The problem with not being a real movie critic--one who gets free passes to movies before they come out--is that you end up seeing a lot of 2009 movies in 2010, when it's too late to put them on your best-of-2009 list, which, of course, everyone reads as gospel.
So I'm not sure if this is number six or what, but I saw An Education on New Year's Day, and it was smart and moving and refreshing. I knew almost nothing about it going in--in the back of my mind, I sort of thought it was some kind of Jane Austen-y adaptation, which I wasn't all that excited about, but it was what was playing at the right time near AK's parents' house in Orange County.
What it is actually about is a 16-year-old British prep school girl who, in 1963, takes up with a dashing older man who even manages to woo her uber-strict, working-class parents. What it is actually, actually about is coming to terms with the unglamorous side of adulthood and the even less glamorous options available to women pre-feminism.
At one point late in the film, Jenny (the protagonist played with much wit and self-aware naivete by Carey Mulligan) argues with her school principal, who is advising her not to throw her life away on a boy. She says (I'm paraphrasing), "He takes me to wonderful restaurants and jazz clubs, but you're telling me I should stay in school and do boring, difficult things so that I can go on to teach at a school like this and do boring, difficult things for a living?"
From the point of view of my thirties, I thought that she was a naive brat. I thought of David Foster Wallace's famous commencement speech about how faith and education are what get you through the cruel drudgery of life. I thought about how restaurants and jazz aren't all that, unless, of course, they're unavailable to you.
But from the point of view of an era with genuine options for women, I thought, She has a point.
There's a similarly great exchange between a young woman and an "older" woman (the wise old, very hot Vera Farmiga) in Up in the Air, where Farmiga's character tells Anna Kendrick's that soon "settling" won't seem dismal so much as like the surest path to happiness.
I appreciated both these scenes not just because they reflected on the nuances of adulthood in a way I seemed to spend much of 2009 doing, but also because they passed the Bechdel test: two women talking to each other about something other than men. Settling might be part of life, but it's nice when it's not par for the course at the movies.