Martin Scorsese's 3D kids film Hugo and Alexander Payne's Hawaii-set drama The Descendants have won top honours from the U.S. National Board of Review, which named its picks for the best films and performances of 2011 on Thursday.

Organizers awarded the best director crown to veteran filmmaker Scorsese and named Hugo, his period tale about an  orphan living in a train station, the year's best film.

Describing the 3D adventure tale as "visually stunning and emotionally engaging," NBR president Annie Schulhof also praised Hugo as "a tribute to the early years of cinema that uses today's cutting-edge technology to bring the audience into a completely unique and magical world."

Payne's family drama The Descendants was also a major winner, earning George Clooney and Shailene Woodley acting recognition (best actor and best supporting actress, respectively) and Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash kudos for their adapted screenplay.

Tilda Swinton snapped up the best actress honour for her widely-praised performance as a woman whose son is responsible for a high school massacre in Lynne Ramsay's film We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The group also singled out celebrated Canadian stage and film star Christopher Plummer for his supporting role in Beginners, in which he portrays an elderly man who reveals to his son that he's gay following his wife's death.

Other winners include:

  • Original screenplay: Will Reiser, 50/50.
  • Animated feature: Rango.
  • Breakthrough performance: Felicity Jones, Like Crazy.
  • Breakthrough performance: Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
  • Debut director: J.C. Chandor, Margin Call.
  • Best ensemble: The Help.
  • Spotlight award: Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre, Shame, X-Men: First Class).
  • NBR Freedom of Expression: Crime After Crime.
  • NBR Freedom of Expression: Pariah.
  • Foreign-language: A Separation (Iran).
  • Documentary: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.
  • Special Achievement in Filmmaking: The Harry Potter franchise.

This year's NBR winners will be celebrated at a gala in New York on Jan. 10.

The group also released its top picks of the year's films, foreign-language titles, documentaries and independent selections.

10 best films of 2011

  • The Artist.
  • The Descendants.
  • Drive.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2.
  • The Ides of March.
  • J. Edgar.
  • Tree of Life.
  • War Horse.

5 best foreign-language films

  • 13 Assassins.
  • Elite Squad: The Enemy Within.
  • Footnote.
  • Le Havre.
  • Point Blank.

5 best documentaries

  • Born to be Wild.
  • Buck.
  • George Harrison: Living in the Material World.
  • Project Nim.
  • Senna.

Top 10 independent films

  • 50/50.
  • Another Earth.
  • Beginners.
  • A Better Life.
  • Cedar Rapids.
  • Margin Call.
  • Shame.
  • Take Shelter.
  • We Need To Talk About Kevin.
  • Win Win.

Established in 1909, the U.S. National Board of Review is comprised of film enthusiasts and professionals, academics, young filmmakers and students. In 2011, the group screened more than 250 films — including studio-produced, indie, foreign-language, animated and documentary titles — and participated in in-depth discussions with actors, directors, producers and screenwriters.

It is traditionally one of the earliest film industry groups to release its year-end list and kick off the annual awards season that culminates at the Oscars.