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These are in the order I saw them. I don't like giving away any bits of plot or story line, so my comments are short, and rather general. There are lots of other places to go for summaries, so my pages simply give a few reasons for my rankings. If you happen to have tastes similar to mine, the pages may be helpful. If you don't, well, maybe you can use my opinions as a reverse indicator of a film's worth.

January | Festival Films

Note that this page replaces the old page from 2002 with listings for movies seen in 2002. I didn't review movies in 2001, but I did make a top 10 of 2001 list. See also an experiment in ranking from 2000.

2.5 stars is MEDIOCRE in my ranking scheme (scale of 0-5). I do, however, differentiate between artsy average, and Hollywood average. Because Hollywood puts out so much bland crap, 2.5 stars for an action flick might be termed AVERAGE. It will almost always be of lower worth than a think piece of the same rating, but for the type of movies that get made in a given genre, it should show relative merit. Very little gets more than a 3.5 from me. Anything at 4.5 or 5 stars is (IMO) exceptional.

General Movies (these are usually art-house flicks)

  1. Antwone Fisher: You'll probably know what kind of movie this is going in. It is exactly what it seems. Hero has problems managing anger, and the tale is how he grows as a person. Based on the Hero's account of himself, it is biased to flattering to all his friends, and showing all his foes in a negative light. The opening sequence is used well later in the movie. The Hero, Teacher, and Love Interest share excellent chemistry on screen, and make up much of the film's appeal. Camera work is not inspiring but generally acceptable. One scene in particular is annoying in its overuse of close ups (instead of two people talking it flashes between #1, then cut to #2, cut back to #1, etc.), and close ups here (as in so many other movies) are over done. Over all, not a bad film, and easy to find on screens. 2.5 stars (scale of 0-5).

  2. The Pianist: This is the greatest movie Roman Polanski has ever made. It is enthralling. The camera work is exceptional -- the shots are varied, the sets are perfect, the lighting evokes mood, and choices are well considered. The film's technique is both unobtrusive and inspired. "The Pianist" avoids the traps of mournful-yet-sappy soundtracks, overt sentimentality and/or worship of the subject. Okay, there are a couple points where the background soundtrack (rather than piano bits) gets a wee bit heavy, and yes there's a shot where our Hero is improbably lit such that he gets a spot-light/halo effect (he's about to play for the first time in ages), but the over-used devices are very few in number. Most every moment is completely compelling. Often, tragedy was treated in a sparse, matter-of-fact way that makes it all the more terrible. Long-winded "summary" -- loaded with spoilers. This is the first time in at least two years I've given a movie: 5.0 stars (scale of 0-5). Perhaps a second viewing will cause me to down-grade this highest mark, but right now, it seems doubtful.

  3. Catch Me if You Can: Spielberg has come out of his slump with this one (compare to A.I., Jurassic Park II, Hook or Minority Report -- or even the shlocky and over-hyped Saving Private Ryan or Amistad). It won't go down in time as one of the greatest films of the decade, but it is truly good entertainment. There is humor, excitement, and some tension. It is especially appealing that they could put so much fun into a true story! It conveys the giddy foolishness of a teen quite well (though interviews with the subject suggest that he may have been a little more panicked and a little less tempting of the fates than the film portrays -- but he could be revising his own history, too). 3.5 stars (scale of 0-5).

    ** (4 & 5 are a sort of Jim Broadbent duo -- evil Mr. Squeers in NN, and evil Boss Tweed in GoNY. Roger Ashton-Griffiths is also in both) **

  4. Nicholas Nickleby: This is the sort of film where actors get to show their chops. The text is a classic, the actors want to be at the top of their game, and -- since the film is a period piece -- the costume and set designers get to have a field day. Unfortunately, it comes off as a bit rushed. It is one thing to reduce a thick book into a thin action flick, but its another to try -- as this does -- to maintain the abbreviated piece as Art. All the elements work, and can't be faulted. The movie flowed as well as it could, but there wasn't time to dwell on anything. If they made a four-hour director's cut version with no new plot elements, but more time lingering over various points, it might be more watchable ... or that might it intolerable. The film isn't destroyed by the pace, but there is a perpetual feeling that each line has to sum up twenty pages of text. The best part about the film is watching actors Act. They have pretty thin characters to portray, so it all comes out as more stage-y than real, but it is fun to see talented people going at the roles. 2.5 stars (scale of 0-5).

  5. Gangs of New York: Like Nicholas Nickleby, this film was too rushed -- which is quite a thing to say about a film almost three hours long! There are lots of interesting historical accounts, and then there's the annoying fiction thrown on top. The real and dramatic aspects of real life get overshadowed by an uninteresting tale of a boy looking to avenge the death of his father.

    Yes, the slums of New York were dangerous and desperate even as far back (and before!) the Civil War. Yes, there were thieves and low-lifes. But for compelling drama in an action movie, please, please, please make at least one character have an inner conflict or have at least one central character who can rise above the state of brutish animal. It isn't like the film depicted real people. Yes, Boss Tweed was a real, and a completely corrupt person of the times, but he wasn't central. The main players, 'Amsterdam' Vallon and Bill "the Butcher" Cutting, and their friends and lovers all seem to be creations of the writer. They are only shown in a negative light. Actual, documented events were inconsequential to the main plot. The audio mentions items, but the leads aren't influenced by such events. They are isolated from it. It is only in the final movements of the film that events of the time actually make any impact on the main story, but by the time this happens, so much history has been glossed by that the intrusion seems incongruous.

    The best part of the film was the amazing cinematography. Much of it was masterful. The worst part was the choice of modern rock music. The tie-in with Civil War era NYC and Sept.11 NYC seemed strained and out of place. We understand that people are still as violent and factious as always, but what does that have to do with the rest of the film? Are we meant to believe that the U.S.A. is akin to 1860's NYC, and that if the U.S. spares the followers of rebel leaders (as Bill the Butcher spared Vallon's son), the U.S. will be brought down by the next generation of rebels? Should we then be more heartless than Bill and kill those with the *potential* to hold a grudge? Or is the tie-in meant to suggest that violence begets violence? Or merely to show how little we've changed? More likely, personal emotions about the September 11th attack were so strong that the tie-in was thrown in without much thought -- just as an acknowledgment of a modern trauma. 2.0 stars (scale of 0-5).

  6. The 25th Hour: Disclaimer: I love almost every film Spike Lee makes. It is therefore no surprise that I loved this, too. After a week of cardboard cut-outs of characters, here comes a film that lets actors portray PEOPLE. Yes, they are fictional, but they are more realistic than anything in "Gangs of New York". It also has some shots I expect will stay with me for years. Like 'Gangs', "The 25th Hour" also had a September 11th tie in, but it this case, it was useful and embedded within the movie. 4.0 stars (scale of 0-5). Not-too-spoliery appreciation.

  7. Lan Yu: Items of interest : 1) This was adapted from the popular erotic novel, Beijing Story, which first surfaced 2) on the internet, and 3) filmed illegally in China. Content: Even with a brief frontal male nudity towards the beginning (which means don't bother with the MPAA), the camera never shows anything too sexual, so those expecting erotica or porn will be disappointed. The movie is fine for folks needing more movies that are serious, non-porn stories of gay men. Outside that niche, it's only a fair film that gets: 2.5 stars (scale of 0-5). More Detail.

  8. The Hours: With the flow between the three women, the high production quality, acting, and EXCELLENT script adaptation, the only things keeping this movie from being great is the director's choice of shots and the score. For example, at one point the camera *should* be pulling back for a long shot to 1) emphasize Streep's sorrow and isolation, and 2) get the other actor in frame, *but* instead the camera just sticks on Streep in close up, and then the editor has to do some foolish cutting and jumping around to get the other actor in. Bleah. Weighing the good with the bad, the film comes out with 4.0 stars (scale of 0-5). More Detail.

  9. Cidade de Deus) (aka City of God): Violent depiction of gun toting thieves and drug dealers in Rio's mega-slum. This is exactly the type of movie I enjoy. Weaknesses in acting and script were more than countered by the realism of the based-on-true-life story. Most the characters are unfamiliar with the concept that human life has value, and they act accordingly. Morals are nonexistant. The film didn't have a Hollywood budget, but they had backers so production isn't bad. My main reservation with it is not knowing how much is factual and how much is just story device. Also, the script is too much of a timelime showing actions of characters with almost no other information about them -- but perhaps there's nothing else about them worth mentioning. Some folks may object to the choppiness of the tale, but those who grew up on Tarantino won't mind. 4.0 stars (scale of 0-5).

Film Festival Movies

  1. Campaign in Poland: A short propaganda piece from the German Government. Links: Campaign in Poland, Different MoMa version. This, too was on loan from MoMa, -- BUT this version contained English voice-overs instead of subtitles. It is a mere 34 minutes long, but the German Government made other versions of different lengths for different languages (German, French, Italian, etc.). It is interesting for the POV depicted. Summary (this summary is almost the verbatim synopsis I posted on 3.0 stars (scale of 0-5).

  2. Les Carabiniers (aka The Riflemen): Jean-Luc Godard, 1963, B&W : Godard's fifth film. Not his best work, but representative. This is a surreal anti-war movie. It is reminiscent of "Waiting for Godot" in it existential feel. The characters are intended as lesser archetypes. From text overlays at the beginning we are told that "The King" is meant to be any king. Similarly, the Carabiniers are any troops, and so forth. The stock holds a rich gradation of shadows, and the camera uses a soft lens. This makes for a classic Godard look. The sets and costumes are minimal, as the time, place and characters are indeterminate. The film's content deals with the absurdity of war, the petty, greedy reasons common man (rather than the ruling class) would engage in it, and its mindlessness. Its an interesting and meaningful film, but the delivery is unlikely to resound on the current era as strongly as when originally released. 2.0 stars (scale of 0-5).

  3. The War Game: Peter Watkins, 1966, B&W: Filmed for the BBC, but never aired, this is a sort of fake documentary (but certainly not a mockumentary) that uses actual accounts -- mostly from WWII -- to suppose what would happen in the event of a nuclear war in Britain. 2.5 stars (scale of 0-5). More Info/Spoilers

  4. Bed In: Yoko Ono, 1969, color: I think anyone who's had an interest in the Beatles or the 60s as a whole has seen footage of the week long "Bed In" held by John and Yoko in a Montreal hotel. This film is Yoko's personal cut of the events. It is of interest to see what she felt was worthy of inclusion in comparison to other depictions, but it isn't a particularly useful anti-war device. 1.5 stars (scale of 0-5). More Info/Spoilers

  5. 23rd Psalm Branch: Part 1: Stan Brakhage, 1966 (restored in 78, and blown up from 8mm to 16mm) USA, 18fps, silent, 40min. : This is an agressive visual poem. The film starts with text, then images of motion. Quickly new layers are added to the mix. We see single shots (perhaps just a single frame) of Death in various guises which are followed by long pauses of blackness. It is like blinking in reverse -- like you are in a void, but must occasionally view (not shut out) the horrors around you. There are bombs, battles, horses, artillery fire, and there is blackness. Sometimes there are several frames of moving images instead of a still. Sometimes a color -- instead of blackness -- fills the screen between interrupts. This and the uneven pace keeps the viewer on edge. Even the uneven pace keeps viewers on edge. It is a visual clash echoing themes relating to war. I am too attached to sound to give it more than: 2.0 stars (scale of 0-5). More Detail.

  6. Winter Soldier: 1972, B&W, 93min: This is a documentary on the 1971 Winter Soldier testimony in Detroit ni which Vietnam Vets testified to war atrocities they had committed or seen committed by U.S. soldiers. The camera is sympathetic and humanizing towards the vets, which makes the film more exceptional than if it had been just testimony. This one is worth seeing for several reasons. 4.0 stars (scale of 0-5). More Detail.

  7. Les Olivers de la Justice (aka The Olive Trees of Justice) : James Blue, Algeria, 1961, 80min. While "The Battle of Algiers" is the most famous movie of that revolution, "The Olive Trees of Justice" was the only feature film made during the time of conflict. The film, based on Jean Pelegri.s book of the same name, won the 1962 Critic's Prize at Cannes. While the conflict is central to the story, the film is not concerned with particulars; it relates feelings about the French/Algerian situation more than the situation itself. 3.5 stars (scale of 0-5). More Detail.

  8. Amal: James Blue, Algeria, 1960, 21min. This had NO subtitles. As such, all I can say is that it was pretty to look and, and I liked the how showed Amal's maman and petite soeur in the village -- sitting quietly with mom suckling the babe at her breast, then later showed a happy lamb finding its mother's teat, and later returning to l'image de la famille d'Amal. Mais je n'ai pas compris les images he drew sur la terre de la vache -- or the one of his dad, ni quelque des autres choses dans le film. I kept asking myself, "Huh? Qui?" 2.0 stars (scale of 0-5).

  9. The Battle of Midway: John Ford, 1942,18min. The item of interest is that John Ford filmed the actual bombing of Midway by the Japanese. See the U.S. Navy's text-version of Ford's recount. The Gooney birds (Albatross) were lovely. Needless to say, the battle was not -- but nothing too revealing made it to the public screen. The narration was awful -- especially the lines given to the 'grandma' voice-actress. Despite winning an Oscar, this really isn't good art. It is interesting because the images (unlike the narration) is the ultimate in kodachrome realisms, while the score and dialog is so over-the-top with patriotism and flag waving that it gets hard to tolerate. 1.5 stars (scale of 0-5).

  10. No Game: US, 1968 17min. Footage of the October 1967 march on Washington where an estimated 100,000 protested the Vietnam War. The most surprising thing is seeing protestors actually ON the Pentagon. Given how unlikely that would be today, it was more shocking than seeing the armed forces beating the kids with billy clubs. *That* I expect we'd still see today. 3.0 stars (scale of 0-5).

  11. In the Year of the Pig: Emile de Antonio, US, 1969, 101 min. While the film may be past its prime, it is still worth seeing for historical reference. The director, a communist, presents a warm, glowing image of Ho Chi Mihn as an honest who loves his country, culture, and people. The U.S. and Europe are corrupt, oppressive and brutal. It is understandable that this film got press attention, buzz, and that it was banned in several U.S. cities. It not only gives a message counter the that of the Government, it does so in an underhanded and way that will be emotionally moving to its sympathizers and the uninformed, but which will been seen as the one-sided pleading case that it is by others. Now, it looks dated, many people are not immediately familiar, and techniques that de Antonio innovated have been picked up by others, so it doesn't seem as original as it was. 2.0 stars (scale of 0-5). More Detail.

Notable Rentals

These are just included to remind me that, yeah, I did eventually get around to seeing that, and it was in this given year.
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