1 BOOGIE NIGHTS Paul Thomas Anderson’s delirious porn-world epic is the most sheerly pleasurable movie I saw all year, and what makes it such a kicky and resonant experience is that its very subject is pleasure. Tracing the rise and fall of Dirk Diggler, a triple-X superstar who rides the waves of post-counterculture hedonism until he can’t stand up anymore, Anderson roots his movie in a definitive re-creation of the funky, bedazzled, cocaine-and-disco ’70s, an era that is only just beginning to enter the realm of pop mythology because it now seems like the last moment in American life when people simply did what they wanted. Anderson embodies that ecstatic, shoot-the-works spirit in the gleeful freedom of his filmmaking. You feel, at every moment, that he’s inlove with what he’s showing you, whether it’s Mark Wahlberg, as Dirk, flashing his beautiful gaze of macho innocence as he dreams of becoming a ”big bright shining star”; the high comedy of on-set porn shoots that play like Ed Wood without clothes; the cocky desperation of Burt Reynolds’ fleshpot auteur saying ”sexy!” in the back of a limo as he ”directs” a gruesomely unerotic hardcore video; the ferocity of Heather Graham’s Rollergirl removing her cheerleader mask to reveal the scary rage beneath; or — the year’s most indelible scene — the thrill-happy dementia of Alfred Molina’s motormouth addict merging himself with the chorus of ”Sister Christian,” a song that, in Boogie Nights, becomes a heavy metal requiem, a shrine to the eternal, unholy American quest for the next high.
2 THE SWEET HEREAFTER In this hypnotic modern fairy tale set in the snowy desolation of British Columbia, writer-director Atom Egoyan proves a master of rapturous emotional storytelling. The puzzle-obsessed gamesmanship of his previous work hasn’t gone away, though. It’s there in the teasing, lapidary brilliance with which he structures this adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel about the aftermath of a fatal school-bus accident. Egoyan, like a postmodern Hitchcock, reveals the details of the disaster only gradually, until it seems to have emerged from a disturbance in the universe. The Sweet Hereafter is a hymn to parental bereavement, yet you haven’t fully taken in the movie if you think it’s simply about the calamity of lost children, the impotent love with which questing attorney Ian Holm regards his homeless druggie daughter, or the incestuous relationship between a local teenager and her father. A work of spellbinding mysticism, The Sweet Hereafter is about the elusive connection between all those things — about a world in which darkness spreads invisibly, only to be checked by an equally ineffable voice of light.
3 TITANIC A miraculous entertainment that proves the magic of Hollywood is far from gone. In his haunting disaster epic, writer-director James Cameron orchestrates the kind of lush, old-style, grander-than-life spectacle that you thought no one made anymore. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet bring a cunning and playful sensuality to their opposite-sides-of-the-tracks love story, and the film invites us to revel in everything about their relationship that might, in the wrong hands, have devolved into winsome cliche. Where Titanic becomes a genuinely great movie — indeed, a film unlike any other — is in its mesmerizing final hour, where Cameron stages the sinking of the Titanic with an awe-inspiring realism unimaginable before the era of contemporary special effects. He puts us right on board that ship, creating a poeticized vision of 20th-century doom — clear-eyed, terrifying, impossibly romantic.