March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon *

Erin Brockovich

Gladiator

Traffic

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon turns even the most jaded moviegoer into a kid again, gazing at the screen with wide-eyed rapture. This romantic martial-arts drama set in 18th-century China transports viewers to a realm where emotions are felt more intensely, women get as much respect as men, and sword fights are conducted from the tops of swaying bamboo trees. Beautifully shot and acted, it was without question the best picture of the year (despite the barrier of Mandarin dialogue with English subtitles). There was no more moving moment onscreen in 2000 than when Michelle Yeoh, exulting in her love for fellow warrior Chow Yun Fat after many years of repressed mutual affection, looks at her palm clasped in his and tells him quietly, “My hand is real.”

As for the other nominees, my backup pick is Traffic, an ambitious, intelligent drama about the war on drugs, featuring a stellar ensemble cast. In descending order Erin Brockovich was tremendously entertaining and Gladiator proved rousing summer popcorn fare. Chocolat is the obvious runt of the litter, a slight confection requiring a strong sweet tooth.

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