Contrary to popular opinion, this was not a bad year to go to the movies. Yes, prices went up at most theaters, but compared to stage productions and live concerts, a slightly inflated movie ticket was small price to pay for such big entertainment value. Faced with the annual task of coming up with a Top 10, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my original list -- those movies that I really enjoyed, that said something to me or that kept my mind off of the real world for two or three hours -- had about double that number on it.
But sometimes rules do have to be followed. So, in the spirit of the thing, I did indeed pare that list down to the 10 that meant the most to me, the 10 that I would have no qualms about going back to see again (three of which I already have seen again). And I've followed up the winners with a few that just missed the mark, as well a few that were just a hell of a lot of fun. Some haven't opened in Spokane yet; some are already available on video and DVD. All, in my humble opinion, are worth checking out.
And the winners, in alphabetical order, are:
A.I. - Artifical Intelligence
Steven Spielberg's astounding look into the future was not every viewer's cup of tea. Their loss. The story of a lost android boy who is set free like a bad dog by parents who didn't know what to do with him ran the gamut from funny to heartbreaking. In the process, it entered into domains of gentle fantasy, horrific devastation and a really odd suggestion of what is waiting out there some day for all of us. A haunting film.
A Beautiful Mind
Was it Russell Crowe's depth as an actor, Akiva Goldsman's sharp script or Ron Howard's daring direction that made this so fascinating? Probably a bit of all three. Based somewhat loosely on the life of mathematician John Nash, it's an exploration of a mind that's as troubled as it is brilliant, and an intimate look at the power of love in a marriage that's also become troubled.
Black Hawk Down
Never has this much ammunition or this number of explosions been seen in a war film. This particular war is the disastrous one in Somalia that America took part in back in 1993. Utter devastation, from beginning to end, and an example of how completely overwhelming the cinematic experience can be. Take the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan and extend it for two-and-a-half-hours. This will exhaust you. Directed by Ridley Scott.
The Fellowship Of The Ring
New Zealand director Peter Jackson absolutely nailed the first part of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy about a group of individuals who try to prevent evil from taking over the world. This is epic filmmaking of the highest order, making use of vast, panoramic locales and extraordinary actors. The story is pure excitement; the result is the vision of someone who's turned out to be a master filmmaker.
The Man Who Wasn't There
Longtime fans of the Coen brothers know that there's none better who can latch onto a cinematic mood, and not let go -- except, of course, when they veer off into some kind of unimaginable tangent. So here's Billy Bob Thornton, virtually unrecognizable in black and white, getting greedy and then becoming caught up in a whirlpool of bad karma. It's funny, uncomfortable and outrageous at the same time. And I hope never forget the scene of Frances McDormand getting her legs shaved in the bathtub.
If you've managed to figure this one out, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Then again, it didn't matter if it didn't make sense. Guy Pearce is a man without a memory, constantly making notes to and about himself and staring at tattoos all over his body. There's been a murder. Did he do it? Is his best friend really an enemy? Who, if anyone, is insane? Better yet, who is the character named Sammy? Did I mention that the story is told backwards? Whew!
The reinvention of the film musical came from the assured hands of Australian director Baz Luhrmann, and the singing, dancing and feverish acting of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman (whose lips alone should garner an Oscar). Love and hate and jealousy and revenge -- and perhaps a bit too much Elton John -- make this visually dizzying romp through the Paris rooftops of long ago quite a confection.
There can never be enough nasty, dark comedies about dentists. In this one, Steve Martin -- playing it straight -- is the man with the drill, whose mannered, orderly life is blown apart when new patient Helena Bonham Carter comes in with a bad tooth. Actually, she's just there to steal drugs, which leads to murder, which leads to our hero on the run. Plot twists galore, some steamy scenes and a remarkable, albeit squeamish, ending.
The only thing this hilarious, multi-leveled computer-animated film -- perfect for both adults and kids -- had to do with Disney is that the studio was mercilessly lampooned by DreamWorks, the company that made it. Fairy tales will never be the same, now that the ogre hero of this one, making his way on a long journey with a wise-cracking donkey, has become a household name. Besides being ridiculously entertaining, the film pushed the art of animation to new heights. Look for Shrek 2 in 2003.
The Cameron Crowe remake of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos plays with viewers' minds from beginning to end, and most likely during the drive home, too. Tom Cruise is the vain, wealthy guy who's never smelled the roses, and who gets to experience life in a whole different way when he's in a terrible accident. The film smoothly moves from the story of a supposed romance gone bad, to a confusing mishmash of fantasy versus reality, to a murder mystery, to an experiment in science fiction. And the music is terrific.
Runners-up, in no particular order, are The Royal Tenenbaums, Snatch, Bridget Jones's Diary, The Tailor of Panama, The Fast & amp; the Furious, Ghost World, The Others, Training Day, Mulholland Drive, Monsters, Inc. and Rat Race.