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December 31, 2009

Top 10 films of '09; Give me the blue man group

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Neytiri (Zoë Saldana) and Jake (Sam Worthington) make preparations for battle in "Avatar."  (Courtesy:  20th Century Fox)

Movie critics are an eclectic bunch.  We sit in the dark and stare at a bright wall in front of us for a living.  Then we go home or to a dreary newsroom cubicle and stare at the glaring light of a computer screen to write about them.

More often than not, the moving images that spill across the movie house screens fall into the mundane category.  Or even worse:  They cater to the lowest common mainstream denominator.  Films like "The Hangover" or "Did You Hear About the Morgans?"

If you thought the films mentioned above were the finest films of 2009, please don't waste your time or mine by reading further.  Heck no, not when it's still early enough to make a screening of "Alvin and the Chipmunks:  The Squeakquel."

Occasionally, as real film critics -- not some TV weather guy or newspaper editor who catches a movie once in a while -- plod through 200 to 300 films a year, we're lucky enough to witness something truly magical unfolding on that light-splashed screen.

With that said, here's my list of the Top 10 films of 2009.  If you're interested, click on the titles to read my full review of each film.  Also, there'll be no sneaking up on the cream of the crop.  We'll start with the best of the best.

1.   "Avatar" -- With his first first narrative feature since "Titanic" in 1997, James Cameron achieves the near-impossible.  He marries cutting-edge technology with human acting and animation with such precision that I had chill bumps most of the way through.  This is a visionary futuristic sci-fi thriller simply unequaled in the history of cinema. 

2.  "Precious"-- This year's "Slumdog Millionaire," a fantastic little film-that-could-and-does, "Precious" begins in the darkest regions of human nature, abuse and ugly pigs feet boiling on a Harlem stove and takes us on a journey of remarkable redemption.  Extremely well acted by comedian Mo'Nique and newcomer Gabourney Sidibe (who portrays the title character), "Precious" offers hope to the downtrodden everywhere.

3.   "Up in the Air"-- Who knew director Jason Reitman ("Juno") could do what the Coen Bros. or even George Clooney, for that matter, couldn't do.  That's draw a pitch-perfect performance out of the guy with the easy smile and a love for his craft.  Clooney's frequent flier who fires people for a living isn't the only one who's terrific in this comic-drama.  The two key female players, Vera Farmiga ("Orphan") and Anna Kendrick ("Twilight Saga:  New Moon") are dynamite as well.

4.   "Departures"-- Even though this comic-drama from Japan took foreign film honors at the Academy Awards earlier this year, there's a chance this heartfelt, poetic tale of a failed orchestra musician who becomes a funeral assistant because he misread the want ad hasn't made it to your market yet.  If that's the case (Are you listening, San Antonio?), call your local art house and demand an immediate booking.

5.  "Inglourious Basterds"-- As Brad Pitt says in one of the finest performances of his career, "Oh yes, yes, yes, yes."  Quentin Tarantino, who began his career as a gifted, geeky movie fan, thankfully hasn't changed much.  From this aisle seat, this revisionist history tale of World War II, in which Hitler gets his real good, is the finest pulp fiction Tarantino has ever turned out.  Yep, better even than "Pulp Fiction."

6.   "The Hurt Locker"-- Hot-wired, my review headline on Kathryn Bigelow's bomb de-activation nail-biter, sums up the intensity of the Iraqi war drama pretty well.  Jeremy Renner makes a name for himself as Staff Sgt. William James, a daredevil loner member of the bomb squad who thumbs his nose at imminent danger and his fellow soldiers. 

7.   "An Education"-- Like me, you'll likely think "Lolita" remake or rip-off when you hear the adult male-drawn-to-a-much younger-schoolgirl story line.  This British import, directed by Dutch filmmaker Lone Scherfig, turns out to have an intoxicating story of its own to tell, however.  Peter Sarsgaard only leers a little and Carey Mulligan is extraordinary as Jenny, a bored 16-year-old in a hurry to grow up.

8.   "Michael Jackson's This Is It"-- I know, I know.  I'm as surprised as you might be.  Jackson's odd, macabre posthumous curtain call documentary turns into something quite remarkable, though.  Director/producer Kenny Ortega distills the creative genius of the late pop sensation from a series of pre-concert rehearsals. 

9.   "Anvil!  The Story of Anvil"-- Fame snubbed this way-back-when promising heavy metal band.  Let's not make the same mistake about director Sacha Gervasi's heart-breaking documentary that examines the souls of two rockers who never gave up on their dreams.

10. "Deadgirl"-- Don't feel left out if you've never even heard of this perverse teen horror odyssey that's not about a girl of your dreams, but a "sure thing" who's quite dead and, shall we say, writhingly lively at the same time.  Some critics drool when they can include something obscure on their Top 10 list.  That's not the case here.  I just think this sometimes comic tale of bad boys who meet their macabre match is the finest of the genre I've seen in some time.  (You should be able to find it at the DVD store.) 

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