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Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2003

Cinema in the shadow

2002 was a year in which so many films, both good and bad, profound and shallow, seemed to exist in the resonating echoes of the fallen Twin Towers. "Kandahar," "Apocalypse Now Redux," "Black Hawk Down," "Malli," "Collateral Damage," "Delbaran," "Gangs of New York" -- very little art was left unscarred by real life. Even escapist flicks like "Spiderman" took on new meaning (or pretended to).

So it may seem rather strange to put David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" at the top of my list. Lynch is not only an apolitical director, but an antirealist who defies interpretation. But in a year in which mediocrity was the norm and imagination the exception, Lynch's resolutely idiosyncratic retreat into the deepest, darkest regions of the subconscious was more than welcome.

1) "Mulholland Drive"

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David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive"

The culmination of all David Lynch's obsessions -- dreams, doppelgangers, diners, dwarves, siren singers and succubi -- in one elegantly terrifying film. Part ode to Hollywood's bygone glamour, part psychotropic thriller and part surrealist prank, it ends with a precipitous plunge that keeps the mystery intact. The ultimate meaning of "Mulholland Drive" -- like Stanley's Kubrick's "2001" -- will still be debated for decades to come.

2) "Apocalypse Now Redux"

The longer version actually doesn't improve on what is already one of the greatest films ever made, but any excuse to see Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece on the big screen is welcome. It's interesting to view it next to "Black Hawk Down"; Ridley Scott can do helicopter assaults just as well, but shies away from the big picture. Coppola dared to wrestle with questions of power, morality and sanity itself (his own included) and, through sheer ambition, won big-time.

3) "Monsoon Wedding"

This one is simply a joy to watch. You laugh, you cry, and -- thanks to Mira Nair's thoughtful approach -- you get a pretty good picture of India's rapidly changing attitudes about love, sex and family. Also proves that low-budget films don't have to look like Dogma '95 crap.

4) "Amores Perros"

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Alejandro Gonzales Inarrittu's "Amores Perros"

Alejandro Gonzales Inarrittu's debut crossed the depth and richness of a novel with the high-impact wallop of reality TV. His ability to intricately entwine several different storylines is as assured as Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, while his focus on the capriciousness of fate recalls Krystof Kieslowski's best. This is a filmmaker to watch.

5) "Love Songs"

Avant-garde veteran Star Brakhage's retrospective collection of "visual music" boasted more stunning imagery than any of this year's big budget SFX blockbusters. Brakhage's low-tech approach involves painting directly onto film, and the results are something like a Jackson Pollock canvas come to life. Brakhage's worlds are full of color and movement, both explosive and delicate, rhythmic and free flowing. Abstract, yes, but it's easy to imagine DNA dancing or the birth of a galaxy.

6) "Martha . . . Martha"

Nobody can work in a realist mode better than Sandrine Veysset, and this story of a young mother plagued by feelings of doubt was her finest work to date. The cast playing husband, wife and daughter sink into their roles so fully that you'll surely forget this was scripted and be swept away by this torrent of raw emotion.

7) "Malli"/"Gangs of New York" (tie)

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Santosh Silvan's "Malli"

The two most timely and profound explorations of the year's central question, terrorism and the response to violence. Santosh Sivan's beautifully shot tale of a female suicide bomber in Sri Lanka explored the mind-set of the fanatic and expertly worked in a humanist critique of such nihilism. Martin Scorsese takes a less clear-cut approach with his epic saga of ethnic violence in Civil War-era Mahattan, but raises many sharp questions about vengeance and transcending the cycle of violence.

8) "Donnie Darko"

A curious little indie flick about teenage romance, a giant invisible rabbit and the end of the world, this slightly gothic take on suburban life and death played like a John Hughes flick crossed with Philip K. Dick. It proved to be too weird for some, but there was method to the madness, as director Richard Kelly balanced the crazier time-travel aspects with a warm emotional realism, resulting in strangely moving melancholy.

9) "Storytelling"

Todd Solondz continues to provoke, but alone among the purveyors of "transgressive" cinema, his shock tactics are designed to make you think. This vicious little satire of contemporary suburban sensibilities is an equal-opportunity flamethrower, scorching both liberal PC hypersensitivity as well as conservative callousness. As outrageous as it is funny, "Storytelling" walks a razor's edge.

10) "Gosford Park"

Robert Altman returned to form with his finest film in a decade, an incisive look at the British aristocracy on the eve of the Empire's decline. The structure of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery set in an "Upstairs, Downstairs" sort of mansion allowed Altman to riff on the peculiarities of class privilege and nobility. Amusingly cynical, and with at least a dozen engaging performances.

Runners-up: "Minority Report," "The Claim," "Happy Times," "In The Bedroom," "Y tu mama tambien," "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Delbaran," "The Hired Hand"

Best eye-candy: "Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"

Biggest turn-on: "Mulholland Drive," a good-night kiss to remember. . .

Biggest turn-off: "Intimacy," overlit and loveless . . .

Best actor: Gael Garcia Bernal ("Amores Perros," "Y tu mama tambien")

Best actress: Naomi Watts/Laura Elena Harding ("Mulholland Drive")

Best soundtrack: "Monsoon Wedding"; "The Royal Tennenbaums"

Best rerelease: "The Hired Hand"

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