Gangs of New York - I guess I'm a sucker for costuming. And what costuming this is! I wish I would have seen this movie at a theater, just to see all the toughs in their bizarre armor. It's almost like the SCA. It's a strange period in our country's history, and I'm glad Scorsese tried to capture it. I'm not a worshipful fan of "Goodfellas", but that movie captured a little vicarious thrill that it might be good to be a gangsta. All this movie has to offer is four hours of bloody desperation. Four hours! If Scorsese wanted to make a long dull non-fiction movie, he could have asked the History Channel for a miniseries. As it is, it looks good, but it doesn't feel good. ****½ (out of 5)

Finding Nemo - I always like trying to figure out the moment when something becomes a classic. There are good movies (like "Dark City") that go completely forgotten or settle down to a mere Cult Classic. Why is The Little Mermaid more beloved that Toy Story? Who are all these people who revere Casablanca? Anyway, I think every parent is going to have to own this DVD, if they haven't bought it already. It's such a fun, slick story, and Ellen DeGeneres is so good, that I can ignore all the things that don't work. I didn't like the surfin' turtles, or the jellyfish, or Bruce the Shark, or... hell, in retrospect I didn't like *any* of the individual parts of this movie. But as a whole, it's a funny little thing that you can stick in the DVD player in your SUV to get the kids to shut up as you drive them to the mall. ***** (out of 5)

Pirates of the Caribbean - I thought that this movie would be good, but not *this* good. Johnny Depp is amazing, and the script is funny and fast-moving. I've been burned by pirate movies before (do you hear me Polanski?) but this one delivers the goods. My only criticism is that it's *too* fast and short. I wanted more. There's one scene where the skeletons can't swim. I had a glorious "oh, I get it" moment when I realized they could walk on the bottom of the ocean, being undead and all. The fact that the movie can still surprise me like that makes this one the best movie of 2003, hands down (ok, it was kind of a slow year for me for DVDs). ***** (out of 5)

Tea With Mussolini - What a cast! Lily Tomlin, Cher, Maggie Smith, Judy Densch, and more. And Franco Zeffirelli is an amazing director, even though he still uses the style of the 1970's. Great story which is supposedly true. One of those rare historical pieces that makes you understand the events of WWII Italy without sparing interesting characters, thoughtful dialogue, and real emotion. One of the best of 1999. ***** (out of 5)

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels - I liked "Trainspotting" a little better, but this movie is also a classic, and has a lot of the same feel as that movie. Great plot, great acting, great soundtrack. Plus, the movie is simply *filmed* well, with lots of stop action, slo-mo, and muted colors. The ending didn't turn out the way I thought it would, and although in retrospect it's a predictable "caper" movie, I was still caught up and surprised. Highly recommended. ***** (out of 5)

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut - Soon, people will stop paying Trey Parker and Matt Stone to make movies. BASEketball was only slightly funny, and I've heard Orgasmo was worse. This one has some funny moments that trickle to a halt as the movie goes on (and on and on). Most of the duo's jokes are of the sub-Leno type "...Barbara Streisand... isn't she stupid?" Yeah, yeah, it's easy humor and we've heard it all before. However, a large part of this movie is the great musical numbers. It's kind of like the "Anti-Disney"! But when they stopped singing, the movie sunk. (Later note) Ok, in retrospect, I've given this a much higher rating. When else will we get an NC-17 skewering of Disney pablum? It's not like good modern musicals are easy to find. I'd love to see this one on the Broadway stage. ***** (out of 5)

Office Space - This movie does a good job of conveying how heartless, mind-numbing, and soul crushing office work can be. It reminds me of "Clockwatchers", which also had a Friends actress in it and also didn't do well. To be charitable, the movie has some interesting characters and really goes against stereotypes. Unfortunately, it's not very funny, and the "caper" plot wears thin. However, the pseudo-expensive programmer-bachelor's apartments really brought back some memories for me. (Later note) there haven't been any good movies about programmers. "The Net"? "Hackers"? Maybe "Sneakers" or "The Conversation" came close, but this movie has a special ennui that only "The Clockwatchers" has hinted at. Computer work in today's modern world is a living hell, and it's good that *somebody's* warning today's youth against it. ***** (out of 5)

Smoke Signals - What a great movie... a mediation on death and fatherhood. But unlike a lot of meaningful movies, this one remains incredibly funny and is never maudlin. And if it sometimes seems like an episode of "Northern Exposure", it can be forgiven, because that was a pretty good show at times.

Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs?
Or in their deaths, saying to to them; or not saying it?
If we forgive our fathers, what is left? ***** (out of 5)

Fight Club - This movie is so good it's in a class by itself. It's rare for a movie to be so great in so many areas: acting, plot, pacing, novelty. Plus, there's a lot of innovative camera work and special effects that actually fit the movie's theme... instead of seeming "tacked on". I call it a true "guy's movie" since it deals with all topics of masculinity - both it's strengths and weaknesses. It's a hard, violent, and bloody movie at times. Sure, the final twist is a bit silly, and at times the 2 1/2 hours is quite tedious and numbing to sit through. However, I don't think there's a movie with as many ideas in it that has released in the past ten years. ***** (out of 5)

American Beauty - It's so rare when a movie can have "adult themes" that don't deal entirely with sex. And it doesn't sink into angry "Kramer vs. Kramer" yelling, either. I was reminded of the best parts of "The Ice Storm" or "Ordinary People". At first, I was disappointed, since I thought the movie would merely show some warped, sick characters like "Happiness" did. Instead, as the plot started, the characters began to change... and developing characters is something I haven't seen in a movie in a long, long time. Kevin Spacy is absolutely incredible with his deadpan, childlike one-liners. This is a funny, funny movie, because it is about people. What a shock. ***** (out of 5)

Run Lola Run - It's kind of sad that the best cinematographers of Europe are entirely influenced by MTV. They used to be the innovative ones. Instead this movie looks like an hour-and-a-half-long video. It's actually the same twenty minute movie shown three times, each time slightly different. It's a cute idea, and Franke Portente's red hair look magnificent as she runs (and runs and runs) to a driving techno soundtrack. I think that classical film soundtracks are pretty much obsolete after listening to "Fight Club" and this movie's excellent score. The plot is pretty engaging (even for the third time through), and I liked it more than I should have, but not as much as I wanted to. ***** (out of 5)

Galaxy Quest - I'm a big fan of Star Trek, mostly because it really helped me during my first lonely year of college. After classes were over, I would go to the dorm and eat. Then, there was Star Trek on the huge big-screen community television. For some reason, I had never seen the old episodes from the seventies. Sure, they are corny, but they were also mindless fun. This movie succeeded at making my laugh, and then some. I think it's secret was it didn't try to copy Star Trek exactly, but took occasional elements to create a show that "could have been". I especially liked the eight-year-old navigator, and the buxom blonde (a surprising Sigourney Weaver) who repeats everything the computer says. It's a great movie, at least to me. Those that like Star Trek less (or more) may disagree. ***** (out of 5)

High Fidelity - I was a little mellow about this movie. I've already read and enjoyed the book, but that means I've already read all the good jokes. And I've never liked adaptations of novels... they leave too much out, and a lot of what was good about the book (the narrator's interior monologues, the incessant lists of lists) could never be filmed. John Cusack does a great job by speaking to the camera... in fact he just does a great job. He looks older, kind of haggard. You know he produced the film and helped write the script because he liked the book. I watched this movie downtown, which means two different people got cell phone calls (and one guy took the call for five minutes). For the first thirty minutes of the film, a lady behind me laughed loudly at every joke. Soon, she stopped. When this has occurred in the past, it usually means that the movie isn't funny at all... at it just took the stupid people a little longer to realize that fact. However, in this case I think it was because the movie is more bittersweet and slightly cynical than comical. I give this movie the highest score, not really because it's incredible, but because I like the subject and I may not have the best perspective. ***** (out of 5)

The Messenger - Even though I don't go to SCA anymore, I'm still a medieval lord at heart. I love a good bloody sword-and-sorcery flick, and this movie has some of the best combat scenes since Branaugh's "Henry V". Although that would be enough for me, you also get an interesting look into the soul of Joan of Arc. And what an annoying martyr she was... I would have tied her to the stake myself. Dustin Hoffman is a nice surprise as the devil/angel/conscience of Joan. I was a fan of Luc Besson's "Subway", which was kind of a marginal film, and he does a good job directing this one, too. It's not Shakespeare, and it's not really an action film. I can't think of anybody that would like this except fans of medieval movies. But we sure like it. ***** (out of 5)

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. - It's by Errol Morris, and there's isn't another documentary director like him. I love him combination of crisp visuals and solid pacing. You *could* quibble with his version of "the truth"... when he modifies a photograph to add a clear double exposure, or he fools around with timelines or motivation. But those are minor points: it's Morris's version of what he thinks happened, and it's closet than the made-for-tv "reality" shows out there (I kind of blame "The Thin Blue Line" for inspiring all the nineties reenactment shows, for example). I wish Morris would make a movie ever month... but his work is so crafted and detailed, that would be impossible. Maybe it's enough to hope that more directors take an interest in documentaries, and solid photography. Oh well. ***** (out of 5)

The Tao of Steve - This movie doesn't "speak" to me any more than "High Fidelity" did... I think it's for a different audience (e.g. straight men). However, I love it when a film nails the atmosphere and setting as well as this movie did. Little details - the frisbees on the roof, the sketch of a yellow dog on Dex's bedroom door - they all created a portrait of slacker life in Santa Fe. It's not a city that often gets to be in a movie. So many other comedies could be set anywhere. Even hardened "New York" films often forget to add any signs of life outside of sterile apartments; there's no there there. This film is filled with great characters, fantastic acting (by both Donal Logue and Greer Goodman), and a good plot. What more can I ask for? I loved the ending credits "Based on a story by Duncan North, based on an idea by Duncan North, based on Duncan North". Unlike "Almost Famous", Duncan North has no real fame or important lifestyle to feature in a movie. Maybe that's what made me like it more than the life of fantastic uber-director Cameron Crowe. Dex is everyman, and in doing so, he is everySteve, even for us gay Steves out there. ***** (out of 5)

Shrek - I can be a curmudgeon, but it's sometimes fun to see a movie in a theater full of kids. That is, if they're watching a *good* kids movie... one that doesn't make them bored, confused, afraid, or a combination of the three. This is a very good movie. What's especially fun is when there's a joke that only the adults can understand, and you can hear a deeper booming laughter from the over-10 crowd, while the kids look up at their parents and wonder what was so funny. "We'll tell you later when you're older". The Animaniacs and classic Warner Brothers cartoons used to have that feel. There were three or four jokes in this movie that made me laugh out loud and I surprised myself. The animation is actually sub-par here, and the CGI looks like the doughy, soft 1990's work found in low budget computer games. Mike Myers is surprisingly flat as the title ogre (even though he reportedly redid his part with a bigger Scottish accent, he still sounds monotonic), but luckily Eddie Murphy is able to do manic voiceovers (who knew?) and John Lithgow and Cameron Diaz are actually identifiable, unlike the "voice talent" in most Disney films that don't seem to go with their characters. I got a free pass to see this movie, and so did hundred of other King Soopers shoppers. I think it's odd that the studio handed out so many free tickets, and that's the only downside to my review: I have the odd feeling that they were counting on sales of toys and happy meals to pull them through instead of trusting the quality of the movie. Eek! Brainwashing future consu-moo-ers. ***** (out of 5)

Chocolat - The only criticism I heard about this movie was that it was a little "slight" to be nominated for an Oscar. Well, of course it is. It's a fable at heart, and most good fables start out with a generic story. The plot of an outsider shaking up a stolid community isn't rare, or in itself very interesting (see the Broadway "play" version of "Footloose" for example), but it's the way the story is told that makes all the difference. It's odd that there's a sub genre of American movies that seem foreign (like almost any accessible Merchant-Ivory flick), but it works here. The setting of a small French town, and the idiosyncratic characters make up the flavor of this tale. Juliette Binoche is absolutely beautiful, and Johnny Depp proves he is the only current young actor that makes a difference (Sorry Ed Norton and Bard Pitt). I wasn't a big fan of "Big Night" or "Babette's Feast" or any of the other recent art-house movies that made a fetish out of food. However, this movie works better than "Like Water For Chocolate" simply because it isn't about very much. There's love and there's food... and it's a rare movie like "Tampopo" or this one that realizes how important those things are to life. ***** (out of 5)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch - Ah, it's a filmed musical. Luckily, the musical isn't dead... it's just saved for the subcultures that never forgot it. I'm talking about gay people, although there's no reason a great rap musical or Latin music movie couldn't be made. We're the only people who care and have remained faithful. The music is like "Rent" (which is reference a few times in a sly nod), and that's a good and bad thing. It's rock music, and the director never figures out whether we're supposed to be making fun of the pretensions of the East German misfits, or if we're really supposed to enjoy Hedwig's "art". I'm glad they chose the latter, since some of the songs are really good. Hell, I bought the soundtrack long ago. I didn't like the ending... a long riff about the divisibility of couples. The end is a static three minute reprise as Hedwig walks nude into the night. I would have preferred it if she would have burned out that faded away. I think the original ending was different for the stage, since they shuffled around some of the song order. I'd like to see this one live in the theater, surrounded by blue-haired ladies. ***** (out of 5)

O Brother Where Art Thou? - Oh boy, another movie with old-timey music! Lucky me, and no sarcasm there. I really hope this is a trend. Anyway, why should this movie get five stars when so many other movies in 2001 came close but received less? I don't know, but like "Raising Arizona", this movie is a magnificent blend of the Coen brothers blend of slapstick and wide-mouthed comedy. The formula didn't work so well for the other period comedies like "The Hudsucker Proxy", but here it feels like a Marx brothers film and that's high praise. They don't make movies like this anymore. We knew John Turturro is a great actor, and Tim Blake Nelson is a find, but I was cracked up by George Clooney's comedic erudite high-falutin' speech. Yup, that's the way he talks. And of course, the music is magnificent... maybe that's not the best phrase for it, but it really carries me away. ***** (out of 5)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai - I don't get Jim Jarmusch films. Like "Dead Man", this movie is visually beautiful, with one or two scenes that caught my attention. Maybe this is Jim's way of trying to be accessible. It doesn't work. I've always hated movies with macho lead action heroes named "Stone Rock" that happen to be trained killers, as well as test-pilot neurosurgeon spies. Jarmusch's idea of adding faux Japanese philosophy to a black killer doesn't help. Don't get me wrong - Forest Whitaker is great, although he's a little chubby to be doing martial arts moves credibly. But "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" this is not. Instead of action sequences, we get long static scenes where nothing occurs. And I mean nothing, in a Zen way. There's a few scenes that work (The "Ghost Dog" drifting between people on the street... his ongoing conversations with a Frenchman who doesn't speak English), but it's all the sound of one hand clapping. *½ (out of 5)

Memento - Bravo! This is amazing filmmaking. The entire movie is shot *backward* from the climax to the beginning. You'd think this wouldn't leave any drama, but instead the movie is a big puzzle that remains unresolved, even after I left the theater. ***Spoilers*** for example, is Teddy really a cop? Is he lying? Why was Natalie such a bitch? How can the first tattoo be a red herring? And what's up with the quick flash of an "I've done it" tattoo at the end? Anyway, this movie is all about memories, both true and false, and about going forward without understanding. If you go see this movie, you'll know what I mean, in more ways than one. ***** (out of 5)

The Matrix - How could I have forgotten to review this one? It was only the second-best movie of 1999 for me. Shoot. Maybe it's just because I've instantly accepted this film as a classic, like Start Wars or Delicatessen. It seems like it was made outside of any other genre. When I went to see it, I knew nothing about it (due to my studious avoidance of watching movie promos or commercials). So, I thought it was going to be a cheezy sci-fi flick in outer space, or maybe a bad cyberpunk dramedy. After all, at the time, Keanu Reeves didn't have the best track record (Johnny Mnemonic and all that). Instead of a bad komputer kaper ("get the disk, get the disk!") it was a fun romp with a lot of philosophic undertones. I still think that the movie is anti-semitic: Neo is "the one"... the second coming of Jesus sent to save everyone, especially the subhuman victims living underground in "Zion". Well, even if the jews aren't waiting for Keanu, I'm definitely waiting for the next two sequels. They were filmed together at the same time, and I think they'll influence the future of sequels (if not the future of the future). ***** (out of 5)

Pi - I can't believe somebody made a movie about math. Even better, it's shot in black and white, and uses older computer technology, so it's kind of like retro cyberpunk. Sure, the movie has flaws: the bad guys are very cartoonish, and even though it's nice to not completely know who is who (it lends a nice claustrophobic feeling of paranoia), the characters drop out before they're introduced. I mean, if you're going to introduce a Hasdic jewish number hacker, you should use him. The director, Darren Aronofsky, made up for those flaws in the his next movie, "Requiem for a Dream". He's slated to do the next Batman movie (a franchise I really don't like), so it will be interesting to see if the guy is really a director. ***** (out of 5)

Cube - I love it when sick, demented people make movies (are you listening Roger Corman and George Romero?). This movie is a pure slice of hell. Even before the main credits, we have gratuitous murder and mayhem. The blood level goes up from there, and the best part is: the viewer is never completely clued into what is going on. The ending is especially unnerving and unsatisfactory. Normally, this would be enough to give a movie a bad review from me, but in this case, it's like looking into the mind of an alien intelligence. It's frightening and a little sickening, but this movie is entirely unlike anything I had ever seen before or since. It's a horrible horror movie that doesn't try to scare you. It really doesn't care. ***** (out of 5)

The Opposite of Sex - This movie made me offended and made me laugh at the exact same time. Kind of like "Citizen Ruth" tried to do, but this formula works. I don't know if it's the wonderful acting of Christina Ricci, or the fact that it's the only good "Friends" movie ever made (Lisa Kudrow is in it), but I find myself quoting bits of this movie often: "Come on Randy, be Christlike", or "He got fired from Kinkos... I think you have to *kill* somebody to get fired from there" (a line that was cut from the DVD and video release, under pressure from the paper-copying company. Go figure). It's not as good quoting from the movie "Heather", but it's damn near close. It's the first (and probably only) movie that has come out that takes potshots at gay people, while telling a full story and letting the gay romance feel real. It's an amazing accomplishment, and makes me want to see what the director and writer, Don Roos, will come up with next. He also did "Bounce", and "Boys on the Side"... but I won't hold that against him. I think there's really a lot there. ***** (out of 5)

Dark City - Roger Ebert's favorite movie of 1998, though I won't give it as much praise as the Chubby One himself. After all, Ebert also loved "The Cell", and you've seen his reviews.... we can't always trust him. However, it this case he gets it right. This is a science-fiction movie all right, but it also goes a little further. It is definitely plot-driven, and takes a little time to start up. But once the chase is on, I was really caught up in the action until the climactic (and ok, I admit, not completely unsurprising) ending. At the same time, there's some fun acting by Rufus Sewell as the good guy and Richard O'Brien as the bad guy "Mr. Hand". With other characters called "Mr. Book" and "Mr. Wall", this is a very inventive movie. Fans of the Sandman comic should take note... the is the closet we've come to the wonderful stories of Neil Gaiman. ***** (out of 5)

Dangerous Beauty - This is instantly one of Mike's favorite movies. He used to rave about it at dinner parties or whenever friends would ask, "seen anything good lately?" His answer was "yes!" This movie came out of nowhere - I thought it was going to be another turgid costume drama, like "Elizabeth" or "Restoration". Good movies, both of them, but they both had a PBS feel to them, as if they *knew* they were good. Instead "Dangerous Beauty" has no real stars. Instead, the acting of Jacqueline Bisset and Oliver Platt simply lets the story continue. The movie ends with a courtroom scene, which seems a little odd for a period piece, but the story absolutely works, even over a several-decade span. Mike particularly raves about the scene where Bisset (as the instantly impoverished mother) quietly explains to Catherine McCormack that there is only enough dowry money for the two oldest girls, and that McCormack, as the youngest daughter must work in order to make a living. The next surprise is that the mother worked as a prostitute, and she expects McCormack to follow in her footsteps (or her bed, as it were). The third surprise is when the male model walks in, allowing Bisset to be able to *demonstrate* the techniques that made Momma a legend! Spicy and highly recommended. ***** (out of 5)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - Oh, so many things could have gone wrong with this movie. I didn't trust the director, Chris Columbus, who made so many wrong notes in "Bicentennial Man" (which was actually a pretty good script), "Nine Months", and "Stepmom". Even his big "hits", "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Home Alone" are pretty hard to stomach years after their release. The guy is no Spielberg. And this movie has such anEnglish feel, I wasn't sure how he could pull it off. One reason it works is because they got some great English *actors*: John Cleese, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Julie Walters to name a few. But it's Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid that steals the show. Damn, he has a lot of screen time, and I know he'll get more in the next film, also slated to be directed by Columbus next year. Hopefully by then, the child actors will grow into their roles, and most assuredly they'll all grow anyway, making them look older than 12. It's not that Daniel Radcliffe is *bad* as Harry, but he's the kind of character that has things happen *to* him and all he has to do is react (and does anybody else he looks amazingly like Rachel Dratch from "Saturday Night Live"?). Rupert Grint is great as Ron Weasley, since he constantly looks like he's swallowed a bug. But the real winner here is Columbus's light touch. There's just the right amount of computer graphics, and the right length for the movie. Not that the plot is very deep, but this thing would have been a miniseries if it had slavishly followed the book. Instead, it makes me want to see the next one... which is something that George Lucas and "Star Wars Episode One" couldn't do. ***** (out of 5)

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - This movie is based off of a long, detailed, humorless set of books, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that the movie is long, detailed, and humorless, too. Watching this movie feels like work. It's a loud, busy, joyless creation, and I'm saying that as somebody who liked it. It's strange that what worked for Harry Potter fails here; that movie stuck closely to the book, introduced all the characters, kept everything moving along with a great score and special effects, and made sure that all the plot points were covered. Plot point one, check. Plot point two, check. However, Lord of the Rings has its characters fall from one predicament into another, without any larger sense or drama or purpose. So they have to return some bad jewelry... great. However, that won't happen until the third movie due out in 2003. Until then, we don't really have any sense of caring or feeling for the characters. it's a shame since there's some great acting by Elijah Wood (check out the final scene by the riverbank where his tears turn into resolve in a matter of seconds. That's acting). And I loved Ian McKellen (who's in a *hell* of a lot of this film... good thing he gets a break for number two), John Rhys-Davies, and particularly Sean Astin as Sam Gamgee. It doesn't help that many of the characters look alike, or that the dialogue is filled with nonsense words ("Then Algoen, son of Ribthorne, took the sword of Althenia to the Towers of Sorlaccian", etc.). True, this is where all of the sword-an-sorcery mythos started, and it's great to see the books on the big screen after over fifty years. We don't have enough new fables and tales today, and like Star Wars, the books are part of our modern culture. But by trying to please the fanboys, I think we have a movie nobody is happy with. The ending, with Sam and Frodo leaving alone, two members of their party killed, and two kidnapped by scary orcs, has to be the biggest downer since the end of "Titanic". Instead of making me want to see the next movie (and what a cheerful Christmas *this* trilogy creates for the holidays), I want to wait until they are all out on DVD, and then watch them all in a row, like the low-budget three-part miniseries this feels like. ***** (out of 5)

The Virgin Suicides - I really never expected anything from Sophia Coppola after she ruined "The Godfather Part 3". Her whole career is due to nepotism. Her dad bought a great book by Jeffrey Eugenides for her to direct, that there was n way she could screw it up. Even Ang lee couldn't ruin Rick Moody's "The Ice Storm", and bet whoever directs the movie adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections", will do a great job. Sophia has a great soundtrack by French techno darlings "Air" and lots of expensive-to-license 70's ballads. And there's lots of great acting here by James Woods, Kathleen Turner, Kirsten Dunst, Josh Harnett, Michael Paré... heck even Danny DeVito has a great cameo. So, it might appear that she had a great movie handed to her on a silver film reel, but the director's role is often to pull things together. The cinematography is so loving that the girls look pretty in soft focus, and even the *boys* look pretty. Everything is done incredibly *tastefully* here. Sophia uses one of my favorite movie devices: she pulls the camera away when we get the point of the scene but we're not tired of it. So, we get to see the school counselor start to talk about teen suicide, but we don't have to sit through allt he preaching. Some scenes are shot from really far away, which didn't work in David Lynch's "The Straight Story", but is great here. The plots remolve are suicides (which is really a giveaway in the title), but it helps to move the story along, and after all... this is a psychological drama, and the suicides are almost incidental to the plot. All in all, this is the quietest, most enigmatic movie since Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter", and since he's directed tons of movies to get that tone done and Sophia's only done this one (plus some hard-to-find student short films), I really thing we've got a promising new young director on our hands. Sure, she will never compare to her father, but if she continues making distinctive original films like this one I don't think anybody will mind. ***** (out of 5)

Haiku Tunnel - I don't know why I found this so funny. I guess it's because I'm a struggling writer too, and I've worked at plenty of soul-less life-sucking technology companies. I love the new Fox tv show "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" for the same corporate lackey vibe. I've always like monologues, be them from Spaulding Gray or John Ferrugamo, and this movie feels like a simple dialogue between a writer-producer-actor-filmmaker and the audience. However, it seems to capture a feel for the nineties dot.com workplace with a point that all the "Startup.com" documentaries missed - simply that this stuff can be darkly funny. ***** (out of 5)

Heavenly Creatures - This is an older movie, but I thought I'd include it here, just because it's so good. I'm hoping that audiences will "rediscover" this gem, if only because it was an early film by Lord-of-the-Fantasy-Thing director Peter Jackson. It also features "Titanic" star Kate Winslet as a psycho lesbian, and it's great to see that at one time, she really knew how to act. However, the star of the film is the excellent digressions by Jackson, as entire scenes fall away into computer animation and pseudo-claymation at the drop of a hat. Just because the director felt like it, and because he thought it would advance the plot. And it does... sheesh, it's called "vision". Too few directors ever try it. ***** (out of 5)

Sexy Beast - Ah, Ray Winstone. I loved him as Will Scarlet in a BBC Robin Hood series. and I loved him here. The first (really unique and odd) shot of him sunbathing had me. Note I was in lust for the guy, not like. In fact, this movie's only flaw is that you don't really care you lives or dies in the film. But it *does* have Ben Kingsley, too, doing all those wonderfully acting-thingy things he does that won him an Oscar or two. I would have been completely happy if the movie never left Spain... the whole plot revolves around whether a caper will happen. But as a bonus, we get to actually see the caper take place, and the aftermath, and lots of other little things. A delirious six-foot tall feral bunny creature. A climactic shooting, done in chopped-up segments long after in occurs. Flashbacks. And an incredible use of music. This is one of the few films where I get up after it's done and go to CDNOW and add the soundtrack to my "wish list" and the DVD to my "buy" column. It's that good... good in a way I wasn't expecting lately. ***** (out of 5)

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart - I bought the CD and only played it twice. Even though I'm a fan of pretentious alt-country, this "lost album" seems like warmed over Radiohead gadgetry or worse, U2-like wannabe electronica. So, I wasn't expecting much from this documentary. Luckily, it's a one-off affair capturing an important band at an interesting crossroads. Though I wasn't impressed with the rock-critic conceit that the CD almost never happened. It was all over Kazaa fer cryin' out loud. And like most legendary lost albums (like Prince's "Black Album") the results of the repressed studio sessions are underwhelming. It's no "Smiley Smile", but it's a movie I'll listen to again and again. ***** (out of 5)

Insomnia (2002) - Loved the original Erik Skjoldbjærg Swedish import more, but that's just because it was so *original*. Director Christopher Nolan (of "Memento" fame) created a picture-perfect copy of somebody else's movie, which could be seen as a limitation. Sure, there's some new bits here, like the Alaskan scenery or a fun chase over rolling logs. More importantly, there's the amazing acting of Robert DeNiro, who always *looked* sleepy anyway, and Robin Williams who is a great evil villan. The "bad Robin Williams" is so much more interesting than the "Good Morning Vietnam Robin Williams that created "Jack" or "Patch Adams". Maybe he's getting more selective with his film role choices. Sure, I missed Stellan Skarsgård who was the original's sleepy detective, and the humor from the Sweden/ Norway collisions that just didn't translate, but both films have the best plot to come along to a detective flick in years, moody atmospheric lighting, and most of all originality. ***** (out of 5)

Identity - Ok, so I'll give this one five stars. It doesn't really deserve it. There's a twist near the end that either works for you or it doesn't. For me, I thought it was the most creative and interesting film I'd seen in 2003. Not that that's saying a lot: the closest movies that this resembles are "The Cell" or "The Sixth Sense", and those are from two years ago. Plus, I like John Cusack... is that a crime? ***** (out of 5)

All About My Mother - Pedro Almodóvar is an amazing director. In fact, I almost spent to much time admiring this movie instead of enjoying it. I'd think, "oh, that's a great camera angle", or "what a great plot twist". In one movie, he creates a great story, visual interest, not to mention five of the best female roles in the last several years of Hollywood movies. The man's a genius, and I hope he lives a long, long time and keeps making movies as good as this one. ***** (out of 5)

Nine Queens - I just voted this the best movie of 2001. It wasn't *that* good, but the only other contender was "The Salton Sea", a remake of "Insomnia", or some other movies that were released a long time ago, and I just saw them recently, like Peter Jackson's excellent "Heavenly Creatures", the original Swedish version of "Insomnia", or Christopher Nolan's early film "Following". I hope next year is better for movies in general. But "Nine Queens" is still a very, very good movie. It's a caper flick with enough original twists that I couldn't foresee what happened. And I genuinely felt for the characters, and didn't want to see the wrong people get screwed in the end. And the ending is a doozy. I'm always of two minds: if a movie is set in a bleak world, I can't be happy with a happy ending. At the same time, I don't want to walk out of the theater in a dismal mood (like the depressing "Dead Presidents"). John Fowles classic book "The French Lieutenant's Wife" was brilliant in that it gave readers an unrealistic happy ending, just to tell them the "truth" later on. And in a pleasant frame of mind, the truth isn't so bad. ***** (out of 5)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - Another slam dunk. Now, if you ask the "hardened" scifi geek what the best movie in the Star Wars trilogy is, they will tell you "The Empire Strikes Back". It's a fact, and those in the know admire the dark twists and turns of the second movie. I, on the other hand, love the ewoks of the third and the originality of the first. I fear that this movie will be treated the same way. Fanboys the world over will look back and treasure the long extended battle scenes here, and the overall grim tone. I think I'll like the resolution of the next movie (coming out by XMas 2004... Mike already said he'd be my date that evening wha-hoo!) as long as Peter Jackson doesn't add ewoks. It's not as farfetched as it sounds: Gollom is a little too precocious in this movie, proving that a computer-generated creature should be able to be nominated for an Oscar - although we can tell that geeks behind the scenes are a little *too* enamored of the technology. Poor Grimli the dwarf serves only as comic relief (dwarf tossing?) but I'm still undecided at the cutest actor in the movie. Heck, I'd screw 'em all, given a chance. Except Gollum, 'cause he's not really real. ***** (out of 5)

Catch Me If You Can - This is as good as it gets. No, not the annoying Jack Nicholson movie. Here's a fast-moving plot (based on a true story, which always add a *frisson* of interest), combined with great actors doing great acting, with a visual flair, and big true dashes of humor. The movie hits high notes when it should, and sits back simmering before one of several endings. Big compliments about the odd framing device that starts the first half as a flashback, and then springs forward in an unexpected direction. My sole criticism would be that the movie *too* paced, too workmanlike. There's nothing revolutionary here, just good quality filmmaking. No wonder it got forgotten amid all the other Christmas 2002 releases. ***** (out of 5)

Bowling For Columbine - At first glance, Michael Moore is a big mass (and I do mean *big*) or contradictions. This movie seems like it was slapped together out of scenes that didn't make his "Awful Truth" TV show... but you know the movie was carefully edited and scripted. Moore dresses sloppy and wears hunting caps... but you *know* he thinks a lot about how he looks. He's an NRA member but a ranting liberal. However, I don't think these are contradictions as much as evidence that Moore doesn't care about presenting a unified front. He isn't afraid to show when he's confused (and he drifts a lot in this movie). It was fun to watch the "evildoers" in this film come out later with retractions and clarifications, but unlike his "Stupid White Men" book, Moore is just throwing out ideas and cartoons instead of trying to prove a point. And as such, it's riveting important filmmaking. Maybe not a good documentary, or even a successful *movie*, but as the only non-fiction treatment of guns and violence that's come out in the last five years (five? Try over TWENTY), it deserves to be one of the best movies of the year. I'll remember it often. ***** (out of 5)

The Transporter - I was going to give this movie only four-and-a-half stars. After all, it's not about anything. It's the first movie where the protagonist doesn't learn anything, grow, or change in any way. As far as lead actor Jason Statham (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Mean Machine) is concerned... he's... um, *stolid*. Then again, when's the last time you've seen a good action movie starring Stallone, or *any* American actor for that matter. This is the kind of vehicle that the USA used to *drive* baby! And now we're getting our lunch handed to us by the *French*. Good god ya'll! Thanks to Luc Besson for existing in this universe, and thanks for making action relevant again. Great action scenes (including my favorite fight scene drenched in motor oil), a short running time, and a light tone that doesn't take itself too seriously. Remove the misogyny and add some kind of purpose and we'd have a classic.. ***** (out of 5)

Castle in the Sky - I'm probably being hypocritical here: I hated Miyazaki's "Spirited Away", but I loved this one. It's pretty much the same movie though. I guess I was underwhelmed by all the lavish praise "Spirited Away" received, and I found the Japanese spiritual references a little arcane and dull. This movie, on the other hand, has action, danger, and suspense. And really cute miners and thugs too, similar to the reason I can't wait for the earlier "Nausicaa" to come out on DVD. It's tragic when I use anime for salacious entertainment. It ain't hentai, but it works. ***** (out of 5)

Holes - Oh, I'm always pleased when a children's movie does well. Perhaps it's because it had so many strikes against it - parental expectations, usually a G rating, and competition from the reigning Disney. However, this movie has an edge. In fact the subject matter (wrongful imprisonment to the point of torture, numerous close calls with gruesome death, no cute talking animals) could be definitely R rated. However, like "Hogan's Heroes" it uses a deft touch to let the audience know that everything's ok, everything's all in fun. The bad guys get their just desserts, the good guys change without becoming bitter, and I didn't want the movie to end. Bravo, I'm absolutely shocked that we can still make movies like this in a politically correct age. ***** (out of 5)

Rabbit-Proof Fence - Ah, be careful what you ask for. Just as I wanted a tragedy that wasn't set in the Third Reich, here is an incredibly sad movie from Australia. Their aborigines weren't treated any better than any other minority on this planet. Still, it doesn't excuse the bizarre relocation policies of Kenneth Branaugh, who takes three girls away from their mother because they are "half-caste". What makes this movie rise above an Oprah-book-into-film, is that it's based on a true story, and we get to see the girls all grown up in the end. In fact, the girls' story is so interesting *after* the movie ends that I wish there would be a sequel. Or maybe just more movies made with an interesting setting and location. **** (out of 5)

The Business of Fancydancing - This is an amazing movie. An amazing, uneven, frustrating movie. Parts of it are absolutely beautiful ("They're not your tribe anymore, I'm your tribe") and parts of it are extremely ugly ("How to make a bathroom cleaner sandwich"). Parts are shot on film, and parts on videotape. There's some excellent acting, and some wonderful music. I don't like to say that his movie "transcends race" because Sherman Alexie's work is about race. However, I think he is one of the best, most important writers of our time, and while this movie is not important and not perfect, it is the best and most original piece of work I've seen lately. ***** (out of 5)

The Devil's Backbone - Not scary, but *spooky*. This could be interpreted as a put-down, but it shouldn't be. Any problem reconciling the nature of this film is a problem of marketing. For example, the bloody corpse on the video jacket, or even the title of the movie itself. Instead, this movie is more like "Stand By Me", or even "Empire of the Sun". It's more of a coming-of-age story. With a lot more blood. I found the Spanish Civil War setting interesting, but I wish it was explained more. Some of us never learned history, particularly not in America. So, I'm a little at a loss to see this as more than a ghost story, the way that "Ravenous" wasn't really about the US Civil War. So, taken on it's own merits, it's a mildly suspenseful spook-fest with rather good special effect. I guess I wasn't looking for any more than that, and it's a good thing, since that's what I found. ***1/2 (out of 5)

No Maps For These Territories - I had to start this movie five times before I got into it enough to watch it the whole way through. So, perhaps a five-star rating is reaching a bit. However, it's rare that a movie, much less a talking-head *documentary* makes me think that I've just seen an important milestone in the future of film. This movie made me re-think digital filmmaking. They do some things with edits and cuts here that even Errol Morris hasn't tried yet. It seems like a community effort, and I don't know if that's true of not, but I can't see one person doing all the editing here. Or maybe since it's all on the computer, it's an easier task. But, to me, it combines the perfect formula for a documentary. Wed an interesting subject with a visual flair and innate sense of editing, and let the rest happen. Don't try to create a plot where one doesn't exist. The middle of the movie gets bogged down in some side-line conversations that I didn't really care about, and the same level of editing care didn't go into every scene. Still, I'd watch this movie again, and I hope that other people copy the style. Heck, with a cheap digital camcorder and a firewire connection to your Mac, *anybody* could copy this style.***** (out of 5)