Films, frankly speaking
Hot dog! SN&R’s movie mavens pick their 10 best flicks from last year
Three weeks ago, we ran our resident film buffs’ annual Popcorn Awards in this space. While they bestow those awards for various achievements—dubious or otherwise—in the previous year’s crop of films, they aren’t actual best-of lists.These are.
So what’s the difference between an Oscar-worthy film, and one more deserving of an Oscar-Meyer award? Below, Jim Lane and Mark Halverson have listed, in alphabetical order, the fine films from last year that could, conceivably, win one of those coveted gold statues. Four films made both of their lists. And, at the right, is their list of overpriced cinematic tubesteaks.
The best …
British animators Peter Lord and Nick Park took a triumphant plunge into features with this saga of a flock of chicken-farm inmates plotting to, er, fly the coop. Witty and exhilarating, it was easily the best movie of a long, drab summer.
Lasse Hallström’s parable of the healing powers of chocolate was a luscious candy box in its own right, with a splendid cast (Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, Johnny Depp et al.), a generous heart and a tender view of human frailty. All in all, just about perfect.
On New Year’s Day, the Disney folks gave us a striking demonstration of the state of 20th century animation, less audacious than its predecessor but swifter and more audience-friendly, with the added adornment of a giant-screen IMAX presentation.
Director Michael Almereyda had some nerve tackling Shakespeare’s play so soon after Kenneth Branagh’s definitive film (1996) and Mel Gibson’s damn good one (1990). But he gave it a cold urban twist and showed a flair for adventurous casting (Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray).
Oscar voters, listen up. This jazzy, endlessly surprising comedy had two of the best performances of the year: John Cusack as a neurotic record-store owner, frantically musing on his troubles with women, and Jack Black as his loud-mouthed, slacker employee.
Small Time Crooks
Woody Allen returned to his comic roots in a virtual sequel to his first film, Take the Money and Run, with nonstop laughs and delightful performances from Tracey Ullman as Allen’s wife and Elaine May as her bubble-headed cousin.
An epic, deeply human masterpiece of three generations of Hungarian Jews, so richly textured that it rewards—even demands—repeated viewing. In three roles (father, son, grandson), Ralph Fiennes gave the best performance in any movie all year.
The Third Miracle
Agnieska Holland’s compassionate direction, and a fine performance by Ed Harris as a priest investigating a candidate for sainthood, made this a subtle examination of faith and cynicism in the modern world.
Director Steven Soderbergh’s multi-story examination of the drug war is snagging all the critics’ awards, and no wonder—it was bold and thought-provoking, with the headlong momentum of a runaway train and flawless acting by an all-star cast.
Kudos to Paramount for bringing this one back after its weak showing earlier in the year; it was a quirky, goofball pleasure, sparked by Michael Douglas’ sardonic performance as a once-promising novelist staving off writer’s block with pot, adultery and a teaching gig at a small New England college.
This darkly comic, cathartic tapestry of intersecting characters is as emotionally messy as real life. Ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia slops over to 1993 London in episodes that include a BBC journalist obsessed with having a healthy leg amputated.
This ingenious, claymation adventure does for chicken pot pies what Babe did for pork chops. It’s a wry, wacky, egg-farm version of The Great Escape set in 1950s England. It includes one of the year’s most exhilarating action scenes.
Disney mated the concept of 1940s Fantasia with IMAX and gave birth to a sumptuous, giant screen love child. Seven new animated segments and the original “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” combine for such marvels as whales soaring through the air.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Anyone seeking the pulse of independent film should see Jim Jarmusch’s “kind of Samurai gangster hip-hop Eastern Western.” A contract mob killer adheres to the tenets of an 18th-century Samurai handbook in this violent, funny tale about men on the edge of extinction.
A doper journeys through mental and moral chaos to rediscovered compassion in 1971 Iowa. Denis Johnson’s short-story collection about bad behavior, addiction and redemption is now a nonlinear gust of deadpan humor and dreamy, tattered vignettes.
Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.
Errol Morris’ documentary is a complex yet lucid character study and meditation on corrupted ideals, the fragility of truth and the roots of evil. It documents Leuchter’s attempt to refute the use of gas chambers at Auschwitz.
State and Main
David Mamet’s fluid, funny fable is about greed, idealism and compromise. Film production in a Vermont hamlet is disrupted by an actor’s appetite for teen girls and an actress’ refusal to bare her breasts.
Three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family deal with anti-Semitism, love, heartbreak, political upheaval, fluctuating fortune and guilt in a fascinating opus set in the 19th and 20th centuries. Ralph Fiennes plays three roles. He may be competing against himself for an Oscar.
Steven Soderbergh has re-spun the British miniseries Traffik into a bracing look at the war against the multi-fingered drug trade. Benicio Del Toro is a standout as a Tijuana cop in this potent docudrama-cum-thriller.
You Can Count on Me
Self-destructive drifter needing money for his girlfriend’s abortion visits his sister and bonds with his 8-year-old nephew. The acting is excellent in this melodic, comic and unpredictable drama of refreshing depth.