Eight and a half months into 2003 is soon enough to start talking best of the year, isn't it? Seabiscuit and Finding Nemo are being tossed around as possible Oscar contenders. Same goes for Paul Giamatti as Cleveland cartoonist crank Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (opening here Sept. 12). My problem is I fell hard last January for two movies that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and opened sporadically later in the spring to critical hosannas but virtually no notice: All the Real Girls (Columbia Home Entertainment, $24.95) and Raising Victor Vargas (Columbia, $24.95). Both now reside in celluloid Siberia.
You know celluloid Siberia - here lie not only two of the year's best, but two of the best in ages about young people; and yet, ironically, Hollywood simply does not know how to handle movies that deal with its core audience - the audience that shows up for blockbusters every weekend - in a smart and natural way. (If you think Hollywood thinks you're stupid, you're right - you get American Wedding and the sitting ducks of Freddy vs. Jason.)
I have not seen a movie since Say Anything so keyed in to young love as David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls; my heart breaks for the film's fate as much as for its characters, Carolina kids who simply fall in love, hang out, and split apart. If that sounds mundane, watch how Green nails the sinking-gut feeling of a relationship going sour - how you swoon when it's new, and that impossible-to-pin-down moment when things get different.
You recognize your life in this movie by the way a good writer connects with readers and bells goes off in their heads. Same with Raising Victor Vargas. At Sundance I talked with Green and he hated that Sony was going to drop his movie in the art-house ghetto because it boasts no stars, essentially splintering a young audience that would appreciate it most. (Trust me: In a few years, VH-1 will have this in regular rotation on Movies that Rock.)
Then Green looked across the room, pointed to Victor Vargas director Peter Sollett, and said, “I don't know why you're talking to me - that guy there is the only genius here.”
Maybe so. Sollett's warm and funny Victor Vargas is even less an art-house movie than All the Real Girls (although, again, without stars, that's where it played). When we first see Victor (played by Victor Rasuk), a young, handsome Lower East Side schemer, he's posing against a bedroom wall, running his hands through his afro more for the picture he's creating in his mind's eye than for the girl he'll attempt to seduce and then dump - Fat Donna.
When we see him at the end, Rasuk physically looks older; he's learned compassion but the movie does not make this glaringly obvious, which, for a smart kid, makes it even more apparent.
These are not movies that are “good for you” and they don't carry morals on their sleeves, or even have the pretense to be about some moral lesson. Girls gets a little overly poetic, but it's always true. Victor Vargas just makes you smile, at what it's like to be that age and constantly pushing down feelings of responsibility, as the scene at a neighborhood pool on a hot day wears on.
eResiding in similar obscurity, and just waiting to be discovered, but at the far opposite end of the demographic scale, is one of last year's best little-seen films, I'm Going Home (Milestone, $29.99). It's an often brilliant, touching drama from 93-year-old Portuguese filmmaker Manoel de Oliveira, who started as a director of silent films. Fittingly, his new movie is about outliving your own private world. It tells the story of an aging theater actor (Michael Piccoli from Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt, sans hair) who learns most of his family members were killed in an accident and tries to find some semblance of normalcy in his life. Far from being depressing, it plays as a tender, simple reminder of the fallacy of best-laid plans. Richard Pena, the erudite director of the New York Film Festival, delivers an admiring commentary track.
eJust looking for superstars and spangles? The week's mammoth video release is Chicago (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, $29.99), the rip-roaring Oscar-winning Best Picture - but something tells me this isn't Miramax's Ultimate-Definitive-Ultra-Special Edition. On the commentary track, screenwriter Bill Condon and director Rob Marshall discuss how they've just got to dig up all those fascinating rehearsal tapes sometime, and you can bet an intern is already working on it. Aside from a standard 30-minute studio making-of film - albeit one incorporating some tantalizing footage of the cast blocking out its moves - the big extra is “Class,” a deleted number between Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's pretty funny (“Nobody's got no class anymore ...”), but somewhat flatly directed, and you can see why Marshall yanked it to avoid slowing the momentum.
One more caveat: As fabulous as the movie is, unless you own an enormous TV, its spectacle comes off a little cheaper at home.
NEW ON VIDEO, NEVER PLAYED TOLEDO: The Good Thief (Fox, $27.98) Much underrated, little-seen Paris heist flick starring a fabulously busted-down Nick Nolte, directed by Neil Jordan.
NEW ON DVD, JUST IN TIME FOR SUMMER'S END: National Lampoon's Vacation: 20th Anniversary Edition (Warner, $19.98), starring that embalmed guy who falls down in those insurance commercials with the duck. I think his name is Chevy Chase. He used to be in comedies. Some hold up. This one does, and its special edition DVD is a Griswold family love fest, with Chase, Randy Quaid, and Anthony Michael Hall doing commentary duties, everyone complimenting everyone, and Chase giving credit where credit is due: himself.