Staff Selects: The Best of 2009

A Serious Man

The Coen brothers have made a career of great films so distinct in style that there is no confusing them for anyone else’s work, yet so different from each other that everyone has a different favorite. After winning their Oscars for No Country for Old Men, the brothers made the type of film that only an Oscar could get them support for and the type that no one else could ever make. A Serious Man, the best of 2009 and the best the Coens have to offer, is a labor of love that is equal parts tragic and hilarious. Its basis is in the Jewish faith and it philosophizes through a number of parables and the film as a whole, but manages to avoid the traps many similarly grandiose ideological films fall into and it remains fun throughout. Especially when Sy Ableman illuminates the screen. [Henry Baime]

Silent Light

Premiering at Cannes in 2007, though not landing its US release until early 2009, Silent Light made an impact on critics and filmmakers alike, with Barry Jenkins, Martin Scorsese, and Paweł Pawlikowski all showering it with praise. The plot is simple: a married man falls in love with another woman. And though the film’s narrative is emotionally charged, exuding sympathy for the three central characters of the love triangle, its primary strength is the exquisite formalism and astonishing cinematography. Director Carlos Reygadas trains the camera toward achingly gorgeous images ranging from wide shots of sweeping landscapes to a close up of a pendulum clock, but every image is hypnotic and meticulously composed. 

Regardless of what he’s framing, he approaches each scene with a patient eye, allowing the shot to linger, submerging the audience in the film’s meditative atmosphere. Purely from an aesthetic standpoint, Silent Light feels like a combination of the intoxicating and empathetic imagery from The Tree of Life, viewed through the meditative and observant lens of Michael Haneke. It’s a confluence that radiates an aura of graceful simplicity unlike anything put to film. The opening and closing shots – a sunrise and sunset unfolding on the horizon, seemingly in real time – are two of the most magnificent shots I’ve ever seen. Beyond being my favorite film of 2009, Silent Light is a strong contender for my favorite film of the century. [Kern Wheeling]


Written amid the all-consuming throes of crippling depression and anxiety, Antichrist sees Lars von Trier deliver an inverse Sermon on the Mount, upending genre convention to lay bare depravities of the psyche ordinarily dormant. If Marriage Story is a forgiving, theatrical depiction of a fractured relationship, Antichrist is a phantasmagorical portrayal of the fractures themselves, an examination of the unstable forces that at once drive us together and apart. Tragedy and sexual ecstasy are inextricably linked in a fateful moment that precipitates a journey into the bowels of relationship hell, and von Trier is not satisfied with mere surface level analysis of our minor failings and frailties. He probes deep into the unconscious mind to mine for hidden truths – the palpable power of the id, the soul stripped of morality like flesh from bone, our innate drive to create, destroy and self-destruct, the coalescence of fear and desire.

The genius of Antichrist is that von Trier wraps it all up in a subversion of one of horror’s most well-worn tropes: the cabin in the woods. This basic structure is used as a device to exploit the expectations of his audience, a portal to a level of profundity and profanity they could never have prepared for. Antichrist isn’t just one of my favourite films of 2009, it is one of my favourite films of all time. [Chris Barnes]

Inglourious Basterds

2009 was quite a banger year, and certainly the hardest of our Staff Selects to decide from. With films such as A Serious Man, District 9, Up, Moon, (500) Days of Summer, The Road, Valhalla Rising, Up in the Air, and even Jennifer’s Bodyall ranked above the actual Oscar winner, in my book. But no, instead, The Hurt Locker, The Blind Side, and even Crazy Heart fared better. The previous four decades had clear and obvious choices for me, but I frankly had to look up 2009’s releases to reassure myself what was thee highlight. And to me, it has to go to one of the best unique takes on a war film; a film with one of the best scripts of all-time, dripping with endless quotes and gripping you right from its milky opening to its theatrically fiery climax.

BINGO! It’s none other than Quentin Tarantino‘s nearly three-hour World War II epic, Inglourious Basterds! Arguably his most beloved mainstream film to masses, and tied in a fluctuating shift with Django Unchained as my second favourite of his. In expected hilariously witty fashion, this provocative war retelling provides us with phenomenal performances from newcomer titan Christoph Waltz (who won over Supporting Actor circuits), introduces Daniel Brühl to the masses, builds on the now even more iconic Brad Pitt, and propels the then blossoming Mélanie Laurent and Michael Fassbender. I’m curious whether it was the 75% foreign script or the subject matter’s handling that didn’t get QT the deserved Original Screenplay and Best Picture win. [Lee]

The Road

I developed an intense love for Cormac McCarthy’s novel in my high school years. I assume that after the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country For Old Men won Best Picture, any studio that had the rights to another McCarthy book would be quick to get to work. Director John Hillcoat had already shown his eye for bleak landscapes and even bleaker narratives with The Proposition, and his pairing with the material of The Road is a match made in heaven.

The film follows a father and son after a nondescript apocalyptic event as they attempt to reach the ocean to survive winter. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s dynamic as the father and son (credited only as Man and Boy) is where the film’s soul lies. Their relationship is a fascinating one, with the son’s belief that something good is looking out for them being tested by the father’s paranoia often overcoming any good luck that comes their way. It’s more reserved than the novel in terms of pure shock value, but hits just as hard at the emotional core by fleshing out the characters’ pasts, namely a wife/mother that left them behind. It’s a film about belief. Belief that the world and everything in it is out to get you, belief that you’re the good guy, belief that there’s even a reason to “carry the light,” as the film puts it. It’s McCarthy’s most nihilistic and simultaneously optimistic work, and that reflects in the cold detachment of a film that occasionally offers a sting of hope to latch onto. [Jen]

(500) Days of Summer

When I was 14, I watched (500) Days of Summer 18 times. I was a sensitive kid, raised on Disney Channel and old rom-coms, so I was really focused on the idea of relationships even from a young age. I figured I’d be a good partner, so that became one of my predominant life goals. Obviously, because I was the sort of person who intensely overthought things to a concerning degree at such a young age, this did not pan out for me. So, when I watched (500) the first 17 times, I thought it was an anthem for me, a testament to not only my untapped potential as a romantic partner (again, I was 14), but to the cruel world that denied me any sort of mutual attraction. On the 18th watch, something clicked in my head. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn’t the good guy. Though well-intentioned, he was horribly selfish and narcissistic. And that was the person I was on track to becoming.

(500) Days of Summer is a movie that I think every young man should watch, over and over again, until it clicks for them. It’s a fascinating and funny portrayal of the cycle of entitlement that legitimately changed the course of my life. It may be twee and a little overwritten, but it’s a film that means the world to me and I think it deserves far more praise and assessment than it’s been given in the decade since its release. [Davey Peppers]

White Material

If Claire Denis’ magnum opus Beau Travail looks deep into the impact of repressed jealousy, in her 2009 feature White Material, Denis explores the fascinating idea of the invisible lines — class and racial — that divide us from others, much like her debut film Chocolat. Focusing on the story of Maria Vial (played ferociously by Isabelle Huppert), a white French farmer who runs a failing coffee plantation in an unnamed African country, White Material provides the audience with a complex portrait on how white entitlement and stubbornness can distort one’s worldview, examining the impact that Maria’s denial has on her surroundings and family, while at the same time never passing a judgement on all the choices that she makes throughout the film. It’s a bold political film that addresses the issues of imperialism and African civil war, but in delivering these agendas, never once feels too heavy-handed. Instead, Denis’ approach remains focused at exploring the fascinating transformation of Maria’s humanity as she struggles to readjust herself to these new circumstances. [Reyzando Nawara]

Staff Selects

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