By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
By Zachary Wigon
By Scott Foundas
Were it not for the play of our own imaginations and our enjoyment of the fanciful excursions of others, we'd be limited to the world within reach of immediate time and space. Fortunately, worldwide, talented individuals create memorable films transporting us to fresh insights and breathtaking experiences. Politically sophisticated, personally confrontational and highly engrossing, each lingers in the head and heart for days, weeks, months.
1. Saving Private Ryan: Using "the good war," Steven Spielberg mounts a gut-wrenching D-Day invasion, terrifying testimony to combat horrors. Sure, he gets schematic and preachy, but he also delivers a moral imperative by way of a haunting series of events.
2. Mrs. Dalloway: With Eileen Atkins' screenplay and a luminous Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway, Dutch director Marleen Gorris suggests exquisite emotional conflict: regret, rationalization, joy and sadness, all woven into a story of nightmarish World War I flashbacks. Mrs. Dalloway provides a transcendent immersion in Virginia Woolf's novel.
3. and 4. Affliction and The Butcher Boy: These are two of the most honest, scathing depictions of the effects of alcoholism. In Affliction (based on Russell Banks' novel), father James Coburn and son Nick Nolte expose the brutally debilitating emotional and physical abuse that alcoholics visit upon their families and the innumerable ways they destroy their own lives. Similarly, The Butcher Boy follows a resourceful 12-year-old boy (a phenomenal Eamonn Owens) struggling desperately to cope but snapping. Both films interweave multiple subplots, achieving three-dimensional portraits.
5. and 6. Central Station and Eternity and a Day: In director Walter Salles' metaphor for Brazilian history, Dora (a superb Fernanda Montenegro) rescues and accompanies 9-year-old Josue in his search for his father. Moving from cynicism to compassion, she finds her own salvation in the process. Similarly, in Theo Angelopoulos' Eternity and a Day, a despondent man (Bruno Ganz), near death, battles memories and befriends an illegal Albanian immigrant boy. Aesthetically charged compositions present a minimalist, mesmerizing narrative (1998 Cannes Palme d'Or winner).
7. The General: Director John Boorman's gorgeous widescreen black-and-white chronicle of infamous Irish criminal Martin Cahill. This delicate balance of understanding and condemnation soars through Brendan Gleeson's performance (Best Actor at Cannes).
8. Life Is Beautiful: Daring to mock the Nazis' incomprehensible inhumanity and thereby to repel its emotional conquest, Italian writer/director/star Roberto Benigni segues from slapstick to precarious ridicule. Sent to a concentration camp, his character triumphs through an unbowed spirit.
9. Men with Guns: Fiercely independent writer/director John Sayles sends a widowed doctor (Federico Luppi) on an archetypal quest into the countryside, where he confronts the realities of army-vs.-guerilla warfare. In an unnamed Latin American country, the peasants are caught in the middle and the doctor's willful ignorance surrenders to tragic truths in this unhurried, mythic tale.
10. The Celebration: Danish director Thomas Vinterberg watches a family, reunited for the patriarch's 60th birthday, confront incest, suicide, adultery and, above all, denial. This exuberant, unconventional experiment features wild handheld camerawork, natural lighting and sound, on-location shooting and bold performances.
11. The Truman Show: Director Peter Weir makes one of the most playful but stinging indictments of life for, by and of television. Touching on similar themes, Pleasantville was, well, pleasant and nostalgic, but Truman denigrated and mocked our own media-driven mentality.
12. Shakespeare in Love: This wonderfully written Elizabethan romp fancifully and cleverly connects Shakespeare's loves, writer's block and artistic invention. Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes shine.
13. Happiness: This unique, uneven and at times unpleasant look at sensitive sexual issues is sometimes too glib; nevertheless, Todd Solondz's film is a remarkably striking consideration of desperation, loneliness and perversion.
14. Japanese cinema: Legendary director Shohei Imamura's The Eel, Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks and Sabu's Postman Blues testify to the vigor of contemporary Japanese cinema. Each expertly combines subtle suggestion and careful candor, comedy and pathos in unique, appealing ways.
15. Iranian cinema: Another national cinema well worth watching. More minimalist than American films, slowly (yes, sometimes maddeningly slowly) paced, the simplicity is as profound as it is refreshing. Examples include Abbas Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry (the 1997 Cannes Palme d'Or winner) and Sohrab Shahid-Sales' Still Life (both included in Webster University's Iranian film festival), Mohammad-Ali Talebi's Bag of Rice (St. Louis International Film Festival) and Samira Makhmalbaf's The Apple (Cannes and Telluride).
Kudos also to art direction, costumes and Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth; Jane Horrocks in Little Voice; the quirky, delightful Waking Ned Devine, set in a lovely Irish village (actually shot on the Isle of Man); and The Castle, a hilarious Australian film.
It's been a great year for film.
In one of the early scenes of The Stupids, John Landis' rather silly adaptation of a popular series of children's books released almost unnoticed in 1996, Stanley Stupid (Tom Arnold), the patriarch of a family with a severe case of common-sense deficiency, walks out of his house and checks his list of "things to do today."
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