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It was a good year for the movie studios, but it was a very good year for audiences. Film fans have had products of virtually every tier to enjoy, and nothing was too horribly disappointing, except for the rictus-wearing Barry Sonnenfeld Fun Machine and almost every romantic comedy. (Sweet Home Alabama is the exception to the exception, but I won’t defend my love for it because people start rolling their eyes.)

The standard big-opening myths—summer, Thanksgiving—were challenged as never before. Ever since The Mummy proved single-handedly that audiences were ready for air-conditioned mindless fun as early as the first weekend in May—or even since Titanic remained in the beauty parlor getting fluffed up and powdered until Christmas—studios have been wondering if maybe it’s a film’s quality that attracts viewers, not the Pavlovian call of a certain date. This year, they held back their plums until, oh, last weekish, inducing a frenzy of screening-attendance among local film critics trying to stuff in every last Long Awaited Title for lists such as these in between whatever personal holiday madness was already scheduled. (That means for a certain critic who should probably take her job more seriously and quit whining about how busy she is, some purported great filmmaking is going to fall through the cracks—near-certain Top-10ers such as About Schmidt, Adaptation, Chicago, and Talk to Her. Sorry.)

Much-anticipated, oversize potential blockbusters generally lived up to the hype. Peter Jackson would have had to have had a brain seizure to screw up The Two Towers, the second installment of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. The jaw-dropping mess that is Gangs of New York brims with the heart’s blood of poor exhausted Martin Scorsese. The director was so driven to make a movie out of Herbert Asbury’s semihistorical 1928 potboiler that he obfuscated the stunning forest—the colorful, endlessly fascinating digressions on the interior workings of the Five Points neighborhood’s nasties and cons—with the dull tree of a standard son’s-revenge narrative. Still, art-direction geeks like me will cry bitter tears over the beauty of the ugliness onscreen; it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen—which is a compliment. Steven Spielberg scaled back his ambitions—but not his running time, unfortunately—for the mostly delightful Catch Me If You Can, which almost succeeds in maintaining a tone of candy-colored effervesence for two-and-a-half hours. Spielberg’s greatest achievement may be giving Leonardo DiCaprio the first role since Leo’s days as a child actor in which he’s completely comfortable and convincing—and acts his age. Not enough people saw White Oleander, or perhaps the wrong ones did—this complicated, troubling portrait of mother-daughter complexities was foolishly marketed as a chick flick, but Michelle Pfeiffer’s vain, manipulative jailbird mom was the scariest screen monster of the year. Hugh Grant also let his inner asshole out to play in the unusual About a Boy, which may not have been faithful to Nick Hornby’s charming book but stood up firmly in favor of off-putting eccentricity and the modern familial bosom of ill-at-ease misfits.

It was an excellent year for little movies—undersized, underseen American gems whose reach outspanned their grasp. Secretary, Punch-Drunk Love, Tadpole, Lovely and Amazing, and The Good Girl parlayed underdog hype into nothing much, but all were disquieting, audacious, and often moving slices of extraordinary life. They also introduced the world to new concepts—Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler as serious actors—and precious finds—Emily Mortimer, Aaron Stanford, Maggie Gyllenhaal. New-fashioned animation techniques (The Ice Age) aren’t so much more impressive than the old-fashioned kind (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), but kids have adapted with lightning speed to the strange 3-D mix of realism and fantasy in computer-generated animation, so 20th Century Fox’s screamingly funny and touching feature beat the box-office crap out of DreamWorks’ sweet, scary, enchanting horse movie.

Foreign films started behaving like foreign films again—difficult, intense, formally stunning, and expressive of a worldview that is not all that American. The stiff, costumed, airless gloss of Merchant-Ivory finally seems to have worn off—or at least tired out British, Australian, and European directors—and great films showed up from unlikely places. Canada released the movie of the year, The Fast Runner, which most of its potential audience missed out on thanks to limited distribution, and Alfonso Cuaron returned to Mexico to make the politically astute, sexually honest comic masterpiece Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Why publications dote so upon end-of-year best-ofs is a mystery to me. Reading them: (a) inspires either nodding agreement over movies you’ve seen and liked (or forgotten about) or mild surprise that some idiot liked that piece of garbage, or (b) serves as a groaning reminder of how disorganized you were this year—Yeah, yeah, I meant to see that. Maybe over New Year’s. Perhaps they should all scuttle the bests and concentrate on the worsts. Not only would that strategy give the people what they really want, it would give us critics some small payoff for the misery of sitting through utter filth we’ve been duly warned away from. (Again, I somehow missed Pluto Nash—weird, huh?)

So, trying…trying to remember, sitting in theater, something something, bored, confused, not laughing, bored some more, stuff happening, not believing it, feeling sorry for pretty girl who can’t act, so bored—Attack of the Clones! I knew it would come to me. Can’t remember a moment of it, but I vividly recall that it blew. That’s what you get when an Ego and a hundred Web sites will a film into being. When a marketing team creates a picture, you get Men in Black II: Back to the Bank of the Future—cynical, careless, and pandering, and (yay, America!) no one was buying this time around.

Weirdness abounded. Suddenly everyone started taking Adrian Lyne seriously—what’s up with that? Not a moment of his gross little amorality tale, Unfaithful, was authentic, including “Ooh” and “Uunh.” What woman in her right mind would cheat on an impossibly handsome, doing-his-best husband like Richard Gere for a greasy-haired cartoon Frenchman whose seduction techniques would be too cliched for Pepe le Pew? And it turns out that what people liked about David Fincher all along was his worldview. That particular socially and sexually paranoid vision plunked into a by-the-numbers fem-jep plot (in the form of Panic Room) ruled the video rental charts for weeks. Was the money that good? Does he just not care? Why was it so ugly to look at? Did someone scoop his eyeballs out with a grapefruit spoon? Would someone? I can pay.

And finally, not that anyone cares except for the angry readers sharpening their pencils for a stiff retort, but look: There’s nothing wrong with a Christian-themed movie. But anyone who thinks that Jesus had kinda good values should be appalled by the idea of a Christian teen-exploitation flick like Adam Shankman’s hypocritical A Walk to Remember. We’re supposed to admire a dying 16-year-old’s selfish and incoherent “dream” of wearing her mother’s wedding dress down the aisle, pity her poignant and well-deserved ascent into the arms of her creator, and get our secular jollies because she earns legal and moral rights to the world of boo-yah before her untimely death. Even the peckerwoods of Sweet Home Alabama waited until they had graduated high school to start behaving like adults. CP