Written by movies  |  27. December 2001

by Ben Kenigsberg 1. In the Bedroom -- A film in which every line of dialogue, every setting, and every gesture feels real. Credit not only the performers -- especially the impeccable Tom Wilkinson, remarkable for his portrayal of anguish, and Sissy Spacek, remarkable for her restraint -- but the film's screenplay, by actor-turned-director Todd Field and Rob Festinger, from a story by Andre Dubus. Too many critics have spoiled its surprises; suffice it to say that In the Bedroom is the most carefully rendered film about coping with loss since The Sweet Hereafter. It's about the void that a death leaves in the lives of others. Every character is complex. The argument between Spacek and Wilkinson makes for the most powerful scene of the year. It's astounding that this is Field's first film as a director. 2. A.I. -- Frankenstein with a twist: scientists create a robot that has the ability to love. So: if it thinks like a human, moves like a human, and, most importantly, emotes like a human, is it not a human? Steven Spielberg's latest sci-fi classic, resurrected from a project of the late Stanley Kubrick, is perhaps the director's most morally confounding film to date -- a satire of technology, religion, and children's toys. Critics of the superficially sentimental last half-hour might want to consider what happens to David (Haley Joel Osment) after the final fade-out. It's as dystopic a vision -- in themes and art direction -- as Spielberg has ever given us. This was a really close call -- you might want to consider it a tie for first place. Mark my words: we'll regard A.I. as a masterpiece in 20 years. 3. Memento -- I'm tired of debating the ending. Interested parties should seek out a comprehensive article on salon.com, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Memento" by Andy Klein. Memento is indelible not merely because of its mind-bending premise -- a man with no short-term memory hunts down his wife's killer -- but because of its execution: by telling his ingenious story backwards, writer-director Christopher Nolan allows us to empathize with his protagonist's confusion. Without memory, we realize, we'd be adrift, forever uncertain of our identity. 4. No Man's Land -- The best steadily mounting tension in any movie this year. Danis Tanovic's film, about a Bosnian and a Serb trapped in a trench between the front lines, makes fine use of dark comedy to let us know that war is hell. But the film's characterization is its strongest aspect: by indicating that it understands the personalities of the men who are fighting, No Man's Land shows that it has a personal feeling about its subject that other films about the war lack. 5. The Royal Tenenbaums -- Another tirelessly inventive but human comedy from Wes Anderson (Rushmore), and the funniest movie ever made about a disintegrating family. The film may be set in a warped, fantasy New York -- the characters work out at the 375th Street Y -- but it asks genuinely perplexing questions about the nature of family. That makes the film sound pretentious. But from the opening montage, the movie announces itself as one of the most hilarious and exhilarating cinematic visions in a long time. 6. Startup.com -- A fine documentary by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim -- the former is one of the directors of The War Room, about the 1992 Clinton campaign -- that proves that all it takes to make a really entertaining non-fiction film is a couple of high-energy personalities. Startup.com provides a fly-on-the-wall look at the dot-com world, exposing the shams of the new industry. But it's the banter of govWorks.com founders Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman that makes the film so fun to watch. 7. Baran -- An Iranian film by Majid Majidi (The Color of Paradise) that recalls The Bicycle Thief in message but is much more lighthearted in tone. Baran is most effective as a portrait of a place -- a quarry in Iran where Afghan refugees work illegally. Its simplicity reminds of the films of Indian master Satyajit Ray. The most striking thing about Baran is its profound understanding of human nature. 8. Ocean's 11 -- Craftsmanship so good, in a film that's so purely Hollywood, it's easy to overlook how tightly constructed this remake actually is. To make a good heist flick, you need good acting, hardboiled dialogue, and a few nifty plot twists. The film has all that and more -- like, for instance, a highly amusing aside involving Topher Grace and Joshua Jackson -- all tied together by Steven Soderbergh, who, having proved himself intellectually sophisticated with Traffic, here once again proves himself stylistically sophisticated as well. 9. Cure -- a clever frustrating thriller (it's safe to call that a genre) that works both as a meditation on the randomness of evil and as an engrossing murder story in its own right. Unfortunately, this haunting film by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not related to Akira) received only the briefest of releases this summer, at Huntington's Cinema Arts Centre and TriBeCa's Screening Room. 10. Lumumba -- A biopic as fiery and challenging as its subject -- the short-lived career of the democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, before Mobutu took over -- which manages to condense a great deal of history into two hours without feeling at all overstuffed or textbook-y. Concision and clear storytelling are virtues we could use more of in biopics. (Anyone see Ali?) Eriq Ebouaney is excellent as Lumumba. Runners-up (in alphabetical order): Amlie, visually inventive and undeniably fun; Ghost World, an honest, quirky film about teenagers; Gosford Park, a well-written comedy-mystery by Robert Altman (screenplay by Julian Fellowes) that shows the director's disdain for Merchant-Ivory characters and his love of Agatha Christie and Jean Renoir; Heist, a thriller by David Mamet in which the characters actually spoke using contractions; In the Mood for Love, an atmospheric, absorbing romance from Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai; The Man Who Wasn't There, a Coen brothers flick oozing with the stylistic and thematic richness of old-fashioned film noir, with a great performance by Billy Bob Thornton; Our Song, a story of three girls coming of age in Brooklyn, observed with documentary realism; The Score, because you can't lose with Norton, DeNiro, and, yes, Brando; and Shrek, perhaps the funniest, most irreverent adult-movie-in-kids-movie's-clothing ever.

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