The Sorrow and the Pity

In a year of big-screen sadness, our critics comfort those who triumphed

5. American Splendor. With hard-luck humor, downtrodden honesty, an achingly real leading man and stunning yet low-key formal innovation, American Splendor may be the most humble work of genius to grace screens this year. Playing alongside the real article, Paul Giamatti is irresistible as Harvey Pekar, the disheveled Cleveland file clerk who gained a cult following by documenting his sometimes excruciating, sometimes merely banal life in the comic-book series that shares the movie's title. As Pekar's pasty, unimpressed wife Joyce Brabner (who also appears in the film), Hope Davis is hilarious and deadpan. The couple's winningly abbreviated courtship leads to a marriage that somehow, despite mutual contempt and neurotic pathology, emerges as loving and kind. When the kid enters the picture, the family flirts with happiness. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini build the story frame by frame and brick by brick, using animation and a partial set against a white screen to evoke both the creation of a comic book and the creation of a life. When the actors and the real-life people appear in the same frame, the result is breathtaking. Ultimately, the film is sheer elegance, flitting lightly among multiple narrative forms with an utter lack of pretense. (Melissa Levine)

6. Spun. At once outrageously unpleasant and shockingly sensitive, this belly-flop into hipster drug culture proves an auspicious feature debut for Jonas Akerlund, who previously helmed music videos for Madonna, Moby and U2 (and apparently met their agents). A three-day odyssey through Southern Hell-afornia, the seemingly familiar story by fledgling screenwriters Will De Los Santos and Creighton Vero charts the paths of addicts who' graduated from Red Bull. These speed freaks include Brittany Murphy as a stripper and Mickey Rourke as the macho-pathetic meth man known as the Cook; both deliver genuinely moving performances at the heart of absolute madness. Our "hero" is Jason Schwartzman, channeling Dustin Hoffman by way of a zip demon -- demented, cruel and unlikable (he leaves his "date" tied up in his fleapit for the whole movie), he fits in perfectly. In addition, we get Judas Priest's Rob Halford as a porn store clerk, Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit as a walking pimple farm, Deborah Harry as a nosy dyke and Mena Suvari grunting on the toilet (thanks, honey). Yes, Billy Corgan's score and the wistful driving montages grow a little tiresome, but the conclusion is a blast, and the overall impact feels almost true enough to qualify as documentary. (Gregory Weinkauf)

7. Whale Rider. This wonderful film contains the year's finest scene, and it's deceptively simple: no bombast, no special effects, just one young girl (brilliant Keisha Castle-Hughes) in traditional Maori attire, singing in a pageant and aching for the approval of her stubborn chieftain grandpa (Rawiri Paratene, aces), who doesn't show up. Volumes are spoken. In adapting Witi Ihimaera's poetic novel, writer-director Niki Caro delivers a gem, sans pretense (she doesn't fear entertaining us) and sans melodrama (the heartstrings are honestly strummed). If The Lord of the Rings concerns the dawn of the "Age of Men," Whale Rider essays its dreamy twilight, offering a sneak preview of this new millennium. Without resorting to "feminism," it illustrates how stupid men look when they're fighting anything but Orcs, neutralizing manly madness with a shot of natural wisdom as big as a whale. Part family drama, part fable, part parable, it's a portrait of Girl Power that doesn't make its heroine into another female dickhead, but rather allows her to falter and eventually, humbly, claim her birthright as a leader. Call it bathetic if it makes you feel superior, but this film shares the top of my list for having the guts to be gentle and intelligent. (Gregory Weinkauf)

Renée Zellweger gets serious in Cold Mountain
Phil Bray/Miramax Films
Renée Zellweger gets serious in Cold Mountain

8. The Fog of War. At the opening of The Fog of War, the brilliant documentary from director Errol Morris, we see a composed, sharply groomed, middle-aged Robert McNamara, preparing to brief the press on the Vietnam War. Before he speaks, he wants to know one thing: Are the cameras rolling? Now, 40 years later, the media-savvy, media-weary McNamara is face-to-face with one of our country's most accomplished documentarians in a feature-length interview -- once again, answering questions about his role in Vietnam. Morris comes neither to praise McNamara nor to bury him; instead, he invites the former Secretary of Defense (whose remarkable life placed him in positions of power during much of the twentieth century) to show us how things looked to him then and how they appear now. It is a film, essentially, about the lessons of a single life, albeit a life that influenced the lives of many others. Whatever else you can say about him, McNamara is a grappler, determined to learn from his mistakes. As a result, The Fog of War never falls neatly into any single or obvious camp of opinion; instead, it courts complexity, engaging the difficulties of potentially unanswerable questions with honesty, bravery and intellectual rigor. (Melissa Levine)

9. 21 Grams. An open wound of a film, this tale of loss, grief, guilt and redemption contains brilliant work by a trio of superb actors: Sean Penn (outdoing even his performance in Mystic River), Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. The film marks the second collaboration between Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who helped to usher in a renaissance of Latin American cinema three years ago with their extraordinary Amores Perros. Like that earlier picture, the English-language 21 Grams concerns the aftermath of a fatal car accident and the three individuals whose fates become intertwined as a result of the tragedy. While the nonlinear storytelling takes some getting used to -- and will be considered an unnecessary intrusion by some viewers -- nothing can detract from the powerful emotions and anguished themes that lie at the film's center. Brutal, painful, honest, brilliant. (Jean Oppenheimer)

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