IT'S A MESSY business, this year-end generating of lists and selecting of favorites. And what, precisely, is the distinction between "best" and "favorite"? Isn't the whole point of the critics' trade to be subjective? "Best" should be what works best for any one person. Yet you wouldn't know it from the 10-best lists already circulating, which make for distressingly similar reading. (Can writers really be so like-minded, or do we just look over one another's shoulders?)
You won't find that sameness here— in part because the movies that opened in Seattle during 2001 aren't the same batch seen by critics and audiences in L.A. and New York. Hollywood releases prestige films early in those cities to be eligible for the following February's Oscar nominations. Such critical compilations are then incorporated into Oscar-campaign ads intended to sway Academy voters, while we in Seattle won't see some of the standouts on those "Best of 2001" lists—such as Gosford Park, Last Orders, or Black Hawk Down—for weeks or even months. Likewise, several titles from the 2000 Oscar season, such as Traffic, didn't arrive here until 2001. So, choosing from only those titles that opened locally during the 2001 calendar year, here are my top 10:
1. Amores Perros Many people have problems with the (fake) images of dog fighting in this Oscar-nominated knockout debut feature by Mexico's Alejandro Gonzᬥz I�itu, but that speaks to the often disturbing power of genuine art: It doesn't need to be real to produce such real, visceral effect.
2. Memento Christopher Nolan's L.A. noir-in-reverse scrambles pulp-fiction conventions into a satisfyingly brain- teasing murder mystery. Here's a film that demands a first-class, bells-and- whistles "special edition" DVD.
3. The Circle "Without a man, you can't go anywhere," laments one of the fugitive heroines in Jafar Panahi's episodic study of oppressed women in modern-day Tehran. It was banned in Iran, and you can see why.
4. With a Friend Like Harry This French thriller never explains the dark nature of a fan's obsession with an aspiring writer. Like Strangers on a Train, Harry binds its two antagonists with guilt and complicity. Yet we morbidly root for Harry, curious to see if his murderous, can-do spirit of problem solving will work according to plan.
5. Mulholland Drive A huge comeback for David Lynch. Originally intended to be a TV series (which explains some of those plot cul-de-sacs), the picture's like a surrealist Sunset Blvd., delving so deep into tinsel town clich鳠that some viewers—and one pert blond actress—never find their way out.
6. Suzhou River Set in contemporary Shanghai's criminal underworld of cell phones and neon lights, this year 2000 film only lasted one week here in March and is well worth viewing on DVD. More than a Chinese Vertigo, it offers a constant, fascinating tension between its unreliable, hard-boiled narrator and the doomed love story he tells.
7. The Taste of Others If you went gaga for Am鬩e, rent this adroitly written ensemble comedy that's like Pride and Prejudice restaged in contemporary France. Taste takes characters of disparate class and culture, collides them together in a centrifuge of coincidence, confuses matters with misplaced affections, then resolves things in unexpected directions.
8. The Road Home Don't assume Zhang Yimou's G-rated peasant love story is so sappy. Sure, Zhang Ziyi is a knockout (in my favorite performance of the year), but the pastoral romance—told in flashback—is really about loss and an ineradicably changing, industrializing China.
9. In the Mood for Love A puzzle—but a gorgeous puzzle. Wong Kar-wai's tale of adultery in '60s Hong Kong skips the moment of consummation in favor of all the languorous longing and stolen smoldering glances. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung play a beautiful pair whose attachment seems all the stronger for its doomed indecision.
10. Traffic The Oscar-winning drug war epic is brilliantly directed, if a tad melodramatic. Given the rigors of such first-class filmmaking, you can understand why Steven Soderbergh granted himself a little vacation with Ocean's Eleven.
NEAR MISSES (2001 films arriving soon): Gosford Park (reviewed p. 54), Kandahar (Jan. 11), Lantana (Jan. 25), Last Orders (March 1).
HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetically): The Adventures of F鬩x, Am鬩e, Apocalypse Now Redux, Before Night Falls, Chopper, The Day I Became a Woman, The Deep End, Donnie Darko, The Fellowship of the Ring, George Washington, The House of Mirth, In the Bedroom, Jump Tomorrow, Last Resort, No Man's Land, 101 Reykjav???/I>, Together, The Vertical Ray of the Sun, The Wide Blue Road, and Yi-Yi.