Armchair Cinephile 

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The year in review, courtesy of DVD

It's the season of Top Ten lists. If you're even mildly adventurous online, you can find hundreds of people competing to tell you what the year's best movies are. Unfortunately, many of the contenders were hardly seen in these parts.

Q: How is it possible, for example, that a movie could boast top-grossing stars, appeal to the masses (being of the evergreen cop/mob genre) and the critics (it's widely acclaimed), already be inspiring copycat films, but be saddled with a distributor who won't give it any kind of decent theatrical run? A: It's from China. To be fair, the stylish and energetic Infernal Affairs (Miramax) does require viewers to pay attention to its twists and turns, but listmakers near and far agree it's worth the effort. Miramax has also released Takeshi Kitano's version of Zatoichi, a disc that is more interesting because it's a double feature, containing Kitano's earlier crime film Sonatine.

The most critically acclaimed indie films didn't exactly blow up at the box office, but home video may be their chance to shine. Maria Full of Grace (HBO) is a fresh look at the drug war, following a young Colombian woman who becomes a mule for heroin smugglers; it has an unexploitative immediacy that forces you to identify with a character who makes dumb choices and soon learns they have dire consequences. Open Water (Lions Gate) was among the year's most overhyped films. It was a terrifying idea - a pair of scuba divers are left behind on an excursion, exposed to untold numbers of sharks - that didn't provoke nearly as many shrieks of terror as you'd think.

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Set in Paris, Before Sunset (Warner Bros.), Richard Linklater's intimate, romantic sequel to Before Sunrise, moved a lot of jaded people this year, largely because its characters talk through all the disappointments and doubts of the real world and still wind up full of hope.

This was the year we finally got a Harry Potter movie about which critics and the public could agree : Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Warner) is a darker, less precious take on the popular series, directed by Alfonso Cuarón of Y Tu Mamá También. It manages to fit in lots of the expected "gee whiz" kind of stuff while maintaining a mature sense of mystery and danger.

It was also the Year of the Zombie. The unexpectedly good Dawn of the Dead and the hilariously violent Shaun of the Dead (both Universal) received plenty of exposure around these parts, but newfound lovers of the undead might want to check out the genre's roots: Night of the Living Dead (Fox), George Romero's low budget frightfest, pioneered the genre, and is out in a new edition. Shamefully, the studio has colorized the film - watch it and face the wrath of the forever damned - but serious cinephiles will note that a restored black-and-white version is also on the disc.

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Digitally created special effects continued to improve and dominate the blockbuster season. Popcorn-munching fare such as I, Robot and The Day After Tomorrow (both Fox) drew mixed reviews, but are visually splendid. While Day After Tomorrow has popped up on a Ten Worst list or two, fans of '50s sci-fi may find a kinship between those classics and the straightforwardly earnest newcomer. It ain't high art, but it's a rollercoaster with a heart.

A friend of mine used one entry on his list for both Dodgeball and Napoleon Dynamite (Fox and Fox). It wasn't a tie, he said - he just thought that each film had half the laughs of a great comedy. Not in my book: The former film is a perfectly fine stupid Ben Stiller flick; the latter is one of the year's most wonderful films, no equivocation necessary. Weird and defiantly uncool, with a deadpan sensibility reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch, the movie is a riot. And in one of the year's most pleasing surprises, it became a minor hit - a cult favorite for high school kids, who went back again and again. Sometimes the crowds recognize quality that the critics can't spot.

By John DeFore


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