As an annual tradition, here’s my rankings of last year’s top 10 films. Usually my lists extend to a full 15 films, but this year I had an incredibly difficult time even finding 10 films worth commending. To put it plainly, 2009 was a miserable year for film. My list this year, therefore, had to be cut short. Furthermore, this year’s list is probably unlikely to surprise too many people. Quite simply, there were so few decent films this year that a lot of critics’ lists are likely to look similar.

Moreover, as always, I like to include a few disclaimers before getting on to the rankings: (1) I don’t include documentaries in my lists, simply because I think they’re a completely different kind of film and can’t be rated alongside feature films. Having said that, this year was actually a very good year, relatively speaking, for documentaries (‘The Cove’ and ‘Food, Inc.’ are must-sees!), and my condemnation of 2009’s movie class doesn’t carry over to documentaries. (2) I try to see all the movies which I think qualify that I can each year, but I haven’t seen them all. Most notably– many of 2009’s foreign films are not always easily accessible this early into the next year, and I simply haven’t seen a wide variety of critically acclaimed foreign films this year. (3) This list is always subject to change and revision.

Now on to the list (links are to each film’s trailers)!

(10) Sin Nombre

Although the gang sequences were filled with a number of cliches, the personal and cultural subplots are woven together well to deliver a gritty, moving and very real film. This was the only foreign language film I’ve seen this year which moved me at all, though my selections this year have been limited.

(9) Precious

Fantastic acting from unexpected talent is this film’s greatest highlight. The filmmaking joy here lies in the juxtaposition between dream/fantasy sequences and reality, and the way transitions are made between them. But the film flounders overall thematically, promising to portray a harsh reality, but often times just leaving the audience with perverse racial stereotypes. Those stereotypes are redeemed only briefly with hints at commentary on social perception– and, frankly, those moments are far and few between. I’m not so sure how much reality is really contained in this supposedly ‘real’ film.

(8) The Messenger

This is a good complimentary movie to this year’s much superior film, “The Hurt Locker”. While the film shines in portraying the psychological struggles and burdens of a soldier returning home from war, and in showing the grief of dealing with what was lost from it, “The Messenger”‘s real strength lies in the performances of its supporting actors, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton. Harrelson delivers confident, witty dialogue which is only a veneer for a lonely, desperate man, and Morton superbly plays a grieving housewife in an unconventional casting of a romantic lead.

(7) Avatar

If 3D ever officially crosses over from being the latest trendy, Hollywood ploy to gaining mainstream notoriety, then it will have Avatar to thank. Visually, the movie is enthralling and otherworldly, a real masterpiece. Where the movie goes wrong is in its script. Let’s face it, this script is mediocre at best. While I quite enjoy its overall themes of nature worship, environmentalism, anti-militarism and anti-corporation, this film isn’t likely to move any cultural mountains– at least, not in any sophisticated way. But as a compliment for anyone who already shares its sentiments, Avatar is a visual treat and an exceptional moviegoing experience which genuinely pulls the viewer in and makes them wish they never had to take the 3D glasses off.

(6) An Education

Carey Mulligan deserves to win the Oscar for her nomination as best lead actress here. She’s my pick. Although the film seems to struggle in finding– and delivering– its occasionally ambiguous message, Mulligan shines in portraying an intelligent young woman’s coming of age.

(5) A Serious Man

The Coen Brothers never disappoint, and ‘A Serious Man’ is the first film on this list which doesn’t warrant any sort of substantial disclaimer or criticism to weigh against its highlights. Executed rather flawlessly, this existential film over Jewish angst only really falters in that it’s occasionally rather boring. That flatness, however, is nevertheless a shining example of great tonal control– something the Coens excel at. This isn’t going to be your favorite Coen Brothers movie, but it won’t be a let down either.

(4) The Road

I’m a bit surprised by the fact that this film has been largely overlooked among critics this year– perhaps they missed its deep layers in the film’s subtlety. It was one of only 4 movies I considered as a candidate for best film of the year. Well acted, particularly by Mortensen, though there’s also a noteworthy role played by Robert Duvall too. The film undoubtedly struggles to compete with the book, but taken on its own merits, it touched me more than any other in this year’s class.

(3) Inglourious Basterds

This is Tarantino’s best work since his masterpiece, Pulp Fiction. Although the film is far more playful than poignant, a problem which plagues the whole Tarantino’s catalogue other than ‘Pulp’ and perhaps ‘Jackie Brown’, it’s easy to forget these flaws amid its brilliantly escalating dialogue. The opening sequence is so wonderfully executed that I was nearly prepared to declare it as Tarantino’s finest moment while in the middle of it. Extremely entertaining film. I wouldn’t mind if it won for Best Picture, though it isn’t my first choice among the nominees this year.

(2) A Single Man

A stunningly well put together film from Tom Ford, ‘A Single Man’ would be a fantastic accomplishment for any year. Colin Firth is perfectly casted and delivers a striking performance, and the film’s dialogue walks a near flawless tightrope between being over-intellectualized and being visceral and deeply emotional. Rather, the movie is intellectual in the most genuine way– as a complex, existential, aesthetic, abstract and layered character story touching in equal parts with sensuality and despair.

(1) The Hurt Locker

This is a movie about the thrill of war, yes. But it’s more about the thrill than it is about the war. The story will touch you in a far deeper and more abstract way than its gritty, intense war scenes would at first imply. Walking away from this film, it’s difficult not be struck with an echoing undulation and, frankly, acute sense of banality with one’s life– that, or a longing for something more. The film’s most poignant moment does not come during any of the intense battles and suspenseful moments, oddly enough, but rather in a few short scenes that happen when Jeremy Renner’s soldier returns home. A short scene in a supermarket and another cleaning out a gutter, while seemingly out of context from the whole rest of the film, are actually the moments that give the film its character and meaning. Subtle, though extremely powerful, the juxtaposition that is established in only about 5 minutes of this feature length film show incredible control by its filmmakers and writers, shaping ‘The Hurt Locker’ into the best movie of 2009.