Wed, Feb 15, 2012 01:38 PM
The Oscars are coming up, which means that it's time for us to
start thinking about how much better our taste in movies is than
the Academy's. Since 2009, the Academy has put forth nine or ten
Best Picture nominees instead of their usual five, mirroring
critics' traditional year-end top-ten lists.
The funny thing about these top tens, compiled sometime around New
Year's Eve, is that, though cinephiles love to read and debate the
critics' choices, those choices are pretty much meaningless for any
movie fan who doesn't live in New York or Los Angeles, no matter
how dedicated he is. Year after year, the critics pick movies whose
official release dates are in December but which don't actually
appear in theaters anywhere outside of America's two largest cities
until January, February, March, or never. Non-urbanite that I am,
I've tried nonetheless to keep up with the cinema of the day, and
now that we're in mid-February, I've finally sketched my own
tentative top-ten list:
1. "Drive" - You get a sense of just how stylish this movie is
going to be from the moment you glimpse the hot-pink lipstick font
in which its opening credits appear. An American neo-noir from a
Danish auteur, it presents a heist-gone-wrong story assembled from
spare parts and tells it as if submerged in the kind of B-movie
daze you might find yourself in if you watched "The Blue Dahlia,"
"The Driver," and "To Live and Die in L.A." all in a row. As a
21st-century Man with No Name, Ryan Gosling plays the protagonist
not as a typical strong, silent hero but as a guy who seems
slightly off mentally.
2. "The Tree of Life" - Whether you find Terrence Malick's ambition
to create the cinematic masterpiece-of-all-masterpieces brave or
risible, there's no denying the gorgeousness of "The Tree of Life,"
whose naturally lit scenes of the 1950s lend to small-town America
not the usual kitschy sheen but a deep Edenic grace. It captures
childhood brilliantly by refusing to impose a plot upon it and
focusing instead on particular moments, some significant and some
3. "The Skin I Live In" - Pedro Almodovar directs art-house soap
operas: colorful, lascivious, histrionic entertainments that prove
that melodrama is as valid a form as any for communicating human
emotion. His latest, the story of mad plastic surgeon played by
Antonio Banderas, contains so many twists that I can't say anything
about it without giving away something vital.
4. "The Trip" - Michael Winterbottom's hilarious travelogue follows
Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden, playing roughly themselves, as they
visit the best restaurants in northern England. The movie consists
of little but these two guys driving around, and then sitting down,
eating scallops, and doing impressions of other British actors. Yet
it's one of the funniest and most human movies I've seen in recent
years, and shows how little you need - aside from a couple
humorous, flawed human beings - to make a fun movie.
5. "Rango" - Who would have guessed that the best Western since
"Unforgiven" would be a cartoon produced by Nickelodeon? Intended
as much for movie buffs as for children, "Rango" is a comedy but
not a parody, and it pays tribute, amid spectacular desert
landscapes and thrilling action sequences, to "the spirit of the
West." With amusing voiceover work by Johnny Depp and creative
character designs, it's hipper, in its unobtrusive self-awareness,
than any of Pixar's Oscar-winners.
6. "Another Earth" - Don't expect the science to make any sense in
this allegory about the discovery of an identical Earth hovering
beside our own, but expect to be moved by the people it contains.
The life of its young heroine is bleak as that of the girl in
2010's "Winter's Bone," but there's a grandness beneath the grime
here, and director Mike Cahill uses fantasy to grant her a second,
perhaps more fortunate self elsewhere in the galaxy. Despite the
movie's low budget, its central image - that of a big, blue planet
perched just above the horizon - is more stunning than anything I
saw in the summer's blockbusters.
7. "Young Adult" - Comedies featuring jerks as protagonists are as
old as cinema, but comedies featuring female jerks as protagonists
are still quite rare, so it's probably worth the ticket price just
for the novelty of seeing Charlize Theron play such a terrible
person in such hilarious fashion. But the genius of "Young Adult,"
a stunning departure from the Cody-and-Reitman team behind "Juno,"
is its doomy ending, which is so grim in so many directions, so
funny and convincing and apt.
8. "Our Idiot Brother" - This is the kindest movie of the year.
It's a gentle comedy about a messed-up family, and it stars Paul
Rudd as a character so good-natured that at first you think the
film will be a mean-spirited joke-fest at the expense of his hippie
naiveté. But "Our Idiot Brother" walks a fine line, using Rudd's
earnestness as a source of comedy and revering it at the same time.
Rudd is wholly believable in a role that might have seemed
sentimental or stereotypical without him, and the movie ultimately
makes you feel a little better about the world.
9. "The Mill and the Cross" - Surely the dullest great movie of the
year, "The Mill and The Cross" is ostensibly about the painter
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, but it spends most of its running time
milling about rural Flanders at the time of the Inquisition - a
grim, not-very-fun place where nobody talks much. Its vision feels
authentic, though, and its live-action recreation of "The Way to
Calvary" is truly stunning.
10. "The Guard" - John Michael McDonagh's debut takes two familiar
genres - the black/white buddy-cop movie and the fish-out-of-water
comedy - and employs outrageous dark humor to make it all seem
fresh again. The film's West Ireland setting provides unusual local
color; Brendan Gleason and Don Cheadle make a terrific team.
These movies account for just five Oscar nominations, so I'll have
plenty to complain about on Feb. 26.