- American Beauty
1. South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut A comedy about censorship, war, dysfunctional relationships, and misunderstood children ruled the day, despite having the most deceptively primitive animation since Rocky and Bullwinkle (who, by the way, get their own movie next year). Director Trey Parker's obvious love of musicals made the film both a great musical in its own right and a dead-on parody of musical clichés. Even after repeat viewings, when the laughs are no longer original or the profanity shocking, the story emerges as a surprisingly poignant tale of neglected children living in a knee-jerk society. Try naming one other movie that uses satire so effectively to take on the United States's arrogant attitude toward the U.N., racism in the military, Japanese internment camps, gay rights, war propaganda, the gender and generation gaps, and our hypocritical national preference for violence over sex -- all with insanely catchy tunes that may get you into trouble if you're caught singing them.
2. Fight Club Many folks missed the point of this film; many others got it and were repelled. Identity crisis ruled the day yet again in David Fincher's darkly comic masterpiece, which amalgamated many of his previous themes from other films into one massive cinematic download and also brought self-reflexivity to new heights. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but anyone who has ever experimented with masochism as an alternative to crushing numbness or felt impotent to change the circumstances of a life that's been planned out from birth can understand, if not absolutely relate to, the frustrations of Ed Norton's nameless narrator. And in much the same way that Ice Cube's Death Certificate CD was said to have predicted the L.A. riots, it isn't much of a stretch to say that Fight Club foreshadowed the anti-corporate WTO protests in Seattle.
3. The Matrix That this movie isn't number one on my list just shows what a great year this has been. It's nice to finally see a science-fiction movie that breaks new ground; even more so when it adapts comic book and anime concepts to live-action in a manner that few movies this side of the prime meridian have been successfully able to do. Many claimed the story was too convoluted, but how nice to be able to make that complaint after years of other movies that invoke comments like "It's too dumb and rips off Alien/Blade Runner/The Road Warrior/(insert iconic sci-fi movie title here)."
4. Cabaret Balkan An Eastern European Pulp Fiction, minus the '70s stylings and constant pop-cultural references that bogged down the original.
5. Being John Malkovich Speaking of experimenting with content . . . video director Spike Jonze deserves a lot of credit for picking this as his first feature, when he could have had virtually any project he wanted. John Malkovich deserves equal credit for going along with it and turning in one of his greatest performances simply by being himself. In a year where the overwhelming theme was crisis of identity, Jonze gave the concept an absurd literalization and followed it through with deft execution. The chimpanzee's flashback sequence alone was worth the admission price.
6. Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) I can't think of any movie this year that experimented as much with form and content. Lola perfectly captured the rush of playing a really good video game, complete with multiple endings, a pulse-pounding score, and a surrealistic blending of visual media. Oliver Stone has tried this sort of thing, but hasn't pulled it off quite so well. (He was obviously impressed: Some of Lola's score ended up on the soundtrack for his year-end release, Any Given Sunday.)
7. Three Kings Okay, admittedly the idea of making an international call on a cell phone when you're trapped in a bunker beneath the desert is pushing it, but otherwise, David O. Russell's Gulf War Western is both a thrilling ride and a powerful protest film. And let's face it, whoever would have thought, back in 1991, that pants-dropping white rapper Marky Mark Wahlberg would be capable of giving one of the year's best performances? The scene where he emerges from the Iraqi bunker, still in shock after being tortured, says it all.
8. Earth An Indian answer to Gone with the Wind, Earth tells a powerful human story of love, class, and religion, set against the epic backdrop of India's civil war and the formation of Pakistan. Director Deepa Mehta had already proven that she could handle intimate drama with the lesbian-themed Fire, and now proves herself equally adept at making a "big" movie.
9. On the Ropes It's rare that a documentary comes along that can rival a dramatic treatment of the same subject, but this outstanding movie about inner-city boxers struggling to transcend their environment had me on the edge of my seat. Since the odds are stacked against our heroes, and this is real life rather than Rocky, you honestly don't know how things will work out until they do. The Academy has never shown a great deal of logic in its choices for Best Documentary, but in a fair world, this film would take not only that category but possibly even score a Best Picture nomination as well.
10. Stir of Echoes Otherwise known as "the other movie about a kid who sees dead people." A release date -- about the time The Sixth Sense was becoming a national phenomenon -- effectively killed David Koepp's spookier ghost story, which is too bad: Kevin Bacon turns in a great performance as a man obsessed by delusions, Koepp's cinematic visualization of a hypnotic trance is stunning, and residential Chicago is effectively portrayed as a near-hell on earth. Genuine shivers are hard to find in mainstream fare nowadays, but Echoes, adapted from a novel by Richard Matheson, delivered.
Since this year has been a remarkably good one for movies, here are my honorable mentions, films that might have made my list in a lesser year. I have tremendously enjoyed, in no particular order: Perfect Blue (an anime far superior to and more innovative than Princess Mononoke), The Iron Giant, Sleepy Hollow, Election, The Insider, The Sixth Sense, Trick, Dog Park, Bringing Out the Dead, The City (La Ciudad), Beyond the Mat, Galaxy Quest, Eyes Wide Shut, Toy Story 2, and Terror Firmer.