Looking back at 2003, there were really quite a few wonderful films, most of them small budget indies, but then again, the good ones usually are. With the exception of “Return of the King” and to a much lesser degree “Mystic River,” a great deal of the studio product for the year was worse than ever, with a lot of god-awful high concept special effects efforts (insert “Bad Boys II” et al.) and painful “American Idol” inspired crappola. Nevertheless in the likely event that you missed much of this list, you’ll have a chance to catch it with your TiVo Sundance/IFC setup.
1) The Station Agent – Dir. Paul McCarthy
(Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale)
It is rare to find a perfect movie, but more often than not, when you do find one the perfection has more to do with the simplicity than anything else. The debut from Tom McCarthy is the simple story of two loners and a misplaced extrovert who come together in a rustic part of New Jersey. The film features three primary characters led by a reclusive dwarf who inherits a deserted train depot and meets a nosey coffee vendor and a grieving woman who lives alone in a beautiful lake house. The story is mostly about the little gestures and coincidences in life that can make all the difference between joy and sorrow. But it’s the incredible performances and alternating moods of sadness and humor that give the story such quiet strength. It becomes one of those films you wish would last much longer.
2) American Splendor – Dir. Shari Berman and Robert Pucini
(Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis)
The movie version of underground comic Harvey Pekar’s life might be even more imaginative than the comic book itself. The film blends commentary by the real Harvey Pekar and his wife Joyce, with two incredible performances by Giamatti as the down on his luck Cleveland file clerk Pekar, and Hope Davis as his similarly depressive second wife, Joyce. The film perfectly captures the bleak landscape that is Cleveland, echoing the blue moods that have for years set the tone for “American Splendor” the comic. As agitated and unhappy as Pekar often seems, both in the comics and in real life, he manages to find a kind of satisfying joy that comes with being miserable. Therein lies the secret of how one of the dark feeling films of the year manages to be among the most clever, creative and entertaining.
3) Lost In Translation – Dir. Sofia Coppola (Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Giovani Ribisi)
There is a kind of otherworldliness that seems to reflect from the work of Sofia Coppola. Just as “The Virgin Suicides” just seemed to sail on a sea restrained sadness, “Lost In Translation” is a subtle patient meditation on love, life, getting older, and existing in a place you can’t ever really understand. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson seem to fall into each other, gradually but certainly, as if clinging to a raft slowly losing air. Coppola fixes everything so that the film melts together, from the fuzzy shoe-gazing soundtrack to the exquisite cinematic moments in Japanese rock gardens, uber-chic hotels and bars, and the general neon chaos of Tokyo itself. This film is as cool as dry ice, and as substantially emotional as anything else in 2003.
4) Monster Dir. Patty Jenkins (Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci)
Rarely is a film carried entirely on the shoulders of one performance, but like David Thewlis in “Naked,” Charlize Theron effortlessly inhabits the character of serial killer Aileen Wournos. Beyond the obvious jaw dropping physical transformation, Theron’s combination of empathy with and abstraction from the character allows her to both be the character the public saw on television while at the same time weaving a kind of humanity into her as well. “Monster” is a powerful film, shot in a straightforward and honest way, allowing it to look and feel more like the dirty, backward Florida world that Wournos inhabited in real life. This is a film that will endure the test of time, and represents another incredible female directorial triumph in 2003.
5) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – Dir. Peter Jackson (Viggo Mortenson, Liv Tyler, Elijah Wood)
It will be nearly impossible for any director to trump the accomplishment that culminated this year in “Return of the King” – although this was probably said after the “Star Wars” and “Godfather” trilogies. Although not necessarily my favorite of the three films, “Return” is a relentlessly creative, impeccably executed, and deftly acted masterpiece. Although flush with miraculous special effects, it is the seemingly effortless coexistence of effects and reality that gives the film its genuine emotional power. Director Peter Jackson’s understanding of and passion for the original text and his visual translation of it is phenomenal. It is hard to imagine that “Return,” or the other two for that matter, could ever live up to the hype-machine that has grown with every installment, but just moments into each film it becomes clear that there was never a doubt. “Return” is a glorious climax to an amazing masterpiece!
6) The Man On The Train – Dir. Patrice Leconte (Johnny Halladay, Jean Rochefort)
Some films make you feel like you are watching one of the great masters paint, and this small up with a crotchety old thief, and offers him a meal and a place to spend the night. Over the course of the week in this rather gray and rainy French town, the two become friends without even realizing it. On the surface they have exactly nothing in common, but director Patrice Leconte is able to illustrate how in so many ways the things that are important in life are very much the same to everyone. This film, like “The Station Agent,” illuminates the basic human need for friendship, without ever having to mention it.
7) Whale Rider – Dir. Nkki Caro (Keisha Castle-Hughes, Shefali Shetty, Naseeruddin Shah)
New Zealand has been the backdrop for two of the year’s most beautiful films: “Return of the King”, and the lesser-seen, “Whale Rider.” This is likely the only family movie ever to make this esteemed list, and focuses on a young girl (Pai) and her traditional extended family. Beyond the gorgeous landscapes, and the colorful local culture, the film revolves around the wonderful performance of Keisha Castles-Hughes who takes the archaic patriarchal nature of her culture as a personal challenge, and carries the film on her young back.
8) The Bad Santa – Dir. Terry Zwigoff (Billy Bob Thornton, Bernie Mac, John Ritter)
Never has a holiday film been so mean spirited, but then again never has such a film been even half this funny. Ripping a page from the “Sling Blade” era, Billy Bob Thornton is nothing short of brilliant as a Bukowskiesque misanthrope, playing a severely alcoholic Mall Santa who teams up with a black dwarf as his elf to rob a department store every Christmas eve. Although the story seems straightforward, just when you think the crassness has been pushed to scandalous outer edges, it pushes further. Only Terry Zwigoff, whose two previous films, “Crumb” and “Ghost World”, could pull off a movie that feels like such a brilliant mixture of “Barfly” and “A Christmas Story,” and is funny as F*%4#ing hell.
9) In America
Dir. Jim Sheridan (Sarah Bolger, Samatha Morton)
After six months of previews I was prepared for what looked to be dangerously close to being a painfully over sentimentalized journey down memory lane, but “In America” turned out to be a truly unusual film. Director Jim Sheridan’s autobiographical story about his family’s life in Hell’s Kitchen, is a colorful (literally and figuratively) journey through the eyes of his daughters. The girls see the world from the point of view of both foreigners and children in a strange and largely adult place, and in the end Sheridan is such a good craftsman that it is in this world that this naïve but hopeful reality helps bring the real one back into focus.
10) 21 Grams – Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu (Naomi Watts, Benicio del Toro, Sean Penn)
This is easily the most difficult film of the year. A single tragic incident sets forth a series of deaths and rebirths that attack our psyche like a series of emotional body blows. Fundamentally the film is an exploration of three people plagued by an interrelated grief. Sean Penn is so consistently great that it is easy to overlook how good his performance is, but the film really belongs to Naomi Watts and Benicio del Toro whose performances are so beautifully devastating it is easy to forget that they are even acting. Director Inarritu’s last film “Amores Perros” was one of the best films in decades, and this complicated and beautifully edited story will no doubt solidify his place among the finest current filmmakers in the business.
11) Mystic River – Dir. Clint Eastwood (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden)
It’s hard not to immediately grasp how good a movie “Mystic River” really is. From the predictably stellar set of performances, with Tim Robbins finding a character we haven’t seen him play before, and Harden and Penn registering their usual Oscar quality performances, to the rather drab and weary Boston that sets the backdrop. This is easily one of Clint Eastwood’s best directorial efforts in years, and despite not rolling the credits rolling twenty minutes earlier, he has succeeded in creating a world filled wounded people and a tattered landscape that make the tragic events feel incredibly natural and real.
12) The Triplets of Belleville – Dir. Sylvain Chomet
Although I have to admit I virtually retired from paying attention to animation after I quit the Simpsons in 1997, the “Triplets” is an extraordinary film that manages to tell a wonderful story without a single word of dialogue. The creepy and lovable main characters, a silly dog and determined grandmother, travel over sea and land to save their kidnapped grandson, a cyclist, from mafia thugs. Along the way, they meet the Triplets of Bellevelle, an old but still functional cabaret act who help fight the evildoers. You have never seen anything like before, and should not let it slip between the cracks.
13) Spellbound – Dir. Jeff Blitz
In case you think the overaggressive Little League Dad or Soccer Mom syndrome is some sort of isolated cultural phenomenon, the parents in Jeff Blitz’s incredible documentary about children en route to the National Spelling Bee should prove that parental pressure knows no bounds. What makes this documentary so compelling is how completely different all of the children and parents seem to be. Unlike Little League fathers who all seem to be white beer-bellied bullies, the parents and spellers seem to come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and have dramatically different reasons for spending so much of their lives memorizing a dictionary when it feels like they’d be much better off outside playing with other children or parents. I was spellbound!
14) The Swimming Pool – Dir. Francois Ozon (Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier )
In terms of sexiness, you would be hard pressed to find a film that came within 100 meters of “The Swimming Pool.” The film is essentially the story of a blocked English writer (Charlotte Rampling) who retreats to the French country home of her editor to complete a stalled novel. Instead of peace and solitude she finds the editor’s lascivious illegitimate daughter. The seething sexuality of the young girl and the apparent prudishness of the writer create a kind of surreal tension that makes everything seem like it could be something it is not. In the end it is hard to know whether you got it or not, but that’s part of what makes it so good.
15) Elephant– Dir. Gus Van Sant (Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader)
Van Zant’s icy cool meditation on the Columbine shootings, aims not to answer the questions of “Why” and “How?” but more to observe a day in the life of a teenager in America. This spare and odd work is easily one of the most original (and disturbing) films of the year.
16) Pieces of April – Dir. Peter Hedges (Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson)
The $500K indie, with a better cast than most Hollywood films, tells the story of a punkish East Village girl and her attempt to make amends with her dying mother and family by preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Truly a rich and lighthearted tapestry of familial love and angst.
17) The Magdalene Sisters – Dir. Peter Mullan (Dorthy Duff, Anne-Marie Duffy)
The raw and often brutally realistic story of a handful of girls unjustly sent to a Magdalene Convent in Ireland in 1964 for “licentious” behavior. The film reveals both the physical and emotional pain endured by the young women who withered away in a cruel exploitation of Catholic penance, before finally having the good fortune of escaping back into the real world.
18) Shattered Glass – Dir. Billy Ray (Hayden Christensen, Peter Sarsgaard)
The true story of “New Republic” wunderkind writer Steven Glass, whose compelling, but almost entirely fictional articles snowed and absorbed readers for a few years. Christensen and Sarsgaard deliver two of the strongest performances in one of the most watchable films of the year.
19) Respiro – Dir. Emanuele Crialese (Vincenzo Amato, Valerio Golino )
A beautiful story about familial love set in a small Italian fishing village, where a proud son fights to prevent his beautiful but disturbed from being sent away to an institution. Think “Cinema Pardiso” on Prozac.
20) A Mighty Wind – Dir. Christopher Guest (Christopher Guest, Parker Posey)
Not quite the epic comedy we’ve come to expect from the “Waiting For Guffman” and “Best In Show” team, but for music lovers it is certainly a clever look at the “Leave To Beaver” early days of folk.
21) Dopamine – Dir. Lynne Ramsey (Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott)
The Sundance film about three SF based software programmers who have developed an animation program that can interact with the user is a high concept metaphor about love that is interesting enough to overlook some of its pretensions.
And would likely have been included had I found the time to see them: 1) Capturing the Friedmans 2) The Barbarian Invasions, 3) Thirteen … and probably a few others I hope to see eventually…