(An Ann Richards memorial list.)
By Erin Donovan
Caterina in the Big City (not released widely in U.S. until 2006): When 14 year old Caterina's family moves from a provincial small town on the Tyrrhenian coast to the glittering metropolis of Rome her new classmates make it clear she must choose one of two strictly opposed camps based on their parents political leanings and occupations. There's the scowling punker daughters of the intellectual elites or shimmery socialite progeny of the right-wing politicians currently in power. To make matters worse, her own father is a doltish sycophant so invested in any kind of rudderless social-climbing he seizes desperately at any hint of acceptance or slight from the parents and the children. Somewhat unfairly dubbed the Italian Mean Girls, Caterina is at once a political satire, a cinema love letter to the city of Rome and a wincing coming of age story.
Marie Antoinette: A fun-loving teenager, out of familial and societal obligation, puts herself into the spotlight only to be vilified for crimes she had no understanding of - all set to an uber-cool soundtrack... Sofia Coppola has at once given new life to the period costume drama and made her most autobiographical film to date. If there was a more perfect scene in a film this year than the one where Antoinette and her posse enter a costume party as Siouxsie & the Banshees plays, I don't know if I could physically withstand the euphoria.
Hard Candy: Never has there been so much hubbub about a bit of off-screen violence, it turns out male film reviewers get pretty squeamish if their victims don't have breasts. Film-makers around the world, make note. Hard Candy works brilliantly within its low-budget constraints: one location (one room, more or less) with two characters saying a lot while doing very little. Ellen Page (having also stood out this year as Kitty Pryde, one of the few unsucky things about X3) is a real discovery here as a ruthless and cunning teenage vigilante.
Stick It: One bad apple gymnast turns the rest of her team renegade to take down The Man's arcane judging criteria that stifles the inherent creativity of gymnastics...! With blitzkrieg dialogue and featuring Jeff Bridges as a vaguely disgraced coach, Jessica Bendinger (who wrote Bring it On) makes her directorial debut with what amounts to a punk rock sports film for the ages.
Somersault: Before the American tabloid media indicts, convicts and executes Abbie Cornish for being the alleged catalyst in a failed Hollywood marriage, see her in this minimalist study of isolation, adolescent sexuality and the class warfare of a small tourist town. (Ed.: She's also amazing in the more recent Candy, co-starring Heath Ledger.)
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days: The true story of Germany's most famous anti-Nazi student activist (to this day there are over 100 schools in Germany named after Scholl), whose guillotine-able offense began and ended with handing out leaflets criticizing Nazi military strategy during the last throes of the war. Culled from recently recovered documents, the film focuses on the six days Scholl (played by Julia Jentsch) was interrogated by the SS, when she used an almost unimaginable amount guile and courage to outwit the officers before being turned in by a Nazi sympathizing professor (possibly a previous incarnation of Pat Buchanan). The absurd trial sequences would border on hilarity if only they weren't a word for word recount. Nominated for Best Foreign film Oscar.
The Descent: Aside from the film's marketing campaign being hands down the most clever of the year (note the Dali homage in the film's poster); there's enough classic horror references and goddess imagery to keep both film and feminist geeks grinning. The Descent is genuinely terrifying and so many heads and shoulders above the brain-dead torture fests we've been subjected to in the last two years.
Last Holiday: Wayne Wang has made a film that harkens back to the glory days of good 80s comedies that embraced both the benefits of opulent wealth and salt of the earth sentimentality. Queen Latifah, having demonstrated years ago in Chicago that she can blow Oscar winners off the screen with sheer magnetism, frolics through gorgeous wintry Austrian locations in designer gowns and is showered with heavenly desserts by flirtatious chef Gerard Depardieu. All the while sharing a sweet courtship with LL Cool J and single-handedly teaching the petty bourgeoisie that the best things in life are free...?
Phat Girlz: The film at times feels like a series of brilliant monologues with a story hastily written around them but so what, those good bits are some of the most delightfully subversive things done in an American film possibly since Matt Dillon blew up his high school in Over the Edge. Lots of laughs and great performances from first-time director (and Bay Area native) Nnegest Likké.
Friends with Money: Writer/director Nicole Holofcener uses her knack for dialogue and character construction to examine that special brand of Los Angeles narcissism via this intensely intimate portrait of four women who probably would not be friends had they met as adults.
Honorable Mentions: Lady Vengeance, Nine Lives, She's the Man, The Devil Wears Prada, Holy Girl, Volver.
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