The Sorrow and the Pity

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4. Capturing the Friedmans Six viewings in, and still it's not clear whether Arnold and then-18-year-old son Jesse committed multiple acts of sexual abuse on children taking computer classes in the Friedmans' Great Neck, New York, home in 1987. You will have your suspicions but also your doubts, as does director Andrew Jarecki, whose documentary neither judges nor absolves but only suggests. Yet the mystery, be it the result of a witch hunt or a quest for deserved justice, withers next to the larger tale of a family obsessed with chronicling its devastation and ultimate decimation; that ultimate American tragedy is the heart of this masterpiece. Jarecki's documentary started as a light film about David Friedman, beloved kiddy-party entertainer in Manhattan, but changed course when the bitter clown hinted at long-buried family secrets. Jarecki, given access to more than 50 hours of videotapes and audio recordings the Friedmans made, shows us Arnold and Elaine Friedman as optimistic newlyweds, as young parents to three beautiful little boys, then finally as strangers who loathe each other in plain view of their sons, one of whom, Jesse, will ultimately serve time in prison. Capturing the Friedmans is harrowing and haunting and the most unforgettable film of 2003. -- Robert Wilonsky

5. American Splendor With hard-luck humor, downtrodden honesty, an achingly real leading man, and stunning yet low-key formal innovation, American Splendor may be the most humble work of genius to grace screens this year. Playing alongside the real article, Paul Giamatti is irresistible as Harvey Pekar, the disheveled Cleveland file clerk who gained a cult following by documenting his sometimes excruciating, sometimes merely banal life in the comic book series that shares the movie's title. As Pekar's pasty, unimpressed wife Joyce Brabner, who also appears in the film, Hope Davis is hilarious and deadpan. The couple's winningly abbreviated courtship leads to a marriage that somehow, despite mutual contempt and neurotic pathology, emerges as loving and kind. When the kid enters the picture, the family flirts with happiness. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini build the story frame by frame and brick by brick, using animation and a partial set against a white screen to evoke both the creation of a comic book and the creation of a life. When the actors and the real-life people appear in the same frame, the result is breathtaking. Ultimately, the film is sheer elegance, flitting lightly among multiple narrative forms with an utter lack of pretense. -- Melissa Levine

6. Spun At once outrageously unpleasant and shockingly sensitive, this belly-flop into hipster drug culture proves an auspicious feature debut for Jonas ?kerlund, who previously helmed music videos for Madonna, Moby, and U2 (and apparently met their agents). A three-day odyssey through Southern Hell-ifornia, the seemingly familiar story by fledgling screenwriters Will De Los Santos and Creighton Vero charts the paths of addicts who've . . . um . . . basically graduated from Red Bull. These speed-freaks include Brittany Murphy as a stripper and Mickey Rourke as the macho-pathetic meth man known as the Cook, delivering genuinely moving performances at the heart of absolute madness. Our "hero" is Jason Schwartzman channeling Dustin Hoffman by way of a zip demon -- demented, cruel and unlikable (he leaves his "date" tied up in his fleapit for the whole movie), thus he fits in perfectly. In addition, we get Judas Priest's Rob Halford as a porn-store clerk, Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit as a walking pimple farm, Deborah Harry as a nosy dyke and Mena Suvari grunting on the toilet (thanks, honey). Yes, Billy Corgan's score and the wistful driving montages grow a little tiresome, but the conclusion is a blast, and the overall impact feels almost true enough to qualify as documentary. -- Gregory Weinkauf

7. Whale Rider This wonderful film contains the year's finest scene, and it's deceptively simple: no bombast, no special effects, just one young girl (brilliant Keisha Castle-Hughes) in traditional Maori attire, singing in a pageant, aching for the approval of her stubborn chieftain grandpa (Rawiri Paratene, aces) who doesn't show up. Volumes are spoken. In adapting Witi Ihimaera's poetic novel, writer-director Niki Caro delivers a gem, sans pretense (she doesn't fear entertaining us) and sans melodrama (the heartstrings are honestly strummed). If The Lord of the Rings concerns the dawn of the "Age of Men," Whale Rider essays its dreamy twilight, offering a sneak preview of this new millennium. Without resorting to "feminism," it illustrates how stupid men look when they're fighting anything but orcs, neutralizing manly madness with a shot of natural wisdom as big as a whale. Part family drama, part fable, part parable, it's a portrait of Girl Power that doesn't make its heroine into another female dickhead, but rather allows her to falter and eventually, humbly, claim her birthright as a leader. Call it bathetic if it makes you feel superior, but this film shares the top of my list for having the guts to be gentle and intelligent. -- Gregory Weinkauf

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New Times Film Critics