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Top Tens:
JEFF REICHERT

1. Punch-Drunk Love
Anderson. Watson. Sandler. Like many, the prospect of this combination filled me with a healthy dose of horror tinged with a share of excitement. Having seen the film, the horror remains - Punch Drunk Love is perhaps the most frightening romantic comedy I've seen, but I'm more excited about this film than any other I saw this year. Pitched on the verge of absolute insanity for all of its 92 minutes, this is by far Anderson's most accomplished film, and, loathe as I am to admit it, this is due in large part to Adam Sandler. It's not that he really brings anything very far removed from the penguin hallucinations of Billy Madison, but that's exactly the point. Anderson throws the curve ball in terms of context, highlighting the 'Sandler' character's underlying sociopathy which is usually rendered as laughable when placed in relation to Bob Barker, Drew Barrymore, or giant foam Antarctic creatures. Perhaps most frightening is how this shift underscores certain fundamental sores on masculinity (and with Watson thrown into the mix, perhaps we need not be so exclusive), and makes a depiction of borderline personality little more that a slightly slanted mirror reflection of ourselves.

2. Trouble Every Day
Ten years from now, the planet will be awakened by the sound of film critics the world over slapping themselves in unison and wondering how they managed, en masse, to miss the boat on this one. Claire Denis followed her breakthrough Beau travail with another masterpiece that was almost universally reviled for having a little blood on its hands. Forget the gore and you're left with a filmmaker in control of every element of the form - chunks of narrative information are flung about like flesh from star Beatrice Dalle's mouth, but each and every one of them is indispensable, and lands perfectly positioned for maximum effect. Brutal, cannibalistic sex has never been so compelling as seen through Agnès Godard's lens, and paired with seductive (if forgettable) Tindersticks tracks. What most critics failed to realize is that the world's greatest female filmmaker had hit her stride with Beau travail and decided to have a little fun. Luckily for us, she created pure poetry along the way.

3. Far From Heaven
After his handful of features (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine), I'm still not sure where to locate the 'real' Todd Haynes. All of his films wear the mark of the thick semiotic fluid they're born of, which has proven exhausting in some cases and hugely stimulating in others, oftentimes jostling between the two extremes within the same film. Far From Heaven is his most conceptually sound and deeply felt work yet, and that's because the conceptual element is on loan. With a solid framework fully in place, Haynes is free to indulge in beautiful period fetishization (and maybe gets bogged down a little here), and to subtly tweak the genre he's working in, injecting concerns normally outside its scope. I don't think there's any sort of guerilla genre subversion pointing towards irony going on here, and if there's supposed to be, Haynes has been beaten by his source. In the end, that may be Far From Heaven's most subversive move of all: it's a theoretical weepie that ends up shedding the theory through its process.

4. Russian Ark
2,000 extras! Four orchestras! The longest shot in film history! One take! So proudly proclaims the film's trailer, and for once film marketing has told the truth. Whether or not Russian Ark is more than the sum of these elements is debatable, but that doesn't really detract from the spectacular nature of the project. To tickle the mind, Sokurov goes after some questions of fluidity around time and history, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is more of a case of a kid in a candy store wanting to see how much he can get away with. No matter how the intellectual appraisal shakes out, Russian Ark will stand as a monument, at least until someone carries off something even more fantastic. Lets hope that this first Sokurov film to receive a full U.S. distribution push (not counting a small stab at his earlier Mother and Son) is an auger of things to come. That it's actually become something of a small box-office sensation makes me hopeful that this may not be so far-fetched. Even though he's nearly blind, Sokurov's films see more, and further, than the collected filmographies of most any softball team composed of American filmmakers you could field.

5. 25th Hour
I've always rooted for Spike Lee, even though his films continually indulge themselves in the same tired, sometimes irritating, stylistic excesses. At least he always seems to be reaching for something, which is more than can be said for most filmmakers of his generation. He gets it all right in 25th Hour through a process of carefully timed subtractions in moments that would have been marked before by gratuitous additions. Fewer film stock changes, fewer music montages, and almost no histrionics on the level of performance all work towards shaping a carefully studied examination of choices and consequences framed against the physical backdrop of 9/11. That it was practically dumped by its distributor until reviewers started raving proves that the critical establishment still has some use. He'll probably follow this up with a sequel to Bamboozled, but for now, go Spike!

6. Esther Kahn
If this were my "criminally overlooked films list," Esther Kahn would sit squarely in the number #1 slot. I'll admit to having not viewed the cut that was prepared for U.S. release and to not having watched the film since 2001, but in this case these are peripheral concerns. Esther Kahn is a film that cries to be seen, if not studied closely. Barely released, and noticed even less, it exists as far more than the sum of its internal contradictions: American ingénue playing 19th Century Jewish (non)actress, in an English-language film by a noted French director culminating in a faux-staging of a Danish theatrical masterwork. It is nearly three hours of rigorous estranging, complicated by an amazingly authentic and seductive period look, and a near-feral performance (if what she does can be labeled performing) from Summer Phoenix. In terms of viewing effort, it is probably the toughest film on this list, but also one of the most rewarding. If I felt that I had half a handle on all its various strands, it might have ended closer to the top. But if it weren't so wholly confounding, it might not be here at all.

7. Femme Fatale
Like Far From Heaven, De Palma's latest lives or dies on tactics of appropriation. It's great, sleazy fun until the last twenty minutes or so when De Palma backtracks and gloriously skullfucks his own movie! Has he no shame? Thankfully no, and because of it, what could have been merely a rote Romjin-Stamos thriller-vehicle metamorphoses into a meditation on genre codes and their manipulation by smart filmmakers. Also like Far From Heaven, Fatale ends up proving the durability of those borrowed genres and forms - both films inject new concerns only to have them absorbed, chewed, and spat back out - re-read with difference, but while maintaining an air of comfortable familiarity.

8. Morvern Callar
Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher was a complete revelation in a year in which revelations were sorely needed. Morvern is a huge leap, but I haven't quite decided if it's forward or sideways. Her instinct for sound-vision poetry remains intact, yet the film stumbles a bit when it hits the road and tries to put together a story. Two points for great soundtrack, minus two for lapsing into music video territory a few times too often. Still, Samantha Morton's nearly mute performance is towering, Ramsay's certainly on her way, and Morvern is terribly nice to lose oneself in. Split the difference - call it a diagonal hop and look out for where Ramsay heads next.

9. Rabbit-Proof Fence
I really couldn't imagine a film that I would like to see less than a true tale of three Aboriginal children on the run from Kenneth Branagh, as directed by a man whose last few films were Tom Clancy adaptations. To my surprise, Rabbit-Proof shed nine-tenths of the expected sentimentality, and even more of the dialogue, ending up as a spare love-poem to the outback and the resilient peoples who occupied it first. Noyce handles the Aborigines with dignity, never lapsing into exotic other-worship, and, as an added treat, manages to avoid simple binaries and figure the complex motives of the 'white devils' as well. The digital video epilogue is a terrific closer that drives the film's polemic home harder than any text card ever could.

10. Kandahar
Many of the films on this list contain flaws and questionable elements, in most cases in ways that make them more interesting to me (the flawless Trouble Every Day being the only real exception). From a purely technical standpoint, Kandahar is the most flawed - it feels like an undercover rush job made under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances, which it was. Mohsen Makhmalbaf shot the film illegally in Afghanistan, under the Taliban regime circa 1999 creating many of his segments around people and situations he found along the way. As such, performances don't work, and the narrative flows in fits and starts, but it is this rough-hewn quality, the sense that Makhmalbaf had given up on having total control over what was happening around him, opting instead to run on forward momentum, that make this film feel so alive and urgent.




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