1. The Artist: Director Michel Hazanavicius' sheer audacity earns kudos for his daring to make a black and white, silent film. He did his homework and succeeded spectacularly in a melodrama for the ages—with a perfect dog companion to the stars. Native St. Louisan John Goodman gives an Oscar worthy supporting actor performance as silent film director Al Zimmer.
2. Hugo: Director Martin Scorsese's loving tribute to film pioneer Georges Méliès entertains and educates with 3D used to magnificent effect.
3. The Tree of Life: Writer/director Terrence Malick's wondrous contemplation of life offers a poetic, aesthetic realm of emotion and ideas.
4. Melancholia: Danish director Lars von Trier's jarring depiction of clinical depression and the imagined end of the world. An unsettling study of alienated, unattractive characters holds a mirror up to society.
5. & 6: The Descendants and The Ides of March: Though the former focuses on familial and the latter on political conflict, both profoundly honest, confrontational films address critical issues of love and betrayal, loyalty and responsibility. Star of the former, director and actor in the second, George Clooney makes teasing out the humor embedded in weighty issues look easy, and the sugar-coated films go down easy with their pungent aftertaste lingering.
7. Senna and 8. Buck: These two exhilarating, dramatically different documentaries are equally moving, the first about speed and the second about patience. Asif Kapadia's Senna follows Brazilian Ayrton Senna, three time Formula One world champion, putting the viewer in the driver's seat as powerfully as it puts Senna's admirable principles into perspective. Cindy Meehl's Buck celebrates the triumph of horse whisperer Buck Brannaman's beautiful kindness in reaction to appalling cruelty, that visited by people upon each other as well as upon animals.
9. & 10. Margin Call and Moneyball: Excellent scripts and brilliant performances insightfully reveal the appalling triumph of greed and the corrupting power of money in the financial and sports arenas.
Another dozen films also qualify as equally exceptional, in alphabetical order: A Better Life, Certified Copy, City of Life and Death, The Guard, In a Better World, Incendies, Meek's Cutoff, The Mill and the Cross, Of Gods and Men, Poetry, Le Quattro Volte, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Here's hoping 2012 offers as many gems.