THIS PAST YEAR, we got the movies—like the presidential candidates—we deserved. Given the underwhelming choices Hollywood cynically offered up, audiences effectively said, "None of the above." So how does one devise a 10 best list for the year? It's easier in NYC and LA, where prestige films open early for Oscar consideration—long before they slowly trickle to Seattle. As usual, we get no respect. So much for being a world-class city (even if we boast a population of fanatical, world-class moviegoers). Traffic, voted best film by the New York Film Critics' Circle and the recipient of five Golden Globe nominations, doesn't arrive here till January 5.
Yet the top-10 lists in The New York Times, Time, and Entertainment Weekly are wildly divergent. What gives? It's been an erratic year at the box office, meaning that flicks like Gladiator, Almost Famous, and Nurse Betty are getting a second look.
So if we're being ignored, why not embrace regional bias? The list below is confined to what actually premiered here during the past 12 calendar months. That means a few spillovers from late '99 and even some old (and mostly foreign) stuff that took years to reach the region. Another criterion is to exclude all the good things at SIFF and other festivals, since such noncommercial runs don't give everyone an equal chance for viewing.
Of these 10 titles, some are playing now, some are coming in 2001, and some you may have to catch on video—or wait for possible revivals following the February 13 Oscar nominations.
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The best movie of the year for its audacious marriage of action, fantasy, and romance. Expect long lines.
2. Flowers of Shanghai: From 1998, Hou Hsiao-hsien's beautiful, melancholy portrayal of languorous love in the opium dens of 1880s China finally reached here last January thanks to the good folks at the Grand Illusion/NW Film Forum.
3. Topsy-Turvy: Mike Leigh's seriocomic study of the making of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado is too long but still worth the sit. Artists succeed despite their flaws, with Victorian propriety barely masking inner turmoil. (It also arrived in January.)
4.You Can Count on Me: Although a bit ragged in its scenes and construction, this sibling drama features two of the best performances of the year from Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, showing (among other things) how dysfunctional family dynamics can be elevated from TV to fill the big screen.
5. Not One Less: Zhang Yimou's 1999 tale of a stubborn young rural schoolteacher serves as a microcosm for the collision between old China and new. Using a nonprofessional cast (and suffering a government-mandated happy ending), he again finds humanity in the simplest circumstances.
6. Chicken Run: Poultry in a prison-escape-movie spoof, with wonderful stop-motion technique and unabashedly droll British wit from Aardman Animations. The film's rich texture reminds us how visual storytelling remains supreme in animated features.
7. Dark Days: The poignant, haunting Sundance prize-;winning documentary concerns homeless residents of a New York City railroad tunnel, where men and women cling to the same tokens of domesticity so cherished in the sheltered suburbs.
8. Croupier: Less is more in this small, overlooked 1998 British crime flick set in a London casino. It's fresher and smarter than a dozen big-budget rivals at the box office.
9. Chuck and Buck: Childhood secrets disturb the present in a low-budget digital video feature that mixes nervous laughter and offhand pathos, refusing to follow the normal rules of tragedy or romance.
10. Time Code: Another DV picture, with its frame divided into quadrants simultaneously relating the same Hollywood black comedy from four different perspectives. It shows how new technology and risky ideas kept 2000 from being a completely unremarkable year in film.
Any common themes? It's more of a kindred effect that these disparate titles share. All create a world that suspends disbelief and engrosses the viewer. All have imperfections that you quickly forgive and forget. All are indie films or imports. But come March 25, the Academy will surely compensate homegrown fare with many awards.
HONORABLE MENTION: Falling just outside the top 10 were James Toback's nervy, hip-hop meditation on race, Black and White (with Mike Tyson and Brooke Shields); the exquisitely photographed 1919 Shackleton expedition documentary South; the neorealist La Ciudad, about Spanish-speaking immigrants in NYC; the reissued 1955 French jewel heist thriller Rififi; plus two outstanding Iranian films—Abbas Kiarostami's lyrical, metaphysical The Wind Will Carry Us and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's poignant The Silence. (Also, SNL's first Bush-Gore debate sketch was better than most comedies this year. Why can't they make a spin-off movie from that instead of The Ladies Man?)
Other notables coming soon are Steven Soderbergh's drug smuggling epic Traffic (which fully merits its reputation), Terence Davies' The House of Mirth (based on Edith Wharton's novel), Edward Yang's Yi-Yi (A One and A Two), Julian Schnabel's fine Before Night Falls, Lynne Ramsay's Scottish childhood drama Ratcatcher, and George Washington (about Southern teenagers, not the president) by newcomer David Gordon Green.