The year 1999 was too good to last, but did 2000 have to be such a big letdown? Did the best film year in at least a decade and a half have to be followed by one of the worst? This year, there are a good 20 films that would have been jostling for spot 10 on last year's list, but not even one that made me jump up and down and drag friends into the theater. Below are my 10 favorites, all of them really good movies. All the usual caveats apply: I haven't seen everything, particularly among the rush of December releases; my list would be different if I drew it up tomorrow; and I may regret this all in a week.
1. Chicken Run In the tradition of Babe, this hysterical piece of plasticene animation from Nick Park and Peter Lord probably gave me more pleasure than anything else I saw this year. Simply by being a feature, it is less compactly perfect than Park's shorts, but it's still pretty damn good.
2. Wonder Boys It took me a second viewing to appreciate just how good this is. The combination of this gentle comedy and Curtis Hanson's previous film, L.A. Confidential, mark him as a truly great director of ensemble performance. Everyone in the film is doing the best work of their careers.
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon If Ang Lee's film were the first Chinese swordplay I had ever seen, it probably would have been my top film this year. But, having been immersed in the genre for a decade now, I'm a little too aware of how derivative it is. But that shouldn't stop you from seeing it.
4. Suzhou River The debut feature of mainland Chinese writer-director Lou Ye feels like a cross between the minimalism of the French New Wave and the lush romanticism of Alfred Hitchcock, most specifically Vertigo, whose basic plot elements Lou frankly and acknowledgedly borrows. Intriguing and mystifying, it continues to fascinate after multiple viewings.
5. Best in Show Once again using the improvisatory technique of his previous Waiting for Guffman and This Is Spinal Tap (the latter directed by Rob Reiner), director-cowriter Christopher Guest once again provides a perfect context for a bunch of brilliant improv talents.
6. Croupier This complex, almost cerebral thriller from the interesting but spotty director Mike Hodges sat on the shelf for two years without American distribution. It finally gets a tiny booking and--guess what?--it's way way better than almost anything out of Hollywood.
7. Dancer in the Dark OK, so it's the most depressing musical ever made, and I don't want to ever see it again. But I still thought it was brilliant, and, combined with Lars Von Trier's other 2000 release, The Idiots, this gives him the award for Best Total Output for the year, edging out Steven Soderbergh.
8. High Fidelity As insightful a romantic comedy as we've seen in the last couple of years, from the talented Stephen Frears.
9. Chocolat Yeah, Lasse Hallström's movie is almost too sweet, but I was totally charmed by this American knockoff of Latin American magical realism. Wonderful cast.
10. Cast Away I'll probably regret this one down the line, but I was deeply moved by parts of this yuppie Robinson Crusoe story and was impressed by how well director Robert Zemeckis resisted his inclinations to go for the obvious slick Hollywood satisfactions.
And a few picks in random categories:
Most underrated: Under Suspicion Everyone else thought Stephen Hopkins' thriller sucked. I was knocked out. So sue me.
Best little indie film out of nowhere: George Washington from David Gordon Green, a first-time director in his early 20s with a strikingly unique vision.
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Best documentary: Dark Days A real underground movie: Marc Singer goes to live with the homeless in New York's subway tunnels.
Best long overdue release by a great filmmaker: Madadayo Why did it take seven years for Akira Kurosawa's touching valedictory to reach American screens?
Best totally startling avant garde vision, Hollywood division: The Cell Director Tarsem Singh is obviously dipping into Matthew Barney's stash.
Hong Kong goes America honorable mentions: The Legend of Drunken Master (Jackie Chan's best '90s film finally gets released in the U.S., dubbed but otherwise intact), Shanghai Noon (Chan gets to make his long-awaited martial arts western, and it turns out amazingly well), and M:I-2 (far from John Woo at his best, but still better than the series deserves).