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Critics' Choice: Top Movies of 2009

  • Editorial Staff & Film Critics Crosswalk.com
  • 2010 2 Feb
  • COMMENTS
Critics' Choice:  Top Movies of 2009

Oscar season is upon us and we at Crosswalk.com would feel remiss if we didn't comment on our favorite films of 2009.

So as is our custom, the editors and regular movie reviewers of Crosswalk have once again voted. Contributors submitted top-ten lists of favorite films from which the editorial staff then selected the "Top Movies of 2009," with the most consideration given to the films with the most votes. 

As our regular readers will know, we believe that film is perhaps the most dominant and influential art form of our times. As such, movies cry out for the thoughtful engagement of Christians at every level, be it critique, writing, acting, directing, or any of the technical aspects of filmmaking. What we are looking for in a film, much like the Academy Awards, is excellence. Technical excellence. Excellence in storytelling. Excellence in acting. But just as important to us is how the film stands up when examined from a Christian perspective. What message does the film want us to walk away with? How does that message look in light of the Christian worldview? And in the end, we are people who love the movies. So which movies from 2009 deliver an important message in the most moving and entertaining fashion? Read on to find out.

Please note that we understand that not every film is for everyone. We all have different comfort levels with the portrayal of sin and potentially offensive content on the big screen. Please click on the links provided with each film for a more detailed evaluation of potentially objectionable material.


1. FANTASTIC MR. FOX
Rating:  PG (for action, smoking and slang humor)
Click here for a full review.

In his review of this film, Crosswalk film critic and contributor Jeffrey Huston wrote, "It's nearly impossible to overstate how wonderful this movie is." And the rest of us agree. A superb balance of subtle wit and slapstick comedy, Fantastic Mr. Fox works on so many levels. And under the comedic tone, this poignant story deals with questions of personal identity and how that changes through the different stages of life. Enthusiastic and warmhearted, that tale of Mr. Fox's adventures with family and friends is presented in a visually unusual stop-motion animated style. Delightful in both its story and form, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a cheerful walk on a crisp autumn afternoon and a noteworthy achievement in film for 2009.


2. UP
Rating:  PG (for some peril and action)
Click here for a full review.
Click here for an interview.

Once you realize the title is less an adverb or a preposition, and more a suggestion (even a command?), the many layers of thematic beauty take on as much richness as Carl Frederickson's behemoth bouquet of balloons. The color palette of this Pixar film is truly inspired. The hues are breathtaking, and directly serve the film's message: don't miss out on the vivid adventure that is life, even if you're widowed, fatherless, or the lowest dog in the pecking order. Speaking of which, Dug the dog and Kevin the bird form the unlikeliest and most hilarious animal cartoon duo since Bugs & Daffy. Up brings joy to the heart, inspiration to the mind, and tears to the eyes of viewers of all ages. The first 15 minutes, which tell the story of Carl and his lifetime-love Ellie mostly through silent imagery, would be enough. But as the story teaches, there's always time for a little more living.


3.  STAR TREK
Rating:  PG-13 (for sci-fi action and violence, and brief sexual content)
Click here for a full review.

If you only ever saw one scene, the vertigo-inducing dive-to-the-mining-platform sequence would be worth the price of admission. Was it a great movie? Probably not, but it makes our list because of the sheer thrill ride, one that other summer blockbusters (G.I. Joe, anyone?) failed to provide. Plus, J.J. Abrams' vision for a series reboot worked. Where many TV adaptations and movie remakes flop, the not-dumbed-down script and clever casting of young Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Co. help this one soar. Leonard Nimoy is used just right and just enough in his role of Spock as an old Vulcan. The lack of a compelling-enough villain subtracts a bit, but there's no denying the film was a hit among fanboys and casual moviegoers alike—not an easy accomplishment.


4. THE HURT LOCKER

Rating:  R (for war violence and language)
Click here for a full review.

Key to the success of the The Hurt Locker is that its agenda is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Instead, this critically acclaimed film is a look at the psychology of the men who go to war, and especially of those who willingly take part in the most dangerous aspects of conflict. Yet in The Hurt Locker, even the psychological aspect takes a back seat to the sheer adrenaline of battle—the way tension can mount quickly in a foreign setting, where the enemy can emerge, armed, from behind a building, or appear as an innocent-looking civilian with a cell phone in hand. Director Kathryn Bigelow brings us the most moving drama about the war in Iraq yet to hit the big screen.


5. AN EDUCATION
Rating:  PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexual content and for smoking)
Click here for a full review.

What should one take away from a coming-of-age film where a prep-school teen, who seems nonchalant about losing her virginity (and forgoing a prestigious Oxford education), and her controlling, micro-managing parents are conned by an older man whose façade they should have easily seen through in the first place? These problems with the story's believability aside, An Education's greatest strength lies in its crisp aesthetic and its award-worthy acting. Carey Mulligan (in her first leading role) is a delight to watch as an early ‘60s-era, savvy London teen. Despite youth in acting years, she holds her own against the wonderfully complex Alfred Molina (as her father) and the likeable-yet-slimy Peter Sarsgaard (as her character's playboy suitor who's twice her age). Rosamund Pike also shines in a lesser role as a dim-witted girlfriend, as does Emma Thompson as a rigid headmistress. 


6. CORALINE

Rating:  PG (for thematic elements, scary images, some language and suggestive humor)
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A triumph of imaginative filmmaking both in craft and message, Coraline tells the story of little girl who discovers a doorway into another world that mirrors her own, only better; the surroundings are beautiful, the atmosphere magical, and her previous distracted parents loving. Coraline's elation turns to unease, however, as she begins to unravel a sinister nature behind her attractive new surroundings. A technical feat of stop-motion animation, filmmakers render Coraline's world in breathtaking detail. The tone of this film is certainly dark and foreboding, but that darkness serves as a contrasting backdrop to the movie's triumphant lesson: be careful what you wish for. Coraline conveys powerful lessons about sin and temptation with nearly unparalleled artistic flair


7. JULIE & JULIA
Rating:  PG-13 (for brief strong language and some sensuality)
Click here for a full review.

Based on not just one but two real stories merged together, the Nora Ephron-directed rom-com has everything a married couple looks for on their rare date night. The film appeals to a broader audience, of course, but the themes of building strong marriages through tough times, coming up with meals every night, and wives trying to find their own purpose and fulfillment are tantamount. Amy Adams' Julie Powell is inspired by the story and recipes of Julia Child, played (some harsher critics say "mimicked," but I say that's still a compliment) to startling perfection by Meryl Streep. In turn, hundreds of people in the blogosphere become inspired by Julie and her efforts to make all 524 recipes from Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Both women's stories teach that an ounce of bright idea—with a dash of courage to buck the trend and two cups of commitment to see things through—are a winning recipe.


8. THE BLIND SIDE
Rating:  PG-13 (for one scene involving brief violence, drug and sexual references)
Click here for a full review.
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You see what you want to see with The Blind Side. Beyond color, class or creed, this true story is about people helping people. Period. In the role of her career, Sandra Bullock embodies Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wife and mother in an upper-class Memphis family. When Michael Oher, a 6-foot-5, 350-pound African American teen who had been living on the streets, applies for admission at the Christian school where Tuohy's two children attend, Leigh Anne sees a need and welcomes Michael into her family. As a result, he turns his grades around, succeeds in sports, then becomes an offensive lineman for the University of Mississippi and today plays professional football for the Baltimore Ravens. It's a heartwarming story that certainly has scored with moviegoers who (as of press time) have helped The Blind Side gross over $240 million at the box office. 


9. A SERIOUS MAN
Rating:  R (for language, some sexuality/nudity and brief violence)
Click here for a full review.

Easily the most dark and "adult" film on this year's list, yet with a central theme that's troubled mankind since the Garden of Eden: Why do bad things happen to good people? A Serious Man tells the story of Jewish physics professor Larry Gopnik whose simple, mediocre life suddenly goes bad, sending him on a quest to answer life's difficult questions. Fans of directors Joel and Ethan Coen's earlier films (such as No Country for Old Men and O Brother Where Art Thou?) will recognize the directing duo's eccentric characters and signature themes surrounding the sinful nature of man. The film poignantly spotlights mankind's search for an immutable and knowable God.


10. UP IN THE AIR
Rating:  R (for language and some sexual content)
Click here for a full review.

Up in the Air
 does something that most movies won't even try: it asks an important, controversial question, treats both sides fairly, and lets the viewer decide. Can we be happy while remaining emotionally isolated from others? Can we be happy any other way? Most movies imply that we can have perfect relationships with imperfect people, and that only these relationships will make us happy. Others preach that we don't need others to make us happy, because people will always let us down. There is some truth on either side, and Up in the Air stands out for taking both arguments seriously. Oh, yeah—and it's funny, too.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

This year for our "honorable mentions" category, we've again asked each of our film panel voters to make the case for one film on their personal list that didn't get enough votes to make it into the Crosswalk.com top ten.  Here is what they said ...


Goodbye Solo 
John Sizemore, Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer

Ever wished for a movie that expressed God's love and grace, simply and convincingly, without mentioning God? Goodbye Solo is that film, a Christian film that isn't just a film for Christians. Everyone wants to be loved by someone in just the way that Solo loves William. And everyone knows that, deep down, we have the same petty, selfish, bitter impulses that WIlliam has. Show this film to your non-Christian friends without apologizing: there are no pat answers, no sinner's prayers, no prosperity teaching, not even an unambiguously happy ending. It's just a sweet, simple parable about real love.


(500) Days of Summer

Christa Banister, Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer

As much as I love watching movie couples fall in love, fall out of love and predictably end up together in the end, great rom-coms have been in seriously short supply lately.  And considering how cliché, insipid and decidedly low-brow (see Confessions of a Shopaholic, The Ugly Truth, even Sandra Bullock's The Proposal was only a quarter-of-the-way entertaining) they've become, (500) Days of Summer was definitely a breath of fresh air for the genre. With a clever framing device (the story skips around, beginning with —gasp—the break-up), charming performances from the leads Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an imaginative script and a fantastic soundtrack to boot, apparently, there's still hope for love stories—even if they're not supposed to be (like the beginning in (500) Days of  Summer warns the viewer).


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Shawn McEvoy, Crosswalk.com Senior Editor

In this prelude to the end of the game, the stakes are raised. Just as the young protagonists mature to deal with the complexities of young love, so do the story's own themes. Friendship grows into its adult form of self-sacrifice. Good and evil become less cartoonish, more real. A starker, emptier Hogwarts symbolizes the lonely weight Harry carries as "The Chosen One." Jim Broadbent's addition to the cast breathed new life into the faculty, and provided disturbing clues to the rise of Lord Voldemort. As Harry and Dumbledore place more and more trust in each other, the magic is obvious, as the sites they visit and the way they travel to them are spectacular to behold.


The Messenger

Christian Hamaker, Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer

The Messenger has everything that Avatar lacks: fleshed-out characters, genuine heartbreak, real drama, and an anti-war message based on the battlefield trauma rather than on the lazy stereotypes of resource hoarding and cardboard villains. The resulting audience interest in each film? Avatar, with more than $450 million in North American box-office alone, is on its way to becoming the top-grossing film of all time, while The Messenger will need Oscar attention to reach $1 million in ticket sales. Subtle rather than bombastic, filled with genuine, raw emotion rather than special-effects driven spectacle, The Messenger is superior to Avatar as well as to nearly every other film released last year, powered by career performances from Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton. It's a searing, heartbreaking work—no 3-D glasses required.


The Road

Jay Swartzendruber, Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer

What would the world be like if the Church vanished? The film based on Cormac McCarthy's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road, paints a compelling picture. Though it hardly follows Revelation like a map, The Road resonates with biblical prophecy in many ways, and offers the most realistic cinematic portrayal of an end times world yet. (Hence the R rating for violence, disturbing images and profanity.) By filming at Mount St. Helens, in Post-Katrina New Orleans, and in central Pennsylvania where the mining industry has ravaged the landscape, the director created an unprecedentedly "real" apocalyptic world. With this horrific backdrop-defined even more by utter human depravity—we witness a love story between a devoted father and his young son. The Man (Viggo Mortenson) makes a declaration: "The child is my warrant. And if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke." While the father's intense commitment to his son is profound, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) proves to be the movie's moral compass as his innocence, compassion, forgiveness and thankfulness endure.


Where the Wild Things Are
Stephen McGarvey, Director of Editorial & Brand Development

The emotional journey of Max in Where the Wild Things Are was for me the most moving film experience of 2009. The film captures both the essence of boyhood imaginative play, and how that effects growth and maturity in youth, more than any other film in recent memory. Little Max is a boy typical of his near fatherless generation, lashing out at his mother and the world around him that he doesn't quite understand. As an escape, Max seemingly creates an imaginary world without limits for himself and his friends, in the form of strange Wild Things. Through this gripping world and its wild inhabitants, Max unwittingly gains insight into his own mental state through the creatures around him. Truly one of the year's most underrated films, Where the Wild Things Are is cinematic storytelling at its finest.


Moon

Jeffrey Huston, Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer

Like the 1970s sci-fi it emulates, Moon uses a theoretical future to examine contemporary issues. Sam Bell is a solitary astronaut on a moon base ending his three-year research tour, and a HAL-like computer assistant named GERTY appears to be less-than-trustworthy. Like an eerie Twilight Zone episode, Moon unfolds in confusion and mystery. But after a shocking reveal, the implications to modern-day genetic tampering are haunting and Bell's deteriorating psychosis becomes heartbreaking. Sam Rockwell is a force as Bell, and as GERTY Kevin Spacey plays to our expectations before subverting them. District 9 was praised. Avatar was a phenomenon. But Moon was 2009's best sci-fi.


Sherlock Holmes
Laura MacCorkle, Crosswalk.com Senior Editor

"It will be too gritty, too violent, too profanity-laden and I will take my popcorn and walk out halfway through." These were my preconceived notions of what a Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes would be like. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised. Leaning more toward action than drama and light than darkness, this highly entertaining ride takes the audience back into the late 1800s and into the mind of the world's most famous detective—who in this incarnation is definitely more free-spirited and devil-may-care. The slo-mo sequences (think The Matrix), where Sherlock's narration dissects each fight scene image before it happens in real time, make for great eye candy. Buddy chemistry between Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock and Jude Law's Dr. Watson is also a plus, with fast-talking lines of comic relief to help lighten the load of some heavy subject matter (Satanic rituals, sacrifices, the occult—all of which are debunked in the end). The door has been left open for a sequel, and I for one will be there. With my popcorn.