by Chris Dashiell

2003 was remarkable for the prominence of documentary films among the best work of the year. Five of the titles in my top twenty list are non-fiction films, and my favorite film of the year used documentary methods to explore an urgent contemporary reality in fictional form. I can only hope that this signals a trend towards relevancy - towards more movies, fictional or not, that deal with the actual issues and events of our lives. There will always be a place for escapist entertainment in film, but a complete dominance of sensation over sense, market research over personal vision, and formula over thought, impoverishes the cinematic art, and leads to a spiritual dead end.

As always, I chose from among those films that appeared on a big screen in my city during the past year, and were not more than three years old. As the world's most popular art, film raises expectations that are often too high. Thus I heard complaints that this year was worse than others. But any year that produces the twenty films listed below can't be bad, and I think the real issue is distribution - the need for better films to find a wider audience.

1. In This World (Michael Winterbottom).
This intimate and rigorously observant film shows us the long, arduous journey of two young Afghans across international borders, towards the promise of a better life in London. The documentary-type subject is enriched by a fiction-oriented style, with the two actors playing themselves and improvising their lines. Winterbottom's hand-held camera can go almost anywhere without being noticed, so we see the streets and the crowds as they really are, while the narrative structure remains open to the influence of chance events and circumstances. What emerges is a compassionate portrait of humanity in extremis, without arguments or generalizations blocking the way. The young men's journey eventually comes to an unforgettable crisis that is guaranteed to shatter the viewer's complacency. In an age where media imagery has become increasingly divorced from the reality of everyday life, this film bridges the gap between audience and subject, letting us see and feel the life of the refugee as our life, and our concern. More powerfully, more bravely than in any other film of the year, In This World confronts us with the essential human condition.

2. Japón (Carlos Reygadas).
The story of an unnamed man who travels to a remote Mexican canyon in order to kill himself, only to be slowly transformed by the overwhelming power of nature, and the simple life of an old Indian woman, is rendered by first-time director Reygadas with a recklessly profligate visual style that takes the mind beyond words. Shot in 16-millimeter widescreen, the film features down-in-the-dirt subjective shots switching to swirling eye-in-the-sky perspectives, overexposed shots lending a glaring intensity to the world's contours, and at the end, one of the most spectacular extended tracking shots ever conceived. This is a picture of intense physicality - totally focused on our sense of embodiment - while vividly contrasting the transcendent awareness born in the open spaces with the heedless rejection of the sacred by men living in squalid little towns. This is mythmaking on a grand scale - the kind of daring, ambitious work that restores one's faith in movies.

3. Elephant (Gus Van Sant).
Real life is not like a story, with a beginning and end, but a continually flowing "now" moment. Van Sant wants us to see this moment, from the inside of various high school students' heads, on a not-so-normal day at a school that is a lot like Columbine, and the result is that we don't have a story at all, but a trancelike evocation of life on the cusp of death. The most mundane words and actions seem to have bottomless depths when shown from the vantage point of mortality. The ever moving, over-the-shoulder camera work, and the picture's mournful atmosphere, gets under your skin with an assurance both gentle and scary. Elephant is not the kind of film you think it will be, or the kind of film you could have expected, and this profound reversal of our accustomed way of seeing things is part of its intriguing and disturbing power.

4. Spider (David Cronenberg).
An ingeniously constructed tragic puzzle about that most potent subject of horror - the family. Centering on a former mental patient (Ralph Fiennes) who returns to his old neighborhood, only to re-witness as a ghostly spectator the traumatic events of his childhood, the picture is both haunting and abstract, turning the screen into a stage for the main character's anguished mental processes. Fiennes' unheralded performance was the best of the year - almost unbearably physical, with a single-minded, maniacal interior focus. Miranda Richardson and Gabriel Byrne are outstanding as the parents. Those accustomed to sensationalism as the standard approach to such material will be disappointed - Cronenberg's coolly distanced style is designed not for shock value, but to produce understanding.

5. Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov).
Sokurov is different from any other director in seeking to create films that communicate on a wholly subliminal level. This has never been more true than in this tour de force depiction of classical Russian history as a guided sleepwalk through the Hermitage Museum. The picture consists of one 96-minute take - the longest continuous shot in film history - but this is not a mere stunt. The lack of cuts is part and parcel of the film's meaning and raison d'etre: the flow of historical time as unbroken dream. The insistently contrary voice of a haughty European aristocrat buzzes at the back of our consciousness like a cranky superego trying to make sense out of this faux European pageant. Sokurov's view of Russia is both passionate and critical. In a larger sense, his film-as-dream depicts both the transitory nature of events and the eternal nature of the human as such.

6. Rivers and Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer).
Beauty for its own sake is not frivolous, contrary to what we may have been taught. The year's most visually gorgeous film is, appropriately, about an artist: outdoor sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, whose works are fashioned wholly from natural materials - stones, leaves, dirt, icicles, etc. - and often are transitory in nature, surviving only in photographs. Films about artists usually flail about, trying to find something for us to hang on to - psychology, personal anecdote, talking head critics - but Riedelsheimer just lets the articulate Goldsworthy talk about his methods and ideas, while showing us the meticulous creation of the works themselves. It's a film of great patience and sensitivity, and it succeeds in transporting the viewer into a new way of seeing the world.

7. Open Hearts (Susanne Bier).
The Dogme 95 film movement seems to have had its day, and is now routinely dismissed by critics, but this little-seen gem demonstrates how the movement's austere aesthetic can succeed in creating a fine, stirring film. The story centers on a moment when bliss turns into tragedy - a man is hit by a car and paralyzed the day after getting engaged. In the hospital, he pushes his fiancee away, who eventually ends up in the arms of one of the hospital's doctors, who happens to be the husband of the woman driving the fatal car. These melodramatic elements are transformed by Bier's observant, naturalistic style into a poignant and believable drama of relationships, where we just keep going deeper and deeper into the characters' hearts, seeing in the end only the dreams, feelings and frailties, rather than stereotypes or judgments, of these lonely sufferers.

8. To Be and To Have (Nicolas Philibert).
The best teachers have a life-changing effect on young people, but it's not easy to translate their subtle influence into good cinema. This documentary emulates the gentleness and patience of its subject: George Lopez, who teaches grades K-6 at a single-room schoolhouse in a tiny country village in southeastern France. We watch about a dozen kids go through a school year with Lopez, and the fact that this is such a small school allows us to see the power of the one-on-one relationship that this remarkable man has with his students. We see him mediating disputes honestly, allowing kids to express how they feel and to come to their own conclusions without being forced. The film is also a kind of meditation on childhood. In order to appreciate this world, one needs to slow down, get quiet, and listen for the little things. Philibert has just the right approach - the patient viewer is rewarded with a feeling of being grounded in the things that really matter.

9. Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach).
Loach has devoted his career to portraying the lives of working class people, often youth trapped in the spiral of generational poverty. Here we meet Liam (an excellent performance by newcomer Martin Compston), a teenager in a west Scotland slum, whose mother is in jail, having taken the rap for her drug-dealing boyfriend. Liam steals heroin from the boyfriend, sets up shop on his own, and becomes inexorably drawn into a world of organized crime that is bigger than he can handle. Loach is true to the way teens in a lower-class environment would talk and behave, but rather than give in to the false appearance of "cool," the film shows the real effect such a harsh world has on the feelings of a warm, intelligent spirit. We see Liam's strengths, admire his remarkable endurance, even though we know he's going down the wrong road. Sweet Sixteen shows the experience of young people on the margins as dramatic, powerful, and worthy of respect, unlike the usual kind of teen movie that the title ironically evokes.

10. Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa).
In a coastal town in northern Spain, laid-off dock workers struggle with the anger and depression of being unemployed. The film's matter-of-fact, anecdotal style is a perfect match for the characters' experience of rootlessness. These men aren't sure who they are any more, and their situation brings up petty animosity and jealousy, as well as playfulness and humor. Anchoring the film is Javier Bardem, who plays the most charismatic and irresponsible of the group - a gruff, wisecracking scoundrel whose stubborn refusal to give in is alternately admirable and pathetic. The performance has richness, unpredictability, darkness, wit, and a kind of inchoate nobility. You start out thinking he's a jerk, and by the end you love him, even though he's still a jerk.

And now, the B-sides:

11. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne).
The Dardenne brothers take their minimalist aesthetic farther than ever before, in this enigmatic parable about a carpentry teacher who takes a juvenile delinquent under his wing. The film refuses to indulge in dramatic cues, which allows it to attain a rare, bracing immediacy.
12. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki).
At the core of this fascinating true-life study are home movies documenting the collapse of a family under the pressures of a witch hunt, and the internal forces that were always there, but unacknowledged. Never a comfortable experience, the picture confronts us with the scapegoating of a pedophile, and in so doing becomes a test of the limits of one's conscience and compassion.
13. Lawless Heart (Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter).
The funeral of a gay man on the Isle of Wight branches out into multiple connected stories of love and loss. We are drawn into making judgments about the characters, only to be pulled up short when we later see things from their point of view. With winning performances by Douglas Henshall and Bill Nighy, this insightful picture is both soft-hearted and clear-eyed.
14. ABC Africa (Abbas Kiarostami).
A lively and personal portrait of Uganda, its AIDS orphans, and the filmmaking project itself, by one of cinema's greatest artists. The theme is endurance - we do not see a defeated people, but a people committed to surmounting its problems, and the film's gentle approach serves to humanize both subject and audience.
15. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar).
Women in comas, and the men who love them. There's more here about shifting gender roles, male anxiety, and psycho-sexual delusion than you can find in a whole semester of cultural film studies, but without any of the boring parts. The film seems to be the culmination of Almodovar's quest to merge his comic and tragic sensibilities into one.
16. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
Marketed as a Bill Murray comedy, this is actually a lovely little tone poem about two misfits making a momentary, heartfelt connection in a foreign country. The picture is almost avant garde in its gentle disregard for plot in favor of atmosphere and subtle communication between the two leads. Murray's performance is wistful and witty, and Scarlett Johansson is quite affecting.
17. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz).
The idea is as simple as can be: we follow eight kids on their journey towards the National Spelling Bee. But the film's unironic and wholly partisan identification with the young people makes the film very special. Once again, a little respect goes a long way.
18. Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen).
In occupied China during World War II, a hog-tied Japanese officer and his translator are mysteriously left in the hands of a hapless villager. Do we need another film about the horror and waste of war? Well, this picture uses tense, staccato editing, outrageous farce, and an unsparing vision of human failings to portray the absolute stupidity of war. Not for the faint-hearted.
19. Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett).
An honest to goodness coming of age story set on the Lower East Side, featuring a boy who tries his best to be macho, but finding out, through his wooing of a spirited girl, that maturity means being true to your self. A good slice-of-life debut effort, with fine, understated performances.
20. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh).
Leigh presents another variation on the sublime miserablism that is his trademark: the story of three unhappy families in a London housing complex gradually focuses on a harried working mother (Lesley Manville) whose loving care of her husband and children masks unacknowledged resentment. The social observation is precisely nuanced. The catharsis is earned.

Other performances I admired:
Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent)
Sean Penn & Tim Robbins (Mystic River)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things)
Nicole Kidman (The Hours)
Judah Friedlander (American Splendor)
Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People)
Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Open Hearts)
Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider)
Jason Isaacs (Peter Pan)
Ohad Knoller (Yossi & Jagger)
Naomi Watts (21 Grams)
Sidede Onyulo (Nowhere in Africa)
Charlotte Rampling (Swimming Pool)
Stellan Skarsgård (Taking Sides)

Peter Dinklage

Naomi Watts

Cinematography: Lance Acord, Lost in Translation
Music: Howard Shore, Spider
Production design: the marvelous Victorian postcard look of Peter Pan
Ho-hum award: Chicago
Avenue of the overrated: A lot of traffic this year. It's difficult to choose among all the contenders. After deep thought, I've decided that the thoroughly formulaic Pirates of the Caribbean got the year's most undeserved raves.
Runner-up: Kill Bill
Interesting failure award: In the Cut
I admire Jane Campion, and her willingness to take chances. Here she attempts a feminist revision of the serial killer genre, with a lot of bold visual symbolism, and a genuine erotic energy. Meg Ryan is actually very good (I never thought I'd say that) but Campion needed to find a resolution, and she fails to do so. The ending is poorly conceived and written, the slasher genre cliches are not successfully subverted, and the hidden meanings are left hidden, all of which adds up to an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying experience.

George Orwell award: Showtime did a docudrama about 9/11 that made Bush out to be a hero.

And farewell to: Gregory Peck, Horst Buchholz, Martha Scott, Robert Stack, William Marshall, Wendy Hiller, Hume Cronyn, Buddy Ebsen, Penny Singleton, John Schlesinger, Gregory Hines, Bob Hope, Buddy Hackett, Jeanne Crain, Charles Bronson, John Ritter, Hope Lange, Donald O'Connor, Elia Kazan, Johnny Cash, Jack Elam, Anita Mui, Stan Brakhage, Art Carney, Michael Kamen, Uta Hagen, David Hemmings, Ron O'Neal, Ann Miller, Alan Bates, Leslie Cheung, and Katharine Hepburn.

©2004 Chris Dashiell