1 Medea Sixteen years old, made for Danish TV, and a precious 76 minutes long, this molten kernel of classic outrage has been loitering around cable for years, but a U.S. theatrical premiere is a U.S. theatrical premiere. Lars von Trier’s best movie, and shot-per-shot a shock-treatment lesson in the unexhausted vitality of cinematic imagery.
2 La Commune (Paris, 1871) The year’s longest movie (nearly six hours) and an absolutely riveting piece of political intercourse. A nearly forgotten socialist rebellion is re-enacted—brick by brickbat—historicized, rehistoricized, celebrated, and mourned, by way of radical genius Peter Watkins, the year’s best ensemble cast (whatever their names), and also the most audacious piece of movie writing since, well, maybe ever.
3 Elephant Sure, the kids are all suspiciously gorgeous, and the bulimia joke was old hat in Heathers, but this is the best and most impassioned homegrown film of the year—restlessly, silently, fruitlessly hunting in the vast hallways of High School U.S.A. for an explanation of Columbine.
4 Platform Three years of fest hype later, not much more can be said about Jia Zhangke’s objectively visualized portrait of Chinese outland life during a late decade of fading Cultural Revolutionism. As in La Commune and Elephant, the real-time experience here takes on terrifying dimensions.
5 Capturing the Friedmans HBO-ness and 777-FILM backlash notwithstanding, Andrew Jarecki’s hypnotic doc time-capsules the ’80s pedophile witch hunt but good, and may be the most chilling use of home movies in the history of the medium.
6 Ten Talk about real time: Abbas Kiaro-stami sets the camera rolling on the dashboard, shoves the social dynamics into motion, and then watches his movie drive out of sight. Pure and ambiguous in the master’s undefinably characteristic way.
7 Gerry A movie about nothing—besides time, hopelessness, friendship, identity, and movie narrative. The year’s biggest puzzler: Will Gus Van Sant relapse into studio tosh once again or is he blossoming into the hardcore American art-film messiah we’ve needed for so long?
8 In My Skin It’s been a year chin-deep in alarming metaphors, and Marina de Van’s is the hairiest—self-laceration as a voyage of self-discovery. An alternately ghastly and hilarious anarchic grenade, shot and cut with laser-like precision.
9 The Triplets of Belleville Possibly the most original and superbly conceived animated feature since Jan Lenica told Walerian Borowczyk to kiss his ass. As a deep source of irrational pleasure, Sylvain Chomet’s film was 2003’s world-beater.
10 Japón I don’t know what to tell you. Carlos Reygadas’s enigmatic, brooding whatsit from somewhere between Buñuel’s Mexican years and Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia cannot be ignored. I never want to see it again, but many more of us should’ve seen it just once.
Runners-up, in order: A Mighty Wind, Lost in Translation, The Son, In This World (Michael Winterbottom), Mystic River, Spider, Seaside (Julie Lopes-Curval), Pistol Opera (Seijun Suzuki), Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino), Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz), School of Rock (Richard Linklater), The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki), Peter Pan (P.J. Hogan), To Be and to Have (Nicolas Philibert)
Best Freestanding Tour de Force: the cat’s old-dark-house gauntlet of verminous menace, scored to Michael Jackson’s “Ben,” in Willard; Jack Black’s music lesson orchestration of “It’s a Long Way to the Top” as School of Rock‘s fab coda; Christian Bale and Natascha McElhone’s red-hot parked car tête-à-tête in Laurel Canyon; Stuck on You‘s finale of melancholy separateness.