How bad of a year was it for movies? As late as August, I was wondering if there would be enough films to fill a 10-best list. Then came the fall movie season and everything changed.

Overall, 2011 will be remembered as a mediocre year for cinema. But the bright spots burned really, really bright.

Here is a list of the 10 best films I saw this year, with some honorable mentions. (A side note: Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” which features a formidable performance by Anna Paquin as a teenager whose life is changed by a bus accident, would have been high on my list if distributor Fox Searchlight had opened the film in more than a couple of cities or released it on DVD. But they didn’t.)

1. “MONEYBALL”: Director Bennett Miller used the fact-based of story of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s manager who thought outside the box, to illustrate the ways in which every conceivable industry has been forced to transform to survive in the brave new online world. The script, written by the formidable duo of Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, made dry subject matter such as budgetary constraints and salary negotiations utterly absorbing, and the performances by Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as the young statistician who becomes his advisor brought humor and warmth to what should have been a somewhat dull movie. Instead, “Moneyball” was funny, thrilling, illuminating and affecting. Like the best sports movies, it transcended its genre to become a resonant commentary on contemporary culture. (A bonus: Some of the most exciting baseball games I’ve ever seen in a film, and baseball usually puts me to sleep.)

2. “MELANCHOLIA”: Lars von Trier’s first film born out of his bout with depression, 2009’s “Antichrist,” was an intimate study of a married couple mourning their dead son who did horrific, unwatchable things to each other. “Melancholia” is also about depression, and it, too, centers on two characters, sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) struggling to understand each other and often failing. But von Trier’s scope this time was cosmic, with a planet on a collision course with Earth hurtling closer. With apologies to T. S. Eliot: This is the way the world ends — not with a whimper but a colossal, mind-blowing bang.

3. “A SEPARATION”: This deceptively simple drama from Iranian writer-director Asghar Fardahi, about the consequences following a married couple’s legal separation, is nothing less than a miracle — a movie that holds its own with literature of the highest order, and an uncommonly wise and empathetic study of familial bonds and the great pain we can inadvertently cause to the people we love the most. The fact that the movie doubles as a commentary on the rules and mores of modern-day Iranian society is a bonus. A bonafide masterpiece. (Opens Jan. 27)

4. “THE TREE OF LIFE”: The most audacious — and beautiful — movie of the year, the story of a family in 1950s Texas seen primarily through the eyes of three brothers. Director Terrence Malick captures the essence of childhood — the sights and sounds and memories and feelings — like no other filmmaker before, but his vision is expansive enough to include a flashback to the Big Bang, conversations with God and an interlude involving dinosaurs. The movie grapples with big themes in a daringly poetic manner, including how the ideologies of our parents are permanently imprinted on us, sometimes for the worst. The film is probably too ambitious — this is the rare kind of picture where you wish Sean Penn’s performance had been cut out of the movie entirely — but despite its flaws, “The Tree of Life” is a monumental achievement. Even if you hate it, you won’t be able to stop talking about it.

5. “WAR HORSE”: Steven Spielberg’s epic about the bond between a boy and his horse is a distillation of all the qualities that make him one of the all-time great filmmakers: A sweeping vision, earnest emotion, astounding action sequences, a profound love of cinema, a masterful command of camera and framing, and a narrative that uses historical events to illustrate the impact of war on ordinary people. The most common criticism being leveled at the movie is that it is too saccharine and schmaltzy. But it would take an awfully stony heart not to be moved by this tale about the ways animals impact our lives. Not everyone is going to like “War Horse.” But if you hate this film, you probably hate movies, too. Sorry.

6. “MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE”: Sean Durkin’s psychology study of a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) trying to readjust to the real world after fleeing a creepy cult was the most impressive directorial debut of the year — a precise, hypnotic and hallucinatory thriller that gradually builds an enormous aura of dread and terror, then pays off in an completely unpredictable manner. The final scene alone proves Durkin is a major talent to watch.

7. “THE INTERRUPTERS”: “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James returned with this superb documentary about a year in the lives of a group of social activists and former gang members trying to stop the perpetual cycle of crime, drugs and violence afflicting an urban neighborhood in Chicago. As engrossing and heartbreaking as a feature film, only everything in this one is true.

8. “POETRY”: South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s sublime, heartrending drama about a woman (played by the amazing Yun Jung-hee) with early-onset Alzheimer’s who enrolls in a poetry-writing class is both a clear-eyed lamentation on the potential for evil we all harbor and the overwhelming beauty of the world around us.

9. “I SAW THE DEVIL”: David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” may have gotten all the attention. But the year’s best revenge drama — as well as the most inventive and original and startling — is Kim Jee-woon’s relentless thriller about a police officer who tracks down the serial killer who murdered his pregnant girlfriend. But instead of executing the monster, the cop decides to exact prolonged, horrific revenge. Sometimes, in the name of justice, we become come exactly what we’re trying to fight against.

10. “DRIVE”: The coolest, funniest, most exciting genre picture of the year, with Ryan Gosling as a stoic driver, Albert Brooks as a murderous mob boss and Carey Mulligan as a mother in peril. A towering feat of mood, ambience and imaginative direction by Nicolas Winding Refn, who constantly surprised you with sudden shifts in tone — none better than a scene in an elevator that goes from tender and romantic to brutally violent in the span of 10 seconds.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: “The Skin I Live In,” “Into the Abyss,” “Shame,” “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” “Take Shelter,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

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