1. Spider. As a trauma-damaged man (Ralph Fiennes) pieces together a kit of broken, wrong, and half-forgotten memories, director David Cronenberg pauses to study the unfriendly lighting on a madhouse floor. In painting a minimalist portrait of what he calls "infected memory," Cronenberg apes the style of Beckett and Bergman. Who'd have guessed that he would equal their accomplishments?
2. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. What are the odds that the handsome devil from ER would unsheath a filmmaking talent to make Scorsese and Spielberg leap back in awe? Or that Chuckie Baby from The Gong Show would headline the movie version of the Great American Novel? Director George Clooney's ingenious Barris biopic is being given condescending critical head-pats--but history will vindicate it. (Opens January 17.)
3. Storytelling. The beautiful kick the ass of the ugly; the white relish their whiteness before the nonwhite; rich trumps poor and strong beats helpless in a 10-to-nothing rout. Writer-director Todd Solondz tells the awful truth in a style that's the most successful emulation yet of Stanley Kubrick's pitiless rigor. His filmmaking suggests the genuinely concerned voice at the phone company that says, "I understand, and I'm sorry--I really am. But there's nothing I can do."
4. The Lady and the Duke. Suspense! Political psychodrama! Psychedelic-operatic digital effects! Throbbing color and a breakneck pace! In short, all the things we have trained ourselves never to expect from an Eric Rohmer movie--but they're all here in abundance. How cheering it is that Rohmer made his best film at the age of 84.
5. In Praise of Love. All the ink this Jean-Luc Godard movie got when it opened on the coasts had to do with the auteur's anti-Americanism--so tasteless after 9/11! But as Godard himself once said: "When a good movie is successful, it is because of a misunderstanding." A paean to futile resistance and a Daumier-like sketch of down-and-out Paris, In Praise of Love is the director's most energetic and least crotchety picture in years. (Opens January 24.)
6. Changing Lanes. It was a "best of" year for Amanda Peet. You expect her character here to grab her morally tortured lawyer hubby (Ben Affleck) and tell him to straighten up and do the right thing. Instead, she tells him she didn't marry him because he was a nice guy--and he'd better step on it and do the wrong thing pronto.Until the horrifying final minutes, this is a movie that Paddy Chayefsky would be proud of.
7. Punch-Drunk Love. It's so beautiful it can make you see stars: literally (in painter Mark Foster's abstract interludes), figuratively (Adam Sandler gives the performance of the year?), and otherwise (Jon Brion's score sets a new gold standard for the musical dance around sound and image). Something tells me that in a few years I'll realize this is the best movie of 2002.
8. Igby Goes Down. The rich kid's coming-of-age movie isn't my favorite genre. But first-time writer-director Burr Steers goes at the material without a drop of Wes Anderson's affection; every mean second is rendered with stunning accuracy and eloquence. The wordless scene of the kid dressing up a beautiful junkie (Amanda Peet again!) for a date with a vicious millionaire ranks among the most exquisite of recent years.
9. Personal Velocity. I love the shameless literariness of this movie: Writer-director Rebecca Miller adapts her own short stories for the screen, and hires a lisping, epicene male voice (The Sopranos' Artie Bucco!) to read them aloud...endlessly. The film is also a reminder that Fairuza Balk and Parker Posey deserve more work.
10. About Schmidt. Warren R. Schmidt, retired insurance actuary and widower, is someone you see every day. He dines at Coco's and Quizno's, and (on fancier occasions) at Tony Roma's; he can be seen in one of the more dignified Eddie Bauer overcoats; he looks at humanity with a mixture of resignation and polite negativity. It was genius to cast Jack Nicholson as Schmidt: The filmmakers turn a character study into a suspense picture. (When is he going to go apeshit?) The movie wobbles in tone, but it comes through in the final scene with a single gesture of shattering power.