Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A lyrical film from Chinese director Dai Sijie, who based the drama on his own semi-autobiographical novel. Set in the early 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, Balzac concerns two university students who are sent to a re-education camp in a remote mountain village. There, both young men fall in love with the tailor's vivacious granddaughter. Discovering a cache of forbidden Western literature--Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky--they introduce her to a world of art, music and literature. With an oddly nostalgic feel that belies the tumultuous period during which it's set, this poetic, bittersweet film extols the importance of ideas and the power of the imagination. --Jean Oppenheimer
The Beautiful Country: The questing hero of this drama of discovery is a slender, big-eyed Vietnamese farmboy (Damien Nguyen) who's outcast in his own land because his father was an American GI. He dreams of freedom, and his harsh journey from home to Ho Chi Minh City...to a dirty refugee camp in Malaysia...to an overheated kitchen in New York takes on the power of myth. Made by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland, this fearlessly observant film deserves a place of honor among the great movies about emigrant tenacity. By the time its young seeker comes to ground on a windswept Texas prairie, he's liberated us too. --Bill Gallo
CSA: Confederate States of America: Writer-director Kevin Willmott's picture was bought by IFC Films at the 2004 Sundance festival...and then buried. It saw only limited release this year and spent most of its time cooling its heels on the film-fest circuit--a shame, given its absolute genius. It's a mockumentary dolled up as a made-for-Brit-TV documentary about this country as though the South had won the Civil War, complete with antique photos and film footage subverted in order to tell an alternate history in which slavery's still legal and abolitionist Canada is our enemy. This is easily the nerviest film about race, religion and U.S. imperialism ever made. --Robert Wilonsky
Darwin's Nightmare: Hubert Sauper's outraged but carefully measured documentary begins with the introduction of a predatory food fish, the Nile perch, into Lake Victoria and telescopes into a harrowing meditation on globalization and the new look of colonial cruelty in black Africa. In their filthy work camps, the fishermen subsist without medical care, while the boundless greed of European profiteers extends even to abetting African violence by their importation of the deadly weapons used in bloody conflicts nearby. This is a vivid feat of reporting that stirs the conscience and enrages the soul. It's stunning as a punch in the face. --B.G
Heights: A contemporary ensemble drama about a group of New York artistic types whose lives intersect over one 24-hour period, this film from director Chris Terrio inexplicably came and went in less than a week. Glenn Close gives one of her finest performances to date as a grande dame of the theater, whose personal life demands as much pretense as her stage roles. Before the night is over, most of the characters (including lovely performances from Elizabeth Banks and James Marsden) will be forced to face bitter truths about themselves and those they think they know. --J.O.
Keane: The protagonist of this deeply moving, uncomfortably intimate film is the captive of demons only he can hear, wandering around New York City in search of his missing daughter--a girl who may not be missing at all, who may not even exist. Played with frightening intensity by Damian Lewis (Major Winters in Band of Brothers), obsessed William Keane is the kind of pariah urban dwellers do anything to avoid: He shuffles foot to foot, he screams in strangers' faces, he slams his vodka warm. But by the time writer-director Lodge Kerrigan gets done with us, this portrait of mad despair lets us inside the claustrophobic prison of its victim's heart. --B.G.
Kontroll: Had this movie been made in English, it'd be a massive hit by now. Set and shot entirely in the Budapest subway system, Nimrod Antal's energetic feature debut chronicles a night in the life of underground ticket inspectors, with touches of comedy, suspense and, ultimately, allegory. Our heroes might be souls in limbo waiting to ascend to a higher plane, or they could just be fuck-ups barely prevailing at a straightforward, thankless job. Antal doesn't give a definite answer, but Kontroll is engaging either way. Some enterprising producer is bound to snap up the U.S. remake rights. --Luke Y. Thompson
Mysterious Skin: A change of pace for director Gregg Araki (most recently of the 1999 comedy Splendor), who reins in his typically flippant, nihilistic tendencies to reveal a never-before-expressed sensitivity and depth. In the process, he achieves his most satisfying and involving film. He's aided immeasurably by the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a giant leap from his days on NBC's Third Rock From the Sun), who plays one of two young men whose lives have been irrevocably damaged by the sexual predator who coached their little league baseball team. --J.O.