In the future, perhaps there will only be two kinds of movies: DIY efforts that cost $500 (and occasionally break through to mainstream success like Paranormal Activity) and ginormous $500 million special-effects spectaculars. (Heard anything about this Avatar flick?) For now, however, there's still enough good stuff in between to qualify 2009 as a reasonably satisfying year in cinema.
10. Star Trek — J.J. Abrams' twenty-first-century reinvention of the venerable Enterprise crew never claimed to be a game-changer — just the most fun you could have at a Saturday matinee this year. Clearing the decks of four decades of Trek mythology, Abrams forgoes reverence in favor of revving up the warp engines and having a blast.
9. The House of the Devil — The lo-fi chills of Paranormal Activity raked it in at the box office, but this throwback to '80s-style horror is a worthy slow-burn exercise that stretches nail-biting suspense to the breaking point… at least until its slightly disappointing finale. (A recurring theme in '09.)
8. Collapse — Either Chris Smith's eerily Errol Morris-esque documentary about herald of the apocalypse Michael Ruppert is the year's most frightening real-life horror movie, or it's a darkly compelling portrait of a delusional crackpot. Let's hope it's the latter.
7. The Hurt Locker — There may be just a little overcompensation going on as one critics' group after another rushes to anoint Katherine Bigelow's Iraq War thriller as the year's best picture, but when it comes to jittery, adrenaline-charged action and dread-soaked tension, no movie did it better.
6. Best Worst Movie — At the age of eleven, Michael Paul Stephenson starred in Troll 2, one of the most insanely horrible movies ever made. Twenty years later, his documentary about letting go of his disappointment and learning to love Troll 2's devoted cult following is the year's most delightful and hilarious celebration of the continuing mystery and magic of movies. Go figure.
5. Humpday — Call it mumblecore if you must, but Lynn Shelton's bromance to end all bromances is the year's funniest and most astute examination of relationships, featuring sharp, lived-in performances from stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard as two old friends trying to reconnect in the ickiest way they can imagine.
4. District 9 — Neill Blomkamp's apartheid allegory about aliens living among us can't quite close the deal, turning a bit too conventional (though still exciting) in its second half. But for its one-of-a-kind first hour, District 9 is the immersive, you-are-there sci-fi experience Avatar promised but never quite delivered.
3. Up in the Air — Like District 9, for most of its running time, Jason Reitman's caffeinated comedy about The Way We Live Now makes a strong case for itself as the movie of the year. Too bad it loses its nerve in the end, relying on preachy Hollywood homilies to carry it in for a landing. Until that happens, though, Up in the Air is a witty, perceptive ride, and George Clooney makes such a magnetic, persuasive tour guide, we'd follow him just about anywhere.
2. Inglourious Basterds — Some complained that Quentin Tarantino's World War II revenge fantasy was too irreverent, as if the world needed yet another solemn Holocaust drama (from Tarantino, of all people). Instead, the Pulp Fiction director delivered his most entertaining film since Jackie Brown with this violent yet very funny war movie as spaghetti western as ode to the love of cinema.
1. A Serious Man — The Coen Brothers prove once again that getting serious is no reason to lose their sense of humor with this semi-autobiographical shaggy God story set in 1960s Minnesota, where a Jewish college professor's quest for cosmic answers becomes the stuff of pitch-perfect, pitch-black comedy.
Honorable Mentions: Anvil! The Story of Anvil, The Cove, Gommorah, In the Loop, The Informant!, The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Rock-afire Explosion, Sugar, Up, and Christian McKay in Me and Orson Welles
Guilty Pleasures — Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans seemed like a pointless exercise from the moment it was announced. After seeing Werner Herzog's non-remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara film, it still seems pointless, but it's hard to care when a movie takes as many deranged detours as this one does. A Perfect Getaway's twists and turns were of a more predictable stripe, but this bonkers B-movie still offered more thrills, laughs, and flat-out fun than most of its big-budget counterparts.
Call the Glue Factory: Clint Eastwood (Invictus), Woody Allen (Whatever Works), Terry Gilliam (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus)