some uncomfortable things to say about our society, and it says them in really entertaining ways with aliens, witch doctors, and giant frigging robot suits. (April Snellings)

Drag Me to Hell

Sam Raimi took his beloved horror genre out of the torture chamber and put it back in the funhouse with his first fright flick since 1992's Army of Darkness. Inspired by the 1957 British chiller Night of the Demon and bolstered by Lorna Raver's insane performance as a slimy gypsy granny who lowers the demonic boom on Alison Lohman's doe-eyed loan officer, Drag Me to Hell is an EC comic book come to life. (A.S.)

Gomorrah

Gangsters usually get glamorized in movies, even when they're gobbling gabagool and getting whacked. Not so in Matteo Garrone's fact-based depiction of Southern Italian mob the Camorra. An unflashy, documentary-style drama, Gomorrah captures the grim realities of thug life even as its tentacles extend to African docks and Hollywood red carpets. There are no heroes to root for, but then there's no winning, so it all works out. (Lee Gardner)

Hunger

This little-seen film centers on the events of the 1981 Provisional Irish Republican Army hunger strike in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in which Bobby Sands (Inglourious Basterds' Michael Fassbender) starved himself to death, along with nine others, while the world counted the days. As a straight historical drama, the story would likely be drowsy public-television fare. In the hands of British visual artist Steve McQueen, however, it's an elliptical, visually stunning, brilliantly acted look at the cost to the soul of the mortification of the flesh, for both Catholic prisoners and Protestant keepers alike. (L.G.)

The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's relentlessly tense, character-driven thriller avoids the politics of an unpopular war in favor of exploring the unnerving experience of the men and women who are actually fighting it. The beautifully executed action sequences are frequent and thrilling, but what happens between them is just as riveting. Featuring a powerhouse performance by Jeremy Renner as the too-cavalier leader of a bomb disposal unit, The Hurt Locker is an exhaustingly suspenseful meditation on the futility of war and the addiction to battle that keeps some soldiers going back for more. (A.S.)

In the Loop

This British political satire is so blisteringly hilarious and so biting that it makes The Daily Show look like the Capitol Steps. A boobish cabinet minister (Tom Hollander) gets tangled in his own doublespeak and seems to move his country toward war. It's up to his government (including profane fixer Peter Capaldi) to rein in the situation as the U.S. government (including James Gandolfini as a shrewd general) tries to take advantage. Global politics as the plaything of shallow know-nothings out for their own may not be comforting, but it makes a lot of sense. (L.G.)

Moon

It would have been easy for Duncan Jones' insular sci-fi sleeper to end up politely navel-gazing, and it still may well have been a fine film. Tackling a heady, minimalist scenario in which a man (Sam Rockwell) living alone in a lunar mining outpost finds his own body (Sam Rockwell) in a wrecked rover, Moon consciously evokes starry tone poems like 2001 and Steve Soderbergh's underrated Solaris remake, and doesn't skimp on the psychology. Still, the film breezes by, using every theme and idea in service of a smart, often thrilling story, supported by Jones' low-gravity style and a pair of performances that reaffirm Rockwell as Hollywood's secret weapon. (N.H.)

Observe and Report

If laugh mogul Judd Apatow's Boring People inched his stranglehold on film comedy toward the curb, Observe and Report drop-kicked it into the street. Jody Hill's accomplished follow-up to The Foot-Fist Way blindsided scores of Seth Rogen fans (not to mention any poor sap who wandered in expecting Paul Blart Redux) by choosing sociopathy over de rigeur emotional intelligence in the story of a psychologically troubled young man and the mall he has sworn to protect. A firm reminder that amiability—however foul-mouthed—is the enemy of edginess, and that genuinely challenging films like Observe and Report (which owes more to Paul Schrader than Judd Apatow) will always have more to contribute to comedy. (N.H.)

A Serious Man

It walks and talks like just another Coen Brothers comedy—the outlandish characters, the deadpan gags, the non-sequitur obsessions (ears, Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love")—but this revisiting of the Book of Job via tremulous Midwestern Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik (the astonishing Michael Stuhlbarg) is both their funniest movie in years and their most slyly profound. The lavishly affectionate/mocking depiction of the Jewish culture of the Coens' own Minnesota childhood is incidental in the end. Comedy or not, A Serious Man makes plain that the joke is on us. (L.G.)

Star Trek

Who knew there was so much life left in Gene Roddenberry's 43-year-old franchise? J.J. Abrams' sublime reboot embraced the series' space-opera roots to deliver a breathlessly paced adventure movie whose characters never take second billing to the film's impressive special effects. The script may have been spotty in places, and some of its logic downright dodgy, but audiences were too busy having fun to notice. (A.S.)

Up

Pixar's 10th full-length film frequently and effortlessly achieves one of the ultimate goals of cinema: to invest objects and images with so much emotion that words are superfluous. Up's now-famous opening sequence recounting several decades in its hero's life is some of the finest storytelling we've seen lately, in any medium. Up doesn't maintain that level of poignancy or impact, of course, but it's a beautifully animated, frequently funny, and often touching adventure yarn about the redemptive powers of love and friendship. (A.S.)

Wendy and Lucy

With her hoodie, beat-up Honda, and devoted dog, Wendy (Michelle Williams) could be almost any nice young woman you know, which is why her slow-motion slide into desperation in Kelly Reichardt's film is so agonizing. Traveling toward a new life on a slim bankroll, Wendy's car breaks down and each subsequent click of the plot's inexorable wheels is like another rung on the rack for protagonist and viewer alike. Reichardt's patient direction and Williams' uncannily unaffected performance make this the first great film of the Great Recession. (L.G.)

Where the Wild Things Are

Reaction from unsuspecting parents and children left the impression that Spike Jonze's long-gestating Maurice Sendak adaptation was a dour, unsuitable slog, but here's betting its reputation will continue to grow as the most notable among 2009's strong crop of family films. It makes a point of directly implicating kids in emotionally challenging material that most family films would simply gloss over, but Jonze presents Max's thoughts and feelings with an authenticity that negates the criticism. The most beautiful film of 2009, in every way. (N.H.)