From here to obscurity

Many critics' lists honor little-seen films

Forget pirates in the Caribbean and comics from Kazakhstan. The barrage of top 10 lists from America’s major film critics are more interested in moody Romanian and French cinema.

The tastes of critics and auds have long veered in different directions. But in years where there are few major-studio faves that take up slots in the top 10 — such as “Schindler’s List” or “Million Dollar Baby” — the gulf widens even further.

Of the 30 choices by the three New York Times critics this year, 15 were foreign-language pics — nearly twice as many as in 2005.

Manohla Dargis of the N.Y. Times, for instance, gave six of her top 10 spots to indies or pics that weren’t even released theatrically in 2006; that’s up from four last year. Her choices included the relentlessly arty David Lynch epic “Inland Empire” as well as “Brand Upon the Brain!” Guy Maddin‘s B&W silent pic that can only be screened when accompanied by a live orchestra and elaborate voiceovers. Dargis’ No. 1 film? “Army of Shadows,” a movie about the French resistance in World War II that was first released in … 1969.

The L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan chose four films that weren’t released by a major studio or specialty division, including the rural period drama “Sweet Land” and micro-indie Iraq docus such as “My Country, My Country.”

At Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum reserved half the spots in her top 10 for small films, after giving them just two spots last year. Among her choices: the road-trip bildungsroman “Old Joy” (box office take: $170,000) and the Romanian medical drama “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (box office: $80,000). The latter, a favorite on many lists, drew a favorable review in Variety, which nonetheless described it as “two and a half hours of shaky handheld lensing about a man slowly expiring in a succession of hospitals.”

In 2005, when the specialty divisions reigned, titles like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Match Point” appeared on an overwhelming number of lists. But this year, there were few choices in common. On the lists of the six critics at the New York Times and L.A. Times, only two pics — “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” — appeared on more than half.

Without obvious candidates, critics may have indulged their more eclectic tastes, choosing movies that got only very limited release by microdistribs like Tartan USA and Kino Intl.

That may not be great news for the studios, but Romanian cineastes are surely rejoicing.