Posted: 01/13/2010


The Gold and the Garbage in 2009

by Jef Burnham

Film Monthly Home
Wayne Case
Steve Anderson
The Rant
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
The Indies
Film Noir
Coming Soon
Now Playing
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Interviews TV

Since I’ve been compiling these lists, no year has been as rife with obvious choices as 2009. The great films were truly exceptional and the worst were among the most disgustingly abysmal of all time. So let’s get right to the point here. Since I wasn’t able to review all the films that made this list, I’ve decided to forego discussing the year in general, as I’d like to give each entry a bit of individual attention.

And here are my picks for the Best Films of 2009:

1. Das weisse Band (The White Ribbon) - I have never encountered a film so subdued, yet so intensely powerful. Michael Haneke’s screenplay and direction along with cinematography by Christian Berger conjure up shades of Bergman and Tarkovsky and other masters of European cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s. One cannot help but feel as they sit in the theater that they are watching a film from those decades past. And although it is a tale of the past with an atmosphere of the cinema of the past, with Haneke’s overwhelming minimalism and rigorous deconstructionist storytelling, it is the cinema of the future.

2. Inglourious Basterds - By 2009 I was long over my adolescent admiration of Quentin Tarantino (though I still watch Jackie Brown once a year or so). But with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino blended his penchant for extended scenes of dialogue and the conventions of Grindhouse trailers with uncharacteristic historical and artistic substance. I feared going in to the film that it would be little more than 2 ½ hours of the Basterds slaughtering Nazis, but Tarantino understood that a film reveling in the methodic destruction of another group of people is exactly the sort of thing the Nazis would go in for— which is something he depicts in the film within the film, Nation’s Pride. Tarantino made some extremely exciting artistic decisions here, which I won’t ruin for those who haven’t seen it, and I have to say that the tale of Shosanna is the most beautiful thing he has ever captured.

3. A Serious Man - Possibly the Coen Brothers’ most audacious work to date, A Serious Man accomplishes some truly incredible things, foremost among them being that it forces the audience to think or be left behind. You could ponder it for days and still not be able to fully explain this extraordinary picture.

4. Antichrist - Most of Lars von Trier’s films are controversial and this one is no exception. Antichrist is a “love it or hate it” experience, but it gets to you either way, for von Trier knows exactly how to move an audience— the sign of a master filmmaker. The despair of his characters emanates from the screen and permeates the audience and you won’t soon forget it.

5. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - How can you produce a remake that is better than the original? In the case of this remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, give it to Werner Herzog. Read my full review at:

6. Up - Whereas most family films are made to be simply “suitable” for everyone, Disney and Pixar make films that are not only appropriate for all ages, but I believe offer more for the adults than the children, utilizing just the right amount of spectacle and talking animals to keep the kids’ attentions. The montage of Carl and Ellie growing old together early in the film is one of the most honestly touching moments I’ve ever encountered in an animated film.

7. I Love You, Man - This film not only popularized the term “bromance,” making it acceptable for guys to admit their need for serious friendships, but it brought mainstream American cinema a refreshing look at male friendships NOT centered around getting laid. Read my review of the film and its DVD release at:

8. Ponyo was the first Miyazaki film I was able to see on the big screen, and it is a spectacular visual accomplishment with the typically gorgeous Miyazaki character animations accentuated by jarringly intricate colored pencil backgrounds. Of course, the story was changed slightly for the Disney dub of the film so that it makes more sense to American audiences, but the free-flowing nature of the screenplays has become an essential part of the Miyazaki experience. As an anime viewer who always prefers the original audio to the dub, I won’t feel I’ve really seen the film until it hits DVD in March, when we’ll hopefully get to see it the way Miyazaki intended .

9. Star Trek - Whilst every movie and TV series is being remade, revived or re-envisioned by Hollywood, it is rare to see one that so accurately captures the spirit of its source material. To the casual viewer of the classic Star Trek, it may appear that J.J. Abrams and his team changed EVERYTHING about the world in which the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise exists. And they would indeed be right, but only partially. There is, in fact, a great focus on alternate universes and timelines within the Star Trek television series and comic books, which Abrams used as a springboard for his series. Many people will still complain about the changes he made, but I, for one, had a blast. Read my review here:

10. A Single Man - For the directorial debut of a former Gucci fashion designer whose only previous film experience was as the tailor on Quantum of Solace, Tom Ford’s A Single Man is a surprisingly beautiful and often touching film. The only things that taint the experience are a fairly hokey ending and the existence of the similar and superior 1963 Louis Malle film, The Fire Within (which is available from The Criterion Collection, by the way).

Honorable Mentions:
~ Crazy Heart
~ Fantastic Mr. Fox
~ Moon
~ Paper Heart
~ Pontypool
~ Public Enemies
~ Trick ‘r Treat

Now, at the risk of drudging up a lot of bad memories, let’s touch ever-so-briefly on my picks for the Worst Films of 2009:

1. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra represents all that is wrong with the Hollywood system. With no plot, no originality and no substance, this lifeless waste sucks the talent out of even the most talented members of the cast.

2. Dragonball: Evolution - Refer to the previous entry.

3. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - Refer to the previous two entries.

4. Friday the 13th - Similarly, this movie manages to bastardize a franchise that has long since managed to bastardize itself. Unlike the first three films on the list, there actually is one interesting character here, but he’s the first camper to be killed, so what’s the point? Well, there is none.

5. The Taking of Pelham 123 - If G.I. Joe had been good for a few laughs, it would have been The Taking of Pelham 123. It’s completely nonsensical, ineptly shot and edited, and I’m not sure why anyone is still impressed with Tony Scott. True Romance is fine and Top Gun is generally considered an American action classic (though I’m not fond of it personally), but really, he can thank Quentin Tarantino and Kenny Loggins for that.

6. Avatar - I know, I know, everyone is supposed to love Avatar. That’s what the media says anyway. Apart from the effects, Avatar has nothing more to offer than twelfth generation hand-me-down scraps of bad Saturday morning TV storytelling and dialogue. You can spend all the hundreds of millions of dollars you want on special effects, but a bad script is still a bad script.

7. Angels & Demons - The title promises a war and the premise promises an ancient conspiracy, but this film fails to deliver… anything really. The mystery is more like a maze than a substantive puzzle, and the characters are working through a forest of exposition so thick that Tom Hanks is perpetually shouting out back story, even in the midst of a full sprint. On top of that, it’s boring.

8. Year One - Not funny.

9. Watchmen - If it hadn’t been filmed entirely in slow motion, had a preposterous soundtrack and not completely contradicted itself in the changes the filmmakers made from the ending of the graphic novel, this would have been… well… the graphic novel. So not only was this unnecessary, but it was a failure. Way to go, Zack Snyder.

10. 2012 - I was surprised by how much I was enjoying the first half of 2012, despite some awkward conversations and a handful of overly contrived characters, but the film tanked HARD in the last half. Not to mention, the last line of the picture is arguably one of the worst lines ever— last or otherwise.

Dishonorable Mentions:
~ An Education
~ Cheri
~ Gentlemen Broncos
~ Knowing
~ Sherlock Holmes
~ The Soloist

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of

Got a problem? E-mail us at