10) ANVIL! THE STORY OF ANVIL Comparisons to This Is Spinal Tap were inevitable with this documentary about a has-been/never-was heavy metal band (which features a drummer named Robb Reiner and a pilgrimage to Stonehenge). The audience initially laughs at Anvil's hard luck and metal-head hyperbole, but invests enormous emotional concern in the band almost without realizing it. While the year featured powerful but depressing nonfiction films such as The Cove and Food Inc., Anvil!'s success raised the band's profile, offering a happy ending, of sorts.
9) CORALINE The Nightmare Before Christmas' Henry Selick presented a luminous stop-motion fantasy about a plucky young girl who discovers a magical, terrifying alternate version of her home. Based on a tale by the famed Neil Gaiman, Coraline joins Spirited Away and Pan's Labyrinth as this decade's latest, darkly imaginative variation on Alice in Wonderland.
8) FANTASTIC MR. FOX Director Wes Anderson unexpectedly found the ideal expression of his twee aesthetic concerns, vintage pop and father-son dynamics in a loose adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book realized in stop-motion animation. For Anderson, midlife and adolescent coming-of-age crises turn out to be different sides of the same coin, even when rendered with heist-obsessed woodland creatures.
7) A SERIOUS MAN The Coen brothers mined their adolescence in 1960s Minnesota for a tale of a meek college professor whose misfortunes echo the book of Job. Leading man Michael Stuhlbarg recently garnered a Golden Globes nomination for best comedic performance, reflecting the Coens' genius for caricature and sharp dialogue, even while suggesting that neither religion nor science offers meaning to human experience.
6) DISTRICT 9 Space operas like Star Trek and Avatar delivered plenty of flash, but Neill Blomkamp used science fiction to craft a haunting allegory for apartheid and racial injustice. Blomkamp didn't skimp on flash, either, in the film's action-packed finale, but District 9's greatest special effect may have been the performance of Sharlto Copley as Wikus, who transforms from rabbity corporate stooge to unlikely freedom fighter.
5) THE DAMNED UNITED Like Carlos Cuarón's Rudo Y Cursi, The Damned United uses the international love of soccer to spoof professional sports and show how male competitiveness can go to ridiculous extremes. Michael Sheen, known for playing slick English celebrities in The Queen and Frost/Nixon, takes a remarkable change of pace as a mercurial soccer coach whose resentment at Leeds United drives him to amazing achievements and personal destruction. GOAL!
4) IN THE LOOP Featuring the year's funniest, filthiest dialogue, In the Loop levels a scalding indictment of political cowardice as English and American diplomats and bureaucrats worry more about protecting their careers than halting an unnecessary war. Peter Capaldi gives an electrifying performance as a Mephistophelean political fixer.
3) 12 Perhaps the prospect of a subtitled, two-and-a-half-hour Russian adaptation of the jury-deliberation drama 12 Angry Men scared off even the most adventurous of moviegoers. Nevertheless, Burnt By the Sun director Nikita Mikhalkov served as foreman (literally and figuratively) of a talky yet rousingly entertaining portrait of post-Communist Russia, against the backdrop of the war in Chechnya. For sheer cinematic brio, it's guilty, guilty, guilty!
2) THE HURT LOCKER Many major filmmakers grappled with the War on Terror and the Iraqi occupation, only to see their angry politics trump narrative effectiveness. Kathryn Bigelow, directing the best film of her career, keeps politics nearly invisible in this harrowing tale of a Baghdad bomb disposal unit. The film's suspenseful set pieces collectively condemn the toll warfare takes on soldiers' bodies and souls.
1) UP Arguably the most influential screen artist of the past 15 years, Pixar Animation Studios lived up to its already sky-high standards with the lyrical tale of an elderly man's journey in his airborne cottage. A deeply personal work that makes few concessions to the Hollywood system, Up offers a wordless portrait of a lifelong love affair of tear-jerking beauty, an adventure worthy of Indiana Jones, a rich metaphor for the encumbrances of material possessions and, oh, yeah, some of the funniest dog jokes ever.
Guilty Pleasures: Sam Raimi's well-polished horror romp Drag Me to Hell offered a wicked allegory for the foreclosure era and enough gross-out moments that it could bear the alternate title Don't Put That Stuff in My Mouth. And Nicolas Cage and Werner Herzog carried bad-cop clichés to stratospheric heights in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.