1 , 2 Platform, Unknown Pleasures Far below the radar, in a dusty pocket of inland China that lends new meaning to “Middle Earth,” another trilogy was taking shape. Beginning with 1997’s Xiao Wu, Jia Zhangke has mapped the effects of post-Mao convulsions on powerless individuals and perfected an exalted precision realism that owes as much to Robert Bresson as Hou Hsiao-hsien. Platform (2000), an ’80s generational anthem by turns joyful and crushing, belatedly landed in a single theater last spring, followed by the new Unknown Pleasures, a pensive portrait of desultory teens adrift in the abandoned public spaces of a moribund coal-mining town. Only 33 himself, Jia gravitates toward the young and the dispossessed—underdogs caught in seismic upheavals, muddling through with an inchoate mix of nervous hope and fatalist dread, clinging to the talisman of a favorite pop song. Kudos to New Yorker Films for taking the year’s most important distribution gamble.
photo: Palm Pictures
3 demonlover Designed to seduce and repel, Olivier Assayas’s hypertextual anti-thriller is, above all, a furious engagement with the here and now. Accentless, jet-lagged ice queen Connie Nielsen (unscrupulous mirror-world twin to the protagonist of William Gibson’s Pattern Recog- nition) schemes her way through an irreversibly globalized landscape where multinational capital and new media serve as all-purpose lubricants, liquefying distinctions between public and private, virtual and real.
4 Millennium Mambo Hou Hsiao-hsien finally gets a New York release (December 31, Cinema Village), thanks to Palm Pictures, which also brought you demonlover. This techno-throbbing slow burn derives its narrative rhythms from its raver heroine’s serotonin levels—a cycle of Ecstasy highs and hangovers. The opening tracking shot, a neon nova of voice-over melancholy with Hou (out-)doing Wong Kar-wai, is endlessly rewatchable—the DVD will be essential.
5 In My Skin Grimly relentless and mordantly funny, Marina de Van’s tour de force of dermatological horror is the gutsiest debut in recent memory—and a typically bold acquisition for distributors Wellspring.
6 Elephant Where Douglas Coupland’s delicately empathic Hey, Nostradamus! spiraled outward into the painful aftermath of a fictionalized Columbine, Gus Van Sant’s ethereal meditation zeroes in on the hallucinatory tranquillity of the final countdown, literally circling around the foregone conclusion. The provocative “explanations” are, of course, red herrings—nullified, along with everything else, in the apocalyptic and decisively inexplicable closing moments.
7 School of Rock The year’s funniest, loveliest studio movie is an improbable triumph in the impossible genre of the classroom mutual learnfest. In the hands of Richard Linklater (who charitably nudges Jack Black to new heights of narcissistic muggery), the anti-authoritarian sentiments are not just a pose—they actually impel a considered exploration of the necessity and the limits of passion.
8 Cowards Bend the Knee Guy Maddin has been on a sensational tear since defibrillating The Heart of the World, and this mock-autobiographical peephole marvel, installed at last May’s Tribeca Film Festival (Zeitgeist has since acquired it in a no-knee-bend-required feature form), makes a great companion piece to the director’s recently published journals—a feverish, hilarious exercise in self-flagellating mythomania.
9 The Son Olivier Gourmet gives a tersely eloquent performance in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s economical drama—or rather, the back of his head does, opaquely inviting the audience to contemplate what this stoic, bereft carpenter could possibly be thinking (what with Elephant‘s Steadicam shadowings, this was quite a year for the nape-cam). Withholding and in the end boundlessly humane, it’s a film that appears more radical with each viewing.
10 The Slaughter Rule Anchored by David Morse’s monumental portrait of impacted masculinity, Alex and Andrew Smith’s feature debut is a high-plains, alt-country Beau Travail—a testosterone-bathed tone poem about the ritualistic bonds and oedipal frictions between sons and father figures.
11-20, in order: Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, An Injury to One (Travis Wilkerson), 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle), X2 (Bryan Singer), Bus 174, Japón, Stuck on You (Bobby and Peter Farrelly), Ten, Suddenly (Diego Lerman), Kill Bill Vol. 1