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My Favorite Lesser Known Movies of the early 2000s
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000)
In addition to its brutal beauty and distinctive mystery, I gained an enduring admiration for this movie when Ghost Dog communicates with the Haitian ice cream man in scene after scene with neither learning or really even attempting to learn even a word of the other's language. Instead of avoiding each other or giving up in utter frustration, they developed a friendship of sorts which contrasts with the feeling of alienation which permeates the film.
Forest Whitaker is Ghost Dog, a hit man who patterns himself after samurai, in training and in philosophy, living a Spartan existence on a rooftop with carrier pigeons in an inner city in an industrialized state. A mid-level gangster once saved Ghost Dog's life and now has the killer's allegiance. That allegiance is put to the test when Ghost Dog is marked for death when he leaves a little girl alive who saw him carry out a hit.
Being another signature Jim Jarmusch creation, the movie is as much an exploration of communication as it is about the action, as much about the duality of violence and gentility. Forest Whitaker is a seemingly large, cumbersome man who carries out his work without being seen. The closest thing he has to a friend is a Haitian ice cream vendor who speaks only French. He exchanges books on Eastern philosophy with a young girl he meets at the vendor's truck. His pigeons lack the capacity to reciprocate his love, yet he avenges them for the defenseless creatures they were.
The Pledge (2001)
Most of my movie buff friends cannot fathom how or why I consider this an absolutely perfect movie from start to finish, from soundtrack to editing, from composition to delivery. It also has at its core a very interesting question: Can an audience be satisfied with knowing justice has been served even when the protagonist has no way of knowing and is haunted by that lack of knowledge for the rest of his life?
Based on a book and several movie versions of a story by Friedrich Durrenmatt, it was directed by multi-Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn. Jack Nicholson, in his second Penn-helmed feature after The Crossing Guard, plays the detective who catches the case on the day of his retirement party. The film was not a big box office success in part because of its title which sounds more like a college frat movie or a military thing and only makes sense after one has seen the entire thing. The German film title, "It Happened in Broad Daylight" may have been more apt and intriguing to viewers looking for a crime drama.
The amazing cast should have been the strongest element, but even with very good performances by Robin Wright, Benecio Del Toro, Helen Mirren, Mickey Rourke, Patricia Clarkson, and a devastating few minutes from Vanessa Redgrave, the storytelling carries the film. It's filled with twists, turns, deadends, sidetracks, and is framed by a great opening and closing scene which are the same, but very different to the viewer after seeing rest of the film in between.
Rat Race (2001)
This movie might be described as a "guilty pleasure," but it is so much better than that. It can't be argued that it has a great moral message or that it breaks any filmmaking ground, but it does what it sets out to do, tell an episodic ensemble piece with a cohesive storyline and be funny and entertaining doing it. The premise is a race for millions of dollars supposedly waiting in a locker at a train station in Silver City, New Mexico. The entire event is bankrolled by a cabal of bored highrollers in Las Vegas who bet on everything and are looking for something new on which to place their wagers. The participants can work in teams or as individuals.
Obviously, the through-story is not the allure here. Rather, it is the quintessential moments portrayed in the episodic vignettes which are perfect and remain memorable and repeatable. They are too innumerable to list, but many provide some of my favorite images and laughs in my entire moving-going experience: Jon Lovitz and family escaping the Barbie Museum (Klaus, not the doll) in Hitler's car. "Tell the pilot to level off. Who had Mr. Kimiche?" John Cleese asking which of the gamblers had bet on the first one of them to be airsick from the faked turbulence. And the Burma Shave road signs on the short cut: "You Should Have Bought A Squirrel."
Don't Say a Word (2001)
This is another fine intrigue with a haunting performance by a young Brittany Murphy who died so young, but left us quite a few really fine performances in her short life. Here she plays a psychiatric patient struck mute by a traumatic event. It's what she won't say that turns out to be most important. When a famous psychiatrist played by Michael Douglas is called in to consult on her case, his wife and daughter are taken hostage until he can get a 6 digit number from the mute teenager.
The cast is as good as the story in this one with Sean Bean as the villain, Famke Janssen as his Douglas's wife, Skye McCole Bartusiak as his daughter, along with strong support from the always reliable Oliver Platt, Jennifer Esposito, Lance Reddick, and Daniel Kash. It is directed by the unsung Gary Fleder who has also impressed with Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, Kiss the Girls, and Runaway Jury.
See Spot Run (2001)
This movie has my favorite slapstick scene of all time in a pet store where the bad guys knock over everything including the dangerous and poisonous. The bad guys are after an FBI dog who bit their boss after sniffing out the drug facility. The dog is being aided by a hapless mailman (David Arquette) and the young son (Angus T. Jones) of the mailman's beautiful neighbor (Leslie Bibb). They have named the dog, Spot, though he is known to his FBI handler (the late, great Michael Clarke Duncan) knows him as Agent 11. Paul Sorvino is excellent as always as the Mafia boss, but the late great Joe Veterelli and the still great Steve Shirripa steal the show as the bumbling hit men reduced to trying to carry out a contract on a dog.
Again, this is a solid comedy made distinctive by its genuine and successful attempt to entertain and amuse.
Harts War (2002)
Like The Pledge, I find Hart's War to be a perfect motion picture. I cannot think of single change or improvement which could make it better. The opening is terrifying and totaling informs Colin Ferrell's unnerved and diffident character throughout.
It is at once a war movie, a mystery story, a courtroom drama, a social commentary on racism, and an epic tragedy all rolled into one fantastic mix. In the midst of what appear to be a conglomeration of archetypes, not a single one fails to flesh out.
Ferrell plays a law-student lieutenant who survives torture but eventually gives up information. In a POW camp, he is ordered to defend a black pilot (Terence Howard) from the famous Tuskegee airmen accused of murdering a white prisoner. The commandant (Marcel Iures) becomes involved and the ranking POW officer (Bruce Willis) both want the trial to proceed, but for vastly different reasons.
The conclusion is a payoff which caps an already fine story. Gregory Hoblit directed, topping his previous fine efforts in Primal Fear, Fracture, and Untraceable.
In America (2002)
I found this movie delightful and disturbing. It is an exemplary story of immigrants not finding the milk and honey, but ultimately finding the sweetest gift in their reliance on each other.
My movie buff friends know how much importance I place on a good ending, and this movie has one of the best. It packs a wallop.
A family that has immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland finds Manhattan a very foreign and scary place. As they struggle to adapt to the city life, an unlikely neighbor becomes their ally, and helps them adjust.
An Irish couple (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) bring their two young daughters to America in search of a better life. They find the new life challenging. The scene of Considine dragging a used air conditioner for blocks and then up flights of stairs will stay with you forever. Djimon Hounsou is brilliant as their unstable but artistically gifted and passionate neighbor. I am reminded that Samantha Morton may be the most underappreciated great actress of our era.
Endings are also important in the movie, Skins. The final scene here is less a perfect wrap-up of the story, but more of an unforgettable coda.
Rudy (Eric Schweig) and Mogie (Graham Greene) are two brothers living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Mogie has a severe drinking problem, but wants to relate to his teenage son Herbie (Noah Watts), while Rudy has become a tribal police officer who plays vigilante at night. But all his extracurricular efforts mostly hurt those he was trying to help.
In the end, there is no explaining the emotional impact of this film.
Orange County (2002)
I have never been a huge Jack Black fan. Always sort of liked him, but never been overly impressed. He is very, very good in this movie as Colin Hanks's older brother.
Colin Hanks (Tom's son) plays a character who wants to get into Stanford. It should be a slam dunk, but his guidance counselor sends the wrong transcript. The mistake isn't discovered until it's too late... or is it?
The supporting cast floats this thin story when threatens to sag. Catherine O'Hara and John Lithgow as Colin Hanks's divorced parents. Schuyler Fisk as his love interest. Lily Tomlin and Harold Ramis (in possibly his last really great performance) as guidance and admittance counselors. Leslie Mann as Lithgow's new wife, and the recently passed great George Murdock as O'Hara's new husband under a constant state of medication. Kevin Kline has a memorable cameo as the writer-professor Hanks admires and gets to meet cute.
Cold Mountain (2003)
This another very close to perfect movie for me. In many, many ways, I find it more satisfying than the book which is also very good. Neither Nicole Kidman or Jude Law were among my personal favorite performers, but this film caused me to delve into their other work and gain an increased appreciation for both. It also caused me to do the same for the director, Anthony Minghella who sadly passed away leaving a finite career for me to appreciate the likes of The English Patient, Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Breaking and Entering.
The plot follows two concurrent storylines. Jude Law, a young Confederate soldier's war experiences and his journey home after the war, and Kidman's attempts to hold fast waiting until he returns to Cold Mountain in North Carolina. Renee Zellweger earned a well-deserved supporting actress Oscar for playing the young woman she hires to help her care for her late father's farm. The cast is a who's who of people to follow in their careers. In a list too numerous to name all, I would single out Ray Winstone who plays a minister bent on benefitting from the war and persecuting those who may not have served. Ironically, Charlie Hunnam turns in the best performance as his son, a consumptive albino the southern army turned away. Natalie Portman is almost unrecognizable as a young mother Jude Law must save on his way home. Donald Sutherland, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman always deserve mention, and Kathy Baker again is so good it is a wonder she gets so very little recognition.