The movies were as dismal as the times. A year clouded by a slumping economy, lost jobs, broken alliances, a new war, reconstruction blues, SARS, and the very real prospect of an inconsequential U.S. election in '04 was hardly brightened by Hollywood. Passable movies, even perfectly good ones, were aplenty, but the absence of greatness became keener as the year trudged to a close. Perhaps the barren field accounts for the hyperbolic huzzahs accorded movies like Lost in Translation, Mystic River, American Splendor, and Return of the King -- all fine movies, to be sure, but scarcely worthy of unqualified praise and uncritical consensus.
While dead and dying innocents seemed to be the topic du jour (from Mystic River and Elephant to In America and The Son), the movies that made a lasting imprint had something essential to say about life on the planet at this minute. Millennium Mambo, Unknown Pleasures, and demonlover, to name three, rendered lives that were at once transient and immobile, too narcotized by the sweet pull of pop and technological oblivion to care. Centuries from now, archaeologists seeking to understand turn-of-the-century Earth could do no better than to look at these exacting visions of an aching world.*
1. Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
Three cheers for Palm Pictures for giving Hou Hsiao-hsien's latest a limited release (it opens New Year's Eve Day in New York). The first in a planned trilogy about Taiwanese youth, Millennium Mambo was received coolly during its festival run two years ago, even by his usual devotees. Unlike Hou's undisputed masterpieces, Millennium Mambo is set very much in the present, but no less suffused with regret and detachment. This urban nocturne takes place in a succession of neon-dappled nightclubs and cramped pads, except for a winterland interlude that supplies the movie with its loveliest metaphor. Sadness runs underneath the relentless pulse of techno and the twittering of cell phones; the throb of proleptic nostalgia, redolent of Wong Kar-wai, is enhanced by the lambent glow of Mark Lee Ping-bing's lighting and Asian superstar Shu Qi's heartbreakingly beautiful face. The movie doesn't so much conclude as waft into the ether, where it belongs.
2. Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-ke)
Hou's influence on Jia Zhang-ke has always been readily apparent, even without Jia's own modest acknowledgment. But Jia has a voice all his own: his movies have a more rough-hewn (if no less rigorous) look and a grungier naturalism that's emblematic of Sixth Generation Chinese cinema. His follow-up to the monumental Platform evokes a world adrift. Focusing on two small-timers in rural China, Jia shows a society hopelessly hooked on distraction, wallowing in a welter of amplified sound and flickering images. Pulp Fiction, the WTO, the selection of Beijing for the '08 Olympics, and a great punchline about American aggression locate the movie firmly in the present; its overriding mood, poised between desire and paralysis, makes it an indelible snapshot of our time.
3. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (Guy Maddin)
Dracula dances! Mina succumbs! Van Helsing sniffs panties! Maddin scores again! The kino-crazy Canadian director gets his hands on Bram Stoker's undying text by way of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and turns in his most fully realized feature to date. Of all his movies, this comes closest to sustaining the enthralling mania of Maddin's previous short, The Heart of the World, still the apotheosis of his unhinged vision. A delirious phantasmagoria of overwrought angles, stylish shadow play, and riotous intertitles (and the dancing's not half-bad), the movie kicked off a breakout year for the director, whose million-dollar musical, The Saddest Music in the World, gets a U.S. release in 2004.
4. demonlover (Olivier Assayas)
Olivier Assayas's sleek portrait of the dystopian present is an assaultive piece of work. Centering on the high-stakes corporate war over a Japanese anime porn company, the movie takes place in sterile offices, airports, and hotels, though a hard left in the last third takes it unexpectedly to the American desert. More poem than discourse, demonlover is an oneiric meditation on the moving image's effects on notions of reality and fantasy. Connie Nielsen's transformation from ice queen to fantasy object is truly inexplicable, but the movie makes no claim to the rational. While it throws inchoate ideas pell-mell at its audience, demonlover's visceral aspect -- the sheer force of its sensual qualities, highlighted by a hair-raising Sonic Youth score -- will leave bruises.
5. Gerry (Gus Van Sant)
Elephant may have won him the Palme D'Or, but I much prefer this outdoor excursion from Gus Van Sant and cinematographer Harris Savides. Following Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as they lose their way in the wilderness, Van Sant creates a landscape of elemental power. The existential setup becomes a springboard for a rumination on American expansionism and the implacability of nature, as well as an entrancing transposition to the American West of the cinema of Bela Tarr, Van Sant's newfound idol. Certainly not as profound as it thinks it is, and burdened by a ludicrous ending, Gerry stays with you anyway, a brave experiment from an auteur finding his way back from his own career wilderness.
6. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)
Aggressively minimalist but far from stingy, Ten is a breezy iteration of Kiarostami's gentle humanism. The Iranian master's original concept was to show a psychoanalyst holding sessions in a car. Replacing the shrink with an Iranian woman, the movie gets tremendous metaphoric mileage from the conceit: the car becomes a private haven in a public place, the vessel for a thoughtful tour of Iranian "womanhood." Like Kiarostami's other works, it demolishes our complacency, blurring the divides between fiction and documentary, actor and character, spectator and screen. What emerges is a movie intent on rewriting film form, but whose epiphanies still bloom from the seemingly quotidian.
7. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes)
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes make movies of intimidating purity, chronicling the mundane and championing the dispossessed with a moral seriousness that's rare in these cynical days. This elliptical drama about a man who encounters his son's killer is an instructive rejoinder to Mystic River and In The Bedroom, two recent American films whose murder-launched arcs descend into revenge. Shuffling the politics of their Palme D'Or-winning Rosetta to the background, the brothers infuse this film with a moving strain of Christian faith, ending on an unanticipated act of decency, an ennobling gesture that reminds you of the restorative power of movies.
8. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki)
In a great year for documentaries, Capturing the Friedmans led the charge. One viewing and several months later, the movie still seems as slippery as a fish, shifting in shape and color depending on where the light catches it. Moviefone founder Andrew Jarecki set out to make a movie about New York's most popular party clown; he ended up with this rubbernecker's delight. An amazing work of assemblage, it begs the question of just how much of its unknowable truth is the result of Jarecki's sculpting. Still, watching the family come apart, courtesy of their own home video footage, is the most horrifying and heartbreaking spectacle of the year, complicated by our own guilt for not being able to look away.
9. Spider (David Cronenberg)
Roland Barthes's dictum, "At the origin of narrative, desire," is a fitting epigraph for David Cronenberg's portrait of a schizophrenic forever in the process of rewriting his life's narrative. Though it's adapted from Patrick McGrath's novel, it may well be the most perfect cinematic rendering of dementia ever made, and shows A Beautiful Mind for the lie that it is. In his sad protagonist, Cronenberg also finds a potent metaphor for memory, identity, authorship, and film. The film may be solipsistic to the point of chilliness, but the lapidary brilliance of this demanding and resonant work deserves recognition.
10. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)
With its all-male cast and far-flung settings, Peter Weir's swashbuckler invites comparisons to Lawrence of Arabia. Unlike David Lean's landmark epic, however, Master and Commander has an uncomplicated alpha male at its center and an old-fashioned moral clarity. If its substance is less than compelling, Weir's command of the form more than compensates. The movie shows its respect for the audience by eschewing exposition, plopping you down in the middle of the ship, with its strange customs and lingo, without so much as a glossary. The year's best Hollywood picture never lets its scale weigh it down.
10 runners up (in preferential order): To Be and To Have, The Triplets of Belleville, Bus 174, Raising Victor Vargas, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Mystic River, Lost in Translation, In America, My Architect, Finding Nemo.
*A caveat: The best movie that received its premiere U.S. theatrical run in 2003 was Jia Zhang-ke's Platform. However, having placed that movie on my year-end list for 2001, it is left off here.