Capital Gazette wins special Pulitzer Prize citation for coverage of newsroom shooting that killed five

CRITICAL ACCLAIM

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charles Dickens' grand first line from A Tale of Two Cities - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" - applies to the movie year of 2003 as much as it did to the French Revolution. In fact, this year was also a tale of two spiritual capitals: not London and Paris, but Hollywood and off-Hollywood.

For most of '03, it was the worst of times, artistically, for Hollywood studios. Then Seabiscuit engulfed audiences in the bracing pleasures of intelligent, passionate, large-scale moviemaking. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a sweeping sea epic with heart and brains as well as swash and buckle, followed a few months later. And The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the perfectly protean final entry inPeter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy, topped everything. It stands at the pinnacle of fantasy filmmaking as a one-of-a-kind work of mythic imagination.

Throughout the year, and especially during the summer, it was the best of times for off-Hollywood moviemakers. The comic wizards at Northern California's Pixar Animation Studios, who release their films through Disney, produced the summer's ruling hit, the delightful Finding Nemo. Only the Pixar team consistently finds the slapstick art and humanity in computer animation.

The opposite end of the artifice-reality spectrum overflowed with engrossing documentaries. Capturing the Friedmans takes pride of place among them on my roster of 10-best movies (also the mock documentary, A Mighty Wind), but a half-dozen others tempted me, notably Spellbound, Rivers and Tides, Winged Migration, Unprecedented and the current To Be and To Have.

Independent movies including the under-seen Buffalo Soldiers and Shattered Glass, the sleeper hits The Secret Lives of Dentists and The Station Agent, and the engaging if uneven American Splendor kept art houses lively. My sweet spot, though, remains the meeting-point of independent and mainstream moviemaking. That's where you could find Ron Shelton's inspired cop movie Dark Blue, Terry Zwigoff's unabashedly ribald Bad Santa and Irish director Jim Sheridan's soaring ode to family and hope, In America.

Excepting The Man on the Train, L'Auberge Espagnole and Mondays in the Sun, foreign-language films proved disappointing. But English-language imports such as The Magdalene Sisters and international projects from English or Irish directors - Neil Jordan's exquisite piece of escapism The Good Thief and Michael Winterbottom's political docudrama In This World - did manage to aerate parochial American theaters with gusts of creative cosmopolitanism.

The Pianist opened in Baltimore on Jan. 10 and The Quiet American on Feb. 14. So both appear on the following list - really a choice of 10 favorites, in order of preference, among a possible 25 best. [Chris Kaltenbach's choices can be found below.]

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Forget the cliche "you'll laugh, you'll cry." If you've followed the previous chapters in the trilogy, this film will bring you to cheers and tears at the same time, thanks to Peter Jackson's point and counterpoint of intimate drama and epic conflict. Like The Godfather Part II, the film shifts between past and present with a surgical and lyrical artistry that opens up untapped places in the heart and unused portions of the cerebral cortex. Special effects haven't been so seamless since the handmade days of Ray Harryhausen's dinosaur flicks. And no movie of this scale has featured so many bold and full performances. As well as series stalwarts Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen and Viggo Mortensen, Bernard Hill and Miranda Otto come into their own as heartbreakers.

2. In America

Irish moviemaker Jim Sheridan's tragicomic, semi-autobiographical film conducts an honorable, and devastating, sneak attack on your emotions. The hardy humor of this tale of an Irish actor taking his wife and two young daughters to live in New York's Hell's Kitchen doesn't prepare you for the picture's inner depths and outer reach. This country allows Sheridan's characters to heal a long-festering family wound; this movie allows audiences to see the United States anew as a wide-open and accepting nation. The film couldn't come at a more apt time. For movie lovers - and for all Americans - it's a gift.

3. The Pianist

This harrowing, mysteriously moving Holocaust survivor's tale about a celebrated Polish Jewish musician, Wladyslaw Szpilman, did more than earn its best directing, screenwriting and acting Oscars (for Roman Polanski, Ronald Harwood and Adrien Brody, respectively). Its unsentimental yet empathic view of a man who identifies himself primarily as a pianist, not a Jew, gave audiences a new window into Hitler's Final Solution. Few directors have explored as stringently and intelligently as Polanski does here the confusion of national and religious ties and cultural allegiances. Few actors have played a musician or a man near death with the vibrant sensitivity of Brody.

4. Dark Blue

Almost no one saw it, but no American fiction feature took more chances and made good on them than Ron Shelton's drama about the collapse of authority in and out of the Los Angeles Police Department around the time of the Rodney King riots. Focusing on a corrupt cowboy-style detective (Kurt Russell) who gradually sees through his own illusions of virtue, Shelton rings changes on the formats of police movies, Westerns, Meet John Doe-like social fables and fact-based melodramas (the movie derives from a James Ellroy story). He uses those forms to fuel that almost forgotten item, an action-character, not an action-figure movie. And Russell is magnificent as a man who develops a conscience equal to his reflexes and street wit.

5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

In this rare seafaring spectacle, Peter Weir re-creates in spine-tingling detail the floating society of an English fighting ship in the early 1800s. He generates a cumulative excitement that is overpowering. The thrill comes from skipper Jack Aubrey's attempt to snag a superior French vessel (Russell Crowe has never been more likable or charismatic than as this leader of men) and from Weir's gradual unveiling of the mesh of loyalties, disciplines and codes that unify and fire up this mobile mini-England. Based lovingly, not slavishly, on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-centered novels, it's the unusual trompe l'oeil extravaganza that demands repeat attendance not to figure out its tricks but to savor the contributions of every actor in the crew.

6. Capturing the Friedmans

This documentary dares to enlist each member of the audience in his or her own quest for truth while honoring the facts of a sensational story. Andrew Jarecki's investigation and novelistic rendering of a pedophilia scandal that rocked a Long Island town and destroyed a middle-class family risked accusations of coyness or manipulation from more conventional documentary-makers, then silenced them with its superbly balanced testing of viewers' prejudices and sympathies. Jarecki casts light on the most shadowy corners of the household, then shapes the material, without distorting it, for maximum revelation. His alternately intuitive and analytic approach proves a huge plus for viewers who've endured documentaries that glide to awards solely on the potency of their subject matter.

7. A Mighty Wind

Hands down - or maybe hands together and clapping - this is the most humane and hilarious comedy of the year. Christopher Guest's mock documentary exploits the latest reality-TV conventions as it follows folk singers who are veterans or inheritors of the mainstream-folk tradition that faded with Hootenanny. It captures personal moments as well as public triumphs and embarrassments of wholesome, positive-thinking and often addled performers while they prepare for a tribute concert to a folkie impresario. The song titles alone conjure an enveloping three-pronged nostalgia - for a honeyed working-class past ("Old Joe's Place"), a heroic left-wing heritage ("Skeletons of Quinto") and healthy heterosexual romance ("A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow"). Each had as much to do with the folk movement's success as topical politics. As musical parody and as comic improvisation, the performances of (among others) Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Eugene Levy and, especially, Catherine O'Hara are beyond reproach, almost beyond praise.

8. Seabiscuit

In this gutsy, elegant translation of Laura Hillenbrand's marvelous book about the legendary horse that became an underdog Depression champion, writer-director Gary Ross and his three lead actors skillfully etch, separately, each of the main characters - the horse's owner (Jeff Bridges), the trainer (Chris Cooper) and the jockey (Tobey Maguire). When they finally unite around the horse, the feelings of culmination quake an audience's soul. Ross' emphasis on the history surrounding them turns the film into an exultant public anthem. The music critic Andrew S. Porter once wrote of Prokofiev's War and Peace, "There are plenty of operas that deal, subtly and stirringly, with love awakened, love betrayed, love finally triumphant. ... War and Peace belongs to the small band of operas that give voice to exalted popular resolve in music that is stirring but not crude." That's how I feel about Seabiscuit.

9. Shattered Glass

The tale of journalistic fabricator Stephen Glass crystallized the combination of sham charm and Satanic positioning that can thrive in cubicle culture and hoodwink organization men of all kinds, not just newspaper and magazine editors. Sterling performances from Hayden Christensen as Glass and Peter Sarsgaard as the editor who blows the whistle on him help make Billy Ray's directorial debut a much tougher and more accurate view of everyday journalistic life than the airbrushed All the President's Men.

10. The Quiet American

If anyone deserved the best actor Oscar last year aside from Adrien Brody, it was Michael Caine, who came up with a career-high performance as a jaded British reporter based in Saigon when French control was breaking down. It's another movie about journalism that transcends journalism. Phillip Noyce's wrenching adaptation of Graham Greene's novel of the same name is about how you get through life without illusions - how to deal with rot and mediocrity once you recognize it, even within yourself. Caine's agony is touching and cathartic.

'Rings' shines brilliantly; 'Seabiscuit' rouses

By Chris Kaltenbach

SUN MOVIE CRITIC

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Conventional adjectives fail to describe what Peter Jackson has accomplished with this three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic of Middle Earth. Suffice to say few directors have faced greater pressure in bringing their work to the screen -- failure would have meant the end of New Line Studios, which took a $300 million-plus chance on the largely untried director -- or succeeded as gloriously. Nobility, honest sentiment, unmatched storytelling, marvelous acting: Anyone lucky enough to see all three films in succession on the big screen (Trilogy Tuesday, which afforded just such an opportunity, may have been the cultural highlight of the year) saw modern filmmaking at its best.

2. Finding Nemo

Who woulda thought a fish with a short-term memory problem would have become the year's most popular movie character? Funny, imaginative and poignant when necessary, this tale of an overprotective clown fish searching for his lost son had audiences of all ages clamoring for more. Despite what some Hollywood studios insist, it's not mastery of computer animation that has made Pixar such a success. John Lasseter and his crew know great storytelling, know how to make us laugh and know true genius comes from establishing formulas, not merely following them.

3. Dirty Pretty Things

Set in the soft white underbelly of London's working class, where illegal aliens with everything to lose provide the cheap labor that powers Britain's economy, Dirty Pretty Things is a quiet, unforced masterpiece of suspense. Director Stephen Frears' story of an exiled Nigerian doctor whose discovery of a human heart in a hotel toilet forces him to balance his conscience against his need for survival -- doing the right thing could send him back to Africa, where extreme political persecution awaits -- speaks volumes about the moral morass afflicting too much of society.

4. The Station Agent

A dwarf, a hot-dog vendor and an artist form the year's unlikeliest alliance, as all three impulsively seek the solace, companionship and camaraderie missing from their lives. First-time writer-director Thomas McCarthy is brave enough to simply give us these three characters, then let his movie's fortunes rise and fall based solely on how willing we are to follow them. Nothing much happens in The Station Agent, save for the introduction of three endlessly fascinating characters interacting in ways both marvelous and mundane. As Fin, the trio's reluctant linchpin, Peter Dinklage may have given the year's most deceptively nuanced performance.

5. Kill Bill -- Vol. 1

Quentin Tarantino's ode to the grind-house kung-fu movies he adored as an apprentice film geek was bravado moviemaking at its most exhilarating. In lesser hands, this would have been an over-adrenalized action flick more exhausting than exciting, but Tarantino's pacing and imagination proved up to the challenge of channeling his passion into something even non-geeks could enjoy. And a big welcome back to Uma Thurman, absent from mainstream movie screens for too long.

6. The Pianist

Roman Polanski, himself a Holocaust survivor, depicts the Nazi horrors as seen through the eyes of one man, pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman. In doing so, he offers a vision of madness every bit as harrowing as Schindler's List, yet more intimate. By focusing on only one victim, he both personalizes the tragedy and makes it seem even more immediate. And Adrien Brody's winning the best actor Oscar was one of the year's most pleasant shocks.

7. Spellbound.

This documentary's a winner not simply because its dispassionate look at kids trying to become the national spelling bee champ provided a gripping story line second to none, but because it allowed the losers to be honest about how they felt. And surprise: None viewed losing as the end of the world. A spelling bee should be like every other game; playing well should be reward enough.

8. The Magdalene Sisters

Rather than a condemnation of a church that allowed evil to flourish within its walls, this drama about a group of "wayward" young girls suffering unspeakable horrors at the hands of a religious order allegedly out to help them was a condemnation of sadists everywhere who inflict pain in the name of God. Special kudos to the Sisters of Mercy, who issued a public apology for allowing such abuses under their watch, and to the cast of unknowns (who don't deserve to stay that way).

9. Seabiscuit

Director Gary Ross took Laura Hillenbrand's award-winning book about an equine Everyman that became one of the 1930s greatest sports champions and turned it into a rousing story of triumph at all levels. The cast, especially Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper, couldn't have been chosen any better.

10. Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Here's that rarest of cinematic finds -- a paean to the movie magic of old that captures what made those tales classics in the first place. Director Joe Dante successfully invoked the ghosts of such master animators as Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng in bringing Bugs, Daffy, Yosemite Sam, Wile E. Coyote and a host of other Warner Bros.' greats back to movie theaters after way too long an absence. With luck, that won't be all, folks!

Honorable mention

Bubbling under, five films that almost made the cut: 28 Days Later, Lost In Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mondays in the Sun, Shattered Glass.

Sragow's Top 10

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2. In America

3. The Pianist

4. Dark Blue

5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

6. Capturing the Friedmans

7. A Mighty Wind

8. Seabiscuit

9. Shattered Glass

10. The Quiet American

Kaltenbach's Top 10

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2. Finding Nemo

3. Dirty Pretty Things

4. The Pianist

5. Station Agent

6. Kill Bill Vol. 1

7. Spellbound

8. The Magdalene Sisters

9. Seabiscuit

10. Looney Tunes: Back in Action

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
59°