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Film critic Steve Persall names his top movies of 2009, and makes resolutions for 2010

I've learned in this job that my annual listing of Top 10 movies is just like my New Year's resolutions — except someone else ignores them.

I don't know who started the latter tradition but hopefully they're still overweight, cigarette smokers, driving text messengers or whatever else they pledged not to be.

As far as the Top 10 list tradition goes, maybe it's time for a few resolutions. I don't expect to honor any past Monday, when I return from vacation. But for now these seem like good ideas for cinema-self-improvement.

I resolve:

• To never again call a movie like Precious the best of any year, even with the caveat that a December surprise could change that opinion. (It did.)

• To hire the agent that got : Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire jammed into Precious' title when it only belongs in the credits.

• To travel like George Clooney in Up in the Air. Well, I've done that but trysting the night away with Vera Farmiga wasn't one of the perks.

• To lobby for another number to confuse moviegoers, after Nine, 9, District 9, 9-to-5, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Adolf Hitler's "Nein, nein, nein!" from Inglourious Basterds.

• To reserve one slot on my Top 10 list for two deserving, related movies, like this year's documentary double feature, Food, Inc. and The Cove.

• To begin a starvation diet after Food, Inc. and The Cove made everything I eat seem unhealthy. (Whoops, just broke that one. Thanks, second-floor vending machine.)

And finally, I resolve to continue typing what I feel about movies no matter who disagrees, starting right now with my choice of 2009's best movie and working down. Happy New Year.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Up in the Air

1 Sometimes the cosmos align and Hollywood produces something nearly perfect. Director/co-writer Jason Reitman crafted a character-driven dramedy as topical as the evening news and as sexy as any George Clooney movie should be. Dialogue crackles with Billy Wilder-style wit, these performances may be the actors' signature roles, and you leave feeling life is a bit more bearable. That isn't just terrific filmmaking but a zeitgeist experience to savor.

Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

2 Everyone who sees this movie says the same thing: Awesome filmmaking but I wouldn't again want to endure a pregnant Harlem teenager's searing tale of humiliation and sexual abuse. Gabourey Sidibe, left, makes an auspicious debut in the title role while comedian Mo'Nique — not funny at all here — scorches the screen as Precious' ruthlessly toxic mother.

(500) Days of Summer

3 Not many films successfully make over an entire genre but this time-shuffling, boy-meets-girl-and-loses-her romcom did it. The year's best original screenplay and winning performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as star-crossed lovers make this a budding classic. Did any scene this year make you grin as much as Gordon-Levitt's postcoital Hall & Oates dance fantasy?

District 9

4 The most original sci-fi of 2009, a South African apartheid allegory with a highly relatable hero (Sharlto Copley) forced to walk a mile in alien shoes. The beauty of District 9 is its focus on characters and an aversion to flashy special effects; this is the anti-Avatar. With this gritty, funny fantasy, director and co-writer Neill Blomkamp announced himself as the next Peter Jackson, and Jackson — a District 9 co-producer — obviously agrees.

Inglourious Basterds

5 No other 2009 movie gained more in my estimation upon second viewing, as I expected with Quentin Tarantino's bloody World War II rewrite and its spaghetti Western vibe. Even its flaws are ambitious missteps; scenes may run too long but nobody writes nutzoid dialogue to fill time like Tarantino. By the time a movie theater becomes the Third Reich's downfall, it's clear that cinema's mad genius is squarely on his game.

The Cove and Food, Inc.

6 A double feature since superb documentaries deserve any exposure they can get. The Cove, above, was part horror story, part Ocean's Eleven caper about dolphin slaughter in Japan leading to dangerous nutritional results. Food, Inc. picks up the baton from there, declaring that we are what we eat and it's mostly toxic because some conglomerate makes money from it.

An Education

7 The most delicately conceived film of this list, and a coronation for Carey Mulligan, above, as 2009's brightest new acting star. Mulligan portrays a 1960s British teenager seduced (along with her parents) by a prosperous, concealing older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Nick Hornby's screenplay smartly captures the era's naivete about such matters while Mulligan's pert performance steals your heart.

Where the Wild Things Are

8 Director Spike Jonze turns Maurice Sendak's 338-word bedtime story into a surreal marvel, a rare case of cinema expanding literature. Some viewers feel betrayed by his meddling with a beloved book. They overlook the fact that Sendak's wild-but-wiser-now message is preserved, even amplified. While most filmmakers dumb down movies for kid, Jonze challenges them and their parents, not merely to watch but to feel.

The Messenger

9 The Hurt Locker is hailed as a visceral Iraq War thriller but writer-director Oren Moverman's apolitical stateside drama shatters hearts and minds without a single bomb exploding. Woody Harrelson, left, and Ben Foster star in The Last Detail for this generation: U.S. Army soldiers wrestling with their duty to inform families about loved ones killed in action. The Messenger is expected to open locally on Jan. 8.

Up

10 After maturing computer animation (Ratatouille, WALL-E) and stunting substance, Pixar regains its gift for simple, deeply resonant storytelling. The opening minutes of Up brilliantly etch a love story's emotional arc as live action films wish they could. A curmudgeon's devotion to his late wife inspires a fantastic quest with an eager but neglected kid and Dug, the best talking animal in a movie year featuring too many.

Film critic Steve Persall names his top movies of 2009, and makes resolutions for 2010 12/30/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 2:52pm]
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