Unpaid journalism has its disadvantages. Uninvited to preview screenings and logistically unable to attend every new release, the observant reader will notice an absence of films that I was unable to see and judge: "Spiderman", "The Hours", "Adaptation", "Spirited Away", "The Fast Runner", "The Pianist" and even "8 Mile". Just as Rolling Stone magazine infamously named the Clash's 1979 "London Calling" as the greatest album of the 80's, I've managed to include two 2001 foreign releases. The rest of the list is an unapologetic cross-section of my own viewing habits and tastes. Criticism, as Jacques Barzun once noted, is more art than science. Otherwise, no defining pattern emerges, except an unhealthy personal yen for the mildly perverse and the odd underappreciated genre film.
#1 24 Hour Party People: Michael Winterbottom's account of the Manchester, England music scene, from a sparsely attended 1977 Sex Pistols concert through the closure of the legendary Hacienda club in the 90s, is less a tribute to sex, drugs and rock and roll than a tragicomic glimpse at the warring impulses of art and commerce. At the center of the tale is the voluble Manchester television personality Tony Wilson, played brilliantly by Steve Coogan. An entertainingly roguish dandy, aesthete and, by his own description, "a minor character" in his own life, Wilson founded the Factory Records label and Hacienda club, both artistically successful but failed commercial enterprises that collapsed in a sinkpool of debt spurred by perversely naïve business practices. With no contracts between bands and label, Wilson finally admits that he avoided of the dilemma of having to sell out by having nothing to sell. Showcasing music that ranges from the truly original (Joy Division and New Order) to the evocatively awful (the Happy Mondays), Winterbottom energetically recreates an era.
#2 Brotherhood of the Wolf: It was a blockbuster hit in France: The staid manners of the ancient regime unapologetically collide with werewolves and the martial arts. Relentless action, labyrinthine plotting, brilliant art direction, and an irony rarely found in the Francophone world mark the extraordinary tale of an 18th century natural philosopher and his Iroquois companion pursuing an elusive beast in the French countryside. With Monica Belluci as a prostitute/secret agent and a truly satisfying monster courtesy of the Jim Henson workshop, "Brotherhood" is a masterpiece of its own genre.
#3 Little Otik: Drawing on Czech folk legend, legendary director Jan Svankmajer combines live action with jerky, febrile stop motion animation in the surreal tale of a childless couple who adopt a tree stump. Perversely, the new family member develops a taste for blood and turns into a carnivorous monster, growing out of control. Unsettling and blackly humorous, "Little Otik" continues Svankmajer's line of vibrantly nightmarish fantasies.
#4 Hop-Fu (Live at the Oak Street Cinema, Sept. 20, 2002): New York turntablists IXL and Excess provided live accompaniment to the Kung Fu film "The Prodigal Son" in a multi-media performance that irreverently mixed musique concrete sound backdrops, remixed dialogue, and added speech fragments to an evocatively grainy video print of an otherwise pedestrian action flick.
#5 Talk to Her: Spanish superstar director Pedro Almodovar manages to turn his flamboyant imagination to more mature, bittersweet material in a tale of two men whose love interests, one genuine and the other the subject of a twisted crush, happen to be comatose. Although it explores the extremes of romantic frustration and fantasy, the end result is balanced and humane; Almodovar's characters and experiences, in spite of their flaws, are recognizably universal.
#6 Wendigo: A resourceful, imaginative, low-budget art/horror film from writer-director Larry Fessenden, "Wendigo" tells the disorientingly atmospheric story of a couple vacationing in upstate New York. In spite of occasionally familiar gothic flourishes such as a Native American seer and menacing local rednecks, Fessenden's strikingly original visual devices skillfully evoke a sensation of pleasant disorientation over explicit terror.
#7 The Kid Stays in the Picture: Suave, roguish film executive Robert Evans has likely never read Nietzsche, but his subjective voiceover in the autobiographical documentary "The Kid Stays in the Picture" is a tribute to the idea that "there are no facts, only interpretations" in an industry where careers are maintained by facile image and energetic self-promotion. Rising to become head of production at Paramount in the late 1960s, Evans oversaw the production of commercial and artistic successes such as "Rosemary's Baby" and "The Godfather" before a period of nearly classical decline fueled by drugs and hubris. Evans the narrator is unreliable, but his story is often haunting.
#8 Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: The second film in Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy is less self-contained than the first and moves even further away from the source material. Purists may balk, but the film succeeds remarkably well at its own ambitions as an action epic. The poetic detail of Tolkien's original is inevitably lost, but the special effects are among the most accomplished in film history.
#9 Road to Perdition: Boasting a stellar cast including Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law, Sam Mendes' poetically downbeat gangster film is more a tribute to the imagination of the late cinematographer Conrad Hall, who fashions a series of stunningly inventive tableaux from rain, sepia, and ineffably mythical images of the industrial Midwest.
#10 Gangs of New York: Less than a masterpiece, Martin Scorsese's account of the Civil War-era Manhattan underworld boasts outstanding production values and a remarkable performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as William Cutting, also known as "Bill the Butcher." As historically unconvincing as the Jorge Luis Borges short story "Monk Eastman, Purveyor of Iniquities" based on the same 1928 Herbert Ashbury account, "Gangs" largely features Leonardo DiCaprio wandering listlessly from one Dickensian scene to another as he plots revenge against Day-Lewis, but any lack of dramatic energy is balanced by the surrounding visual invention.© 2003 by Sten Johnson. All rights reserved.