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A Belated Cinematic Top Ten for 2011

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 not.

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.

Tagged: Gen Y, generation y