Note: For the sake of being obnoxiously frank, this critic opts to divulge his favorites while pretending, in keeping with the season, to be hammered on spiked eggnog. Cheers!
Honorable Mention: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, directed by George Lucas and his kids. Gimme a light saber to open up that damned Jar-Jar Binks. 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.
10. Being John Malkovich and Dogma 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 doughnut 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.
9. The 13th Warrior 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. I saw it with my invisible friend Spencer (whose presence also made Blade a work of genius), and the theater echoed with our roars of approval. Just one problem: Using the Mother Goddess as the symbol of ultimate evil is rubbish of the lowest, smelliest variety, and the only reason this one can't rank higher. Morons!
8. Apple Venus, Vol. I Otherwise known as the latest XTC record. 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, and try telling me that lush songs such as "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.
7. Ride With the Devil and The Cider House Rules Folkster-cum-actress Jewel Kilcher claims in interviews she's basically a shy girl. Yes, that would explain the yodeling in front of millions, the televised negligee modeling, and the mock breast-feeding performed before cameras for millions to observe. Whatever, honey. At least that other blond, Charlize Theron, puts out without disclaimers. Pleasingly, both Theron and Kilcher prove to be excellent leading ladies for Tobey "Great White Hope" Maguire. More pleasingly, "Great Black Hopes" Jeffrey Wright, Delroy Lindo, and Erykah Badu deliver genius in these two tales of race, family, and American identity. Ride With the Devil director Ang Lee somehow manages to discover humanity among Civil War Southerners, and Cider House's Lasse Hallstrom brings to the screen the questing heart of John Irving's mighty, Dickensian novel.
6 Stop Making Sense: Remastered Edition The keenest big concert movie yet made, reissued in October on VHS and DVD. 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 director Jonathan Demme's own Beloved to boot. More, please.
5. Princess Mononoke 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 director Hayao 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.
1. Anna and the King, Breakfast of Champions, Topsy-Turvy, and King of Masks (Bian Lian) Wonders abound in this fabulous foursome, and not one rises 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.
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