10

The Messenger

War again, this time on the home front, as soldiers played by Ben Foster and a never-better Woody Harrelson knock on the doors of wives, husbands and parents to deliver the worst kind of news. Director Oren Moverman, in an auspicious debut, creates a different kind of hurt locker. The fireworks here are implosive. Having known battle himself as a soldier in Israel, he exposes the intimate trauma we all face when we lose sight of our shared humanity.

TIE FOR 11th: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds took on the Nazis in four languages; Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story stuck it to Wall Street; Armando Iannucci's In the Loop skewered politics; Louie Psihoyos' The Cove exposed dolphin slaughter; Clint Eastwood's Invictus made Mandela and rugby a winning team; Michael Mann's Public Enemies reinvented the gangster movie; Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox was smart fun in stop-motion animation; Tom Ford's A Single Man found painful beauty in lost love; Rob Marshall's Nine reinvigorated the musical; James Toback's Tyson showed Iron Mike on the ropes and fighting his way back.

9

(500) Days of Summer

Just when I thought romantic comedy was dead, director Marc Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber proved me wrong by casting Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as star-crossed lovers to die for.

8

District 9

Here's the blockbuster that deserves one of those 10 Oscar spots for Best Picture. South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp and actor Sharlto Copley blend exciting sci-fi about aliens in Johannesburg with the tormented world of racism they grew up in.

7

A Serious Man

The Coen brothers investigate what it's like to grow up Jewish and clueless in suburban Minnesota, circa 1967, just like they did. Aided by Michael Stuhlbarg's superb turn as an academic Job, they question God ? deliciously tongue-in-cheek, and dead-on serious.

6

Where the Wild Things Are

Some readers thought I lost my shit falling so hard for the penetrating look into childhood that director Spike Jonze made of Maurice Sendak’s kid classic. Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) is an untamed visionary. And if he wants to combine the superlative young actor Max Records with nine-foot puppets, let him. All the joy and misplaced rage that goes into being a kid is in this movie. In time, you’ll know I’m right. Apologies accepted.

5

Up

Pixar's animation magic is invariably irresistible, especially in this tale about an old coot, a chubby boy and a house hoisted by balloons. The near-silent prelude of courtship, marriage and old age is touched by genius.

4

An Education

Carey Mulligan is the find of the year as a 16-year-old virgin coping with the blahs of pre-Beatles London, overprotective parents and the dazzle of an older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Danish director Lone Scherfig mines a great Nick Hornby script for every wickedly crafted nuance.

3

The Hurt Locker

Critics fell over themselves praising this dynamite film about the casualties of war. Audiences stayed hands off. Wake up, people. Kathryn Bigelow, in the directing tour de force of the year, uses a strong script by embedded journalist and RS contributor Mark Boal to take us deep into an elite U.S. bomb-disposal squad in Baghdad. Jeremy Renner excels as the unit leader, showing how war becomes a drug. A stunning film on every level.

2

Up in the Air

Director Jason Reitman, 32, takes his career to new heights with this comedy of shocking gravity. George Clooney does his best acting to date as a hired corporate gun who flies from city to city firing the asses of recession-victimized work slaves and dodging personal commitment. What this says about him, and us, makes this a movie of and for its time.

1

Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire

No movie this year hit me harder than this powerhouse, named for an obese Harlem teen (glorious newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) knocked up by her daddy, battered by her mother (an Oscar-ready Mo'Nique) and laughed at by a world that looks right through her. Director Lee Daniels makes sure you look this time. And he does it with a command of filmmaking that breaks new ground. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is one of a kind.

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