1. Safe. A thoroughly bleak film, yes, but also an impassioned reminder of how not to spend one's life. Director Todd Haynes has zero patience with the dangerous laziness of the status quo, either in movies or the real world.
2. Georgia. Boys on the Side aside, the true rebirth of the women's picture could be found in Safe and this rich, amazingly believable portrait of two temperamentally opposed musician sisters. Like all of the year's best films, Georgia allows the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions--in this case, about which sibling is the more accomplished performer or the "healthier" person. The answer is destined to say more about you than about the film itself; it opens at Lagoon Cinema on Friday.
3. 12 Monkeys. Not since David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch has there been such a brilliantly bizarre movie playing at Area Theaters; and together with Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, 12 Monkeys is almost enough to restore one's faith in the ability of commercial movies to envision radically new worlds.
4. Devil in a Blue Dress. Still more melancholy ambiguity here: Was the racial climate of 50 years ago more or less hospitable to guys like Easy Rawlins (Denzel Washington), who fought hard to keep a modest business and a house in a good neighborhood? And who are the real villains of film noir--white devils or ones in blue dresses?
5. Crumb. Of the year's many documentary profiles of volatile artists (see also Paul Bowles and Brian Wilson), none brought us more uncomfortably to the notion that creators are obliged to express the things that we, in our infinite good manners, keep to ourselves.
6. Persuasion. Written and set in the early 1800s, this harrowing Jane Austen story is just as much a portrait of the stifling social forces that dictate the way we live now. The film's eventual happy ending is certainly optimistic, but it's earned in the most believable and empowering manner--through a combination of faith, vision, and perseverance.
7. Kids. Any movie that inspires this much op-ed hysteria is doing something significant. Some
saw sensationalism and prurience here; I saw an intoxicating and appropriately unsettling mix of vérité and narrative, with the point that hasty uplift is a far more dangerous kind of fiction than ugly truths which, universal or not, do exist in the real world. Once and for all, can we please trust in the ability of audiences to understand that movies don't necessarily condone the behaviors they show?
8. Through the Olive Trees. Miramax unceremoniously bought and then threw away this lovely neo-realist romance by Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami; some very lucky local cinéastes managed to catch it at a couple of Rivertown screenings last spring. Suffice to say that it's a heartfelt examination of two great subjects (love and movies), and that it's one of Jean-Luc Godard's personal favorites.
9. Leaving Las Vegas. If you take the movie literally, it offers the nicest alcoholic (Nicolas Cage) and prostitute (Elisabeth Shue) you could possibly imagine. Much better to approach the characters' illnesses as metaphors for the weaknesses we all struggle against--or help each other to overcome or accept.
10. The Addiction. A vision as original as it is authentic: NYU as the stomping ground of various intellectual hypocrites and bloodsuckers; movies as a place for everything up to and including rap, camp, critique, and moral perspective; evil as a timeless addiction because of how seductive and scary it can be made to appear. If there was ever any doubt before, Ferrara has now proven himself the legitimate heir to the B-movie throne of Sam Fuller.
Honorable Mentions. In another year, these strong movies might have cracked the bottom half of my Top 10: The Bridges of Madison County; Casino; Clockers; The Crossing Guard; Dead Man Walking; Exotica; A Little Princess; The Postman (Il Postino); Seven; and Shanghai Triad.
Missing in Action. There's a five-screen artsyplex in (Up)town, but apparently no room for such stunning indie films as the bleak character study Clean, Shaven; the two-girls-in-love thriller Fun; or the French ensemble melodrama I Can't Sleep. Movie-lovers would have gladly taken these three in place of such vapid "art films" as Jefferson in Paris, Blue in the Face, and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain--all of which played at you-know-where.
Better than You Heard. Signifying their worth, all of the following failed both commercially and critically: Beyond Rangoon; Desperado; Hackers; Kiss of Death; Lie Down With Dogs; New Jersey Drive; Stuart Saves His Family; Tank Girl; The Underneath; and The Walking Dead.
You Must Remember These. The year's most vital revivals in a booming repertory scene included: The Wild Bunch and Belle de Jour at Uptown/Lagoon; Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! at Suburban World; Mamma Roma, I Am Cuba, and the "Ministry of Illusion" series at U Film Society; Jackie Chan, John Woo, and "Women Warrior" movies at the Riverview (presented by Asian Media Access); the Chantal Akerman, Haile Gerima, Agnieszka Holland, and Jane Campion retros at Walker Art Center; Sunrise (with DJ K-60) and the Sam Fuller series at Red Eye Cinema; Detour at Bryant-Lake Bowl; Peeping Tom at the MIA; Pal Joey in Loring Park; and just about everything at Oak Street Cinema.