In the coming months, moviegoers will continue to be inundated by prestige piffle: films conceived with awards in mind and primped and preened by their studios and distributors for maximum Oscar impact. In the past decade, more Academy hopefuls have been squeezed into the final weeks of the year than ever before—more often than not films that will be forgotten mere months after the annual gold statuettes are passed out (when’s the last time anyone discussed Finding Neverland, Ray, Atonement, A Beautiful Mind, et al, with a straight face?). Perhaps that’s why the end of the year is indeed a good moment to remind viewers of the very best—works of art not necessarily created with eyes on the prize. The greatest films released in the United States in the past twelve months—determined, as always, by polling our major contributors from 2009, with the highest ranked film receiving the most votes, and so on—ranged from the U.S. to Argentina to France to Kazakhstan. There was indeed treasure everywhere; we only wish we had space to extol more favorites (Drag Me to Hell, Coraline, The Limits of Control, You, the Living, and Liverpool, to name a few).

[Capsules written by Emily Condon, Eric Hynes, Michael Koresky, Adam Nayman, Jeff Reichert, Michael Joshua Rowin, Damon Smith, Elbert Ventura, Chris Wisniewski, and Genevieve Yue.]

1. Summer Hours
In a decade that saw a trend of extraordinarily silly and self-important films attempting to describe and pronounce judgment on the interconnected (yet so disconnected) nature of 21st-century life (Babel, Crash, Syriana), Summer Hours refused the overstuffed, multiple plot-line epic in favor of wrenched intimacy, evoking the small-scale but enormously felt series of changes wrought on one family forced to reevaluate heritage in relation to their place in the increasingly globalized world. Of course, by this point we shouldn't expect anything less from Olivier Assayas. Over the past ten years Assayas has emerged as one of the very few filmmakers (Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhangke also come to mind) with the directorial acumen to tackle the Big Topics while refusing to paint in broad, didactic strokes. During this period his boldest films, demonlover and Boarding Gate, violently inverted the thriller genre by taking international trade and media absorption as insidious themes and not discardable MacGuffins. But his most fully realized work discovered the same shocks and ruptures of cultural transformation taking place in the family. Summer Hours foregrounds the “domestic” in domestic drama: the family estate as home, museum, sanctuary, birthright, locus of secrets, and repository of tradition. That tradition doesn’t end with the death of the estate’s matriarch but with the growing geographical and psychological distance of two of her three children, and Assayas views this rift not with sentimental nostalgia but with a mature awareness of passing time and vanished inheritance. —MJR

2. The Headless Woman
With every scene of The Headless Woman, Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel interrogates. The moving image, human perception, class in contemporary Argentina, sexuality, gender politics—all go under the microscope in her third feature; yet Martel, at age 43, is already such a master of the medium that no one of the mysteries of life and art she’s sussing out stands apart from the rest. These various concerns rush out in a uniform, painterly splash. At any given point, a viewer may be trying to figure out what the camera is looking at, what that odd sound is that seems to be emanating from around the corner, how the characters onscreen are related to one another, or, of course, the film’s central question of What Really Happened, perhaps its biggest misdirect. In her first two films, La Cienaga and The Holy Girl, Martel was cunning; familial routines hid depths of social unease, but nothing exploded, life went on unabated, eternally languid. The Headless Woman is at once the director’s most cohesive allegory—an upper-middle-class woman, played with unnerving restraint by the cannily engaged Maria Onetto, hits something, or someone (maybe a local street kid?) with her car, yet drives forward, spending the following days in a fugue state of denial and guilt—and most mysterious film. Even if one “gets it” metaphorically, there’s still an entire world of enigmatic human behavior hovering outside its borders to confound. Martel makes us so hyperattentive (to the visual, to the aural, to the moral) that watching her films we may feel like we’ve discovered a new art form. —MK

3. 35 Shots of Rum
Who would have guessed that 2009’s sexiest, most swooningly romantic cinematic moment would be an impromptu bit of screen dancing scored to the Commodores’s “Night Shift”? In 35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis’s four protagonists take shelter from a late-night rainstorm in a small cafe. Their exact connections, which Denis has left vague throughout the film (we know an oddly intimate father and a daughter, the older woman down the hall who may or may not have been involved with the father, the rakish younger man from upstairs who may or may not have romantic interest in the daughter—but their pasts are mysterious, their futures only hinted at), crystallize and transform over the course of the burbling, percolating, elastic pop song. The Commodores barely reach a chorus or crescendo, but the song’s lasting magic comes from tectonic shifts in rhythm and instrumentation operating under the cover of a simple, clean melody. 35 Shots of Rum works in the same fashion; Denis’s characters don’t speak a word during the dance, but glances, gestures, movements tell us all we need to know. By the song’s end, an entirely new order between the four has set in, and the realization that this shift has taken place silently is electrifying. This is Denis’s way: over the course of the film incident takes a backseat to inference and suggestion, and her confident, comfortable performers navigate a simple story told with pleasurable snakiness. When sandwiched between her masterful narrative-busting L’Intrus and her harrowing, politically charged White Material, 35 Shots of Rum, her warmest, most welcoming vision of ad hoc community to date, threatens to recede. But its sensual, intuitive handling of storytelling conventions places it among her most representative works. When taken together as a trio, these films suggest a filmmaker who can do anything. —JR

4. Inglourious Basterds
The year's most audacious film was also one of its most moving—not for the cathartic vengeance it enacts against the Third Reich (though the depiction is profoundly gratifying), but for the act of faith it represents. Inglourious Basterds is a wish-fulfillment phantasmagoria that's also nothing less than a manifesto, written with color, cuts, music, movement, character, dialogue: a kino-credo attesting to the limitless power of the medium. Basterds self-consciously affirms why we go to movies. It is where we rewrite the past, cleanse our conscience, dramatize our fantasies, resurrect the dead, change the world. In a time when too many people still think of movies as a subservient art—subservient to literature, to theater, to narrative, to realism—Tarantino constructs stirring correctives. He makes movies that can only exist as movies. Audiences responded on an instinctive level: they gasped at a collective dream fulfilled. And yet Tarantino, who thinks more deeply about movie pleasure than most directors, complicates that vision: he reflects our image back to us, in that audience of Nazis cheering their own action hero picking off Americans. Basterds deals with history, but not the one you think—it's the history of our love affair with the dream life. The giant face on a wall of smoke evokes the spectral horrors that meted retribution against Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But in Tarantino's world, divine wrath comes in the form of a projected image in the only church he's ever known. It's an inspiring affirmation of belief in a higher power—of cinema as god. —EV

5. A Serious Man
“I don’t want Santana’s Abraxas,” stammers Minnesotan college professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), railing impotently against his son’s surreptitiously procured Columbia Record House membership, the encroaching hot-lick counterculture and, just maybe, God himself (betcha didn’t know that the album featuring “Oye Come Va” was named for a Gnostic deity). That a Coen brothers joint could contain such sophisticated triple entendres is no surprise; what elevates A Serious Man to the first tier of their filmography—indeed, perhaps to the very top—is the authentic sense of melancholy suffusing the expert existential shtick. More than the superficially grave No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man is A Serious Film—a mathematically rigorous investigation into the (non-?) existence of God filtered through a (in some corners either misunderstood or slanderously misidentified) self-lacerating Judaism and featuring cameos by Jefferson Airplane, Schrodinger’s Cat, and what might be an honest-to-goodness Dybbuk (embodied by no less than Fyvush Finkel)! Cast for his stage chops, Stuhlbarg proves himself an adept close-up performer, feinting and then eschewing caricature as a man trying to leverage an ethical position amidst personal and professional tsurris. The $64,000 question: But to what end? There is one possible answer, offered halfway through the proceedings, which not only encapsulates the Zen cruelty of the Coens’ art but also the issue of how filmmakers who have trafficked in detachment for 25 years could craft a film in which the stakes feel so high: Accept the Mystery. —AN

6. Two Lovers
James Gray’s fourth feature is, like his earlier films, a classically constructed, deeply personal Brooklyn story, except this one gets the outer/inner ratio just right, mining for particulars and yielding universality. For this writer, the filmmaker’s taste for gritty urban settings and bleeding heart romantics can slip into contrivance and cause tonal whiplash, but Two Lovers justifies and elevates the whole Gray project. Through efficient, seemingly functional shots, Gray articulates unspoken feelings and desires, a subtle cinematic emotiveness worthy of a young Nick Ray. The script is as tightly wound as Joaquin Phoenix’s troubled protagonist, and the movie’s mysteries are fully embedded in the mercurial, all-too-human behavior of its characters. As a lost, lovesick son of doting Russian-Jewish parents, Phoenix gives the performance of the year. The film opens with a suicide attempt, after which Phoenix’s odd carriage, evident fragility, and murmuring melancholy freights a threat of surrender. So when he meets not one but two potential suitors—a parents-approved brunette beauty (Vinessa Shaw, a revelation) and a pampered, golden-haired shiksa (a role Gwyneth Paltrow was born and bred to play)—the joy in seeing him up on his feet and living outweighs our suspicions that he’s mishandling the situation. Both women are appealing, and though only one is destined to not break Leonard’s heart, Gray refuses to shorten any sides of the triangle, to make Shaw into a Ralph Bellamy type, or make a femme fatale of Paltrow, or to let POV dictate destiny. Remarkably, Gray’s diagrammed premise plays as a natural, private drama. Eight months later I’m still sifting through my feelings about an ending that’s as sad, true, and ambiguously relieving as that in Linklater’s Before Sunset. Back off curmudgeons: American storytelling is alive and well. —EH

7. Fantastic Mr. Fox
Wes Anderson’s first and second features, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, bustled with joy and energy; his aesthetic, both fussy and fun, mixed perfectly with his peculiar blend of sincerity and shenanigans. Though his films’ mannerisms have grown more pronounced, 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited hinted at a lighter spirit and a sense of fun unburdened by those visual strictures, and this year, he fully delivered. A stop-motion romp adapted from a book by Roald Dahl (the script came from Anderson and fellow nouveau American auteur Noah Baumbach), Fantastic Mr. Fox never once feels too big for its britches. Indeed, the strength and grace of the film come less in its overall gestalt than in its small pleasures: a young fox’s frustration at the variety of yogic moves perfected by his cousin (named Kristofferson, to boot); the animals’ use of the strangely satisfying “cuss” in place of obscenities (“Who the cuss do you think you are?! My cussing mother?”); the electric interludes between Mr. Fox and Rat (Willem Dafoe), a security guard for the villainous Farmer Bean. The best moments—those in which Fantastic Mr. Fox transcends its individual ingredients—are only possible because of the stop-motion movement: jerky chases, eating and digging frenzies, dancing in a grocery store aisle. Anderson may finally have found a perfect hero, one whose story is secondary to his delightful tics and twitches. —EC

8. Still Walking
It seems fitting, in a way, that Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking came and went with hardly a whisper earlier this year. The film is a model of emotional subtlety, with a hushed, understated aesthetic that speaks volumes. Yet mourning becomes electric in Kore-eda’s wryly observed, serenely stunning drama, which eavesdrops on the quietly alienated Yokohama clan, gathered to honor a deceased family member, eldest son Junpei, on the 15th anniversary of his accidental death by drowning. Over the course of a day, we’re privy to a panorama of minor conflicts and long-harbored resentments that bubble up between father and son, husband and wife, elderly parents and their grown children, culminating in the playing of an old 78 recording, “Blue Lights of Yokohama,” that perfectly encapsulates this incommunicative, passive-aggressive family’s rueful bond. Kore-eda’s graceful, naturalistic style and deep sensitivity to subtle fluxes in group dynamics, as well as the nuances of guilt and grief, further elevate Still Walking as an emblem of humanistic filmmaking. This is not a garish portrait of dysfunction, but a genuinely affecting miniature of quotidian life (has cooking ever seemed as savory, or as elemental as it does in Toshiko’s kitchen?) upon which Kore-eda has etched a gallery of vivid characters and inscribed a wealth of insights about private suffering and inner experience. Still Walking might be steeped in sorrow and regret, but it pulses with the vitality of life in all its cycles, thematizing modern disappointments as well as ancient Shinto principles with gentle, unfailing self-assurance. It’s a hurt locker all right, heart-piercing and wise, despite the lack of shock and awe. And all the rarer for its poise and sublime restraint. —DS

9. Tulpan
In some ways, Sergei Dvortsevoy's Tulpan was the art-house curiosity of the year: it's hard to imagine a film more removed from the urban bustle surrounding, say, New York's Film Forum (where Tulpan had a brief theatrical run) than Dvortsevoy's unassuming but scrupulously studied examination of day to day life on the Kazakh steppe. Indeed, the very foreignness of Tulpan was part of its appeal. Dvortsevoy's characters live out of a portable tent, raising sheep and getting what little information they have of the outside world from their radio. In a film preoccupied with the mundane, where children spend their time picking the blackheads off their father's back and their uncle Asa (Askhat Kuchencherekov) tries to convince his would-be in-laws that his large ears shouldn't disqualify him as a potential husband, the birth of a newborn sheep provides the closest thing to a narrative thrill. Dvortsevoy, who previously worked as a documentarian, offers his audience the edifying pleasure that comes from seeing a world and a way of life resolutely different from our own. If Tulpan indulges in a kind of ethnographic exoticization, though, it also transcends it. The human drama at the film's center is all too recognizable: a family fights for survival when external forces threaten its livelihood (here, a sudden malady that causes the sheep on which they depend to be stillborn); a young man hopes against hope to take a wife and build a family of his own. Despite its superficial differentness, thematically Tulpan has much in common with Jason Reitman's much-ballyhooed Up in the Air: it's about the struggle to make ends meet, and the way we make that struggle worthwhile through human connection. Unlike Reitman's cynical, exploitative bid at contemporary relevance, though, Dvortsevoy's film, in its emotional clarity, sensitivity, and grace, actually manages to say something about the way we—all of us, from the Kazakh steppe to the streets of New York—live now. —CW

10. 24 City
As with 2008’s Still Life, which was made in response to the rapidly transforming landscape around China’s Three Gorges Dam project, Chinese director Jia Zhangke only conceived 24 City the moment he learned about a real-life event, in this case that Chengdu’s Factory 420, a state-run facility formerly used to build airplanes, would soon be demolished to make way for 24 City, a luxurious, mixed-use urban space. About thirty thousand workers were displaced in the swift, one-year process, and Jia’s film is a testament to their memories, which are already beginning to slip away. It is also a kind of memory in itself, a sort of time capsule to preserve some trace of what happened before everything disappears. In this way, 24 City appears to be the most straightforwardly “documentary” of Jia’s recent work: he plainly arranges eight oral histories like bricks, while the actual building, seen in between monologues, is steadily and ceremoniously dismantled. But the past, evoked only through narration, is not always what it seems. Half of the interviewees are actors, and in one particularly disorienting segment, a woman named “Little Flower,” who we’re told earned her nickname because of her resemblance to legendary actress Joan Chen, is played by . . . Joan Chen. Documentary and fiction are blended uncomfortably together, and this disconcerting effect is further compounded by the fact that much of 24 City’s funding came from the same redevelopment project it supposedly critiques (reflecting the Chinese government’s increasing approval of Jia). Yet Jia’s never been one to pick sides. The social conscience international audiences tend to ascribe to his work is decidedly more like social consciousness, politically ambivalent, and far more concerned with the plurality of voices heard from above and especially below. As the nation leaps aggressively and unevenly forward, he remains at ground level, standing with those who can feel the earth shaking beneath their feet. —GY