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(in alphabetical order)
Enough talk about the superbly staged and choreographed martial arts sequences--the real reason why Ang Lee's global phenomenon will be a film for the ages is how seamlessly it marries the high-flying stunts with tender human drama. Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, and Zhang Ziyi's displays of athleticism wow audiences as the film plays, but the depth and complexity of their performances are what will make the film resonate for years to come.
I'm willing to accept the fact that a lot of people just don't like Lars Von Trier's raw and revolutionary musical melodrama. What I can't accept is how so many of the film's detractors simply zeroed on the question of Von Trier's sincerity. Did he really care for the plight of his beleaguered, going-blind heroine, or was it all a crass exercise in pushing the limits of manipulation? Either way, it doesn't much matter; what does is that the flood of emotions experienced by the film's admirers were genuine--as was the spectacular, gut-wrenching performance by star/composer Björk.
Stripped to the core, Patrice Leconte's romance is your typical man meets woman, man gets woman, man loses woman, man gets woman back story. But what made it such an enchanting and exceptional entertainment were not the clever eccentricities Leconte gave his story--the man in question is a knife thrower; the woman is his regular target; and they share some unexplained telepathic bond--but the magic that can only be created by the inspired pairing of two excellent, well-matched stars: here, Daniel Auteuil and Vanessa Paradis.
Ridley Scott's Roman epic was a worldwide smash, but in this case box office returns were not in inverse proportion to quality. The plot is one of basic revenge, but there's nothing standard about the spectacular battle sequences, sumptuous production design, and certainly not Russell Crowe's commanding performance as the gladiator of the title, wronged former army general Maximus. With his performance alone, Gladiator would have populist entertainment of the highest order; with numerous elements of merit surrounding and supporting him, the film is even one step beyond.
It certainly didn't sound like a good fit for famously caustic director Neil LaBute: a fairy tale-like comedy in which a delusional soap opera fan makes a trek to Hollywood to meet her fave daytime drama heartthrob. But only his twisted touch would have given this dizzy tale such an uneasy, unpredictable tension as it constantly shifts gears from extreme violence (or the threat of it) to extreme flights of satirical fantasy. Making a most beguiling center in this storm is the incomparable Renée Zellweger, who at last fully delivers on the promise she displayed in Jerry Maguire.
"Assaultive" and "repetitive" were words some used to knock Darren Aronofsky's visionary adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s novel--but how else to bring to life the assaultive, repetitive horror that is hard-core drug abuse? The superb cast (Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and a surprising Marlon Wayans) makes the harrowing experience that much more immersive--and that much more painful.
To say that Lou Ye's Vertigo- and Wong Kar-Wai-reminiscent drama is about the neverending longing for love is to somewhat shortchange it. As the unseen narrator tells two linked, and perhaps imagined, stories of men desperately holding onto unreliable loves (both expertly played by the versatile young actress Zhou Xun), Lou touches on a typically unexplored dimension to romantic longing: the need to be someone's one and only--and that, in part, accounts for this mesmerizing film's haunting spell.
Steven Soderbergh's sprawling multicharacter examination of America's war on drugs tackles Big Issues, but the film's power lies not in any Big Statement he or screenwriter Stephen Gaghan make but in how it puts said issues in the intimate context of lives not terribly far removed from our own.
If there were a one-film argument against the Academy's restrictive Foreign Language Film category rules--namely, the one that states that each country can only submit one film--then Edward Yang's Taiwanese family drama is it. (Understandably, Taiwan decided to go with surefire winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon instead.) Actually, maybe the "foreign language" pigeonholing would have been unfairly limiting. In tracing all the triumphs and tribulations, laughs and lessons that come within a single life's span through the very individual lives of family members of various ages, Yang's beautifully understated film speaks the universal language of truth.
Parent-child relationships have provided the dramatic fuel for many a film, so Kenneth Lonergan's low-key drama already distinguishes itself by addressing the oft-neglected sibling dynamic. That he does so with equal parts humor and humanity, while never resorting to maudlin manipulation , is a remarkable feat--but one he could not have accomplished without the crucial element that puts the film over the top: stars Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.
"We're gonna blow up their planet. Needless to say, we're gonna need more supplies before we do that." Never mind the ridiculous sight of John Travolta as a cackling ten-foot-tall alien with dreadlocks and talons--that line alone earns this so-bad-its-very-existence-confirms-mankind's-destructive-nature sci-fi "adventure" as one of the worst movies of all time.
And, in alphabetical order...
After her Oscar-winning turn in L.A. Confidential, Kim Basinger reverted to her shockingly bad taste in material with this one-two bad summer movie punch. The laughably silly Bless the Child was the absolute worst of the recent spate of supernatural thrillers--which indeed says a lot. Even so, that fiasco is at least amusing in the wrong way, which is more than I can say for the leaden pretension of the would-be awards-grabber I Dreamed of Africa, a biopic that commits the unforgivable sin of ending before its subject achieves the "greatness" that led to the film being made in the first place.
The director called it an "anti-sequel." An even better description would be "anti-audience," this thoroughly suspenseless and unscary film being just one seemingly endless shouting match between sure-to-never-be-heard-from-again unknown actors who stretch their already generous 15 minutes in the spotlight into a tedious 90.
There are many jaw-dropping moments in this quintessential Jerry Bruckheimer production about an aspiring songwriter who joins the all-female bartending troupe at the titular tavern--the hip-hop sampling scene and the one where our heroine halts a near-riot by singing along to a jukebox. But no part of the film is quite as stunning as the fact that a global talent search for a singing ingenue resulted in the casting of hacktress Piper Perabo, whose vocals were ultimately dubbed over.
Sure, the title prepares you for a bad movie, but it doesn't prepare you for the inane but universe-saving (!) antics that ensue. That even its target teen audience was insulted says it all.
Marlon Wayans playing a flesh-and-blood Jar Jar Binks. Jeremy Irons all but foaming at the mouth as the bad guy. A glassy-eyed Thora Birch in Amidala-reject costumes. And the most obviously digital dragons you can ever see. 'Nuff said.
Adam Sandler as a funny-faced, whisper-voiced Satan spawn who comes to earth and teams up with a talking dog. That the moviegoing public didn't embrace Sandler's latest attempt to sell annoyance as comedy shows that the tastes of mainstream audiences are not beyond redemption.
As if Madonna's flat-footed attempts at cutesy comedy with co-star/real-life buddy Rupert Everett weren't painful enough, she has to go off and prove her "serious" acting non-ability once again as this already-D.O.A. film decomposes before our very eyes as a hamfisted courtroom drama. If this is next best, I'd hate to see the absolute worst. (Oops, already have--see: Battlefield Earth.)
"I don't wanna wait for our lives to be over" for the teensploitation movie madness to end. Aren't there more worthwhile uses for celluloid wasted on films such as this numbskulled thriller--like a good, sleazy little direct-to-video erotic thriller?