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Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2003

Lives of the party

My friend Todd came back ecstatic from a recent Christmas party, reporting that "it was like going to heaven. Can you imagine? A whole room full of beauties and not one dog!" Todd's statement basically sums up my own feelings about the movies seen in 2002 -- a lot of beauties, very few dogs. Or maybe I was lucky enough to show up at the right screenings.

Here is a selection of 10 works that sparkled and shone. Thanks so much for the invitations.

1) "Bread and Roses''

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Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses"

A gutsy, sincere tale about the lives of Hispanic janitors in Los Angeles, this showcases astounding performances by Pilar Padilla and Elpidia Carillo, who play sisters named Maya and Rosa. Maya is young enough to believe she can fight for a better future; Rosa has lost that courage and resents her sister for having it. Their fierce battle and wrenching reconciliation provides some of the most moving moments in recent cinema. Typical of director Ken Loach, however personal this story may be, it's connected to the larger political picture, indicting a society that continues to exploit the weak and disadvantaged.

2) "Dark Blue World''

This is the long-awaited second feature of Czech director Jan Sverak ("Kolya"). On the surface it might sound rather familiar -- two WWII buddies fall for the same girl -- but mercifully the similarities to "Pearl Harbor" end there. Working from a screenplay penned by his father, Sverak highlights the fate of Czech Air Force pilots who escaped from their Nazi-dominated homeland to fight in the British Royal Air Force and then returned as heroes only to be imprisoned by the Soviets for 15 years. The sight of elegant fighter planes circling in a sunny sky brings home Sverak's message that nothing is as valuable as physical and spiritual freedom.

3) "Sunshine''

This epic film spans three generations and 100 years of the Sonnenscheins, a Hungarian family. Sonnenschein pere made a small fortune from a herbal tonic. His sons rise in society, and then change the family name to make it sound non-Jewish. Ambition and national pride always come first, but their desire for assimilation turns to tragedy when the Nazis hunt down and destroy most of the family. Ralph Fiennes gives a stunning performance as the three central characters, all of whom make the fatal mistake of turning their backs on love and staking their lives on politics and ideology.

4) "What Time Is it There?''

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Tsai Minglian's "What Time Is It There?"

When it comes to solitude and isolation in urban Asia, Taiwan's Tsai Minglian knows no rival. In this, a girl meets a boy in Taipei, then immediately leaves for Paris. On opposite sides of the globe, the pair search haplessly for signs that remind them of each other, and the boy goes so far as to change the hands of every clock he sees to Paris time. The girl, friendless and lonely, wanders the streets and throws up in a cafe toilet. Not one to see if you've just split up with someone.

5) "Liam''

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Stephen Frears' "Liam"

When it comes to depictions of terrible childhoods it seems like English cinema has cornered the market. The life and times of 7-year-old Liam (Anthony Burrows) in pre-WWII Liverpool consists of one sad disaster after another: bullying and abusive teachers, dad suddenly unemployed and mum driven to frenzy trying to put food on the table. Director Stephen Frears said in the production notes that this work was inspired by his own childhood and he needed to get it out of his system. One can only hope he no longer has nightmares.

6) "Monster's Ball''

Forget the new James Bond film. This is the movie that showed what Halle Berry is made of, and she deserves every ounce of the Oscar statue she was given for her performance. She plays Leticia, the wife of a death-row inmate and mother of an obese 12-year-old boy. Both her husband and son die within weeks of each other and Leticia then forms a relationship with Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), the prison guard who happened to have marched her husband to the electric chair. Their mutual need for each other is so strong it burns down every political or ethical obstacle in its path.

7) "One Fine Spring Day''

Korean director Jin Ho Hur traces the formulation and subsequent demise of a relationship between a career-track femme and her younger boyfriend in urban South Korea. And he does it with such quietness and subtlety that we never know in the end what was so fascinating about their relationship, but find that we're engrossed in it anyway. It's a work that invites endless interpretation and analysis, as if encouraging us to make up for the characters' lack of conversation, which defines the entire film.

8) "Y tu mama tambien''

You have an incurable illness and are about to die, on top of which your husband has just called to say that he's been having affairs. What do you do? Look no further than "Y tu mama tambien" for the answer: hook up with two nice-looking Mexican teenagers on hormonal overload, and go off with them on a long, glorious road trip to a legendary beach called "Heaven's Mouth." Director Alfonso Cuaron paves the way with a perfect balance of death, sex and love -- stretching on and on under a cobalt sky.

9) "Sous le sable''

To think that an irreverent young whippersnapper like Francois Ozon could actually stage the triumphant comeback of Charlotte Rampling. With no makeup and brutal lighting, he displays the grief of a middle-aged woman suddenly deprived of her husband of 25 years. Unable to face the reality of his absence, she chooses to conduct her life as if he's still around, but does so in a way that invites no pity and needs no consolation.

10) "Super 8''

Deluged as we are with music from all corners of the earth, nothing quite matches the sounds that emerge from the No Smoking Orchestra, of which Balkans film maestro Emir Kusturica is a member. The 11-man band consists of some of the finest classical and jazz musicians in Eastern Europe but their collective sound defies categorization. Film maestro Kusturica, who is the bassist, records the backstage antics and on-the-road escapades of the 11-man band on a hand-held Super 8 as they fight each other, reconcile and ceaselessly play music.

Best-Dressed Actor: Anthony Hopkins, wearing a baaad black leather jacket and baseball cap in "Bad Company."

Best-Dressed Actress: Heather Graham in "Committed." Chopped-at-the-hem denim skirt, engineer boots and a beautifully cut silk Chinese blouse.

Best Cheap Chic: Vin Diesel in "XXX." Artful combo of Gap and Ross Dress For Less.

Best Eye Exercise: "Shaolin Soccer"

Worst Date Movie: "Trouble Every Day"

Best Fantasy Date: Hugh Jackman in "Kate and Leopold" (He does the dishes after dinner and makes breakfast in the morning!)

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