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Shut Up and Watch!

If you didn't like this year's movies, you didn't look hard enough. The RFT's film critics weigh in on their faves of the year.

Luke Y. Thompson

When people say it's been a bad year for movies, what they often mean is "Of the big, hyped studio movies that opened at my local multiplex, most were less satisfactory than I expected." So don't blame the movies, because you didn't look for the good ones. I've had people tell me this year was bad, then admit they had never heard of Ghost World or Memento or ... well, we'll get to my list in a minute. Honestly, if you truly thought Pearl Harbor and Planet of the Apes would be great films, you deserved to be disappointed.

This is not to say it's been a perfect year, either. Numerous films had wonderful moments without being truly great; even the botch-job Pootie Tang had a couple of transcendent scenes. If I could have shortened In the Bedroom and The Princess and the Warrior and Mulholland Drive, deleted John "Jar Jar" Leguizamo from Moulin Rouge, cut the Smash Mouth songs from Shrek, recast the Peter Stormare and Jimmy Smits roles in The Million Dollar Hotel, rewritten the ludicrous deus ex machina coincidence in Training Day and tweaked the endings of Donnie Darko and The Others, they might have made my list. But they're all still well worth a look.

I've opted not to include on my list some excellent Japanese films: Kinji Fukasaku's high-school bloodbath Battle Royale, Mamoru Oshii's Avalon and the anime biopic Spring and Chaos, which told the life story of poet Kenji Miyazawa as enacted by anthropomorphic cats and hallucinogenic visuals. None has yet had a theatrical run, and only Spring and Chaos is available in the United States on DVD. Avalon may soon be dubbed into English for release on these shores by Miramax, which is a terrible idea; sci-fi or not, it's a slow-paced art-house film (think eXistenZ if David Cronenberg had ever actually played a video game during his life) that won't cross over but could do well in limited release if handled well.

Before we get to the best features of the year, though, here are some "awards" in other categories.

Best Documentary: William Gibson: No Maps for These Territories. Gibson's writing is often tedious, but the man proves articulate and compelling, especially when seated in the back of a car that appears to be driving across different dimensions.

Best Short Film: Commercial for Golden Sun for Nintendo GameBoy Advance. Minute for minute, this ad -- which pits angelic statues and skeletons against an opera-house orchestra and singer, culminating when a chandelier morphs into a dragon and shatters -- is some of the year's finest filmmaking. Video-game commercials are often the most vital forms of surrealism we have, ever since rock videos essentially abdicated that throne.

Best Re-release: Akira. Finally translated correctly, the 1987 anime is revealed as the classic it was all along, now that we can understand it properly.

Best Trend:Onscreen nudity. From let-it-all-hang-out indies such as Baise-moi and Dancing at the Blue Iguana to big-screen babes Halle Berry, Piper Perabo and Penélope Cruz baring all, this was a great year for pissing off the fundamentalists. We critics aren't supposed to admit we like this stuff, for some reason.

Most Overrated Movie: Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's cool to love a freaky trannie, and middle-aged critics just long to be hip. But get past the admittedly rockin' soundtrack, and you'll find that not one of the characters, save the unlikable lead, is well developed, and what little story there is is poorly told, with key relationships going unexplained. A cult film it is; a great movie it is not.

And now a drum roll, please, for the best of the best. Bear in mind that I haven't seen everything, but chances are I've seen more than you have.

1. (tie) Ghost World and Amélie. Two sides of the same coin: raven-haired beauties who'd rather intellectualize their world from a distance than actually live in it (anyone who writes for a living can relate). Watch the two films as a double feature and imagine that on her last bus ride, Thora Birch morphs into Audrey Tautou, then ends up in a fantasy Paris. It makes more sense than Mulholland Drive.

2. Spy Kids. The best children's movie in a decade or so, and the smartest comedy of the year, loaded with visual gags and imagination. Ten years from now, today's youngsters will smoke pot to this film in their dorm rooms. Just ignore the gratuitous and horrible bonus scene added for the "special edition."

3. Memento. Yeah. What everyone else said.

4. Session 9. Crushed when it opened opposite The Others, Brad Anderson's low-budget art horror flick reinvigorates the genre and makes David Caruso look like a good actor. Boasts some of the year's best dialogue scenes, as well as the biggest scares.

5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Even Chris Columbus couldn't screw this one up. Movies were meant for spectacle like this; they just usually forget to include a plot. This one had so much it actually put some people off. Kudos to scripter Steven Kloves for his subtle, yet faithful, tweaks to J.K. Rowling's world.

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