Cine Bon!

Remembering the films that heated up cinemas this year.

The plight of the poor and the disenfranchised is front and center in The Motorcycle Diaries, which charts its heroes' political transformation during a cross-continent journey. Y Tu Mama También, another road movie from a few years ago, emphasized the disparity between the rich and the poor. These frequently brutal depictions of life south of the border tackle everything from prison conditions (Hector Babenco's Carandiru) to pedophilia in the Catholic Church (Bad Education) to the civil war in El Salvador (Innocent Voices, Mexico's Academy submission for Best Foreign Language Film this year).

Not yet released in the U.S., Innocent Voices focuses, like so many other recent Latin American films, on children and the effect that war, poverty, drugs and governmental indifference have on the youngest, most vulnerable members of society. Interestingly, many of these films -- City of God being the most notable example -- marry elements of Italian neo-realism with today's sophisticated post-production techniques to produce an in-your-face realism of visceral and dazzling power.

Mexican-born director Alfonso Cuarón, who moves easily between Hollywood and his native land (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Crime of Father Amaro), has suggested that the new burst of creativity can be traced in large measure to the changing political landscape in Latin America. When military dictatorships fall, artists are inspired -- and censorship no longer presents an obstacle. -- Oppenheimer

Whaddya got? Marlon Brando left a reel legacy.
Whaddya got? Marlon Brando left a reel legacy.
The Polar Express moved kids' movies full 
speed ahead.
The Polar Express moved kids' movies full speed ahead.

Love Letter to Alexander Payne
Dear Alexander Payne: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1) You made Election and About Schmidt, two hilarious, probing comedies about suburban anomie and human angst.

2) You followed these with Sideways, transporting the same deep humor into a totally different milieu and combining a loser-buddy pic with an homage to the central California coast.

3) You cast Paul Giamatti.

4) You cast Virginia Madsen.

5) You turned down George Clooney -- who wanted the part of has-been actor Jack -- because nobody would believe he was a has-been.

6) Instead of Clooney, you went with Thomas Haden Church, an actual has-been, who aced the role.

7) You refused, in short, to sell out.

8) Even though your money was coming from a studio.

9) You knew how to maintain control, including in the casting.

10) And you trusted that your vision was superior.

11) Finally, you stayed intimate, resisting the temptation to make a grand, Hollywood-style epic with Big Themes.

12) Unlike some directors I could mention but won't.

13) Okay, it's Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose films are getting successively worse.

14) What is A Very Long Engagement? It is an overhyped, overly sentimental rehearsal of a thousand films we've seen before.

15) But enough about him.

16) Thanks, Mr. Payne. I love you. -- Levine

Gore Wins! The Year in Carnage
Perhaps it's because we see real-life violence on the news every day now, not to mention in political documentaries, but nobody seems too worried about excessive bloodletting in the movies anymore. That's good news for gorehounds.

The year kicked off with Ashton Kutcher impaling his own hands in The Butterfly EffectDawn of the Dead remake, continuing with the video-game-based Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and going truly international with the U.K. hit Shaun of the Dead. Cary Elwes hacked his own foot off in Saw, John Waters got his face melted in Seed of Chucky, and "comedy" troupe Broken Lizard used tits and blood to (unsuccessfully) sell its Club Dread. Meanwhile, Hellboy and Alien vs. Predator showed that you can have as many disembowelments as you want in a PG-13 movie, provided the only victims are demons and outer-space creatures that bleed funky neon colors. From across both oceans, Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of War and A Very Long Engagement brought the intensity and realism of war to an audience that may not have expected it.

The award for Funniest Use of Gore goes to Team America: World Police, in which Danny Glover and Sean Penn (in puppet form) got mauled to death and had their guts chewed on by Kim Jong Il's "giant panthers" (actually a pair of black housecats). The Pointless Gore Award goes to art-house snoozer Twentynine Palms, for the scene near the end when the protagonist suddenly appears to turn into the Toxic Avenger.

Still, the biggest triumph of big-screen bloodletting came courtesy of Mel Gibson, who managed to peddle a splatter movie to the very people who've condemned them most loudly. His secret? Make sure that the person being stabbed, beaten, ripped apart, abused and mutilated happens to be Jesus Christ. Do that, and audiences will even read subtitles. -- Thompson

The Future of Modernism
Flash back to 1999. George Lucas steps back into the director's chair after two decades of absence and produces the critically derided Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Though its visuals are praised, many writers note the stilted acting and suggest that Lucas's extensive use of bluescreens rather than actual sets is partially to blame. In 2002, the second Star Wars prequel seems to bear that out, and the use of "virtual sets" starts to look like a bad idea.

Or does it? Lucas, as has been the case before, may have been ahead of his time. This year saw two wildly different auteurs use the blue- and greenscreen techniques to create two of the most expensive "personal" movies ever. Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow existed as a fully realized story inside a computer before a single actor was cast, while Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express allowed actors to portray characters who transcend their physical limitations. Yes, there were accusations of stilted acting this time around, as well, but more critics and viewers started warming to the notion of bluescreens, especially after viewing The Polar Express in 3-D IMAX, which revealed minute details that were invisible on a regular-sized screen.

The real breakthrough is still coming. Now that Lucas, Conran and Zemeckis have pioneered the technology, it's going to get cheaper and easier, and proof of that arrives in spring 2005 with the Henson Company's Mirror Mask, a computer-generated/live-action fantasy film by Sandman comic-book creators Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, shot mostly against a greenscreen for a paltry $4 million. Robert Rodriguez, who experimented with the style in Spy Kids 3-D, will follow shortly thereafter with Sin City, a highly stylized rendition of Frank Miller's hard-edged graphic-novel series. Early glimpses of these flicks wowed the faithful at the San Diego Comicon last July.

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