The Sorrow and the Pity

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

10. The Matrix Reloaded. You carped year after year about blockbuster movies having no plot, then when one finally comes out that's full to the brim with story, you complain that it's too confusing? Geez. Look, it may be hard to recall in hindsight, but back in 1980 people said the same things about The Empire Strikes Back that they're saying about Reloaded: It has an annoying cliffhanger ending that leaves a lead character in a coma; there's an irritating guru who speaks cryptically; it's unclear exactly what our hero's new "powers" are; it has big overblown action sequences; it undermines what we thought we knew about the story from the last film. Time, and DVD, will vindicate Reloaded, even though, like Empire, it was followed by an overly pat part three. Never predictable and boasting one of the all-time great cinematic villains in Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith, Reloaded is one hell of an ambitious sequel, and even the naysayers need to give it that. It should also be noted that if anyone were ever trying to tailor a movie directly to my interests, they couldn't do much better than a flick which combines theology, kung-fu, giant robots, multiple realities and black leather. (Luke Y. Thompson)

11. Cold Mountain. Anthony Minghella's magnificent film version of Charles Frazier's Civil War bestseller has much more going for it than Hollywood grandeur. Along with gruesome battle scenes populated with thousands of extras and Hollywood glamour -- Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are like beautiful pieces of china about to fall from a high shelf -- this grand-scale epic has the kind of moral force and intimate focus great movies about love and war demand. Based on nothing less than Homer's Odyssey (and the war experiences of the author's great-great-uncle), it's the tale of a wounded soldier trying to get home to his roots despite huge obstacles, and it's fluent, frightening and beautiful all at once -- a gorgeous piece of filmmaking you can feel in your heart and in your gut. Thanks to cinematographer John Seale, production designer Dante Ferretti and costumer designer Ann Roth, every bayonet thrust and jacket button look like the real thing (a must for hardcore Civil War re-enactors), and the period-authentic folk songs (selected by bluesman T-Bone Burnett) have just the right plaintive yearning. After all these decades, Gone With the Wind seems to be just that -- gone. Herewith, the new standard for Civil War drama onscreen. (Bill Gallo)

12. Mystic River. Dirty Harry Callahan never had much use for those soft-headed San Francisco judges, and Clint Eastwood's squint-eyed Western anti-heroes tended to shoot first and ask nothing later. But with this ominous, beautifully acted drama about crime and its traumatic consequences, director Eastwood's worldview seems to have taken a major turn. Sean Penn's seething ex-con, Tim Robbins' handyman and Kevin Bacon's wounded homicide detective have all accepted the rhythms and routines of everyday existence, but when a tragedy suddenly invades their lives, they are forced to confront the emotional pain of the past as well as the dark challenges of the present. Written by Brian Helgeland (from a novel by Dennis Lehane), the film gives Eastwood an opportunity even greater than the one he seized in Unforgiven to examine big issues like crime, guilt and the varieties of justice. Always sensitive to actors, Eastwood evinces splendid performances from his three principals (especially the gifted Penn) and from a supporting cast that includes Laura Linney, Emmy Rossum and Marcia Gay Harden. Of the 24 films Eastwood has directed, this is the darkest, the most intimate and, far and away, the most personal effort of them all. It may even constitute a kind of penance for his own past. (Bill Gallo)

Great American hero: Paul Giamatti as the delightfully downtrodden Harvey Pekar
Great American hero: Paul Giamatti as the delightfully downtrodden Harvey Pekar
Spellbound is E-X-C-E-L-L-A-N-T (ding!)
Spellbound is E-X-C-E-L-L-A-N-T (ding!)

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