I won’t attempt to defend the complete absence of American films in my Top 10 (though horrified cinepatriots should note that domestic product is amply represented in the shortlist of near misses). Instead, gratitude is due to the chief architects of the shutout: the valiant daredevils of indie and foreign film distribution, Winstar, which alone accounted for half of my six favorite movies of the year (an additional two belonged to New Yorker Films).
THE 10 BEST FILMS THAT RECEIVED A LOCAL RUN
1. ‘Beau Travail’
Viewing the monastic severity of military life through a prism of lyric abstraction, her gaze at once tender and erotic, Claire Denis transmutes arcane ritual into sheer rapture.
2. ‘The House of Mirth’
Terence Davies blows out the cobwebs from the lit-flick Ivory tower. Gillian Anderson inhabits Wharton’s doomed heroine so precisely and decisively that The X-Files, for this noncultist at least, has acquired a retrospective aura of timeless tragedy.
Ostentatiously slow and overweeningly symbolic, but the very real power of Bruno Dumont’s outrageous parable lies in its brutal, majestic intransigence.
4. ‘Pola X’
Leos Carax plunges headfirst into the abyss, and this torrential, epileptic movie is a thrilling invitation to jump right in with him. Score of the year too, by kindred psychoromantic Scott Walker.
5. ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’
With a tour de force of mysterious ellipses and lulling repetitions, Abbas Kiarostami effects his sparest, purest synthesis yet of formal rigor, metaphysical poetics, and bone-dry humor.
6. ‘Yi Yi’
A one and a two, and two in one: Edward Yang trumps the recent onslaughts of midlife-meltdown and urban-malaise movies. Will someone now finally release his 1991 masterwork, A Brighter Summer Day?
Two s&m lovers retreat into a hermetic existence of round-the-clock fucking. From Korean iconoclast Jang Sun Woo, the welts-and-all comedy of the year.
Lynne Ramsay attaches equal weight to the agonizing vulnerability and the escapist flights of an impoverished childhood in the year’s most assured first feature.
9. ‘Criminal Lovers’/’Water Drops on Burning Rocks’
As American gay cinema wallowed in narcissistic irrelevance, François Ozon provided two impressively distinct antidotes—a psychosexual fairy tale caked in residual childhood traumas and a Fassbinder chamber piece transposed to a hall of mirrors.
Shirin Neshat’s ravishing two-screen video installations achieved a primal intensity and cinematic grandeur beyond the reach of most movies this year. Fervor was in the Whitney Biennial, Rapture in P.S. 1’s “Greater New York” show.
A DOZEN RUNNERS-UP
Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom, U.K.); The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, U.S.); Suzhou River (Lou Ye, China); Spectres of the Spectrum (Craig Baldwin, U.S.); Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, U.S.); Praise (John Curran, Australia); Traffic; Taboo; Orphans (Peter Mullan, U.K.); Crane World (Pablo Trapero, Argentina); Time Regained; Meet the Parents (Jay Roach, U.S.)
Special mention for two extraordinary shorts—Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World and Jean-Luc Godard’s Origin of the 21st Century—and for one indispensable DVD box set, Treasures From the American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films (from the 1916 Snow White to Rose Hobart to a clip of Welles’s Voodoo Macbeth production).
Finally, a dozen (or so) movie moments, not restricted to theatrical releases: (1) Denis Lavant, in a fit of spastic ecstasy, succumbs to the “Rhythm of the Night” in Beau Travail. (2) The impromptu song-and-dance in Water Drops on Burning Rocks. (3) Never mind rugs; Terence Davies glides across the Atlantic Ocean in The House of Mirth. (4) In Pola X, the deflated soccer ball (Wilson’s evil twin?) rolls into the Seine. Tragicomic image of the year. (5) Jim O’Rourke’s title song, barely audible at first, surges and swells in Eureka. (6) Definitive Polonius Bill Murray bites the dust in Hamlet, in a manner curiously reminiscent of . . . Parker Posey’s demise in Scream 3. (7) Björk is silenced in Dancer in the Dark. Not the second to last song after all. (8) The whistling kettle in Platform. Not the ending after all. (9) Night falls on the village in The Wind Will Carry Us—followed by an epiphanous dissolve to daybreak. (10) On the top deck of a London night bus, Wonderland‘s Gina McKee looks out the fogged-up window, ignores the drunk revelers, chokes back tears. (11) Steven Soderbergh’s witty economy with vehicular chaos: Erin Brockovich‘s seemingly one-take smashup; the bungled ER drop-off in Traffic. (12) Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love in its entirety, every look and gesture choreographed for maximum impact. Opens February 2. Don’t forget to breathe.