In the list-happy spirit of High Fidelity, the top three signs it's been a bad year for movies:
The best titles-The Exorcist, This Is Spinal Tap, The Nightmare Before Christmas-are re-releases.
The worst were the handiwork of such respected auteurs as Robert Zemeckis (What Lies Beneath), John Frankenheimer (Reindeer Games), and Robert Redford (The Legend of Bagger Vance).
By this point last December, Spike Jonze, David O. Russell and Doug Liman had announced themselves as directors to be reckoned with. Twelve months later, the hottest talents behind the camera are the Wayans Brothers (Scary Movie).
All told, only a handful of films managed to distinguish themselves-each one, coincidentally, a character-driven ensemble piece:
Cameron Crowe's shaggy follow-up to Jerry Maguire tracks the coming-of-age of a very young Rolling Stone reporter (Patrick Fugit) in 1975, but the movie ultimately chronicles the fruition of an era gilded with decadence and drugs. Genially artless and teeming with heart, this sweet-spirited saga loves its characters even as it faults them; and Kate Hudson, playing a self-effacing (and deluding) groupie, delivers the breakthrough performance of the year.
Michael Douglas is a corpulent Pittsburgh professor whose thousand-page novel-in-progress charts the vagaries of equine orthodonture. Tobey Maguire plays his prize pupil, a pathological liar with a sexuality as flexible as his principles of honesty. Together, they smoke marijuana, mock litterati and shoot blind dogs. From such precious elements, Curtis Hanson's bemused dramedy wrings sophisticated, delectably dry humor, and features an unusually assured Robert Downey Jr. (between incarcerations).
You Can Count On Me
An acutely affecting slice of domestic strife, this sincere, generous, rewarding film achieves in its small scope a transporting perfection. As a single mother and her shiftless brother, Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo offer two of the year's strongest performances, and Matthew Broderick dexterously shifts gears as Linney's unctuous boss. Quietly luminous.
...And the worst
The Skulls and Battlefield Earth are the easy answers. Herewith, the more high-profile disappointments:
The year's most overrated film, a dreary, humorless, just-add-water battle epic, indifferently acted and fervidly overdirected-even the combat scenes are edited without a nod to coherence. Russell Crowe smolders, but Joaquin Phoenix underwhelms as a villain. Note to Ridley Scott: Pretentious camera angles and inauthentic sets do not a Spartacus make.
A movie in dire need of Ritalin. As a trio of conniving lowlifes, Ben Affleck, Charlize Theron, and a hirsute Gary Sinise undergo so many protean (and pointless) character shifts and plot such piddling larcenies, it's no wonder they're stuck robbing Michigan casinos. Notable only for the sheer number of corkscrew twists that clog its nonsensical finale.
What Lies Beneath
This handsome but ludicrous supernatural psychothriller kicks off with a 45-minute red herring and concludes in a half-hour bathtub setpiece. It's like a Herculean marathon of endurance, all karmic dialogue and ravishing interior design. The identity of the villain will shock anyone-that is, anyone who has never seen a movie before.
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