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I'd give 2009 at the movies a B overall, and that ain't bad — it is, in fact, about as good as it gets. It's true that I found only nine straight-A's when I looked back through my movie notebook (No. 10 on this list was an A?), but there wasn't a single F, and that's a first in my years as an EW columnist. Either I chose more wisely or the quality was better than last year's B?. I prefer to believe the latter, though there were a few disappointments along the way; the trudging Revolutionary Road was the worst of them. With that said, my list of the 10 best follows.
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No filmgoing diet is complete without some cheese, and this throwback to the great disaster movies of the '70s (Earthquake, The Towering Inferno) amply filled the bill. It's staffed by solid actors having fun, and stuffed with eye-popping special effects — you got a problem with that?
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9. FANTASTIC MR. FOX
A screwball comedy that just happens to be animated. More for adults than for children, actually, but when Mr. Fox (George Clooney) and his devoted missus (Meryl Streep) put aside their sophisticated banter long enough to gobble their dinner — in about four seconds — both the kids and the grown-ups in my audience screamed with delighted laughter.
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8. THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3
Director Tony Scott's most lucid and suspenseful movie. Denzel Washington is terrific in the part originated by Walter Matthau, but the real pleasure here is watching John Travolta's balls-to-the-wall star turn as the villainous Ryder (called Mr. Blue and played by Robert Shaw in the 1974 version). This makes Public Enemies look pretty tame.
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7. LAW ABIDING CITIZEN
The outraged husband and father decides to punish the baddies himself when the wimpish legal system won't: Yeah, yeah, we've seen it all before, but this version's script is wound tight and clever enough to draw blood. All of which would mean little if not for the standout performances by Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx, who turns prosecutor Nick Rice into a morally ambiguous antihero.
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6. DISTRICT 9
This quasi (not to mention queasy) documentary sci-fi pic is a clever parable about the price of racial prejudice, but what really struck me about it was how the special effects served the story, rather than the other way around. If 2012 is good cheese, then District 9 is a fine wine.
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5. THE READER
I know, it was released in 2008, but my lists go from December to December, and it would be criminal to leave out this wrenching exploration of guilt and atonement. Kate Winslet's Hanna Schmitz was the best performance I saw all year.
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John Malkovich shines as an arrogant Cape Town professor who exiles himself to his daughter's farm rather than apologize for his sexual excesses with a student. He is forced to reevaluate his behavior after his daughter is raped. The scenery is gorgeous, and the story — sorrowful but never sentimental — is hypnotic.
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3. THE ROAD
Cormac McCarthy's novel of the apocalypse comes to the screen with all its spare and deadly beauty intact. It's often painful to watch (at my screening I actually heard the projectionist sobbing as the film neared its end), but Viggo Mortensen's performance as the dedicated father is Oscar bait.
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2. THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
Easily the most brilliant remake of the decade, and not just because the 1972 original was such a crapfest. This beautifully photographed — but hard to watch — movie is the standard by which all horror/suspense films should be judged: The acting is superior (Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul is especially fine), the story makes sense, and, most importantly, Last House's moral compass points to true north. We don't want these creeps back for six or eight sequels; they are monsters, and we want them dead. This film is on par with The Silence of the Lambs.
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1. THE HURT LOCKER
Bomb disposal is one of the great staples of war movies, but it has never been depicted in such terrifying detail as it is here. Locker is more than suspenseful, however. Director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break), who has explored the destructive impulses of young men before, outdoes herself in this perfectly honed drama that speaks to the addictive attractions of risk and violence. Want to know why it's so easy for the pols to feed the war machine? Look here for answers.