Geoffrey Rush and Pierce Brosnan in The Tailor of PanamaTHE TAILOR OF PANAMA

It's been a very long time since a movie was released in our area that wasn't abjectly stupid, so it's easy to get some initial enjoyment from John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama, an adaptation of John LeCarré's 1996 bestseller. It's partially a spy thriller, but unlike the James Bond installments or the recent smash Spy Kids, the goofiness is kept to a minimum. Beyond that, the plot is smartly established, the cast is promising, the locations are exotic, and director Boorman shows from the start that he's in a frisky, playful mood; this is easily his most lighthearted work since 1987's Hope & Glory. So with all this going for it, and considering the undisputed wretchedness of the year's cinematic output, I have to admit that I feel like an ungrateful jerk for finding The Tailor of Panama itself rather disappointing.

Liv Tyler in One Night at McCool'sONE NIGHT AT MCCOOL'S

One Night at McCool's, the noir-esque comedy by debuting director Harald Zwart, begins promisingly enough: Three men - a good-natured bartender (Matt Dillon), a snaky lawyer (Paul Reiser), and a hangdog detective (John Goodman) - visit three separate confessors (hit-man Michael Douglas, incredulous shrink Reba McEntire, and randy priest Richard Jenkins), each detailing their obsession with the mysterious, definitely dangerous Jewel (Liv Tyler), the beauty who ruined their lives. Physically, emotionally, financially, this trio of saps couldn't be more disparate, and we're initially curious to see how their stories connect, how Jewel wound up seducing them, and what, exactly, her intentions are.

ALONG CAME A SPIDER - Lee Tamahori's thriller doesn't feature a single scene that works on a realistic level; thank goodness we gave up looking for realism in Hollywood flicks ages ago. If you can shut off your brain and ignore every logical thought that enters it, this Kiss the Girls prequel can be enjoyed enormously on its own ridiculous terms, and Morgan Freeman's astonishing blend of dignity, authority, and concentration gives the film more weight than it deserves. He might be the best thing to ever happen to a silly action-thriller, and he leads a fine cast of snarky character actors - Monica Potter, Michael Wincott, Jay O. Sanders, Dylan Baker, and Michael Moriarty among them - who might or might not turn out to be creeps. The film is a miasma of thriller clichés, yes, but it's unerringly paced and a lot of fun nonetheless.

Renee Zellweger in Bridges Jones's DiaryBRIDGET JONES'S DIARY

A terrific leading character can atone for a lot of wrongs in a film, and there might be no better proof of that thesis than Bridget Jones's Diary, Sharon Maguire's adaptation of Helen Fielding's incredibly popular novel. Our heroine, a 32-year-old British woman who works a dead-end publishing job, is a completely realistic type we almost never see in movies: a chain-smoking, wine-slurping, slightly overweight, unsatisfied-in-relationships flirt who wants desperately to better herself but doesn't have the motivation or discipline to do so. Flawed as she is, she's intensely endearing, and as perfectly played by Renée Zellweger, she's a magically comic creation, even more wonderful than Zellweger's previous incarnations of Dorothy Boyd and Nurse Betty. That the moviemakers spend the film's running length putting her in one humiliating situation after another, and that she's trapped in a predictable love triangle between a cad and a sweetie, aren't to be held against her; Bridget Jones, and Zellweger herself, triumph over their circumstances, creating a totally enjoyable cinematic work, flaws and all.

Morgan Freeman and Monica Potter in Along Came a SpiderALONG CAME A SPIDER

Here's a frightening thought: Are today's filmgoing audiences being programmed to expect less from movies? Because I'm afraid it might be happening to me.

Morris Chestnut, D.L. Hughley, Bill Bellamy, and Shemar Moore in The BrothersTHE BROTHERS

The Brothers, the comedy-drama debut from writer-director Gary Hardwick, is a good-and-bad movie in which the good parts far surpass the bad, and that alone makes it one of the finer movies of the year.

Anne Bancroft and Sigourney Weaver in HeartbreakersHEARTBREAKERS

Though the competition is fierce - The Insider, All That Jazz, maybe even Beetlejuice - I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie that made smoking look more repellant than David Mirkin's comedy Heartbreakers.

Edward Burns and Robert De Niro in 15 Minutes15 MINUTES

Near the start of writer/director John Herzfeld's 15 Minutes, two tourists-cum-thugs, the Czech Emil (Karel Rodin) and the Russian Oleg (Oleg Taktarov), murder a pair of acquaintances and torch their apartment, while the movie-loving Oleg videotapes the crime.

Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts in The MexicanTHE MEXICAN

We've had the evidence for years, but I think it's time we made it official: Brad Pitt is a gonzo supporting player stuck in a (rather dull) leading man's body. Recently, he portrayed the heavily-accented Irish boxer in Snatch, giving the film a jolt of pure, comedic adrenalin - his screen time was brief, but he was the most entertaining performer in the movie - and when he appeared as a supporting actor in 12 Monkeys, Thelma & Louise, and True Romance (probably his best, and easily his funniest, screen work), his performances were well-calibrated and often inspired. Pitt can display a true flair for off-kilter comedy; it's telling that his most enjoyable lead performance has come from the darkly comic cult film Fight Club, where his Tyler Durden was clearly one of Pitt's nutjob character roles gone berserk.

Kevin Costner in 3000 Miles to GracelandI remember a time, not so long ago, when I actually looked forward to movie trailers. Getting the chance to see what certain performers and directors had coming up next, witnessing the artfulness of the preview itself, which has to build anticipation with three minutes of footage, experiencing that happy rush when an entire audience simultaneously reacts to a trailer with a feeling of, "I can't wait to see that" ? I ate it all up.

 

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