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A SERIOUS MAN is a theological shaggy dog story that could only spring from the miraculous minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. The film marks the 25th anniversary of moviemaking for these American masters, and from its audacious Yiddish-language prologue to its apocalyptic conclusion, A SERIOUS MAN grapples with themes of temptation and divine retribution in a world only the Coen brothers could create. Midwestern isolation and Jewish angst are the frame for Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik, the film's Job-like protagonist who finds comfort in the certainty of physics as the uncertainty of his own life threatens to destroy him while he fiddles with the antennae on his suburban roof. Read the AFI Catalog entry

A SINGLE MAN marks the singular and stylish debut of writer-director Tom Ford, whose astoundingly assured transition from fashion to film — from the human body to the human spirit — is a perfect fit for Christopher Isherwood's story of love and loss. As a heartbroken college professor and his lovelorn compatriot, Colin Firth and Julianne Moore offer achingly honest performances that inhabit a perfectly realized 1962 Los Angeles. A SINGLE MAN is a meditation on grief, a sensuous lament, a memento mori that reminds us to love well, to cherish the human encounters that color our lives and to be aware, in the end, that everything is as it should be. Read the AFI Catalog entry

CORALINE is a heart-stopping, stop-motion nightmare for the child lost in all of us. Written and directed by Henry Selick, this haunting new creation is a needle-sharp display of animated filmmaking — literate, subtle and sophisticated. The film is a gorgeous translation of Neil Gaiman's novel and a daring marriage of darkness and light, where a young girl's dream world takes her to a place where childhood is seen through a new and unique set of eyes. Read the AFI Catalog entry

THE HANGOVER will have you rubbing your head in the morning and wishing you hadn't had so much fun. Director Todd Phillips and screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have created an anthem to arrested male adolescence that is unashamed, unapologetic and unbelievably funny. Though what happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, THE HANGOVER brought laughter to a world when it needed it most and deserves a toast for its mastery of the comedic form, one of filmmaking's most challenging feats. Read the AFI Catalog entry

THE HURT LOCKER is a cinematic explosion that drops audiences inside the chaos of the war in Iraq and into the minds of American soldiers who defuse bombs with equal parts anxiety and adrenaline. Marked by the bravura direction of Kathryn Bigelow and grounded in Mark Boal's taut, unsentimental script, this grippingly real story detonates an emotional portrait of combat and camaraderie abroad, and alienation at home. An outstanding ensemble cast is led by Jeremy Renner, whose tour of duty is a tour de force.
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THE MESSENGER is an emotional minefield where a knock at the door informs us all of the cost of war. Writer/director Oren Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon paint a series of deeply personal portraits that bring to light the mounting toll of the conflict in Iraq. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster deliver riveting performances as soldiers on this "sacred mission" — and in their wake, a new trail of tears for the American war movie. Read the AFI Catalog entry

PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL 'PUSH' BY SAPPHIRE is the celebration of a life lived against all odds. Director Lee Daniels and writer Geoffrey Fletcher bring the spirit of Sapphire's novel to the screen in this movie about a person passed each day, whose story has never made it to the movies. Gabourey Sidibe blossoms in the title role, and Mo'Nique's monstrous turn as her mother achieves the seemingly impossible by making audiences understand her as she understands herself. Together, they lead a powerful ensemble cast in a film that offers no false hope or happy ending, but instead commands us to look in the mirror and celebrate the image that smiles back, because in that reflection, we are all precious. Read the AFI Catalog entry

SUGAR shines a bright light on the American dream through the cheers and jeers heaped upon those who embody its national pastime. Writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have shaped a screenplay as elegant as a well-turned double play and assembled a remarkable lineup of acting talent led by rookie Algenis Perez Soto. SUGAR is as ambitious as it is intimate, allowing audiences a clear-eyed look at the immigrant experience while celebrating both the trials and triumphs of swinging for the fences — and reaching for an ideal.
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UP is a magical tale of life's journey. Writer/directors Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and their team of high-flying technical artists have created a storytelling experience both uplifting and uproarious as they explore new territories for animation. With outstanding vocal performances from an ensemble led by Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer, the film travels — with childhood in tow — through a deeply emotional adventure of love, loss and letting go. UP takes us all on the balloon-ride of our lives, powered by imagination and filled with equal parts helium and heart. Read the AFI Catalog entry

UP IN THE AIR is a triumphant tale for our turbulent times. With the clarity of perspective that comes from a window seat at 30,000 feet, Jason Reitman proves again to soar among the art form's finest storytellers. Together, with co-screenwriter Sheldon Turner, he has taken the words from Walter Kirn's novel and given them flight in a film that both harkens back to the glory of Hollywood past and assures audiences that smart, witty and painfully human stories are here for the future. This sentiment is best embodied in George Clooney, an American treasure who captivates again with his signature alchemy of gentleman and jester, charmer and chump. The film is also a showcase for two of the most original female characters of the year, played with grace and gusto by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick. UP IN THE AIR is a film that defines the challenges of a generation — to consider what one truly values in life — and where we call home. Read the AFI Catalog entry


THE BIG BANG THEORY explodes with laughter week after week proving life still springs from the multi-camera sitcom. This valentine to science geekdom is both funny and smart, embodied in the virtuoso performance of Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper. Here the familiar is fresh, with an extraordinary ensemble whose characters may lack social graces, but live in a show that celebrates them with finesse and panache. Creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady have mined an old field to find new treasure, and in this third season, have polished it into a brilliant gem.

BIG LOVE embraces religion, politics and rural life in such an ambitious way that to watch it grow and prosper only further adds to its delicious appeal. Particularly in this pivotal season, creators Mark V. Olsen, Will Scheffer and their expansive creative ensemble paint an epic portrait of a family and present it through a fractured prism. In this light, the role of women is integrated in unexpected and complicated ways, as is the darker side of being different in one nation under God.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS goes deep, always, and scores again this year. The show remains true to its game plan, capturing the essence of small town America with honest performances and an outstanding ensemble that audiences cheer for with more emotion each passing season. Particularly this year, when Peter Berg's show found a second life on a satellite cable service, the theme of the "underdog" became even stronger for the people of Dillon, Texas, where life is lived in the margins, where silence speaks eloquently of dreams deferred and where victory isn't necessarily winning the game — it's just being able to play.

GLEE is an explosion of joy that brings a powerful new voice to network television. Created by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, GLEE is a wink and a smile to the musicals of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but also a spin and a step that sing of what it is to be gay, pregnant, disabled — different. The show is extraordinarily in tune with America's musical lexicon, and the inspired creative ensemble is a singing, dancing sensation — one that has struck a chord with a nation eager to find joy in our differences.

MAD MEN continued to fulfill its ambitious promise in this third and transformative season. As creator Matt Weiner's compelling period drama charts its grand narrative between the idealistic days of Eisenhower and the chaos of the 1960s, audiences must look in the mirror to consider the transitions in today's America. MAD MEN remains the most stylish show on television, its perfectly designed past a foil to the dissolution of a man and his marriage. Jon Hamm and January Jones lead an elegant ensemble while placing the Drapers, despite their despair, in the pantheon of television's married couples.

MODERN FAMILY celebrates the function of dysfunction in the American family by bringing together three odd couples in a giant, slaphappy group hug. With writing as heartfelt as it is hip, creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd have married the mockumentary and family sitcom in sophisticated harmony, showering each of their vast and varied characters with affection and establishing sincerity as the hallmark of the new avant-garde. Amidst the chaos of the clan, MODERN FAMILY honors an array of life choices within the funny and fallible framework of love.

THE NO. 1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY takes audiences to Africa in the year's best example of the transportive nature of television. Inspired by the stories of Alexander McCall Smith, the show's gentle and genuine tales are captured on location with immersive imagery, music and an international cast that anchors each episode in authenticity. Here "simple" is not "simplistic," and this wonderfully well-realized storytelling not only delivers as entertainment, but plants the seeds for the acceptance of a greater global perspective.

NURSE JACKIE is addictive television. This compassionate, yet unsentimental portrait of a caregiver driven to medicate herself is brought to life through the fearless performance of Edie Falco, who consistently has her finger on the pulse of great American drama. As created by Liz Brixius, Evan Dunsky and Linda Wallem, NURSE JACKIE transfuses black humor and subtle, unpredictable storytelling to find its place among television's great tragic comedies, ultimately examining the desire to care for others and the demands of caring for oneself.

PARTY DOWN is television's best-kept secret. Creators John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Paul Rudd and Rob Thomas have combined their creative talents to tell a wickedly funny tale of a catering company run by a smorgasbord of LA actor wannabes. This clever conceit has the show's devoted audience cheering for a collection of characters that flub their way through life, each depicted with real affection and an aching authenticity. PARTY DOWN knows its world and mocks it with authority, though at its significant heart, the show is a celebration of the joy and despair of aspiring to something that may never come to pass.

TRUE BLOOD takes flight from the razor's edge between camp and classic. Creator Alan Ball's vampire drama is Southern Gothic gone wild, feeding on the popular obsession with the supernatural while creating its own rich world through a knowing, seductive concoction of sex, violence and soap opera. Michelle Forbes' brilliant performance as Maryann Forrester is the magnetic center of an audacious and orgiastic season that not only unleashes the ids in its audience, but also asks penetrating questions about what it is to be human — to desire, to discriminate and to dig deep into the delights of television.