1. Greenberg Both brutal and brutally funny, this biting character study about a weirdly charismatic misanthrope features a career-best performance from Ben Stiller in the title role. Like many Noah Baumbach characters, Greenberg isn’t exactly likable, but he’s instantly recognizable and achingly relatable.
2. Please Give Nicole Holofcener offers up a sharp look at liberal guilt among the upper middle class, poking fun at entitlement while showing how neuroses can eat people from the inside. An excellent cast, including Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall, gives Holofcener’s film an extra level of complexity.
3. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World Combining effects-driven action with comedic romance, Scott Pilgrim should have been the most crowd-pleasing movie of the year, but far too few actually witnessed its gleeful mash-up of influences from comic books, video games, indie rock and genre movies. With its unique visual style and clever, self-aware writing, it’s due for cult-classic status on home video.
4. True Grit
5. Winter’s Bone
6. 127 Hours
7. The Social Network
8. Monsters Unlike other low-budget sci-fi movies this year, Monsters emphasizes character over spectacle, with its aliens mostly lurking in the background, giving a sense of dread to the story of a mismatched couple trying to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S. The mix of social commentary and low-key relationship drama makes Monsters the year’s unlikeliest genre triumph.
9. Black Swan
1. Everyone Else Barely released in the U.S. (but available now on DVD), this razor-sharp dissection of a troubled relationship observes two proudly unconventional young Germans on holiday in Sardinia, where they lock horns with a happier, kitschier couple. Few movies even attempt to tackle the dizzying array of conflicting emotions that writer-director Maren Ade conjures here.
2. Winter’s Bone
3. Dogtooth Not generally known for its world-class cinema, Greece delivered by far the year’s strangest, most disturbing family drama, about three young adults whose parents have never allowed them to leave home and have fed them deliberate misinformation their entire lives. Hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure, it’s a sui generis experience and utterly unforgettable.
4. Exit Through the Gift Shop
5. Amer Another micro-release, this remarkable triptych, which unfolds almost entirely without dialogue, pays stunning, abstract, formal homage to the Italian horror-suspense genre known as giallo. Fans of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava should make a special effort to track it down somehow.
6. Soul Kitchen
8. The Social Network
9. Shutter Island
10. How Do You Know The final spot on my list could just as easily have gone to Vincere, a powerfully bombastic melodrama about Benito Mussolini’s alleged first wife. But I want to put in another good word for this unfairly reviled and wonderfully offbeat romantic comedy—the only one I’ve seen in years that doesn’t seem to have been fashioned by a committee of screenwriting manuals.
1. Friday Night Lights (NBC/DirecTV) The scrappy small-town drama survived a change of networks and an influx of new characters to deliver perhaps its most heartfelt and affecting season. No other show feels as lived-in and welcome, or as emotionally rich.
2. Party Down (Starz) Hilarious, melancholy, cynical and strangely hopeful, this comedy about LA cater-waiters was TV’s best show about thwarted dreams and diminished expectations, and featured appearances from nearly every funny person in entertainment. Of course it was canceled.
3. Mad Men (AMC)
4. Better Off Ted (ABC)
5. Fringe (Fox) Fringe went into full-on sci-fi freak-out during the latter half of its second season and into its third, throwing together a fascinating story about parallel universes, morally questionable doppelgängers and the lengths to which people will go to protect their loved ones.
6. Community (NBC)
7. Huge (ABC Family) This sadly underrated (both critically and commercially) drama about teens at a weight-loss summer camp quietly offered the most honest and diverse portrait of teenagers since co-creator Winnie Holzman’s My So-Called Life in the 1990s. Too bad neither show made it to a second season.
8. Louie (FX)
9. 30 Rock (NBC)
10. Lost (ABC)