Bill Gallo -- Even dedicated art-house regulars missed Pavel Lounguine's Tycoon: A New Russian when it was released this fall, but this intrigue-spiced tale of a ruthless yet surprisingly sympathetic Russian oligarch worked equally well as a crime thriller and a course in Russian fiscal policy (or the lack of it) in the chaotic years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Matinee idol Vladimir Mashkov stars as Platon Makovski, who builds a multibillion-dollar personal empire on the ruins of Marxist-Leninism, seizes huge chunks of power, and in the end, brings himself low. The character is based largely on the exiled car manufacturer and master power-broker Boris Berezovsky, and he is peppered with lovely ironies. The film comes to the Cinematheque January 17 and 18.
Meanwhile, an oblique French thriller titled Swimming Pool, directed by François Ozon (Under the Sand), slipped past most moviegoers in midsummer. Charlotte Rampling stars as a jittery mystery writer who installs herself in her publisher's vacation house in the south of France, hoping to stir the creative juices. Instead, she gets caught up in a mystery so dense (it involves the publisher's alluring daughter, played by Ludivine Sagnier) that the audience must try to untangle it for themselves long after the credits have rolled. As with, say, Mulholland Drive, the possibilities are endless, and happily so.
Melissa Levine -- What a year for documentaries! We were blessed with a host of gripping, moving, and potentially life-altering films documenting critical social (and natural) events. Directors Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk brought us Lost Boys of Sudan, a heartbreaking look at exactly what America can and can't do for young, resourceless refugees from a victimized culture. Peter Nyarol Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, members of the Dinka tribe, fled Sudan as boys to avoid destruction; more than 10 years later, they arrived in the United States with the hope of creating a better life. With a keen eye for critical detail and a gracious sense of humor, the film follows the young men as they attempt not merely to negotiate a foreign culture, but also to succeed in it.
Equally affecting is Girlhood, directed by Academy Award-nominee Liz Garbus. Simultaneously unflinching and warm, it examines the lives of two girls serving open-ended sentences at a juvenile correctional facility. Confident, intimate, and compassionate, Garbus gets right up next to the girls' hearts to show us what they love, what they fear, and how precisely and terribly they hurt. Finally, a vote for Winged Migration: You've never seen birds like this.
Jean Oppenheimer -- A brutal portrait of life in the most notorious ghetto in Rio de Janeiro, City of God marries elements of Italian neo-realism with today's most sophisticated post-production techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power. Based on the best-selling novel, it covers three decades in the life of the favela, a former housing project turned drug- and crime-ridden slum. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund decided early on to cast the picture with actual ghetto kids; the performances are extraordinary, heartrending, and so real they are frightening.
Divine Intervention looks at one of this planet's seemingly intractable geopolitical problems, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Using absurdist humor and visual inventiveness, writer-director Elia Suleiman not only decries the indignities suffered by Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, but also shows how people on both sides of the political divide lose their sense of civility and even humanity when living in such circumstances. Some members of the audience may be uncomfortable with the film's more explicitly political second half, but hopefully, most viewers will be able to appreciate the emotional discipline Suleiman exercises. Other films worthy of mention include Marooned in Iraq, Sweet Sixteen, Russian Ark, and Together.
Luke Y. Thompson -- Gregor Jordan's Buffalo Soldiers had been delayed since 2001, because Miramax feared that a black-hearted comedy about self-destruction on a U.S. military base would be too controversial in the post-9-11 world. They dumped it into theaters this year with minimum fanfare -- a conservative backlash would probably have served the film in better stead. Eric Weiss and Nora Maccoby crafted a screenplay that's tighter and funnier than Robert O'Connor's original novel, and Joaquin Phoenix gives a career-best performance as the anti-Sgt. Bilko. Ed Harris's bumbling colonel beats his touted Human Stain role and might just make you forget he was in Radio.
For those who like their darkness without humor, on the other hand, there was Irreversible, a nasty little musing on fate, evolution, and time. Love it or hate it, few who saw it were indifferent. Composed of single-take scenes edited in reverse chronological order, the film should be of particular interest to those of you skilled at repressing emotions -- when the ostensible "voice of reason" finally loses it here, the results are brutal, and because you haven't yet seen the motivation, they aren't cathartic in the least. I also recommend Northfork, May, Pieces of April, The Backyard, and OT: Our Town.
Gregory Weinkauf -- There's a big difference between pop malarkey and cinema, and connoisseurs of the latter may celebrate Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (Bom Yeoreum Gaeul Gyeoul Geurigo Bom). This magnificent meditation on masculine development -- and its tragic arrest -- arrives as Korea's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film of 2003, but there's nothing "foreign" about it, and it doesn't require Oscar's validation. Set in and around a tiny floating monastery, writer-director-editor Kim Ki-duk's masterpiece showcases insular teachings spanning the cycles of life, for better and worse. It's an ideal boy-movie complement to Whale Rider, with which it shares my top honors.
Also marvelous is Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things, which introduces the world to 2003's top lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who strives to save fellow illegal alien Audrey Tautou from London's mean streets. In addition, I heartily recommend the refreshingly melancholic romances I Capture the Castle, Laurel Canyon, My Life Without Me (coming to the Cinematheque February 7 and 8), and Till Human Voices Wake Us; the stunning documentaries Señorita Extraviada, Step Into Liquid, and Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time; and works of genius as disparate as Monster (slated for the Cedar Lee January 16) and The Return of the King, which continue to widen the horizons of the art form.
Robert Wilonsky -- Six of my year's top films made the top 12, so no complaints here -- save for the inclusion of The Matrix Reloaded, about which we will agree to (vehemently) disagree. The selected dozen remind us, perhaps, that it's still more important to see films that project our own reflections than to escape into franchises. What's most striking about the films selected is how they're often about little people living little lives, which makes their situations no less extraordinary.
I would add, among a small handful, Finding Nemo and Bad Santa to the list -- the former, because its story of a missing child (or Pixar-generated fish, whatever) resonates without ever sacrificing its dry laughs for saltwater sobs; the latter, because there hasn't been so bleak and brilliant a comedy released for as long as I can recall. They're both father-son stories: Marlin wants his Nemo back and will risk life and fin to make it so, while Billy Bob Thornton's Willie Stokes lugs around the baggage his abusive, alcoholic dad foisted upon him. He's not bad; Daddy just made him that way, which makes his scenes with Brett Kelly, the round mound of reject, all the more poignant -- at least when Willie's not demanding of him, "Kid, are you fucking with me?!"