Britches and Hose: Up wasn?t weighted down by its elderly protagonist.
Britches and Hose: Up wasn?t weighted down by its elderly protagonist.

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Avatar is not on this list.

Nor is the bulk of 2009’s end-of-year Oscar bait. Nine? Yawn. It’s Complicated? Better to watch it on TV, where, if not for its star power, the sitcom-ready story belongs. One of the season’s primed big guns, The Lovely Bones, was even bumped to a mid-January opening after receiving awful reviews.

So this holiday season, film-wise, is not a particularly joyful one—and, unfortunately, neither was the year as a whole. But after reaching far back and remembering some of the little guys, it was possible to cherry-pick 10 solid releases that entertained, instigated, informed, or pulled you so thoroughly into their grasp that you once again breathed easy only after the credits rolled. Or, in the case of Paranormal Activity, after the nightmares stopped.

My selection of 2009’s best, in no particular order:

1. Up

You might have viewed the trailer for Pixar’s latest and thought that it didn’t really seem to be about anything. That’s because it was about everything. First, a sublime, nearly silent 10-minute sequence flashes our elderly hero’s life before our eyes, from his dreams as a tyke to meeting the love of his life to the highs and lows of their marriage—including, devastatingly, a miscarriage and adventure wish-list that never gets fulfilled when his wife falls ill and dies. Yes, you will cry your eyes out. But then the story becomes one of second chances, of forging new connections and bucking routine, of making the most of one’s time on earth. Plus, there are talking dogs. (This is, after all, a kids’ flick.) Any subsequent tears will result from laughter.

2. Inglourious Basterds

In a just universe, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fantasy would share a Best Picture Oscar with Up. When it’s loud, it’s very, very loud, with enough bullet baths and a gloriously fiery conclusion to satisfy fans of the auteur’s jones for violence. But the quiet scenes are more memorable: With a patience that seems incongruous to every fiber in his twitchy body, Tarantino filmed a handful of epic sequences that built tension with small talk. The best involved Christoph Waltz in a remarkable breakout performance as an eloquent monster. And the worst? N/A. You’ll be too hypnotized by the graceful pacing to notice any missteps.

3. Up in the Air

Jason Reitman’s film about a “career transition counselor”—i.e. someone who fires people for a living—is certainly timely. But this deftly layered story is also about lifestyle choices, learning to readjust when grand, seemingly set-in-stone post-grad expectations don’t follow your timeline, and how personal connection, whether you’re canning or caring about someone, is the one quality on which you probably shouldn’t compromise. Also: Travel tips from our frequent-flying lead loner, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney).

4. Paranormal Activity

I still can’t talk about this one without getting chills. Screw the shoestring budget: Writer-director Oren Peli’s construction of the demon-in-the-house story was masterful, patiently ratcheting up the tension until you’re screaming, tittering nervously, or praying that the damn thing would just end already.

5. Coraline

To call Henry Selick’s stop-motion adaptation of the Neil Gaiman book wildly imaginative seems insufficient. The story about a girl ignored by her parents and bored with her life is creepy fun, with weird, Tim Burton–esque characters and candy-colored visuals that simultaneously deepened and popped when viewed in 3-D. Like Up, Coraline is a children’s film that doesn’t treat children like idiots.

6. Adventureland

Greg Mottola’s note-perfect coming-of-age story with the melancholy, humor, and soundtrack of a Cameron Crowe film. Set in the ’80s at a decrepit amusement park, the movie follows its college-age employees through one fumbling-toward-adulthood summer. Jesse Eisenberg, Ryan Reynolds, and a better-than-Bella Kristen Stewart form the primary love triangle, wringing all the awkwardness, yearning, and bliss of this snapshot of life that will resonate with anyone who’s lived through it.

7. World’s Greatest Dad

Bobcat Goldthwait’s black comedy might have been blessed by the Ghost of Low Expectations—after all, a Robin Williams vehicle brought to you by the director of Shakes the Clown doesn’t exactly scream must-see. But this story about a failed writer using his son’s death to boost his career is a unique satire about our society’s tendency to put the suddenly deceased, no matter how maligned while they were alive, on pedestals, as well as the jubilant rise and degrading fall of the insta-celebrity. Williams’ nuanced performance makes his participation in Old Dogs forgivable—almost.

8. The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow’s ex, James Cameron, may currently be getting all the drooling, on-the-bandwagon huzzahs for his nifty computer tricks, but she’s delivered one of the year’s meatiest and least-flawed films. Written by formerly embedded journalist Mark Boal, this is a war pic without politics, instead focusing on the extreme experiences soldiers face and how constantly putting their lives at risk can become somewhat of an addiction. Jeremy Renner may finally become a household name because of his performance as a bomb-diffusing specialist and eventual adrenaline junkie whose life is clearly defined by pre- and post-war, the former an existence he may never be able to go back to.

9. Food, Inc.

The wake-up call Morgan Spurlock wishes he’d delivered. A documentary with the power to make even the laziest, least p.c. carnivore hesitate before buying hormone- and chemical-laden supermarket chicken or—egads—“ammonia-cleansed” fast-food beef. (Which isn’t even referred to as beef, but “hamburger meat filler.”) Robert Kenner’s film questions the veracity of organic and “all-natural” labels as well.

10. Sherlock Holmes

This Guy Ritchie film won’t win any awards, but compared to its disappointing holiday peers, it’s a treat. Fear not, Holmesians: Considerably tamping his wham-bam proclivity, Ritchie instead delivers an actioner that relies on wits more than fists. (However, fans of the director’s repertoire are thrown some bones—and explosions.) Robert Downey Jr. is, predictably, charming as the preternaturally talented but stubbornly transgressive detective and nicely complemented by Jude Law’s dry, straight-man turn as Watson.