The best import of last year was not the justly celebrated La Vita È Bella but Comrades, Peter Chan's 1996 Hong Kong romance between two friends (Leon Lai and the superb Maggie Cheung) who fall in and out of contact--and love--over the span of a decade. A truly magical, highly emotional film, Comrades could've been the arthouse date movie of the year if it had wider distribution. (Where are you, Miramax?)
Speaking of Miramax, I am far from discounting the deft juggling act pulled off by Roberto Benigni with the entertaining and poignant La Vita È Bella, a "Holocaust comedy" that delivers the laughs while never trivializing the serious subject matter. Life was beautiful, indeed.
Who knew misery could produce such painfully rich comedy? Todd Solondz's wildly subversive slice of pathetic lives will undoubtedly be remembered for its shockingly sensitive portrait of a pedophile (the astonishing Dylan Baker, whose bravery alone merits an Oscar), which, unfortunately, overshadows how queasily funny the entire film is.
"Queasy" was exactly what I felt while watching Friends, the latest lacerating look at life from writer-director Neil LaBute. It's a perhaps more disturbing film than Happiness, with its nameless characters paying no regard as to whom they step on in the search for selfish satisfaction. What takes place is unpleasant, to be sure, but it's also extremely fascinating and quite perversely funny.
In a year offering an uncommonly high (4) number of quality animated features, the one that clearly towered over the rest was DreamWorks's vivid reimagining of the Book of Exodus. While not the box office nor (most dismayingly) critical blockbuster the studio had hoped for, this spectacular epic has already secured its place in American film history by permanently erasing the traditional boundaries of feature animation.
One year, two World War II pictures, two masterpieces. Just about everything that needs to be said about Steven Spielberg's Ryan has, so I'll place my focus on Terrence Malick's even more astonishing work, a haunting and truly poetic experience; to call it a mere film is to discount the breadth and scope of Malick's achievement. Reaction has been wildly divided, from critics down to general audiences, but time will prove The Thin Red Line to be as enduring--if not moreso--a film as Spielberg's.
Sam Raimi's riveting psychological thriller proved to critics what devotees of his cult films knew long ago--that he is one of the masters of cinematic suspense and horror.
The Farrelly Brothers and Peter Berg not only pushed, but shredded the envelope of comedy with these two very bold and very funny comedies. The critical and popular reaction to the Farrellys' Mary (off-the-board success) and Berg's Bad (resounding flop) could not have been more opposite, but those with a truly open sense of humor could see that they share more in common than star Cameron Diaz: a brash exuberance to go the extra mile for a laugh, and the wit to pull it off.
If you thought overpaid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas's long line of masturbatory fantasies for the screen were ghastly, they are nothing compared to Eszterhas himself jacking off with this excrutiating vanity "satire" of the movie business. Roger Ebert called it "the worst film of this or any other year." He was being too kind.
And, in alphabetical order...
For every positive argument for old-TV-show-to-film translations (The Fugitive, for instance), there always arises a number of empty films like these two, which rely solely on not-so-special effects and nostalgia to carry barely-written scripts, phoned-in performances, and negligible direction.
So you're a big fan of South Park, taping every episode and buying all the merchandise. Do you run out and see a film starring the series' creators? Didn't think so.
If there's anything more harmful to your brain then constantly getting drunk and stoned, it's sitting in a movie auditorium for over two hours watching two guys doing it over and over and over and over and over and over...
Funny, when the San Diego Film Critics Society awarded Gwyneth Paltrow their special award for "consistent acting excellence," there was no mention of her somnambulent "performance" in this intelligence-insulting "mother-in-law-from-hell" pseudo-thriller.
Something is clearly amiss when the most memorable scene of a film filled with women relating their sexual needs and desires is an overblown, completely straight-faced housework-as-grieving climax, complete with angry vacuuming, anguished dish washing, and cleanser cans being thrown in frustration.
Never mind all the cursing, fighting, and assorted debauchery and depravity on display in this thinly-veiled screen riff on Springer's talk show--what's really offensive and protest-worthy is (gasp!) a brief but no less horrifying Springer sex scene.
Casper Van Dien. Jane March. In the jungle. 'Nuff said.
The nadir of the so-called "new nihilism"--blood, violence, sex, and assorted mayhem with no ideas to back them up. The same has been said about the underrated and misunderstood Very Bad Things, but even that film's many vocal detractors can concede at least one point of merit. There is absolutely none in this "effort" in name only from writer-director Skip Woods.