Every year, someone asks the same question, and every year it seems I understand less how to answer it: "Was this a good year for movies?" Maybe they're asking whether this year's Top 10 were better than last year's. Or whether or not there were any masterpieces in the bunch. But the reality is, the answer doesn't really matter. People don't watch years; they watch movies. And from this arbitrary collection of 366 days, it's easy to find 10 movies that made me laugh out loud, weep with joy, cringe in terror or think in ways I hadn't expected.
10. Bigger Stronger Faster*
The recent death of filmmaker Christopher Bell's brother Mike heightens the pathos in this uniquely personal documentary. Using his family's history with steroid use as a launching point, Bell created a surprising piece of devil's-advocacy for the idea that steroids themselves aren't as dangerous as the American obsession with being the best at all costs, no matter what the price that inspires their abuse.
9. Waltz with Bashir
Twenty years removed from the first Lebanon War, filmmaker Ari Folman tries to relocate his lost memories of being present at an infamous massacre. That he does so by using animation a combination of hand-drawings and Flash-style computer work at first seems like a gimmick. But it becomes a haunting experiment in expressing the inexpressible, and attempting to create a psychic distance from horrifying realities.
8. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Abortion may be a driving plot element in Cristian Mungiu's drama set in Ceaucescu-era Romania, with a young woman helping her pregnant roommate procure an illegal termination but it's not about abortion. With meticulous control over his framing, Mungiu paints a portrait of a time when bureaucratic control and paranoia filled every moment with an almost unbearable tension.
7. Funny Games
Sure, Michael Haneke made a nearly identical version of this story in German a decade ago. And maybe familiarity with the previous incarnation could blunt the startling ferocity of watching a happy, upscale family terrorized by two amoral youths and being mocked by Haneke for your empathy. But it remains a jarring piece of filmmaking, even if you feel the need to shower after watching.
6. Man on Wire
"Talking head" documentaries tend to feel stiff, even if the subject is fascinating. James Marsh revisits a nearly-forgotten feat aerialist Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope crossing between the World Trade Center's Twin Towers not just with interviews, but with effective dramatizations. And when the event itself takes center stage without underlining the idea that it can never be duplicated it's almost unspeakably beautiful.
5. The Dark Knight
Understandably, Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker stole nearly every headline. But the gifted Christopher Nolan employed that performance in service of a staggeringly complex piece of psychological drama about the nature of heroism in an age of fear and madness.
4. The Wrestler
It could have felt like an exploitation of Mickey Rourke's battered face. But director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel took his performance as aging wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson and turned the idea of the "underdog sports movie" upside-down, telling a tale of what happens to anyone who believes there's only one thing that gives his life value.
It's easy to pick on the fact that the second half isn't as staggeringly beautiful as the first half. But director Andrew Stanton crafts a miraculous little love story that only happens to have as subtext a humanity cut off from emotional connection, and only happens to find true joy in the body of a robot.
2. My Winnipeg
Director Guy Maddin continues to blur the lines between past and present in this quirky, hilarious salute to his hometown. Maybe all of its trivial "facts" are true; maybe none are. But Maddin's uniquely stylized vision brings it all together into something more true than the truth.
1. Rachel Getting Married
Anne Hathaway got most of the attention as a recovering addict attending her sister's wedding, but Rosemarie DeWitt as the titular sister was even better in this pitch-perfect character drama. Recriminations are few in Jonathan Demme's simple but powerful portrait of a family somehow trying to function for one weekend in spite of its dysfunction.