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.
Nobody Knows: This quietly harrowing Japanese film is all the more unnerving for having been based on actual events. It stars five children, excellent actors all, whose mother abandons them in their small apartment with only a little money. For a long time, the two oldest manage well, cooking and cleaning and entertaining the toddlers. Then, as the money drains, the situation becomes increasingly dire. The pace is slow, with director Hirokazu Koreeda taking time to notice and document incremental changes, such as fraying clothes and smudged faces. What the children learn, and how they cope, is mind-blowing and heartbreaking all at once. --Melissa Levine
Occupation: Dreamland: Jarhead was a nifty, sharp film about the boredom suffered by soldiers waiting for their chance to kill or be killed, but it presented a stylized fiction only loosely based on one man's sorta-kinda fact. This movie is the real deal, an unsettling, occasionally profound and ultimately devastating chronicle of six weeks spent with the groggy, pissed-off and homesick men of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, stationed in Fallujah in early 2004, just before the insurgents claimed that bloody town as their own by hanging and burning alive several U.S. contractors. When they're not on patrols, rousting people they don't blame for being pissed, the soldiers are getting shot at, arguing political motivations and waiting. . .for something, for anything. Thanks to the fine filmmaking of Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, you are there, in cramped confines in the middle of nowhere, and will come to wish that you, like these soldiers, could be anywhere else in the world. --R.W.
Sequins: Seventeen-year-old Claire (Lola Naymark) works at a supermarket in her hometown in rural France, where she is pregnant and deeply unhappy. Through a friend, she meets Madame Melikian (Ariane Ascaride), an older woman who has lost her son in a motorcycle accident. Claire has a talent for embroidery; Madame Melikian embroiders for Parisian designers, including Lacroix. So begins the women's strained working relationship, which slowly grows into something more. It's a slender plot but a very rich movie, with deeply felt silences, gorgeous camerawork and a tender understanding of many kinds of grief. --M.L.
Stay: Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) has a tendency toward the pretentious, especially when it comes to filters, split-screens and editing trickery. And in this weird mystery/thriller, he found a story that perfectly suits his style. Ewan McGregor stars as a psychiatrist who starts to lose his grip on reality after meeting a suicidal young artist (Ryan Gosling). The final twist isn't hard to guess, but it's almost beside the point--Forster absolutely nails a certain kind of dream logic, the type in which the dreamer occupies more than one body within the narrative. Twentieth Century Fox didn't have the confidence to screen the film for critics, but it's well worth screening at home once it shows up on DVD. --L.Y.T.
Thumbsucker: Mike Mills' adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel is a dreamily gorgeous portrayal of a family from the perspective of its searching teenage son. In psychological terms, Justin (Lou Pucci) is the "identified patient"--the family member seen as broken and in need of fixing. (The title refers to Justin's oral fixation.) What Mills' film understands is that Justin is expressing the conflicts that other family members can't or won't. His coping mechanism is stigmatized, but it's no different from any other (drinking, smoking, drugs, sex)--except, perhaps, that his mechanism isn't hurting anyone. In Thumbsucker's world, everyone has issues. Same goes for our world too. --M.L.
The Upside of Anger: The ending is silly, and the film occasionally leans toward cliché, but Upside remains a satisfying and spirited comedy. Joan Allen gives a crackling performance as an oblivious mother whose every attempt to connect with her children results in insult. Her daughters--played by Keri Russell, Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen and Alicia Witt--are independent-minded and alive, acting out in sad, hilarious and believable ways. Even Kevin Costner, playing a washed-up baseball player (for a change), manages to come across as authentic. --M.L.
The War Within: This thoughtful drama, which follows an Islamic militant on a terrorist mission to New York City, garnered far less attention than the similarly themed Paradise Now (which concerned two Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel). Yet The War Within goes places Paradise Now didn't dare go, with none of that film's ambiguity in its conclusion. The screenplay loads up on believable tension and suspense while eschewing melodrama, and director/co-writer Joseph Castelo is more than willing to follow through on the grim setup. --J.O.
The Year of the Yao: In this delightful, warmhearted documentary about Chinese basketball sensation Yao Ming, directors James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo follow their subject through his 2002-'03 season with the Houston Rockets, his first in the NBA. The film begins as Yao prepares to leave China and ends as he returns for the offseason. In between, we watch as the world-famous recruit is thrust into a maelstrom of culture shock, media attention and intense professional pressure. In fact, Yao is really the story of two rookies, Ming and his translator, Colin Pine, a charmingly green twentysomething equally stunned by the blinding headlights of obsessive media attention. --M.L.