The Year in Film

Four critics pick 40 or so favorites--and fail to agree on a single one


9. Masked and Anonymous. No thanks to would-be piracy-buster Jack Valenti, I managed to score a basement tape of Bob Dylan's thoroughly hilarious, pseudonymously issued self-portrait (co-written by "Sergei Petrov"). Played at full volume while I work, it sounds a hell of a lot like "Desolation Row." ("Everybody's doing the killing now/Everybody's doing the dying.") Would you believe it got slaughtered at Sundance?


10. My Architect. Dad, too busy spreading his seed, wasn't around when Nathaniel Kahn was growing up. Does it matter that what sprouted, in addition to two other children by different mothers, was the Salk Institute, the Exeter Library, the Bangladeshi capitol? Kahn's documentary search for architect Louis I. Kahn, the father he hardly knew, is another brilliant product of deficiency, another lovingly constructed monument. Landmark, appropriately enough, will open it in April.


In the Cut

First-year parenthood curtailed my movie intake in 2003. I confess I did not see The Hulk, The Matrix Reloaded, or Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. If you believe any of those worthy of a Top 10, feel free to argue your case. I did see Mystic River, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and The School of Rock, which left me respectively bemused, amused, and wishing Mike White had heard of Sleater-Kinney. Even in a year when I didn't have much time to input media, I felt blistered by hype. (An exception was the buzz around Capt. Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp's ambidextrous floozy slayed even my 10-year-old niece, sending her off into the dusty Deppfiles. Someday she'll get to Dead Man.)

The films I love cut through, per Errol Morris's new documentary, the fogs of war and commerce. Mostly they are violent--though not Bad Boys-violent. Violence is not their vehicle, but their subject. If almost half of them are documentaries, it's perhaps because more than ever I want to know what I'm not seeing, but am responsible for anyway. Even if seeing doesn't explain something like 10,500 deaths and counting.


1. Love & Diane. A documentary for everyone who believes that we come into this world equal. Director Jennifer Dworkin allows mother and daughter "welfare moms" to describe generations of poverty, self-hatred, child neglect, rage, and injured potential. And the first-time filmmaker finds a way to show these media stereotypes as people: multi-faceted, striving individuals who may never be healed or "solved" as a middle-class white lefty like myself might prefer.


2. thirteen. A barebones film like Lilya 4-Ever (Soviet pre-adolescent is abandoned, driven to prostitution and suicide) kind of leaves this Los Angelean coming-of-age struggle looking like a privileged tantrum. For one thing, Catherine Hardwicke's debut is gorgeous, all smeared neon and glistening spray; for another, Evan Rachel Wood's troubled teen never has to worry about procuring food. But it's our privileged tantrum, and Hardwicke, working with co-screenwriter/costar Nikki Reed, plumbs the ugliness of white American girlhood with rotor-rooter candor.


3. Elephant. Cut loose from empathy via Harris Savides's cool Steadicam, my mind was left free to wander, questioning shots, mood, motivation (the director's, that is). I thought questioning was the point. Gus Van Sant's film won't tell you why Columbine happened. But it does ask why we believe in the trademarked lives that this movie and others depict, even when believing diminishes our dreams of what life could be.


4. The Weather Underground. The former American revolutionaries interviewed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel are much less cocksure than their younger selves, who bombed draft offices, businesses, the Capitol. But they are no less consumed with the question of how citizens can or should object to the violence of their nation--a topic that, unfortunately, is once again topical. And still unanswered.


5. The Fog of War. Errol Morris lets Robert McNamara talk and talk and talk. What the former defense secretary says about modern warfare is by turns self-protective and self-damning. And always matter-of-factly horrifying. (Opens February 6.)


6. Capturing the Friedmans. This movie makes me sick. And not only because it focuses on a pederast and his family, who may or may not have been complicit in his acts. Director Andrew Jarecki's carnival ride of guilt and anger is ultimately about justice--an essence steady as a weathervane.


7. Whale Rider. Niki Caro's movie--about a Maori girl who believes that she is her people's next shaman--sinks deeper and deeper until we understand what leadership will cost: a small figure on an underwater whale, run through with the sea.


8. Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola's film is xenophobic and reflects the obsessions of a wealthy young person who's too used to hanging out in expensive hotels. It also made me laugh more than all of the year's other movies combined. Something about Bill Murray crooning "More Than This" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding." Something about being older than I was when I first loved those songs, about being really sad and at the same time still having some hope left for more than this world as it is.


9. Carnage. A bull dies in the ring, and parts of it end up in restaurants, dog bones, and laboratories across Europe; the recipients are transformed in absurdly funny and tragic ways. In French director Delphine Gleize's debut feature, chickens come home to roost--and that's a good thing. (Opens Friday at Lagoon Cinema.)

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