By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
By Claire Lawton
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Anna Merlan
2) Maria Full of Grace First-time director Joshua Marston's compelling drug movie has no automatic weapons and no car chases, just an unforgettable portrait of a 16-year-old Colombian girl (played by the extraordinary Catalina Sandino Moreno) who's forced by circumstance to become a "mule" for shabby drug dealers. She swallows scores of balloons stuffed with cocaine, then boards a plane for New York to deliver the stuff. The atmosphere is harrowing, the performances uniformly superb. --Bill Gallo
3) House of Flying Daggers In telling of an ill-fated romance between an assassin (Zhang Ziyi) and the cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) bound to bring her in, Zhang Yimou's latest dazzles not just with its stunts but also its story. It's stunning to look at, too, with every second framed like a painting bound not for a screen but a museum wall, where it can be ogled till closing time. You will not see a more beautiful movie this year...or any other. --Robert Wilonsky
4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Everyone knows Charlie Kaufman can write a clever script, and there's a gimmick here, too--the targeted erasure of memories--but like the best sci-fi, it's primarily a metaphor for a deeper dilemma: the question of whether we'd really be better off eliminating heartbreak from our lives. Kaufman's funhouse structure serves the story by representing the dream state, getting inside Jim Carrey's head as portions of his mind are being destroyed. --Luke Y. Thompson
5) Bad Education This is Pedro Almodóvar's fascinating meditation on sin, sexuality, the terrors of the Catholic Church in Spain and the comforts of art, all dressed (and cross-dressed) up as a seamy film noir that gleefully bows to everything from Vertigo to Double Indemnity to Rashomon. It's the tale of two rural schoolboys, once abused by a Franco-era priest, who grow up to be wildly disordered men--one of them a drag queen with a taste for blackmail (The Motorcycles Diaries' Gael García Bernal), the other a celebrated movie director in Madrid (Fele Martínez). --B.G.
6) Napoleon Dynamite Real nerds are often ugly, socially inept, delusional, passive-aggressive and totally lost in their own world. The trick is to find sympathy for them anyway, and director Jared Hess pulls off that neat trick with flying colors. Napoleon gets his brief moment in the sun at the film's climax, but his real triumph is in finding love and friendship among the equally out-of-place. The supporting cast plays like a Mike Judge cartoon come to life. --L.Y.T.
7) Osama A ruthlessly uncompromising look at the status of Afghan women under Taliban rule, Osama marks the stunning feature debut of writer-director Siddiq Barmak. Marina Golbahari, a girl whom Barmak found begging on the streets of Kabul (all the actors are amateurs), plays the 12-year-old protagonist, whose widowed mother disguises her as a boy because unchaperoned women are forbidden from appearing in public or holding jobs. When militants round up the boys of the village for religious indoctrination, the girl's identity is discovered, and she faces a future that is truly worse than death. --Jean Oppenheimer
8) Fahrenheit 9/11 Like George W. Bush (and, oh, Mel Gibson), Michael Moore's a divider and not a uniter, but he's first and foremost an entertainer--a song-and-dance man putting on a show at which you can hurl dollar bills or rotten tomatoes, yer pick. Of course, it's a relic already, too, a quaint vestige of the liberal rage and optimism that dissipated at 9:12 p.m. November 2, when the map behind Tom Brokaw went red and Michael Moore got a little bluer. --R.W.
9) Metallica: Some Kind of Monster Perhaps the finest rockumentary ever made, Some Kind of Monster is a brilliant, probing examination of relationships between and among men--creative men, addicted men, wounded men, angry men and hilarious men, intentionally and otherwise. Directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger had the genius (or good fortune) to capture the band in crisis, when internal strife--largely the antics of mercurial, infantile leader James Hetfield--threaten to break up the group forever. --M.L.
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