Last year it was easy to bog down a list with novelty picks, goofy Steven Soderbergh spectacular-spectaculars, and little-seen documentaries about corn fetishists. This list at least feels more hefty and substantive, like a compendium of work made by craftsmen and caregivers who brought to the multiplexes more heart and soul than in years past. A colleague suggests the list below is a collection of movies about (and, in Bowling for Columbine's case, by) unhappy people -- unhappy men, actually, even in films dominated by sad women (Far from Heaven, Sunshine State) and chicks in comas (Talk to Her). It's quite the valid point; come to think of it, this has been the Year of the Miserable White Guy, if you take into account Beck's heartbreaking masterpiece Sea Change and Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, starring a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I'd also insist this is a list dominated by films about real people, or at least recognizable archetypes; even Solaris, set in dizzying regions of outer space, aches with the identifiable pain of loss, guilt, and regret. That's what the fourteen people who saw it and loved it thought, anyway; count me among their tiny, silent ranks.
For proof the major Hollywood studios have lost their way, look no further than the boxed sets Sony and Warner Bros. sent to Academy Award voters and film critics, begging them to consider their product come award time. Sony's collection included DVDs of xXx, Stuart Little 2, Spider-Man, Panic Room, and MIIB: Men in Black 2; Warner's contained Blood Work, The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, White Oleander, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In all, a particularly dreary and expensive lot not worth the plastic it's imprinted on. Most stunningly, Universal's been sending out screeners of About a Boy (and, by the way, thanks!) and The Emperor's Club, the latter a most revolting bit of Oscar stink bait, while keeping to itself The Truth About Charlie and The Bourne Identity, two awfully fun movies that were every bit as entertaining as Steven Spielberg's chase-film twofer of Minority Report and Catch Me if You Can. Maybe Uni figured everyone would mistake them for the same movie; even now I forget which starred Matt Damon. Both, right? No? Huh.
There's barely the blockbuster here, and even the films on this list funded by major studios have that indie vibe: They play small and feel big, like home movies blown up for the giant screen. Let's not pretend these lists are compiled using any professional criteria -- cinematography or score or, say, attention to detail in the manufacturing of sets. (If that were the case, Gangs of New York would rank high on my best, not most-disappointing, list. Speaking of which, how the hell does the Hollywood Foreign Press justify its Cameron Diaz nod as best supporting actress for the Golden Globes? Oh, yeah -- them foreigners donna speaka no English, right, which explains just about everything.) No one loves a movie simply because of its technique -- well, unless you're talking Adaptation, which is nothing but and topping crits' lists nonetheless, a sure sign they ain't selling Zig-Zags for cigarette tobacco in New Yawk City.
It's about the people, people; you gotta care just a little if you're going to like a lot, which is why I can't go for no CG Gollums or pre-pub wizards when there are plenty of frustrated-disenchanted-brokenhearted folks from which to choose this year. Yes, yes, whatever -- Two Towers is a remarkable bit of filmmaking, majestic and sweeping and blahblahblah. But give me humans over hobbits any three hours of the day. And take this list for what it is: the beginning of a discussion, hardly the end of one.
1. 25th Hour. Or, a tale of one city: Small-time Manhattan drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) spends his final day of freedom making peace with his pops (Brian Cox), his girlfriend (Rosario Dawson), and his old pals from high school (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Barry Pepper). But Spike Lee, at his most restrained and reflective, finds in David Benioff's screenplay, based on the author's 2001 novel, more than just the story of a guy about to do time for the crime; he uses it to tell the story of New York City in the ashen days after September 11 by pointing the camera at hastily erected FDNY memorials and Ground Zero itself, seen during a prolonged and painful scene that takes place in an apartment overlooking what used to be the World Trade Center. The Last Temptation of Christ-like ending is wrenching, but no more than the moments when Monty realizes he had everything and watched it crumble, like the city itself.