Top 10 cinematic sensations seen on the big screen this year

By Nora Drapalski

Charged with the task of sifting through the plotless horror tales and cringing chick flicks, we have unearthed the top 10 best movies of 2009 from beneath the piles of … bad stuff. Imagery and originality battled it out, narrowing it down to these few gems.

10. Bright Star. Although this extremely low-budget indie film (rumored to cost under $9 million to produce) managed to slip under the radar for most Americans, “Bright Star” was the most visually spectacular film introduced to the states this year. Cinematographer Greig Fraser, costume director Janet Patterson and director Jane Campion combined their efforts to create a series of breathtaking shots that are worthy of praise in composition alone. This tragic romance of the life of poet John Keats is so true to reality that the story seemingly lacks originality. But the beauty of the film itself is the reason why “Bright Star” squeezes onto the list at number 10.

9. Ponyo. Disney-distributed and Studio Ghibli-produced, “Ponyo” continues the tradition of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki weaving morals and values into a delightfully entertaining animated motion picture. The all-star ensemble cast, including Tina Fey, Liam Neeson and Matt Damon, brought this Japanese tale to life by lending their voices to the “Little Mermaid”-inspired characters. While the English dub lacks the societal relevance the original version has, “Ponyo” is still one of the best international films brought to America this year.

8. Adam. Quirky, dark and romantic – is there a better combination for a romantic comedy? Writer and director Max Mayer certainly doesn’t think so, as he displays in “Adam,” the story of a man who finds himself alone for the first time in his life after the death of his father and sole caregiver. Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of a man with Asperger’s Syndrome does not make light of the disorder; rather, his depth and devotion to the character clears the mist of misunderstanding that surrounds the syndrome. The beautiful dialogue Mayer penned provides plenty of awkward situations between the socially inept Adam (Dancy) and Beth (Rose Byrne) that are so adorable that “Adam” justly finds itself as my number-one pick for romantic comedy, and number eight on this list.

7. The Hangover. The trailers for this movie gave the impression that its level of humor would be somewhere between adolescent and infantile, and that its only saving grace might be the subversive genius of Zach Galifianakis. But the film’s humor works brilliantly, as it happens. The comedic chemistry between the aforementioned Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms not only delivered all the belly laughs appropriate for a big summer comedy, but veered toward the absurd and distasteful more often than one might expect. The writing was so sharp just on the ground level that the layer of satire coating the whole thing seemed almost superfluous.

6. District 9. A low-budget, Peter Jackson-approved independent film plucked straight from its filming in South Africa and graciously deposited in the open hands of movie fans across the country, “District 9” confronts racial prejudice through an unusual twist on the sci-fi conflict between humans and aliens. Unlike most alien invasion movies, the “Prawns” have already been living on Earth for a long period of time before the plot of the movie even begins. The conflict between the two species serves as a barely concealed metaphor of the South African apartheid, emphasized by the choice of filming location and Director Neill Blomkamp’s own childhood experiences. Humorous, depressing, overly violent, stunningly realistic for a fantasy film and not a star in sight (except for producer Peter Jackson), “District 9” redefined what blockbusters are made of.

5. Star Trek. Doesn’t it make you feel warm inside when a big-budget summer flick like this gets universal acclaim and Oscar buzz? Almost disgustingly entertaining from start to finish, “Star Trek” satiated long-time fans with canonical rigor and plenty of subtle nods, delighted fresh audiences with a wonderfully self-contained story that was light on exposition and melted the icy hearts of film critics everywhere with unpretentious, undeniable, stand-up-and-applaud fun. J.J. Abrams was already a household name after the successes of “Lost” and “Cloverfield,” but he has guaranteed his spot in the sci-fi hall of fame with this one. Plus, Leonard Nimoy was in it.

4. Inglourious Basterds. Quentin Tarantino reminded us this summer that he really likes feet, blood and spaghetti westerns. And we loved every minute of it. Even if the titular band of brutal Jews deserved a bit more screen time, the other plot-line (the one nobody knew about until they saw the movie) gave us a pair of Oscar-worthy performances from Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz. The latter, in particular, made quite an impact as Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter.” The violence was senseless, the emotion curiously genuine and Tarantino’s style as engaging as ever. The opening and climactic sequences may be the most perfect things he has ever made.

3. Up. When Pixar announced that its next hero would be a balloon-wielding old man, audiences were skeptical, but they held hope that the studio would release yet another hit. In true fashion, Pixar delivered. A comedy with an intelligent plot and heart-wrenching drive, “Up” entertained children and adults alike. It allowed the audience to derive their own meanings from the story, offering something truly different for everyone.

2. A Serious Man. The Coen brothers’ black comedy takes all the dread and alienation from “No Country for Old Men” and transplants it into a 1967 Midwestern suburb, and this time there are no silenced shotguns. Larry Gopnik, played with surprising sympathy by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a Jewish college physics professor, and bad things happen to him. The neurotic bleakness is artfully crafted, with cinematography by Roger Deakins providing a constant visual sense of suburban doom. This is the most subtly unnerving film yet by Joel and Ethan Coen, and also one of their funniest. For a movie that should be difficult to watch with all the protagonist’s tribulations, there is consistent humor in the underlying nonsense of the conflict.

1. The Hurt Locker. Cheating death is not something most people would voluntarily subject themselves to everyday of their life. However, Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner, does just this as he diffuses bombs for the U.S. Military in Iraq. In a performance generating Oscar buzz already, Renner takes on the role of a soldier in the dirty, gritty war-torn country of Iraq, with an unexpected intensity coming from the former “28 Weeks Later” star. Through careful editing and a well-developed narrative, suspense and drama thrust “The Hurt Locker” into the category of unforgettable and powerful films that can only be placed in the number-one slot.

And while they didn’t make it in time to be on this Top 10 list, “Nine,” “The Lovely Bones,” “Invictus” and “The Road” promise to be on the must-see list in the upcoming months.

Nora Drapalski can be reached at [email protected] Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]