It’s so hard to decide! But at the moment anyway, here are my top films of the year, including three films based on books for children that became movies primarily for adults:
Up in the Air The perfect timing of this story of downsizing and dislocation adds additional resonance to the canny script and graceful performances in this story of a man who learns that staying unconnected is not as easy as he thought or as comfortable as he hoped.
Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak’s spare, poetic, and deeply wise book has been lovingly unfolded into a movie about the child who lives in all of us, brave and fearful, generous and needy, angry and peaceful, confident and insecure, adventuresome and very glad to come home.
Precious Brilliant performances from Mo’Nique, Mariah Carey, Paula Patten, and newcomer Gabourey Sidibe make this brutal and disturbing story of an abused girl transcendent.
Fantastic Mr. Fox The screen is filled with enticing details, but it is the performances that keep us connected to what is going on. The story of a thieving fox is based on Roald Dahl’s book for children, expanded by director Wes Anderson and his co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach into a complex and engaging tale of the struggle between civilization and the call of the wild.
500 Days of Summer The best romance of the year is this bittersweet story of love and loss starring the marvelous Zoey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The out-of-order structure means that by the time we see those first, early moments of heady connection, we can tell that the sweetness of those initial feelings will become almost unbearably poignant.
District 9 It has cool and creepy giant insect-looking aliens and there are very cool sci-fi weapons and shoot-outs and chases and space ships and a super-cool giant insect-robot thing, and it is very exciting and scary and sometimes extremely gross (but in a cool, sci-fi way). But, like all great science fiction, it is in aid of speculative allegory. The interactions between humans and aliens all the more powerful for being understated, taken for granted, and filmed in an intimate, low-key fashion that makes it feel like a documentary.
Coraline In the grand tradition of Alice, Dorothy, Milo, and the Pevensie children, Coraline enters a portal to a magical world that is both thrilling and terrifying, one that will both enchant her and demand her greatest resources of courage and integrity. And it will teach her that she does being given whatever she wants is not what she thought — that what she thinks she wants may not be what she wants after all. The creepier it gets, the more mesmerizing the visuals, ravishingly grotesque and dazzlingly inventive.
Up Pixar makes it look easy. Just write a brilliant story about endearing characters and tell it with outstanding voice talent and stunning visuals. This one makes it 10 out of 10 for Pixar. It is the story of a journey involving a grouchy old man, an earnest little boy, an exotic bird, some talking dogs, and a zillion balloons, and it begins with a brief, almost-wordless introduction that is the sweetest on-screen love story of the year.
Star Trek Audiences should be set to stun with this splendid reboot of the 40-plus year old “Star Trek” series. By boldly going where many, many have gone before, J.J. Abrams of television’s “Lost” and “Alias” has managed to make a thoroughly entertaining film that respects the fans but stands on its own.
An Education In this story of a teenage girl who becomes involved with an older man, Danish director Lone Scherfig perfectly captures London just as it is about to move from the drab, stiff-upper-lip, world of post-WWII deprivation to the brash and explosive era of mods and rockers, Carnaby Street and the Beatles, Twiggy, “The Avengers,” and Joe Orton. All of this nicely parallels what is going on with the main character, based on a brief memoir by journalist Lynn Barber.
Runners up: “The Hurt Locker,” “The Damned United,” “Passing Strange,” Anvil: The Story of Anvil, “Cold Souls,” “It Might Get Loud,” “Sugar,” “Julie & Julia,” “Sin Nombre,” “The Princess and the Frog,” and “In the Loop” — and yes, “The Hangover.”