In a year of blockbuster sequels, self-important prestige pics, and uninspired indies, the real film finds were few and far between. Here are the unexpected delights of 2003.
1. Gerry (Gus Van Sant)
After the Good Will Hunting, Psycho, Finding Forrester triple-strike, there seemed little hope that Van Sant would make a risky, interesting film again. But then he made Gerry, the most astonishingly abstract, gorgeously formal American feature I can remember, and not even Matt Damon and an Affleck (Casey) could louse it up. Shot in long takes with almost no dialogue and a minimal plot (two guys named Gerry get lost in the desert), Gerry is most striking in its duration shots of the Gerrys walking—as their heads bob in and out of sync in an tightly framed close-up and as they hobble as silhouettes at dawn in a lunar-esque landscape.
2. Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz)
You wouldn’t think a documentary about the National Spelling Bee would be much fun. And, considering it’s about children, it doesn’t seem likely that Spellbound would avoid sentimentality. So it’s all the more triumphant that not only is Blitz’s documentary the most tense suspense film of the year, but it strategically presents young competitors and their families from varied class, geographical, and ethic background across the country, in effect presenting a sociological cross-section of the United States and an observational exposé of high-pressure domestic dynamics.
3. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
As an anti-Tarantino cinephile, I expected to hate Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Instead, I didn’t even eat my candy because I didn’t want to look down from the screen for a second. A film in which style is substance, Kill Bill offers intertextual pleasures aplenty, but the real impact—and pain—comes in the film’s violence, enacted through and upon Uma Thurman’s body. The film peaks a bit too early—first with the anime backstory for O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), then with the stunning, frightening fight between The Bride (Thurman) and the mace-whipping GoGo Yabari (Chiaki Kuriyama). But as pure cinematic sensory overload, Kill Bill is amazing.
4. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)
The biggest blockbuster of the year, this was a rare hit that was actually as good as it was popular. Even more vibrant and playful than Disney’s other big underwater extravaganza, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo was more exciting and clever than any of the other summer action flicks and featured the most deliriously fun scene of the year: Ellen DeGeneres’ loopy blue fish Dory bouncing her way through a school of pink jellyfish.
5. The Fog of War (Errol Morris)
Morris believes that if he lets his subjects talk long enough, they will eventually give themselves away. For this film, Morris interviewed former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, a brilliant engineer and businessman who also was one of the architects of the fiasco known as the Vietnam War. McNamara admits the U.S. was wrong in its military actions, against Japan in WWII and against North Vietnam. The film offers a chance for McNamara to redeem himself by sharing his wisdom and an opportunity for the current administration to learn from his mistakes. If Bush and staff see one movie this year…
6. Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett)
As romantic comedies become more formulaic and teen films more idiotically high-concept, Raising Victor Vargas offers a refreshingly simple and sincere story of first love in New York’s Lower East Side. Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte keep it real as a teenage Don Juan and the girl who won’t take any of his shit. Novice actor Rasuk wins the teenage charmer of the year award. (Elephant‘s photographer Elias McConnell takes second.)
7. Friday Night (Claire Denis)
On the eve of a move and in the midst of a Parisian traffic jam (the transit workers are striking yet again), a woman gives a stranger a ride. He stays on for dinner and a one-night stand. Claire Denis, never one for melodrama or broad comedy, has created a pensive and sexy tryst film without any artificial sweetening.
8. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
The surprises here were the critical raves for such a minimal, quiet film. Sofia Coppola has created a small study of awkward moments, feeling out of place, loneliness, and the allure of an out-of-town romance. At the film’s center, the karaoke exchange between Scarlett Johansson’s flirty “Brass in Pocket” and Bill Murray’s heartbroken “More Than This” works beautifully. The film’s Japan-bashing comedy, however, quickly grows more tiresome than jetlag.
9. Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears)
Imagine a film about London without British people. Frears effectively portrays the exploitation of illegal immigrants, the black market in citizenship and organ donation, and a delicious revenge plot. In one of the best, subtlest performances of the year, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a Nigerian immigrant doctor reduced to taxi driving and desk clerk service at a high-end hotel with an underbelly.
10. Irreversible (Gaspar Noe)
Noe’s shock tactics tend to the extreme: near the film’s beginning, a man bashes another guy’s face in with a fire extinguisher, visible during nauseatingly severe camera movements. Then come the racial slurs and homophobic insults. Then, in the film’s pièce de scandale, a woman is violently raped in real time—in a long take that is appropriately non-erotic and uncomfortable to endure. But by two-thirds of the way through, Noe’s backwards narrative (think Memento) turns from horrible to witty, as a couple chats with a friend en route to a party, and astonishingly tender, as the young couple embrace and make love earlier that day. Then the woman finds out she’s pregnant, playing a cheap sentimental card to make her previously seen rape and assault even more tragic. No film I’ve ever scene conveys such a spectrum of cinematic experience, from unwatchable to offensive to challenging to enchanting to cornball.
Rather than listing the “worst” films of the year, which I tried to avoid seeing (Bulletproof Monk notwithstanding), here are what might be called interesting failures, over-hyped nothings, and films that should have been better.
1. In the Cut (Jane Campion)
Campion presents a visually taut, feminist revision of the thriller by shooting much of the film in shallow focus and enhancing a paranoid feeling of being watched. Meg Ryan, looking for a makeover, is a bit stiff, and Mark Ruffalo, as a sexually aggressive cop, is equal parts sexy and sleazy. Their affair makes little sense, but at least it’s hot. The ridiculous serial killer plot, however, turns from grisly to preposterous in the film’s final act, ultimately undoing whatever intrigue the film created.
2. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
Mystic River is a film about male child rape, but it can’t deal with its topic. Instead, it only glimpses a horrible crime through innuendo and by cooking up rigidly causal effects: adult mental trauma, a bad marriage, violence, and even tainting the boy’s friends’ lives. Eastwood and his hammy cast have unfortunately garnered hyperbolic kudos for this offensive, maudlin mess.
3. Down with Love (Peyton Reed)
Admittedly, I tend to dislike Renee Zellweger, but when she’s in the right role (Nurse Betty), she can be quite good. The film, however, gives her the wrong role. She makes poiseless entrances when her character should be a clotheshorse and her comic timing is off throughout. On the plus side, Ewan McGregor has never been more suave, and the look of the film, decked out in Technicolors, is fab.
4. The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet)
Several nations came together to co-produce what must be a unique personal vision. So why doesn’t this quirky animated trifle have more to say?
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
The final Lord of the Rings film is undeniably huge and impressive. But its fantastically dark tale alternates with cloying overkill that never seems to end. The Two Towers was an all-action, no bullshit epic. This time we get an Inspirational War Speech astride a Horse, an eagle rescue, and the seemingly tacked-on wedding and fatherhood for Sam (Sean Astin) after so much same-sex affection among Hobbits. Once again, the CGI creations—Gollum and mass battles—steal the show.