1. adaptation (Spike Jonze)
Nicolas Cage stars as twin screenwriters, one a blithe idiot, the other a self-lacerating worrywart so paralyzed by an adapting job (Susan Orlean's non-fiction The Orchid Thief) that he begins to not merely write himself into the script, but to write himself in as a screenwriter trying to adapt the book. Even with two Oscar-winners in the cast (Cage and Meryl Streep), Chris Cooper, sober-sided rectitude in so many John Sayles films, steals the picture by letting his freak flag fly as a redneck obsessed with orchids.
2. monsoon wedding (Mira Nair)
Monsoon Wedding is easy to dismiss as curried Altman, or My Big Fat Punjabi Wedding, but Nair's production, accomplished with a short shoot, a tiny budget and more than 50 speaking parts doing a lot of improv, is as miraculous as it gets. And musical numbers!
3. minority report (Steven Spielberg)
It's fashionable to dismiss Spielberg as Mr. Commercial Hit, but he remains the most restless and kinetically inventive American director. If his films are roller-coaster rides, then Minority Report, like A.I., is a long plunge into dystopian fantasy. He gets a better performance from Tom Cruise than any director in years, including Paul Thomas Anderson.
4-5. 8 women; under the sand (François Ozon) This is a unique one-two punch. The first, part knockabout farce, part Agatha Christie mystery and part musical, locks four generations of French movie stars in a house and lets them mix it up. The second is a haunted story of marital loss and denial starring the anguished cheekbones of Charlotte Rampling.
6. insomnia (Christopher Nolan)
Here's a rare remake that actually improves on the original, with Memento director Nolan presiding over a tense acting duel between Al Pacino's sleep-deprived cop and Robin Williams's conspiratorial killer, set against the spectacular landscapes of BC pretending to be Alaska.
7. punch-drunk love (Paul Thomas Anderson)
From the director of Magnolia, this tiny picture plays off Adam Sandler's rage. As Barry, the alternately pampered and plagued baby brother of seven sisters, Sandler gives a performance that's all tic, stammer and bad interpersonal skills, with none of the egomaniacal shtick that marks, well, every other film he's made.
8. gangs of new york (Martin Scorsese)
Gangs gives us history with hokum and the politics serve to elevate pretensions, but Scorsese can make you believe that whatever he's putting onscreen is the greatest movie you've ever seen. He can also make cast members -- here, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent -- work at the edges of their talent. Spectacle in the service of the oldest story in the book -- a kid's father is killed and now he's back for revenge!
9. bowling for columbine (Michael Moore)
Moore's documentary is a peripatetic examination of guns and the American culture of fear in the wake of the Columbine massacre, with the intervention of September 11. From the security-cam footage of Columbine to the home of Charlton Heston, Moore is less analyst than burr under the saddle of polite discourse -- and thus utterly necessary.
10. sunshine state (John Sayles)
There is no American filmmaker who even attempts Sayles's specialty, the novelistic story of a community and its tensions. In the vein of Matewan, City Of Hope and Lone Star, Sunshine State mixes a dozen major characters in the story of a north Florida town in the hungry gaze of developers, and if his earnestness is a bit wearing, his generosity to such performers as Angela Bassett, Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, Bill Cobbs and Mary Steenburgen is glorious.