What a strange year it's been.  I wouldn't call it a phenomenal year or the best year ever, but I've read people who claim that it's one of the worst years in recent memory, and I couldn't disagree more.

It was a year of doubles and triples instead of a year of home runs, and I think that's when art is at its most interesting.  Almost any film on my list has its passionate detractors, and that's because these are films that have a personal edge, that are anything but cookie-cutter, and so people end up having complex reactions to them.

Good.

I always keep a running list of what I see during the year over at the IMDb.  This year, I saw 212 movies that qualified for the list, and you can see the full list here.

If you're curious about what I did not see, I kept that list as well. I'm sure I'll regret missing some of these, but that's just the way things worked out this year.

Here's a list of the fifty films I felt were most worth further discussion, and I pulled my final top ten from this short list.  There's a lot of stuff in there that I really liked, but that didn't quite make the final cut, and it might be worth your time to check out anything there you don't recognize.

With that in mind, dig in, and let's look back at this year in movies.

Next week, I'll be discussing my runners-up and some other year-end honors over at my blog, so expect even more discussion of all of these movies there.

10.  “Pineapple Express” 

At this point, you can practically consider the output of Judd Apatow and his collaborators over the last five years to be a genre unto themselves, and if that’s the case, then “Pineapple Express” represents the very best the genre’s produced so far.  On the surface, it appears to be just a sort of shaggy-dog Cheech-and-Chong style caper film about a guy who witnesses a murder and then goes on the run with his pot dealer, but it’s what’s what going on under that surface that pushes “Pineapple” onto the list for me.  Dale (Seth Rogen) and Saul (James Franco) are pushed together by circumstance and by commerce, forced to rely on each other before they even know if they’re friends, and it’s the way that friendship is etched gradually over the course of the film that won me over.  Whether its in the workplace or in some particular social setting, it gets harder and harder to find a real friend the older you get, and sometimes, it’s as simple as looking at the people you already know in a new light.  Seth Rogen and his co-writer Evan Goldberg, working from an idea they hatched with Apatow, managed to blend comedy and action in a way that actually felt fresh, no easy feat, and David Gordon Green, former arthouse darling, turns out to be capable of broad and dirty and, yes, fall-down funny. 

9.  “WALL-E” 

Praising Pixar is starting to get dull, if only because their work has been so uniformly interesting and worthwhile.  And yet, even within the united front of excellence that they present, there are very different personalities who bring each of these films to the screen.  I think Andrew Stanton has perhaps the biggest heart of any of the Pixar directors, a guy whose films hum with longing and emotion, and “WALL-E” is the ultimate example of that so far.  His simple ecological message about man turning his planet into a trash heap is immediate, something you get on first viewing, but it’s the larger message about the way our culture seems to be infantilizing us that I found far more disturbing and impressive, especially in what is ostensibly a children’s film.  “WALL-E” does what all good science-fiction should do... it confronts you with real ideas even as it entertains, and the result is something that proves once again that anyone who thinks all animation is for kids is someone who sadly misunderstands the value of the art form. 

8.  “The Dark Knight” 

I’ve been a Batman fan since childhood.  I think he’s one of the great enduring comic book characters, and I’ve always believed in his potential as a way of telling all sorts of stories.  But until this year, I’ve never even contemplated putting a Batman film on a best of list, and that’s because no one before Christopher Nolan has ever treated the character this way on film.  Even “Batman Begins” is a solid but not-quite-great example of how to handle the character.  Here, though, everything clicked, and that’s due in no small part to the addition of Heath Ledger’s Joker to the line-up this time.  He’s a remarkable force of nature, a wind of anarchy that blows through Gotham, illuminating some of the darker corners of human behavior in the process.  The entire cast does great work, and like “Iron Man,” the emphasis here is on the people, not the gadgets or the gimmicks or the silly costumes.  “The Dark Knight” works because we can’t miss the real-world parallels, and because for once, this isn’t mere escapism:  it’s a mirror held up to show us how we live now and who we are.  The only complaint I have is that Chris Nolan and his collaborators have raised the bar so high now that it’s going to be hard for them to top it if they return to the series in a few years. 

7.  “Ex-Drummer” 

Right now, it appears that Tartan USA owns the distribution rights to this profane, ugly, disturbing Belgian film, but Tartan’s in the middle of a reorganization after going under, so there’s no word when or if this will end up playing a theater near you.  That may not be a bad thing, since I’m not sure most theaters are built strong enough to handle a bomb blast of this magnitude.  Koen Mortier is currently working on an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted, and that may turn out to be the best marriage of source material and filmmaker in quite some time.  They share a similar jet-black sensibility, gallows humor mixed with a skeptical attitude towards basic human nature.  EX-DRUMMER is about a famous writer who is approached by a bunch of semi-retarded thugs who want to start a punk band.  He agrees to join so that he can wallow in the misery of their lives for a while, constantly provoking them the entire time.  When the inevitable explosion comes, it’s not what you think it’s going to be, and it’s impossible to shake.  I was repulsed by “Ex-Drummer”, offended by it on a profound level, and not a day’s gone by since I saw it at Fantastic Fest that I haven’t thought about it in some context.  It reminds me of the way I felt after seeing Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” the first time.  It’s a major announcement from an important new voice in film, and I hope you have a chance to see it in 2009. 

6.  “Vicky Christina Barcelona” 

The year’s most sensual film, and a textbook definition of what I wish romantic comedies aspired to, Woody Allen’s latest is intoxicating and seemingly effortless.  I’ve been more and more impressed with Penelope Cruz over the last few years, and “Volver” landed very high on my list the year it came out.  She’s gained a real power as a performer as she’s gotten older, and she’s one of those actresses who seems to be getting more beautiful as age has its way with her.  The main storyline of the film is about two friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spending a summer in Spain, but for me, what really kept this film active in my thoughts since seeing it is the relationship between Javier Bardem and Cruz.  They’ve got a very clearly defined tension between them:  he’s the artist, and she’s the muse.  But she wants to be the artist, too, and that frustration on her part is what makes everything between them so explosive.  As a man married to a fiery Latina woman who motivates me to work my ass off, the movie alternately made me cringe and cheer, and it proves to me that Allen’s a long way from finished with his amazing career. 

5.  “Let The Right One In” 

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel is a tremendous work of art in its own right, but one of the most impressive things about this very-impressive film is the economy with which Tomas Alfredson and Lindqvist adapted the book into a film.  Everything that’s in the book is in the movie, but suggested, alluded to, touched upon.  Alfredson is a director of extraordinary taste, always displaying a great sense of reserve in the choices he makes about what to show and what not to show.  That’s an asset that any horror director should value.  There’s something beautiful about the way the film etches the details of this unlikely friendship between Oskar, a spindly little hint of a nerd, a 12-year-old who is walking bully-bait, and Eli, a very strange little girl who may well be a monster.  Oskar is at a crossroads in his development, as the fatigue from constantly being bullied starts to wear him down into something sharp and dangerous, and it’s only because he meets Eli that Oskar begins to see possibilities other than a lifetime of being shit on.  It’s a solemn, chilly film, but it’s got a pulse that is rare to the often-undervalued horror genre.  It’s a major accomplishment, and it’s a shame it’s not being treated better by critics who turn up their nose at the unconventional. 

4.  “The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button” 

David Fincher and Eric Roth pull off a number of magic tricks over the nearly three-hour-running-time of this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s very slight short story, but the greatest of them is finally wrestling this material onto the screen after over 20 years of some world-class filmmakers failing completely.  When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1990, this was announced as a Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg film.  Since then, director after director have come and gone, but I’m glad it worked out the way it did.  Fincher’s cold intellectualism and natural visual acuity make for a perfect combination with the emotional humanism of Roth’s script, creating a fertile playground for Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and an amazing laundry list of some of the best technical craftsmen in the business.  The last hour of this film gutted me both times I watched it, the roughest emotional ride of the year for me, and I’m amazed at how simple the film really is.  There’s something beautiful about the way the film takes the full measure of this one man’s life, and the way the fantasy elements are handled so matter-of-fact.  In creating a character who lives backwards in the time flow, the film underlines just how fragile our own existence is, and how fleeting time can be even if you’re living the “right” way. 

3.  “Man On Wire” 

Philippe Petit was driven by something between an artistic vision and a madman’s obsession when he decided he was going to walk from one of the World Trade Center towers to the other on a tightrope wire in 1974, and James Marsh has managed to take us inside that experience in this compelling, hypnotic testament to man’s ability to create beauty in the oddest places and ways.  Petit is a fascinating character, surrounded by a cast of equally eccentric accomplices as he plans what is essentially a heist without any theft involved.  It’s a fascinating film just for watching how the entire thing came together, but nothing prepared me for just how much the actual event would impact me when the film reaches its climax.  Petit’s wirewalk had no practical purpose, no reason for existing, other than as a moment, a performance, an event that would happen and disappear, and the purity of that artistic impulse hit me dead center.  I’m even more impressed by the restraint Marsh shows in not trying to tie his film to our collective memories of September 11th, 2001.  He doesn’t have to.  It’s impossible to watch the film and not reflect on just how much the loss of the Twin Towers meant to us as a culture.  But like Bono once said at the start of “Helter Skelter” when U2 covered it, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles... now we’re stealing it back.”  Good for Marsh for stealing the Towers back as a symbol of just how much beauty we’re capable of instead of just a symbol of just how awful we can be. 

2.  “The Good The Bad And The Weird” 

Ji-Woon Kim is one of the most exciting directors on the international scene right now, and his earlier films “A Tale Of Two Sisters” and “A Bittersweet Life” were precise, meticulous demonstrations of what he’s capable of.  But nothing could have prepared me for the insane rollercoaster ride of this Korean tribute to the iconography of Sergio Leone’s most famous westerns.  It’s as drunk on pure movie love as “Raiders Of The Lost Ark,” and the same kind of giddy movie fun.  Kang-ho Song, so good in “The Host,” steals the movie as “The Weird,” a bandit whose theft of a map kicks off one of the most exuberant treasure hunts in film history.  Giant action set-pieces and a bawdy sense of humor make this one of the most audience-friendly foreign titles since “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” and in a perfect world, this would have a shot at being that same sort of crossover hit when it gets a wide release from IFC Films in 2009. 

1.  “The Wrestler” 

Darren Aronofsky stripped down his aesthetic completely and Mickey Rourke stripped down his soul, and the result is a movie that should be “just another underdog story” that is anything but.  Spontaneous, heartbreaking, and real at every moment, “The Wrestler” is a work of bruised beauty that demands your respect.  Yes, there are real-life parallels going on between the character of Randy “The Ram” and Rourke, who has never been better than he is here, but those parallels wouldn’t be enough to push this over the top if not for the way Aronofsky gets out of the way of the emotional material.  He’s always been an aggressive stylist as a director, but this proves that all he really needs to destroy an audience is a camera, some actors, and the right words.