1. Drive

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks

Unsurprisingly, most casual moviegoers didn’t know what to make of Drive. One dumbass, in fact, actually wanted to sue the film’s backers for selling it as a brain-dead, Fast & Furious-styled action romp, which, of course, it’s not. And that’s what makes the fascinating Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s first “mainstream” production such an oddity: a commercially released, movie-star-led subversion of popcorn entertainment, made with art-house sensibilities and a general disinterest in conventions.

Winding Refn wastes no time in laying his cards out; after a taut, bravura car chase sequence, Drive kicks into artistic high-gear with its hypnotic opening credits, scored by Kavinsky’s ’80s prog rock-inspired “Nightcall.” And then Ryan Gosling’s nameless character, a stunt driver by day and getaway wheelman by night, quietly falls in love with a neighbor (Carey Mulligan) whose baby daddy is an ex-con in deep with mob types. Once Gosling steps in to help, Drive induces audience whiplash by exploding into beautifully choreographed moments of brutal violence.

The juxtaposition of a tender kiss and a nasty head-bashing in Drive’s epic elevator scene embodies all that’s special about the film: It’s equal parts romantic, visceral, and unpredictable. A fairy tale for gear-heads who love a nice exploding head from time to time. And the year’s most exciting and singular piece of pulpy entertainment, bar none.