City of God

This intense gangster thriller was originally released in US theatres in early 2003; it was brought back for a re-release a year later after earning four surprising Oscar nominations in major categories - direction, adapted screenplay, cinematography and editing - all of which turned out to be well-deserved.

I felt like a fool for ignoring this amazing movie in 2003 and was happy I was given a second chance to see it in a theatre. In order to give you an idea of how much I liked City of God, I went to see it on a Saturday night and, when the power went out in the theatre with just 20 minutes left to go, I received a pass to the theatre and returned just two nights later, sitting down to watch the entire thing again instead of just showing up to see how it ended. Folks, I almost never see a film twice in the same year, much less the same week.

City of God is a slightly fictionalized account of the gang wars in early 1970s Rio de Janeiro ("City of God" is the nickname for one of Rio's poorest slums, where much of the action takes place), seen through the eyes of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a good-natured teenager who lives on the outskirts of the worst of the gang activity, yet who manages to avoid most of the horror himself. He is saved by his talents as a photographer, which land him in the good graces of drug addicts, sexpots, and the very leaders of the gangs (Leandro Fermino, as the intolerant 18-year-old "boss" Li'l Ze, puts in a fantastic, underplayed performance as one of the wickedest villains of the year - he acts as though murder is his birthright).

Managing to be both ultra-stylish and ultra-realistic, there's something unquestionably new about City of God. None of its camera or editing trickery feels forced, or done just for kicks. Meirelles and Lund have a real feeling for the time, place, and most of all the characters, who are among the richest I've seen all year. It's the film's biggest surprise: that beyond all the violence is a wide array of fascinating, likable personalities - so many that it's not unfair to call City of God an epic.

This is exhilarating cinema, made all the more refreshing for its unique viewpoint, a glimpse into a world that most American audiences never see - a thoroughly Brazilian movie, with a pan-ethnic cast, rhythmic score, and breathtaking pace. It's great stuff. Miss it at your peril.