Imperfect 10s

Picking the best of a bad movie year

Gregory Weinkauf
The cream of this year's film crop was carefully selected not only for the movies' countless wonderful qualities but because, as the list indicates, they form terrific thematic double features for contemplation and discussion. These days, there's plenty of evidence to indicate that now, more than ever, movies may not be our best entertainment value, but here are a few productions guaranteed to sustain the medium for at least another year. It takes a lot of nitpicking in reverse (a phrase lifted from The Contender) to find the gold, so, finally, here's the stuff. But don't take a critic's word, just see them. As Julie Walters sagely puts it, amid all those great T. Rex songs in the beautiful Billy Elliot: "Please yourself, darlin'."

1. Deranged Defenders: Nurse Betty and The Specials. Neil LaBute's best film so far could be chalked up to the ingeniously wry script by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, but massive credit also goes to Renée Zellweger's pitch-perfect performance as the delirious wannabe R.N. Meanwhile, Thomas Hayden Church and Rob Lowe will drop your jaw as the most preposterous dialogue of the year comes out of their silly superhero mouths in Craig Mazin's debut feature.

2. Ethical Entreaties: The Contender and Family Tree. It's easy to send a crack division of studly, violent idiots off to an exotic land to kill random, faceless enemies, but heroism on the home front is tricky business, and both Rod Lurie's muckraking and Duane Clark's leaf-raking succeed with a direct approach. Grace fills the performances of Joan Allen establishing a fair standard and Cliff Robertson defending a small town's heritage, and two vital battles are gently but firmly won.

3. Freedom Fighters: Chicken Run and Chocolat. Perhaps it's strange to equate butchery and religious oppression -- or perhaps it's not -- but these two films beautifully sum up the grandness of liberating the human spirit ... which is amusing, because one of them features Nick Park and Peter Lord's goofy little chunks of clay. The other, of course, features Juliette Binoche seducing an entire village with sweets.

4. Fulgent Fellas: High Fidelity and Orfeu. Stephen Frears invades Chicago, whereas Carlos Diegues reaches back into Greek myth to redefine a Brazilian classic, but, beneath the intensity of their respective soundtracks, both movies masterfully display the agony and ecstasy of a young man's romance. One imagines that if John Cusack met Tony Garrido, they'd have plenty to talk about.

5. Groovy Gals: Me Myself I and Trixie.The stars of the lush, heavy Hilary and Jackie return this year in separate projects, both whimsical and engaging for the discerning romanticist. In the former, Rachel Griffiths makes director Pip Karmel's fantastic and humdrum universe seem all of a piece; in the latter, Emily Watson's unparalleled malapropisms transform Alan Rudolph's caper flick into a light adventure for weirdos.

6. Hip Horrors: It's the Rage and Shadow of the Vampire. Some may shop at Wal-Mart, but America's gun lust might dwindle significantly if enough people caught James D. Stern's superb ensemble cast (including, once again, Joan Allen, as well as Anna Paquin and Andre Braugher) illustrating -- with great verve -- exactly why we have a big problem here. Interpreting horror more literally, E. Elias Merhige takes us back to the making of Nosferatu, wherein director F.W. Murnau (John Malkovich) employs a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to rid his production of "artifice."

7. Longing Lovers: Waking the Dead and Wonderland (Romantic Runners-up: The Closer You Get, Beautiful People, East Is East). It was a great year for love stories, especially unlikely ones like Keith Gordon's solemn, intense portrait of loss and Michael Winterbottom's blithe romp with lovelorn Londoners. Because this category was unusually rich, do yourself the favor of checking out the lovely honorable mentions.

8. Mortal Missions: Himalaya and Pitch Black. Director Eric Valli's powerful mythic journey through the mountains of Nepal bowed last year as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film. This year, it's received scanty viewings in this country, but it is well worth seeking out. Vin Diesel battling a bunch of yucky aliens may seem more like guilty pleasure, but a surprising morality play twists this quest into a level high above B.

9. Lascivious Liaisons: 8 1/2 Women and Don't Let Me Die on a Sunday. Goodness, Mr. Greenaway, does your blood ever cool? Apparently not, as the director of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover transposes kinky Euro-Japanese trysts over a father-son struggle for balance. Also titillating on the legitimate screen was Didier Le Pêcheur's sharp-witted entry, which somehow manages to stir some tact into a sea of tack as it grapples with sex and death.

10. Yearning Youths: Almost Famous and Billy Elliot. "Rock stars have kidnapped my son!" declares Frances McDormand in Cameron Crowe's semiautobiographical story of his curiously spent youth as a teenage music critic, and the journey offers more human insight from tour buses and hotel suites than seems possible. Pretty much the year's brightest star, however, was Jamie Bell transforming his little cosmic dancer into a global beacon. Enormous kudos to Stephen Daldry for his fine film.

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