The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer, France). Rohmer's revisionist drama of the French Revolution sandblasts two centuries of political pieties with a fiercely uncompromising humanism, recounting the true story of a spirited English noblewoman's attempt to survive the Terror. Ever the innovator, the octogenarian director also made one of the most creative uses yet of digital imagery.
Russian Ark (Alexander Sukorov, Russia). A history-making film: the first commercially released feature to be comprised of a single shot (a feat possible thanks, again, to digital technology). But Sukorov's witty, mesmerizing dream-trip through Russia's Hermitage Museum is no mere stunt; it's also a fascinating meditation on memory, art, Russian history and cinematic possibility. Upcoming in the Triangle.
Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, USA). Derived from Andrei Tarkovsky's '70s Russian sci-fi classic, Soderbergh's coolly modulated space odyssey returns us to the Planet of the High-Concept Art Film. Like Antonioni in outer space, with judicious nods to Kubrick's 2001, the year's most daring American film is no less fascinated with the interface between technology, desire and loss than was the director's groundbreaking sex, lies and videotape.
What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan). One of the Taiwanese cinema's modernist visionaries, Tsai continues to refine his spare style and seriocomic thematic preoccupations in this wry, wistful, weirdly humorous tale of a Taipei mother and son dealing with the loss of the paterfamilias. The great Asian masterpiece of 2002, the film unfortunately went unseen at Triangle art houses; it's now available on DVD.
About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, USA). Jack Nicholson's bravura turn as a suddenly widowed Omaha retiree--the first time in recent memory he's played a character rather than "Jack"--evokes the cinematic tradition the actor so memorably inhabited in Five Easy Pieces and other '70s classics. Like many of those films, Payne's sharply crafted road movie probes the American character with an intelligent mixture of sympathy and skepticism, humor and pathos.
10 (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran). Via a pair of mini-DV cameras mounted on a car's dashboard, Kiarostami watches and listens as several Tehran women--and one extraordinary little boy--argue, empathize and try to make sense of their private dissatisfactions. Less allusive than the director's past work, the film resembles a series of precise snapshots that insist on the importance of their emotional facticity. A spring release in the U.S.
In the Bathtub of the World (Caveh Zahedi, USA). Zahedi's digital diary of the year 1999, noted above, evokes the myriad delights and possibilities of poetic first-person cinema. Sure, anyone with a DV camera could make a similar work, but this one happens to have been crafted by an artist with an exceptionally keen sense of the new medium's formal potential. Order it from www.cavehzahedi.com.
The Hours (Stephen Daldry, USA). The lives of three women--Virginia Woolf in the '20s, a California housewife in the '50s, and a present-day New York lesbian--are interwoven in scripter David Hare's adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel. No auteur piece, this sumptuous modern version of the old-fashioned Hollywood literary melodrama rests on star turns by three great actresses: Nicole Kidman (whose Woolf is the film's masterstroke), Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep.
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, USA). Sure, Scorsese's evocation of the nativist-versus-immigrant gang wars of mid-19th century New York is a sprawling mess. Detractors dismiss it as nothing more, where we admirers find that the film's discombobulating energy, panoramic social canvas, wealth of expressive details and personal feeling add up to a brilliant if uneven whole.
Divine Intervention (Elia Suleiman, France/Palestine). Palestinian actor-auteur Suleiman visualizes the current bitter stalemate in the occupied territories as a bleak postmodern absurdist comedy. More Brechtian than embittered, this uniquely trenchant and original work was denied the possibility of a foreign-film Oscar on the grounds that Palestine is not a nation. It opens in early 2003.
Selected honorable mentions: Jiang Wen's Devils at the Doorstep, Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, Rob Marshall's Chicago, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' The Son, Paul Schrader's Auto Focus, Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle, Babak Payami's Secret Ballot, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Jia Zhang Ke's Unknown Pleasures, Ebrahim Hatamikia's Low Heights. Christopher Nolan's Insomnia.