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MacLean’s Top Ten of the Year

A fair rundown, I think of the year’s best from Brian D. Johnson.

1. The Tree of Life. With Avatar-scale ambition, Terrence Malick takes ’50s nostalgia all the way back to the Big Bang. Grounded in intense performances by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, this boy’s-eye view of Paradise Lost is ecstatic, evocative and sobering. It restores faith in cinema’s power to enlarge the moment and touch the divine.

2.The Descendants. Surfing tears of laughter and grief, Alexander Payne finds the perfect wave. Giddy melancholy! George Clooney is a shambling cuckold with a wife in a coma, two unruly daughters, and a family land deal to finesse. Watching him try to keep his balance is a treat, as Payne does for Hawaii what he did for pinot noir in Sideways.

3. A Separation. Asghar Farhadi’s drama about feuding spouses, an elder with Alzheimer’s and a skittish caregiver is a narrative marvel, mined with a covert critique of Iran’s patriarchy. It’s a miracle it even got made.

4. Moneyball. The odd-couple act of Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill has the crack timing of a double play. Baseball nuts adored this true story of a game-changing underdog, but it’s even better when you don’t know how it ends.

5. The Artist. Finally, a French movie that doesn’t need subtitles. Silent and black-and-white, it’s the year’s most unlikely crowd-pleaser—a clever, charming romcom about star-crossed stars at the dawn of talkies.

6. Melancholia. Depression weds apocalypse at the end of the world. Lars von Trier’s images are full of aching beauty, as Charlotte Gainsbourg bares raw emotion and Kirsten Dunst plays Truth or Dare with the camera.

7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Nordic noir redux, deluxe edition. David Fincher upgrades the Swedish novel—and film—in a fluid feat of procedural spit and polish. Daniel Craig lets Rooney Mara lead in note-perfect tango.

8. Drive. Ryan Gosling is the silent, smouldering samurai—a getaway driver who hotwires the moll next door (Carey Mulligan). Firing narcotic suspense with bursts of psychotic violence, Nicolas Winding Refn navigates L.A. noir with a neo-Tarantino road map.

9. Margin Call. Of various movies that tried to occupy Wall Street (In TimeTower Heist), J.C. Chandor’s first feature, about an investment bank shooting the falls of the financial crisis, hit the mark. Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons lead a great ensemble cast.

10. Hugo. A Scorsese kids’ flick sounds like a cruel joke. But using 3D magic to restore the lost films of Georges Méliès, Hugo pulls a cinephile rabbit from a Hollywood hat.

11. War Horse. Spielberg’s saga of a steed being dragged through the mud of the Great War is old-time spectacle at its finest. Though lavishly sentimental, it may be the best movie ever made about a horse.