The best thing about living in New York City is that when the time comes to put together a year-end "Top 10 Movies" list, the choices are practically endless. Sometimes it feels like too many small theaters are showing too many small movies, but if you take enough chances, you're guaranteed to strike gold. Movies from this list screened at the shaggy Cinema Village, the slick IFC Center, and the criminally under-attended ImaginAsian. But special kudos go to the Two Boots Pioneer, which is still the city's best truly independent theater, and to Film Forum, which had a bumper crop of great retrospectives this year. So just in time for your Netflix queue, here's a list of the best 10 movies that came and went before anyone had a chance to see them.
10. Zebraman: Takashi Miike is better known as a purveyor of outrage, so no one expected him to make a warm, heartfelt tribute to fanboys everywhere. Gangster character actor Sho Aikawa plays an elementary school teacher overwhelmed and befuddled by everything in the world except his undying love for obscure, 1970s superhero Zebraman. And that turns out to be exactly what's needed to save the world when disgusting, jelly-headed aliens attack. It's an absurdist superhero movie that sends up flicks like "Batman Begins" while paying tribute to the honest, pure impulse that keeps us believing in heroes.
9. Paprika: "Shrek the Third"? "Surf's Up"? "Bee Movie"? It's enough to make you think animation is not just for children, but for dim children. Thank goodness for Satoshi Kon's dreamy, disorienting flick about a malfunctioning machine that allows therapists to travel through their patients' dreams. Though it features parades of forgotten toys, chorus lines of suicidal businessmen, and a consensus reality that bends and twists like space candy, at its heart "Paprika" is about a professional woman who's sacrificed her hopes and dreams to work in a man's world. But the film reminds us that sometimes our dreams are the best part of us.
8. Colma: The Musical: Shot on video for about a buck forty-nine and as rough and ragged as Nick Nolte's mug shots, Richard Wong's "Colma: The Musical" was Disney's "High School Musical" aimed at disaffected, smarty-pants teenagers. "Colma" references a Northern California town once established as a necropolis and still used as a burial place, but it serves Mr. Wong as a place of spiritual death where young residents rebel by breaking into peppy musical numbers. As heady and heartfelt as rereading your high school diary, it only took about five minutes and two songs before you realized that singer-composer-lyricist H.P. Mendoza is the Asian Stephen Sondheim.
7. & 6. Delirious/The Hottest State: Two movies ó one about celebrity and the other directed by a celebrity ó were derided by critics and ignored by audiences, and that's a shame. Tom DiCillo's "Delirious" was a freewheeling showcase for Steve Buscemi, a fairy tale of New York that managed to be at once deeply cynical and sugary sweet. And Ethan Hawke's "The Hottest State" was a go-for-broke flick about the embarrassing excesses of first love. In the latter, Laura Linney is great as a no-nonsense mama, but Mr. Hawke is astounding as her ex-husband. The intergalactic gulf between the 20-something Mr. Hawke who wrote the novel on which the movie was based and his grizzled onscreen character is an essay in disappointment.
Both movies are lumpy and neither is an unqualified success, but given absolute freedom, most directors will either fall flat or deliver something transcendent. In these two movies, Messrs. DiCillo and Hawke did both.
5. Dynamite Warrior: Just when you thought an action movie couldn't surprise you, this off-the-wall, Thai concoction by Chalerm Wongpim rides a wooden rocket right up your nose and blows off the top of your skull. As simple and mythic as an American Western, only focused on bouncing stunt-people off the burly backs of water buffalo, and featuring an unhealthy obsession with a virgin's menstrual blood, it's a black-magic vs. Muay Thai blowout, full of high-velocity nonsense that goes down just right with a six-pack and a bag of chips.
4. War and Peace (at film forum): This seven-hour film was the movie-going event of the year: part endurance challenge, part revelation. Michael Bay's got nothing on Sergei Bondarchuk's 1968 Russian adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, which is epic in its emotions, epic in its scale, and epic in the number of horses killed to craft its sense-shattering battle scenes. Taking it in all at once was the cineaste's equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. You do it because it's there, it changes your life, and if you haven't done it you wouldn't understand.
3. Election/Triad Election: If you missed this double feature at Film Forum, then you missed the best crime saga since Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather." Hong Kong gangsters vie to be elected leader of their family, torturing the opposition and collecting endorsements by any means necessary. At times, the tangle of alliances and betrayals threatens to sink the story, but director Johnny To's bracingly bleak message about China, capitalism, the free market, and the secret history of Hong Kong is as focused as a laser, cutting through layers of official hogwash like a red-hot knife.
2. The Taste of Tea: Like Ingmar Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander" on drugs, Katsuhito Ishii's "The Taste of Tea" is a vigorous rubdown for your soul, and it's required viewing for anyone who loves movies. The Haruno family has moved to the countryside: Mom is obsessed with completing her animated film, dad is a hypnotist, grandpa is in a band, Junior is always falling in love and trains keep exploding out of his head, and the family's 9-year-old daughter is literally haunted by her own 50-foot-tall doppelganger. It's a surrealist ode to joy.
1. The Disappointment; Or, The force of Credulity: Brian Springer's documentary about an obsessed treasure hunter (his actual father) is really about the ghosts that haunt America. Spirit possession, napalm, Indian massacres, and the history of early American opera blend into a hallucinogenic portrait of a nation bleeding from wounds that will never heal. It's an unexpected masterpiece, like finding a lost film by Errol Morris stuck behind your sofa cushions.