Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Once, we marveled at the flying gymnastics of Bruce Lee. Now it's Ang Lee who moves us, with a martial arts movie that defies the laws of gravity and blows away the conventions of the genre. The fluent Taiwanese director is no stranger to daring -- he's previously visited suburban America for The Ice Storm and eighteenth-century England for Sense and Sensibility -- but this transcendent kickfest may be his edgiest effort to date, a thrilling action movie that encloses two beautifully wrought love stories. It is balletically choreographed, elegantly shot and brimming with intelligence.
Wonder Boys. Curtis Hanson's first movie since L.A. Confidential didn't find an audience when it opened in February, but re-release has provided new life for this quirky, observant little comedy about a burnt-out English professor named Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) who can't put the lid on his unruly second novel, which is 2,100 pages long so far, and threatens to be a work in progress forever. Robert Downey Jr. (out of the joint on a day pass?) is wonderful as Tripp's bisexual literary agent, and the interplay between the pot-smoking protagonist and his genius protegé (Tobey Maguire) is surpassingly funny and moving.
You Can Count on Me. Kenneth Lonergan's beautifully written, perfectly acted independent feature is at once a drama about the unresolved traumas of childhood and a sly comedy about how sibling conflict tests the limits of family love. Set in a quiet village in upstate New York, it features Laura Linney as a wounded single mother trying to build a respectable life for herself and Mark Ruffalo as her wayward brother, who returns home with a resumé featuring odd jobs in half a dozen states, a fistful of broken romances and a stint in jail. That they relate at all is comic; that they strike an emotional bargain is a miracle.
A Time for Drunken Horses. The stark simplicity of Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's drama about a boy's quest to hold his family together in the face of poverty, disease and corruption does nothing to obscure its emotional power or the complexity of the geopolitical issues underlying it. In just eighty minutes, Ghobadi examines the courage of kids willing to become human pack mules trudging over snowy mountain passes for the sake of their siblings and, by extension, the plight of twenty million persecuted Kurds.
Croupier. In British filmmaker Mike Hodges's satisfyingly twisted drama, a writer played by Clive Owen hires on as a roulette dealer with the idea of turning out a potboiler about his experiences in the casino. But that goal, along with almost everything else, gets tangled up in Hodges's deliciously devious plot, in which no one and nothing is quite what it seems.
Gladiator. No big-budget extravaganza that features ravenous tigers in hot pursuit of vulnerable human flesh can be all bad, and Ridley Scott's revival of the fun and games in ancient Rome is not just exciting, it improves on the lavish helmets-and-breastplates epics of the 1950s. That's Russell Crowe as the Roman general Maximus, who's as beloved by his men as Colin Powell is by his. Naturally, the envious new emperor (Joaquin Phoenix) orders Maximus killed, and all our moviegoing rewards derive from this executive decision: bloodletting, enslavement and physical heroism aplenty.
Requiem for a Dream. In his second film, young Darren Aronofsky (Pi) gives us a savage and wholly convincing journey into the surreal terrors of drug addiction, and he gives controversial novelist Hubert Selby Jr. the vivid cinematic translation his book deserves. Jared Leto stars as a young Brooklyn junkie, Ellen Burstyn as his speed-addicted mother, and Jennifer Connelly as a fresh beauty swept into a maelstrom of depravity. Visually exciting and thoroughly unsettling, here's an authentic horror movie.
Quills. Imagine Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, locked in a cell but liberated of mind, Kate Winslet as the saucy laundress who sneaks his writings out to the printer, and Joaquin Phoenix as the jailkeeper/priest who forbids the scandalous marquis to publish. Philip Kaufman's wickedly funny indictment of censorship and sexual hypocrisy is both mischievous and artful.
Hamlet. In Michael Almereyda's spellbinding new take on Shakespeare, the Melancholy Prince, portrayed with vigor and passion by matinee idol Ethan Hawke, slouches through the concrete canyons of present-day Manhattan and is driven into his bleak funk by the ruthless power-mongers grappling for control of the shadowy Denmark Corporation. Almereyda takes liberties with the great tragedy in order to reignite it, and rock-ribbed traditionalists aren't likely to approve. Still, imagine "To be or not to be" delivered in the "Action" aisle at Blockbuster.
Billy Elliot. This year's hit British charmer is about a downtrodden coal miner's son who wants to be a ballet dancer. Yes, it falls squarely into the same triumph-over-trouble genre as The Full Monty and Brassed Off!, but it's sent aloft by the performance of young Jamie Bell, a whirling dervish who becomes a witty and winning screen presence. Movies can (and most often do) commit worse sins than strumming on the heartstrings; at least this strumming comes decorated with sharp observations on boyhood, class warfare and the stubbornness of provincial thought.