Critical Acclaim

Movie reviewers Michael Sragow and Chris Kaltenbach choose their 10 favorites for the year.

December 30, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Charles Dickens' grand first line from A Tale of Two Cities - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" - applies to the movie year of 2003 as much as it did to the French Revolution. In fact, this year was also a tale of two spiritual capitals: not London and Paris, but Hollywood and off-Hollywood.

For most of '03, it was the worst of times, artistically, for Hollywood studios. Then Seabiscuit engulfed audiences in the bracing pleasures of intelligent, passionate, large-scale moviemaking. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a sweeping sea epic with heart and brains as well as swash and buckle, followed a few months later. And The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the perfectly protean final entry inPeter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy, topped everything. It stands at the pinnacle of fantasy filmmaking as a one-of-a-kind work of mythic imagination.

Throughout the year, and especially during the summer, it was the best of times for off-Hollywood moviemakers. The comic wizards at Northern California's Pixar Animation Studios, who release their films through Disney, produced the summer's ruling hit, the delightful Finding Nemo. Only the Pixar team consistently finds the slapstick art and humanity in computer animation.

The opposite end of the artifice-reality spectrum overflowed with engrossing documentaries. Capturing the Friedmans takes pride of place among them on my roster of 10-best movies (also the mock documentary, A Mighty Wind), but a half-dozen others tempted me, notably Spellbound, Rivers and Tides, Winged Migration, Unprecedented and the current To Be and To Have.

Independent movies including the under-seen Buffalo Soldiers and Shattered Glass, the sleeper hits The Secret Lives of Dentists and The Station Agent, and the engaging if uneven American Splendor kept art houses lively. My sweet spot, though, remains the meeting-point of independent and mainstream moviemaking. That's where you could find Ron Shelton's inspired cop movie Dark Blue, Terry Zwigoff's unabashedly ribald Bad Santa and Irish director Jim Sheridan's soaring ode to family and hope, In America.

Excepting The Man on the Train, L'Auberge Espagnole and Mondays in the Sun, foreign-language films proved disappointing. But English-language imports such as The Magdalene Sisters and international projects from English or Irish directors - Neil Jordan's exquisite piece of escapism The Good Thief and Michael Winterbottom's political docudrama In This World - did manage to aerate parochial American theaters with gusts of creative cosmopolitanism.

The Pianist opened in Baltimore on Jan. 10 and The Quiet American on Feb. 14. So both appear on the following list - really a choice of 10 favorites, in order of preference, among a possible 25 best. [Chris Kaltenbach's choices can be found below.]

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Forget the cliche "you'll laugh, you'll cry." If you've followed the previous chapters in the trilogy, this film will bring you to cheers and tears at the same time, thanks to Peter Jackson's point and counterpoint of intimate drama and epic conflict. Like The Godfather Part II, the film shifts between past and present with a surgical and lyrical artistry that opens up untapped places in the heart and unused portions of the cerebral cortex. Special effects haven't been so seamless since the handmade days of Ray Harryhausen's dinosaur flicks. And no movie of this scale has featured so many bold and full performances. As well as series stalwarts Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto come into their own as heartbreakers.

2. In America

Irish moviemaker Jim Sheridan's tragicomic, semi-autobiographical film conducts an honorable, and devastating, sneak attack on your emotions. The hardy humor of this tale of an Irish actor taking his wife and two young daughters to live in New York's Hell's Kitchen doesn't prepare you for the picture's inner depths and outer reach. This country allows Sheridan's characters to heal a long-festering family wound; this movie allows audiences to see the United States anew as a wide-open and accepting nation. The film couldn't come at a more apt time. For movie lovers - and for all Americans - it's a gift.

3. The Pianist

This harrowing, mysteriously moving Holocaust survivor's tale about a celebrated Polish Jewish musician, Wladyslaw Szpilman, did more than earn its best directing, screenwriting and acting Oscars (for Roman Polanski, Ronald Harwood and Adrien Brody, respectively). Its unsentimental yet empathic view of a man who identifies himself primarily as a pianist, not a Jew, gave audiences a new window into Hitler's Final Solution. Few directors have explored as stringently and intelligently as Polanski does here the confusion of national and religious ties and cultural allegiances. Few actors have played a musician or a man near death with the vibrant sensitivity of Brody.

4. Dark Blue

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