1. Inglourious Basterds
World War II may be the subject of more films than any other historical event, but no historical film in recent memory seem quite as audacious as director Quentin Tarantino’s violent opus. In rewriting the history of the War, “Basterds” provides a unique kind of wish fulfillment. It turns sadistic violence into a campy send-up of historical reverence and pushes to the limit film’s ability to imagine and craft its own version of history.
2. The White Ribbon
Austrian director Michael Haneke’s films are sometimes impenetrable, their ambiguity bordering on confounding. Even at their most difficult, they’re also very profound and carefully designed. This careful examination of recurring violence in a repressed German town in 1914 borders on formal perfection; all the visual elements work in sublime unison.
3. The Hurt Locker
The best and most mature film about the Iraq War to date, Kathryn Bigelow’s airtight thriller ratchets up a devastating level of suspense and somehow manages to sustain it for the entire running time. Following an elite bomb squad through urban streets and deserts where death lies inches below the sand, it details the spontaneity of violence and the relentlessness of life as a foot soldier.
4. A Serious Man
The Coen brothers turn their sharply realized and borderline misanthropic explorations of culture squarely on a seemingly cursed Jewish professor in the 1960s. The result is an ambiguous, nuanced, and outrageous black comedy about the constraints of religion on society and individual choice.
5. (500) Days of Summer
The formula of boy-meets-girl romantic comedies is nothing new, but this quirky independent feature bursts at the seams with visual invention. From an impromptu dance number to a split-screen fantasy, it seems to reinvent the genre from the ground up.
It polarizes audiences like almost no other with its frank and excessive violence, but this meditation on the evil natures of man and woman is a commanding and stunningly executed examination of psychological breakdown and trauma.
7. Up in the Air
Jason Reitman’s third feature is effortless in its charm and grace, a perfectly pitched look at our national anxieties related through the tragicomic lens of George Clooney’s “transition counselor,” a man who makes a killing off firing others. It’s a small, witty portrait of professional crisis and personal discovery.
8. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s penchant for dioramic storytelling and quirky families perfectly marries this stop-motion animation adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic. Superb voice acting underscores the highly stylized sets and character motion. It feels like walking into a wildly entertaining dream.
2009 was a great year for science fiction and fantasy, and “Moon” is a brooding, overlooked cerebral treat in the vein of “Blade Runner” or “Solaris.” Sam Rockwell, one of Hollywood’s most underrated character actors, gives a tour de force performance in this thought-provoking study of isolation and identity crisis.
10. In the Loop
Profanity flies a mile a minute in this delirious and occasionally distressing satire of colloquial politics, where delegates from Britain and the US jockey to either jumpstart or avert a vague war in an unnamed Middle-eastern country. The dialogue and performances are razor-sharp in their comedic potency.
11. Drag Me to Hell
12. Where the Wild Things Are
13. An Education
14. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
15. District 9