Some of the best films of last year are just now trickling into Portland, and one of them, Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir, is also one of the best films ever made about the experience of war—and a counterintuitive end run around the normal means of exploring the topic. It's not fiction, digging into an arsenal of visceral balletics to shove you uncomfortably into the scene, and it's not a straight documentary working at a dry remove (or worse, utilizing recreations with actors that undermine a sense of authenticity).

Instead, surprisingly, it's the world's first animated documentary. Things begin with a dream sequence in which an Israeli soldier's past wartime deeds haunt his conscience, and he relates this dream to the filmmaker as they sit in a bar. The animated Folman wonders at his own inability to recall any specific memories of the same war, but the conversation sparks both a gradual unfurling of his own memory (trustworthy or not) and a mission to fill the gaps by tracking down and interviewing the fellow soldiers he hasn't spoken to in over two decades. All this happened in real life, more or less, and Folman uses (indistinguishably) re-created recordings of these interviews as the springboard for animation that can then go wherever it needs to go, lingering on the faces of the men years later, or taking us inside the experiences they describe.

The film does assume you know the following, so pay attention: In 1982, long before the current imbroglio, Israel and Palestine battled for power in southern Lebanon, with control of Beirut obtained by Israel with the installation of Bashir Gemayel as president. Gemayel was a pick from the city's Christian militia that was working along with the Israeli forces, and when a truce between the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization was shattered with his assassination, the Lebanese Christian militia slaughtered thousands of civilians in the refugee camps.

The lingering question of Israeli complicity in the massacre finds voice in Folman's first recovered bit of memory from that time, a lyrical image of soldiers rising naked from the ocean and walking up the beach as flares light the sky over a ravaged city. His investigations into his own role prove the memory a fabrication, but the image stands as a symbol of the way Folman drags himself from the womb of unknowing into the reality of the aftermath.

Bashir uses a variety of animated styles, sometimes mixed within the same frame, and the result runs from the stunning to the awkwardly stilted, with particularly weak portraiture in the present-day scenes (to which the clumsy, Waking Life-style rotoscoping at least contributes an appropriate, somnambulistic weariness). Regardless of the varying aesthetic success of its means, this film achieves its ends in a way no other could, as the sole use of actual news footage at the end unintentionally demonstrates. Those images, however horrific, carry with them the numb repetition of countless hours of tragic footage churning the waters of a lifetime of five o'clock news, while the rest of Bashir sidesteps our normal compartmentalization of such information. With the voiceovers of actual recollections grounding the memories you are witnessing, and the images striking deeper than words alone could, Folman's film provides a moving, devastating experience.

Waltz With Bashir

is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.