Without further ado, then, my 10 best movies of the year with some footnotes about films that almost made my list and other memorable matters.
1. SUMMER HOURS
2. THE HURT LOCKER
3. UP IN THE AIR
4. A SERIOUS MAN
5. IN THE LOOP
6. THE INFORMANT!
8. 35 SHOTS OF RUM
9. THE BEACHES OF AGNES.
10. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS
I'm going to cheat a bit here, and add one more movie to my list, the film I regard as the year's best animated entertainment:
HONORABLE MENTION FOR THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Not unlike health-care legislation, a 10-best list involves a series of ugly compromises. I could have gone in different directions. Take documentaries: I was partial to Every Little Step, Anvil: The Story of Anvil and My Neighbor, My Killer, which played at the Starz Denver Film Festival and which dealt with attempts at reconciliation in Rwarnda. I went for Varda's movie out of a sense of fondness for a director who insists on following her own muse.
Had I been able to see the five-hour version of John Woo's Red Cliff, it probably would have made my list. I passed because thus far I've seen only the condensed two-and-a-half hour edition that was released theatrically in the U.S. What I saw suggested that Woo may have made his masterpiece.
When it came to acting, 2009 was a strong year. Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Nelson Mandela in Invictus was quiet, subtle and revealing. Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer were superb as Mr. and Mrs. Tolstoy in The Last Station. Tom Hardy was spectacular as Britain's most violent convict in the little-seen Bronson, and Christian McKay accomplished the near-impossible in Me and Orson Welles: He brought Orson Welles back to life -- arrogance, genius and all.
Young women -- Carey Mulligan in An Education, Abbie Cornish in Bright Star and Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria -- distinguished themselves in 2009. And, yes, Mo'Nique stopped me in my tracks as an abusive mother in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Saphire.
I had my qualms about Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but Christoph Waltz deserves big-time praise for creating one of the most frightening characters of the year: Hans Landa, a terrifyingly polite SS officer.
I don't think most people realized -- and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences probably won't either -- that Michael Jackson: This is It was a triumph of editing. Credit a talented team of editors who made something coherent and even revealing out of tons of raw footage.
Some of year's stronger movies flew under the radar of hype: Director Ramin Bahrani continued to explore the "real" America with Goodbye Solo, an unsentimental look at the oddball relationship between a bitter white southerner (Red West) and a taxi driver (Souleymane Sy Savane) who emigrated to the U.S. from Senegal. Director Sergei Dvortsevoy took us to the steppes of Kazakhstan for Tulpan, a simple story about a herdsman who wants nothing more than to find a wife. German director Uli Edel may have made the year's most exciting thriller by telling the real life story of the Baader Meinhof gang in his Baader Meinhof Complex.
Special mention is due The Messenger, which stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as soldiers assigned to deliver news of GI deaths to their next of kin. To my way of thinking, director Oren Moverman came closer than anyone to date in showing the deep and abiding impact of war on the lives of those who survive it.
And one final note: I haven't had a chance to review A Single Man, but I have seen the movie. Director Tom Ford's finely wrought adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel about a gay English professor trying to cope with the death of his partner is graced by an admirably restrained performance from Colin Firth, as the English professor, and by a sad, nervy performance from Julianne Moore, as an increasingly desperate and lonely woman.
So that's it for 2009. With the awards season looming, we'll hear a lot more about the year's best movies, but I always enjoy the prospect of moving on.
People sometimes ask me to name the best movie I've ever seen.
Of course, I could pick a movie, but I always prefer to answer with hope rather than history.
"My favorite movie ever? I hope I haven't seen it yet."