At the highest level of the cinematic art form, 2009, for the American viewer, benefited mightily from those delays in distribution that greet most international art releases today. For this writer, the half-dozen best films of 2008 (Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours, Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum and James Gray's US co-production Two Lovers) all premiered theatrically in 2009, as did Hirokazu Kore-eda's similarly accomplished Still Walking, Christian Petzold's Jerichow and even the leading candidate for US critical favorite of the year, Kathryn Bigelow's heavily auteurist, Iraqi war action film, The Hurt Locker. (Jeremy Renner's exceptional performance carried the director's strong effort.) 2009 would have been far poorer without the relatively strong 2008.
Three of Cannes' multiple succès de scandale in 2009 did, however, obtain US distribution during the calendar year: Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon. Of these, von Trier's Antichrist received the chilliest US critical reception, somewhat unfairly in the opinion of this writer: however unpleasant, Antichrist did manifest a coherent, valid point-of-view, while the vastly preferred Inglourious Basterds seems to have mostly skirted critical disfavor in the US, in spite of a revisionism that put its Jewish protagonists in the highly problematic role of suicide bombers. Haneke's novelistic film can claim one of the year's most consistently rich set of visuals, mobilized frequently with a strong off-camera field where the film's sexual violence is made to occur (often with dramatic temporal distensions to amplify the effect; Haneke truly is one of the world's more skilled visual storytellers). When Haneke turns toward the psychology of the future National Socialists in their youth, however, the film diminishes somewhat.
Another candidate for film of the year, James Cameron's Avatar, boasting perhaps the richest color palette of 2009 - thanks to extraordinary luminous, neon-inflected schema - represented an unmistakable leap forward for 3D technology in its subtle construction of cubic space. Nonetheless, Avatar suffers greatly from its cynicism and especially from the contradictions inherent, for this technological summit, in its critiques of civilization, imperialism, industrialization and militarism. Avatar and its possible sequels will make the obscenely wealthy Cameron even wealthier, while preaching an Eco gospel that would deny such success to the rest of us - it really pays to be a prophet. (Also among other American films that this writer liked less than most were the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, a Job without redemption, and Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's Up.)
Rating among the better English-language films of 2009, were, for this writer, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (pictured), an exceedingly natural, organic and charming translation of the auteur's heavily constructed diegetic spaces into stop motion (with his resilient families and communities still conspicuously present); Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, the second on a decade-bracketing, modernist double bill with Lynch's Mulholland Drive; Jane Campion's Bright Star, a return to her 1990s form, and to that decade's films of quality; Clint Eastwood's Invictus, one of the decisive expressions of the Obama moment; Judd Apatow's Funny People, for the further development of the Adam Sandler persona (one of the decade's more interesting developments); Mike Judge's Extract, a perceptive and very funny defense of the employer; Lone Scherfig's An Education, primarily for its exceptional performances; and two blockbusters of higher quality, J. J. Abrams' Star Trek and David Yates' Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
Of those films that this writer managed to see at the New York Film Festival, the finest were Corneliu Porumboiu's masterpiece Police, Adjective, Jacques Rivette's career summation Around a Small Mountain, Claire Denis's White Material (her second great film of 2009), Bong Joon-ho's Mother and Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl. Films of higher quality were more rare at this year's New York Asian Film Festival, though this writer admired Pang Ho-cheung's Exodus and Yoshihiro Nakamura's Fish Story.
Lastly, there were the older films that this writer saw for the first time, which not unexpectedly for a film scholar, greatly outnumbered new releases. In lieu of citing the best here, this author has posted his sixty-five favorites over at affiliate site Ten Best Films. (Special thanks are due here to Richard Suchenski and R. Emmet Sweeney for their fine recommendations, many of which made my list of choices.) Suffice it to say that 2009 was foremost, for this writer, a year of unexpected treasures from the pre-Code and late classical eras of Hollywood - along with the year in which I became both an Eastwood and, most significantly, a Howard Hawks completist. It was for these reasons that 2009 was a very good year.
Note: Linked below are my choices for the year's best films, along with those of my colleagues from New York and New Haven. The second annual Mini-Poll of our collective choices is available on Tativille's sister site, Ten Best Films.