(CNN) -- The year in film was a mixed bag, though one that holds great promise for the future.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a powerful performance in "There Will Be Blood."
American cinema produced one flat-out masterpiece this year -- Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" -- and at least three more great movies that might legitimately be called "art," if you'll pardon the expression.
Several others were more formulaic or genre-based but no less thrilling, some of them widely praised ("No Country for Old Men," "Michael Clayton," "The Bourne Ultimatum," "Eastern Promises"), some unfairly overlooked ("We Own the Night," "The Hoax," "The Mist").
Pixar released yet another top-notch animated film in "Ratatouille," a benchmark so far in advance of the competition that it's practically in its own ballpark. Former Nickelodeon animator Gabor Csupo's live-action "Bridge to Terabithia" was one of the year's best surprises -- a heartbreaking movie about mortality and creativity that deserved to be seen more widely.
"Knocked Up" was so warmly received it invited the inevitable humorless politically correct vetting, but another Judd Apatow production, "Superbad," was even better, by some distance the funniest movie of the year and more shrewd about male adolescence than it was given credit for. And in Seth Rogen, these movies delivered a brand-new star, one of the faces of the year. Watch some of the surprise hits of the year »
Others would include Tommy Lee Jones (who bested his performance in "No Country for Old Men" with the underrated -- if flawed -- "In the Valley of Elah"), Casey Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") and the remarkable Philip Seymour Hoffman (in "The Savages," "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and "Charlie Wilson's War").
But, even by Hollywood's standards, there were precious few comparably complex roles for women. "Margot at the Wedding" was one exception, but you have to look to foreign movies for the best female performances of the year: Anamaria Marinca in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"; Carice van Houten in "Black Book"; Marion Cotillard in (the otherwise disappointing) "La Vie en Rose"; Marina Hands in "Lady Chatterley."
It was also a disappointing year for documentaries -- not in terms of quality, but for distribution and box office returns. So make a point of catching up with "Terror's Advocate," "Manda Bala" and "The King of Kong" on DVD.
On the other hand, musicals were strong, thanks to "Hairspray," "Sweeney Todd" and "Once." If the movies start to sing again, that will truly be something to celebrate.
More "serious" movies emerged this fall than we've seen from the American movie industry since the 1970s. Though the business probably didn't like the films' anemic box office, it's not impossible that they'll find more favor on DVD. Few of them will lose much in the transition, which may be why they failed in the first place. (And in truth, most of them don't measure up to the best TV series: "The Wire," "Deadwood" and "The Sopranos," for example.)
Hopefully, these misfires will not stop more ambitious movies from being made; we're already treated to nine months of nothing but teen fodder, or so it feels. Granted, it may mean that everyone has to take a pay cut -- none of the "serious" Hollywood films had big budgets by current studio norms, and if you added up the budgets for four of the non-U.S. films in my top 10, they would still cost less than any one of the other six.
Anyway, here are the films that made my year -- and three that threatened to ruin it:
"There Will Be Blood"
Anderson's lacerating epic about the birth of the oil age. Daniel Day-Lewis, in the best performance of the year, is extraordinary as the prospector entirely consumed with his own enterprise; Paul Dano the evangelist who may be his nemesis.
"Into the Wild"
Director Sean Penn's sublime end-of-the-road movie invests its story with beauty and spirit -- in a strange way it's a very heartening tragedy. With Emile Hirsch and vivid support from Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker and Hal Holbrook.
David Fincher found a story to match his own obsessive need for control in this infuriating but brilliant and original film about the elusive (and in some ways debilitating) quest for truth.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Filmed in languid, wispy vignettes by cinematographer Roger Deakins, this is an elegiac, rueful evocation of the death of the Western hero, a slow passing that occurs long before Jesse (Brad Pitt) draws his last breath. Affleck is the disillusioned, romantic Ford -- and the film is his tragedy more than anyone's.
"No Country for Old Men"
Also shot by Deakins (and in the same location as "There Will Be Blood"), the Coen brothers do right by Cormac McCarthy's compelling thriller, a kind of lament at the new nihilism.
In an exceptional year for musicals, this shoestring Irish picture seemed freshly minted: a spontaneous and authentic alternative to overproduced schmaltz.
"Robocop" director Paul Verhoeven's first Dutch film in 20 years is a blistering World War II movie featuring sympathetic Nazis and duplicitous Resistance fighters. But this isn't just role reversal: There is no moral high ground in war, only naked self-interest, desire and desperation. It's something to compare with the fall's Iraq movies.
An autobiographical animated film by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian who grew up in a liberal anti-monarchy Tehran household in the 1970s, then came of age under the ayatollahs and completed her education in Europe. This poignant, very funny memoir puts a personal face on the world's most pressing culture clash.
"Syndromes and a Century"
There are directors who become heroes for bending the rules. Then there are those who throw the rule book right out the window. Thailand's Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul is making movies like nobody before or since. This is one of the strangest art movies of the year, but it's entirely accessible to anyone open to new experience.
"4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days"
The Cannes Film Festival prize winner (which screened in Los Angeles for an Oscar qualifying run) is a prodigious if harrowing piece of work. This intense Romanian drama by Cristian Mungiu shines a spotlight into those dark places where angels fear to tread, yet it's a profoundly moral film.
And the three worst ...
"Because I Said So"
Anyone who thinks "Knocked Up's" Apatow is sexist should be forced to sit through this wretched comedy in which former feminist icon Diane Keaton does not rest until her 22-year-old daughter (Mandy Moore) is safely wed.
"License to Wed"
Moore gets hitched again (and they say Lindsay Lohan had a bad year). Robin Williams is the psycho priest who bugs the bedroom of the bride to be and listens in with his choirboy chum.
Frankly, it was a tossup for the third spot between this gung-ho Greek meatfest and Michael Bay's overblown toy commercial, "Transformers." A lot of people got off on both, I realize, and the computer-generated work was impressive in its way. But no matter how you spin it, war porn is war porn -- and we'd better off without it. E-mail to a friend