The ritual of year-end listing falls somewhere between purging and plugging, forgetting and remembering, a frustrating exercise in reduction and an entertaining way to recall what you like about your job (and fret about not including films yet unseen, like Rosetta and The War Zone). And so, in alphabetical order:
Being John Malkovich inside John Malkovich in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich. Whatever else happens in this film, John Malkovich confronting his own de-implosion into infinitely receding Malkovichness is as dazzling and peculiar a filmic moment as I've ever seen. Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.
The Best Man's 22 October opening weekend coup. The internet and phone networking that turned Malcolm Lee's little movie into a box office surprise, trouncing Michael Mann's worthy The Insider. It's unclear whether or not the goal to send a message to industry folks who decide what "people'' want to see was reached.
Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry. A brave, intelligent film about Brandon Teena's bold, hopeful, doomed choices and the phobias and self-delusions that killed him, with heartbreaking performances by Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny (also splendid in Julien Donkey-Boy).
Samuel L. Jackson's unexpected exit from Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea. It's difficult to surprise filmgoers these days, particularly those familiar with generic codes. But this single moment elicited a roar from moviegoers that eclipsed the next five minutes of action and it was loud action. True, overall the film mostly made the case again that Renny Harlin wants to be Jim Cameron in the biggest, most pained way, but Jackson's performance-and-disappearance, along with LL Cool J's supersmooth preacher turn, made the thing worth watching.
Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow, The Astronaut's Wife, and on Letterman. Cool-in-his-dreams Dave told Depp he was "the coolest guest" ever to appear on his show, and no matter what crazy shit he runs, the guy remains cool beyond explanation. In both his movies this year, he plays bizarre with a beautifully straight face: as Ichabod Crane by way of Tim Burton's lunacy, Depp in period costume seems almost uncanny, by turns frazzled, courageous, silly, and hilarious. His performances are always gentle, accurate, and improbably moving.
Andrew Fleming's Dick. Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams play high schoolers who bust the Watergaters, by accident. Co-writers Fleming and Sheryl Longin make hilarious sense of girl-power before the Spice Girls and Britney.
Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels. After causing a splash at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, this French film made limited release in the States (recently available on video). It's an intriguing story of desire. Alienated, unemployed, and young, accidental roommates Isa and Marie (Elodie Bouchez and Natacha Rengier, both superb) seek solace and adventure in their various relationships, including Isa's with a comatose girl via her diary and Marie's with a young man. The surprisingly non-intrusive handheld camerawork and exacting sound mix make the film seem at once too-real and dreamy, as the girls work through their mutual and divisive passions.
Alexander Payne's Election. An astonishing, funny, consummate dissection of high school, as it smashes spirits and levels goals. Matthew Broderick's generous performance as hapless teacher Jim (history, civics, and current events) sets up Reese Witherspoon's Tracy Flick, the perfect product and consumer of U.S. idealism via deception.
Angelina Jolie. Even aside from the fact that I'd marry her in a minute, who can help but admire her role choices? In each of this year's appearances in Playing By Heart, Pushing Tin, The Bone Collector, Hell's Kitchen, and Girl, Interrupted she plays wild, intimidating girls, all raging against their limitations, both self- and externally imposed. Granted, she may not want to spend her entire career playing junkies (as in HBO's Gia), unhappy club kids, alcoholics, sociopaths, or forensics-specialist cops with dead-dad hang-ups, but for now, she's creating an impressive body of work.
LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea, In Too Deep, and Any Given Sunday. Hard on the heels of other charismatic hiphoppers coming to the big screen Ice T, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, and okay, Will Smith comes the incredibly engaging Mr. James Todd Smith, who makes every scene he's in seem like it's all about him.
Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia. The many stories fall apart more than they come together, and Tom Cruise will occupy most of the film's promotional space, but still, it's hard to turn away from the film's patent excesses (overkill references to Exodus, wretched parent-child relationships, frogs) and headlong plunges into emotional voids, where you feel immersed in roughness, regret, and melancholy. The performers including Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters, Jeremy Blackman, William Macy, Philip Baker Hall, and Melinda Dillon are relentlessly heroic. The film's innovative formal and metaphorical interactions with Aimee Mann's soundtrack are enough to make the three hours worth your while.
Andy and Larry Wachowski's The Matrix. Fast, faddish, and full of love for itself, this film does, at the least, show why the Star Wars franchise is past its heyday.
Udayan Prasad's My Son the Fanatic. Working with Hanif Kureishi's quietly provocative screenplay, this first time director lets the players handle the drama, when a fundamentalist son (Akbar Kurtha) rejects his cab-driver father's (Akbar Kurtha) worldly desires, just as the latter comes to realize he wants to leave his family for a white prostitute (Rachel Griffiths). Even when the confrontations turn occasionally contrived, the film's excellent performances and overt concerns with generational-national-gendered-raced-classed identities are hardly commonplace in movies.
Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run. An action picture with a phenomenally vulnerable and dynamic hero (played by the electric Franka Potente, who, with Tykwer, also worked on the film's crucial soundtrack music), Lola seriously reconceives the relationship between movies and music: it's a rave with a narrative throughline (three of them, actually, each a different solution to Lola's dilemma).
Spike Lee's Summer of Sam. Admittedly, it's flawed and weird, but the film takes inspired chances that wouldn't even occur to other filmmakers to take (including my favorite movie moment of all this year, when the dog instructs David Berkowitz to "Kill kill kill." Lee's version of the summer of 1977 is paradoxically idiosyncratic and grand at the same time, crashing together the rise of NY punk rock, Reggie Jackson, gay and straight identity crises, and U.S. culture's total sex-anxiety, all somehow exposed and exacerbated by the Son of Sam killings.
David O. Russell's Three Kings. Obnoxious and ingenius, thrilling and ridiculous, this is one of the few movies in recent memory that knows exactly what it's doing, even when it gives in to happy-ending-itis. Its excavations of U.S. racism and commercial imperialism are not news, but they've rarely been rendered in cinematic situations so entertaining or incisive.