Ten Small Films to Keep on Radar

By Kim Hollis

July 16, 2002

Now that we’ve covered the best movies of the first half of 2002 and highlighted a few wide releases to watch for in the second half of the year, it’s time to take a look at a few movies that will be released only in selected theaters, at least initially.

1. Shaolin Soccer
If the World Cup showed us anything, it’s the fact that Americans love soccer, right? Well, maybe not so much, but combine the on-field antics with hot kung fu action and you’ve got a sure-fire winner. Okay, so the comedy about an underdog soccer team that uses their mastery of the artistry of the Shaolin monks to defeat their opponents might sound a bit silly, but the movie won six awards at the 2001 Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Actor, Best Director, Best Visual Effects, Best Supporting Actor, and most importantly, Best Picture. This honor puts it in the company of such other noteworthy Hong Kong winners as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Comrades: Almost a Love Story. The top money-maker in Hong Kong for 2001, the film is receiving rave reviews on this side of the pond already, with the special effects being almost universally counted as spectacular. It’s a unique spin on the story that we’ve seen in countless films from The Mighty Ducks to Bad News Bears to The Rookie, and looks to be a real winner for Miramax.

Opens August 30th in select cities across the nation

2. Secretary
This Special Jury Prize-winner at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival is a love story…from a slightly different point of view. Though Jake Gyllenhaal seems to be omnipresent in the second half of 2002, he’s not the only member of the family drawing attention. His sister, Maggie, is the star of this film about a sexually repressed secretary named Lee who takes a job working for a controlling and successful attorney, played by James Spader. When the boss’ temper flares and his mean streak shows, Lee discovers that she is inexplicably drawn to the man. Their unconventional relationship progresses as the film uses humor in its singular approach to the office romance. The ideas explored aren’t exactly politically correct and this movie probably won’t be for everyone, but I credit director Steven Shainberg for his willingness to take a few risks.

Opens September 20th in New York and LA

3. Welcome to Collinwood
George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh are together again, but this time, they take on producer roles in this comedy about five Cleveland crooks trying to pull off their greatest heist - a pawnbroker’s safe. Though the plot itself is slight, the film should be a study that focuses on the unique personality quirks of the various players. Toward that end, directors Joe and Anthony Russo have assembled some terrific character actors, including Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy, Luis Guzmán, Michael Jeter, and in a small role, Clooney himself. The film sounds like Soderbergh meets the Coens, and has a decent shot at opening wider if its first couple of weekends are successful. Though it’s probably not going to be terribly impacting at the box office, Welcome to Collinwood should be a treat for cinephiles and should whet audience appetites for Rockwell’s next project, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Opens in selected cities October 4th

4. The Grey Zone
After hating his performance in Minority Report to the point of distraction, Tim Blake Nelson is lucky his film scores a place on this list. Honestly, Tim Blake Nelson The Director attracts my attention much more quickly than Tim Blake Nelson The Actor. His first mainstream film, “O,” was an under-appreciated adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, and I developed an admiration for Nelson’s attention to symbolism and mood after seeing it.

He delves deeper into the darkness with The Grey Zone, a film that he originally produced as a play. Set in the Polish death camp of Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944, the story focuses on a group of prisoners who were known as the Sonderkommando, a group that dealt with horror on a daily basis as they were responsible for preparing their fellow inmates for the gas chamber, including the unfortunate duty of informing them that they would be “taking a shower.” Though they receive benefits for doing this work that range from cigarettes to extension of their very lives, the men are plagued by their guilt and deal with the consequences of living in a moral “grey zone,” and eventually they stage an uprising. The film’s ensemble cast includes David Arquette, Daniel Benzali, Steve Buscemi, Mira Sorvino and Harvey Keitel, and has already received some very positive attention from some of the film festivals where it has already played. Though The Grey Zone deals with some difficult and troubling issues, the prospect of seeing Nelson’s direction and perspective are intriguing.

Opens October 11th in New York and LA

5. Roger Dodger
Maybe this one’s just high on my list because it stars Campbell Scott, who I just happen to adore. Even so, Roger Dodger premiered recently at the first ever Tribeca Film Festival competition for first-time filmmakers and performed admirably, winning the best narrative feature award from a jury whose members included Kevin Spacey, Meryl Streep and Barry Levinson.

Set in New York, Dylan Kidd’s film tells the story of a suburban teenager (Jesse Eisenberg, brother of annoying Pepsi-girl Hallie) who goes out on the town with his womanizing uncle. The teen has sought out his cynical uncle (Scott) for tips on dealing with the opposite sex, but they wind up taking a lot of wrong turns as they both grow up a little bit and learn how to respect women. Roger Dodger was one of the first films to go into production in New York City after 9/11 and the city itself is a prominent player in the film, which also features Isabella Rossellini, Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals.

Opens October 11th in New York and LA

6. Auto Focus
This movie tells the strange story of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, a handsome and charming man who became a star after the breakaway success of the 1960s comedy. Crane took full advantage of his fame, and dove into the freewheeling lifestyle prevalent among numerous performers with gusto, entering into affairs with many women. After he teamed with video technician John Henry Carpenter to document his exploits, Crane was later found murdered in a Scottsdale, Arizona hotel room. The mystery surrounding the events remains unsolved to this day.

Auto Focus features a stellar cast, including Greg Kinnear as Crane and Willem Dafoe playing Carpenter. Both men have received some strong critical praise in recent years as well as Academy Award® nominations, and should provide a fascinating look into the characters behind the twisted tale.

Opens October 18th in New York and LA

7. Untitled Jim Sheridan Project
Formerly known as East of Harlem, this project is the latest from Academy Award® nominee Jim Sheridan, who received both screenplay and director nods for My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father. This film will be a semi-autobiographical story based on Sheridan’s own experiences when he and his family emigrated from Ireland to New York to open the Irish Arts Theater. He faced a number of obstacles when he arrived, not the least of which was the fact that his material was challenging to audiences.

Paddy Considine will star as Johnny, and he is backed up by a strong supporting cast that includes precog and Academy Award®-nominee Samantha Morton as well as Gladiator’s Djimon Hounsou, who plays a Harlem-based artist that befriends the family. The Sheridan project was one of the first to position itself in the very award-friendly time frame of November/December, which would seem to indicate that Fox Searchlight believes they have a quality product on their hands.

Opens November 29th

8. Love Liza
We wrap up with three December releases that will probably all be hoping to vie for year-end awards. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a quirky, unusual actor who specializes in atypical roles, having given his touch to characters as varied as Almost Famous’ Les Bangs and Boogie Nights’ Scottie J. He’s received a lot of notice for his performances in smaller circles, but never any real widespread attention that would be drawn from major awards such as the Golden Globes or the Oscars (though he has been pivotal in casts that have been nominated for Screen Actors Guild Awards such as Magnolia, Boogie Nights and Almost Famous).

Hoffman’s brother is the screenwriter on this story of a man who is so torn up over the unexplained suicide of his wife, the only refuge he can find is in inhaling model airplane fuel and gasoline fumes. Though he finds temporary relief in these activities, his world soon spirals downward - will he be able to emerge? Director Todd Luiso (you may know him as Dick from High Fidelity) handled directing duties on this sad but darkly humorous film, which received the Waldo Scott Screenwriting Award at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival (and was a touching moment between the two brothers, if you didn’t have a chance to watch the ceremony).

Opens December 27th in New York and LA

9. Max
A movie that re-imagines the life story of one of the most despised men in history, Max wonders what might have happened if Adolf Hitler had adored art as a young man, but his Jewish teacher failed to properly encourage him. Could this type of experience lead a man to take a nation into war and Holocaust?

Believable or not, the film features the involvement of some spectacular talent. Academy Award® nominated screenwriter Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple) will make his directing debut as he works from his own script. Hitler is played by Noah Taylor, who was terrific as Stillwater manager Dick Roswell in Almost Famous before going on to change skin like a chameleon for his briefer role in Vanilla Sky. The character of Hitler is in fact secondary to that of the art teacher, and that part will be played by John Cusack, who calls the screenplay for Max the best he has read since Being John Malkovich. It’s an idea that promises to stir up a great deal of controversy but the subject matter should be handled delicately and intelligently by Meyjes.

Opens December 27th in New York and LA

10. The Pianist
The final entry on this list comes from director Roman Polanski, and it is a film that has already received a great deal of attention. Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the movie tells the true-life story of renowned Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, who had to evade capture by Nazis in his war-torn hometown of Warsaw. Polanski tells his tale from a unique perspective, focusing on the artist’s subjective journey as he hides in various apartments throughout the city for the entire duration of the war. Adrien Brody’s performance as Szpilman has seen a great deal of critical acclaim at this early date, and the musical score is haunting and moody. Since Polanski himself barely managed to escape the very ghettos he illustrates in the film, The Pianist is certain to be very personal and evocative.

As far as awards potential, it bears noting that Polanski is not exactly well loved in the United States due to his fleeing the country after his criminal conviction for statutory rape. His last Oscar® nomination was in 1981 (Tess), but reviewers are almost universal in their glowing comments about The Pianist. Focus Features is almost certainly looking to position it for Oscar attention.

Opens in December



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