On the desk in my office sits a can of inedible corn. I received this piece of junk from Warner Brothers back in September as a promotional gimmick for The Informant! (whose protagonist, played by Matt Damon, works for the agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland). The size and shape of a one-gallon paint can, the thing had a plastic nipple on top that held in place a compact disc containing a digital press kit. Affixed to the clear, plastic side, over the exposed corn kernels, was a label reading:

**do not open container** popcorn kernals not for consumption.

The more I looked at this eyesore, the madder I got. Within reason, I try to recycle everything I can and avoid any packaging that will end up in a landfill. I take a canvas bag to the grocery store, refuse Styrofoam containers and plastic utensils—you know, the whole bit. This thing had no function whatsoever, aside from delivering a disc that could easily have gone in an envelope. Warners had probably shipped hundreds of them to journalists around the country, and they would all go straight into the garbage.

On the other hand, could there be a more appropriate symbol for today’s mass-marketed movie than a gallon can of corn? Over the past few decades government price supports for corn have motivated companies like ADM to produce more of it than we can possibly eat. The excess is fed to cattle, which results in fattier beef than earlier generations of Americans ever consumed, and converted into high-fructose corn syrup, which has become ubiquitous in the products that line our supermarket shelves. (Anything still left after that goes into gallon cans to send to movie critics.) This quantum shift in the American diet is thought to be a prime factor in the obesity epidemic, which kills as many as a thousand people a day.

In like fashion, the six major studios that control the vast majority of American movie screens—Columbia, Disney, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Brothers—have, over the past few decades, been pumping more and more sugar and fat into our mental diet. Characters, stories, ideas, and evocations of reality have been elbowed off the screen by one-liners, chases, cliches, and digital fantasy. The “popcorn movie,” once a single segment of a relatively diverse movie market, has taken over the market, and in the process movies have become not just a tool for selling popcorn but the corn itself. Agribusiness is creating a nation of fat-asses; the movie business is creating a nation of fatheads.

This time of year is particularly depressing because even as we survey the movies that came out in 2009, the majors are busy manufacturing demand for their 2010 product. Comcast just ran a promo for the “Most Anticipated Movies of 2010,” which prompted me to wonder: anticipated by whom? It’s my job to keep track of this stuff, and I hadn’t even heard about some of these, much less “anticipated” them. What a tedious assortment of retreads they appear to be: Iron Man 2 (sequel), Piranha 3-D (remake), The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (sequel), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (sequel), The A-Team (remake), Tron Legacy (sequel), Toy Story 3 (sequel), A Nightmare on Elm Street (remake). The only titles that weren’t strictly sequels or remakes were Date Night, a comedy with Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, not exactly a new story.

Of course in a business now defined by opening-weekend box office, any movie that isn’t “anticipated”—i.e., massively presold—faces an uphill battle to get anything like the audience it deserves. A case in point is Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker, one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2009 (it won the Village Voice poll, tied for second in the IndieWIRE poll, and cleaned up last weekend at the National Society of Film Critics awards). If there was ever a critics’ darling with a real shot at cracking the U.S. box office, The Hurt Locker was it: the story of three bomb specialists who drive around Baghdad detonating improvised explosive devices, it’s an honest-to-Jesus action movie, filled with macho swagger and heart-stopping suspense. You could screen it after The Dark Knight and not lose a single patron.

Independently distributed by Summit Entertainment, The Hurt Locker began as an art-house release in four theaters and, largely on the strength of its ecstatic reviews, grossed so much per screen that in six weeks its release had widened to 535 theaters. But with no stars and no brand recognition, it could hardly compete against the likes of Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaur, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, each of which hogged up well in excess of 4,000 screens in its opening weeks. Bookings for The Hurt Locker shriveled week by week, and though word of mouth has kept it alive for 28 weeks, to date it’s grossed only $12 million. For a feature that was independently produced and distributed, that’s not bad, but to the majors $12 million is a joke—Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen grossed $402 million.

In that sense, though, The Hurt Locker really is the movie of 2009, the year we were all reminded, after the delirium of the Obama inauguration, who really runs America. The financial services industry, fresh from its taxpayer bailout, celebrated a banner year as 10 percent of those taxpayers hit the unemployment lines. The captains of the auto industry, after decades of cranking out gas-guzzling vehicles, showed up in Washington to beg for their own bailout and were startled that anyone should notice their gas-guzzling private jets. The insurance industry slowly and patiently emasculated health care reform, turning it into a mandate to buy their horrible policies. In a country where some companies are declared too big to fail, The Hurt Locker occupied that much vaster category of business enterprises too small to succeed.

That’s a tough one to swallow, even with extra butter. But remember, we’re talking about only one segment of the movie business—theatrical distribution. Look back on the past decade and it’s a much brighter story. DVD sales exploded, opening up the whole vast history of world cinema to a much wider audience. Netflix snatched a big segment of the home-rental market away from the conservative Blockbuster chain. Cable TV gave adults who’d been driven from the multiplex something decent to watch and think about with superior dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men. And YouTube democratized image-making like no technology since the home video camera, becoming the biggest film festival in history.

So there’s hope for the little guy after all—and in the spirit of leveling the field, I’ll list not 10, not 20, but 40 worthwhile movies that had their Chicago premieres this year. A few weeks ago, in a review of Up in the Air, I carped that this had been “an incredibly crummy year for movies.” Looking over the list below, I realize that’s not strictly true, no more so than Roger Ebert’s widely noted tweet that 2009 was “a magical year” for movies. To be more exact, this was a year when the big studio releases that monopolized the screens were unfit for human consumption (with the few notable exceptions—Up, Avatar, The Hangover—greeted as if they were the Second Coming), while the number of small movies with decent nutritional value was unusually high.

My Top 40 Films of 2009

1. Summer Hours In Olivier Assayas’s quiet French drama, three siblings weigh their res­pon­sibility to the past as they debate what to do with their late mother’s home and art collection.

2. The Hurt Locker War is a drug in Kathryn Bigelow’s white-knuckle suspense film about a cocky explosives expert and his two partners, who don’t want to die just so he can get his fix.

3. Sita Sings the Blues Jilted by her husband, animator Nina Paley threw herself into this dazzling fantasy, which combines a tale of selfless love from the Ramayana with vintage jazz recordings by Annette Hanshaw; the complete film is viewable online at sitasingstheblues.com.

4. In the Loop British diplomats fly to Washington and get suckered into an invasion of the Middle East in this ferocious satire adapted from the BBC series The Thick of It.

5. The Baader Meinhof Complex This hard-charging German drama revisits the bloody chaos and internal feuds of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, whose bombings and bank robberies during the Vietnam era were a harbinger of today’s Islamist terrorism.

6. The Class French director Laurent Cantet recruited a multiracial cast of real students for this knotty ethical drama about a high school teacher whose wild classroom turns into a cultural battleground.

7. Goodbye Solo A Senegalese cabdriver in Winston-Salem takes it upon himself to rescue an old man intent on suicide in this tender but tough-minded drama by Ramin Bahrani, whose immigrant stories emblematize America in the 21st century.

8. World’s Greatest Dad Shot on a shoestring, this black comedy about a failed writer and his noxious teenage son confirms Bobcat Goldthwait as the most daring comic filmmaker in America.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox Like The Hurt Locker, this stop-motion animation by Wes Anderson should have been distributed to every multiplex in the country, but it was a little too quirky for its own good.

10. The Maid Catalina Saavedra gives a memorably stone-faced performance as the title character in this offbeat chamber drama, about a middle-class family whose longtime domestic begins to revolt.

11. Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains . . . where I survived by eating my fellow passengers who died. This French documentary revisits the infamous 1972 story of a Uruguayan rugby team that went down in the Andes, turning their ordeal into a humbling spiritual journey.

12. Avatar One blockbuster that really delivered the goods was James Cameron’s obsessively imagined CGI epic about a colony of human astronauts hoping to plunder an alien rainforest and relocate its big, blue indigenous people.

13. (500) Days of Summer Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wishes he were dead in this serrated romantic comedy with Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

14. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans Werner Herzog remakes Abel Ferrara’s cop thriller Bad Lieutenant; Nicolas Cage shines as the drug-addled detective, but for Herzog it’s all about the iguanas.

15. American Casino This muckraking documentary lays bare the subprime mortgage scandal and the $12 trillion taxpayer bailout that followed, contrasting the chuckling kings of high finance with Baltimore home owners who lost everything.

16. Good Hair Chris Rock investigates the multibillion-dollar black hair-care industry, a subject that leads him to the very roots (so to speak) of African-American identity.

17. Inglourious Basterds I can’t really top the wag who commented on our Web site that this was “just another [movie] to cash in on the stereotype of Jews as tough, good-looking badasses who are born predators.”

18. The Beaches of Agnes In this fanciful memoir, veteran French filmmaker Agnes Varda revisits the beaches—and movies—that have defined her life.

19. Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire No movie this year divided critics more than this ugly, heartbreaking, and ultimately inspiring tale of an obese Harlem teenager triumphing over years of sexual abuse.

20. Me and Orson Welles Christian McKay’s uncanny impersonation of the 22-year-old Welles animates this backstage romance by Richard Linklater.

21. The Hangover Funny and truthful, this raucous comedy about three guys trying to piece together the previous night’s drunken exploits turns on the fact that a flash of memory can be the ultimate pie in the face.

22. We Live in Public In this documentary by Ondi Timoner, the rise and fall of online entrepreneur Josh Harris becomes a cautionary tale about the death of privacy in the Internet age.

23. Anvil! The Story of Anvil Two middle-aged rockers, revered in the 80s but long forgotten, bet everything they’ve got on a comeback album in this touching documentary.

24. A Serious Man Joel and Ethan Coen ponder God, mortality, and the Jefferson Airplane in this typically hilarious but atypically searching comedy.

25. Lorna’s Silence The Dardenne brothers deliver another tale of relationships poisoned by capitalism, as an Albanian immigrant in Belgium tries to wriggle out of an arranged marriage to a feckless junkie.

26. Rumba With its Keaton-esque slapstick and nearly wordless story, this French-Belgian farce about a married couple who tear it up at dance competitions was one of the wackiest comedies to hit Chicago last year, though it ran for only a week at Facets Cinematheque.

27. A Single Man My long-standing contempt for Colin Firth was swept away by his piercing performance as a closeted gay professor grieving for his dead lover in this ethereal debut feature by fashion designer Tom Ford.

28. La Danse—The Paris Opera Ballet Frederick Wiseman turns his attention to the world-famous ballet company, documenting not only the rigorous preparation of productions but the administrators and laborers who keep the place running.

29. The Road An adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, about a father’s love for his son in the midst of an apocalyptic wasteland. As Spinal Tap would say, it’s like, how much more bleak could this be? And the answer is: none. None more bleak.

30. Red Cliff Directed by John Woo, the year’s biggest battle epic was this 146-minute feature (condensed from two separate Chinese releases) that revisits a third-century military conflict between the Han Dynasty and two troublemaking warlords.

31. The Young Victoria Emily Blunt stars as an 18-year-old Queen Victoria in this superior young-adult drama, a crafty mix of romance and postfeminist parable.

32. Moon Not all space-travel movies have to be dazzling, as proved by this moody head piece about a lonely astronaut working for a commercial mining company on the lunar surface.

33. Up A cynical loner takes to the skies with an irksome young companion and learns to connect emotionally—oh, wait, that’s Up in the Air.

34. Hunger The last days of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands lend themselves not only to political history but to a Bressonian study in self-denial.

35. Collapse Los Angeles-based journalist and futurist Michael Ruppert lays out in frightening detail the looming end of the world oil economy.

36. Bronson Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of the Pusher trilogy, tells the story of psycho British prisoner Charles Bronson, a former circus strongman whose mind is the greatest show on earth.

37. Big Man Japan An inspired send-up of the atomic monster movie, with Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto as a burned-out superhero protecting Tokyo from a series of hilariously surreal creatures.

38. American Violet This old-school issue drama tells the inspiring true story of a Texas welfare mother who sued the powerful local sheriff for violating her civil rights.

39. Drag Me to Hell Forget Paranormal Activity—the year’s best horror flick was this Sam Raimi romp about a young woman trying to shake off a demonic curse.

40. Broken Embraces Pedro Almodovar raises his Cukor-esque infatuation with beautiful actresses to the level of self-interrogation with this silken melodrama, in which a blind screenwriter recalls his obsession with aspiring starlet Penelope Cruz.