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Schizophrenia In Style - The Best & Worst of 2003

We don't recall this movie... do you?
by Erik Childress

If you crammed John Nash, Spider Cleg and Brian Helgeland into a single brain, it couldn’t match the schizophrenic nature of the cinema in 2003. Very little was left to the middle-of-the-road. Most of us can go on record and say that this year has been one of the best years in a long time, outdoing even the ’02 lineup of which we basically had the same regard. But for every piece of greatness (27 films were vying for my Top 10 attention) a rank stinkhole was stuffed through some orifice abyss that would have Saddam going “oooh, stinky.” Extremes were the name of the game in 2003 and I’m here to guide you through it before whittling it down to the ultimates.

It was a banner year for documentaries and even remakes were better than usual (The Good Thief, The Italian Job, Freaky Friday). Two great westerns from the 1800s were upon us (Open Range & The Missing) but with the exception of the Matrix sequels, true science-fiction was notably absent leaving horror a huge door to swing through.

If you couldn’t count on Daredevil, Hulk, the X-Men or Ron Shelton’s cops (Dark Blue, Hollywood Homicide, Bad Boys II), you could still rely on the search for Truth (Capturing the Friedmans, Shattered Glass), Justice (21 Grams, Irreversible, Mystic River) and The American Way (House of Sand and Fog, Runaway Jury)

Non-American Jean Rochefort, with his failing health, contributed to the collapse of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (documented in the great Lost In La Mancha.) But he managed to pull it all together to play another old poet/dreamer in Patrice Leconte’s Man On The Train. Goddamned French! I’ll get to Le Divorce later.

Johnny Depp managed to bounce back from the Gilliam shutdown though with an Oscar-worthy turn as the great Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean and was the only moment of clarity in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Spectrum’s other end had Steve Martin coming through with the two biggest box-office successes of his career on two of his worst films (Bringing Down the House, Cheaper By The Dozen). In turn, Bruce Almighty made more than The Truman Show, Man On The Moon and The Majestic combined. And New Line unleashed the first of its Jim Carrey-less sequels on an unsuspecting public (Dumb & Dumberer). The second (Son of Mask) arrives in 2004.

Amanda Bynes, Hilary Duff & Mandy Moore were there for the tweeners, but more to be gawked at in bad movies (What a Girl Wants, The Lizzie McGuire Movie, How To Deal). Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen was supposed to be about the harsh reality of that age, but only succeeded as an exploitive piece about young girls in hot pants and half shirts. Meg Ryan showed she didn’t need any clothes period at 40 (In The Cut) and Ludivine Sagnier I don’t think ever heard of them (Swimming Pool). (OK, one French positive in 2003.) Still, the sexiest, most mature image of the year is Scarlett Johansson and her sheer pink underwear in Lost in Translation. Christina Ricci gave it a shot in Anything Else, but there’s nothing mature about Woody Allen’s fascination with young women. Though I guess it’s better than Victor Salva leering at the young shirtless boys in Jeepers Creepers 2.

Singers and music, instead of having a hit, took a hit in 2003. Besides Duff & Moore, (are they singers or actresses? Cause both are up for debate.) movies about bands never got out of the practice sessions (Prey for Rock and Roll, Garage Days). Robert Downey Jr. sang in a near incomprehensible film (The Singing Detective) and the incomprehensible Bob Dylan co-wrote and sang in the cinematic equivalent of his singing voice (Masked & Anonymous). The only saving grace was a satire about folk singers (A Mighty Wind) and the only music you really need, Elvis Presley, played by Bruce Campbell in a film by Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep).

Gus Van Sant made a film about walking (Gerry) and a film about running away (Elephant). Owning Mahowny & The Cooler were solid Vegas tales about gambling that managed to trump a horse racing movie where the topic is never broached once (Seabiscuit).Ridiculous and foreshadowed twist endings were in full force (Basic, Spider, Identity, Confidence, Matchstick Men). Who would have guessed that the best shock ending of the year would come from Terminator 3?

People ate shit (American Wedding), caught a bullet with their nuts (Spun) and no matter how terrifying weasels flying out of your anus might be (Dreamcatcher), a director’s cut of a near 25-year old film (Alien) proved that exploding stomachs is still scarier than exploding diarrhea. Except maybe Mike Myers in The Cat in the Hat.

Speaking of which, here’s a riddle for you: What do The Cat in the Hat, Kangaroo Jack, The Jungle Book 2, Good Boy, Daddy Day Care, Agent Cody Banks, The Haunted Mansion, Cheaper By The Dozen and Elf all have in common? They all made more money in 10 days than Looney Tunes: Back In Action has made in over six weeks. Capturing the Friedmans, Mystic River and Elephant certainly weren’t the only films dealing with unspeakable acts of horror committed upon children.

Silly Caucasians played with Samurai swords (Kill Bill Vol. 1, The Last Samurai) while the usual masters, Jackie Chan and Jet Li practically limped off the screen (The Medallion, Cradle 2 The Grave) But nearly every race, creed, color and persuasion was well-represented this year, although nearly every French film was the same and the mentally handicapped should be suing between Gigli, Radio and anything starring Paul Walker.

While fathers & sons were reconciling (The Barbarian Invasions, Big Fish, It Runs in the Family), women became empowered by cleaning, dancing, stripping and listening to Julia Roberts (Under the Tuscan Sun, Honey, Calendar Girls, Mona Lisa Smile). Swimming Pool had three of the four.

Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” became the anthem for both stewardesses (View from the Top) and serial killers (Monster). The latter of which will be the fourth film in five years to win an Oscar for a hot actress (Charlize Theron) stripping off her makeup. (Hilary Swank Boys Don’t Cry, Halle Berry Monster’s Ball, Nicole Kidman The Hours).

Big epics felt as long as the wars that served as their background (Master & Commander, Cold Mountain, Gods & Generals) and “important” films about the death penalty, drugs, race and world hunger turned out to be insulting jokes (The Life of David Gale, Veronica Guerin, The Human Stain, Beyond Borders). Big-name filmmakers like The Coen Bros. (Intolerable Cruelty) and John Woo (Paycheck) disappointed while up-and-comers like Lucky McKee (May) and Mark Decena (Dopamine) showed great promise.

Critics were so blinded by the awfulness of Gigli that they forgot about at least 25 films which were worse. Inadvertently they also made J-Lo’s “gobble, gobble” line about oral sex more memorable than the Thanksgiving treasure, Pieces of April.

Not this critic, who remembers all that was seen in 2003 and will now take you through the Best and the Worst of it.

THE BEST FILMS OF 2003

10. Love Actually – Richard Curtis’ part-satire, part-unabashed love fest may just have had me smiling the longest all year, during AND after the movie. I had to go back a second time to make sure I wasn’t just caught in the moment. Then I went back a third time because there was clearly something special going on. Expertly interweaving nine stories about various degrees of love, Curtis’ cast is remarkable and it’s a pity that some people were so blinded by the inherent sentimentality that they failed to look through to what Curtis was really giving us. Even the slightest of the nine tales had its purpose. The variations of love and lust, of unrequited longing and how having the innocence and confidence in your convictions can result in the greatest of fantasies. It was hilarious throughout with solid splashes of dramatic depth resulting in the greatest of winks to the genre. We realize not everyone is meant for a happy ending and we still walk out smiling. A beautiful film.

9. American Splendor – One of the more original biopics to come down in some time was the story of Harvey Pekar, author of the self-referential titular series. A frequent guest on David Letterman and friend to legendary artist Robert Crumb, Pekar becomes the poster man for outsiders, nerds and geeks everywhere. Brilliantly played by Paul Giamatti, Pekar’s world becomes a cinematic illustration by directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini who interject animated visuals and interviews with the real Pekar and the people in his life to make this truly come alive. James Urbaniak and Judah Friedlander contribute classic supporting work as Crumb and Pekar’s nerdy, cult hero-ish co-worker, Toby Radloff.

8. Shattered Glass – The story of the scandal which hit The New Republic magazine back in 1998 ranks with All the President’s Men as one of the best films about investigative reporting ever made. It unravels as a great thriller about an era where entertainment has replaced facts in journalistic integrity. Peter Sarsgaard, as the editor uncovering the shame, delivers one of the more nuanced portrayals of a professional under pressure, just trying to do the right thing that I’ve ever seen. Just watching him is enough to recommend this film, but writer/director Billy Ray’s approach to the material is spot-on.

7. Capturing the Friedmans – If one film was more disturbing than Shattered Glass it was Andrew Jarecki’s amazing documentary about a family torn apart with charges of child molestation. Using home movies that were taken by one of the three sons during the investigation, Jarecki’s film doesn’t fall into the traps of the too-good-to-be-true, right-place-right-time moments that most documents have. This is real, which makes it all-the-more chilling as the mystery reveals itself. The facts are laid out, we judge them and later have to double-back on our own perceptions as reasonable doubt intrudes. One of the best documentaries you’ll ever see.

6. Looney Tunes: Back In Action – The biggest heartbreak of the year was watching the dwindling box office for Joe Dante’s manic tribute to arguably the greatest collection of cartoon shorts in history. This film had ten times the laughs as the second best comedy of the year and I hadn’t laughed this hard since There’s Something About Mary. The film captures the true spirit of the cartoons and Steve Martin was game enough as the villain to become a live-action Looney Tune himself in a performance that hasn’t been seen since his “wild-and-crazy guy” days. Every one of our favorite characters makes an appearance here and Dante directs every in-joke to perfection. Shame on America for ignoring this film.

5. City of God – Fernando Meirelles’ crime epic has been compared to the works of Martin Scorsese and if HE had directed it, it would surely rank in his Top 3. What begins as another flashback-y, stylized innocent-boy trying to avoid crime drama, quickly draws into a mélange of characters on all sides of the law trying to survive in the Brazilian slum land known as the “City of God”. Hypnotic in its approach and flawlessly conceived from one set piece to the next, I was simply beholden to how Meirelles kept it all together, defying our anticipations and unloading a violent struggle every bit as captivating as the best action films. I can’t wait to see it again.

4. Bubba Ho-Tep – What can you say about a film portraying an aging Elvis teaming up with a dyed-black JFK to fight an ancient mummy in a Texas rest home? No more than Bruce Campbell and Don Coscarelli have in the achievement of their respective careers. Adapting Joe R. Lansdale’s story to the screen could have been done as pure camp and perfect fodder for the Midnight crowds, but they have superceded the obvious. Campbell, in what is truly (no lie) an Oscar-worthy performance embodies the King exactly how we imagine he might be today; a broken-down man who must slowly summon-up his courage in a battle to save his soul, the one we all want to remember (perfectly embodied by Brian Tyler’s brilliant score.) The progression of Coscarelli’s screenplay deserves to be studied in film school (and has wisely been nominated for an award by the Online Film Critics Society.) Bubba Ho-Tep respectfully deals with aging and two American icons that were taken far too soon from us. It is a hilarious, scary and unbelievably moving experience that I will continue to treasure.

3. Mystic River – One of the best exercises in pure storytelling all year is Eastwood’s modern equivalent to his Oscar-winning Unforgiven. Sean Penn gave the first of his great performances of the year here alongside a cast that includes Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney. Each character of the film has their own story and it’s difficult to watch at times how three lifelong friends can succumb to suspicion and revenge right up to one of the most nail-biting finales I’ve seen in a long time. Solid drama doesn’t get much better than this.

2. Lost In Translation – The best romance of the year was a film that wasn’t even really about the subject. Instead, friendship and loneliness collided headfirst into a beautiful story about a May-December relationship in an isolated world far away from home. Oh and it’s damn funny too. Bill Murray, in a year full of career-best performances, may just outshine them all as an aging American actor now being paid well to shoot whiskey commercials in Japan. When the married and bored thespian meets the young Scarlett Johansson (equally married and bored), the two set-off together to find themselves in each other. A hundred tired romantic comedies aren’t nearly as nuanced or poetic as this one. It leaves you in awe while you’re watching it and then scrambling to produce the right emotion during its final scenes.

1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – But, of course, there’s one film to rule them all as so many have said and even through the course of 1500 words in my original review, it’s impossible to do the film any justice but to see it on the big screen. Let’s see if I can summarize. It’s one of the greatest achievements in cinema history that delivers on every promise that director Peter Jackson has been making equivalent to the culmination of every birthday wish you’ve ever made and every Christmas present you’ve ever wanted. He has upped the ante in every film and with Return of the King he delivers nearly everything that I’ve been missing in movies for the past 20 years. Asthma patients must be prepared to bring an extra bronchodilator because Pelennor Fields is the greatest battle sequence to ever hold a big screen. Visual effects are at an all-time high here and the first name read for Best Supporting Actor this year should be Sean Astin. It’s Shakespearean in depth, David Lean in scope and told with the grace of Capra, Spielberg and Zemeckis. Cecil B. DeMille would have to look at The Lord of the Rings and go “now THAT is an epic.” After watching the credits roll a final time on this trilogy, I think you’ll agree that this film (and Lord of the Rings, period) bows to no one in 2003 or any year.

THE 5 RUNNERS-UP

11. Spellbound – If they could do it for chess, then certainly excitement could be found in a documentary about the National Spelling Bee. And man, was there. The first half of the movie you meet eight kids and their regiment in preparing almost hourly for the big competition and the second is the Bee itself as we bite our nails along with the parents. The kids are hard to dislike, although you’ll find yourself rooting for your favorites. Home schooled bastards! More exciting then most sporting events, Spellbound is nerve-wrecking, frequently amusing and sad in watching some of these dreams dashed. Or hilarious depending on your sensibility.

12. The Shape of Things – Neil LaBute’s latest foray into relationship mores struck me harder than just about any film released this year. My first viewing of it at Sundance left me in a mouth-gaping daze and the turns that this “romantic comedy” takes will leave most viewers feeling the same way. As much of a statement on the world of “art” as it is modern relationships, Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz (who performed the roles on stage) do some of the best work of their careers in a film that’s hard to shake off once it’s over.

13. Kill Bill Vol. 1 – I may have been a little hard on this one at first, but only because Miramax decided to chop-sock it into two parts when one may have placed it even higher on my list. Three times and counting I’ve seen the film, anticipating the second volume each time and increasingly admiring every technique that Tarantino utilizes and homages in nearly every scene. Props for being the bloodiest American film since Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and to Uma Thurman for doing solid work in what could easily have been a throwaway performance. I feel like popping it in again right now.

14. Down With Love – Most people didn’t seem to know what to make of this ingenious tribute to the kitschy romantic comedies of the 60s. Ewan McGregor is perfectly cast and Renee Zellweger unflinchingly delivers the funniest monologue of the year in a three-minute-plus unbroken take. Down with Love gets everything right. The dialogue is sharp and delivered with sincerity while a tongue is firmly planted and an eyelash wink is waiting in the wings.

15. May – A great horror film from debut writer/director Lucky McKee. Both horrific and tragic in its consequences, Angela Bettis’ title character deserves all the kudos that Charlize Theron is now getting for Monster. Part Carrie, part Frankenstein, May is darkly funny and has a nasty streak that creeps up on the audience that is both ghastly and perfect.

10 MORE GREAT FILMS
16. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl – Johnny Depp kills. Terrific, fun, all-around adventure
17. Big Fish – Next to LOTR, the powerhouse emotional ending of the year.
18. The Last Samurai – Beautiful, exciting epic with great battle scenes.
19. Dopamine – Great, smart Sundance romance. Sabrina Lloyd shines
20. Hulk – Ang Lee makes an arty comic book film and its one of the best.
21. Dirty Pretty Things – Terrific overlooked thriller about love, poverty and illegal organ doning in London.
22. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines – Best pure action film of the year with the best chase.
23. Winged Migration – The closest thing to IMAX without actually being it.
24. The Station Agent – Another great and funny Sundance entry about outsiders and a need for friendship.
25. House Of Sand And Fog – The most depressing film of the year is also one of the year’s great examples of storytelling.

20 FILMS ALMOST WORTHY OF THE TOP 25
21 Grams, Daredevil, A Decade Under the Influence, Dummy, Elephant, Finding Nemo, The Good Thief, Holes, The Hunted, Lost In La Mancha, The Magdalene Sisters, The Matrix Reloaded, A Mighty Wind, The Missing, Open Range, Phone Booth, Pieces of April, Runaway Jury, The Triplets of Belleville, Whale Rider

YEAH, I LIKED THESE TOO
28 Days Later, All the Real Girls, American Wedding, Anger Management, Assassination Tango, Brother Bear, Bruce Almighty, The Cooler, Dark Blue, Duplex, Final Destination 2, The Fog of War, Ghosts of the Abyss (IMAX), The Hebrew Hammer, In America, Irreversible, The Italian Job, Jeepers Creepers 2, Malibu's Most Wanted, The Matrix Revolutions, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Owning Mahowny, Party Monster, Raising Victor Vargas, The Rundown, Scary Movie 3, The School of Rock, Shanghai Knights, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Stuck on You, Tears of the Sun

NOT QUITE GOOD ENOUGH
Dreamcatcher, The Flower of Evil, Freddy Vs Jason, The Hard Word, Identity, The In-Laws, Just Married, Monster, Paycheck, Seabiscuit, Something's Gotta Give, Spider, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, X2: X-Men United

NEITHER HERE NOR THERE
Bad Santa, Better Luck Tomorrow, Blue Car, Cabin Fever, Cheaper by the Dozen, Cradle 2 the Grave, The Dancer Upstairs, Elf, The Eye, Gerry, Head of State, Hollywood, Homicide, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Intolerable Cruelty, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Matchstick Men, Out of Time, S.W.A.T., Swimming Pool, A View from the Top

AND NOW…..

THE WORST OF 2003
The polar opposite of what was perfect in this great year.

10. Under The Tuscan Sun – “Clichés converge at this isle of the world” is what Diane Lane is told in this film based on a travelogue and it’s the truest statement of the year. Rochelle, Rochelle meets Kramer’s coffee table book in a film so laughably pretentious that it actually imports polacks for comic relief.

9. Le Divorce – Oh those wacky sophisticated French and us horribly uncouth Americans. This film makes you wish Superman was late on that hydrogen bomb at the Eiffel Tower.

8. Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat – Nothing like tearing down childhood memories and burning them in the pits of Hades. Mike Myers throws all three of his notes in our faces in this laughless, evil concoction that somehow resembled a Michael Jackson fantasy land. Parents were warned and they still took their children. Kids in the audience I attended were restless and I’ve yet to find one person who has ANYTHING positive to say about this film other than Jeffrey Lyons, Joel Siegel and Thelma Adams.

7. Boat Trip – Cuba Gooding Jr. continues a career decline that makes Pia Zadora look like Greta Garbo. This one paired him and the least funny fat man in SNL history, Horatio Sanz, in the oh-so-hilarious premise of two straight men mistakenly booked on a gay cruise. Somewhere buried deep in the collective dead brains of bad screenwriters everywhere I’m sure you can run with this idea. Problem is that dead brains rarely give you control of any of your motor functions, which is basically everyone associated with this atrocity.

6. Masked & Anonymous – The only film I’ve ever walked out on in a theater. This one was at Sundance. At a celebrity premiere. Bob Dylan and Seinfeld alum Larry Charles made a film that began, literally, on scraps of paper from Dylan’s pocket. An A-list cast bowing at the altar of Dylan and the result is unwatchable. See it for yourself and don’t bother to tell me how it ends.

5. From Justin to Kelly – A musical with the two finalists from the first American Idol. Do I really need to say anymore? Look forward to the sequel – When Clay Came On Ruben.

4. House Of 1000 Corpses – An altogether ugly experience made even worse by the fact that it’s just not scary. I first saw the trailer for this film in theaters Sept. 2000. Writer/director Rob Zombie made an unreleasable film.

3. Grind – Do you need to see a movie about skateboarders? I sure as hell don’t. But I did. Note to filmmakers: If you’re making a film about a “sport” one step above Professional Trampoline, (1) give us something more than its back-and-forth, up-and-down nature (2) try to help us understand how one wins, (3) don’t populate it with the most annoying characters this side of reality television and (4) don’t dress up Randy Quaid like John Wayne Gacy. Just some tips.

2. Bringing Down The House – The most racist film of the year is also a career embarrassment for Steve Martin. (You didn’t need funds for Shopgirl THIS bad, did you?) I never want to see Queen Latifah again and I hope to never run into the laughing audience I saw this with at a sneak preview either. Because violence would occur. I honestly didn’t think I’d see a worse film all year. Until…

1. Bad Boys II – A film so atrocious in every facet that I actually felt nauseous afterwards. No lie. Everyone associated with this film should be ashamed of themselves and I hope someday to participate in a national bonfire where everyone defecates on every available DVD and VHS copy of the film, urinate on it for flavoring, take a bite of one with the topping and then regurgitate back onto them. That’s exactly what watching this film was like.

THE ED WOOD AWARDS
Five films so laughably awful that they belong on Mystery Science Theater 3000. With the right crowd, too much fun to be an excruciating experience, but awful nonetheless.

5. The Core – “Terranauts” aboard a cockship to tunnel to the center of the Earth to save it.
Highlight: The heroes walk outside their ship and with about 800,000 pounds of inner pressure bearing down on them, one comments how lucky they are to have their suits holding up.

4. Wrong Turn – Hot teens get lost in the woods and stumble upon deformed cannibals. Teens get killed but, disappointingly, never eaten. What a jip!
Highlight: Jeremy Sisto takes an arrow to the chest and my bad movie watching partner-in-crime, Collin Souter, yells out “Message for you, sir!” Call us if you want to rent this for the weekend.

3. The Order – The principal cast of A Knight’s Tale (minus a smarter Paul Bettany) reteams with director Brian Helgeland on a religious thriller originally titled “Sin Eater”. A less interesting title was chosen to match the amazing blandness of the film.
Highlight: Peter Weller got a job.

2. Suspended Animation – You almost don’t need a friend to watch this crazy thriller unfold. A potentially interesting but laughable treatment of (again) cannibal sisters a la Misery, turns into Dr. Phil’s Vertigo, before remembering how the film began in the first place. Pickled penises and zit-eating have never been so riotous.
Highlight: A character is stabbed in the jugular with a scalpel and is spraying blood all over the place while dying on the floor. It’s at this moment that the hero decides to help his lady friend by taking his tazer and giving the victim a “take that!”

1. House of the Dead – There’s nowhere you can begin to understand how unbelievably bad this film is. And it’s a glorious time if you’re with the right people. Actually advertised as being based on the “award-winning video game”, I’d imagine a big-screen version of Burger Time could fashion a more astute technical prowess. A true has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed.
Highlight: Every character is placed on a pottery wheel and spun into their own hero shot while blasting away zombies. Classic!

Exhibits P through X on why Gigli wasn’t even close to being the worst film of the year.
2 Fast 2 Furious, Anything Else, Biker Boyz, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, City of Ghosts, Cold Creek Manor, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, How To Deal, The Human Stain, It Runs in the Family, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde, The Life of David Gale, The Real Cancun, Timeline

Congratulations – You were just better than Gigli
Basic, Buffalo Soldiers, Cold Mountain, Confidence, The Fighting Temptations, Gothika, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, A Man Apart, Old School, Prey for Rock and Roll, The Recruit, The Singing Detective, Thirteen, Underworld, Veronica Guerin


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=887
originally posted: 01/02/04 10:06:39
last updated: 01/31/04 14:14:12
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