Yeah, unfair, I know . . . expecting this year's films to stack up against a selection of the greatest movies ever made. Yet the last time I felt this way was more than a decade ago, when The Manchurian Candidate returned to theaters after a 25-year hiatus. It's dispiriting. I still keep waiting for another year as amazing as 1999 Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, The Sixth Sense, Toy Story 2, Lovers of the Arctic Circle a lineup that is increasingly looking like a fluke.
Before we get to the Greatest Hits roundup, let's mention a few categories that stand by themselves:
It was in fact a very good year for documentaries. There were theatrical runs of two first-rate music films: Scratch, Doug Pray's look at hip-hop and turntable masters; and Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman's tribute to the largely unsung studio cats who created what may well be the largest and most enduring body of pop music ever to emerge from one studio. In addition to Chris Smith's Home Movie and Gail Dolgin's and Vicente Franco's Daughter From Danang, there also was the as-yet-undistributed Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz's dazzler about eight contestants in the National Spelling Bee as suspenseful and engaging a movie as any this year.
The Hong Kong-to-Hollywood expatriate movement had its worst year yet. The massive commercial flop Windtalkers was John Woo's most disappointing film since his Taiwanese quickies in the early '80s. The often brilliant Ronny Yu directed the Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Formula 51, an entertaining, over-the-top bit of fluff that sank like a stone. Cory Yuen's English-language action film The Transporter had its moments, but it wasn't as good as his other 2002 effort, the Chinese-language So Close, which didn't make it into theaters.
Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li were missing in action. At least Li was off making Hero under director Zhang Yimou, due in 2003, which could be worth the wait if Miramax doesn't butcher it to "fit" the American audience that the company seems to regard as so benighted. Let's not even talk about Jackie Chan's The Tuxedo, okay?
Okay. There were some terrific films, and several of them came out of Hollywood, even. Below are the 10 that either gave me the most pleasure or left me the most moved.
The usual cautions: This list was compiled using Academy qualifying rules that is, films had to have run for at least a week in New York or Los Angeles, with opening day falling during the calendar year. (Which is why Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies isn't on the list.) As always, I had a different list yesterday and will have yet another tomorrow; outside of the top few spots, the order is highly mutable, depending on mood.
1. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain). Almodóvar's tale of two men and the comatose women they love is, in tone and structure, immediately identifiable as something only the Spanish bad boy could have come up with. It is the most extraordinary manifestation yet of what makes him utterly singular: No one can blend melodrama and heightened emotion with laugh-out-loud wackiness the way he does. A contemporary gloss on Sleeping Beauty, it feels like an adult fairy tale, with an indefinable sense of the magic that both wondrously and hideously lurks beneath everyday reality.
2. Brotherhood of the Wolf (Christophe Gans, France). Laugh if you want, but, if French director and noted Hong Kong film fan Christophe Gans had set out to make a film designed purely to please me, he couldn't have done better. With Hong Kong action blended with witty dialogue and gorgeous cinematography, this is clearly the greatest horror/action/kung fu French period drama ever made.
3. Adaptation (Spike Jonze, USA). At first glance, it might seem that the reunion of Being John Malkovich's director and its screenwriter (Charlie Kaufman, with an assist from his "brother" Donald) is too clever for its own good. It's certainly the most self-reflexive movie ever made, and it flirts with the precious. But it's so brilliantly worked out and so much pure fun that it's hard to resist.
4. Lilo & Stitch (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, USA) The most entertaining animated feature to come out of Disney proper that is, not from Pixar-by-way-of-Disney in years.
5. Merci Pour le Chocolat (Claude Chabrol, France). This 2000 thriller from French master Claude Chabrol which showed up in the USA two years late is a masterpiece of nuance and characterization, marred only by one inexplicable, distracting blunder at the end. Isabelle Huppert gives one of the strongest performances of a generally remarkable career.
6. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA). Paul Thomas Anderson takes off on Adam Sandler's screen persona, showing us how unfunny in fact, how very scary and disturbing Sandler's typical geek characters would be if you remove them from the realm of broad comedy. Beneath its apparently happy ending, Punch-Drunk Love is truly unsettling a strange and amazing piece of work.
7. Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA). This story of different kinds of forbidden love isn't simply an homage to the Douglas Sirk melodramas of the '50s. It re-creates them, utterly without snickering irony, while anachronistic flourishes give the drama an extra charge.
8. Lagaan (Ashutosh Gowariker, India). The Oscar rules are so insane that I'm ignoring them for this one. It would qualify if it hadn't been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film last year; if it had merely been entered but not nominated, it would qualify for all the other awards this year. In effect, it's penalized for having gotten a nomination. (I couldn't make this stuff up.) Certainly the best four-hour musical about cricket you'll ever see.
9. One Hour Photo (Mark Romanek, USA). Robin Williams really is creepy as all get-out in this perfectly controlled thriller which is maybe too finicky in its attention to design. Still, it's a winner.
10. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, U.K.-France-Germany-Poland-Netherlands). A great director mutes his usual trademarks to deal with the Holocaust (which, of course, he experienced firsthand). This is a film more to admire than enjoy: It's grueling, appropriately enough, but not the kind of thing you want to watch over and over.
Bubbling under the top 10: Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, USA), The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, Canada), Wasabi (Gérard Krawczyk, France-Japan), Sex and Lucía (Julio Medem, Spain), Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, Japan-France), Happy Times (Zhang Yimou, China), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, Australia), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, USA-New Zealand), Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, U.K.), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, USA), and The Happiness of the Katakuris and City of Lost Souls (both Takashi Miike, Japan).
Other films that I'm glad I saw and may even revisit: What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-Liang, France-Taiwan), Y Tu Mamá También (Alfonso Cuarón, USA-Mexico), The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer, France), Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, USA), Lovely & Amazing (Nicole Holofcener, USA), I'm Going Home (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal-France), How I Killed My Father (Anne Fontaine, France-Spain), Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, USA), and Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Robert Rodriguez, USA).
Final cop-out: Every year there's a film about which I can't quite make up my mind. This year, it's the much-lauded About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, USA). Jack Nicholson is great in it, and Payne channeling Sinclair Lewis, the Coen brothers and Elaine May seems to be trying to find some dignity in pedestrian lives. Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that his contempt for all his characters, Schmidt included, outweighs his compassion.