As 2009 limps to a close, this whole week will be "best of" lists, and I hope you'll leave your own favorites in the comments section.
I didn't see nearly as many movies in the theater this year as I usually do, and missed several big ones. Among others, I still haven't seen Fantastic Mr. Fox, Star Trek, or Where the Wild Things Are. I plan to do some serious catching up on year-end movies this weekend.
But of the films I did see in the theater, these were the best. In alphabetical order:
1. The Brothers Bloom. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo are career con artists, aided and abetted by the mysterious and deadly Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). Brody, tired of the lifestyle, gets Ruffalo to agree to let him quit after one last job — an elaborate swindle of a lonely, eccentric heiress (Rachel Weisz). Of course Brody's character falls in love with the heiress, but that is only the first twist in this adorable, surprising, ultimately moving adventure. An instant classic, and a movie I'd like to own.
2. Drag Me to Hell. Written by Sam Raimi and Ivan Raimi, directed by Sam Raimi. The kind of straightforward horror film no one's making any more, but so entertaining that I hope it starts a trend. Junior bank officer Alison Lohman denies an old gypsy woman's desperate plea for more time to pay her mortgage, and becomes the target of a deadly curse. Lohman's character seeks help from a slick "spiritual advisor" (Dileep Rao, a regular at the pub trivia night I used to frequent in Santa Monica) who arranges a seance designed to trap and banish the demon haunting her. As always in these movies, things don't go as planned.
3. Every Little Step. Directed by Adam del Deo and James D. Stern. A short (96 minutes), powerful documentary history of "A Chorus Line," from the show's genesis in dozens of hours of tapes of Broadway performers' life stories to its triumphant 2006 Broadway revival. Must-viewing for anyone interested in musical theater, even if you're not especially fond of this show.
4. Up. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Thomas McCarthy; screenplay by Peterson and Docter; directed by Pete Docter, co-directed by Bob Peterson. I saw it in 3-D, which was both subtle and spectacular. I sobbed at the opening sequence, a perfect 20-minute love story that is also a cautionary tale about not waiting too long to follow your dreams. And I laughed out loud at Dug, the talking dog, and the adventures of 78-year-old Carl and eight-year-old Russell in the jungles of South America. This is another movie I may need to buy.
5. Up in the Air. Written by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner from the novel by Walter Kirn; directed by Jason Reitman. In the future, if anyone wants to know what life in the United States was like in 2009, the lesson can start with this movie. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, who works for a consulting firm that handles employee layoffs for large corporations. He spends more than 320 days a year in the air, and he likes it that way: his first loyalty is not to family or friends but to the American Airlines frequent flyer program. When his company decides to try laying people off by teleconference, though, his entire lifestyle is threatened; to prove the value of what he does, he takes the young woman who developed the teleconferencing plan (Anna Kendrick) on the road with him. Along the way he meets the beautiful Alex (Vera Farmiga), who lives a similar life and might be the match he didn't realize he was looking for. Nothing about this movie is obvious or predictable. It twists and turns and is ultimately true to itself and its characters, and I'd even like to see it again in the theater.