This is not your usual Best of 2009 list. Barely missing this list are the usual suspects. You won’t see Academy Award nominees Avatar, Precious, Inglorious Basterds, An Education, and UP. Critically acclaimed foreign films such as The White Ribbon and A Prophet are likewise nowhere in sight. I, myself, was surprised to realize that I didn’t go with the popular choices. Instead, it was the little gems – the less known films – that left a mark on my cinematic consciousness.
Unlike 2008 where epic dramas Atonement, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button made up my Top 3 (see complete list of Top 20 Films of 2008 here), 2009 can be considered as the year of suspense and thrillers. I saw myself literally jumping from my seat in District 9, laughing in amusement because of Bad Lieutenant’s singing iguana and breakdancing soul, and rooting for the antiheroes of Julia and Mother.
But will a year in movies ever be complete without sweeping love stories? Tragic romances abound in the form of Sang-hyeon and Tae-Jun of Thirst, Tom and Summer of 500 Days of Summer, and Ryan and Alex of Up in the Air. But what’s a love story without a happy ending? Luckily, I found this Australian aboriginal couple’s tale of addiction, hope, and true love.
Without further adieu, here is my Top 18 Foreign Films of 2009.
18. Mammoth (Mamut)
Director: Lukas Moodyson (Lilya 4-Ever, Show Me Love)
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Michelle Williams, and Marife Necesito
A humanist study about the dynamics of working parents who provides for the needs of their children but are largely absent in their lives.
17. The Chaser (Chugyeogja)
Director: Na Hong-jin
Starring: Yun-seok Kim and Jung-woo Ha
A tension-filled crime saga where the table keeps on turning until the hunter becomes hunted down.
16. Fish Tank
Director: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender
A realistic British drama about opening up, getting hurt, and taking refuge.
Director: Sergei Dvortsevoy
Starring: Askhat Kuchinchirekov
As you get lost in the Kazakh dessert, you end up finding a piece of yourself. Simple, dryly humorous, and insightful.
14. In Search of a Midnight Kiss
Director: Alex Holdridge
Starring: Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds
Pits romanticism against pragmatism and invites us to look into how modern dating goes with a hopeful heart and a balanced judgment. Pucker up.
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender
This visual spectacle is an unsettling portrayal of the resilience of man and the power of human determination.
12. The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie
Eloquently articulates what a war really is. Disquieting, rather than explosive. And nobody fights to win. Everyone loses, even if you win.
11. Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes)
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Starring: Karra Elejalde
Deconstructs the time travel conceit and throws its fragments in an open field. You’ll find yourself frantically trying to put it all together only to realize that the pieces have slipped away.
10. Before the Fall (3 Dias)
Director: F. Javier Gutierrez
Starring: Victor Clavijo
When a serial killer runs amok at the time of apocalypse, a nonchalant hero tries to save his part of the world.
9. Where the Wild Things Are
Director: Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malcovich)
Starring: Max Records
Jonze perfectly captures childhood angst in this bittersweet bedtime story for adults.
8. (500) Days of Summer
Director: Marc Webb (will direct Spider-Man reboot)
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey DeschanelNot an anti-love story, but a reality check.
7. Up in the Air
Director: Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You For Smoking)
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick
Highly impenetrable people are usually the most fragile. A revelatory seriocomic that is both timely and crowd-pleasing.
6. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans
Director: Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn, Encounters at the End of the World)
Starring: Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes
Diving into depravity has never been this trippy, hypnotic, and dare I say, fun.
5. Mother (Madeo)
Director: Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Memories of Murder)
Starring: Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin
A madcap fusion of revenge and a mother’s unconditional love. Korea is the new hotspot for first-class murder mysteries.
4. District 9
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley
An affecting gore fest and a socio-political commentary. Intelligent sci-fi flicks are back.
3. Thirst (Bakjwi)
Director: Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK)
Starring: Kang-ho Song and Ok-bin Kim
The definitive vampire love story. Cake foundation and glitters not included.
Director: Erick Zonca
Starring: Tilda Swinton
Too suspenseful you’ll forget to breathe. A dark character study that largely benefits from Swinton’s miracle work and Zonca’s frenetic direction.
1. Samson & Delilah
Director: Warwick Thornton
Starring: Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson
Life may be cruel, but as long as love exists, no tragedy is too great to overcome. Tender, hopeful, and immensely gratifying.