NEW YORK — For the second year in a row, there weren't that many movies jostling behind the velvet rope to get onto my 10-best list. Maybe that's because I felt ambivalent to negative about several films this year that seemed to resonate powerfully with other viewers. "Looper," "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and "Django Unchained" are three examples of movies I tried to feel passion for and finally couldn't — much as I may have admired, respectively, Rian Johnson's imagination, Benh Zeitlin's community spirit, and Quentin Tarantino's adamantine cojones. Still, when it came down to distilling a whole year's worth of viewing into just 10 titles, I found with relief that it was impossible to remain stingy with my accolades: There were enough films that genuinely thrilled me this year to fill up a list, and then some. Forthwith, in alphabetical order, my 10 favorites of the year, plus five runners-up:
I've sometimes felt queasy about the Austrian director Michael Haneke's relationship to his audience: In movies like "The Piano Teacher" or "Funny Games," his merciless commitment to showing us the worst human beings are capable of can feel manipulative and sadistic. But in the admittedly hard-to-watch "Amour" — which bears agonizing witness to the decline of a Parisian octogenarian (the astonishing Emmanuelle Riva) before the eyes of her devoted but ultimately powerless husband (the equally great Jean-Louis Trintignant) — Haneke goes beyond facile nihilism to create a soul-wrenching portrait of love at the extreme edge of life.
"How to Survive a Plague."
If its essence could be bottled, David France's fierce, heartbreaking documentary about the very early days of AIDS activism could serve as a tonic for demoralized political organizers, a bracing reminder that change is possible when a group of committed people come together to fight injustice, indifference and prejudice. Even if you think you've seen every documentary you need to about the early days of the AIDS crisis (last year's "We Were Here," which focused on a small group of San Francisco activists, was exceptional as well), don't miss this cathartic, inspiring film.