This morning, I had to send in my first of several year-end ballots for the critics' groups I belong to, which meant nailing down my top 10 list for 2009. Only one foreign-language film made the list and no documentaries. But the first four movies on the list are pretty much interchangeable: I liked them all equally and might have ranked them differently if I was compiling the list tomorrow. I wouldn't say it was a great year for movies, but the good ones were really good.
1) Up in the Air: The miraculous thing about writer-director Jason Reitman's third feature is that it is a timeless, classy Hollywood entertainment that also happens to be a precise snapshot of the mood and concerns of present-day America.
2) The Hurt Locker: Director Kathryn Bigelow's nerve-jangling drama about a squad of bomb-defusing soldiers in Iraq isn't only the best movie to date about that war: It's one of the best war pictures ever made, period.
3) Inglourious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino definitively proved he's much more than a walking repository of junk-movie references with this playful and outrageous reworking of world history that exudes a profound love for and command of filmmaking in every frame.
4) A Serious Man: The always-ironic Joel and Ethan Coen got personal, wrote their first autobiographical screenplay and came up with what is arguably their best film to date: The story of a man who doesn't understand why God won't answer the eternal questions - a man who hasn't yet grasped that God is in the questions. Also: The stunning final shot deserves some kind of special Oscar.
5) (500) Days of Summer: The best movie romance since Brokeback Mountain, a potentially generic rom-com about two twentysomethings that captured the exhilarating highs - and soul-crushing, life-changing lows - of falling in love for the first time. Bonus: The best musical number of the year (sorry, Nine).
6) Public Enemies: Director Michael Mann finished what he started with his Miami Vice film adaptation by distilling the crime-drama genre - this one the story of the hunt for the notorious 1930s criminal John Dillinger - down to its purest, barest essence. An impressionistic cops-and-robbers story - a cold, hard diamond of a movie.
7) In the Loop: The funniest movie of the year, director Armando Iannucci's riotous political satire about U.S. and British diplomats maneuvering over an unnamed war took the old-fashioned route: Conjured up a large cast of characters - each with their own selfish agenda - and then set them loose on each other. The incredibly profane, rat-tat-tat dialogue had the speed and rhythm of Ernst Lubistch, reimagined by George Carlin.
8) Up: The geniuses at Pixar hooked you in the first ten minutes, with that long, dialogue-free sequence depicting a lifelong romance between a couple from childhood to old age. Then the film really took off - literally - sending its protagonist, and the audience's imagination, into the clouds. At once humanistic and surreal, Up set a new standard for the heights animation is capable of achieving.
9) The Class: Half-documentary, half-feature film, Laurent Cantet's amazing story of one year in the life of a French schoolteacher and his students was a transcendent exploration of the immeasurable importance and significance of an arena we too often take for granted: The classroom.
10) Star Trek: In reviving a tired, worn-out franchise, director J.J. Abrams came up with the year's most invigorating popcorn entertainment, a movie that cannily played to the audience's sense of nostalgia while coming up with a slew of fresh twists and riffs on hoary cliches. Everything old is new again.
Honorable mentions: Adventureland, Afterschool, An Education, Avatar, The Cove, District 9, Duplicity, The Hangover, Julia, Moon, Precious, The Road, Sin Nombre, Watchmen, Whip It.