Opinion as to the quality of film over the last 12 months has been oddly divergent. No less a light than Roger Ebert has said it’s akin to 1939 — the year of “Gone With the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” — while others have grumbled that the Academy Awards’ expansion to 10 best picture nominees couldn’t have come at a lousier time. I’m more disposed to agree with the naysayers, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been 10 fascinating films to hit the big screen this year.
1. “A Serious Man” — The latest film from the Coen brothers is both deeply funny (although not in a laugh-out-loud way) and deeply religious (although not in the schmaltzy way we’ve come to expect). The Job-like travails of Larry Gopnik and the meek way in which he handles them inspired pity and scorn in equal measure from audiences, but it’s hard not to feel for the guy as his life falls apart around him.
2. “The Hurt Locker” — The best film yet made about the Iraq War, Kathryn Bigelow’s tale of a roadside bomb-disposal unit is filled with an intensity that other pictures about the conflict have lacked. Showing a knack for action set pieces unseen outside of a Michael Mann film, Ms. Bigelow has reasserted her place among the premier action filmmakers of our era.
3. “The Informant!” — Steven Soderbergh’s most recent film cleverly manipulates audiences in ways they’re not expecting. By preying on the audience’s conditioning to sympathize with the whistleblower in movies like this — a brave individual goes up against a heartless, criminal corporation — Mr. Soderbergh kept us off balance and searching for solid footing in this funny, unpredictable little comedy.
4. “Funny People” — Judd Apatow’s latest, and most heartfelt, work is almost too mature. Audiences weren’t expecting a film that examined a broken man and his attempt at reclaiming the life he lost. But it’s the most fully realized, true-to-life film Mr. Apatow has made, not too shabby for a guy whose credits include “Knocked Up” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
5. “Up in the Air” — The perfect movie for our times: A guy who fires people for a living and spends his time unplugged from friends and family finally realizes what he’s missing in life. Opening and closing with montages of real-life laid-off workers talking about their experiences, “Up in the Air” strikes a real chord in these tough economic times.
6. “Mugabe and the White African” — Arguably the most terrifying movie of the year, this winner of the Sterling World Feature Award at the Silverdocs documentary festival shows in all-too-frightening detail what happens in a society without the rule of law and where property rights mean nothing. If you’ve ever wondered why Zimbabwe suffered famine and double digit inflation, check out this picture.
7. “Gomorrah” — In many ways, this Italian picture is the dramatic counterpart to “Mugabe and the White African.” It follows the penetration of the Camorra, a crime syndicate in Naples, into every facet of life, from drug dealing to toxic waste disposal to high fashion. Unrelentingly dark, it does more to deglamorize the life of the Mafia than any film in recent years.
8. “Up” — It’s been a strong year for animation, with the stop-motion features “Coraline” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” both wowing audiences with their craftsmanship. Neither strikes the strong emotional resonance of the latest from Pixar, however, which left audiences in tears several times at both screenings I attended.
9. “District 9” — If someone told you at the beginning of the summer that a $30 million movie helmed by an unknown director and starring an unknown cast would have a better, more realistic examination of human-on-alien prejudice than James Cameron’s $400 million extravaganza, “Avatar,” you would have called that person crazy. But here we are. Whereas “Avatar” is a treat for the eyes, “District 9” features a fully realized world with legitimately difficult moral quandaries and incredible special effects to boot.
10. “Inglourious Basterds” — Even film critics need a mulligan every now and then. On second viewing, the more frustrating pacing problems of “Inglourious Basterds” became less glaring and the moments of brilliance — like the opening scene with Christoph Waltz’s incredible performance — shined even brighter. Although not Mr. Tarantino’s finest work, even a lesser picture from QT is better than 90 percent of the stuff out there.