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The Tops & The Flops

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Summer's Best

1. Garden State Who knew that a sitcom actor harbored such multi-tasking skills? Scrubs player Zach Braff wrote, directed and stars in this enchanting comedy-drama about a guy who learns you can go home again -- though the circumstances may make the return visit a challenging one. As the woman who allows Braff's character the opportunity to reconnect with himself -- and with others -- Natalie Portman delivers an incandescent performance.

2. Super Size Me In a strong summer for documentaries (Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster), the best of the bunch turned out to be this grandly entertaining -- and deeply disturbing -- piece in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock pigs out at McDonald's for 30 days straight, along the way raising some serious questions about America's intrinsic need to consume everything in sight.

3. Troy Spider-Man 2, Shrek 2 and I, Robot all delivered the goods, but this loose reworking of the Homeric fable was the only summer powerhouse that truly transcended its blockbuster niche -- thanks in no small part to compelling character dynamics, exceptional battle sequences, and mesmerizing turns by Eric Bana and Peter O'Toole.

4. Zatoichi More cinematic swordplay, this time at the service of Takeshi Kitano's updating of the 40-year-old Japanese franchise about a blind masseur who also happens to be an exceptional warrior. Unfolding like a musical which has had most of the songs cut out, Zatoichi echoes its central character in its ability to think swiftly, move gracefully and cut the opposition down to size.

5. Before Sunset Richard Linklater's superior sequel to Before Sunrise is nothing but talk, talk, talk -- and most of it is simply marvelous. Buoyed by in-sync performances by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as well as Linklater's ability to capture the way people really converse, this Paris-set romance throbs with passion as it makes its way to the summer's coolest capper.

Summer's Worst

1. Van Helsing This gets the top dishonor partly because it fails to meet any of the lofty expectations placed upon it. I mean, a movie combining Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster? How cool is that? Oh, wait, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein already did it -- and did it about a thousand times better than this noisy, nonsensical aberration.

2. Garfield: The Movie The trailer was painful enough, and that lasted only a couple of minutes. But watching 80 minutes of a CGI Garfield waddle his way through a worthless comedy takes the concept of cruel and unusual punishment to the extreme. Shame on you, Mom and Dad, for depositing your kids at this film instead of Two Brothers, which was briefly playing down the hall at the same multiplex.

3. Soul Plane A clever concept that could have worked as an airborne Barbershop was instead squandered for the sake of one wretched gag after another. Exhibit A: Whiter-than-white Tom Arnold as a nerd whose name is pronounced "Elvis Honky." Exhibit B: John Witherspoon as a blind man who thinks he's making it with a lady when he's actually grinding his fingers deep into her baked potato. I rest my case.

4. Catwoman Sniff... I get a little misty-eyed just thinking about this one. It's that rare breed of bad movie, one so entertaining in its ineptitude that it's almost a shame for moviegoers to miss it. It just doesn't understand how rancid it truly is, and therein lies its appeal, an offshoot of the sort of affectionate derision that helped turn Ed Wood flicks into camp classics. Catwoman is that bad -- a howler for the ages.

5. Thunderbirds Dunderheaded Studio Idea of the Summer: Take a 60s show that practically no one ever saw (thereby losing the lure of nostalgia), remove the element that made it unique (all the characters were played by puppets), refashion it as a generic Spy Kids rip-off, talk a couple of decent actors (Ben Kingsley and Bill Paxton) into slumming for a paycheck, and then open the film with the belief that people will actually come to see it. Final score: Cost, $57 million; Gross, $6 million.

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