Top 10 Films of 2003

Jesse Hassenger

It's curious that something as seemingly random as a year's worth of movies can somehow take on its own semi-coherent themes. Following 2001 (the year of questioning perception) and 2002 (the year of the tragicomedy), here comes 2003: the year of pulp. What are Kill Bill Vol. 1, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and the Matrix and X-Men sequels if not splashy, impeccably made pulp fictions writ large? This year also yielded unusually thoughtful and clever horror tales like 28 Days Later, Willard, May, and Bubba Ho-Tep. This was the year Freddy vs. Jason was finally realized, for God's sake.

Still, it was hardly a stellar year. "It was a lousy year for movies" has become an annual exaggeration that I usually attempt to debunk (2002, for example, was a pretty thrilling year for movies). But there's something off about 2003. As much as I like these 10 (or 11) movies, I doubt more than a few of them would've made it onto my list last year, or the year before, but all of the following are movies to seek out. I've seen many of them twice, and will revisit them all in the future. Pulp may have been the dominant storytelling mode of 2003, but movies like these show just how powerful that stuff can be.

1. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
Unfortunately, Harvey Weinstein indulged in his two favorite treats this year: publicity and 90-minute movies. Yes, Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1 was sliced in two, but I'll give this to Mr. Weinstein: when it cut to black, it felt like Hattori Hanzo steel. Before that perfect cliffhanger, the film offers plenty of Q & U's magnificent wrath, by turns exhilarating, harrowing, hilarious, and shocking. Most surprising is the deliberateness of its pacing; Tarantino's kung fu doesn't need to fly by to hold an audience rapt.

2. Once Upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez)
Two movies, two friends, two tales of revenge. Tarantino pal Robert Rodriguez caps his "Mariachi trilogy" with a glorious mishmash of seedy characters and double-crosses, as sprawling as Tarantino's film is single-minded. Johnny Depp's performance as crooked CIA Agent Sands is almost more exciting to watch than his other genius work of scene thievery this year, because here you realize he's done it twice in a row, and without repeating himself to boot.

3. Big Fish (Tim Burton)
I don't know that this is Tim Burton's best, most personal or most grown-up movie to date. But it certainly finds itself in good company with its inventive and deeply moving story of a father (Albert Finney), son (Billy Crudup), and the alter ego we all kinda wish we had (Ewan McGregor). Burton's movies are known for their gorgeous photography and set design; this one is no exception, but can we take a moment to appreciate the work of Burton and casting director Denise Chamain, finding plum parts for talents as diverse as Jessica Lange, Danny DeVito, and Steve Buscemi.

4. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
Every five years, Bill Murray gives his best performance ever. In '93, it was in Groundhog Day; in '98, Rushmore; and this year, Sofia Coppola's sophomore anti-slump. As Bob, he flirts with young, married Charlotte (Scarlett Johannsen) in Tokyo. That's pretty much the whole movie, yet it doesn't take much more than Murray's hilarious, heartbreaking performance and Coppola's sensitive direction to render this the best pulpless movie of 2003.

5. American Splendor (Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)
A triumph of mixed media dedicated to bringing to life one Harvey Pekar, played by Paul Giamatti in the performance of his career, so far. Seeing it a second time, I was struck by what a moving experience first-time feature film directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman have crafted, and how they craft it through honesty and humor, not showboating.

6. X2 (Bryan Singer)
A sequel that more or less equals the original in quality while surpassing it in scale, Bryan Singer's follow-up to his X-Men is an intelligent collection of sly performances (especially Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellan) and fantastic set pieces (Nightcrawler's opening attack! Invasion of the X-Mansion! The fight with... okay, every set piece in the movie). It's a wonder more nerds didn't die of happiness. Let's hope the forthcoming Spiderman 2 follows its example.

7. Matchstick Men (Ridley Scott)
For sheer watchability, Matchstick Men may be the best movie Ridley Scott has ever made. For once, Scott's stylish direction isn't in service of a bloated or dull story, but rather something small-scale and character-driven. The players are Nicolas Cage (OCD con man), Sam Rockwell (sidekick), and Alison Lohman (daughter), giving a trifecta of flawless performances.

8. Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant's second, even better film of 2003 (shout out to the other dozen people who saw Gerry!) defies our expectations about how to make a movie about high school violence, refusing to offer easy answers for anyone. The camera drifts through the hallways, over sports fields, revisiting mundane events from several points of view, filling us with dread over what we know is to come. When it does, you almost want to hit the ground yourself.

9. The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (Andy and Larry Wachowski)
Okay, no, they're not as good as The Matrix, not as tight, not as novel, and certainly not as self-contained. But look: most of the movies on this list aren't as good as The Matrix, either. And most movies I saw in 2003 couldn't match this pair for both technical artistry and unpredictability. There are sequences of pure comic book brilliance in this pair, and I for one didn't feel gypped for that. Con: They don't hold up as well to repeat viewings as The Matrix, either. Pro: They hold up better than 90% of the science fiction and action pictures I've seen.

10. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton)
Another wonder from Pixar, the most consistently dazzling filmmaking team in the universe. The animation is beautiful and the jokes are sharp, but what reasonates is its touching exploration of parent-child dynamics. Movies like Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story 2 don't succeed because they're computer-animated; they succeed because viewers of any age can leave the theater feeling great.

Note: As of this writing, there are several promising 2003 titles I have not yet seen, including All the Real Girls, Cold Mountain, and Shattered Glass.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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