The good, the bad and the really ugly
Three notes before diving into the annual look at which films soared or sunk. First, while the top five on my Best list are firm, I juggled the other titles repeatedly right up to deadline, so don’t take the numbering too seriously. Second, please note the absence of Gigli from the Worst list. Why? Because, despite the critical feeding frenzy over the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez movie, it really wasn’t that bad. Finally, if you find any of the titles intriguing, rest assured that they will all be available on DVD within the next six months or so. Best 1. LOST IN TRANSLATION
Written and directed by Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), Lost in Translation is a perfect soufflé — a drama with laughs, a study of dislocation and a valentine to Tokyo. Bill Murray, in the best performance of his career, plays a movie star in Japan, suffering from jet lag, insomnia and a midlife crisis. Scarlett Johansson, in a breakthrough performance, is a disaffected wife suffering from insomnia, marital blues and a lack of direction. The two meet while wandering around their Tokyo hotel and cautiously forge an alliance. Coppola and company get everything right.
2. CITY OF GOD
Divided into chapters covering three decades, this dazzling based-on-fact marvel shows how Cidade de Deus (City of God), a housing project erected on the fringe of Rio in the ’60s, changed from a shantytown with a juvenile crime problem into an otherworldly war zone where little boys play with real guns. Filmmaker Fernando Meirelles offers an epic that is horrifying for its unflinching presentation of an ongoing contemporary tragedy but exhilarating for the style and passion with which it is unveiled.
3. AMERICAN SPLENDOR
A grouchy file clerk from Cleveland, Harvey Pekar created a comic book based on his daily life, with drawings provided by a number of noted genre artists, including R. Crumb. These comics brought a measure of fame, which led to this wonderfully funky, wildly imaginative movie, incorporating bits of animation, great live-action performances from Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, plus appearances from the real Harvey and those close to him.
4. IN AMERICA
Writer/director Jim Sheridan’s tale follows an Irish family, still reeling from the death of their youngest child, that emigrates to New York, settling in a tenement building to start life anew. It is a beautifully acted, deeply satisfying journey that is heartfelt but never syrupy. Even the ending is a small marvel, as the film turns to the viewer and comes up with just the right image and words to properly send each of us on our way.
5. FINDING NEMO
A papa fish, aided by a sweet-natured lady fish with no short-term memory, searches the seas for his son in this animated triumph from the Toy Story people. Aided by a smart, evocative score, the story is funny and moving, with the best computer animation the studio has ever done. But the heart of the saga comes from the inspired teaming of Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. As the lead voices, they are the Tracy and Hepburn of the Mrs. Paul’s set.
6. SHATTERED GLASS
Remember All the President’s Men? Though a smaller scale affair, this account of the unmasking of a journalist con man is every bit as riveting. It’s the kind of story that, were it not true, would be dismissed as being too far-fetched.
The X-Men return! The excellent superhero franchise continues with a dazzling action-packed adventure that doesn’t sacrifice the essence of the characters or the tone of the franchise. Hugh Jackman steals the show again as Wolverine, with standout turns by Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Mystique.
8. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
The concluding film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is the most rousing of the set. Director Peter Jackson has done an amazing job, blending eye-popping spectacle and affecting personal stories. The battle scenes are bigger than you can imagine, but the action is easy to track.
9. MYSTIC RIVER
Director Clint Eastwood’s powerful tragedy opens with a boy being snatched from his two best pals by sexual predators, then jumps 25 years to rejoin the trio as adults. While the film contains a murder mystery, it is really a beautifully acted study of innocence destroyed, of grief and of violence as infection.
10. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD
Rousing, but intimate seafaring epic from director Peter Weir, set during the Napoleonic Wars. Russell Crowe is outstanding as British Navy officer Capt. “Lucky” Jack Aubrey and Weir’s portrait of life at sea is mesmerizing
. 11. ELF
Destined to become a Christmas classic, this is a fantasy we can relate to. The fearless Will Ferrill essentially plays an overgrown child with a good heart and boundless, relentless enthusiasm. James Caan plays the adult trying to deal with him. Festive, very funny and surprisingly sweet.
12. THE STATION AGENT
Quirky, charming, leisurely paced tale of three estranged people and the relationship that grows between them. Peter Dinklage is commanding and Patricia Clarkson contributes a layered turn, but Bobby Cannavale, as a motor-mouthed coffee wagon operator, creates one of the most likable goofs I have ever encountered onscreen.
13. HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG
Exceptionally well done tragedy about the battle, both physically and psychologically, between a woman scrambling to reassemble the shards of her once-secure life and a man desperate to provide his family a fitting sanctuary in their adopted homeland. Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are extraordinary.
14. RAISING VICTOR VARGAS
Funny, sweet, rude, sad and rambunctious, Raising Victor Vargas, the story of a boy whose pursuit of a girlfriend cause havoc within his family, perfectly illustrates the fragility of machismo, the politics of brothers and sisters, and the give and take of young romance.
15. THE ITALIAN JOB
Dandy little caper flick, with gorgeous locations, a well-chosen mix of appealing rogues, a formidable foe, knockout chases and two major thefts that are pleasures to behold. Where most films in this genre confuse viewers with extremely complex master plans, the outrageous capers depicted here are relatively easy to follow.
16. 21 GRAMS
Unrelentingly gloomy, but deeply moving drama. The non-linear story of three strangers brought together by tragedy hops all over the place, but don't try to put the puzzle pieces together – just let the film wash over you and all will become clear. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro are remarkable and the story addresses big issues with eloquence.
17. SECONDHAND LIONS
Robert Duvall and Michael Caine play grizzled brothers whose reclusive lifestyle is disrupted when a 14-year-old nephew (Haley Joel Osment) gets dumped with them for the summer. The comedy is substantial and well paced, and the sentiment is heartfelt. Duvall delivers one of the best scenes of his career when he squares off with some local toughs.
18. THE COOLER
William H. Macy stars as a man with luck so bad that casinos hire him to "cool off" big winners – merely by being nearby. Alec Baldwin is his ruthless Vegas boss and Maria Bello is a cocktail waitress whose relationship with Macy might change his luck. Top-notch acting and a unique story combine to make a winner.
19. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS I
n 1987, mild-mannered teacher Arnold Friedman was nabbed by police for ordering kiddie porn from the Netherlands. After further investigation, Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse, were charged with sexually abusing a large number of his students. Documentary filmmaker Andrew Jarecki combines recent interviews with home movie footage of the whole ordeal, shot in 1987 by young David. The results are riveting.
20. PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL
Johnny Depp creates his various onscreen personas by drawing from other characters. To play Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney's lavish pirate film, he blended the slurry, swaggering cool of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards with the undying confidence of loverboy cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew. His performance is why the film is on this list.
Honorable Mentions: "Winged Migration," "Something's Gotta Give," "28 Days Later" and "Kill Bill Volume One."
Worst1. DR. SEUSS’ THE CAT IN THE HAT
The worst thing about this dog isn’t the lousy script, the creepy costumes or even Mike Myers’ repellent self-indulgent performance. The worst thing is that parents, desperate for new entertainment for their kids, will buy this when it comes out on DVD and future generations of children will remember this awful film instead of Dr. Seuss’ charming book. What a shame.
2. DUMB AND DUMBERER: WHEN HARRY MET LLOYD
requel to Dumb & Dumber without Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels or anything even faintly humorous.
Incoherent disaster based on the Stephen King story. No, make that based on all Stephen King stories, plus several movies by other people. Along with the ripped-off ideas, we get aliens that take over your body but leave by chewing out your ass. What a mess.
4. BOAT TRIP
Two guys plan a Caribbean cruise to meet girls, but an angry travel agent puts them on a gay cruise. Possibly the least funny comedy I have ever seen. How embarrassing to watch an actor as gifted as Cuba Gooding Jr. in garbage like this.
5. GODS AND GENERALS
Behemoth prequel to Gettysburg consisting of massive Civil War battle re-enactment scenes surrounded by the longest high school play ever.
6. THE SINGING DETECTIVE
Excruciating condensation of a 1986 BBC miniseries. The bizarre, strained drama jumps from the hospital treatment of a pulp fiction author to scenes from his novel about a singing detective to flashbacks of his childhood. No thank you.
7. BEYOND BORDERS
Wife and mother Angelina Jolie follows fiery doctor Clive Owen from one refugee camp to another. Ah, who can resist a love story with loads of people dying in the background?
8. ALEX AND EMMA
This disposa-romantic comedy has writer Luke Wilson dictating his new novel to stenographer Kate Hudson, with bits from his story also depicted on screen, acted by Luke and Kate, of course. You would be hard pressed to find a couple with less chemistry or a screenplay this leaden.
9. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES
Rob Zombie tries to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and fails utterly.
10. (Tie) SPY KIDS 3D: GAME OVER, LEGALLY BLONDE 2: RED WHITE AND BLONDE and CHARLIE’S ANGELS 2: FULL THROTTLE
For every sequel like X2 or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, you get a wastebasket full of refried crap.