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The box office was healthy in 2009, but so much of that money came from prequels, sequels, remakes and special effects-driven action movies that the creative situation appeared less healthy.

Filmmaking technology made some terrific leaps in these big-budget spectacles. But we were reminded that technology in itself is cold without a humane purpose behind it.

This year's most anticipated big-budget picture, James Cameron's "Avatar," is like the blue-hued poster child for today's Hollywood. The 3-D process is so wonderfully immersive that one can almost excuse the one-dimensional characters and storytelling.

This movie's ecology-minded premise obviously scores points for good intentions, despite Cameron's formulaic scripting. As for his dialogue, well, at least the accompanying visuals are strong.

The special effects that made the greatest impression in this year's top films typically were the humane effects achieved by gifted directors, screenwriters and actors. Impressive computer-generated imagery certainly had a lot to do with the deserved success of the latest "Star Trek," but it was the geeky characters we cherished as they set about saving the universe.

Among the smaller-scale movies that made a big impression, let's hear it for the English poet John Keats, who managed to write great poetry without a computer in "Bright Star," and for Julia Child, who championed the slow-food movement in a fast-food world in "Julie and Julia."

1. "Up in the Air"

 

B002VECMAY Up in the Air [Theatrical Release] ~ ParamountUSA, director Jason Reitman

Corporate downsizing was the unfortunately topical subject of this melancholic screwball comedy. George Clooney enjoyed one of his best roles as a guy whose job it is to fire people at companies all over America. There was great chemistry between Clooney and Vera Farmiga as the equally high-flying executive with whom he has an affair. It was very funny and also kind of sad.

2. "Bright Star"

 

Great Britain, director Jane Campion

Nineteenth-century romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) adores Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), but theirs is an ill-fated romance. As in Keats' poetry, the movie made metaphoric connections between mankind and nature. The result was a poetic movie as literate as it was lovely.

Starring Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider, Kerry Fox.

Written and directed by Academy Award winner Jane Campion, Bright Star is a riveting drama based on the three-year romance between 19th century poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, which was cut short by Keats untimely death at age 25. Ben Whishaw (The International, Im Not There) and Abbie Cornish (Stop-Loss, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) star as Keats and Brawne, respectively. The film is co-produced by Campion, Jan Chapman, and Caroline Hewitt.

3. "Julie and Julia"

 

B002RSDW80 Julie & Julia ~ Meryl StreepUSA, director Nora Ephron

Savor this deliberately paced movie as you would a great meal. Meryl Streep delightfully embodied Julia Child early in the cookbook author's career, and Amy Adams was endearing as a contemporary blogger determined to successfully follow every one of Child's recipes. Also worth noting on the cinematic menu here was Stanley Tucci's understated performance as Child's devoted husband.

4. "The Messenger"

 

B002VECM8G The Messenger [Theatrical Release] USA, director Oren Moverman

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster gave first-rate performances as Casualty Notification officers who must break the worst possible news to families living near a domestic military base. Samantha Morton was among those newly widowed women whose husbands were killed in Iraq. The notification scenes hit viewers in the gut and lingered in the memory. Revolves around a U S Army officer assigned to casualty notification, considered one of the least desirable jobs in the military. The officer faces complex moral choices when he becomes involved with a soldier's widow.

5. "Tetro"

 

USA, director Francis Ford Coppola Director Francis Ford Coppola discusses his new film, "Tetro." For more information, including photos and bios of the cast, visit www.tetro.com  

This drama concerned half-brothers Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich, reunited in Argentina. One can quibble with melodramatic aspects of Coppola's script, but the director's black-and-white cinematography was so gorgeous that the movie became a visual treat.

Tetro: The First 3 Minutes

 

 

6. "Invictus"

 

B002JCSWUW Invictus [Theatrical Release] USA, director Clint Eastwood

Combine an inspirational sports story with an inspirational civil rights story and you have a whole lot of inspiration. Despite the story's predictability, Clint Eastwood's straightforward direction yielded a fine character study centering on the relationship between South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, in a role he was born to play) and a white rugby player (Matt Damon).

The true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa's rugby team, Francois Pienaar, to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.

7. "Star Trek"

 

B001AVCFK6 Star Trek (Three-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray] ~ Chris PineUSA, director J.J. Abrams

A vintage sci-fi franchise was zestfully rebooted here. Much of the credit has to go to the fine performances by Chris Pine as Captain James Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock. Old-school fan boys will also appreciate the cameo by Leonard Nimoy. The sleek and clever adventure represented commercial filmmaking operating at warp speed. Star Trek (Single-Disc Edition)

8. "A Serious Man"

 

B001UV4XTC A Serious Man [Theatrical Release] USA, directors Joel and Ethan Coen

Perhaps more situation than story, this comedy was nevertheless well served by the Coen brothers ("Fargo"). They incisively deployed their satirical skills to explore the world of their own Jewish upbringing as experienced by a nerdy college physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in Minneapolis in the late 1960s.

The story of an ordinary man's search for clarity in a universe where Jefferson Airplane is on the radio and F-Troop is on TV. It is 1967, and Larry Gopnik, a physics professor at a quiet Midwestern university, has just been informed by his wife Judith that she is leaving him. She has fallen in love with one of his more pompous acquaintances, Sy Ableman, who seems to her a more substantial person than the feckless Larry. Larry's unemployable brother Arthur is sleeping on the couch, his son Danny is a discipline problem and a shirker at Hebrew school, and his daughter Sarah is filching money from his wallet in order to save up for a nose job. While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry's chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person - a mensch - a serious man?

 

9. "Inglourious Basterds"

 

B002T9H2L0 Inglourious Basterds (2-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray] ~ Brad PittUSA, director Quentin Tarantino

As quirky as its incorrectly spelled title, Quentin Tarantino's World War II revenge fantasy encompassed many characters, moods and historical incidents. It was joltingly uneven, but always remained entertaining and funny.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, Samm Levine, B.J. Novak, Rod Taylor, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger, Michael Fassbender, Julie Dreyfus, Christian Berkel, Richard Sammel, August Diehl, Michael Bacall
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Studio: The Weinstein Company and Universal Pictures

Inglourious Basterds begins in German-occupied France, where Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) witnesses the execution of her family at the hand of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Shosanna narrowly escapes and flees to Paris, where she forges a new identity as the owner and operator of a cinema. Elsewhere in Europe, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) organizes a group of Jewish soldiers to engage in targeted acts of retribution. Known to their enemy as "The Basterds," Raine's squad joins German actress and undercover agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) on a mission to take down the leaders of The Third Reich. Fates converge under a cinema marquee, where Shosanna is poised to carry out a revenge plan of her own..

10. "Everybody's Fine"

 

Everybody's Fine [Theatrical Release] USA, director Kirk Jones

Although it was shamelessly manipulative in making the tears flow, what really mattered was that it worked. Robert De Niro gave one of his best recent performances as a retired man who sets off to visit his adult children scattered around the country. Get out your handkerchiefs and indulge in a good cry.

Honorable mentions

"Avatar," "Up," "The Cove ," "Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire [Theatrical Release] ~ Lionsgate," "The September Issue ~ Anna Wintour," "

 

"The Road [Theatrical Release] " A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and, when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don't know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing: just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food--and each other.

Worst movie of the year

B00275EHFU" Saw VI"

 

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