A very strange year. Never before have I had three documentaries in my top 10, or five in my top 10 and honourable mentions combined. I'm not sure what this means, except that in a year when Hollywood studios felt compelled to crank out "can't miss" sequels, the documentary filmmakers were more attuned to the ancient and honourable art of storytelling and had access to characters who were under no compulsion to be "likeable."
1 Capturing The Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki) is an astonishingly intimate documentary, a Long Island Rashomon constructed in large part from home movies about the implosion of a family when the high school science teacher father and his youngest son are accused of child molestation. What's fascinating is the way one can see the family's fault lines in their home movies -- they keep the cameras rolling through arguments, yelling and maternal fury. It takes all the fun out of dysfunctional.
2 Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola) ranks as the year's most unexpected success, the story of a bereft young wife (Scarlett Johansson) and a fading movie star (Bill Murray) at loose ends in a big Tokyo hotel, where he's shooting a whiskey commercial and she's waiting for her husband (Giovanni Ribisi) to finish shooting rock stars. Coppola keeps the film's delicate emotional balance on a very even keel, and Murray's rueful comic sympathy is the performance of the year.
3 Mystic River (Clint Eastwood) is a blunt-force trauma film in which personal history and new tragedy slowly rend the lives of a South Boston community where everyone knows a little too much about everyone else's business. Eastwood gathers a staggering cast -- Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, Laurence Fishburne -- and lets them run. Much has been made of Penn's performance, but Robbins is the biggest surprise, a distressing combination of emotional terror and self-destructive menace.
4 Bus 174 (Felipe Lacerda, José Padilha) is a stunningly constructed documentary on a hostage situation in the streets of Rio that ripples outward to echo through the city's recent history of social violence. Working with TV news footage shot on the scene -- one can't imagine an American police force letting the cameras in this close -- and interviews with everyone from the survivors to masked members of the Rio SWAT team, Padilha's documentary has a shocking immediacy.
5 Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino) is, like Lost In Translation, about an American confronting Japanese culture, only it's a fever dream of Japan conjured up from old Shaw Brothers movies, a world where JAL planes have holders for the passenger's katana, where Lucy Liu is the head of the Tokyo underworld and where every Hong Kong exploitation movie from the 70s onward is tossed in a blender set on purée. A great triumph of empty formalism -- Tarantino is the Max Ernst of junk movie culture.
6 Gambling, GODS And LSD (Peter Mettler) is less a documentary than a three-hour meditation on the quest for transcendence. Mettler totes his camera from Toronto to Vegas to India and shows us what he finds. In a Canadian film environment where the financing organizations are looking to make commercial films, Mettler created an improbable triumph out of not knowing what he was looking for.
7 The Good Thief (Neil Jordan) is a loose remake of Bob Le Flambeur, with a ferociously leonine Nick Nolte as a junkie gambler who goes in for one last score only to have everything go wrong. It's a familiar story made new by the stunning use of the Côte d'Azur, with its new style of criminal underworld that's far from the cool grey Paris of Melville's original. Terrific supporting performances from Tchéky Karyo and Nutsa Kukhianidze set off Nolte's great starring turn -- which, given his age and infirmities, may be his last.
8 Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich) , the latest from Pixar, which is still in its "do no wrong" phase, is an entertaining and heartwarming story about a neurotically protective fish (Albert Brooks) crossing great expanses of ocean in search of his lost son. Along for the ride is Ellen DeGeneres as a fish with short-term memory problems. Who'd have thought the biggest hit of the summer would star these two actors? Compulsively pleasurable, and as a wise man once said, "Pleasure is not the only criterion, but as criteria go, it's pretty good."
9 Spider (David Cronenberg) makes a point of never using the word schizophrenia, but Ralph Fiennes's character exhibits all the classic symptoms in this dark, torturous study of a man whose imagined past keeps bleeding into his present. Tour de force performances by Fiennes, Gabriel Byrne and Miranda Richardson, who essentially plays all three major female roles as manifestations of the protagonist's delusions.
10 Morvern Callar (Lynn Ramsay) is the story of an alarmingly practical Scottish lass (Samantha Morton) who, when her boyfriend commits suicide in their kitchen, doesn't panic or call the police but buries him and takes his bank card off for a holiday. Morton gives a fascinating performance as a woman who never thinks more than four minutes into the future. She's almost all animal instinct, and Lynn Ramsay is smart enough to let this character drive the film forward. It's one of those rare films that's beautifully made while feeling completely unplanned.
- Blind Spot
- Cold Mountain
- Dirty Pretty Things
- Divine Intervention
- Lost In La Mancha
- A Mighty Wind
- Nick Nolte (The Good Thief )
- Bill Murray (Lost In Translation)
- Ralph Fiennes and Miranda Richardson (Spider)
- Samantha Morton (Morvern Callar)
- Frances McDormand (Laurel Canyon)
- Bill Nighy (Love Actually; Underworld; I Capture The Castle)
- Tim Robbins (Mystic River)
- Juliet Stevenson (Bend It Like Beckham)
- Johnny Depp (Pirates Of The Caribbean; Once Upon A Time In Mexico)
- Heather Graham (The Guru)
- Patricia Clarkson (Pieces Of April; The Station Agent)