So, in no particular order:
Terry Zwigoff's shocking, funny, disturbingly poignant documentary about the aesthetic obsessions and family weirdness of the underground-comics great could not have been made up, and cannot be dismissed as a mere freak show--it's a startling portrait of a family of casualties of '50s culture.
Leaving Las Vegas
Nicolas Cage as a drunk on a death-courting binge and Elisabeth Shue as the hooker who loves him so much she won't try to stop him give such beautiful performances in this beautifully directed film from Mike Figgis that it's easy to overlook how reprehensible the premise is.
Anything but. Todd Haynes' maddening, monotonous, yet finally unforgettable film about a young California housewife suffering from "20th-century disease" produces such a mix of emotions that it approaches greatness. Julianne Moore won't get the praise she deserves for her shattering performance; it's too much of a downer. But it's some of the best acting by an American leading lady so far this decade.
Ballot Measure 9
Heather MacDonald's great, stirring documentary account of the religious right's attempt to legislate homophobia in Oregon, and of its gratifying defeat by gay (and straight) activists, is both an important document and marvelously exciting cinema.
A rollicking, big-hearted melodrama about the tribulations of being a Catholic priest in a Liverpool parish--especially if you're gay and conservative--has loads of righteous liberal indignation, leavened with humor and a true, heartening sense of faith.
One of the year's big surprises, this knockout little spoof--a free adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma set in modern-day Beverly Hills--made at least a temporary star out of Alicia Silverstone as Cher, the indefatigable 90210 princess who decides she needs a "spiritual makeover." The film may also, quite possibly, be the all-time champion for product placement: There's scarcely a scene in its length that isn't an ode to consumption. The gifted director, Amy Heckerling, uses the plugs as part of the satire.
One of the wittiest, least sentimental and most subversive children's movies ever made, this is the tale of a pig who dares to aspire to a position above his station--herding sheep--and then presumes to rethink how even that lofty job ought to be done. Directed by Chris Noonan from a script by Noonan and the Australian madman George Miller, the film gives one a pretty good suspicion of what a kiddy movie by Brecht might look like.
The Usual Suspects
Bryan Singer's crazy quilt of a noir was constructed around the fine, high-testosterone performances of several actors, but especially of Kevin Spacey as Verbal, the shiftiest of gut-spillers. This silly yet scary thriller is a triumph of style over content--it's a deadpan put-on, and yet Spacey's acting can get under your skin, and it creeps you out in a way that's not so easy to shake.
The Incredibly True Adventure of 2 Girls in Love
Maria Maggenti's debut feature was this low-budget charmer about first love between two teenage girls. By far the best of several recent efforts to make a romantic comedy about lesbian love.
Stuart Saves His Family
Thematic depth in a Saturday Night Live spin-off? Miracles can happen. Harold Ramis directed this small wonder based on Al Franken's oddly lovable and heroic 12Step junkie, who provides a comic core to a seriously unsettling portrait of an unhappy family. The film flopped, of course, but it deserves to develop a following. AsStuart's parents, by the way, Harris Yulinand Shirley Knight would both be quite legitimate nominees for Supporting Actor/Actress awards.
To Die For
Nicole Kidman gave a devastating caricature of a vapid, amoral TV-anchor wanna-be in this nearly flawless satire from director Gus Van Sant, adapted by Buck Henry from Joyce Maynard's book. Kidman may never find this snug a fit again in her career, but, at least this once, she was splendid.
Close-but-no-cigar honors to Smoke, Once Were Warriors, Nixon, Kids, Beyond Rangoon, The Glass Shield, Sense and Sensibility, Jeffrey, Devil in a Blue Dress, Toy Story, Living in Oblivion, Wigstock: The Movie, Pocahontas, Country Life, Mighty Aphrodite, The Secret of Roan Inish, Braveheart, Apollo 13, The American President and Get Shorty.
See you at the snack bar.--M. V. Moorhead