Thoughtful reviews, the Boulder film scene

Operation Condor

Jackie Chan meets Indiana Jones —Andrea Birgers (review...)

Chan borrows from Raiders

" Failure is not quite so frightening as regret "
The Dish

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Though many critics complained that 2001 was a bad year for movies, Movie Habit found lots of reasons to give thanks. We gave eight films a four-star rating this year (compared to zero last year).

The puzzle movie in particular caught our fancy. Memento and Mullholland Drive, Vanilla Sky and The Others, even Gosford Park and The Princess and the Warrior left us scratching our heads and talking with friends and strangers, which is what great movies are all about.

And where many criticized the crop of summer movies as hopelessly boring, Movie Habit critics found lots of watchably average and above-average fare. There were a few disappointments, but even the overhyped Pearl Harbor and Planet of the Apes didn’t completely suck.

So here’s Movie Habit’s list. Although the list is a little more mainstream than in previous years, we hope it does more for you than just rehash the year in movies. Hopefully you’ll re-evaluate some films you didn’t appreciate the first time around. Maybe you’ll even learn about some good movies that you missed. We hope you are surprised with at least one film on this list, and we hope there’s at least one you haven’t seen yet.

Here they are:

10. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg

Because Spielberg created a challenging, creepy movie about love, belonging, and alienation with a story that goes far deeper than the robot boy storyline on the surface.

Set in the future, following a worldwide flood due to global warming, A.I. takes place in a world where the limited landscape has created additional population pressures. Now, couples must obtain a license in order to have children. And, with so many people yearning to be parents, the miracles of technology hope to solve that problem by introducing robots that look like human children and can actually offer genuine feelings of love. The concept is awesome: Loving children that throw no temper tantrums and never get older.

Steven Spielberg has grown up, but not old, with his most recent works (most notably with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) and A.I. is actually more akin to those films than his other fantasy masterpieces like E.T. and Close Encounters.

9. Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe

Because it questions the important things in life in what amounts to one of Hollywood’s most expensive “art house” movies.

Vanilla Sky skillfully ratchets up the tension as reality and fantasy blur together in a mélange of flashbacks (or are they flashforwards?), dreams, and nightmares that center around a young, shallow magazine tycoon and the mysterious death of one of his girlfriends.

What takes Cameron Crowe’s latest film to the next level is its multi-dimensional approach to the material. Not satisfied to be simply a thriller or a love story, this one questions life, happiness, and the hereafter.

8. Gosford Park, Robert Altman

Because the exact and intricate direction of Robert Altman insists you watch this film more than once.

A score of characters, half with significant parts, spend a weekend together at a British manor. And although it’s sold as a murder mystery, Gosford Park is less a whodunit than a who’s-doing-what-to-whom.

Class plays a large part in Gosford Park. The nobles can’t function without their servants, yet they treat them with complete disregard. But the servants use their masters as well in the daily gossip that happens downstairs.

The intricate web of relationships between the dozen or so main characters is hard to follow at first, but it all holds together brilliantly, and the film stays rich through several viewings. Just don’t get lost or you’ll never catch up.

7. The Man Who Wasn’t There, Joel and Ethan Coen

Because the Coen brothers’ finesse rivals that of Wayne Gretzky, and their grace, that of a Japanese calligrapher.

The Man Who Wasn’t There may be the Coen Brother’s best film yet. It’s a sparse, taut black and white film focusing on a barber (Billy Bob Thornton) caught in a nightmare of his own doing. The film provides simple, intelligent dialogue, brilliantly paced shot sequences, and picture perfect cinematography reminiscent of some of Kubrick’s best.

6. Shrek, Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson

Because it takes animation to the next level in a movie that appeals to young and old alike.

Shrek is a marvel of high-tech computer animation, old-fashioned story-telling, and modern-day humor. Mike Myers does the voice of this mean, green ogre, who happy to live alone in his swamp. His serenity is disrupted when the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) banishes all the land’s fairy talecharacters to Shrek’s humble turf. Shrek is promised the return of his swamp rights if he rescues Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a fire-breathing dragon. What follows is a rather traditional story of the cranky ogre making good by saving the princess, but it is so imaginatively told, and with such unabashedly adult sensibilities and humor, that this movie transcends typical animated fare and takes on a life of its own.

5. The Pledge, Sean Penn

Because of Sean Penn’s artistic direction, honest blue-collar characters, and one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances.

The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, the first two films Sean Penn directed, received mixed-to-favorable reviews. More importantly, they showed the promise of artistry. In The Pledge, a blue-collar murder mystery, Penn’s talent as a director comes into full bloom.

Jack Nicholson stars as a retiring police detective who, on his last day on the job, makes a pledge to personally find the killer of a little girl. Nicholson works hard to keep his promise, following up on every lead, questioning every too-tidy conclusion. The pace of the film follows a conventional mystery, unraveling clues at a slow and steady pace. But the film is also about Nicholson and his obsession, not just with solving a single crime, but with staying useful and relevant after retirement.

Nicholson brings a depth and pathos to the screen that he never has before. Penn brings a sensitive eye and a willingness to try some visually risky photography. On one level, The Pledge is a conventional mystery. But it also transcends convention in every scene. It’s unfortunate that critical acclaim didn’t translate into ticket sales, but if there is any justice The Pledge will become a favorite on home video.

4. Waking Life, Richard Linklater

Because of Richard Linklater and Bob Sabiston’s groundbreaking visual imagery.

Waking Life is a stew of philosophies about life and dreams, told through a series of monologues and dialogues (about thirty by my count). These segments are loosely held together by a bookending story about a wanderer who dreams these encounters. The next step in animation, you have to see Waking Life to really get it. But as an example, an early scene has a woman talking about the evolution of words. As she describes the process of sound traveling from her mouth to your ears and through your brain, the animators sketch a schematic of sound moving through air and through neural pathways.

3. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, George Butler

Because this true story of survival and teamwork has more relevance now than ever.

The Endurance is the highly acclaimed documentary about Shackleton’s odyssey in the Antarctic and should not be confused with another documentary on the subject, South, that recently screened at the Denver International Film Festival and Boulder’s International Film Series. The Endurance is a more thorough look that combines original footage shot by the expedition’s photographer along with current day interviews with relatives of the crew and stunning new photography of the vistas that plagued Shackleton’s team. After almost 90 years, Hollywood has finally jumped on the story with two extravagant productions, one a mini-series and one a theatrical release, which probably won’t have the same punch as this documentary.

2. Memento, Christopher Nolan

Because Chris Nolan’s remarkable “backwards” screenplay really works.

Memento is an existential mystery told backwards in segments and subjectively so that the question is not “what happens?” but rather “why does it happen?” The protagonist is essentially living in the present-tense only, and asks himself (and the audience) questions like “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” It’s a throwaway line, but an example of the gems to be found in the periphery. After all, the cliché is that time heals all wounds, but this film makes you realize that this is not because of subtraction (meaning that you’ll eventually forget what pains you), but rather because of addition (so that the more memories you collect, the more you can distance yourself from the pain remembered).

1. Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann

Because it stands out as the most ambitious, the most daring, and the most entertaining movie of the year..

Four years in the making, Moulin Rouge is a triumph of emotion, style, and entertainment. The film is set during the heyday of the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Paris. But rather than a historical depiction, Luhrmann’s film is an expressionist flight of fancy, an energetic operatic musical, and the first sign of a post-pop-culture era. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman fall in love, singing their hearts out and giving earnest performances. Their emotional honesty really sells Baz Luhrmann’s crazy, visionary film.