1. The Artist
A movie set in Hollywood's silent era that is virtually wordless: a gimmick? No, a delightfully inventive comedy about a swashbuckling star (Gallic charmer Jean Dujardin) and the peppy waif (Brnice Bejo) he befriends. Think Singin' in the Rain, but silent and in black and white. From French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius comes an effervescent treat for anyone open to sheer joy.
Martin Scorsese, the movie-mad child who grew up to be both a supreme picturemaker and a diligent savior of old films, creates a fantasy autobiography in this rapturous 3-D vision of Brian Selznick's novel about an orphan boy (Asa Butterfield) befriending the great pioneer director Georges Mlis (Ben Kingsley). Hugo celebrates the birth of a popular art form through a master's brilliant application of new techniques.
3. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Di Renjie, the legendary judge of 7th century China familiar to Western readers from the novels of Robert van Gulik, takes on the case of the flaming monks in this epic martial-arts whodunit from Hong Kong director Tsui Hark. Packed with movie magic and Chinese star quality (Andy Lau, Carina Lau, Li Bingbing), Dee could be called Crouching Tiger, Freakin' Masterpiece.
4. The Tree of Life
This is the film with the 17-minute history-of-the-universe section that sent moviegoers out to demand their money back. Outraged customers should have hung around for the rest of writer-director Terrence Malick's movie: an acute portrait of a midcentury Texas family, with stern Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) lording it over his three young sons. The movie says, or rather shows, that a father's harsh word can have the seismic effect of a crack in the cosmos.
5. War Horse
As he turns 65, Steven Spielberg launches two films in four days, and both reveal the old boy wonder in splendid form. First, The Adventures of Tintin, a triumph of motion-capture 3-D and the niftiest pirate movie ever. Then, the perfect Christmas gift: this live-action rhapsody based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, set in World War I, about an English boy and his horse. Exquisitely visualized and nakedly heartfelt, War Horse will leave only the stoniest hearts untouched.
6. Super 8
Produced by Spielberg and indebted to his early hits, J.J. Abrams' Super 8 is, like Hugo, a chapter of a filmmaker's early movie life turned into a genre classic. With delicacy and brio, Abrams made a tender coming-of-age story disguised as a sci-fi thriller.
7. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
The wanderlusting documentarian Werner Herzog treks 30,000 years back in time to study (in 3-D!) our planet's earliest known artworks in a French cave. This is one of his most appealing journeys into the cave of the human soul.
8. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Actually, there are no apes in the year's finest action fantasy; all are humans in motion-capture. Andy Serkis stars as Caesar, a genetically altered chimp who realizes his destiny as a simian Spartacus. Plausibly integrating digital apes into a real environment, director Rupert Wyatt creates a King Kong--size entertainment.