1 ESTHER KAHN Arnaud Desplechin’s bristling hybrid of nature documentary and philosophy thesis casts an East End wild child in the role of Nietzschean superwoman. Summer Phoenix plays aspiring actress Esther as a divining rod attached to a battering ram, and Desplechin brilliantly uses her full-body spiritual quest to illuminate the contradictions of performing—onstage, and in life. Most movies aren’t built to withstand a force as elemental as the wrath of Kahn, but then most movies never feel this alive.
2 PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE What if Minnie and Moskowitz had a baby? You could think of Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan as a kindred spirit to Esther Kahn—overwhelmed and isolated, sensorially deprived and prone to self-injury. Fluent in the nuances of everyday depression, P.T. Anderson is also the most generous of miracle workers, and his tortured romanticism here achieves concision and melodic sweep. Line of the year: “I don’t know if there’s anything wrong. . . . I don’t know how other people are?”
3 FAR FROM HEAVEN There were few moviegoing experiences more satisfying this year than trying to gain a foothold in Todd Haynes’s uncanny Sirk diorama—and realizing there was room for heartache. By the time the heroine’s resilient smile finally crumbles, her reality exposed as collective fantasy, this glorious meta-weepie has located a place beyond irony and theory.
4 TIME OUT Laurent Cantet fashions an existential thriller for the age of late capitalism: If you are what you do, and the absence of work entails the erasure of identity, how easy is it to make up a new one?
5 GANGS OF NEW YORK Itself somewhat battle-scarred, Martin Scorsese’s bloody valentine reaches for greatness, and gets there in the final half-hour.
6 THE SLEEPY TIME GAL & 7 I’M GOING HOME Two matter-of-factly death-haunted movies: Christopher Munch’s elegy, undaunted by the bulky proportions of biography or by the contrary particulars of an eccentric life, and Manoel de Oliveira’s memento mori, which sees the nonagenarian director in atypically rueful and serene mode.
8 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE Goosebump moment of the year: the big test drive, “She’s Lost Control” shimmering from the speakers in the sallow Manchester twilight.
9 ADAPTATION Charlie Kaufman may have installed himself as auteur, but Spike Jonze—guiding a varied cast to micro-calibrated perfection, enacting narrative sabotages with poker face intact, and picking up Jackass the Movie bonus points—wins Most Overlooked.
10 WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? An obsessive filmmaker restates his themes and expands his horizons—to Paris, and maybe the afterlife. Tsai Ming-liang’s cosmos grows richer and more ineffable with each movie.
A three-way tie at 11: Les Destinées (Olivier Assayas), Morvern Callar, and Russian Ark. Indie distributors of the year: Cowboy, Empire, Wellspring. Mark your calendars: finally, a theatrical run (at Cinema Village in spring 2003) for Jia Zhangke’s Platform, the greatest film of the last five years.