1. IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE. Not since the most ambitious work of Kubrick and Scorsese have the style and theme of a film so strongly matched its maker's hyperobsessive methods. After two years spent in painstaking deliberation of everything from the title to the inclusion of a sex scene, Hong Kong master Wong Kar-wai delivered this deeply sensual and profound tale of two married neighbors in 1960s Hong Kong who discover that their spouses are having an affair--while the jilted pair's own love remains (perhaps) unrequited. Should they or shouldn't they? The overripe array of reds, golds, greens, purples, and pinks in the mise en scène is enough to make you swoon. And yet every cut, every camera movement in the film seems to draw the director, his characters, and his audience into a kind of shared lament for the infinitesimal decision that has just been made and can never be made again. It's the sexiest movie I've ever seen--and the saddest.
2. IN THE BEDROOM. We must locate the ones responsible for these senseless acts and bring them to justice. Right? For his first film as a director, Todd Field adapts an Andre Dubus short story called "Killings," and he adopts the author's manner of drawing the maximum amount of symbolism out of a tale of terrible loss and impossible choices. Field's relentless attention to signs and symbols (the title actually relates to the catching of lobsters, believe it or not) is the perfect corollary to that stage of grief when the mourner finds precise and painful resonance in everything from love songs to license plates--not to mention movies. The point of In the Bedroom, made acute by recent events, is that there's no such thing as a senseless act--that explanations for "the unimaginable" are limited only by one's desire, or courage, to find them. And that succeeding in understanding hardly helps to lessen the hurt.
3. WAKING LIFE. Richard Linklater's eye-popping cartoon talkathon-cum-head trip is a triumph of interwoven form and content, a sneaky and perhaps even revolutionary smuggling of ideas into the commercial cinema, and, from where I sat, the first bona fide alt-film blockbuster since Pulp Fiction. The scene of Wiley Wiggins's character watching a movie about movies--and eventually floating into the movie he's watching--may be the postmodern cinema's ultimate hall of mirrors. But on a purer level, Waking Life, with its ultra-flared colors and pulsing figures, is beautiful enough to make you weep--and not from grief, for a change. Particularly in relation to the dead-end conclusions of In the Mood for Love and In the Bedroom, Linklater's magical film reminds us that in dreams (and sometimes in movies) we may recover what is lost.
4. MULHOLLAND DRIVE. And then there are times when dreams are not enough. Befitting the seismic ruptures in both its narrative and its heroine's psyche (not that there's any real difference between the two), David Lynch's most resonant representation of psychosis seemed to leave everyone who saw it feeling split between his first and second reactions. Me, I'm haunted by my own initial description of the film (after a single screening at Cannes) as a "tongue-in-cheek T&A thriller" that gave me "a guilty grin from start to finish." What was I thinking? The guilt, I see now, derives from the illicit pleasure one takes--consciously or not--from the spectacle of a woman's systematic humiliation and eventual collapse. (It's the semi-secret appeal of most any film noir, not to mention porn.) It's Lynch's ultimate point--consciously or not--to say that Hollywood is founded on granting such pleasure to some at the expense of others who couldn't dream their way out of a living nightmare if they tried.
5. GHOST WORLD. No haunted-house movie, this is a spookily insightful ode to self-aware teen-girl geekdom--the horror of the title referring to the supernatural vacancy of Starblockbusterandnoble monoculture and those hollow souls whom it possesses. If you're not already a cultural critic by hobby or profession, Ghost World bids to turn you into one, as everything in the frame--the cake-scarfing of a pudgy preppy at the big dance, the very special valedictory speech of a teen car-crash victim--exists for the heroine's merciless comment and, eventually, ours. And yet, like Enid Coleslaw herself, the film eventually dares to drop its defenses, deepening as it shifts from evoking sympathy for the misanthrope to saluting the bravery of those who find beauty in others' flaws.
6. EUREKA. At 225 minutes (sans intermission), this Japanese road movie-cum-Eastern Western can't keep the viewer's mind from drifting toward matters unrelated to what's onscreen: the utterly arbitrary nature of the standard two-hour film length, the comparative fraudulence of concise character studies, the exceedingly tender condition of his ass. It's the direct opposite experience of the Hollywood one. And yet if John Ford had been allowed (or inclined) to wander Monument Valley with the Duke for nearly four hours of real time, he might have concocted something like Eureka, whose laconic searcher suffers a debilitating trauma before taking to the road to find...himself. Like In the Bedroom, the film aptly characterizes grief as an interminable condition.
7. OUR SONG. Director Jim McKay's return to Girls Town territory mitigates the serious risk of redundancy by being an even better and more courageous movie--and that's no faint praise. Shot vérité-style in 16mm, and following another trio of working-class high school girls (Melissa Martinez, Anna Simpson, and Kerry Washington) through their everyday lives in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, it's as convincing as any doclike drama ever made. As Our Song owes its realism in no small part to the nonprofessional actors, McKay's opening "film by" credit is a list of several dozen members of the cast and crew--a startling antidote, like the movie itself, to the egocentric insularity that permeates so much of American independent cinema. Could this be part of the reason why, a full two years after it premiered at Sundance, the film has yet to open in Minneapolis?