Hey girl, Ryan Gosling wants to drive your car.
For me at least, the year in film started with a bang in the form of Gregg Araki's crazysexycool apocalyptic collegiate comedy Kaboom and ended with the whimper that was Stephen Daldry's flat, feeble 9/11 drama Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. In between those two bookends, 2011 proved a pretty great year for movies, particularly if you thought outside the Hollywood box. After lumbering through a mostly fallow winter, spring and summer, the big movie studios rebounded with a strong fall slate of releases that included the bold new works from veteran filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Steven Soderbergh among them), star vehicles that actually emphasized brains over brawn (Moneyball, The Descendants) and even a few above-average franchise entries (Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, Paranormal Activity 3). And when Hollywood faltered, the independent and international film industries picked up the slack. If you lived nearby an art house or had access to a video-on-demand service, every month brought a steady stream of terrific titles that ran the gamut of genres, from ultraviolent samurai tales (Takeshi Miike's 13 Assassins) to moody Westerns (Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff) to stories of young love in bloom (Andrew Haigh's Weekend). Some years, I struggle to decide which films absolutely deserve a place on my Top Ten list. This year, I struggled to decide which ones I could leave off without too much regret. (That explains, by the way, why my list of Honorable Mentions includes another twenty-odd movies I couldn't bear not to single out.) So without further ado, in one of the best years for movies in some time, here are the best of the best.
The first fifteen minutes of Drive may be the best movie I've seen this year. In an ordinary hotel room with a window that peers out on a neon-colored Los Angeles cityscape, a movie stuntman who enjoys a second career as a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling, in a commanding performance) is talking into his cell phone, tersely explaining his way of doing business to a prospective client on the other end. You have me for five minutes, he says, if you aren't back in the car by then, I'm gone. Hanging up, he heads to the garage, fires up his vehicle of choice and pulls out into the street.