Our favorite films of 2003
Ashley, Mark Ashley,
Christopher Campbell, Melissa B. Cummings, Anne Gilbert, Robert S. Jersak, Thor Klippert, Lisa Larkin, Don Larsson, Kevin Lee, Mark Netter, Ed Owens, Pat Padua, Shari L. Rosenblum, Roxy, Myron Santos, Howard Schumann,
Mark Sells, James Snapko, Greg Sorenson, Sasha Stone, Thea, and
Sadly, the "Best of 2003" for me is more like "Not The Worst of 2003." From the list of films I have seen, more than half were poor in one way or another. Those left were more in the category of "good entertainment" rather than "great cinema". The year as I have seen it has been dominated by big bold films with more special effects than substance. Most of the films on my list only really deserve 3 stars out of 5, but they're the best I've seen this year.
|1. Uptown Girls
A film that starts off dull enough to make you want to walk out, but somehow touched me enough to want to watch it again and again and again. Maybe I'm becoming too sentimental in my old age.
2. The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King (Peter Jackson).
Big beautiful film, although there is more than a hint of a greater film in the extended version.
3. Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (McG).
Very fast and funny, and mainly here for its pure entertainment. No story, no substance, but fucking hilarious.
4. X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer).
A good story line, good look. May suffer (or even benefit) from the fact that I saw it only once, and a while ago.
| 5. Peter Pan (P.
Easily rivals Lord of the Rings for CGI usage. Story is dark and ambiguous as the original book probably is. Marks a welcome change from Disney.
6. Pirates of the Caribbean:
The Curse of the Black Pearl
Pretty good story, SFX etc. Orlando Bloom isn't bad; Johnny Depp is great.
7. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Good, but much improved by the extended edition.
8. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
Fun, if predictable, romantic comedy.
9. Shanghai Knights (David Dobkin)
Good (maybe better) sequel to an entertaining comedy, which is mostly due to the performances rather than the material.
In compiling my top movies of the year, I decided not to worry about whether #6 was really better than #7 and just put my list in somewhat chronological order. In looking over my choices, it seems that in 2003, it was best to involve ships or the ocean, have a colon in the title, or star Johnny Depp -- or possibly all three!
Winged Migration (Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats & Jacques Perrin).
As much as I appreciated Michael Moore's effort, this is the documentary that should have won the Oscar last year. The visuals are absolutely breathtaking, as we follow the globe-spanning journeys that thousands of birds take each year. No computer effects, no obvious set-ups -- just pure documentary filmmaking at its finest. Simply put, this is a wonderful movie.
X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer).
An excellent, if not superior, follow-up to the 2000 original. Since less time has to be spent introducing the premise and characters, X2 gets right into the continuing story of mutants and their struggle to be accepted by society. The action sequences are well done, and the special effects are again very impressive. But the movie also has some more meaningful moments, such as Bobby "Iceman" Drake "coming out" to his parents, or the discussion of Stryker's experimentation on mutants. Bryan Singer has done an excellent job of creating films that not only stay true to the comic book franchise, but can also be enjoyed on a wider scale.
Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich).
I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for Pixar to make a bad movie. Although the premise of their films has bordered on formulaic (buddy comedies set in an anthropomorphized world just out of human view), it is a formula that works, and they always seem to find a new twist to make it feel original. The animation is superb and the voice casting spot-on. But not only is Finding Nemo beautiful to look at -- the story is clever, engaging and most of all, fun.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski).
Who would ever have thought a Disney theme park ride could be turned into a really good movie? Although the filmmakers did put together a decent story and some nice special effects, the real credit goes to Johnny Depp. He was wisely given the freedom to make the role of Capt. Jack Sparrow his own, and he stole the show with his campy, over-the-top performance. The rest of the cast, especially Geoffrey Rush, was also great, and helped turn a movie that could have gone so wrong in so many ways into something original and fun.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez)
More campy Johnny Depp fun! Rodriguez knew better than to let this movie take itself too seriously. As with its predecessor, Desperado, Rodriguez doesn't worry about how ridiculous the plot may be; he just has fun with the movie, and so do we. Antonio Banderas is great to watch as the gun-toting mariachi, but once again Depp steals the show as a peculiar FBI agent with a penchant for pork. Not a profound movie by any means, but certainly an enjoyable one.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir).
This is an exciting high-seas adventure that focuses more on characters and relationships than on battles and mayhem. Russell Crowe is great, as usual, as Capt. Jack Aubrey, but the best performance comes from Paul Bettany as his ship's doctor and best friend, who is much more interested in science and discovery than battle strategies. The score/soundtrack is also gorgeous and fits perfectly with the movie's visuals.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson).
This was certainly my most-anticipated movie of the year, and it did not disappoint. Jackson did an amazing job weaving together all of the characters and storylines into one beautiful, coherent package. The visuals are, once again, fantastic -- Shelob is frighteningly real, and I realize that I don't even think of Gollum as computer-generated anymore. But as with the first two parts, it is the attention to detail that really makes the movie stand out. It is obvious that everyone involved in the LOTR films, from the director and cast to the designers and technicians, was determined to create something truly special. The only frustrating thing is that we have to wait for the Extended Edition to see the complete film, but at least that gives us one more part of this amazing experience to look forward to.
Peter Pan (P. J. Hogan)
I really liked this dark, mystical version of the tale. While still making the movie fun and exciting for anyone, the filmmakers also focused on the more mature aspects of the story -- such as Captain Hook's motivations and the consequences of Peter's determination not to grow up. There were some parts of the story that seemed glossed-over (like the scenes with Tiger Lily and the Indians), but overall this was a very enjoyable movie, and beautiful to look at as well.
Monster (Patty Jenkins).
I normally dislike Charlize Theron (though mostly because of the roles and movies she chooses to take on), but she truly impressed me in the role of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. If I hadn't known going in that it was her, I never would have guessed. Theron's performance is extraordinary, but the film as a whole is also very well done. I was afraid it would be one-sided or preachy, but it wasn't. We do become sympathetic to Aileen as we begin to understand her motivations. However, we are also shown how horrible her actions really were. And although it has been overshadowed by Theron's amazing transformation, Christina Ricci also gives an excellent performance as Aileen's one true friend.
Special Mention: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
and The Two Towers extended editions.
Being able to see these two films in their entirety on the big-screen was a wonderful way to lead up to this year's finale. Peter Jackson once again proved that he really understands and appreciates the fans of these movies by giving us all the opportunity to enjoy them to the fullest. I sincerely hope the extended edition of ROTK gets the same treatment.
I saw more parts of films this year than entire features. There were a lot of pictures I meant to get around to, but for one reason or another it seems I had more time for silly movies than anything else. Maybe it's a socialization thing -- Monster ain't exactly a date movie. Anyway, this list applies only to stuff I saw all the way through.
A glass of lemonade on a hot day. Sometimes that's all you need.
Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff).
A cure for what ails you-- at least it'll make you forget about your own stupid problems for a while. Once one accepts that things can always get worse, why play it safe?
Transcendent schlock, with Bruce Campbell holding his own alongside the great Ossie Davis.
(Shinichirô Watanabe & Hiroyuki Okiura).
Haven't seen the TV show, but I'll have to check it out now. Great music.
Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears).
My favorite scene of the year. The pathologist muses over a Chinese John Doe: "I'm sewing up his pockets so he won't carry his bad luck with him to the next world. If he was an atheist, I'm ruining a perfectly good suit no one will ever see again -- but if he's a Buddhist I'm sending him to eternal paradise... for the price of a bit of thread."
(Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich).
Ellen Degeneres broke my heart and I don't care who knows it.
|The Good Thief (Neil Jordan).
Jordan threw down aces when no one was looking. Great cat-and-mouse from Nick Nolte and Tchéky Karyo, and a terrific new voice (among other things) in Nutsa Kukhianidze
The Man Without a Past
Pure joy in a junkyard. Along with Belleville, the best use of Gypsy jazz in a film this year.
Monster (Patty Jenkins).
Charlize Theron deserves every bit of the praise she's getting, but Christina Ricci may have had the harder job. The final murder is as wrenching as the climax of Heavenly Creatures.
Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov).
Mesmerizing. Only a Russian would even attempt a project like this.
Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow).
Of course, this is a three-year-old film that ended up not getting released in the states again this year. It still rocks.
Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz).
An engrossing flashback to my own school days. I swear "kirtle" isn't spelled like that.
The Triplets of Belleville
Infectious and bizarre, proof that traditional hand-drawn animation need never die.
Peter Jackson's overpraised trilogy-ender to one side, and my guilty-pleasure Terminator 3 to the other, for film, at least, 2003 seemed a quieter year than 2002. The top films overall -- the ones I'm listing, the ones listed elsewhere -- seem less flashy, less broad -- less about color and noise and more about shading and suggestion. The films that most affected me, held me most captivated, were those that peeked behind the curtain -- their wizardry in unmasking the wizard masters of society. They tell stories of looking forward and looking back, of impossible ties, inexcusable abandonments, and inexorable tragedies. They give us visions of the joys and pains of enormous small discoveries.
1. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
A whispered poetic interlude within a neon-lit din, Sofia Coppola's second film pays homage to the ineffable: the enchantment of bared souls, shared spirits, and illlogical connections -- the clarity of sleepless nights and restless days -- and the indelible imprint of fleetingly magical moments. With a wry look at fitting in and feeling out of place, it is a gentle exposition of loneliness and self-discovery. An unlikely couple, a softness beyond sexuality, and a brief encounter of passing perfection with a comical edge. It tickles as it touches the heart, and defers to the last to the intimate detail.
2. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber).
There is a look in the eye of Vermeer's famous portrait that hints at things beneath the surface -- like the teasing iridescence of a milk-white pearl on a girl's bared ear - come hither and stay back in a single stare. Webber's delicately directed adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's imagined story- behind-the-painting takes us to the heart of that stare, the consummation of the bond between artist and subject, through the sinuous maze of playful light and the color-dance of the seer's inner vision. Scarlett Johannson becomes the girl who becomes the image - breathing the painting into life -- in a city made reincarnate by stunningly attentive camerawork and exquisite art direction.
3. The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan).
Mullan's fictionalized exposé of the factual church laundries where penitent and unrepentant girls alike were sent in servitude to cleanse themselves of sin moves us to anger and frustration, to horror and to hatred, to indignation and to tears. It is a treatise on social injustice and religious imposition, on the evils of treating nature as evil, sexuality as crime, and women as the mistresses of men's desires for them. A tale of women abused by women in the service of men, its violence is more softly spoken - a stolen medallion, a shaved head - its retributions more dearly paid. At once feminist and humanist, it takes a stand against controlling masters and complicitous sisters, and takes up cinematic arms against the soulless spirits who would profit from men's fears and ignorance in the name of a god they have invented or remodeled to do their bidding.
4. Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach).
Tracing the passage from innocence to the point of no return, Ken Loach takes as his subject a boy straddling a vast gulf between the child he is and the man he thinks he needs to be - between insistent sweet faith in imagined motherlove and cold concession to unimaginable barrenness of spirit. Martin Compston is effectively understated as the boy and the man both at once, fragile and firm, committing acts of icy deliberateness and emotional abstraction in the hope of a mother's kiss. Told with lightness and humor amid the harsh moments, his story is an unflinching look at what it means to see no way out -- to act within what one knows when one knows so very little - to move intently toward success and to reach it in despair. A coming of age tale at the short end of the stick, it makes you ache for the things you cannot change.
5. The Man on the Train (Patrice Leconte).
With a subtle wordplay in his French title, Leconte follows two men whose well-set tracks cross somewhere in time near the end of their lines. With a spareness of movement, and referentiality both cinematic and literary, a mysterious rider arrives in a dusty mock-western town and into a staid man's world. Perfectly cast, elegantly acted, evocatively filmed and scored, it is a balanced look at life as lived - two-sided and individual, solitary and shared. Both men by now out of time and place, looking back wistfully on what they might have done and who they might have been, and looking forward apprehensively to the final bows they've built to, they stand as symbols of man's own perceived choices - inverse mirrors and psycho-social complements with dual dreams and single possibilities. Their story as told by Leconte is an elegy in filmed couplets -- or a cowboy's walk through a poet's imagination into the setting sun.
5. The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki).
With a subversive glint in his camera's eye and a rock-and-roll beat in his soundtrack, Kaurismäki blends social realism with poetic optimism and takes us along with his subject -- a man beaten to amnesia and left for dead -- on the path to resurrection. The story of "M," as it were, has the rhythm and the pathos of a silent comedy -- unflappable and absurdist with a gut-punch tickle. Unfolding in the abject poverty of a community that dwells on society's tattered and forgotten fringes, it milks each image, each sentiment, relentlessly for both comic and dramatic effect, with sharp and laugh-aloud ludicrous mock-repartee delivered in precision without laughtrack or audience-provoking gesture. It is a romance of eccentricity -- an adult fable that crackles with childlike wonderments.
6. The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy).
From a bird's-eye-view of loneliness among the willfully alone to an insider's glimpse of the reaching heart tearing out from the sequestered soul, the beauty of this film is in its movements -- precise, measured, carefully unfolded rather than explained - and in its contradictions. Like the title itself -- fortuitous, I suspect, in its calling up of conflict between standing still and moving forward (station -- from stare, stand, like stasis -- and agent - from agere, act, lead) -- it points out the emotional oxymoron created from the silent spaces we have chosen and the empty places we need filled. A story in threes rather than twos, it does not look for the easy pairing, but to the unexpected bonds beyond.
|7. Elephant (Gus Van
"He can see no reasons . . . 'cause there are no reasons . . . what reason do you need to be shown?" Starkly filmed, drenched in an almost hypnotic light, Gus Van Sant's abstraction of the Columbine tragedy sidesteps easy narrative for the tension-building ordinariness of an average day propelling itself toward disaster. His title makes his point: his film is about the enormous presence that passes unseen - the elephant in the metaphoric room that no one is talking about. Though not quite as divorced from rationales and explanations as some may argue -- spitballs, video games, easy gun sales and homosexuality all figure in the compendium of possibilities he offers -- the power of his film is not in showing the fires that inspired two young boys to explode their world, but in showing the stifled explosions burning holes inside the classmates that they walked among - the ones they silenced and the ones, no doubt, exploding still.
8. Bend It Like Beckham
Challenging cultural traditions, gender roles, and social expectations, Gurinder Chadha's crowd-pleaser highlights a familiar formula with subversive ideas. A coming-of-age tale that addresses racial and sexist preconceptions without faux politesse or political kowtowing, it never dwells upon political injustices. It crosses boundaries bouncingly, happily progressive, without looking important and without looking back, and it finds exhilaration in the individual pursuing her goals -- beyond the confines tradition or the state may set for her -- beyond the political machinations of the serious social changers. A feminine feminist film, it takes girl power out of the girls-only locker or some girls-vs-boys super match, and shows a girl who wants to do something because it gives her joy, not because boys do it, did it, or won't let her play. It is a glimpse of the next step in social evolution -- beyond anger to exuberance -- moving itself forward with an energy of good will and sure-footedness. A needed kick . . .
|9. Spellbound (Jeffrey
As if in a dream, the quest -- the need -- to spell correctly gains popular momentum. Outside of the sports arena and the drama class, the nailbiting tension and heartrending suspense of competition take form in the geeks' milieu. Not a single hero to root for, but eight -- eight children out of almost 250 contestants -- eight children who memorize dictionaries, struggle at scrabble boards, dream about Greek and Latin roots and irregular plurals, and ache to please their parents -- and eight sets of parents panicked, perplexed, proud, and at their children's mercy. Through Jeff Blitz's lens, the national spelling bee becomes the site of anticipation that gnaws at the belly -- a knife that cuts across backgrounds and histories and culture and wealth -- a paean to every child, and the child in every adult, who asks the right questions and takes the right guesses -- and a hug for every child who stutters, stumbles and frets, step by step, letter by letter -- muscles clenched, tongue bitten, heart half-stopped - and then -- eyes wide open, mouth agape --gets it right ...or gets it wrong.
10. Capturing the Friedmans
Peeking in through the curtains and under the shades, this unforgiving chronicle of a suburban family ripped apart by allegations of sex crimes and social revulsion is captivating in its every detail. First time director Andrew Jarecki starts with the accusations and investigations, and then pulls back the camera to the larger view of human nature -- the nature of people at their most overwrought - ungenerous, unforgiving, unable to see beyond the darkening blotches on their pristeen visions of what life was to be. Working from the facts before us, Jarecki takes sides, but he does not make excuses -- he hints at answers, but gives place to truths unknown. Police bias and social bandwagoning stand side by side with bad lawyering, unmanaged guilt, and broken links between husband and wife, parent and child, each taking their place in the unmaking of a world. It is a sobering, and thought-provoking work that lingers on past its immediate conclusions.
|Honarable mentions: In the Cut (Jane Campion), Lawless
Heart (Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter), School
of Rock (Richard Linklater), In America
(Jim Sheridan), The Housekeeper (Claude Berri), L'Auberge
Espagnole (Cédric Klapisch), Raising
Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett), Pirates of the Caribbean
(Gore Verbinski), Shattered Glass (Billy Ray), Terminator
3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow).
Untracked in 2002: Last year there were two films that I did not list with my top ten, but that have stayed with me throughout this one: Heaven (Tom Tykwer, from Krzysztof Kieslowski) and Read My Lips (Jacques Audiard). Small films with a powerful presence, each an odd sort of love story between oddly matched partners, they should have been given honorable mention . . . A year too late, I'd like to correct that omission.
Talking up the lesser-knowns, sorta:
(Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini).
There's a shot of the actors (Paul Giamatti and Judah Friedlander, sitting in directors' chairs) silently observing the real-life figures they're portraying (Harvey Pekar and Toby Radloff, poking through jelly beans) that ranks as one of the most fascinating I've ever seen.
This film about legendary Korean painter Ohwon is a rare biopic that seizes upon and recreates both the thrill of the artist's life and the brilliance of his art.
City of God
The Scorsese from Ipanema.
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
Yeah, what everybody else said. Also featuring the year's best soundtrack, featuring The Jesus & Mary Chain and the rebirth of Kevin Shields / My Bloody Valentine (makers of "Loveless," the best album of the 1990s).
| The Man on the
Train (Patrice Leconte). The story of a chance camaraderie between
a bank robber and a retired teacher, both in the autumn of their lives,
exchanging wishes about choices and dreams -- learning and remembering and
lamenting the differences between each, the disappearance of each. The ending
is a slight misstep, but the film had me weeping until then.
Spider (David Cronenberg).
"Cronenberg's best" simply isn't adequate praise. An extraordinary trip through the Mobius strip of Ralph Fiennes's mental-patient thoughts. Other films take a psychological condition and bend it to fit the shape of a genre or political message. Or they place the condition on a point along a "sane-insane" spectrum, depriving you of understanding. Cronenberg puts you in Spider's world and allows you to understand it from within. Not at all a thriller, but something more provoking, profound, and unforgettable.
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