Where the fantastic things are 

Two kids' book adaptations lead a robust list of sweet cinematic escapes in '09

In many areas, 2009 sucked profoundly — bad economy, disillusioning health-scare debate, the Yankees winning the World Series again. But at the movies, things were better.

Some years, the last film or two on my Top 10 list just filled out space; this year, I agonized over terrific films that didn't quite make the cut. If you're looking for entertainment and dramatic tension over the next few months, these movies could fill your Netflix queue with an embarrassment of riches.

10. Zombieland: Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick created a drop-dead hilarious script about a zombie apocalypse that forces nerdy college student Jesse Eisenberg and gun-toting hardass Woody Harrelson to join forces. Terrifically entertaining on a moment-to-moment basis, it features the year's most inspired cameo performance — which I won't spoil, even if imdb.com does.

9. Me and Orson Welles: Director Richard Linklater's adaptation of Robert Kaplow's novel about a high school senior (Zac Efron) working with Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre company in 1937 New York is a delight, both as coming-of-age story and backstage farce. But the real revelation is Christian McKay, whose spot-on impersonation of Welles also captures both the brilliance and unrepentant narcissism of the legendary actor in a way that makes him fascinating even when he's loathsome.

8. The Hurt Locker: At times just a series of set pieces about the chaotic unpredictability of 21st-century warfare, director Kathryn Bigelow's battlefield drama is nevertheless heart-in-your-throat gripping. Jeremy Renner's terrific performance as an adrenaline-junkie bomb-squad technician in Iraq generally captures the twisted psychology of guys who embrace the possibility of death in order to survive.

7. Revanche: Writer/director Götz Spielmann's drama deals with guilt and revenge in a way that's restrained yet thoroughly engrossing. Johannes Krisch provides the strongest moments as an Austrian small-time criminal who botches a robbery, then turns his anger on the cop who foiled him. Even while chopping wood, he's one of the most densely complex screen characters you'll find this year.

6. In the Loop: If it were nothing more than its blistering collection of profanities and insults, it would still be a laugh-till-you-cry gem. But this spin-off from the British TV series The Thick of It also captures the tragic reality of life-and-death political decision-making turned into the stuff of petty turf wars and pissing matches, anchored by Peter Capaldi's snarling performance as a British government bureaucrat.

5. Anvil! The Story of Anvil: The two "heroes" of Sacha Gervasi's documentary — charter members of an influential, never-quite-popular Canadian heavy metal band — are fully aware they've become a real-life This Is Spinal Tap. But this affectionate portrait shows these middle-aged headbangers embracing their identity, in a story that becomes an almost heroic portrait of guys who don't know how to give up on their dreams.

4. Sita Sings the Blues: It adds to the story to note that writer/director Nina Paley created this wild blend of conventional hand-drawn animation, rotoscoping and CGI alone on her home computer. But the film isn't wondrous because it's a one-woman show; it's because Paley takes elements that don't seem to belong together — forgotten jazz recordings, Indian mythology, contemporary romantic heartbreak — and makes them feel like part of a perfect whole.

3. Humpday: Writer/director Lynn Shelton's high-concept comedy premise — two old college buddies make a dare/pact to have sex together on video for an amateur porn contest — turns into a brilliant exploration of men who don't have the emotional vocabulary to share that they matter to each other. Perfectly performed by Mark Duplass, Joshua Leonard and, particularly, Alycia Delmore as the sane center of a nutty triangle.

2. Where the Wild Things Are: Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers' adaptation of the beloved children's book has polarized critics and audiences. For my two cents, it's a staggeringly heartfelt exploration of the tangled emotions children sometimes deal with through play. Messy, unsettling and truly visionary filmmaking.

1. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Always a filmmaker fond of self-contained cinematic worlds, Wes Anderson finds the perfect outlet for his vision in this stop-motion tale that loosely adapts Roald Dahl's story. The production's tactile delights are matched by a brilliant script, hilarious vocal performances and a sneaky use of the old "be true to yourself" kid-flick trope. In the lingo of the film, it's cussin' perfect.


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