Neil LaBute's best film so far could be chalked up to the ingeniously wry script by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, but massive credit also goes to Renée Zellweger's pitch-perfect performance as the delirious wannabe R.N. Meanwhile, Thomas Hayden Church and Rob Lowe will drop your jaw as the most preposterous dialogue of the year comes out of their silly superhero mouths in Craig Mazin's debut feature.
2. Ethical Entreaties:
The Contender and Family Tree
It's easy to send a crack division of studly, violent idiots off to an exotic land to kill random, faceless enemies, but heroism on the home front is tricky business, and both Rod Lurie's muckraking and Duane Clark's leaf raking succeed with a direct approach. Grace fills the performances of Joan Allen establishing a fair standard and Cliff Robertson defending a small town's heritage, and two vital battles are gently but firmly won.
3. Freedom Fighters:
Chicken Run and Chocolat
Perhaps it's strange to equate butchery and religious oppression -- or perhaps it's not -- but these two films beautifully sum up the grandness of liberating the human spirit . . . which is amusing, since one of them features Nick Park and Peter Lord's goofy little chunks of clay. The other, of course, features Juliette Binoche seducing an entire village with sweets.
4. Fulgent Fellahs:
High Fidelity and Orfeu
Stephen Frears invades Chicago, while Carlos Diegues reaches back into Greek myth to redefine a Brazilian classic, but beneath the intensity of their respective soundtracks, both movies masterfully display the agony and ecstasy of a young man's romance. One imagines that, if John Cusack met Tony Garrido, they'd have plenty to talk about.
5. Groovy Gals:
Me Myself I and Trixie
The stars of the lush, heavy Hilary and Jackie return this year in separate projects, both whimsical and engaging for the discerning romanticist. In the former, Rachel Griffiths makes director Pip Karmel's fantastic and humdrum universe seem all of a piece, while Emily Watson's unparalleled malapropisms transformed Alan Rudolph's caper flick into a light adventure for weirdos.
6. Hip Horrors:
It's the Rage and Shadow of the Vampire
Some may shop at Wal-Mart, but America's gun lust may dwindle significantly if enough people catch James D. Stern's superb ensemble cast (including, once again, Joan Allen, as well as Anna Paquin, Andre Braugher, and others) illustrating -- with great verve -- exactly why we have a big problem here. Interpreting horror more literally, E. Elias Merhige takes us back to the making of Nosferatu, wherein director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) employs a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to rid his production of "artifice." Due in Cleveland in late January.
7. Longing Lovers:
Waking the Dead and Wonderland
[romantic runners-up: The Closer You Get, Beautiful People, East Is East]
It was a great year for love stories, especially unlikely ones like Keith Gordon's solemn, intense portrait of loss and Michael Winterbottom's blithe romp with lovelorn Londoners. Since this category was unusually rich, do yourself the favor of checking out the lovely honorable mentions.
8. Mortal Missions:
Himalaya and Pitch Black
Director Eric Valli's powerful mythic journey through the mountains of Nepal bowed last year as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. This year, it's received scanty viewings in this country, but it is well worth seeking out. Vin Diesel battling a bunch of yucky aliens may seem more like guilty pleasure, but a surprising morality play twists this quest into a level high above B.
9. Lascivious Liaisons:
8 1/2 Women and Don't Let Me Die on a Sunday
Goodness, Mr. Greenaway, does your blood ever cool? Apparently not, as the director of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover transposes kinky Euro-Japanese trysts over a father-son struggle for balance. Also titillating on the legitimate screen was Didier Le Pêcheur's sharp-witted entry, which, as it grapples with sex and death, somehow manages to stir some tact into a sea of tack.
10. Yearning Youths:
Almost Famous and Billy Elliot
"Rock stars have kidnapped my son!" declares Frances McDormand in Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical story of his curiously spent youth as a teenage music critic, and the journey offers more human insight from tour buses and hotel suites than seems possible. Pretty much the year's brightest star, however, was Jamie Bell, transforming his little cosmic dancer into a global beacon. Enormous kudos to Stephen Daldry for his fine film.