Let's keep this quick and easy. You've probably seen twelve dozen year-end "best of 2009" lists, but this one is mine! No rambling commentary, no goofy synopses, just 20 films from the past 12 months that I liked the best. (These are listed alphabetically.)

(500) Days of Summer -- There are tons of romance-intensive films that are funny, familiar, and/or heartbreaking, but here's one that tackles one of the pricklier situations: when one partner is clearly "more into" the relationship than the other. Leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel provide pitch-perfect performances, and the screenplay is a surprisingly insightful mixture of warmth, intelligence, reality and fantasy. I saw this one way back in January and it still stands as one of my very favorite films of the year.

Avatar -- Whether or not it becomes the "game-changer" that the hype machine promised is none of my concern. All I know is that, without fail, the equation of {Cameron + sci-fi + action} is always something worth watching. And in the case of this futuristic tale of supreme culture clash, there's simply too much to enjoy to focus on the nitpicks. Epic in scale and full of great little details, it may not be James Cameron's best film, but this director's B+ is most directors' fondest dream.
Bronson -- We've seen so many prison movies (many of them great) that it takes a little something extra for a new one to make some noise. It'd be easy to say that Tom Hardy's stunning lead performance is all that Bronson has to offer, but director Nicholas Winding Refn brings a colorful chaos to the fact-based story ... and yes, Mr. Hardy is purely magnetic in this flick.

The Cove -- Easily the best documentary of the year, this tale of dolphin-friendly activists is equal parts tragedy, espionage, and adventure film. Rare is the doc this topical, important, and downright ballsy. It just hit DVD a few weeks ago, so take a chance on something a little more pressing than, say, Night at the Museum Part 2.

District 9 -- This action / sci-fi / political satire has more layers than an onion, and it represents one of the finest "studio" sci-fi experiments in quite some time. I've seen it three times so far and I keep picking up nifty new nuggets each time out.

An Education -- There are so many ways to get a female-centric coming-of-age period piece wrong ... that it's cause for admiration when the filmmakers nail a film so perfectly. Carey Mulligan is virtually flawless as a 1960s London girl who falls for a charming older man (Peter Sarsgaard) and learns more than her share of life lessons in the process. Sounds like a potential snoozer, perhaps. It absolutely is not.

Fantastic Mr. Fox -- Sweet, smart, silly and supremely satisfying. Right up there with the director's Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Perfect for families, provided your kids are both smart and snarky. (P.S. I know I'm not ranking this list, but Mr. Fox is my favorite film of 2009. Hotbox!)

The House of the Devil -- Ti West's flawless recreation of late '70s / early '80s occult horror is the textbook definition of "a slow burn," but it's so quietly creepy and creatively shot that you won't have time to notice.

The Hurt Locker -- One of the best war films of the past ten years, mainly because it focuses on the soldiers as much as it does on their horrifically dangerous responsibilities. Serious movie freaks have known about Kathryn Bigelow's skills since the mid-'80s. It's about time everyone else took notice.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus -- You simply will not find a bigger Terry Gilliam fan than yours truly, but after muddling through Tideland and struggling through The Brothers Grimm, I was beginning to get a little worried. Those fears were quickly extinguished by the filmmaker's latest, a visually stunning and enjoyably playful tale of love, loyalty, and the fine art of storytelling. It's just great to see the Gilliam I know and love, working with such confidence and color, brandishing a brand-new CG paintbrush that he already wields like a master.

Inglourious Basterds -- Once again Quentin Tarantino proves himself the movie world's most adept sampler, re-mixer and overall movie geek extraordinaire. What looks like a colorful war flick throwback is actually a wonderfully juicy deconstruction of colorful war flicks, and while the film has plenty of plain and simple "fun," at its heart is a powerful and unmistakable love letter to film itself. Much like the finest of QT's films.

The Messenger -- One of the very few 2009 "dramas" that earns its stripes through sheer force of heart of sincerity. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are pitch-perfect as a pair of soldiers who must bear tragic news for a series of grieving families. Fascinating stuff, and not nearly as depressing as it sounds.

Moon -- One of the best "old-school" science fiction films in a very long time. A clever concept with challenging ideas, backed by a lot of fascinatingly low-key diversions and supported by a stellar Sam Rockwell. Expect this one to earn lots of new supporters as the years go by.

Observe and Report -- Often mistaken for a broad farce, this darkly amusing character piece feels a bit like a consumerist version of Taxi Driver. Yeah, I said it. This one might represent Seth Rogen's skimpiest showing at the box office, but it's certainly his bravest and most unconventional flick so far. I liked it a lot.

A Serious Man -- I try never to talk or write extensively about a Coen Brothers film before seeing it at least twice, but I don't have much choice at this point: easily one of the brothers' strangest films, it's about a highly beleaguered Jewish man who struggles through a banal series of setbacks that slowly snowball into something ... big. I don't claim to "get" all of what this film is dishing out -- but a few extra viewings will remedy that problem. The fact that I look forward to seeing the film a few more times, however, certainly says something.

Star Trek
-- I'm no hardcore Trekkie, and I was more than a litle skeptical of this project from the get-go ... but damn if J.J. Abrams and company didn't hit this one out of the park. Aside from a few geeky complaints about the time-travel stuff, I'd call this one of the best adventure flicks of the year. As a reboot of a beloved franchise, it works outstandingly well, and the good stuff just keeps on coming: a colorful cast, some great action, several well-drawn characters, and an effectively nasty villain. Plus the score rocks. Bring on the sequel!

A Town Called Panic -- If this certifiably insane French (Belgian!) piece of stop-motion animation doesn't make you feel like a kid for 75 minutes, then I suspect you may be a robot who was manufactured as an adult and therefore didn't have a childhood. Enough said.

-- I'm not one of those guys who thinks Pixar is infallible by default (I can't get into Cars no matter how hard I try), but between last year's Wall-E and this summer's blissfully entertaining Up, I'm beginning to think, well, that the Pixar team is infallible by default. This one begins with one of the most beautifully bittersweet set-ups I've ever seen, and then it smoothly transitions into a comedy / adventure / redemption story that's overloaded with great wit, massive heart, and eye-popping sights. Even among Pixar's finest, Up is a special case indeed. And that's saying something.

Watchmen -- After so many "basic" superhero movies, Watchmen feels like a blast of hot air on a cold winter's day. Impresively faithful to its source material, but different enough to warrant lots of debates and discussions, this is an epic achievement that will fascinate film fans for quite some time. Certainly not without its flaws, but there's so much here that works (and works well) that it seems silly to nitpick.

World's Greatest Dad -- There's little that I love more than a good "dark" (or "black") comedy, and there's little I despise more than when one of them pulls all its punches. Bobcat Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad falls firmly into the former camp, it's the best of the former comedian's films, and it's absolutely one of the bravest and most brazen flicks of the year. It's not only for grown-ups; it's for grown-ups who are able to decipher the darkest type of cinematic humor ... and find a lot of interesting angles and ideas on the other side.

Honorable Mentions:

Straight to DVD -- Trick 'R Treat is an absolute blast, and easily better than 75% of the theatrical release horrors. Best scary anthology since Creepshow and soon to be an annual favorite every October.

Self-Distributed -- Stingray Sam is an adorably weird, warm, and funny sci-fi musical serial that can only be picked up through its official site. So if you order a copy you're supporting true indie film AND getting a very fun flick.

Festval Fare -- The Greek import Dogtooth almost defies description, but it's one of the most surreally engrossing experiments I've seen in years. I'm told that Kino will be releasing the DVD in 2010, so here's me recommending it for the braver movie freaks.