A couple weeks ago someone asked me whether I would be writing up a Top Ten List this year. Since then, holiday obligations have slowed down my output on this website, but I made a point of carving out some time for this task.
Obviously, Top Ten lists are highly personal, no matter how hard we try to be objective. Nevertheless, a year-end survey of films is a first step toward gaining some perspective on the annual cinematic output—a chance to look back, after the hype has died down, and assess how good the year’s movies really were. Films that may have seemed disappointing on first viewing may reveal hidden depths when viewed again, while big hits may lose some of their luster once they initial excitement has worn off.
Of course, this list is quirkier than most, because it is restricted to fantasy films, mystery-horror movies, and science-fiction cinema. These are films that traditionally do not find a slot on the lists of major film critics, no matter how deserving the work is. But I try not to make an agenda of putting titles on my list just because they will not show up elsewhere. Some are less than perfect, and would be knocked off the list if I were including mainstream releases, but all of them all worthwhile films that deserve recognition—they are far better than many high-profile titles getting Oscar buzz, Golden Globule nominations, and critical accolades at the moment.
One note about the “rules” for inclusion on this list: Because we cover events in and around Hollywood, a film need only have played in the Los Angeles area (not nationwide) to be eligible for inclusion). Even a single screening is enough to establish eligibility, as long as the event was open to the ticket-buying public, not just an invitation-only event for the press. Consequently, the American Cinematheque’s screening of GODZILLA TOKYO S.O.S. at the Egyptian Theatre qualifies, but Toho’s world premier of GODZILLA: FINAL WARS at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre does not.
One. JU-ON: THE GRUDGE: This terrifying ghost story from Japan is a wonderful piece of pure horror, abandoning traditional narrative structure to emphasize atmosphere and suspense. Of the five films in the JU-ON series (including the American remake THE GRUDGE), this is the best.
Two. THE INCREDIBLES: Excellent computer animation and a marvelous script create a wonderful action-adventure fantasy that is both funny and thrilling. A spoof of comic-book superheroes, this film also has spy movie elements that are probably funnier and more exciting than anything seen in either AUSTIN POWERS or the recent James Bond films.
Three. COLLATERAL: This intense, dramatic neo-noir thriller barely qualifies for inclusion on my list of year’s genre films, but it’s just too good to leave off.
Four. GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE: Ambitious cyberpunk animated effort is filled with action, humor, and pathos. It’s also loaded with heavy-duty philosophical musings about the nature of identity and consciousness. This is a film that doesn’t just want to make you think; it wants to keep you up at night as you wrestle with disturbing ideas it forces you to consider.
Five. HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS: A tragic operatic love story filled fanciful martial arts action, this has all the emotion and beauty that PHANTOM OF THE OPERA lacks.
Six. THE GRUDGE: This remake of JU-ON: THE GRUDGE is not quite a match for the original, but it’s still the best American-produced horror movie of the year.
Seven. SHAUN OF THE DEAD: A zombie comedy that’s also a love story? It sounds goofy, but it works, mostly because it’s not a spoof of zombie movies. Rather, it’s a movie about some funny characters stuck in a familiar zombie scenario. An extremely clever piece of work that should appeal even to viewers turned off by the carnage.
Eight. FINDING NEVERLAND: A sentimental look at the inspiration for Peter Pan, this fact-based story is filled with a sense of wonder that emerges in several magical moments as writer James M Barrie (Johnny Depp) conjures Neverland from his imagination. Fortunately, there is also a bittersweet element to the story, which prevents the film from slipping into mawkishness.
Nine. HERO: Before HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, director Yimou Zhang made this historical epic about unlikely warriors who can fend off entire armies almost single-handedly, rather like modern-day comic book superheroes. The film’s structure (showing events over and over again from different perspectives) sometimes seems like just an excuse to stage different versions of the same fights, but the visual style carries the viewer along to the moving finale.
Ten. GODZILLA TOKYO SOS: This fun-filled film (the penultimate in the Japanese Godzilla series) also features Mothra and Mechagodzilla in a story loaded with special effects and fast-paced action. There’s not much original (how could there be in a series with over two dozen previous entries?), but it’s all orchestrated by director Mazaaki Tezuka with an eye for flashy entertainment and spectacle, making this one of the best of the films made in the wake of Sony Pictures 1998 American-made disaster with the giant iguana that called itself Godzilla.
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is a spooky ghost story from South Korea that mixes the supernatural with madness to keep us guessing how much is real and how much is imagined. Although undeniably effective, the script plays too many guessing games with the audience, reducing the story to an intellectual puzzle without a dramatic catharsis. Still, it’s fascinating to watch, even if it is often frustrating.
BEST REVIVAL FILM
In honor of its 50th anniversary, GODZILLA (1954) got an art house release in the United States, allowing many American viewers to see the original version of the film on the big screen as it was originally meant to be seen—uncut and without the additional footage of Raymond Burr that was added when the film was released in 1956 as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. Although the special effects are dated, the moody aura of doom-laden dread survives intact, proving that the film deserves to be regarded as a classic on part with 1933’s KING KONG.
BETTER THAN EXPECTED
DAWN OF THE DEAD was no match for the 1979 original from George Romero, but the script did create some new and interesting characters dropped into the old familiar situation.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN broke free from the formulaic faithfulness that nearly strangled the first two adaptations, creating a more mature film that was effective on its own terms.
MOST UNNECESSARY SEQUEL
BABY GENIUSES was one of the worst films ever to emerge from a major studio, and it wasn’t even a hit, but that didn’t prevent SUPERBABIES: BABY GENIUSES 2.
THE VILLAGE started off with what seemed like an interesting premise. Unfortunately, the gifted M. Night Shyamalan (THE SIXTH SENSE) structured his film as nothing more than a long, boring prelude to the “surprise twist” that raises more questions that it answers.
ACADEMY OF THE OVERRATED
SAW had some great, intense horror sequences, but the script was, frankly, absolutely ridiculous, filled with nonsensical plot developments whose only reason for existence was to keep “surprising” the audience with a series of unexpected twists. By the conclusion, all credibility had been lost, but that didn’t stop many fans and critics from talking about the film as if it were a masterpiece.
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW was a dead on arrival bomb, a mass of highly stylized but uninvolving computer-generated visual attached to a story that plodded along with all the buoyancy and speed of a lead zeppelin.
THIS YEAR’S QUOTE WHORE
This honor is handed out to the critic who manages to get his name into a movie advertisement by supplying quotes filled by gushing hyperbole that defies all rational sense. This year, the award goes to the usually more reliable Roger Ebert for his fulsome praise of SKY CAPTAIN, which he said reminded him of the first time he saw RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK This raises an interesting question: Did Ebert really mean this, or was he just saying it to get himself quoted in an ad? And when you stop to think about it, which answer would be worse?