The very best movies of the past year went back to the earliest years of cinema for their subject matter, but 100 or so years amount to just a few film frames when you consider that some of the other movies in this 10-best list went back to the dawn of time for their stories.
In any event, the end of the year is a natural time to think about the good, the bad and the ugly movies that came our way in 2011. It actually turned out to be a pretty good year in terms of the diversity of subjects and level of craftsmanship. Where the latter is concerned, it was reassuring to see that the trendy 3D process can be worthwhile when a crafty director is behind the camera; as for the more routine movies that tried to grab your attention by being released in 3D, well, not even the added dimension can help some movies.
This isn't the place to dwell on movies you forget even as you're watching them, of course, so let's celebrate the ones worth remembering in the years ahead.
1. "Hugo." The only thing that seems more unlikely than director Martin Scorsese shooting a 3D movie is having it be a tender, PG-rated story about a kid in a Paris train station in the 1930s. The exquisite production design is a wonderful package for what's ultimately a tribute to a special effects-pioneering French movie director from the early 20th century, Georges Melies, who is brought to cranky life by Ben Kingsley's impressive performance.
2. "The Artist." Speaking of unlikely, who thought that so many of today's critics and audiences would show so much interest in a black-and-white silent movie that's suitably set just before the birth of the talkies in the late 1920s. Director Michel Hazanavicius and a fine cast have come up with a cleverly crafted and very amusing valentine to that distant era.
3. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." German director Werner Herzog's English-language documentary marks the first time that a film crew has been allowed into the Chauvet Cave in southern France, whose paintings were done as far back as 32,000 years ago. Shooting in 3D, he brings you right up to these painted representations of prehistoric animals. Herzog's quirky narration is insightful and s.ometimes just plain weird.
4. "The Descendants." It has been seven years since director Alexander Payne's last movie, "Sideways," and it was worth the wait. George Clooney gives one of his most incisive performances as a troubled man whose family worries make it clear that Hawaii is no paradise when you live there. The movie achieves such a nice balance between comedy and drama that, yes, you will laugh and cry.
5. "Midnight in Paris." Woody Allen's most commercially successful movie ever won back many fans who felt alienated by much of what he directed during the last, oh, 30 years. As a contemporary Hollywood screenwriter whose trip to Paris becomes a magic realism-propelled trip back to the Paris of the 1920s, Owen Wilson humorously trips over his own words as he meets so many famous people. Incidentally, some of the other movies Allen made in recent decades definitely are worth a second look.
6. "The Tree of Life." This is a tricky choice, because idiosyncratic director Terrence Malick is at his best and also at his worst in this family drama. The Brad Pitt-starring scenes set during the 1950s are wonderfully evocative of that decade, while the present-day scenes starring Sean Penn are ponderous and dull. As for a segment about the creation of the universe, well, Malick is the master of this universe and entitled to do what he wants.
7. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2." After eight movies released over the course of a decade, this J.K. Rawling novels-derived saga ends in a very satisfying manner. It's fun watching these young adult wizards in an action-packed finale.
8. "Moneyball." This inside-baseball story is a very smart sports movie, with Brad Pitt really getting inside the unconventional head of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane. We don't see much action on the field, because there is so much going on behind the scenes.
9. "Nostalgia for the Light." Director Patricio Guzman's documentary about astronomers and archaeologists in the Atacama desert in Chile somehow manages to pull together their thematic ruminations about the country's past and present.
10. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." This prequel in the long-running simian series turned out to be much better than expected. More than the apes are smart in a carefully paced science-fiction thriller that knows how to orchestrate its escalating violence.
Honorable mention: "War Horse," "Margin Call," "The Hedgehog," "Contagion," "The Ides of March," "Tabloid," "Of Gods and Men" and "Bill Cunningham New York."
Worst movie of the year: "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star."