Up? District 9? What tops our critics' lists?

Charles Cassady Jr.

1. Sita Sings the Blues In this low-budget, high-imagination cartoon, writer-director Nina Paley wryly retells the Ramayana from the viewpoint of its heroine, the wronged wife of a mighty monarch. Commentary and flavor are added by musical numbers from 1920s jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw, who "stars" in this posthumously. Paley also interweaves the sad-absurd story of her own marital breakup. Brilliant minimalism-is-more graphics, music, satire, cross-cultural odysseys, heartache, revenge against an ex — it's all here.

2. Coraline Between this and Watchmen, both well-mounted, long-awaited adaptations of treasured literary fantasias, I give Henry Selick's eerie, stop-motion realization of Neil Gaiman's novel the edge. It's suitably bizarre, a treat to look at and a good deal shorter. Asterisk in the record books, though: Gaiman pretty much plagiarized himself when he turned in a story very similar to Coraline a few years ago for MirrorMask, his collaboration with the Jim Henson Company.

3. Fados Distinguished Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura paid homage to the Portuguese style of heartfelt balladeering known as fado, passionate laments for lost love or youth or country. Like American blues, fado takes many forms, and here, one splendid, multicolored song-and-dance number after another unfolds on an elaborate indoor stage. There's no narration or background for the uninitiated or bios of the star performers.

4. Mock Up on Mu Archivist Craig Baldwin re-edits old stock footage, serials, educational films, corporate promos and industrial movies into gonzo new narratives, often with a sci-fi-paranoia twist. Here his media-barrage style transported viewers to 2019 (more or less), when Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard, from his secret moon colony Mu, tries to set up a lunar Las Vegas-type enterprise based on mind control. Beside the nutty visuals, the funny-scary aspect is how many bizarre characters and details are factual, not products of some way-out screenwriter's imagination.

5. Funny People Apparently Judd Apatow didn't get the memo that mainstream summer movies were supposed to suck. He turned in another proudly profane yet touching dramedy about a leukemia-stricken, self-loathing stand-up star and his rising young protag. Adam Sandler continues to astound; consider how easy it would have been for the onetime Not Ready for Prime Time Player to phone in sequels to The Waterboy and Billy Madison. Instead he takes on deeper and non-repetitive material.

6. Were the World Mine Though it was peddled as a "gay High School Musical," Tom Gustafson's sweet-spirited wish-fulfillment fantasy about a magical outbreak of sexual-orientation tolerance during a boys'-academy staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream proved neither derivative nor gooey. A nice turn by all, including Robin Williams' actress-daughter Zelda.

7. Capitalism: A Love Story Michael Moore's autopsy of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown was almost a career-climax statement for the anti-corporate muckraking documentarian, who suggests that if socialism is indeed coming, American know-how will probably make it as palatable as Las Vegas does gambling. It's in the spirit of a better and sneakier nonfiction feature, Czech Dream, in which two students in free-market Eastern Europe fake the opening of an utterly nonexistent superstore. It was made in 2004 but took considerable time to reach here.

8. Sleep Dealer Science fiction that's truly close to tomorrow's headlines, this Spanish-language indie evoked a globalized future with frightening verisimilitude. Desperate Mexicans implanted with "nodes" plug into computer networks and, from the high-tech confines of Tijuana, operate remote machines or long-distance robots as cheap cyber-migrant labor for a greedy, powerful, weapon-happy and paranoid U.S.

9. The Cove There were other reasons to find the Japanese more annoying than usual this year beside their whacko new First Lady and her UFO contacts. This documentary, done with the verve and unabashedly manipulative drama, follows a camera-friendly, international team of eco-avengers — clustered around the activist who trained the animal actors in the '60s TV series Flipper as they try to expose annual porpoise captures and bloody slaughter carried on furtively by Nippon. Ocean's 14 could well have been an apt alternate title.

10. The International Tom Tykwer's globetrotting thriller about Interpol operatives trying to bring down a giant, corrupt bank connected to terrorists and the CIA was this year's Michael Clayton: an ordinary pulp-thriller at heart, but done with finesse, a great eye and a sense that grownups might actually be in the audience. And that shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum during a video-installation exhibit shows that modern art is useful for something — finally.

Michael Gallucci

1. Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino rewrites World War II as a funny, action-packed fantasy where the good guys win with an intoxicating mix of verbal sparring and bloodletting. It's less wordy and windy than his other films but every bit as exciting, with many memorable set pieces.

2. Up Pixar continues its winning streak with another classic. This time it's about an old man, a young boy and a house lifted by balloons to a mythical land populated by talking dogs and a spastic bird. Moving, funny and dazzling to look at, Up is one of the animation studio's very best.

3. District 9 Neill Blomkamp's budget-strapped sci-fi allegory is the year's sleeper hit. At its heart, the movie explores racism in the form of displaced space aliens who just want to go home. But it's also a terrific action film with heart and sympathy to spare, plus some kick-ass weapons.

4. Star Trek Even non-trekkies love it, and why not? With a total revamp of the franchise that features a spunkier Kirk, a sexier Uhura and a more human Spock, J.J. Abrams took the USS Enterprise for a hell of a ride across the galaxy. It's the best thing, by far, to ever bear the Star Trek imprint.

5. (500) Days of Summer Even though it claims it's not a love story, (500) Days of Summer is very much a love story — the best since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are perfect as would-be-lovers caught in the wheels of circumstance.

6. Fantastic Mr. Fox Wes Anderson's farmland fable about a restless fox who gathers his woodsy pals for one more score is as sly as it is innovative. The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, and the cast (including George Clooney and Bill Murray) brings a sense of hipster Zen to the proceedings.

7. The Hangover The year's funniest movie mines the same guys-behaving-badly territory as Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. But unlike those bromances, which eventually get a little squishy, The Hangover is all man, right down to the hilarious end credits.

8. Big Fan In this dark comedy about home-team pride not quite pushed to the breaking point, comedian Patton Oswalt plays a New York Giants fan who gets a little too close to his hero and promptly gets his ass kicked. You don't know whether to laugh at or pity Oswalt's lovable loser.

9. Where the Wild Things Are Spike Jonze turns Maurice Sendak's beloved kids' book into a wonderful movie fantasy about childhood imagination and fear. The wild things — actors in giant foam suits augmented with CGI facial expressions — start a rumpus in your heart that never lets up.

10. Coraline Henry Selick, the director who made The Nightmare Before Christmas, returns with a gloomy stop-motion fantasy about a little girl who discovers a door that leads to a world that isn't quite as idyllic as it seems. Coraline is dark, spooky and a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

Robert Ignizio

1. The Hurt Locker Both thoughtful and entertaining, The Hurt Locker didn't have mass appeal because most people thought they didn't want to see a movie about Iraq. Whatever your opinion on the war, this movie will give you a greater appreciation and understanding of what our soldiers have to go through.

2. Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino rewrites history for his best film since Pulp Fiction. Violent, funny and smart, it's so good it even gets away with declaring itself a masterpiece.

3. A Serious Man Blending quantum physics and philosophy, the Coen Brothers explore issues of faith and fate with their trademark style and humor. Great performances by a mostly unknown cast give the complex story a welcome human element.

4. Antichrist Lars von Trier's controversial film about a couple's descent into hell on earth after the death of their child will be too much for some. At times beautiful, at times repellent and at times both, Antichrist is an amazing work of horrific despair.

5. Martyrs The movie that proves the "torture porn" sub-genre of horror can have substance and soul. It's also beautifully shot and never goes where you expect. This went straight to video, not because it was bad but because an American remake is in the works.

6. The Hangover The Hangover is crass and offensive, but if that doesn't bother you, it's also the funniest movie of the year.

7. Duplicity This is fairly lightweight stuff, but it's handled with intelligence and flair reminiscent of classic Hollywood films. Clive Owen does his best Cary Grant, and Julia Roberts does her best Julia Roberts.

8. The Road This grim tale of survival in a post-apocalyptic wasteland had a hell of a road just getting released. It's a rough emotional ride, but not without a glimmer of hope.

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox Wes Anderson puts his distinctive stamp on Roald Dahl's children's book, and the result is something like The Royal Tenenbaums with talking animals. Like Where the Wild Things Are, this seems more geared toward the inner child of adults than actual children. Unlike Wild Things, the film is actually fun.

10. In the Loop Like Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, this movie argues that our leaders are all lunatics, spoiled children and ineffectual twits ready to go to war at the drop of a hat. Then it makes us laugh at that sorry state of affairs.

Milan Paurich

1. Up The pinnacle of Pixar artistry/imagination, and a humanist masterpiece for the ages.

2. Up in the Air A true zeitgeist film that speaks directly to how we live now, how we got here and where we're headed. It's also that increasing cinematic rarity: a major studio film that's unapologetically and mistakably grown-up. Thank you, Paramount, Jason Reitman and George Clooney.

3. Fantastic Mr. Fox "Fantastic" doesn't begin to describe Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated marvel, which also features the year's best ensemble cast (Clooney again, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Michael Gambon, et al.).

4. Where the Wild Things Are Spike Jonze not only captures the look of Maurice Sendak's kid-lit perennial but its soul as well.

5. A Single Man Fashion maven Tom Ford's stunningly accomplished directorial debut hearkens back to '90s "New Queer Cinema" classics like Todd Haynes' Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon. A masterful blend of drop-dead style and great, tender feeling.

6. Summer Hours The latest cinematic treasure from France's greatest (and most chameleon) working director, Olivier Assayas.

7. Avatar James Cameron regained his "King of the World" cred with the most eye-popping, knock-your-socks-off Hollywood super-spectacular since, well, Titanic.

8. The Box This undeservedly snubbed chiller was another mind-blowing masterpiece from Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko), the most exciting new American filmmaker to emerge this decade.

9. Every Little Step This exhilarating "making-of-A-Chorus-Line" doc is one singular sensation indeed.

10. Tetro Francis Ford Coppola's follow-up to his virtually unwatchable 2007 farrago Youth Without Youth is the 70-year-old maestro's finest work in almost two decades. Directing his first original screenplay since The Conversation, Coppola's self-contained film festival is both loving homage to the heady days of the French New Wave and a glorious throwback to the tempestuous Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s.

Pamela Zoslov

1. A Serious Man Joel and Ethan Coen draw on their own experience growing up Jewish in the Midwest for this brilliant modern take on the Book of Job, set in 1970 suburbia and centering on physics professor Larry Gopnik whose life becomes an existential nightmare when, among other calamities, his wife announces she's leaving him. He seeks counsel from rabbis, who respond with stories about parking lots and teeth. An absurdist masterpiece.

2. Sunshine Cleaning This small independent film, by the producers of Little Miss Sunshine, has a style and working-class setting similar to Little Miss Sunshine (and with Alan Arkin as another eccentric grandpa), it's about a struggling single mom (Amy Adams) and her misfit sister (Emily Blunt) who fall into the grisly but lucrative business of cleaning up crime scenes. The story is improbable, but the movie has a melancholic sweetness that lingers on the palate.

3. Capitalism: A Love Story Michael Moore's entertaining polemic about the villainy behind the financial crisis displays the filmmaker's usual strengths and weaknesses — brilliant style alongside a tendency to drift off subject and miss his targets. But at his best, Moore has the ability to move the masses, and what his films lack in solid scholarship, they make up for in brisk, savvy editing and emotional appeal.

4. Extract Another fun workplace satire by Mike Judge (Office Space). This mordant comedy, seen by almost nobody, is about a food-extract factory owner who faces multiple crises, including an employee injury, a frigid wife (Kristen Wiig) and a seductive new employee/con artist (Mila Kunis). Jason Bateman is so endearing as the beleaguered Joel that we sympathize with him even when, in a drugged stupor, he enlists an imbecilic teenager to seduce his wife so he can justify an affair.

5. The Soloist Audiences didn't embrace this lovely movie, based on newspaper columns by Steve Lopez (played by Robert Downey Jr.), who discovered that a homeless man (Jamie Foxx) playing Beethoven on the L.A. streets was a gifted, Juilliard-trained musician suffering from schizophrenia. Atonement director Joe Wright's glossy style is a brilliant counterpoint to the gritty subject matter: casting actual homeless people, Wright framed the urban abyss like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

6. The Boys Are Back If you're not troubled by the fact that paunchy British political writer Simon Carr is here transformed into a handsome sportswriter (Clive Owen), Scott Hicks' movie, based on Carr's memoir about raising his two boys after his wife's death, is touching and understated. Child actor Nicolas McAnulty is adorable but not cloying, and Greig Fraser's gorgeous cinematography paints the Australian countryside with a luminous palette.

7. The Invention of Lying This witty comedy, directed by, co-written by and starring Ricky Gervais may have been too high-concept to get much traction. It imagines a world without falsehood, where Mark (Gervais), a failed filmmaker, could "invent" the art of lying. The movie gently satirizes religion as Mark comforts his dying mum with a story about heaven, and the masses anoint him as a wise guru. Though imperfect, it's original and sweet, buoyed by clever gags, Monty Pythonesque routines and amusing star cameos.

8. The Hangover Todd Phillips' Vegas-set buddy comedy was the summer's sleeper hit, remarkable for managing to out-Apatow Judd Apatow, who was off waxing sentimental with Funny People. Phillips finessed it with Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianikis, a funny script, breezy direction, and appearances by Mike Tyson and a tiger.

9. Whatever Works Not a great film or even a great Woody Allen film, but funny and pleasantly old-school. Woody dusted off a script written in the '70s for Zero Mostel, in whose role he cast Larry David, who's surprisingly good as a misanthropic New York physicist who meets and marries a runaway teen (Evan Rachel Wood), loses her and finds redemption. There's that persistent pederasty theme again. But so what? The clever writing and masterly direction more than compensate.

10. Up in the Air George Clooney is at his suave best in Jason Reitman's slick adaptation of the 2001 Walter Kirn novel about a traveling corporate downsizing expert who lives most of his life on airplanes and likes it that way. By turns brilliant and flawed, it's noteworthy as the only American drama this year to focus on the cold cruelties of 21st-century capitalism — Reitman cast actual downsized employees as the firing victims — and at Christmastime, yet.



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