Honorable Mention: Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace, directed by George Lucas and his kids. Gimme a light saber to open up that damned Jar-Jar. Gimme a chance to applaud any movie that earnestly provides this many vivid, fantastic images. Gimme a dubbing stage and an Avid, and I'll wrangle this thing into the masterpiece it should have been. *Hiccup*
X. (Two-way tie!) Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze; Dogma, directed by Kevin Smith. Whether it's Jason Mewes cheerfully admitting that a kiss from God gave him "half a stock," Cameron Diaz enjoying Catherine Keener from inside Malkovich's body, Alan Rickman looking more glazed donut than angel, or just Orson Bean talking dirty, the glib irreverence of these messy, uneven movies is a tornado of fresh air. Damon & Affleck Inc. bore the hell out of me no matter what they do, but perhaps they can take lessons from John Cusack on how to be interesting.
IX. The 13th Warrior, directed by a committee including John McTiernan. Shaggy forests, shaggy manes, and Antonio Banderas playing an Arab. This thrilling, Nordic myth-ish movie was dismissed for all the wrong reasons by a bunch of dunderheads.
VIII. Apple Venus, Vol. I., directed by XTC. All right, so, technically, this album is not a movie. But it plays like a film festival! Slide this pop masterstroke by remaining members Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding into your player, close your eyes (unless you're driving), and try telling me that lush songs like "Frivolous Tonight," "Green Man," and the brilliant "River of Orchids" aren't swollen with more visual and emotional gratification than you'd get from a week at the multiplex. Perhaps I'm commenting on the wrong medium, but perhaps it's a bit snobbish to think so. *Belch*
VII. (Two-way tie!) Ride With the Devil, directed by Ang Lee; The Cider House Rules, directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Jeffrey Wright, Delroy Lindo, and Erykah Badu deliver genius in these two tales of race, family, and American identity. Lee (Sense and Sensibility) somehow manages to discover humanity among Civil War Southerners, and Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog) brings to the screen the questing heart of John Irving's mighty, Dickensian novel. Two beautiful movies! See them twice! Gush gush!
VI. Stop Making Sense (remastered edition), directed by Jonathan Demme. The keenest big concert movie yet made. Via Talking Heads, it's also a poignant reminder of how sublime American pop music could be before the scene was invaded by ugly, braying pukes. The jamming of camera, sets, and musicians provides much more sweet sweat and symbiosis than Demme's own Beloved to boot. (Swaggering attempt to groove.) More, please.
V. Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Crafty comics scribe Neil Gaiman extends another industry tentacle with his English transcription of this animated Japanese mega-hit. It beats subtitles, which would force our eyes from Miyazaki's sumptuous frames. A forest full of beastly deities, a mining colony as an outpost for outcasts, a boar god, and girl who really runs with the wolves add up to a gorgeous, imaginative adventure. If you're in the right mood, the resounding theme of industrialization vs. nature and the ambitious complexity of this tale may transport you.
IV-I. (Four-way tie!) Anna and the King, directed by Andy Tennant; Breakfast of Champions, directed by Alan Rudolph; Topsy Turvy, directed by Mike Leigh; King of Masks (Bian Lian), directed by Tian-Ming Wu. Wonders abound in this fabulous foursome, and not one rises above or sinks below the others. A used-car salesman cavorts in lingerie, a boy synthesizes cultures to revivify a nation, a girl receives an elder's art, a couple of dandy Victorians sweeten the stage with their unlikely genius. Standout performances from everyone involved, but to name a few names: Jim Broadbent, Jodie Foster, Renying Zhou, Nick Nolte, Lesley Manville, Bruce Willis, Zhigang Zhang, Chow Yun-Fat. Great entertainment, no cheap shortcuts, and plenty of that stuff that prompts the word "triumph!" If humanity is a puzzle, these are four of the finest pieces released this year. Dig them several times.