eKC feature
January '04


by Russ Simmons, Liz Sweeney and Jason Aaron

Well, Tolkien junkies can finally breathe a sigh of relief. New Zealander Peter Jackson's adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is complete and, in the opinion of most, quite satisfying. Now that The Return of the King has proved to be box-office gold, it is only a matter of time before we'll find out if any of that gold can finally be gilded onto an Oscar.

In terms of domestic ticket sales, a simple story of a lost guppy conquered all in 2003. Finding Nemo not only proved to be a money machine for Disney and Pixar, but it also became the #1 DVD of all time. Not bad for a clownfish.

Solid foreign language films were few and far between this year, but there were many exceptional independents filling the art houses. The results of a misguided screener ban may have hurt the chances for these small, independently produced films to receive crucial award nominations. (The Motion Picture Association of America's ban on sending videos to critics was overturned, but it could be too late to help.)

The biggest thing that Hollywood gave us was The Terminator as governor of California. Still, there were some memorable movies released over the past year and some clunkers that gave us headaches. Here are our picks for the best and worst of 2003.

Russ Simmons

The Best:

Whale Rider
Here's a film that never would have been made by a Hollywood studio because it dealt with female empowerment and (gasp!) spirituality. Director Niki Caro's adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's book never hit a false note as it told the heartwarming tale of a girl from New Zealand's Maori tribe.

Young Keisha Castle-Hughes was terrific as Paikea, the rightful heir to become the tribal chief. Trouble is, no female had ever held that post, so Paikea's grandfather was having none of it. As the elder searched the tribe for a young male to train for the lofty post, Paikea worked hard to prove her own worthiness.

Whale Rider was the rare "art" film that you could take the family to. The winner of the audience awards at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, Whale Rider was released too early and was a victim of the awards screener ban. Therefore, it won't garner much attention at Oscar time.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
They said it couldn't be done, but filmmaker Peter Jackson not only gave us a faithful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy trilogy, but he created a movie classic as well. Although each of the three films is flawed and lacks character depth, the trilogy stands together as a cinematic triumph. Jackson is trying desperately to get rights to the prequel, The Hobbit. Let's hope he succeeds.

Capturing the Friedmans
Director Andrew Jarecki, who made a fortune with MovieFone, started out to make a film about party clowns. When he met David Friedman, a clown whose father was imprisoned in a sensational pedophile case, he changed his focus. Thanks to lots of home movie footage that the family faithfully filmed, this harrowing story of a witch-hunt became a stark examination of the nebulous nature of "the truth."

21 Grams
After a sensational debut with Amores Perros, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu followed with another unique, non-linear tragedy. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro gave terrific, heartfelt performances as three strangers who find that their lives have become entangled due to a tragic automobile accident. The actors and the unusual story presentation made 21 Grams a memorable, heartbreaking film.

House of Sand and Fog
Equally heartbreaking was Vadim Perelman's debut film, and adaptation of Andres Dubus III's popular novel. Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdasloo gave marvelous performances in this somber tale of moral ambiguity. Connelly played a woman who, behind on her taxes, had her house sold to an Iranian immigrant, Kinglsey. The simple lack of communication between decent people results in tragedy. It's hard to take, but worth it.

Honorable Mention:
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Finding Nemo, Pieces of April, Mystic River and Matchstick Men

The Worst:

How'd you like to sit through a mind-numbingly pretentious tale about a small Montana town in 1955, where the residents are being displaced by a hydroelectric dam project? How about if there were angels and mysticism and heavy-handed symbolism thrown in? What if Nick Nolte, James Woods, Daryl Hannah and Anthony Edwards were willing participants? This bore from brothers Michael and Mark Polish (Twin Falls Idaho) made wallpaper look interesting. Oh well, it was in focus most of the time.

In the Cut
Good actors (Meg Ryan, Mark Ruffalo, Jennifer Jason Leigh) and a good director (Jane Campion of The Piano fame) can sometimes miscalculate. Ryan starred as a writing professor having a fling with a detective (Ruffalo) investigating a serial killer. She suspects he is the killer and still dates him! This one was ugly, sleazy and devoid of redeeming value.

House of 1000 Corpses
If you become a rock star like Rob Zombie, maybe you can direct a movie, too. If you can hold a camera, you might even do a better job. Karen Black starred in Zombie's tale of a group of teens that manage to have their car break down in the worst possible rural location. The body count in the title is probably correct.

Wrong Turn
A group of teens have their car break down in the West Virginia woods. A family of cannibalistic, in-bred mountain men then accosts them looking for ingredients for their sausages. Eliza Dushku and company make the "wurst" of a bad situation. This movie held out the hope of something different, but delivered the same old splatter.

Cabin Fever
A group of teens have their car break down in the woods. (Are you detecting a trend here?) This time, they become the victims of a flesh-eating virus. Yes, there was plenty of gore to spare, a few shots of topless hotties and the requisite ignorant hillbillies. Luckily, it had a couple of genuine laughs to go along with the carnage.

Dishonorable Mention:
Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, Gods and Generals, My Boss' Daughter, National Lampoon Presents Dorm Daze and The Real Cancun.

Liz Sweeney

The Best:

House of Sand and Fog
Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly are extraordinary in this potent drama so full impending doom that viewers will find themselves watching with one eye half shut. Based on the acclaimed book of the same name, House of Sand and Fog portrays three distinctly rendered lives colliding with catastrophic results.

Behrani (Kingsley) is an Iranian immigrant who buys a house at auction in the attempt to bring his family out of poverty. He unwittingly pits himself against the house's former owner, Kathy (Connelly), who is suffering from severe depression on the heels of a failed marriage. Lester (Ron Eldard) is a beat cop burdened both with the task of evicting Kathy from the house and the weight of his own passionless marriage.

This is a haunting and beautifully crafted story with rare authenticity and top rate performances.

Whale Rider
This gorgeously filmed story tells the tale of a Maori girl whose tribal birthright is thwarted by her gender-biased grandfather. The traditional hero fable contains elements of magical realism and an impressively talented lead in Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 12-year-old uncovered by the same agent who discovered Anna Paquin. The understated performance of Keisha as young Pai is all the more remarkable for one with no prior acting experience.

Pai's life begins with tragedy when her twin brother and mother die, leaving her tribe without a chief. However, girls are not considered to be suitable leaders. Her ability to overlook the intractability of her elders and remain focused on her purpose and the needs of her people is inspiring and provides a moving tribute to Maori cultural tradition. This is a story that also crosses generations to become the best family movie this year.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Completing the Tolkien trilogy, The Return of the King is as sumptuous as its predecessors. Setting a new standard in epic filmmaking, director Peter Jackson has done remarkable justice to Tolkien's epic tale. Although changes have been made from the original story, this bold, eye-popping finale should more than satisfy Middle-earth fanatics and non-readers alike.

As the Shadow of Mordor spreads across the land and the Dark Armies are massing, the threat centers on Gondor, the kingdom of men. Frodo and Sam, aided by the increasingly psychotic Gollum, draw closer to Mount Doom, while the divided Fellowship faces separate perils that culminate in the final great battle at Minas Tirith.

As in the book series, the ending to the saga is bittersweet, both in content and in context. Many will wish the curtain had yet to close.

Pieces of April
This low-budget, character-driven tale of dysfunctional family life on Thanksgiving Day is chock-full of recognizable foibles. When April Burns (Katie Holmes) invites her estranged family for turkey dinner, she bites off more than she can chew.

Dual story lines follow her family's comical road trip to April's grungy Lower East Side apartment and April's equally kooky meal preparations. The subtext relates the relationship between mother and daughter, although they are rarely in the same frame together. April's mother, the ironically named Joy (Patricia Clarkson at her best), is dying of cancer and loves nothing better than tormenting her family with deathbed humor.

"We all have to give a lot thought...," she says while the family awaits a profound thought about her mortality, "to how we are going to hide the food we don't eat." Cinema verite combined with caustic humor delivers a holiday classic.

Matchstick Men
One of the more multifarious big films this year, Matchstick Men stars Nicholas Cage and Sam Rockwell as two successful but small-time con men. Roy (Cage) is a jumble of obsessive-compulsive habits that increasingly threaten his profession, and when Frank (Rockwell) encourages him to get professional help, Roy's subsequent therapy uncovers the fact that he has a 14-year-old daughter. And Angela (superbly played by Alison Lohman) is keen to meet the father she's never known.

The collision of Roy's personal and criminal lives is at the crux of this drama and Cage's performance is spot on. His portrayal of OCD is comical without slipping into ridicule, and the transformation that occurs through his relationship with his daughter is compassionate and real. This multi-layered piece contains an emotional depth uncommon to the con-artist milieu.

Runners Up: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Spellbound, Seabiscuit, Nowhere in Africa and Bend It Like Beckham

The Worst:

Biker Boyz
Coupled with the spelling of the title, 90 minutes of wheelies and donuts are clinched by the motto, "Burn rubber, not your soul." This was not a banner year for Lawrence Fishburne, who appeared in more than one leather outfit too many. Here he stars as "Smoke" a.k.a. "the King of Cali," president of a motorbike club and defender of the street racing crown. The showdown with the new "kid" on the block makes for a predictable plot trajectory and is garnished by titillation shots of skirt-shorted girlz.

Appealing to the basest proclivities of the young male demographic, Grind is truly a grind. Ostensibly about a group of skateboarding wannabes, the film offers surprisingly poor coverage of the action. The only things getting less coverage than the skateboarding are the film's real stars ‹ various female body parts. These, presumably, are featured in order to mask the film's numerous deficiencies, including plot, characters and action.

Eric Rivers (Mike Vogel) aspires to become a professional skateboarder and encourages his buddies to join him on a road trip in order to get noticed on the summer tour. Crazy hijinks ensue including scatological adventures with beans, throwing firecrackers into moving cars and a party at which the dancing gives the film's title new significance.

One can hope the sequel has them all in traction.

Gods and Generals
Gods and Generals
constitutes the most tedious 231 minutes spent in a theater this year. Strangely apolitical for a civil war drama, entertainment value is sacrificed for the cause of historical accuracy, and the detail of military strategy is employed as the meat of a narrative so dry as to resemble MREs. Tellingly, the countless interminable battle scenes are subtitled with the name of each regiment, and while no doubt flawlessly accurate, are easily interchangeable. The involuntary but collective audience groan at the final curtain's announcement of a sequel is a big clue to the merits of civil war reenactment on the big screen.

Final Destination 2
Wonton eviscerations are offered up as entertainment in this sequel to Death's debut as a serial killer. This teen horror franchise bypasses an actual villain and features "Death" as a metaphysical abstraction. When Kimberly has a vision of a highway pileup and saves a number of potential victims, she puts a rift in Death's design. But as everyone knows, you can't cheat Death. In all his experience however, Death seems nothing if not cinematic. Death by pigeon, decapitation, impalement and immolation are some of his plays. Please let this be the "final" Final Destination.

Few "rotten tomato" lists will ignore Gigli this year; this turkey is as infamous as the one served to troops in Baghdad for Thanksgiving. Also equally contrived, the characterization and dialoge is so spurious that filmgoers will be left wondering who cooked up this contemptible mess.

Gigli (Ben Affleck) is supposedly a "vicious fuckin' mad dog" hitman. Teamed with an equally implausible female counterpart (Lopez) to watch over a kidnapping victim, Gigli sets his sights on more personal goals. However, while Rick may be built like a brick, it turns out she's actually a lesbian with a suicidal psycho-stalker in tow. An asinine lesbian conversion is the petard upon which the superfluous crime narrative is hoist.

Runners Down: Wrong Turn, Cradle 2 the Grave, Timeline, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Beyond Borders

Jason Aaron

The Best DVDs of 2003:

The Animatrix
The buzz had it that 2003 was supposed to be the year of The Matrix. Unfortunately, the two ultra-slick, ultra-vacant, live-action sequels boasted extravagant hype but delivered minimal entertainment value. Both were so bad they actually managed to retroactively taint the original film, which had seemed so fresh, exciting and imaginative when it emerged from nowhere in 1999 to raise the bar for science fiction cinema.

Of 2003's various Matrix-inspired projects, only The Animatrix was able to salvage the franchise's sense of excitement and originality. This collection of animated short films was meant to merely wet the appetite of rabid Matrix fans and hold them over between sequels. It did far more than that. The Animatrix features an awesome array of creative talent such as Yoshiaki Kawajiri (writer/director of the Japanese anime classic Ninja Scroll), Andy Jones (director of the computer-generated Final Fantasy film) and Peter Chung (creator of MTV's "Aeon Flu").

Animator Kouji Morimoto's simple yet spectacular 10-minute short film Beyond is substantially more entertaining than all 267 combined minutes of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. With their bloated, stale sequels, the writing/directing team of the Wachowski brothers failed to live up to the promise of their own vision. Luckily, The Animatrix was around to assure viewers that the world of The Matrix is still fertile ground for imaginative stories.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Extended Edition)
The extended version of the first Lord of the Rings film was not only 2002's best DVD, it was one of the most impressive sets in digital history. The Two Towers Extended Edition carries on that lofty standard. On the one hand, it's a shame that director Peter Jackson wasn't given final cut on his trilogy so that these extended versions could have been seen in theaters.

On the other, it makes for great DVDs. In addition to the 43 minutes of new footage, this four-disc set of The Two Towers offers four commentary tracks by the cast and crew and two whole discs of documentaries and design galleries.

By now, there's no question that the Lord of the Rings is the most epic and awe-inspiring trilogy ever seen on the big screen, and now it also seems predetermined that the DVD editions will carve out their own place in movie history. I suppose I might as well go ahead and reserve a slot on next year's Best Of list for The Return of the King Extended Edition.

Finding Nemo
This was a good year for animation. Aside from The Animatrix, 2003 provided excellent DVD editions of Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty and the various works of Hayao Miyazaki, including his masterpiece Spirited Away, the highest grossing film in Japanese history.

The highest grossing film in the U.S. this year was a little movie called Finding Nemo, produced by the same wizards at Pixar who gave the world Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Finding Nemo was not only the year's biggest moneymaker, it was also one of the best overall films, and thus deserved a lavish DVD treatment. It sure got it.

Like most of Pixar's DVDs, this one features hours of worthwhile bonus features, including a great documentary, educational guides to underwater life, a virtual aquarium feature that turns your TV into a fishbowl and a cool visual commentary that mixes deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes clips with the actual film. It's hard to find any fault with this undersea odyssey, which is sure to go down as Pixar's finest effort.

Homicide: Life on the Street (Seasons 1 and 2)
Thankfully, more and more great TV shows are finally getting released on DVD. This past year saw the debut of Cheers, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Family Guy and The Ben Stiller Show among others. However, no show was more welcome on DVD shelves than Homicide: Life on the Street, the Emmy-winning NBC series that redefined the police drama.

This emotionally intense, visual groundbreaking cult hit replaced the stereotypical car chases and shoot outs of past cop shows with riveting interrogation scenes and painstaking character development. This DVD collection of Homicide's first two seasons features 13 episodes, including the Emmy-winning "Three Men and Adena," which one could argue is among the very finest hours ever broadcast on television. If you've never witnessed the fiery, tortured and tenacious Detective Frank Pembleton (as brought to life magnificently by actor Andre Braugher) at work in The Box, screaming, sweet talking and magically convincing a murder suspect to sign his life away, then you haven't seen TV at its finest.

West Side Story (Special Edition Collector's Set DVD)
This is the type of Special Edition that all classic films deserve. Featured on the two-disc set are a gorgeous transfer with stellar audio (including the original intermission music), a comprehensive hour-long documentary, photo galleries and a 200-page booklet that includes the complete screenplay, the original lobby brochure and countless tidbits of trivia.

Though the twirling, finger-snapping gang members might seem a little more campy than they did in 1961 when this updated version of Romeo and Juliet took home the Oscar for Best Picture, you can't deny the timeless power of its score, the skill of the performances (even after 40 years, Rita Moreno still sizzles) or the enduring beauty of star Natalie Wood.

Other Top Choices: The Adventures of Indiana Jones, Straw Dogs (Criterion Collection), The Who: The Kids Are Alright (Special Edition), Once Upon A Time In The West and Bowling for Columbine

The Worst:

The Mission (Two-Disc Special Edition)
This DVD didn't make The Worst list because The Mission is a bad movie. Quite the contrary, this heart wrenching drama about the subjugation of South American Indians is a truly worthy candidate for the "Special Edition" treatment. Unfortunately, there's nothing special about this edition.

I'd like to meet the ignoramus who decided that a 17-year-old BBC documentary deserved its very own disc in this two-disc set. And someone please tell these studio nitwits that "Interactive Menu" and "Scene Access" no longer qualify as Special Features.

28 Days Later
28 Days Later was one of 2003's biggest surprises: a low budget horror flick that packed far more punch than its mega-budget competition. This DVD, however, which boasts alternate endings that are supposed to "haunt you for days," proves to be a dud. Sometimes deleted scenes are deleted for a reason. This film could've been hyped on its own merit, without playing up some forgettable scraps from the cutting room floor.

Did this creepy submarine drama slip below your radar? If so, you're not alone since Disney apparently spent about 17 cents promoting it.

Considering it's written by Darren Aronofsky, the genius behind Requiem for a Dream, and directed by David Twohy, who helmed the stylish sci-fi hit Pitch Black, you'd think this film would've warranted more attention. It certainly didn't get any courtesy of this DVD, which slipped into stores with all the fanfare of a flea circus.

Here's another good film that deserved a better fate.

Initially dismissed by most as a rip off of The Matrix, this 2002 futuristic action flick is far more cerebral than it might seem at first glance. Considering it's already emerging as a modern cult classic, thanks in large part to its incredible action scenes, Equilibrium will surely warrant a comprehensive DVD at some point down the road.

Enough (Special Edition)
Unlike the four previous entries, Enough makes this Worst List for being truly bad. What's the only way to make a movie this ridiculous and insulting seem even worse? How about re-releasing it in Special Edition format with new featurettes, a Jennifer Lopez music video and commentary from a director who should've been too ashamed to rear his head.

More of the Bad:Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World, Windtalkers (Special Director's Edition), Treasure Planet, The Matrix Reloaded and Die Another Day



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