Invaluable Verité

Nearly all my 10 best movies make something powerful out of the mundane.

FILM CRITICS ARE AN unruly mob disinclined to follow conventional wisdom or studio dictates. Each one of us wants, badly, to be recognized as an underpaid, overlooked, unsung genius whose annual 10-best lists will one day be studiedlong after our unlamented deaths!like ancient scriptures of good taste and impeccable judgment. (OK, maybe I'm projecting here.) Problem is, when you go back and check your notes for the year, it's usually hard to find 10 genuinely outstanding films to includeone reason so many lists read alike. As part of an effort to differentiate my list from the A. O. Scotts and Roger Eberts of the world, I maintain a Seattle-centric rule: To be considered, a film must have had a regular commercial engagement here during the calendar year (not just a festival appearance). Screw those glamorous premieres in New York and L.A.I didn't want to go anyway, never mind the lack of an invitation! Ebert's number-one pick for 2003, for instance, is Monster, starring a mussed-up Charlize Theron. But it doesn't open here until Jan. 9. We'll review it next week, then give it due consideration for our 2004 list. 1. Capturing the Friedmans: It's no accident that my top choice for 2003 is a documentary (which first wowed 'em at SIFF, then opened in June). I found most fiction films this year to be disappointing and safe. But Andrew Jarecki's brilliant, even-handed examination of a child-sex scandal on '80s Long Island turns "fact"those front-page headlinesinto fiction, revealing how most everyone got the story wrong. Then it complicates both categories, showing how little we can ultimately know about others' liveswhether in the paper or in our own family. The movie is as much about media as family: the lure of the forbidden image (kiddie porn); the misleading superficiality of home movies and snapshots; the destructive power of the TV-newspaper media cyclone. Yet the film isn't cold or "meta" in its systematic deconstruction of the Friedmans themselves and their media representations. You genuinely care about the clan. It debuts on DVD Jan. 27. 2. Elephant: Gus Van Sant's dreamy Columbine-inspired fantasia is as much about high school as high-school violence. It didn't last long after its November release here, perhaps because, after Michael Moore's Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, viewers thought the subject had been flogged to death. Or they didn't want to see these blank-faced kids (almost all nonactors playing approximations of themselves) get shot for random and unfair reasons. But death, like high school, is administered for reasons that are both random and unfair. The movie explains nothing, really, about the killers, and maybe that's why the other teens make such a quiet impression before the shooting starts. You want to know them better. No word yet on a DVD release date. 3. Sweet Sixteen: Thick accents, smack dealing, and nary an ounce of consolation to its decidedly unhappy endingno wonder Ken Loach's Scottish drama nosedived so quickly after its June release. Yet there's something thoroughly winning in the determination of its teen protagonist, Liam (Martin Compston), to secure a better life for his beloved mum when she's sprung from jail. If that means going into the drug trade himself, so what? He's living in a tower-block slum outside of Glasgow, with no better prospects but his own entrepreneurial nerve. As with any Loach film, the plot and characters reflect harsh social conditions, but here there's no need for preaching. Liam's downfall says it all. It's already on DVD and well worth a look. (And, yes, thank God, there are subtitles.) 4. American Splendor: As the tag line goes to this August release, "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff," which this digressive, discursive film neatly illustrates. Its hybrid approach to the life of underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar is part documentary, part seriocomic adaptation, with comic-book panels, thought bubbles, and old Letterman-show clips (although the movie does take a more melodramatic, conventional turn in its latter half). Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis are suitably splendid as the fictional Pekar and wife. The DVD is due Feb. 3. 5. City of God: Straight out of the favelas of Rio, this fact-based January crime saga of children growing up to be hoodlums put Scorsese's Gangs of New York to shame. The film breathes. It's textured to a specific period (the late '60s through the early '80s); the pavement feels hot under your feet and the tropical air moist in your lungs. The film has lush, Brazilian colors, but without resorting to the tonal clich鳠of carnival and travelogue. And the blood, importantly, is always red, as reflected in the wonderful cinematography by C鳡r Charlone. Look for this possible Oscar contender on DVD Feb. 17. 6. Raising Victor Vargas: This charming little indie got almost no attention during its April release, maybe because its tale of teen love in N.Y.C.'s Lower East Side was neither "shocking" nor saccharine enough. The Nuyorican kids are by turns sweet, vulgar, and wonderfully funny. It's like the anti-Kids: Everyone finds ways to behave better, not worse. Vargas is a family-values flick in its way, an eye-opener, perhaps, for the family-values crowd about how conscience, trust, and faith work in the barrio. By restricting its focus to a few city blocks, Peter Sollett's debut feature has universal appeal. Already out on DVD. 7. Divine Intervention: I call it Mr. Hulot's Intifada, since it takes the divided Middle Eastern land of car bombs, CNN atrocities, and overheated rhetoric and transforms it into absurdist, deadpan comedy. Playing a silent observer to the daily inanities and humiliations in Nazareth, Palestinian writer-director Elia Suleiman looks on as a guy stabs a kid's soccer ball; a man lobs trash into his neighbor's yard; and a wall is repeatedly mended and knocked down again. From these episodes, he extracts less of a narrative than a diagnosis: a Palestinian worldview warped by occupation; and Palestinians gradually being driven mad by this divide within their homeland and psyche. Ironically, this February release is a possible foreign-language Oscar nomineeeven though Suleiman has no country of his own to officially submit it. No word on the DVD. 8. Lost in Translation: More a mood than a movie, this flick earned top honors for star Bill Murray and director Sofia Coppola in the Seattle Film Critics' poll, which was both gratifying and irksome to me. Murray? Of course, he's a genius. (Sean Penn starts on third base by having his daughter murdered in Mystic River, while scrappy comic Bill has to hustle his way all around the tragedy-free diamond.) But Coppola? C'mon! She's a charmer with excellent taste, but Translation doesn't move anywhere with anything approximating structure; it just floats and dissolves. Still, the ambience and soundtrack are great; and it's a movie that rewards second and third viewings. We'll review the DVD when it comes out Feb. 3. 9. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: I'm sorry, but there's no way the overstuffed LOTR III can be the best film of the yeardespite what the New York Film Critics Circle just votedwhen it's stuffed with so many longeurs. Though hugely entertaining and well orchestrated by Peter Jackson (who has certainly earned best director title), the intermission-free epic ought to include a title card whenever Liv Tyler or the elves appear on screen that reads, "Please head for the concession stand or bathroom now. This movie is about to stop dead for the next five minutes." But even allowing for elf-deductions, the remaining three-plus hours amount to the kind of gloriously grand spectacle that would make Cecil B. DeMille proud. Two weeks after the first-in-line Tolkien freaks have folded their tents outside the Cinerama, you still can't get tickets to see it at Seattle's best movie house; and how long has it been since an event film demanded such big-screen fidelity? Expect a couple different DVD sets next year, continuing into the holidays. 10. The Barbarian Invasions: Talky middle-aged French-Canadian intellectuals gathering to mope, bitch, and fret about their lost youthful ideals and the imminence of death? I am so up for that. Denys Arcand's follow-up to his 1986 The Decline of the American Empire reunites most of its cast for a last mortal confab by the lake, but it's not that depressing a film. Although death is the final subject, Arcand doesn't dress it up so pretentiously as the similar 21 Grams. It also has a shot at a foreign-language Oscar nom, with DVD probably soon to follow. HONORABLE MENTION (alphabetical): Buffalo Soldiers, Cold Mountain, Cremaster 3, Dirty Pretty Things, Every Day God Kisses Us on the Mouth, The Hours (late arrival from '02), House of Sand and Fog, In This World, Kill Bill Vol. I, L'Auberge Espagnole, The Man Without a Past, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Narc, Quai des Orf趲es (1947, but never before released here), The Quiet American (late arrival from '02), Rivers and Tides, Russian Ark, Stevie, Swimming Pool, The Triplets of Belleville, 21 Grams.

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