Not a bad year at all: The top four films are masterpieces that, rooted in documentary as they are, will only improve with age. Is this the first real movie year of the 21st century? Five of my top six (along with such unfortunately hard-to-see works as Ernie Gehr’s Cotton Candy and Pat O’Neill’s The Decay of Fiction, as well as the year’s best documentary, ABC Africa) could only have been made with digital technology. Cinema is dead, long live cinema.
1 PARIS COMMUNE, 1871 I have my own, only intermittently broken, 10-best rules: Any movie, no more than five years old, with three public screenings in New York is eligible. Thus, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art and the BAMcinématek, I can cite Peter Watkins’s visually spare, conceptually rich analysis of revolutionary euphoria. Watkins made his film, in Paris, as the sort of collective political psychodrama that supposedly lost all credibility after 1972. Of course, watching this five-hour-and-45-minute re-creation of a doomed political utopia is itself a communal experience. In the best of all possible worlds, Gangs of New York would have been the same sort of low-budget, liberating, wonderfully foolish historical spectacular.
2 THE FAST RUNNER (ATANARJUAT) A very different sort of national epic, Canadian video-maker Zacharias Kunuk’s three-hour, Inuit-language account of an 11th-century blood feud is an astonishing technical accomplishment, a narrative at once elemental and cosmic. Totally absorbing from first image to last, The Fast Runner delivers the standard conflicts of Greek tragedy and daytime TV, albeit with the sensational disorientation of spending a few days under the midnight sun.
3 RUSSIAN ARK Alexander Sokurov also rewrites film history with this fantastic dance to the music of time—the longest continuous take in the annals of motion pictures. This trip through the Russian haunted house of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum somehow manages to pirouette around the awesome cruelties of the past several centuries.
4 *CORPUS CALLOSUM Part old-fashioned Renaissance man, part hardcore avant-gardist, Canadian painter-photographer-filmmaker-musician Michael Snow gives full vent to his genius with an exhilarating perceptual vaudeville.
5 FAR FROM HEAVEN A bona fide critics’ darling, Todd Haynes’s faux-’50s melodrama is the year’s pre-eminent movie-movie—or is it “movie-movie”?
6 THE LADY AND THE DUKE So seemingly reactionary—yet so aesthetically progressive. A decade older than Michael Snow, Eric Rohmer takes to digital technology with equivalent gusto, keying his actors into virtual 18th-century visuals to re-create the French Revolution as an irresistible magic-lantern show (a corollary in more ways than one to Russian Ark).
7 SOLARIS Hollywood’s bravest folly: Reconfiguring Stanislaw Lem’s philosophical novel and Andrei Tarkovsky’s romantic adaptation to his own, more quixotic purposes, Steven Soderbergh (who also served as his own DP) achieves an almost perfect balance of poetry and pulp—the year’s most elegant, moody, intelligent, sensuous, and sustained studio movie.
8 WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? The poet laureate of Taipei alienation integrates Paris into his particular planet: Like Solaris (and Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love), Tsai Ming-liang’s latest and most expansive feature suggests an updated Orpheus myth—not to mention an exercise in existential slapstick, epistemological comedy, and Buddhist farce.
9 ADAPTATION Hugely clever, unflagging in its invention, continually funny, and at times even touching, the second Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman collaboration shows that Being John Malkovich was no fluke. Kaufman’s convoluted conceits are again grounded in Jonze’s cannily understated mise-en-scène and skillful direction of actors.
10 LATE MARRIAGE Dover Koshashvili’s remarkably assured, funny, and sexually charged first feature is an unsentimental domestic tragicomedy that—without ever losing sight of its vivid characters and the traditions of Israel’s Georgian community—evokes some pretty weighty issues, including fundamentalism, patriarchy, the dead hand of the past, and the enduring appeal of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
SECOND 10 (ALPHABETICAL): ABC Africa (Abbas Kiarostami); About Schmidt; The Believer (Henry Bean); El Crimen del Padre Amaro (Carlos Carrera); Esther Kahn; Gangs of New York; In Praise of Love; The Pianist; Punch-Drunk Love; Storytelling
Note: For purposes of the Voice poll, which includes only movies that have had a commercial release, I dropped Paris Commune and, at the bottom of my list, added Esther Kahn, another period, performance-driven film maudit.