Out of step with the times as usual, I can’t join the chorus of reviewers bemoaning the low quality of the past year’s movies. Of the roughly 70 films I wrote about in 2000, I’ve had no trouble coming up with enough new releases to fill a 10-best list.

If, as I believe, a classic movie lodges in your brain and refuses to vacate, Croupier affords, hands-down, the year’s outstanding cinematic experience as well as its most enigmatic. Like everyone I’ve spoken with who saw Croupier during its long local run, I was puzzled by the denouement and, after submitting my review, returned for another viewing. The second time around, I found it even more spellbinding and baffling.

Director Mike Hodges and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg have created an engrossing multileveled narrative about a struggling writer who takes a job in a second-rate London casino to support himself and gather material for a book. Dashing, swarthy Clive Owen gives a knockout performance in the title role, strongly supported by Gina McKee as his ex-cop girlfriend, Kate Hardie as a disenchanted fellow croupier, and Alex Kingston as a mysterious South African adventurer.

Having pondered Croupier since April, my present take on it—subject to further revision—is that Hodges and Mayersberg are less concerned with gaming and writing than with the mechanisms of manipulation. Just as croupiers preside over the fates of gamblers and shrewd authors remain at least one jump ahead of their readers, the filmmakers have contrived a cunning snare to ambush viewers. In the movie’s final shot, the camera descends into the darkness of the roulette table cache where the losers’ chips are swept. Could this be Hodges and Mayersberg’s parting joke, a self-congratulatory celebration of their success in luring us into a conundrum that has no solution?

And I have yet to meet anyone who hasn’t reacted strongly to writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Some find it banal, overblown, and interminable. Others share my enthusiasm for a movie that kicks off in emotional and cinematic overdrive and sustains its intensity for three hours. Drawing on the structural experiments of D.W. Griffith and Robert Altman, Anderson interweaves the spiritual crises of more than a dozen characters, all played out in a single day on the titular San Fernando Valley street. Magnolia combines a gallery of extraordinary performances (by Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Melora Walters, and, surprisingly, Tom Cruise) with an emphatic formal style—careening camera movements, hothouse colors, and a vibrant soundtrack. Two daring sequences—a melting montage in which the major characters sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” and the climactic manifestation of a biblical plague—highlight Anderson’s harrowing meditation on the possibility of redemption in a darkling world.

Released in February and reissued last month, director Curtis Hanson and screenwriter Steve Kloves’ faithful adaptation of Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon’s 1995 novel, twice failed to attract audiences. When movies as smart and funny as this one fail, who can blame Hollywood for continuing to crank out formulaic twaddle? True, its subject matter—the misadventures of a writer whose life and art have spun out of control—might seem a bit too arcane for escapist moviegoers, but the film’s offbeat characters and pungent dialogue are consistently delightful. Michael Douglas, in the performance of his career, stars as Grady Tripp, a rumpled, pot-addled novelist dumped by his wife, in trouble with his married mistress, and wrestling with a manuscript that has grown to 2,612 pages with no end in sight. Tobey Maguire, who has mastered the wily art of underplaying, shines as a creative-writing student with pathological tendencies, and Robert Downey Jr. effortlessly inhabits a role that, lamentably, he was born to play—Grady’s stoned, bisexual editor. Even taking into account Frances McDormand’s miscasting as Grady’s university-chancellor paramour and an unconvincing feel-good coda, how can one resist a dark comedy involving a tuba-playing transvestite and the fur-collared jacket that Marilyn Monroe wore on the day she married Joe DiMaggio?

Neatly sidestepping the clichés of contemporary gay cinema (sitcomish affirmation, AIDS melodrama), Urbania, Jon Shear’s directorial debut, begins as a sinister comedy and evolves into something more profound—a study of loss and retribution. Charlie, a 30-ish Manhattanite, unsparingly played by Dan Futterman, wanders Greenwich Village’s hallucinatory night streets, mourning the absence of his lover while trailing a leather-clad fag-basher, the apparent object of his restless desire. Shear and screenwriter Daniel Reitz interweave Charlie’s experiences with his memories and fantasies in a fragmented narrative that fuses when he ultimately confronts his prey. A challenging and, ultimately, shattering experience.

Is it possible to sustain a purely sexual relationship? Director Frédéric Fonteyne and screenwriter Philippe Blasband return to this question, famously posed by Last Tango in Paris, in An Affair of Love, a chamber piece about two erotically venturesome middle-aged people (Nathalie Baye and Sergi López) who meet through a personal ad. After several trysts, their relationship unexpectedly blossoms into a profound emotional attachment that draws them to the brink of commitment. Splendidly acted and sensitively directed, An Affair of Love impels us to reflect on the connection between passion and tenderness.

In Rats, D.C. filmmaker James M. Felter appropriately takes his camera to Willard Street NW, the locus for his feature-length documentary about rodents who, according to some sources, outnumber the District’s human residents by a ratio of as many as 14-to-1. Felter combines footage of the furry creatures foraging through trash bags and dumpsters with interviews of people whose lives are affected by them: neighbors, trash men, exterminators, and representatives of civic and animal-rights groups. Even Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, and a callously indifferent Marion Barry turn up in the mix, but the most eloquent subjects are the homeless scavengers and drug addicts forced to compete with rodents for survival. Rats, premiered at Filmfest DC, climaxes with a brilliant climactic coup de cinéma: a shot that begins with the Fourth of July fireworks display on the Mall, then pans across the city’s rooftops to end in an alleyway swarming with vermin.

Set in Toronto during a long weekend in which the city is consumed by the disappearance of a 3-year-old child, Canadian writer-director Jeremy Podeswa’s ensemble piece The Five Senses presents us with a collection of sympathetic individuals at crossroads in their lives. Despite a questionable structural gimmick (the association of major characters with specific physical senses) and a bathetic subplot (about a music-loving ophthalmologist facing deafness), Podeswa’s film combines unexpectedly shifting moods and tones with splendid performances, notably by Gabrielle Rose as a lonely, widowed masseuse, Nadia Litz as her alienated teenage daughter, Mary-Louise Parker as a baker of elaborately decorated but insipid cakes, and Daniel MacIvor as a lovelorn gay housekeeper who believes that he can “smell” love. Seamlessly photographed, scored, and edited, The Five Senses is one of the year’s most promising directorial debuts.

Screenwriter Howard Rodman adapted Joe Gould’s Secret from literary journalist Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker essays about the Harvard-educated Greenwich Village eccentric, an intellectual vagrant who claimed to devote his life to a single, obsessive writing project, The Oral History of Our Time. Ian Holm’s star turn as the drunken, defiant, lecherous Gould is neatly balanced by actor-director Stanley Tucci’s understated performance as his courtly chronicler. After a leisurely opening, the film gains substance, evoking both the look and spirit of Manhattan’s bohemian enclave in the ’40s and ’50s, a fellowship of men and women who became artists not for wealth and celebrity but because they could not contain their passionately held visions and beliefs. More than the story of a nonconformist and his Boswell, Joe Gould’s Secret is a poetic elegy for a lost and surely richer world.

The most enjoyable heist movie in years, the unenticingly titled Where the Money Is barely made a blip on critical and commercial radar screens. Paul Newman stars as a crafty career larcenist who feigns a stroke in order to be transferred from prison to a nursing home, where he’s placed in the care of a bored ex-prom queen (Linda Fiorentino), who suspects that he’s faking his paralysis. Ingeniously uncovering his secret, she blackmails him into masterminding a robbery involving her and her vapid husband (Dermot Mulroney). Newman’s artfully sly performance—restricted solely to eye movements in the film’s opening reels—spurs a fast-moving, witty entertainment written by E. Max Frye and directed by Marek Kanievska. Although marred by a clumsily arbitrary resolution, Where the Money Is credits viewers with possessing intelligence and an adult sense of humor.

Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is an intimate domestic drama, stocked with multidimensional characters. Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo play siblings Sammy and Terry, who were orphaned as children and now struggle to sustain a troubled relationship. Sammy is a churchgoing single mother whose life is unsettled by an unexpected visit by her quarrelsome kid brother, a brooding drifter who becomes a surrogate father figure for her overprotected young son (Rory Culkin). As the plot unfolds, we discover that Sammy’s controlled façade conceals a reckless streak, and Terry’s rebelliousness is largely a shield to protect his vulnerability. Ruffalo’s edgy, magnetic performance ensures him future stardom, and Linney confirms the promise that she’s previously displayed in television and stage appearances.

Several films merit honorable mention. Roco Belic’s documentary Genghis Blues affectingly profiles blind blues singer-guitarist Paul Peña’s odyssey to Tuva to participate in a festival of that remote Asian republic’s esoteric musical form, throat singing. Raymond De Felitta’s Two Family House, set on Staten Island in 1956, is a warm-hearted, unmawkish story about a Korean War vet’s professional and romantic frustrations. Filmfest DC premiered Ferzan Ozpetek’s Harem Suaré, an exotic account of the rise and fall of a young Italian woman who becomes part of a sultan’s harem in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. And the Reel Affirmations festival introduced Amy Goldstein’s East of A, a thoughtful comedy-drama chronicling a decade in the lives of three unconventional 20-somethings sharing a loft in Manhattan’s East Village, as well as Rollercoaster, Canadian Scott Smith’s dark, rough-hewn directorial debut about five outcast teenagers who invade an abandoned amusement park.

Add to these a few glowing contributions to otherwise marginal movies: Penélope Cruz’s radiance and the lyrical bossa nova score that illuminate Woman on Top; Amanda Peet’s deliciously saucy turn as a dental receptionist who dreams of becoming a gangland hit woman in The Whole Nine Yards; newcomer D.J. Qualls as an insecure dork whose interstate adventures transform him into a self-assured swinger in Road Trip; the impressive, naturalistic ensemble acting in Michael Winterbottom’s gloomy Wonderland; and Billy Crudup’s finely shaded interpretation of a drug-addicted nomad who finds redemption in Jesus’ Son.

I don’t want to depress readers or myself by dwelling at length on the worst films that I saw this year. But I’d advise anyone who thinks that movie reviewing is some kind of dream job to sit through these fiascoes before seeking employment: Isn’t She Great, The Next Best Thing, Bossa Nova, Love’s Labour’s Lost, What Lies Beneath, Whipped, Duets, Stardom, The Perfect Storm, and Committed. CP