Closing credits 

Our critics give the thumbs-up to 2011's best films

Hugo is the most visually stunning movie I've seen since Avatar; and while it's not as technically revolutionary as James Cameron's epic 3D ode to the Na'vi of planet Pandora, it has something of equal importance: a much better story. (DL)

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  • Hugo

There's a lesson in Moneyball about the value of truly original thinking and the courage it takes to enact it. There are Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield and Major League-levels of feel-good inspiration at play, with an added layer of realism and intelligence. When the team comes back from 11 straight losses with a record-breaking, 20-game win streak, being made to sit through an hour of disappointment and desk flipping is so worth it. (ML)

The graveyard of documentaries that fail to do their stories justice is large and grows every year. Not Senna. In the film's climactic scene, we sit with Brazilian auto racing legend Ayrton Senna as he navigates the twisting course of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, at speeds topping 200 miles per hour. This is real footage. We're seeing what Senna saw from the open-air cockpit of the vehicle. We also know that Senna is about to die. As we hover at eye level less than three feet above the pavement, the scene unfolds over an agonizing 10 seconds, then 20, and finally, after close to a minute of waiting, the film quick-cuts to an aerial view of the race and the accident. It's as gripping as a documentary gets, as much for the drama on the racetrack as for the fact we care deeply for the person in that car. (DL)

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life hit me somewhere primal, deep and resonant. As a piece of cinematic artistry, this family drama is undeniably singular, a dizzying and ambitious vision. But on a much more fundamental level, it's also about a certain connection we make between the human and the divine—and the challenge we have of separating the two. (SR)

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  • The Tree of Life

Few films nowadays succeed in transporting adult audiences back to their childhood days. Super 8 did exactly that, evoking memories of E.T., Goonies and a time when movies didn't have to be stuffed with 3D special effects to make an impact. Here, a cast of realistic kids and a script full of wide-eyed adventure are more than enough to make movie magic. (SB)

Despite a plot that revolves around a secretive wheel man (i.e. the hired getaway car driver), The Fast and the Furious this is not. Drive is dark, violent and memorable in a way few films are today. It proceeds at a pace that refuses to cater to today's ever-growing attention-deficit audience and is all the better for it. There are nods to the pulp movies and television shows of yesteryear, yet never to the point of parody and never to the point where it feels like we've seen this before. (DL)

I loved Another Earth. And I'm sure this sci-fi movie isn't for everyone. Certain absurd plot points require some forgiveness. It moves slowly and says little and it's not even a little bit funny. A cynical person will say the film is too sentimental or the science is impractical, but do yourself a favor: don't worry the science. Pretend you're reading about a poem. (ML)

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  • Another Earth

Mike Mills, who wrote and directed Beginners, has probably taken his share of liberties in telling his life story, but I couldn't care less. Plodding along at its own speed amid a jumbled timeline, the film reflects on the World War II generation from the perspective of a lost and longing Generation Xer. It's moving and sentimental, not manipulative or corny. It dissects the "greatest generation" with love and honesty while telling the story of a dying father as our narrator tries to stay on his own balance beam. (DL)

City in Shadows is a love letter of sorts, filled with cutouts of iconic—though not always obvious—Missoula images. It has no people in it, but it features glittering waterscapes made by local filmmaker Andy Smetanka's optical illusions. It's just six minutes but its bursting colors and bewitching soundtrack of bird calls, banjo and singing saw make it feel like a dream you don't want to leave. (EF)

Give Werner Herzog credit for letting the drawings tell the story in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Yes, there are obviously scripted moments but generally the focus remains where it should. Long periods of silence allow us to slowly acclimate to a mesmerizing environment. When the director remarks, "These are the images of long-forgotten dreams," I can't help but agree. There's nothing else on earth like them. (DL)

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival provides at least one utterly unforgettable selection each year. Marwencol earns that prize in 2011. Mark Hogancamp has created an entire world in his backyard consisting of Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe figures, each based on a friend or neighbor and each with his or her own detailed narrative. The reasons why he's created this alternate reality and what comes of it make for a powerful story about perseverance, decency, community and art. (SB)

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  • Marwencol

I enjoyed Blue Valentine much the way I enjoyed last year's Winter's Bone, which is to say I felt a little masochistic by the end, unable to shake images and scenes that are chilling and haunting and uncomfortable in ways rarely attempted these days. There's a reason for this, of course—people go to movies to escape the very things that Blue Valentine and Winter's Bone magnify to a degree that can suck all the air out of a theater, unwilling to let anyone exhale for two hours. It's tense, it's frustrating and in the right hands, under the right direction, it also can approach brilliance. (DL)

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