My resistance to formulating these year-end lists has come to feel almost ceremonial, like a houseguest insisting she's not hungry before polishing off three plates of stew. I continue to maintain that there's something humiliating about the practice of holding up something as intimate as one's deepest moviegoing pleasures for public approval and/or mockery. It's almost like publishing a list of favorite sexual practices—what, she likes to do that? But once you get started compiling these things, they take on a momentum of their own. And, anyway, I can't enjoy the fun of reading other critics' lists till my own is done, so in alphabetical order, here are my favorite films of the year and decade.
Best of 2009
Adventureland:Greg Mottola's comeback movie (forget Superbad) is everything a coming-of-age comedy should be, with an appealing young cast (Jesse Eisenberg is our next Dustin Hoffman) and a nostalgic yet utterly fresh-sounding soundtrack of late '80s pop.
The Beaches of Agnès: Agnès Varda, a pioneering director of the French New Wave and the widow of Jacques Demy, is quietly inventing a genre, recording her memories and documenting her old age (she's 81) in a filmed diary that's an unpretentious marvel of cinematic craft.
Crazy Heart:I make no apologies for putting Scott Cooper's first feature film on my list, sentimental excesses and all. The heart has its reasons that reason cannot know.
Drag Me to Hell:The legendary horror director Sam Raimi should get a patent on his signature technique: the scream/laugh combo. Watching Alison Lohman's freaked-out bank loan officer try to shake a gypsy's curse (good luck with that one, Al) was easily the most pure fun I had at the movies all year.
Fantastic Mr. Fox:Wes Anderson's sixth film was the surprise of the year. Each of Anderson's movies since Rushmore has offered diminishing returns, and I expected, at most, to admire this stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation from a cool aesthetic distance. Instead, I adored it from a toasty warm proximity and am still noticing fresh details in near-nightly viewings with my daughter.
The Hurt Locker:Kathryn Bigelow managed to make the first feature film about the Iraq war that mattered by reducing every war-movie convention down to a minimalist and unbearably suspenseful game of Russian roulette: Will all (or any) of the members of an elite bomb-defusing squad survive their last few weeks of duty?
In the Loop:The British TV directorArmando Iannucci's feature film debut is a political satire that's smart and silly in the same breath, with an amazing Peter Capaldi as a foulmouthed communications director at 10 Downing St.
Lorna's Silence: TheDardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, add another chapter to their book of austere moral tales with the story of an Albanian immigrant who's forced to reassess her green-card marriage to a Belgian drug addict after he nearly dies of an overdose.
The Maid:The Chilean director Sebastian Silva based the title character on two women who kept his family's house while he was growing up. What could easily have been a crudely schematic class satire is instead a delicate portrait of a domestic employee's slow emergence from depression and isolation, with a fearless lead performance from Catalina Saavedra.
Ponyo:Hayao Miyazaki's tale of a goldfish who, for love of a human boy, transforms herself into a girl against her father's will demonstrated its power right away. Within 24 hours of seeing the movie with my daughter, it had become part of our imaginary world, and, for months, every day started with the words "Pretend I'm Ponyo." Even if you're not 4, you won't soon escape the spell of this wildly imaginative eco-fairytale.
Avatar, James Cameron
Anvil! The Story of Anvil, Sacha Gervasi
Bright Star, Jane Campion
The Cove, Louise Psihoyos
The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel
Police, Adjective, Corneliu Poromboiu
A Serious Man, Ethan and Joel Coen
Still Walking, Hirozaku Kore-Eda
Summer Hours, Olivier Assayas
Up, Pete Docter
Best of Decade