As you may have noticed, I will not be done with my Decade in Review until sometime into the new year. Hopefully we'll wrap up shortly after the Oscars; You know how distractingly all-consuming the Oscars can be! I hope you'll stay with it even though the rest of the media will move on any second now. They're always in such a rush. No stopping and smelling of the flowers. I've still got to update that "Actors of the Aughts" project for final compilation/statement. For now, let's move on to 2003. What follows is my original top ten list, based on films released in NYC in 2003. If I have anything new to say that'll be in red after the original text.
Special Mentions: The Cremaster Cycle and Angels in America
Most Underappreciated: Hulk (Ang Lee), In the Cut (Jane Campion), Anything Else (Woody Allen), Charlies Angels: Full Throttle (McG) and Casa De Los Babys (John Sayles)
I stand by all of these but for Anything Else which I don't much care for. I was making lots of excuses for it because I was still hanging on to my fading then favorite writer/director. Now that Woody has recovered some of his lost mojo, I can happily let that one go.
Top Ten Runners Up: The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki), Elephant (Gus Van Sant), The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet), and Yossi & Jagger (Eytan Fox) which, if you don't count Return of the King, is the best homo movie of the year!
10 X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer)
Tacit proof that sequels needn't be creatively dead retreads, inferior duplicates, or worthless blights on the cinemascape. X2 is so assured, exciting, breezy and fun that it is easily twice the film that the original was. Yet, for all of that...for its sheer popcorn enthusiasm, it is deceptively easy to dismiss. Only problem in doing so, though, is that it holds up. Multiple viewings and I'm still not bored. Chalk full of memorable imagery: Nightcrawler's attack, Wolverine's flash memories. Crackling dialogue and campy mutant "coming out" speeches sit comfortably along dead serious pleas for tolerance. Bravura action sequences, Magneto's escape, Wolverine vs. Deathstryke, and of course the attack on the Xavier's School. And that's not to even mention the pleasure of one of the year's best ensembles: Hugh Jackman continues to glow in the spotlight and thrill as Wolverine, that unlikely duo Sir Ian McKellen and Rebecca Romijn Stamos make the year's most deliciously naughty pair, Halle Berry is wisely pushed to the background, and Alan Cumming steps into my favorite X-man's shoes and doesn't disappoint as teleporting blue freak Nightcrawler.
My second or third favorite superhero flick ever. Spider-Man 2 is tops but Superman II is awesome, too. It's always the twos!
09 Peter Pan (P.J. Hogan)
Dec 7th, 2004 marks the the centennial of the first production of J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up and though it may seem shocking to see in print, P.J. Hogan's new film is, I believe, the first major time since that a boy has been cast as the stubborn impish lad. Imagine that! It's the first simple unmistakable sign that director and co-screenwriter P.J. Hogan (Muriel's Wedding) understands the material in a way that others don't, particularly those famed Pan fetishists Steven Spielberg, who dropped the gooey atrocity of Hook on us, and Michael Jackson, who built the Neverland ranch and threatened publicly for years to make his own movie version of the Barrie classic starring: Himself!!! Whatever one can say about Michael Jackson, he was not a boy at the time but a full grown man. No business playing Peter Pan in other words.
So, I found it rather disorienting this Christmas when a faithful rendition of the Barrie work arrived, and most people collectively shrugged. One gets the sense that J.M. Barrie's classic is no longer widely read. That quite possibly and unfortunately, people have replaced the play and book with the watered down Disney animated film as the definitive Pan. (Which is about as accurate a representation as Ariel replacing the original Little Mermaid text.) What a loss. Like the most enduring fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the actual story of Peter Pan is full of difficult truth, rough edges, and adult subtext. They're all here in this enchanting film.
Hogan's new Pan movie boasts the best Wendy performance I can recall (courtesy of the young and obviously talented Rachel Hurd Wood), the nastiest --and therefore most accurate -- Tinkerbell you'll ever see (mimed to fine effect by French hottie Ludivine Sagnier), and terrific cinematography courtesy of Donald McAlpine (Moulin Rouge!). Oh, the cleverness of this production. Perhaps this year's upcoming J.M. Barrie biopic, starring the great Johnny Depp, will remind folks of Pan's classic status, and turn people back to this unduly dismissed film.
Unfortunately the JM Barrie biopic that followed (Finding Neverland) was a dull snoozer. It did nothing for the reputation of this still undervalued family film.
08 The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand)
Though I have yet to see The Decline of the American Empire, writer/director Denys Arcand's sequel to that 80s international hit felt like a family reunion nonetheless. It's not entirely pleasant, of course. Neither are family reunions. As critics have remarked, some of the characters are nearly monstrous in their selfishness, egotism and bitter regret. But this is also why, in the end, the film works. It feels honest. Its cynical undercurrent -liberalism is dying or already dead and these lefties are dinosaurs - is painful, but also arguably true in the global spread of uncompassionate capitalism. But the human face Arcand still locates in the love between Capitalist son and Liberal father thankfully transcends politics. Invasions has an impressive grasp of how political idealogies both power and limit us.
Somehow, briefly loving this movie this movie never convinced me to watch its predecessor and I almost never think of it. If I could redo the list I'd move it out and raise one of the runners up into the top ten. But which?
07 The Company (Robert Altman)
One of the most relaxed intuitive films I can recall seeing. It seems instinctually to be looking at its subject, the world of the Joffrey ballet, from just the right angle at all times. And yet for all this precision it never breaks a sweat. It's smartly lensed by cinematographer Andrew Dunn, gorgeously edited by Geraldine Peroni, and all masterfully guided by that supremely confident auteur Robert Altman, who makes it his own. Who needs a traditional plot when in the hands of a master?
You may have heard that this was Neve Campbell's pet project for some years. Some pet projects are worth the effort. First, she had the good sense to hire Altman, who has always had a way with community as protagonist. And then, bucking star convention, she showed an even more impressive lack of vanity. She slips comfortably into the film's dancing ensemble, showing off her considerable skills while never unbalancing the film with showboating. I suspect it goes without saying but it's easily the best thing she's ever contributed to the cinema or television.
06 Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski)
I know next to nothing about ships and seafaring ways but I do know what an anchor is for. No ship can do without it. Dropped from its holding place within any waterborne structure it will stop its ship from veering dangerously off course by weighing it down. An anchor then, even when employed figuratively, implies the element which keeps any vessel in place. As in "that plot structure really anchored the film by allowing the drama to unfold in unexpected but sturdy ways" or "The actress's intimate and perceptive performance anchored the film to reality -when the plot holes threatened to do it in" or some such...
What Johnny Depp is to Pirates is the polar opposite of an anchor. But, never worry, this ship is still safe. One of the world's most gifted actors seems to be, to borrow from Peter Pan, spreading pixie dust across an entire film. There will be no traditional course for this bloated movie ship. It is soaring now, like some wild-eyed adventurer, up into the heavens. It defies reality and the conventional mediocrity of its origins. One has no idea where it's going --to ruin? to the exalted rare realms of classic adventures like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Adventures of Robin Hood? No matter. The journey is the reward. When you've got the Performance of the Year steering your course, who needs the dead weight of anchors? Wherever this ship is taking you -- go, man, go!
I wish this had been in my Best Picture nominees (the top five). It never gets old. I don't need to ever see either sequel ever again but my love for the original is undiminished. Whenever it's on I end up watching.
05 Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett)
Apart from In America, this is the most warmhearted picture of the year. It glows with the dedication and communal love and effort of its amateur cast (all giving professional level performances) and its debuting writer/director. To call the man in question, Peter Sollett, "one-to-watch" would be an understatement. That 'glow' of which I spoke is also given literal visual form by ace up-and-coming cinematographer Tim Orr (All the Real Girls, George Washington). Vargas is a deeply pleasurable, funny, and humane look at a struggling Dominican family on the Lower East Side and their wannabe Casanova, Victor (Victor Razuk), who spars continually with his religious Grandmother, hilariously played by Altagracia Guzman. See it.
04 thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke)
"Zen Chicken" is this divisive film's most seemingly random bit -- the unhappy makeshift family gathers giggling around a bird that never loses his balance, no matter which way he's tipped or turned. This scene became, as the year progressed and the film grew in my heart, my favorite moment. The film's detractors will tell you that it is too histrionic, unhinged, and immature to qualify for the awards it is intermittently courting. It's not that these claims are false, just that they're misdirected. The ragged hormonal surges of adolescence, the hysteria of teenage whims and social constructions pulse strongly and appropriately, I'd add, (credit to the film's director and co-screenwriter Catherine Hardwicke) through the film. Its jittery, confused and angry moodshifts (embodied by Evan Rachel Wood) are always threatening to topple the whole affair into tabloid sensationalism. And there, in the same overcrowded movie house is the deep fierce reserve of tough maternal love (in the form of Holly Hunter) which could also in lesser hands topple the film in the other direction into After School Special messaging. In the meeting of these two spectacular performances the film transcends both tabloid exploitative "the kids are not all right" indie zeal and After School Special tough love messaging. This film is special. This film has balance. It's a Zen Chicken.
Thirteen deserved more accolades than it got, I'm 100% certain. But I may have gone a wee bit overboard in my love. Still... tis a pity that it was Keisha Castle-Hughes that became the youngest Best Actress nominee ever when Evan Rachel Wood was right there on view, running circles around actresses twice her age.
03 Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
What else is there to say? It's so distinctive and perceptively modulated that the very not-at-all-universal particulars of the situation (i.e. the ennui of a has-been still wealthy movie star and the boredom of a privileged young girl) melt away to get at the universal feeling of dislocation. The perplexing condition of being lost in your own skin is a great movie subject but undoubtedly hard to film. Credit goes to Ms. Coppola herself as writer/ director, the terrific and essential chemistry between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson and Lance Acord the cinematographer, for helping us to see a major metropolis in the same way the characters would be seeing it.
Everyone does want to be found. I imagine a good deal of the love this film has encountered, is that in an artistic sense, Coppola's sophomore effort probably found a lot of unsuspecting audiences members. If you've been previously lost in the multiplex with no one and nothing speaking to you, this could be your film.
02 Kill Bill, Vol. I (Quentin Tarantino)
So potent is this film's movie-movie force (it's tough to imagine a stronger blend of cinematography, editing, musical / structural invention, and overall cinematic chutzpah) that I was briefly tempted to place it in the #1 spot. But then, why punish the year's best film for being only a third of its true self and simultaneously reward half of this motion picture? Didn't make sense. So the number #2 spot it gets.
It's too early to say, with authority, if Kill Bill is all it seems cracked up to be, but I await Volume 2 with great excitement. I suspect we're looking at a subversively violent masterpiece. I don't currently believe that the film is as lacking in morality and self-critique as its enemies do. I suspect the overall circular vengeance motif will cause its anti-heroine much pain in Volume 2. But I'll keep an open mind should it fail to deliver. The final verdict awaits. But regardless, Tarantino really needs to work more. Cinema is in his blood. So much so that he can dump gallons of it onscreen visually and still keep on swinging like it's only a flesh wound. This movie's heart, thanks to Thurman's great range as "The Bride", is still beating furiously despite copious amounts of blood lost.
So... Vol II did not live up to my rather naive dreams about some sort of revenge auto-critique. I must have been confusing vengeance-loving Tarantino with another filmmaker. Er... But I still love Vol I and I'll always cherish the Elle Driver bits in Vol II
01 Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
Gandalf the White is our sage guide throughout the great trilogy of the Lord of the Rings. One of his most famous quotes is "All you have to decide is what to do with the time that's given you" I think it's safe to say that this film's director, producer, writer, and driving force Peter Jackson chose well.
One can quibble with minor bits and pieces of each film. The Fellowship of the Ring was, after all, all beginning, no resolution. The Two Towers had awkward middle structural three-fold problems and The Return of the King is repetitive given the six hours of films we've already seen covering the Middle Earth war. The film's much maligned ending (from the strange not altogether wise choice to alter the Mount Doom finale all the way to the multiple fadeouts) has been sufficiently covered elsewhere.
But why bother with petty quibbling when the whole is this magnificent? Behold the cinema's first great fantasy epic. The film that gets both spectacle and intimacy right. Here is a filmmaker that understands that special effects and CGI are only another tool of filmmaking -not an end point. They're there to advance a narrative, deepen a characterization, and show us the fully realized world of the film. Then consider the cast -- every major role inhabited by an actor totally there and committed to serve the vision. And finally, breathe a final sigh of relief: Behold a genre series that, upon its conclusion, didn't prove itself a massive letdown for its loyal audience.
Peter Jackson "You bow to no one."
And that's that. Jackson's subsequent work has disheartened me but he'll always have this spectacular trilogy and the nearly peerless Heavenly Creatures.
What were your favorites of 2003? Films I didn't mention here that made waves were In America, City of God, Freaky Friday, 21 Grams, Elf, Monster, Something's Gotta Give and a whole school of movies with literal waves or soggy titles like Mystic River, Master and Commander, Whale Rider, Seabiscuit, Finding Nemo and Big Fish.