We are right in the midst of a cinephile’s favorite time of year. Though there is no hard and fast rule, many of our darlings make their way to theaters just in time for an Oscar run from September to December. But whether it is an Academy Awards contender or not, whether it is released in November or (as rare as this may be) January, each year brings us a favorite film.

Every so often, however, a selection leaps beyond the limited scope of “best of the year” into the realm of “that against which all other films will now be measured.” It becomes the golden child to which the competing star pupils are compared.

We typically frame cinema “classes,” as it were, by decade. For me, the straight-A student that ruined the curve for all the others this past decade was Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God.” Though other films carved a space in my heart and mind, “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” among them, I have yet to find a film that was released in that same 10-year span (2000-2009) that hits every single note quite the way that “City of God” does.

It is fresh, stunningly beautiful, confronting and emotionally rich. Adapted from the novel by Paulo Lins, the film offers a harrowing look at the bloodshed, violence and heartbreak that defines daily life in Rio’s favelas (the poverty stricken, gang-infested, forgotten and ignored shantytowns of Brazil) as seen through the eyes of an artist.

For the past eight years I have asked myself one question when the lights have gone up on a film that has left me stunned: “Is it better than ‘City of God?’” I have yet to muster an unequivocal “yes.”

Yet, each decade is distinctive and offers its own treasures. For me, the 1990s saw a three-way tie between Lars von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves,” Terrence Malick's “The Thin Red Line” and Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “The City of Lost Children.” There really was no way for me to choose just one, as each movie offered me something beautiful, unique and enduring.

The year is now 2011 and the door has been open for the past two years for a new film to emerge as the best of the second decade of the 21st century. It’s early yet, and I’m not sure that I’ve quite landed on one, but, there have been several offerings that came to my attention in just the past few months that are already vying for a spot on this year’s Dean’s List.

When all is said and done we may look at “Inception” as a film that effectively combined stunning, innovative spectacle with a few loftier philosophical musings, at least partially bridging the gap between art and (massive) commerce. It is possible that “Shame” will ultimately stand as the first NC-17 release to win a major category at the Academy Awards. And “True Grit” may well be remembered as the film that ushered in a new era for the western.

So, in looking ahead and reflecting on the past, a conversation starter and a simple question: What were your cinematic stand-outs for the 1990s and 2000s, and has any film made its case as potential top of the class for the new decade?