3.The House of Mirth. Adapting Edith Wharton's intricate study of a New York society bachelorette (Gillian Anderson) and her increasingly tenuous hold on privilege at the turn of the century, the painterly auteur Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) abandons the near-plotless languor of his earlier work in favor of a film so tightly constructed that the loss of any one scene would cause the whole to lose its inexorable momentum. It's a Portrait of a Lady for the year 2000--both because it's utterly contemporary despite the setting, and because it's apt to be as misunderstood and commercially neglected as the Jane Campion masterpiece that shares its basic theme, its formal beauty, and its quiet rage. Tentatively scheduled to open at the Uptown Theatre on February 23.
4.The Wind Will Carry Us. The films of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) have generally been gentle odes to human contact. But this abstract yet indelible summation preaches the importance of community by portraying its absence: The story of a cell-phone-toting "engineer" (Behzad Dourani) waiting impatiently for the death of a 100-year-old woman in the Kurdish village of Siah Dareh is entirely suggestive of the new century's well-meaning exploitation of the old. As usual, there's self-reflexivity if you want it (the engineer is a filmmaker of sorts), but also a droll blend of black comedy and big-carnival critique that had me thinking of Ace in the Hole even before the fate of a ditch digger (also unseen) puts the protagonist's sketchy ethics to the test. After a single screening at U Film last October, The Wind Will Carry Us is currently awaiting a run at the Parkway.
5.Beau travail. Explaining her urge to explore the serial-killing "monster" of I Can't Sleep, director Claire Denis said: "My question was, Could I have been the mother of this monster, or his sister?" Here, in a ravishing adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd, set among French legionnaires stationed in the East African town of Djibouti, the filmmaker imagines herself a lover of military tough guys in training. Whether there's something Riefenstahlian about Denis's fetishization of hard corps life is incidental to the triumph of her will to return the typically male gaze.
6.Erin Brockovich. Filmmaking chameleon Steven Soderbergh seamlessly turns an iconic megastar into another of his trademark lone wolves, casting just a few aspersions on the title character's relentless desire to vindicate herself for having been cruelly underestimated. In so doing, he also allows Julia Roberts to tell her own story.
7.Revelations: Paradise Lost 2.In this gut-wrenching sequel to their documentary classic of four years ago, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky continue their investigation of the brutal sex killings of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, concluding that a solution may be even more elusive as a result of the first film's popularity. Like the original, Paradise Lost 2 isn't a work of "pure" reportage so much as a study of prejudice and stupidity among lawyers, TV news reporters, and members of the victims' families--many of whom seem titillated by the media attention and nearly rabid in their lust for both vengeance and screen time. That HBO (which aired the film last March) monetarily subsidized the hair-raising "performance" of wicked stepfather and wild-eyed suspect John Mark Byers scarcely makes the movie less fascinating--or disturbing.
8.The Virgin Suicides. Sofia Coppola's deeply mysterious, disconcertingly erotic debut feature is a portrait of teen love and loss sketched with the most distinctive of details--not just the requisite collection of hip-huggers and chart-toppers, but those awkward basement parties and gym-floor make-out sessions, along with the overall sense one has at this age that even earth science is sexually symbolic. Like her father's Rumble Fish, it's an art film for kids--and I mean that as the highest compliment.
9.The Idiots.Where his Dancer in the Dark latches onto the old gotta-sing-gotta-dance conceit in a failed attempt to mitigate a strong sense of the been-there-done-that, Lars von Trier's other dogmatic exercise in self-conscious provocation resists any and all efforts at classification. Never mind the pornographic orgy scene that helped to keep it out of release in America for more than two years: The Idiots is a hotbed of what cinema studies majors would call "intertextuality," with playing "dumb" as the director's audacious allegory of impish nonconformity--his own included. Won't Oak Street revive it on a double bill with the equally metaphoric idiocy of Me, Myself & Irene?
10.You Can Count on Me. No "great cinema" here--just a subdued, unpredictable, intricately constructed, and thoroughly accessible comedy-drama about small-town, middle-class white people. By the end, the movie's characters seem like family, while its three-block hamlet feels like the whole wide world.
The Rest of the Top 40
(in order of preference)
Any of these gems would have made my Top 10 in a less remarkable year: Kippur; Love and Basketball; Spring Forward; Ratcatcher; Traffic; The Original Kings of Comedy; The American Nightmare; Time Regained; Black and White; Humanité; Long Night's Journey Into Day; Kikujiro; Cast Away; Suzhou River; Claire Dolan; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; George Washington; Pola X; Girlfight; Not One Less; Boiler Room; Hamlet; Me, Myself & Irene; Chuck & Buck; Dark Days; Hollow Man; Bamboozled; Urbania; The Yards; and Space Cowboys.