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While Hollywood continued to churn out generic blockbusters led by superheroes and toys, the year's best movies explored what mattered most to us: Love, grief, fear, and the enjoyment of the movies themselves.

1. "Beginners" • "This is what love feels like," says Oliver (Ewan McGregor), the gentle graphic artist who watches as his septuagenarian father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), starts his life over as a gay man at the same time he's diagnosed with cancer. The life lessons from Hal, who's learning to live just as he learns he's dying, later inform Oliver's romance with a free-spirited actress (played by Mélanie Laurent). Writer-director Mike Mills, impishly lifting from his own life's story, creates a brilliantly precise and emotionally universal drama that shows us that love is all in the details.

2. "The Artist" • Writer-director Michel Hazanavicius' valentine to the power of movies takes a lot of risks — it's silent (mostly), black and white (completely) and led by a French star, the dashing and expressive Jean Dujardin, whom the rest of the world has never heard of. And, magically, it works like a dream.

3. "Contagion" • So this is how the world nearly ends, not with a bang but by a virus. Steven Soderbergh combines documentary-like immediacy and an all-star cast (starting with Gwyneth Paltrow, dead in the first 10 minutes) to dramatize how governments and everyday people would react to a flu pandemic.

4. "Another Earth" • Newcomers Mike Cahill and Brit Marling (he directed, she stars, both wrote) gracefully employ a classic science-fiction idea — a planet parallel to our own — to explore themes of grief and renewal, as Marling's young woman tries to atone for ruining the life of a professor (William Mapother).

5. "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" • The best case of a master filmmaker experimenting with 3-D isn't Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," but Werner Herzog's luminous documentary that takes us inside a cave in southern France where early human artwork is perfectly preserved — and provides an amazing record of humanity's time on Earth.

6. "Super 8" • Middle-schoolers circa 1979 make an amateur zombie movie and end up uncovering a real government conspiracy, as writer-director J.J. Abrams frames a riveting thriller around the ideas of childhood wonder and the joy of filmmaking.

7. "The Last Lions" • Dereck and Beverly Joubert have spent years chronicling the endangered lion population in Botswana's Okavango Delta, and the compelling footage they capture in this documentary forms a powerful narrative of maternal ferocity.

8. "The Adjustment Bureau" • Destiny, free will and true love collide in director-writer George Nolfi's smart and sweet adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novella, in which a promising politician (Matt Damon) falls for a dancer (Emily Blunt) to the consternation of the fedora-wearing angels watching over us all.

9. "Moneyball" • The score that matters in baseball, director Bennett Miller's funny and insightful movie tells us, is how big a payroll a team pays. That is, until Billy Beane (charmingly played by Brad Pitt) comes along to rewrite the rules and turn the small-market Oakland A's into contenders.

10. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" • A shattering performance by newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (who will no longer be identified as Mary-Kate and Ashley's sister) propels writer-director Sean Durkin's debut about a fragile young woman being drawn into — and later escaping from — a charismatic cult leader (chillingly played by John Hawkes).