Well, it is time again to list my top ten films of the previous year. I am sorry that my list comes out after so many others have been published. Some reviewers announce their top ten lists in the middle of December. As for me, I am lucky if I have seen all the major films of the previous year by the end of January. I have decided not to include films that I have seen over the year that have not yet been released in this country. Too many of my readers will have forgotten I rated some of these highly by the time they finally do get released. In fact, the first film on this year's list falls into that category. I saw THE GREY ZONE at a film festival something like September 13, 2001. Harvey Keitel was there to introduce the film but instead just asked for a moment of silence for those killed two days earlier. I was hoping that the reviews it got bore out my high regard for the film. I was pleasantly surprised (if I can say that in conjunction with this very bleak films) that the critics did see the same power and quality in the film that I did.
So what films have I seen but did not listed for this technicality? TOGETHER is a delightful film about a Chinese child prodigy violinist whose father takes him to Beijing so that he can develop his talent. It has just beautiful music, surprising and interesting characters, and is a real pleasure. I understand it has been scheduled for release in this country so hopefully it will be on next year's list. I might suggest that you write down this next title. I saw it in a theater packed with Russian-speaking people who knew better than I what to expect. Apparently the film is known in Russia (under the title OLIGARKH), and I hope it becomes known in this country. The English title is TYCOON. I think it probably occupies the same place in Russian society that THE GODFATHER has here. A wealthy and unpopular businessman, a little dishonest, is murdered. We then see the events after the murder and flashbacks telling how he got to his position as one of Russia's wealthiest businessmen. At the same time, it tells of what happened to Russian business under Communism and after its fall. TOGETHER and TYCOON are both well worth remembering.
There will be some who will note the conspicuous absence of THE TWO TOWERS. Have I become disenchanted with the LORD OF THE RINGS? No. I just refuse to give three +4s to each of the thirds of what I consider to be a single film. I probably will not put THE RETURN OF THE KING on my top ten list next year. Suffice it to say, I am impressed by the film THE LORD OF THE RINGS and still consider it to be only one film that I have already given a +4 to last year. I will list them in increasing order. (Oh, each film below is rated on a scale of -4 to +4).
10. ABOUT SCHMIDT (high +2): This is an adult film in the best meaning of the term. It is the kind of motion picture where the viewer repeatedly sees people he knows. Jack Nicholson's repressed rage and his pitiable side have never been shown to better advantage. Though the story could have been better this film has a great character study from Alexander Payne, the director of CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION.
9. THE ROAD TO PERDITION (high +2): In 1931, circumstances make a father and son fugitives from the Capone organization. The moving story about two different father-son relationships follows a once-loyal hit man forced to take actions that will make him a legend. The film has a simple plot of a Western set in the East, but acting and beautiful photography turn this into an emotionally charged and memorable film. A curiously low-key performance by Hanks meets an interesting killer played by Jude Law. Paul Newman plays a powerful local gangster.
8. GANGS OF NEW YORK (high +2): Martin Scorsese recreates slum and gang life in Civil War Era New York City. It is a cutthroat world where virtually everyone is a criminal and everyone is a victim to some degree. The historic background alone is worth the price of admission, even if the foreground story is a little hackneyed at times. This is an always-fascinating historical film with a lot of factual detail. Bill "the Butcher" Cutter is a unique character, based on the real Bill "the Butcher" Poole.
7. ADAPTATION (low +3): This is Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's follow-up film to BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. I think that Charlie Kaufman has in one stroke made his the most recognizable screenwriter's name in the country. His new film is a meditation on the forces that make films successful; it is also a philosopher's chestnut and a marvelous mental toy. This is the kind of film that viewers can discuss for hours.
6. THE QUIET AMERICAN (low +3): Michael Caine gives one of his best performances as Thomas Fowler, in this story of a worldly English journalist and his relationship to a naive American who has strong ideas how to shape Vietnam. Graham Greene wrote the novel set in 1952 Vietnam. The story is powerful and only became more so as the United States became more involved in Southeast Asia. This is a riveting film.
5. MIYAZAKI'S SPIRITED AWAY (low +3): Hayao Miyazaki, creator of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, KIKI'S DLIVERY SERVICE, and PRINCESS MONONOKE gives us a masterpiece of fantasy in the anime that is as timeless as Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and enjoyable for just as wide an audience. This film may even beat THE LORD OF THE RINGS for most imaginative film of the year. Watch for the *real* Spiderman.
4. MINORITY REPORT (+3): Steven Spielberg adapts a story by Philip K. Dick. He mauls the intent of the original story but creates a marvelously faceted and incredibly dark vision of the future with its own virtues. MINORITY REPORT is fast-paced, yet still full of ideas. It is probably a better science fiction film in a more complex society than was BLADERUNNER (also non-faithfully based on a story by Philip K. Dick).
3. WE WERE SOLDIERS (+3): Mel Gibson stars in a chronicle of the bloodiest three days of the battle of Ia Drang in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It is probably the best account of the Vietnam War experience I have seen, for once told with respect for the soldiers on both sides. Gibson plays the commander of the American Seventh Cavalry in Vietnam. The scene of his leaving his family and going off to war is as moving and poignant as the scene of Frederic March returning from war to his family in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
2. THE PIANIST (+3): This is the violent and harrowing true story of brilliant Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman who survived two uprisings against the Nazis in Warsaw. This must have been a very personal film for Roman Polanski who survived the Krakow Ghetto. The story has some real depth and moral complexity.
1. THE GREY ZONE (high +3): A good cast in a stark and grim drama of the Sonderkommandos in Auschwitz who preserved their lives by doing terrible work for the Nazis murdering their people. The continuation of their very lives was a figurative moral gray zone. An example of what can be done with writing. This is a haunting film.
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2003 Mark R. Leeper