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Movies for Grownups Awards 2009

The best movies that weren't just for kids

Richard Nixon's mea culpa…a 1960s Catholic school in turmoil…a musical steeped in '70s kitsch…a stunt that shocked the world in 1974. At first glance it seems as if this year's Best Movies for Grownups® are looking mostly backward. But look again—each movie, performance, and script selected by our editors has a uniquely current perspective, imbued with the kind of insight only a grownup could love. Even better: They all go great with popcorn!

Best Movie for Grownups® from 2008
, directed by Ron Howard

What the heck is it about Richard Nixon? Every time we think we've got a bead on the guy, we discover a surprising quirk, an unexpected quality—good or bad—that we never suspected. So it is with Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard's astonishing take on RN's historic 1977 TV interviews with British chat-show host David Frost. Sure, it's only a movie, and yes, it's based not on a history book but on a Broadway play, but somehow, between Howard's restrained guidance and his stars' uncanny channeling of the individuals they play, we feel we are witnesses to something more than someone's version of history.

Certainly lots of credit goes to the stars: Frank Langella, jowly and ingenious as Nixon (see Best Actor 50 and Over award, below), and Michael Sheen as deer-in-the-headlights Frost, who realizes, almost too late, just what he's up against. Playwright Peter Morgan has reworked his stage play intelligently, expanding his proscenium-bound universe to evoke the crazed world outside the insular realms of TV and politics. And behind the camera, director Howard ratchets up the drama to peak intensity, time and again allowing his antihero to linger on the screen, giving Nixon the close-ups he felt he deserved—but which contributed to his undoing, as Frost's unforgiving TV cameras seemed to pry into his soul.

For grownups who lived through Watergate—especially those who found themselves secretly scarred by it even as they professed dismissive disgust—Frost/Nixon provides a decades-in-coming catharsis that the original telecasts could not. Howard and company explore not only the backroom dealing and offscreen insanity behind a landmark TV interview; they burrow deep to excavate the hardware that made Dick not just tricky, but tragic.

We Also Loved: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button…Doubt…Married Life…The Wrestler.

Best Actress 50 and Over
Meryl Streep, in Doubt

We simply couldn't resist Streep's magnificently understated performance as Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt. Her face framed by a nun's bonnet, her voice rendered into a low Bronx growl, Streep is clearly utilizing every trick in the Big Book of Acting here—all the better to breathe life into a character who is so sure of her eerie instincts that she persists in accusing a popular priest of child abuse, despite little evidence. Streep paints a striking portrait of a woman not about to let doubt get in the way of her convictions, be they regarding religion, criminality, or even appropriate Christmas music. (The heretical "Frosty the Snowman," she seethes, "should be banned from the airwaves.")

We Also Loved: Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading…Catherine Deneuve in A Christmas Tale…Alfre Woodard in Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys…Annette Bening in The Women.

Best Actor 50 and Over
Frank Langella, in Frost/Nixon

Clearly, director Ron Howard knew exactly what he had in his leading man. And so he had the surpassingly good sense to simply stand back and let the camera run for Frank Langella's towering performance as Richard Nixon. Maddeningly pompous, pitifully insecure, Langella's Nixon smolders with the legendary mix of contradictions that defined the real RN. The veteran actor reveals more of Nixon than a library of biographies ever could. Watch as he walks to the interview set, realizing he has no choice but to fess up to his role in the Watergate cover-up, characteristically slouching but gradually, imperceptibly, drawing his shoulders back, pulling himself up to full height, like a king to his execution. It's a performance that will rank with George C. Scott's Patton and Ben Kingsley's Gandhi.

We Also Loved: Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler…Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino… Chris Cooper in Married Life…Richard Jenkins in The Visitor.

Best Supporting Actor 50 and Over
Bill Irwin, in Rachel Getting Married

A powerful portrait of powerlessness, Irwin's father of the bride in Rachel Getting Married is a heartbreaking look at a man tortured by loss. A shattering chapter in his past is inevitably brought to the surface when his daughter Kym (Anne Hathaway) is released from rehab to come home for her sister's nuptials. In director Jonathan Demme's freeform style, Irwin's character tries valiantly to tamp down his distress, but his expressive face and subtly shifting body language give him away. Still, Irwin presides over the funniest scene ever written about men's nearly universal preoccupation with the one and only correct way to load a dishwasher.

We Also Loved: Bill Murray in City of Ember…John Malkovich in Burn After Reading…Dennis Quaid in The Express…Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!

Best Supporting Actress 50 and Over
Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, in Mamma Mia!

We've never split this award before—hope they don't mind sharing—but there's no way to separate the stars who play Meryl Streep's best pals in Mamma Mia! Baranski stops just short of stealing the show with her brassy broadsides. And while at first it seems a mistake to entrust Walters with the signature ABBA song "Take a Chance on Me," what she lacks in pipes she more than makes up for in panache.

We Also Loved: Kim Cattrall in Sex and the City: The Movie…Bette Midler in Then She Found Me…Debra Winger in Rachel Getting Married…Cloris Leachman in The Women.

Best Director 50 and Over
Gus Van Sant, Milk

For all his inspired casting decisions—particularly the chameleonlike Sean Penn in the title role as California's first gay man elected to major office—Van Sant's smartest move was to cast the city of San Francisco as itself. The actual Haight Street barbershop where Milk's campaign was born is rife with subversive democracy in action. The foyer of City Hall becomes an arch of triumph. And when a candlelight vigil illuminates the intersection of Market and Castro streets, the locale seems to sob gently with a sense of loss.

We Also Loved: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire…Jonathan Demme for Rachel Getting Married…Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon…John Patrick Shanley for Doubt.

Best Screenwriter 50 and Over
J. Michael Straczynski, Changeling

He's already one of television's top writers of fantasy and science fiction; and although Changeling is based on a true story, Straczynski's tale of a mother's search for her kidnapped son—and the corruption it uncovers—churns with an eerie sci-fi atmosphere and dizzying sense of disorientation.

We Also Loved: John Patrick Shanley for Doubt…Eric Roth for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button…Woody Allen for Vicky Cristina Barcelona…Joel and Ethan Coen for Burn After Reading.

Best Grownup Love Story
Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman, Last Chance Harvey

He's short, 60-ish, and miserable; she's gangly, 40-something, and adrift. Yet there was no more appealing screen couple last year than this superstar pair, fumbling through the missteps and epiphanies of later-life love.

We Also Loved: Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!…Diane Lane and Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe…Karen Allen and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull…Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins in Step Brothers.

Best Intergenerational Film
The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy

In the breakout performance of his career, Richard Jenkins stars as a professor who plans to stay in his underused Manhattan apartment—and finds a young illegal-immigrant couple (he's from Syria, she's from Senegal) living there. Everyone's angry and distrustful at first, but soon the three forge a fragile friendship, tentatively bridging cultural and chronological divides that resonate far beyond the apartment's four walls.

We Also Loved: Rachel Getting Married…Gran Torino…The Curious Case of Benjamin Button…Smart People.

Best Comedy for Grownups
Ghost Town, cowritten and directed by David Koepp

A supersmart script by David Koepp and John Kamps—and a perfect oil-and-water combo of Ricky Gervais as a dead-to-the-world dentist and Greg Kinnear as an actually dead lothario (back to resolve unfinished family business)—makes this most grownup comedy of the year also the funniest.

We Also Loved: Smart People…What Just Happened?…Baby Mama…Be Kind Rewind.

Best Documentary
Man on Wire, directed by James Marsh

Revisiting Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, through archive footage and new interviews, director Marsh leave us to conjure up our own vivid images of 9/11. In the process we discover that, with the passage of time, an event that meant one thing then can take on a whole new kind of significance now.

We Also Loved: Young@Heart (performing elders sing their hearts out)…Chris & Don: A Love Story (a tale of unconditional commitment)…I.O.U.S.A. (America's credit crunch)…Flow (our coming water crisis).

Breakthrough Accomplishment
Pierce Brosnan, in Mamma Mia!

We just love the way he attacks the challenge of pop singing with such reckless abandon. Simon Cowell would be aghast, but we're charmed.

Best Foreign-Language Film
The Edge of Heaven (German/Turkish), written and directed by Faith Akin

A German film that swings between locations in Bremen and Istanbul, this drama follows characters of varied ages, nationalities, and faiths passing through one another's lives—and often not connecting at all. It's riveting not for its shambling plot but for its relentless reminder that in a rapidly shrinking world, even when our stories don't intersect, our shared humanity does.

We Also Loved: A Christmas Tale (French)…Late Bloomers (Swiss German)…Silent Light (Plautdietsch-Mennonite Low German)…The Class (French).

Best Buddy Picture
Tyler Perry's The Family That Preys, starring Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard

Bates, as matriarch of a big-business family, and Woodard, as a working-class mom, are lifelong friends. But as their families spiral into chaos, their own relationship deepens, and they satisfy their mutual need by taking off on a just-us-girls road trip. Writer-director Tyler Perry (Madea's Family Reunion) is reaching out to a wider audience here—and he couldn't find two actresses better suited to be his ambassadors of goodwill.

We Also Loved: Mamma Mia!…The Women…Soul Men.

Best Movie for Grownups Who Refuse to Grow Up
Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau

Let's hear it for the middle-aged superhero! Robert Downey Jr. infuses his character with all the frustrations, insecurities, and regrets that go with having put in four decades or so on this planet—and finds the best kind of therapy in a really cool flying suit.

We Also Loved: WALL·E…Kung Fu Panda…City of Ember…Marley & Me.

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