Leaning Sideways

In a year when small movies came up big, picking the best was a Payne

6. Napoleon Dynamite -- We all know how nerd movies are supposed to go. Our lead guy is some basically good-looking kid like Anthony Edwards hidden under horn-rimmed glasses, just like you and me except that he gets beaten up more often. Infatuated with the most beautiful girl in the school, he concocts harebrained schemes to win her over, ultimately managing to woo her away from her jock/bully boyfriend and saving the day in a big and noticeable way. Real nerds, however, are often ugly, socially inept, delusional, passive-aggressive, and totally lost in their own world. The trick is to find sympathy for them anyway, and director Jared Hess pulls off that neat trick with flying colors. Napoleon gets his brief moment in the sun at the film's climax, but his real triumph is in finding love and friendship among the equally out-of-place. The supporting cast plays like a Mike Judge cartoon come to life. -- Luke Y. Thompson

7. Osama -- A ruthlessly uncompromising look at the status of Afghan women under Taliban rule, Osama marks the stunning feature debut of writer/director Siddiq Barmak. Marina Golbahari, a girl whom Barmak found begging on the streets of Kabul (all the actors are amateurs), plays the 12-year-old protagonist, whose widowed mother disguises her as a boy because unchaperoned women are forbidden from appearing in public or holding jobs. When militants round up the boys of the village for religious indoctrination, the girl's true identity is discovered, and she faces a future that is truly worse than death. A painful, harrowing, essential film. -- Jean Oppenheimer

8. Fahrenheit 9/11 -- Michael Moore got messy with his facts and occasionally with his film, which engages but occasionally outrages even its most passionate supporters, who wish he had tried harder to connect the dots he so casually tosses into the air like a kid playing with empty shell casings. Like George W. Bush (and, oh, Mel Gibson), Moore's a divider and not a uniter; he couldn't convert a libertarian, much less a neo-con. But he's first and foremost an entertainer -- a song-and-dance man putting on a show at which you can hurl dollar bills or rotten tomatoes, yer pick. This is no more a documentary than a puppet show is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and only people who've never watched reality TV could confuse it for "truth," which doesn't diminish its entertainment value. Of course, it's a relic already, too, a quaint vestige of the liberal rage and optimism that dissipated at 9:12 p.m. November 2, when the map behind Tom Brokaw went red and Michael Moore got a little bluer. -- Robert Wilonsky

Memories in a bottle: Sideways won over our critics with its wacky wine-country tale.
Memories in a bottle: Sideways won over our critics with its wacky wine-country tale.
Revenge of the nerd: Napoleon Dynamite triumphed in spite of himself.
Revenge of the nerd: Napoleon Dynamite triumphed in spite of himself.

9. Metallica: Some Kind of Monster -- Here's a cross-sell: World's most popular metal band investigates its own dysfunction through group therapy. Think it'll attract the mulletheads and the NPR crowd? Indeed it should. Perhaps the finest rockumentary ever made, Some Kind of Monster is a brilliant, probing examination of relationships between and among men -- creative men, addicted men, wounded men, angry men, and hilarious men, intentionally and otherwise. Directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger had the genius (or good fortune) to capture the band in crisis, when internal strife -- largely the antics of mercurial, infantile leader James Hetfield -- threaten to break up the group forever. Can drummer Lars Ulrich requisition the strength and support to keep it all together, even while Hetfield takes his sweet time drying out? For those who hate metal, the music all but disappears from this movie. Instead, rising like a phoenix from the ashes is the band's honest, noble and humbling attempt to get real. -- Melissa Levine

10. Closer -- Sophisticated and savage, this lacerating chamber piece offers a bleak view of human relationships. Based on the stage play by Patrick Marber, it returns director Mike Nichols to the fertile territory he mined in Carnal Knowledge and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Under the guise of telling the truth, the four protagonists -- two couples whose romantic loyalties are continually shifting and realigning -- lay waste to one another's emotions with alarming ease. Powerfully acted, especially by Clive Owen, Jude Law and Natalie Portman, Closer reveals the terrible damage that people do to one another in the name of love. -- Jean Oppenheimer

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