10 Best Pictures (somewhat in order, but not really):
"Mulholland Drive" A glorious Hollywood fever dream from David Lynch, in which passion, obsession and ambition twist around one another like tensile tropical vines. They flower into something aromatic and vivid and more than a little dangerous: The love story between starlet-ingenue Betty (the incredible Naomi Watts) and exotic amnesiac Rita (sultry, slinky Laura Elena Harring) is a romance for all time, and for no time. No one has the feel for old Hollywood, and the way it lives on in our dreams, that Lynch does. It's as if he never got over the first time he saw a Hurrell portrait -- or the vision of Hollywood Boulevard gone to seed.
"The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" Big, lush and enveloping, Peter Jackson's adaptation of the beloved J.R.R. Tolkien book strikes just the right silvery tone. Jackson approaches the material not with earnestness but with honesty; he's respectful but never solemn. Those subtle distinctions amount to a world of difference between the dorky for-fans-only movie that "Fellowship" could have been, and the resonant, pleasurable, marvelously crafted tale that it is.
"Moulin Rouge" Baz Lurhmann has made a mess that's more distinctive, more inventive and more passionate than many people's masterpieces. I loved it with reservations the night I saw it; by the next morning those minor misgivings had dissolved away like ether, leaving me with nothing but a wild desire to see it again. If there was ever a movie that invited you to faint in its arms, it's this one.
"Together" Swedish director Lukas Moodysson trains his lens on life in a Swedish commune in the mid-'70s, by which time the ideals, the clothes and the people of the '60s had become tattered, frayed and, in some cases, extremely annoying. But Moodysson loves every one of his characters without reservation, and he makes us feel it, too. He just may be the Swedish Satyajit Ray.
"Sexy Beast" Ray Winstone gives the best performance of the year as a trying-to-retire thief who loves his ex-porn star wife (the wonderful Amanda Redman) much more than any of his ill-gotten gains. Jonathan Glazer's heist picture is stylish and funny, but I love it best for the way Glazer depicts his two middle-aged women characters (played by Redman and Julianne White). He shows them to us with honesty and clarity -- mild crow's feet, slightly rounded bellies and all -- and you can't imagine that they ever in their lives looked more beautiful. There are few women in the movies this year who look as ravishing, or as well loved.
"The Gleaners & I" Agnes Varda gives us a joyously ragged collage-poem of a documentary that's partly about salvaging lost things, but mostly about aging. Watch for the "dance of the lens cap," in which Varda makes the best possible use of a bit of accidental footage -- itself an example of turning human error into a brilliant fillip.
"In the Mood for Love" Not much happens in Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love." The protagonists barely even touch hands. Yet this is the exact opposite of a puritan movie, or one that lobbies relentlessly for the values of the good old days. Forget steamy sex; restraint and longing are the most X-rated values Wong can think of, and he films them that way, particularly in Maggie Cheung's ferociously ladylike walk. This is the Crouching Tiger to Ang Lee's Hidden Dragonfly.
"Charlotte Gray" Cate Blanchett is a beautiful young Scotswoman who volunteers for spyhood and gets dropped (wearing a trim tailored suit beneath her paratrooper's onesie) into occupied France to join the Resistance. There, she learns that every choice you make has consequences. Gillian Armstrong's World War II espionage drama is a love letter to every movie convention you ever fell for. It's the best kind of old-fashioned moviemaking, satisfying to its very core.
"Born Romantic" English director David Kane made a terrific romantic comedy a few years back, "This Year's Love," that never got released in this country. "Born Romantic," even headier and more dazzling, fared better in getting a distribution deal, but made it to only a few theaters. In my never-ending quest for a romantic comedy that doesn't make me gack, "Born Romantic" -- about an ensemble of lonely Londoners who fumble toward love, and one another, in the vibrant, urban salsa club where their paths weave and crisscross -- was the one picture this year that excited me and filled me with new hope for the genre. That hope springs eternal; it'll be the death of me yet.
"Donnie Darko" A young filmmaker (age 26) comes along and makes a flawed but poetic picture, about a depressed suburban kid, that's romantic, funny and haunting. Only a few people, in a handful of theaters across the country, get to see it. Of that few, 90 percent are totally confused about the ending (I know, because I was one of them). But director Richard Kelly has plenty of time to figure out better ways to tell a story; what's more rare, and more valuable, is that he has the raw goods of a great filmmaker right there in his hands. Somebody had damn well better let him make a second movie.
Honorable Mentions: A few notable, wonderful pictures that didn't come close to getting their due, at least in the United States: "The Brian Epstein Story," an astonishing documentary by Anthony Wall and Debbie Geller that was shown at only a few small film festivals in this country -- a travesty, since every Beatles fan in the world has Brian Epstein to thank; Rodrigo Garcia's "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her" (shown only on Showtime, and now available on DVD); Chris Menges' "The Lost Son" (never released in the United States, but available on DVD).
And the rest, a selection of pictures, almost any one of which might have made my 10 Best list, if only I could have turned it up to 11: "Waking Life," "Lantana," "Fat Girl," "The Deep End," "The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition," "Chop Suey," "The Others," "Better Than Sex," "The Circle," "In the Bedroom," "Monkeybone," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Last Orders," "Shallow Hal" and last and, yes, most certainly least, the outlandish and inexplicable "Pootie Tang," which made me laugh harder than just about anything.