By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Chris Packham
By David Kipen
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Caira LaVelle
Compiling a 10-best list this year proved difficult, not because there were so few interesting films, as the critical consensus holds, but because there were so many. The following films, although far from perfect, proved enormously involving and satisfying.
1. Quills. One of many films this year that falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category. I loved it for its wit, style, topnotch acting (by Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet and Geoffrey Rush) and for the many shades of gray that director Philip Kaufman brings to his subject matter. Savage and humorous in equal measure, the film is anything but a wholesale endorsement of unbridled free expression -- despite what some critics have alleged. Outstanding production values, starting with Martin Childs' production design.
2. Girlfight. A remarkable directorial debut from Karyn Kusama and an equally magnificent performance from first-time actress Michelle Rodriguez, who, regardless of whether she can scale such thespian heights again, was unquestionably born to play this role. She smolders with the repressed rage of a young Marlon Brando.
3. A Time for Drunken Horses. This Kurdish film from first-time feature director Bahman Ghobadi is the most extraordinary film of the year, as well as the most heart-wrenching. If I had passed a Peace Corps recruitment office on my way home, I would have unhesitatingly signed away my next two years. As it is, I increased my year-end donation to Doctors Without Borders and a multitude of foreign-aid agencies.
5. Wonder Boys. In addition to all of his other talents, Curtis Hanson is a wonderful director of actors. Michael Douglas gives his finest performance ever as a washed-up academic coping with an extended life crisis. Terrific support from Robert Downey Jr. and Frances McDormand.
6. Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. A documentary about German Jewish children who found a safe haven in England just before the outbreak of World War II. The extraordinary archival footage includes miraculously preserved home movies of Germany before the war, as seen through the eyes of children.
7. Luminous Motion. A dreamlike observation of loss and separation, this hypnotically involving, profoundly disturbing psychological drama was directed by Bette Gordon, a filmmaker previously unknown to me. Seeing this film made me want to rush out and rent everything she had ever made.
8. Goya in Bordeaux. Spanish director Carlos Saura and Italian-born cinematographer Vittorio Storaro reteam for this visually stunning journey through the last days of painter Franciso de Goya's life. Moody, atmospheric, hallucinatory.
9. Erin Brockovich. Finally, a studio picture that gets it totally right. Credit and kudos to director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Susannah Grant and actress Julia Roberts. Why can't they all be this good?
10. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A wondrous tale, told wondrously, that transports the viewer into a totally new and awesome universe. Thank you, Ang Lee.
Honorable mentions: The Big Kahuna, Tigerland, Butterfly, Pitch Black.
The normal preponderance of mediocrity in human affairs makes every year seem like a bad movie year, but a December review of this year's titles really was discouraging -- the rewards for going to the movies were unusually slim. Still, there were some bright spots.
1. Almost Famous.How could critics not love a movie about a critic who, while still a teenager, saves the soul of rock & roll and gets deflowered by a gang of groupies to boot? That surely accounts for some of the extremes of praise heaped on Cameron Crowe's coming-of-age boast. But for all its softness around the edges, this movie was the biggest bonbon of the year. It finally made Billy Crudup seem like a star, and Frances MacDormand turned her role from a running gag into one of the classic movie moms.
2. Requiem for a Dream. A dazzlingly directed and acted meditation on addiction, adapted from the Hubert Selby Jr. novel. This sophomore effort by director and co-adapter Darren Aronofsky marks a big leap from his debut feature, π.
3. Nurse Betty. Neil LaBute's grim satire about the blurred line between TV and real life has a lot more texture and purpose than his previous exercises in nastiness (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors). Renée Zellweger is touching in the title role, and Morgan Freeman hasn't had this good a part -- or given this fine a performance -- in years.
4. Hamlet. Even despisers of Ethan Hawke were amazed at the force and raw grief of his Dane in this ingenious modern-dress adaptation. Flawed -- how could any production of Hamlet not be flawed? -- but full of good performances, most notably by Sam Shepard as the Ghost.
5. Best in Show. Not as good as director/co-writer/star Christopher Guest's earlier effort, Waiting for Guffman, but still hemorrhage-inducingly hilarious for most of its length. Great dogs, too.
6. Shaft. Samuel L. Jackson lacks Richard Roundtree's sexual mojo, but his star quality, the superb turn by Jeffrey Wright as the villain and the good, jangling dialogue by Richard Price, Shane Salerno and director John Singleton make this a fine macho entertainment.
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