The year’s cinematic output had everything to do with the complex cultural climate. Fearing mortality, yearning for connection, and lusting for vengeance appeared again and again in movies, whether comedies, action flicks, or seemingly serious year-end sagas. Following is a list of the year’s films that most notably resist or scrutinize these notions, in alphabetical order:
21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
The director’s first U.S. feature is laced through with daunting metaphors and philosophical meanderings, fragments so precisely chaotic that they resemble mathematics. At first look, the contrivance is overbearing, but the film repays reviewing, and not only for the exceptional performances (see Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Toro, and Melissa Leo especially). Trying to make sense of faith, violence, addiction, and desire, the characters connect only in naïve efforts to control their situations. Though their loss is perpetual—we’re all “in death’s waiting room”—they hope against odds, making the film perversely optimistic, for all its already notorious pains.
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle)
Here’s a timely notion: the end of civilization is sparked by rage, weaponized. Grim and giddy at the same time, Danny Boyle’s zombie-ish movie takes aim at popular apathy and military righteousness as much as scientific ambition. Surely not a new idea, but speeded up and updated, this reiteration of Night of the Living Dead meets The Crazies is so light on its scuttling feet that it makes the fear seem immediate, again.
City of God (Cidade de Deus) (Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund)
Slick and kinetic, this Brazilian film rethinks gangster and coming-of-age conventions. Its narrator a homeless kid turned photographer, it frames startling violence with equal parts mourning, terror, and familiarity. Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) is the resident monster, dark and “ugly” in a way that reproduces and exposes the racism of the titular “city” that produces him.
The Dancer Upstairs (John Malkovich)
Focused on the painstakingly self-reflective Rejas (Javier Bardem, whose performances here and in Mondays in the Sun are heartbreakingly restrained), Malkovich’s directorial debut resists standard resolution. Detective Rejas remains haunted by his past and present, aware that he can’t save the world but unwilling to stop. Watching his young daughter’s ballet performance at film’s end, his sad eyes reveal all and not enough. He’s still preparing, endlessly patient.
Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears)
The title refers to many “things,” simultaneously dirty and pretty. Among these are the bodies always at stake. Selling and buying, using and abusing bodies—in parts, in sex acts, in wretched and depressing labor—is the basis of capitalism. Most effectively, of course, bodies here are full of secrets and significance. As the cab driver/hotel clerk played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (in a gorgeous performance), the “invisible people,” who make possible daily urban existence—restaurant meals, hotel stays, rides across town—float to the seeming surface of Frears’ oddly elegant, low-key, politically charged melodrama.
Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant redeems himself with Elephant and Gerry (ookily shimmery until its boggy end). The Palme d’Or winner is less daring but more consistently enthralling than Gerry: its hovering camera and repeated scenes linger on cryptic, luscious details of high school kids’ lives, as if these offer clues as to their doubts, feelings of abandonment, or necessary compromises. As always, the filmmaker is attentive to the kids’ pretty bodies and faces, but even those who are less than luminous in a conventional sense have time here to reveal their briefly lived depths.
In This World (Michael Winterbottom)
Alternately lyrical and severe, Winterbottom’s ambitious, flawed film follows the orphaned Jamal and his companion as they travel from Afghanistan to London. The hardships of this passage hardly need be underlined, though the digital video ensures you don’t miss its close quarters and fearfulness. Though occasionally overwrought or elusive, the film turns stunning when the refugees take off onto a pitch black terrain. The camera seems unable to make sense of what it’s shooting, space and time seem to collapse, and for a moment, the film seems a mere gesture toward simultaneous hope and ruin.
Flip sides of the same theoretic:
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
Irréversible (Gaspar Noé)
Convulsive and frenetic, QT’s fourth film is a paean to Uma Thurman’s exquisite face, vulnerable body, and crooked feet, as well as, more generally, the wondrous and resolute resilience of girls. Worth mentioning for its utter opposition to this genre fanatic’s wet-dreamy spasm, Noé‘s film—part gimmick and part horror (and not a film I’m inclined to see again anytime soon)—proposes a fix for the “Western syndrome.” That is, it makes you pay for even thinking that pleasures might be had from watching violence on screen.
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
The film begins with its most perfect, inscrutable image: Charlotte’s (Scarlett Johansson) pink panties. But the film’s real mystery is the site of loss, metaphorical but also literal. Japan—Japanese culture and people—recede from Charlotte and Bob (Bill Murray) in ways they can’t begin to comprehend. Indeed, the impression left by Charlie Brown’s (Fumihiro Hayashi) infinite patience is indelible. By the end, the white folks form their own sorts of still lives. If read as a love story, the film seems solipsistic, insensitive to Japanese specifics; if understood as an exploration of willful, conditioned, and even unintentional poor reading (translating) by its U.S. characters and their self-involved culture, it’s both less and more disturbing.
Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett)
Alongside a raft of inspiring first time features—including Eric Byler’s haunting Charlotte Sometimes, Tom McCarthy’s subtle The Station Agent, and Catherine Hardwicke’s moving Thirteen—Peter Sollett’s movie shows remarkable poise. In a memorably simple sequence, 16-year-old Victor Rasuk, eager to impress, buys Judy Marte a “Homies” action figure (the one that pops out of the machine happens to be in a wheelchair). She takes it home and places it thoughtfully on her dresser, the camera hovering near her delicately pensive face. This brief, telling moment opens up a hopeful possibility: movies can make meaning without repeating ideas or celebrating vengeance.
2003 also boasts an unusual number of impressive documentaries. Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Jennifer Dworkin’s Love Diane, Steve James’ Stevie, Lauren Lazin’s Tupac: Resurrection, and José Padilha’s Bus 174 all offer striking, very different portraits of people surviving (or not, in the cases of Tupac and young Brazilian bus hijacker Sandro do Nascimento) extraordinary circumstances. That said, Errol Morris’ The Fog of War may be 2003’s most important political and moral assessment. Robert Strange McNamara’s recollections, phone calls, and interview slivers make for mesmerizing, often alarming subject matter. Drawing insidious connections between academic excellence, marketing cars, and economizing military operations, the movie leaves no doubt how aggression and arrogance come together to make war.
And, special gratitude for Johnny Depp, who brought wholly different sorts of beauty to each of three movies this year: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s documentary of the Terry Gilliam movie that never was, Lost in La Mancha; Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean; and Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time in Mexico. All that, and he explained his move to France as a desire to raise his children safely and sensibly: “America is dumb. It’s like a dumb puppy that has big teeth that can bite and hurt you, aggressive.”