Screw Oscar, which will surely ignore Drive because it’s too bloody, too creative, too ambitious and too polarizing to comfort audiences. Solid reasons, I say, for naming Drive the year’s best movie. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn puts an iconic Ryan Gosling behind the wheel into a feverish battle between good and its opposite (Albert Brooks does great evil). Hard-wired to the year’s most propulsive synth score, Drive is pure cinema. I couldn’t have liked it more.
2. The Artist
A silent movie in black-and-white about Old Hollywood is now the presumptive favorite in the awards race. Why? Because French director Michel Hazanavicius has style to burn and unexpected soul. Jean Dujardin is stupendous as the screen idol who resists talkies until a perky starlet (Berenice Bejo) convinces him that art should never be afraid to embrace new forms. Roger that.
3. The Descendants
Here’s that rare human comedy that earns its laughs and tears. Orchestrated without a false note by director and co-writer Alexander Payne, The Descendants gives George Clooney the role of his career to date as a Hawaiian landowner coping with a cheating wife (now in a coma) and two daughters he can’t fathom. It brims with surprises you don’t see coming.
An inside-baseball movie with the pulse of an action flick. Thank director Bennett Miller and acting homers from Brad Pitt as the general manager of the Oakland A’s and Jonah Hill as a numbers cruncher who shows him how to find value in what others miss. Score.
5. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s love letter to the City of Light is his best and most beguiling film in years, with Owen Wilson learning the hard way that the past isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
An irresistible bedtime story for movie lovers. The usually raging and bullish Martin Scorsese tackles his first family film — in 3D, yet — to tell the story of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), a runaway boy who lives in a 1931 Paris train station and discovers the treasure of film history. How? Just give in to the film’s sheer, transporting joy.
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
A Cold War spy film, directed by Tomas Alfredson from John le Carre’s 1974 bestseller, brings out the acting artistry of Gary Oldman as a spymaster in search of a mole in the British Secret Intelligence Service.
8. Margin Call
Here’s the year’s best film from a first-timer. J.C. Chandor tackles the bankers who precipitated the 2008 financial crisis. Blue-chip acting from Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, as Wall Street gets it in the teeth.
9. The Tree of Life
How dare Terrence Malick put the lives of a 1950s Texas family, led by Brad Pitt, on par with the creation of the universe? Because his one-of-a-kind film strives even when it falls short.
10. (The Pop Slot)
Not a title, but a place to reward superior crowd-pleasers. For me, it’s a three-way tie: Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is an emotional ride — full gallop. Tate Taylor’s The Help celebrates the female bond (a 2011 rarity). And David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 ends a franchise on a high note that Oscar should heed. Disagree? Let’s hear it.