By Nick Schager
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Simon Abrams
By Amanda Lewis
By Scott Foundas
By B. Caplan
Which leads us to the cream of this year's crop, films carefully selected not only for their countless wonderful qualities, but because, as the list indicates, they form terrific thematic double features for contemplation and discussion.
1. DERANGED DEFENDERS: Nurse Bettyand The Specials
Neil LaBute's best film so far could be chalked up to the ingeniously wry script by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, but massive credit also goes to Renée Zellweger's pitch-perfect performance as the delirious wanna-be RN. Meanwhile, Thomas Hayden Church and Rob Lowe will drop your jaw as the most preposterous dialogue of the year comes out of their silly superhero mouths in Craig Mazin's debut feature.
2. ETHICAL ENTREATIES: The Contenderand Family Tree
It's easy to send a crack division of studly, violent idiots off to an exotic land to kill random, faceless enemies, but heroism on the home front is tricky business, and both Rod Lurie's muckraking and Duane Clark's leaf raking succeed with a direct approach.
3. FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Chicken Runand Chocolat
Perhaps it's strange to equate butchery and religious oppression -- or perhaps it's not -- but these two films beautifully sum up the grandness of liberating the human spirit, which is amusing, since one of them features Nick Park and Peter Lord's goofy little chunks of clay.
4. FULGENT FELLAHS: High Fidelityand Orfeu
Stephen Frears invades Chicago while Carlos Diegues reaches back into Greek myth to redefine a Brazilian classic, but beneath the intensity of their respective soundtracks, both movies masterfully display the agony and ecstasy of a young man's romance.
5. GROOVY GALS: Me Myself Iand Trixie
The stars of the lush, heavy Hilary and Jackie return this year in separate projects, both whimsical and engaging for the discerning romanticist. In the former, Rachel Griffiths makes director Pip Karmel's fantastic and humdrum universe seem all of a piece, while Emily Watson's unparalleled malapropisms transformed Alan Rudolph's caper flick into a light adventure for weirdos.
6. HIP HORRORS: It's the Rageand Shadow of the Vampire
Some may shop at Wal-Mart, but America's gun lust may dwindle significantly if enough people catch James D. Stern's superb ensemble cast illustrating -- with great verve -- exactly why we have a big problem here. Interpreting horror more literally, E. Elias Merhige takes us back to the making of Nosferatu, wherein director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) employs a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to rid his production of "artifice."
7. LONGING LOVERS: Waking the Deadand Wonderland (romantic runners-up: The Closer You Get, Beautiful People, East Is East)
It was a great year for love stories, especially unlikely ones like Keith Gordon's solemn, intense portrait of loss, and Michael Winterbottom's blithe romp with lovelorn Londoners. Since this category was unusually rich, do yourself the favor of checking out the lovely honorable mentions.
8. MORTAL MISSIONS: Himalayaand Pitch Black
Director Eric Valli's powerful mythic journey through the mountains of Nepal bowed last year as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. This year it's received scanty viewings in this country, but it is well worth seeking out. Vin Diesel battling a bunch of yucky aliens may seem more like guilty pleasure, but a surprising morality play twists this quest into a level high above B.
9. LASCIVIOUS LIAISONS: 8 1/2 Womenand Don't Let Me Die on a Sunday
Goodness, Mr. Greenaway, does your blood ever cool? Apparently not, as the director of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover transposes kinky Euro-Japanese trysts over a father-son struggle for balance. Also titillating on the legitimate screen was Didier Le Pêcheur's sharp-witted entry, which somehow manages to stir some tact into a sea of tack as it grapples with sex and death.
10. YEARNING YOUTHS: Almost Famousand Billy Elliot
"Rock stars have kidnapped my son!" declares Frances McDormand in Cameron Crowe's semiautobiographical story of his curiously spent youth as a teenage music critic, and the journey offers more human insight from tour buses and hotel suites than seems possible. Pretty much the year's brightest star, however, was Jamie Bell transforming his little cosmic dancer into a global beacon.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!