1 Spider David Cronenberg’s uncompromising exercise in self-contained delusion is not for every taste, but Criswell predicts that this sensationally grim and exquisitely realized movie will look even better in 10 years. Spider is an ecstatic vision of lysergic shabbiness—a brilliant bummer and the latest in Cronenberg’s remarkable string of “impossible” literary adaptations.
2 Unknown Pleasures The 33-year-old Jia Zhangke is without doubt the greatest Chinese director whose films have never shown theatrically in China. More overtly pop, impressionistic, and improvisational than his epic Platform, Unknown Pleasures teems with visual and sociological interest. This DV-shot tale of disaffected youth is a coolly formalist reinvention of neorealism that—both distanced and immediate—gives documentary the shape of fiction and fiction the authority of doc.
3 Decasia Bill Morrison is not the first artist to take decomposing film stock as raw material, but he plunges into this dark nitrate of the soul with contagious abandon. Founded on the tension between the hard fact of film’s stained, eroded, unstable surface and the fragile nature of that which was once photographically represented, Decasia is an avant-garde movie with universal appeal, as well as an apocalyptic subtext unavoidably tied to the catastrophe of 9-11.
4 The Fog of War Errol Morris’s incisively crafted documentary portrait of Robert McNamara is almost ridiculously relevant and not just because it’s impossible to see McNamara’s steely smile and jaunty certitude without thinking “Donald Rumsfeld.” No matter your opinion of the former secretary of defense and architect of our Vietnam War, The Fog of War is a chastening experience. In the deepest sense, it’s about the inadequacy of human intelligence.
5 Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary Not campy but very, very funny: Guy Maddin nearly reinvents one of the oldest stories in the movies. His Dracula is irrationally analytical and doubly choreographed, a sexy, demented vampire of a film that refracts Bram Stoker’s musty novel through new-minted, Mahler-set ballet.
6 Angels in America Yeah, it was also great television—and terrific theater—but Mike Nichols shot his adaptation of Tony Kushner’s visionary social drama as though it were a movie, and it’s the best thing he’s done since breaking up with Elaine May. Let’s hear it for HBO, which also produced Elephant and American Splendor.
7 The Son An object lesson with the emphasis on “object,” the Dardenne brothers’ latest exercise in spiritually infused social realism is a masterfully rough-hewn piece of work with the unmediated feel of a single, sustained take. For all its quasi-documentary materialism, The Son is ultimately a Christian allegory of one man’s inchoate desire to return good for evil.
8 Ten Abbas Kiarostami’s most form-minded experiment since his hall-of-mirrors staged doc Close-Up is another small triumph for DV. Truly operating in the gap between fiction and documentary, Ten is a superb conceptual adventure, establishing the director as one of the few filmmakers since Andy Warhol to rethink the nature of on-screen acting. Like Dracula, it’s distributed by Zeitgeist and it opened at Film Forum.
9 Elephant A film of long traveling shots and complex sound bridges, Gus Van Sant’s disaster movie is audaciously poetic but not at all detached. Elephant is weakest on “unknowable” motivation, strongest on evoking a succession of specific “empty” moments, fascinating in its assimilation of Kubrick and Tarr.
10 Lost in Translation Unexpectedly touching, Sofia Coppola’s gently discombobulated comedy of dislocation is immeasurably elevated by Bill Murray. The movie was crassly overpraised, but the delicacy of its unexpressed feelings might be a tribute to the most subtle of Japanese directors, Mikio Naruse.
Second 10 (alphabetical): Bus 174 (José Padilha), Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki), Hukkle (György Pálfi), Japón (Carlos Reygadas), Marooned in Iraq (Bahman Ghobadi), A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest), Mystic River (Clint Eastwood), Nightfall (Fred Kelemen), Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher), The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet)
Note: Because my list is based on three or more public screenings rather than theatrical openings, I’ve excluded La Commune (Peter Watkins) and Platform (Jia Zhangke), both of which made my top 10s in previous years. These films do, however, head my Take Five list, which omits Angels in America.