Upon seeing this list the editor of this page expressed “dismay” that it hadn’t included movies that I had raved about, and that instead I included those with a less-than four-star rating. Call me contradictory, if you like. The fact is the obvious choices were so praised and dissected and analyzed to oblivion . . . that at this point one kinda loses interest. It’s like that story of the mother with two sons: One was brilliant, handsome and successful at everything he did while the other had gaping flaws, but Mom secretly loved him more, flaws and all.
If there’s one common trait running through this list it’s that they’re films that grow on you after viewing; they make you want to see them again, perhaps just for a particular facial expression, a bit of conversation, a detail in the production design. So what makes a truly good movie? Maybe I’ll have an answer next year.
Here they are, in alphabetical order:
A cranky, snarky, lecherous history professor is dying of cancer. His wife and children have long since left him, but in his final months his estranged son flies in to pay his last respects. Seeing his father lying in an ill-equipped and understaffed hospital, he decides to bury the hatchet and take charge. He calls in all of the professor’s past lovers and friends, eases his pain with heroin and even builds a kitchen near his bed so all the visitors can take turns cooking. A smart and uplifting take on euthanasia, it’s also a lesson about living death to the fullest.
Composer Cole Porter was the dapper byproduct of the Jazz Age who reigned over Broadway with his airy, sophisticated lyrics and stylish tunes. During his life he created over 850 musical numbers and consorted with the wealthiest and most beautiful of his day. Starring Kevin Kline as Porter, this film is not really a bio-pic but a musical tribute to this dazzling man and his wife/muse, Linda Lee (Ashley Judd), who gave him a gold cigarette case from Cartier every opening night.
How much walking can a bachelor do in his kitchen? Such was the question that triggered a team of Swedish researchers to go to Norway, install themselves on high chairs in the corner of a male volunteer’s kitchen and monitor the occupant’s movements eight hours a day. Rule No. 1 was that the researcher and the subject could not converse or forge a relationship. But one day a researcher climbs down from his chair to borrow a salt shaker and the rest . . . is the story of a beautiful friendship.
“Pieces of April”
If you want to see great acting, look no further than the performance by Patricia Clarkson (she was duly nominated for an Academy Award) in this shot-in-two-weeks-with-handheld-digital- camera, indie film. She plays Joy, a much-tried mom who travels with her family from upstate New York to Manhattan, following a Thanksgiving invitation from her estranged goth/boho daughter April (Katie Holmes). On the road, Joy is by turns cynical, wry and achingly funny while in her apartment April gamely struggles with a broken stove and an uncooked turkey.
Serial killer Aileen Wuornos was one of the most flamboyant criminals in US history. A freeway prostitute since the age of 13, Wuornos had wanted to be a movie star — what would she say had she known that former supermodel Charlize Theron was to put on 7 kg and coat her face over with latex to play her? A gutsy Theron shows how Wuornos’s life was full of pain and rage; saddest of all was how her lover Selby (Christina Ricci) used and then abandoned her in much the same way as the men in her life.
“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . .and Spring”
The bad-boy director of South Korea, Kim Ki Duk turned his image upside down with this heavily spiritual work tinged with Buddhist overtones. It traces the life of a monk as he matures from a little prankster into a tortured adolescent and to finally achieving inner peace in middle age. His temple is built on a free-floating raft in the middle of a pristine lake and most of the budget went into the astonishing production design. Forget “Winter Sonata” — this movie showcases the very best of the “Kanryu (Korean Wave).”
“Something’s Gotta Give”
One should age not just with grace but plenty of sparks and naughtiness, as demonstrated by Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in this romantic-comedy for the over-50. Initially, Jack isn’t too happy about the idea of the “mature relationship,” and tells Diane bluntly (after he has witnessed her with clothes off): “I’ve never seen a woman that old, naked.” But he soon sees the light. You’ll love Keaton as she deftly blends an Annie Hall freshness with a well-seasoned bitterness. Time is definitely on her side.
“The Swimming Pool”
A work that has the facade of a murder mystery, it’s actually a complex menage a trois between director Francois Ozon, the gorgeously aged Charlotte Rampling and French sex kitten Ludivine Sagnier. Ozon’s presence is felt in every frame, egging the women on to sizzling jealousies and sexual rivalry. One of the best moments: Charlotte Rampling creeping into the kitchen to swill the younger woman’s wine straight from the bottle, then wiping her mouth (on her sleeve) looking wickedly defiant.
As a bio-pic about poet Sylvia Plath, this movie doesn’t shed much light. But as the story of a doomed marriage between two brilliant people, “Sylvia” is extremely effective. Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) met Ted Hughes (Craig Daniels) when she was at Oxford. They married, went to the States and it was downhill from there. Plagued by writer’s block and suspicious of the successful Hughes, Plath gradually became unhinged. Oh, the exquisite pain, the beautiful bleakness!
“Les Triplettes de Belleville”
Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki faces a formidable rival in French animator Sylvain Chomet, who invested five years in the making of this astonishingly crafted tale. Most of the characters are old ladies (not an anime cutie in sight!), the story has little logical coherence and, unlike Miyazaki’s works, has no life lesson. But what a rush. Once inside Belleville, you’ll never want to leave.