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1. All About Lily Chou-Chou
Shimmering with a youthful melancholy unmatched since Truffaut first set out Antoine Doinel to brave the elements, Shunji Iwai's digital rhapsody in amber localizes globalization dread within a group of pre-high schoolers. Their worship of ethereal and unseen teen pop goddess Lily Chou-Chou is not just an emotional escape but a spiritual sanctuary, a faith rooted in isolation from which they may never re-emerge; Iwai's hi-def color corrections and pristine God's-eye POVs are either enhancement or subterfuge for the despair. Narratively fragmented yet lilting and fluid, Iwai's film so deftly moves from playful daily ritual to something more akin to Greek tragedy that its punch-in-the-gut melodramatics seem to creep up from behind. In his native country, Iwai is dismissed as a peddler of slavish melodrama, yet internationally he acquires festival honors; Japan's soap operas become our splintered symphonies of the dispossessed.

2. Talk to Her
According to some, Almodóvar's newfound emotional and structural maturity has softened his penchant for the outrageous, as if the fine-tuning of human intricacies signaled his emergence into stodgy middle-age. Rather, much like David Lynch, Spain's huggable auteur's recent revelatory films depict worlds in which the perverse is so buried within society's framework that it threatens to become mundane; he no longer has to create byzantine narrative contraptions to emphasize it. Therefore, Almodóvar pushes his girlfriend-in-a-coma piece into a transcendent realm, its observations on interaction and communication made timeless through his classical comparative visual equations and sexual parallels. The overwhelming emotion the director is able to elicit from such delicate material cannot be undervalued; ineffable, mysterious, rich, but how he gets there almost defies words.

3. 25th Hour
While Scorsese finally propped up the remains of his pet project's exhumed corpse and was unequivocally lauded by the mainstream press for using his amalgamated depictions of 19th-century gang warfare to reflect post-9/11 anxieties, Spike Lee's passionate New York elegy rode a pushcart into theaters behind Marty's bandwagon. As usual, many critics just wanted Spike to shut up, the best of whom are only able to level accusations of didacticism, as if that's the worst offense of which a director is capable. Marty's tenuous parallels are forced at best, insulting at worst. Spike's joint is the real deal: he and his brilliant DP Rodrigo Prieto focus their lens, washed-out and dog-tired, on urban anomie, personal responsibility, gender miscommunication, class resentment, political distrust, and social role-playing, all set to Terence Blanchard's lush waltz. Overstuffed? Yes, and exhilarating. Edward Norton's drug dealer barely qualifies as a protagonist next to New York's looming infrastructure, always ready to collapse in a haze of missed opportunities and smoky motivations.

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4. Far From Heaven
As the year's most beloved film, there was naturally a minor backlash, an obvious attack on the exercise itself, supposing that its artifice rendered an ironic distance, a pose that didn't leave space for truth and emotion. So then how does one account for all the moist eyes in the theater? The fact is, there is nothing ironic in Todd Haynes's miraculously calibrated anti-nostalgia piece. By rejuvenating a lost form, Haynes creates a character, embodied by porcelain Julianne Moore, that the audience knows is on the precipice of awareness. Moore's response to Dennis Haysbert's eloquent Miró critique (she can "feel it" but can't quite "express it"....yet) exemplifies the kernel of social change. This is no mere exercise in "movie-ness": we are left to decide, as the train pulls away, whether she ever will "express it" or simply drown in the lavender and emerald decor.

5. Time Out
Unemployment and marital discomfort rise like specters from the shadows in Laurent Cantet's suffocating domestic drama, which talks like Arthur Miller but walks like Beckett. The indelible and seductive imagery (early morning fog slowly defrosting from a windshield, headlights careening off-road into pitch blackness) cloaks this simple tale of a man who can't tell his family he no longer has his job in existential anxiety; Cantet's assertion that humanity lies in the act rather than the thought, is terrifying and cleansing. Though not a socialist parable like Rosetta, Time Out reiterates the Dardennes' understanding of work and routine as asylum, that our livelihoods depend on our self-respect rather than social standing.

6. Minority Report
Spielberg continues his impeccable post-Schindler's List career trajectory with this lightning rod of fate, moral choice, meta-cinema interrogation, religious allegory, political discourse, and kick-ass action sequences. With a script so tightly compressed you want to puncture the screen with a push pin, Minority Report moves along its inexorable narrative with such emotional maturity and spiritual reckoning that it's almost hard to pick up on its ethical inquiries. Tom Cruise, who with his surgically replaced eyes wide open looks like a more organic version of Cocteau in Testament of Orpheus, stares at pre-cog/angel Agatha as she imagines an alternate reality in which his son has not been murdered. In Spielberg's film, all realities are alternate, they all just might have happened; it's his La Jetee.

7. About Schmidt
Consistently uncovering the melancholy beneath the (occasionally broad) satire, Alexander Payne again trumps Wes Anderson, whose admittedly delightful Peanuts-like pageants seem at times too self-consciously boxed-in to their funny papers aesthetics. Payne's mournful parodies of middle-American values breathe easier, free from stylistic constraint, yet are still meticulously crafted. As full of regret as Election was brimming with exacting vitriol, About Schmidt presents Nicholson at his most perplexed and self-abnegating. Unable (and unwilling) to communicate with his own family and fellow heartlanders, Schmidt turns to his African sponsor child, paving the way for one of the most visually simple, emotionally complex final shots in American cinema. Who is Jack shedding those tears for? Payne leaves it as provocation and introspection; he gives us ambiguity in a milieu usually reserved on-screen for derisive finality, questions where we are usually fed answers.

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8. The Pianist
Polanski distills personal memory and collective Holocaust experience into a paralyzed, claustrophobic subjectivity. Adrien Brody's awkward, elongated features and astonished silent film expressions bear witness to Polanski's own remembered horror. A nearly perfect reintegration of the director's life and work, The Pianist recalls the singular, impaired perspectives of Repulsion and The Tenant, yet this time the view from the window is not a reflection of the twisted psyche, but the unspeakable grotesquerie of systematic genocide. As in the climax of Chinatown, Polanski portrays moments of horror so fleeting, they barely register before the eye; the effect is an almost subconscious terror.

9. Late Marriage
Not even a spray of Windex could heal the wounds of the psychological violence perpetrated in Dover Kosashvili's unnerving portrayal of Israeli patriarchal rule. In fact, none of My Big Fat Greek Wedding's easy-to-swallow correctives to familial enslavement would scratch the surface of this devastating cultural eavesdrop. Structurally reminiscent of a romantic comedy, Kosashvili's beautiful fatalism demolishes genre with one moment of grandiose desperation: at his wedding, in the bathroom, Zaza presses his face against his father's crotch, the place of his origin, servitude, and safety.

10. Spirited Away
Hayao Miyazaki more gracefully blends the social commentary with the mythic in his Princess Mononoke follow-up, a radiantly animated riff on Lewis Carroll that imagines a netherworld dominated by a bizarrely familiar structural bureaucracy. Young Chihiro must navigate this nightmare world of dubious ethics and absurd dimensional inconsistencies to find her gluttonous parents, who have been morphed into pigs. Most memorable of all is No-Face, the demon whose recompense for accepting his bountiful charity is to eat you whole; Miyazaki doesn't create characters so much as fears, desires, and diseases manifested in gristly flesh and blood.


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