Our favorite films of 2003

Contributors: Kristen Ashley, Mark Ashley, Michael Buck,
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
Josh Timmermann
Josh Timmermann
1. Ten (Abbas Kiarastomi) .
Radically minimalist and deeply humanistic, Kiarostami's latest career-defining masterwork is shot through a lyrical grace so genuine and unaffected most everything else rings false by comparison.
2. Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhangke). Effortlessly shouldering the emotional weight of the best cinema-verite with a young master's exquisite eye for formal expression, Jia Zhangke deserves a spot near Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang within the ranks of contemporary world cinema's most interesting and inventive visionaries.
3. Spider (David Cronenberg).
Cronenberg's finest and perhaps most personal film to date relies on a fascinating interplay between the Freudian and anti-Freudian; it's a psychological thriller, in the most literal sense, orchestrated as a harrowing chamber drama.
4. The Son (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne).
The Dardenne brothers' allegorically resonant anti-In the Bedroom; a truly cathartic testament to the power of human forgiveness. 5. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood).
One of the grimmest, most gut/heart-wrenching films produced by a Hollywood studio in a very long time, Eastwood's Great American Tragedy is less a variation on Shakespeare or Aeschylus than a powerful political parable about the stupidity in shooting first and asking questions later.
6. In America (Jim Sheridan)
In a year of studio dramas, both good (see #5) and bad (House of Sand and Fog, 2003's worst film), driven by the motors of pessimistic determinism, Jim Sheridan's semi-autobiographical film is a very welcome exception. Genuinely joyous and quietly sad, it surges with infectious positive energy and real magic.
7. Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella).
Both a grandly designed epic of the first order, and a surprisingly strange and moody study of war, at once, ethereal and existential, recalling Malick and even doing him justice.
8. Friday Night (Claire Denis).
The best of "its kind" since Last Tango in Paris. Wait, come to think of it, I like Denis' film better. It's way sexier, and thankfully does not involve nail clippers.
9. The Man without a Past
(Aki Kaurismäki).
Kaurismäki's subtly absurdist deadpan comedy is indelibly poignant while expertly eschewing Hollywood-type sentimentality; sweet but not saccharine; beautifully sustained and frequently hilarious without ever betraying its minimalist mise-en-scene to trumpet its myriad virtues.
10. The Shape of Things (Neil LaBute)
The year's most lamentably underappreciated film is this vicious polemic, one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen about the politics of both art and sex.

Runners-up: Down with Love (Peyton Reed), Stuck on You (Peter and Bobby Farrelly), Big Fish (Tim Burton), Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki), The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan), City of God (Fernando Meirelles), Whale Rider (Niki Caro), Hulk (Ang Lee), Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quention Tarantino), The Flower of Evil (Claude Chabrol), Head of State (Chris Rock)

Performance of the year: Zooey Deschanel, All the Real Girls -- David Gordon Green's sophomore effort has more than its fair share of flaws, but Zooey's performance as the precocious, mercurial Noel is a thing of rare, luminous beauty.

1. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Peter Jackson).
One could argue that I made up my mind about this film long before I saw it. That there was no way I could possibly prefer another film to it in 2003. Well, they would be right. Sort of. Iíve given this a lot of thought. And while I am extremely fond of my number two film of the year, there is something that ROTK has that puts it above any film Iíve seen in the last decade: an incredibly high chill/emotion factor. In other words, it either brought me to tears gave me chills, or both, many times.
2. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
This is a special film. In any other year, it would easily be my favorite. Many films explore the subject of human connection, but few do it so successfully -- deep and profound without being pretentious. It reminds me of Wong Kar-Waiís In the Mood For Love, and I havenít read much into this, but it seems Coppola was indeed inspired by that film (the words we cannot hear between the sublime Bill Murray and Johansson at the end, for example). Perhaps itís just the point Iím at in my life, but I identified strongly with both characters. Shortly after seeing it I had an epiphany about love and connections. Whenever cinema intersects so profoundly with my own life, I canít help but feel a bit awed.
3. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir).
Often with Russell Crowe, I feel like Iím watching him acting, and Iím unable to really get caught up in the character. With Capt. Jack Aubrey I was still aware of the acting, but itís as if he was Aubrey in another life and itís okay. This is what star power in a film should be (pay attention, Tom Cruise). Even better, he shares the screen splendidly with the rest of this game cast, in particular Paul Bettany. Whether acting together or playing their duets together, the two make beautiful music when theyíre onscreen. Bettany has been stealing scenes since A Knightís Tale, but what makes him so good here isnít that he takes the film from Crowe, but that they masterfully steer it together.
4. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini).
A film like American Splendor puts up a wall, and viewers either feel like theyíre inside sharing an intimate experience with the characters (in this case both the real versions and the performed ones), or they feel like theyíre on the outside looking in, unable to really access the story. Even though I didnít know who Harvey Pekar was before seeing this, I was glad to discover him, and this unique approach to filmmaking worked for me. Pekar and his vision are warped with the mundane of every day life. It seems very simple on the surface, but hits in unexpected ways. I was moved by its life-kinda-sucks-yet-itís-still sorta-beautiful viewpoint.
5. Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff).
Bad Santa is all about tone. In this case a bitter, painfully funny tone. Toward the end, the film teases the audience with getting too sentimental, and then too dark. But itís a brilliant comedy because it manages to straddle the line and remain decidedly unsentimental without being heartless. Billy Bob Thornton is at his most pathetic. Heís a piss-drunk, safe-cracking, kid-hating Santa with a heart of gold. Well, maybe not quite gold. I loved him. But not as much as I loved Brett Kelly as "Thurman Merman," who is pretty much the oddball outsider kid antidote for overly sweet or precocious child actors.
6. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski).
Okay, let me just say for the record that Orlando Bloom as Legolas is damn pretty. But as Will Turner, the "traditional" hero of Pirates, heís pretty and handsome. Okay, heís HOT. And then thereís Johnny Depp. As the "non-traditional" hero of the film, heís also swoon-worthy (though in a weird eyeliner-wearing, fake English accent blokey pirate sort of way). He definitely puts a bit of swish in his swashbuckling. This one is way too clever for a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but I guess you never know.
7. In America (Jim Sheridan).
This film had me from the get-go because of those two wonderful performances from sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger. They were so natural, on a personal note, really reminding me of my nieces. In America is the type of story, especially given its personal roots, that could have been sappy and unbearable in the hands of a less gifted filmmaker. But with Jim Sheridanís touch it gives off a warm, sad glow.
8. Elf (Jon Favreau).
In an alternate universe, Will Ferrell would be up for Best Actor for his perfect embodiment of a certain type of elfdom. Although the film does get a bit too sweet at the end, it's just so charming and funny. And its also very New York City, where one can find the Worldís Best Cup of CoffeeÖ on every block.
9. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino).
A film reviled by some and loved by others. Iíd say Iím somewhere in the middle. The energy and chutzpah of Kill Bill are what makes it more than just a rundown of Quentin Tarntinoís film-geek dreams. Whatever you think of this first volume, it certainly has plenty of blood pumping through itóand out of it. In some ways a brilliant mess that may or may not improve once Vol. 2 comes out this year.
10. Big Fish (Tim Burton). A bit too whimsical for some, itís the ending of Big Fish that won me over. It blends the real with the surreal in a poetic way. To me, itís a lovely homage to the art of storytelling.
Greg Sorenson
A lot of films have been talked up elsewhere already, so I only have comments on a few:
Top 5:
1. Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola).
2. Spellbound
(Jeffrey Blitz).
One of three great chronicles of obsession (see below for more), and the most suspenseful film of 2003.
3. American Splendor
(Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini)
4. Capturing the Friedmans
(Andrew Jarecki).
5. Bubba Ho-Tep (Don Coscarelli).
Aged Elvis and a black JFK fight a mummy. What business did this have being as sweet and good-natured as it was?
Honorable mention (in alpha order):
Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff).
Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha).
(Angela Christlieb & Stephen Kijak)
Obsession film #2, this one trailing five New Yorkers who've built their lives around seeing as many films as possible. At the very least, I'm grateful to this film for putting a friend's life in perspective.
Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns)
(AJ Schnack).
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino).

Koi...Mil Gaya (Rakesh Roshan).
You'd think Bubba Ho-Tep or Kill Bill would be the wildest genre pastiche in 2003, but that honor goes to this Bollywood import; a strange mishmash of Flowers for Algernon, E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, starring a leading man with two thumbs on one hand and given the traditional three-hour musical treatment. Why Preity Zinta isn't a superstar on these shores, I'll never know.
Stone Reader (Mark Moskowitz).
Obsession film #3. The fate of Dow Mossman is not as interesting as the film's meditations on becoming an evangelist for a book (or a thing), and the nature of publishing's one-hit wonders. Too bad it never made me the least bit interested in reading The Stones of Summer.
The Triplets of Belleville
(Sylvain Chomet).
Twilight Samurai (Yoji Yamada)
An entry in the Chicago Film Festival, I hope this Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee gets a wider release in 2004. In a way, it's the mirror-image of Ikiru, in which a man finds his fulfilment, but in the menial, the family.
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle).

Christopher Campbell
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green).
The most subtly romantic film since Badlands. Green gives his characters such respect and passion that where they lead, even if it isnít together, feels so natural that its hard to imagine their actions and dialogue were written. He takes other influences, notably photographic, from Terrence Malick as well, and as long as the elder filmmaker is welcome to the comparisons (he co-produced Greenís next film) and seems to make films of his own so infrequently, a follower is entirely agreeable. If the young director grows from and out of it well, we have much to look forward to.
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini)
So clever that it surpasses the point of being too clever and circles back around to achieve brilliance. Just when the movie gets overly caricatured, things are authenticated with the utmost wit and inventiveness. Then when you believe more than you need to, a very fake David Letterman arrives to break things up a little. Part comic book adaptation, biopic, documentary and cartoon, no other misanthrope has been as enjoyable a subject as Harvey Pekar.
Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki).
Not an enjoyable documentary to watch. A project which began as the story of New York's favorite birthday clown became a journey into the shadows of one Long Island family. You bear witness, between interviews set up to provide credible emotion and home video footage so raw it seems staged, to a thrilling investigation which leaves you with more questions than you start out with.
City of God (Fernando Meirelles).
This is the film that surprised me the most in 2003. I loved it so much that I put the poster up on my wall. I convinced nearly every person I know to see it and all the recommendations were graciously appreciated. Influence is an amazing thing. What many of us expected to be a slow tragedy about the slums of Rio was actually the most engrossing film of the year. Combining a perfect mix of realistic art and stylish entertainment, no other picture altogether amused, scared, stunned, delighted and saddened me more.
Elephant (Gus Van Sant).
Very engaging, despite the fact that we're mostly watching the backs of people as they walk through high school hallways. I saw it months ago and still can't decide whether it is effective or not. I put it on my "best of " list because I think it could be one of the "worst of." That indecision is reason enough for me to appreciate its existence.
Girl With a Pearl Earring (Peter Webber).
This could have put me right to sleep. Instead, the beauty of Eduardo Serra's photography and the mesmerizing facial expression and body language kept me immersed with quiet resonance. Few other films this year exhibited a style so fitting to its subject.
Nowhere in Africa (Caroline Link).
A near-perfect film. It may not feature the adorable Bolger sisters, but this tale of adaptation and survival in one family's immigration to a new world never holds back anything the way Jim Sheridan's In America does. Link has a rare respect and accordance for her audience, delivering a simple, gimmick-free cinematic experience.
The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy).
A film filled with so much charm I couldn't help falling in love. Three characters discover the benefit of affinity, and three actors display the beauty of rehearsal and collaboration. Forget Oscars, the experience was probably award enough for everyone involved.
The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet).
This is one cinematic treat. Though the animated picture proves that dialogue is still not a necessity in film, the wonderful music keeps us thankful for the invention of soundtrack.
Kristen Ashley
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (McG).
Hilariously over-the-top, it's a movie with an obviously too-subtle message that goes beyond such phrases as "Girl Power." We women can be good and bad, gorgeous and silly, kick ass and take names and still call our father "Daddy," brainy and blundering and we make mistakes and move on. Fuck yeah!
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
(Donald Petrie).
Proof that Kate Hudson's on-screen charm wasn't a fluke. This was damn funny and sweet, a definite rom-com winner.}
The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
(Peter Jackson).
Even though I have to admit to being a teeny, tiny bit bored in the beginning, it certainly made up for it through the middle and end. Although not as spectacular as the first, it was a long way from a disappointment.
Peter Pan (P.J. Hogan).
This could be my favorite of the year, but that may only be because it was the one I saw most recently. Visually stunning with very good performances by Rachel Wood-Hurd as Wendy and especially Jason Isaacs as Hook...this movie is definitely a fairy tale story come to life.
Pirates of the Caribbean:
The Curse of the Black Pearl
(Gore Verbinski).
If you would have asked me last year at this time what I would have guessed would be the joke movie of the year, I would have picked this (rather than the Matrix flix). What a pleasant surprise for this adventure to be scary, hilarious, romantic and nostalgic. I'm beginning to think Johnny Depp can do anything. Shanghai Knights
(David Dobkin).
Color me surprised that this sequel would be enjoyable at all, much less arguably better than the first. It expanded and improved on everything that made the first one work. I'm actually looking forward to a third!
X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer). Well, I guess one can say it one more time...Brian Singer said he was going for an Empire Strikes Back, and he delivered. This movie was darker, richer and far better than the first, and the first was great.
Michael Buck
I was suffering from cinema burnout for most of the last calendar year, so call it My Year of Viewing Limitedly.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson).
It is hard to know where to rank what is essentially one-third of a multi-year film, in our system geared to annual review. Happily, this film would have been among a handful of films at the top of this year's class, anyway. Recognition of the sheer accomplishment of the film trilogy as a whole, and as a singularly brave and memorable undertaking in film history, propels this to the top of the list.
2. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino).
Tarantino returns with a moonward howl. It may help to have familiarity with the "chopsocky" genre that he's riffing on here, but even failing that, this film has energy, enthusiasm, and style bursting out of every frame. Uma Thurmann is finally given, literally, a kickass role, and she knocks it out of the park. Give in to the director's impish and gleefully inappropriate idea of fun, and you'll be hard pressed to wipe a grin from your face for the entire grisly running time.
3. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
What is a gentle, meandering muse on being lost in more than one way, is raised to another level by great performances from Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, and by a final scene that perfectly caps the previous ninety minutes, and imprints a lasting emotional moment on the viewer.
4. In America (Jim Sheridan)
Sheridan's remembrance of his entrance to 1980s America is at once elegiac of a life left behind and hopeful about a new future. Terrific supporting turns from the Bolger sisters, as the two daughters through whose eyes the story is often seen, and from Djimon Hounsou as a dying artist who becomes an unlikely part of the family, give counterweight to the restrained performances from the leads, Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine. In America is a deeply touching story of true family.
5. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (George Clooney).
Another offbeat project involving Charlie Kaufman, this film's premise alone, the idea that TV schlockmeister Chuck Barris was also a covert CIA hitman, deserves kudos. Sam Rockwell somehow got inside Barris' skin for his performance, and Clooney proved more than up to the task as first-time director.
6. Elephant (Gus Van Sant).
This quiet, almost dreamy film looks obliquely at the Columbine High School massacre. The camera sees the same moments from different points of view, and shows that differently perceived realities exist, mutually unknown, side by side. It's a different view of this topic, that is usually taken on in more documentary terms. Elephant open-endedly examines alienation from a less strategic, and more aloof place.
7. Monster (Patty Jenkins).
Charlize Theron's transformative performance makes this biopic about executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos riveting from start to finish. The film invites you to sympathize and recoil in horror in equal measure. At once frightening, empathetic, and sad, Theron's may be a performance for the ages.
8. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood).
This story of three men, grown distant from their childhood friendship, tells of pain and guilt that won't die, and reminds us of the crime and violence that lives in America, often just outside our view. It is hindered by a couple of poorly considered sequences at the film's end, but powerful performances from Sean Penn and Tim Robbins keep the film in one's mind long after having seen it.
9. 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu).
The non-linear structure of 21 Grams is mildly off-putting for the first 30 minutes, but sticking with it rewards the viewer with a story of lives interwoven and interchanged. Great performances from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro never intrude on the underlying story that reminds us that we do not live, each of us, in our own vacuum.
10. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle).
This slightly revisioned zombie flick (the monsters aren't risen from the grave, but instead are walking disease bombs) pulls no punches in its low-budget depiction of a desperate, survivalist environment. The aura of dread created by the situation itself is matched by that created by human behavior in a no-rules situation.
Lisa Larkin
1. The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
(Peter Jackson).
As with the first film, and especially the second, I do have issues with Peter Jackson's final chapter of the Lord of the Rings saga. But you have to take the bitter with the sweet, and I still believe that no other director could have done so well by Tolkien. The battle sequences are much more effective here than the interminable Helm's Deep siege in The Two Towers. And characters who have had little to do in the earlier films finally get their moment to shine, notably Pippin Took. Hopefully PJ will redress my problems with Return of the King in the extended cut, but I'll never be on board with all the Arwen melodrama in the last two films. Note to PJ: more Eowyn, less Arwen.
2. Peter Pan
(P. J. Hogan).
I am disheartened by the poor business this film is doing. It's a family film based on a classic story that is actually quite faithful to the source material without being slavish about it (Harry Potter, anyone?). The interesting thing is just how dark that story is. Peter is no sweet child, he's a wild thing and a bit dangerous. He is also a tragic figure: the boy refuses to grow up may have fun all day with adventure and games, but he'll always be alone. Critics tagged this film as too sensual for children, which is absurd. The sexual tension is there in Barrie's original story, it's just been sanitized for our protection in every other adaptation.
3. The Station Agent (Thomas McCarthy).
A sweet indy film about a dwarf named Fin (Peter Dinklage) who inherits a train depot in rural New Jersey. After years of unwanted attention due to his stature, he just wants to be left alone, but hot dog vendor Bobby Cannavale is determined to be his new best friend. Patricia Clarkson plays a local artist who is also drawn to Fin. A real charmer, with winning performances by all.
4. 28 Days Later... (Danny Boyle).
Derivative it may be, but who cares when it's done so well? 28 Days Later is an apocalyptic thriller about a virus that turns people into homicidal maniacs within seconds of exposure. After most of London has been infected, a band of survivors head out to the country hoping to find a safe place to start over. But the infected are not the only danger. It's a visceral zombie horror flick, with eerie shots of empty London streets that reminded me of the old post-apocalypse flick The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.
5. Pirates of the Caribbean:
The Curse of the Black Pearl
(Gore Verbinski)
Yes, it's a Jerry Bruckheimer production based on a theme park ride. But it's surprisingly entertaining. Johnny Depp is an actor who usually annoys the hell out of me, but if ever there were a film in which his fey presence was required, this is it. A bit overlong, but a lot of fun.
6. Seabiscuit (Gary Ross).
When I first saw this, I was vaguely disappointed because I had just seen the PBS documentary on Seabiscuit and several critical events were missing from the film. But I saw it again recently on DVD and appreciated the film more the second time. It truly is an inspiring story about a group of misfits who get a second chance to prove their worth. Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Tobey Maguire all turn in stellar performances.
X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer).
Bigger budget than the first film, and Halle Berry is less awful this time around, though Cyclops is as much of a drag as ever. Magneto and Mystique are back, but the real villain is human: the mutant-hating Stryker (Brian Cox) whose goal is to destroy all mutants everywhere. Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) makes his X-Men debut. Better than the first film, and it's always good to see Hugh Jackman in something other than the gawdawful rom-coms he's been doing since he hit Hollywood.
Finding Nemo
(Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich)
Finding Nemo isn't at the top of my favorite Pixar films list, but even an average Pixar film is 10 times better than the average so-called family film. And 100 better than something as odious as The Cat in the Hat.. Which I haven't seen, so my calling it odious is based entirely on hearsay. So there.
Mark Sells
10. Under the Tuscan Sun (Audrey Wells).
A light, refreshing journey of self-discovery in the Italian countryside. Based on the best selling novel by Frances Mayes, the film is beautiful in scenery and charming for all the right reasons. Portraying Mayes herself, Diane Lane is wonderful and an absolute joy to watch.
9. The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick).
Tom Cruise is turning Japanese in this fictional adventure about global and personal change. But there is more at stake than simply watching Mr. Hollywood transform into a samurai. Ken Watanabe turns in an award winning performance, and the camera work by well-known cinematographer John Toll is bold and beautiful.
8. American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini).
One of the best films derived from comic books. This one follows the misadventures of everyday hero Harvey Pekar, and the tribulations of his ordinary life. With great performances from Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, a unique presentation, and gloomy yet spriteful sarcasm, this is one of the year's best alternatives.
7. Shattered Glass (Billy Ray).
Thought provoking, entertaining, and controversial. I haven't seen a journalistic film look this good since 1976's All the President's Men. Based on the case of Stephen Glass, a journalist who passed off fictional stories as news, the film stars Hayden Christensen as Glass; but more importantly, it has a phenomenal performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Lane, the editor who confronts Glass about his misdeeds.
6. The Man on the Train (Patrice Leconte).
My favorite foreign language film of the year. It relays the story of two different men, one a criminal and one a professor, each wanting to be more like the other. Great script, great dialogue, and great acting. Johnny Hallyday stars with Jean Rochefort, one of France's most celebrated actors.
5. House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman).
"Things are not as they appear" in Russian director Perelman's adaptation of the best selling Andre Dubus novel about a two unlikely strangers at odds over a house: one a former alcoholic and drug addict, and the other an Iranian immigrant. You'll also find some of the best performances of the year on display from Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley.
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson).
The grand finale of one of the greatest epics ever made. Peter Jackson, along with cast and crew, deliver an extravagantly dynamic and sophisticated looking film, capturing the essence of J.R.R. Tolkien's last chapter. Keep in mind, this is not a traditional film in the sense of being a self-contained story: it must be viewed after The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.
3. Whale Rider (Niki Caro).
Call it a diamond in the rough. This film is bound to get overlooked or forgotten. And that's a shame, because it is truly one of the best and original films of the year. Exploring the traditions of the Maori tribe, it's a coming-of-age story about a young girl who is destined to become the leader of her people, but must first overcome adversity from those who oppose her role in society.
2. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola).
A simple and highly original story about loneliness and isolation in a foreign land, and the discovery of important, inspiring friendships. With a super, understated performance from Bill Murray, this film may disappoint long time SNL fans. However, it is one of the few films this past year to have a completely unique voice, thanks in large part to director/writer Coppola.
1. In America (Jim Sheridan).
There's something utterly touching about childhood innocence. It can turn even the most dismal situations into something positive and it can also bring grown adults to tears with a simple perspective on life. Such is the emotion evoked in Jim Sheridan's latest story about an Irish immigrant family coming to America in search of a better life following the death of their son. Beautifully inspiring and well acted, this film demonstrates that there is still magic to be found in the art of movie making.
Kevin Lee
1. Dogville (Lars von Trier).
A chalk drawing sets the stage for the life and bloody death of Smalltown USA, starring Nicole Kidman (in her best performance to date) as sacrificial whore turned avenging angel. Too much has been written on this film already, some of it quite pointed, a good deal of it coming off as supercilious reaction to Lars Von Trier's own hype; certainly more of the same will be said upon its US release in March. But I found this film to be immensely attentive to its own ostensibly manipulative design, so that every interaction was imbued with a meditative quality unprecedented in von Trier's films, operating on different levels: contending political and cultural ideologies (personal, community and national), numerous not-so-superficial Biblical references, the persona of each actor as well as that of the director subjected to scrutiny, and a surpreme awareness of its own powers of storytelling, as well as the moral implications of such power. This is the one movie above all others in 2003 that made movies a dangerous world to inhabit. I absolutely cherished it.
2. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki). No other new film last year got me talking with my friends as much as this one. A Long Island family is torn apart when its father is arrested for child pornography and allegedly molesting children -- accusations which may or may not be the product of neighborhood hysteria with children being goaded to provide dubious testimony. While home videos made at the time of the trial provide the viewer with ample visual evidence of the "truth" behind this family in crisis, that conscious act of videotaping itself complicates one's ability to perceive what is real and what is being consciously presented. It's a film whose topic -- the representation of truth -- is so fathomless, it threatens to overrun first-time director Andrew Jarecki, and yet he does an astounding job weaving this unruly crisis into a streamlined narrative (albeit in a slick way, but even the slickness provides an ironic counterpoint to the film's unyielding non-resolutions). Watching this movie was a chastening experience for this film lover, showing how damaging and nightmarish the obsession of capturing life on film can be.

3. Blissfully Yours
(Apichatpong Weerasethakul).
From Thailand, Weerasethakul's gorgeously gentle feature, about three people who manage a temporary reprieve from their daily cares to go on a mountainside picnic, generously allowed me to spend time with these characters without pushing a story; just by being with them I absorbed their personalities and desires and drank in their humanity. In its own unassuming way, the film pushes headlong against several boundaries in contemporary cinema: documentary vs. fiction (Kiarostami), pornography vs. art (Breillat), mundane vs. sublime (Tsai). Few films have seemed more receptive to letting the beauty of the everyday speak for itself.
4. Elephant (Gus Van Sant).
Critics of Elephant regarded it as a stylistic exercise too evasive in its meaning for its own good; Derek Lam offered a memorable tagline: "an unhappy menage-a-trois between Abercrombie, Fitch and Bela Tarr". For me, it stands as the one teen movie in the history of teen movies that gets how so much of what defines the high school experience is found in what it feels like to walk down a high school hallway during recess. Here is a film that understands that both movie storytelling and the experience of life itself are matters of perspective, and seeks to frame one seemingly inconsequential moment of high school life in a series of shifting perspectives among several students, captured in long winding steadicam shots that are beautiful to behold, right before this moment explodes into inconceivable horror. I loved this film because it makes the audience ask questions about what it is seeing and how it is being presented for them to see it -- even moments that appear at first to give rhetorical explanations as to individual motives, upon reflection become open-ended provocations that force the viewer to question what real explanations lie behind the most unthinkable acts.

5. The Fog of War (Errol Morris).
The fallacy of perception is one of numerous lessons from Morris' masterfully manipulated interview with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Ever since A Brief History of Time (or perhaps even earlier with The Thin Blue Line), Morris' films have explored how men attempt to impose a sense of order on their worlds, a theme reflected in Morris' self-conscoiusly stylized brand of "documentary." Morris uses a self-designed camera that allows both him and the camera to make eye contact with his subject during filming; yet he frames McNamara at different positions and repeatedly uses jump cuts to disrupt the mellifluous flow of McNamara's charismatic delivery. Despite McNamara's conveyance of great experience and attendant wisdom, the film doesn't exonerate him for what he has done, nor provide a clear conclusion as to what is the right and moral thing to do in times of war, putting the audience in the uncomfortable but necessary position of having to make their own assessment of this man and his views of how we should learn from our collective history in order to apply them to the crises of the present.
6. (tie)
Divine Intervention (Elia Suleiman).
Suleiman's deeply personal, aloof but refreshing comic meditation on Palestinian life under Israeli occupation has a fragmented, episodic structure that may baffle many viewers, but somehow I found it to be quite suitable to the state of living it is trying to reflect: half-concealed, half-unresolved, with moments of inexplicable violence and unexpected beauty. There are plenty of laughs in this movie, but they are born of a world faced with terror and absurdity on a daily basis.
7. (tie)
Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako).
This ravishing feature about the multifaceted denizens of a Mauritanian port city was one the most beautiful portrayals of a multicultural city I've seen, at once languid in its daily rhythms, yet in constant cultural flux. The film puts a lot of confidence in the innate specialness of its characters, and it's a risk that pays off -- you're not so much following a story as tracing a cavalcade of lives moving poetically from one encounter to the next. Count this as a major addition to the undervalued canon of African cinema. Both my #s 6 and 7 offer an "environmental" experience of cinema, one you don't so much watch for its narrative as to absorb its lived-in rhythms and sense of community.
8. (tie)
Raja (Jacques Doillon).
Doillon's intelligently nutty post-colonial farce involves a rich Frenchman in Morocco who invites local girls to work on his yard, only to become smitten by one of them. Numerous questions are raised as to how the Frenchman and the Moroccan girl may be using each other, and whether genuine emotions have any part in the negotiation of their relationship, as well as how their affair affects various contingent parties. A comedy that turns into a tragedy borne of collective intentions: good, bad and ugly.
9. (tie)
Seafood (Zhu Wen).
Zhu Wen, novelist-turned-director, issued perhaps the most transgressive Chinese film I've ever seen, about a prostitute who goes to a seaside hotel to kill herself, but is noticed by an affable police officer who tries to save her from her own morbid thoughts, with rape being part of the rehabilitation. I suppose one could read this scenario allegorically as the relationship between underprivileged Chinese people and their government; I was taken in more by how the story and the characters seemed to reinvent themselves from scene to scene. Both my #s 8 and 9 elicited a live-wire spark through intuitive performances and a refusal to rest on narrative convention, qualities that are rare for movies of any age.
10. Down With Love (Peyton Reed).
The 50s retroheads who flocked to Far From Heaven last year apparently couldn't be bothered to embrace a film that had a far greater sense of joy and liveliness regarding its own unabashed nostalgia -- was it all just a fashionable trend, people? While the lukewarm re-enactment of familiar gender and race grievances in Far From Heaven left me underwhelmed, Peyton Reed's film, for all its nostalgia, manages to hit squarely upon a conundrum that still preoccupies working women roaming in a world of seemingly conflicting desires. (After all, if this movie's worldview is as outmoded as some critics claim, then why is Sex and the City such a hit?) The eye-popping production design and the hilarious script by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake are worthy of the period and films being paid tribute, but most impressive are Reed's inventive use of montage and split-screens (which contribute to one of the most hilarious phone sex scenes ever filmed).

Favorite performances: Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean; Robert McNamara, The Fog of War; Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider; Oksana Akinshina, Lilya 4-Ever; Sol Kyung-gu, Oasis; Tim Robbins, Mystic River; Miranda Richardson, Spider; Kati Outinen, The Man Without a Past; The Friedman family, Capturing the Friedmans; The ensembles of Dogville and Raja.

Memorable moments from the New York Film Festival:
Hearing a packed audience of Americans cheer at the end of Dogville.
Seeing a security guard push aside Naomi Watts to make way for Susan Sarandon at the screening of Mystic River.
Tsai Ming Liang's awkward post-screening exhortation for people to buy shares or sell tickets for Goodbye Dragon Inn. With his shaved head and characteristically charismatic, tranquil demeanor, was he parodying a Buddhist sage stumping for temple donations? I sure hope it was just that...

©2004 CineScene
For Chris Dashiell's 2003 wrap-up, click here.