Top 10 films of 2003
By JOSHUA TANZER
In last year's list I struggled to come up with 10 standout films; this year, I could probably list 30 or 40 of them. While Hollywood was having a miserable year with huge-budget, star-laden embarrassments from "Charlie's Angels" to "The Cat in the Hat" independent and foreign film was full of energy and creativity. Even if you threw out every film below, you could make a very nice list out of gems like "The Station Agent,"
"Lost in Translation,"
"Love and Diane,"
"Children of Love"
and (to give Hollywood a little credit) the charming "Finding Nemo." Still, the best movies I saw all year were ...
1. City of God (Brazilian)
One Offoffoff reader comments that " 'Kill Bill' is a good movie, 'City of God' is a great movie," and it's an excellent comparison. "City of God" is the brilliant movie that Quentin Tarantino has never made. Juggling a large cast of well-conceived characters, looping forward and backward in time, and playing the film medium like an orchestra, Katia Lund, Fernando Meirelles and Braulio Mantovani's masterpiece is the rare gangster movie with a heart and a brain.
2. Blue Car
If there's one theme that got its due over the last year, it's daughters of single mothers. "Thirteen," "White Oleander" from late 2002, "Children of Love" from Belgium, and "Blue Car" all tell this kind of story with originality, intelligence and intensely genuine characters, and this is my favorite of the four. Agnes Bruckner 15 when the film was made is a captivating presence and first-time writer-director Karen Moncrieff has gotten to the heart of what it's like to grow up in a single-parent home.
3. Buffalo Soldiers
"In wartime the state seeks to destroy its own culture," veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges writes in his recent book "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning." At the beginning of 2003, it was true in the U.S. our mass culture was almost entirely purged of criticism of the war, the president and the military. One network aired a made-for-TV hagiography that phonied up President Bush's cowardly record in September 2001; meanwhile, Hedges himself was shouted off a college stage by angry students who didn't want his anti-war views to be heard. The film industry had gotten with the program years ago, churning out unreflective pro-military action pictures while sitting on "Buffalo Soldiers," which went unreleased until this spring. Before Howard Dean and the creeping sense of fiasco in Iraq made it safe for others to speak out against the war, this was one of the only films or popular-culture voices of any kind that challenged the national myth. And it was a terrific movie as well, an over-the-top satire with "Catch-22"-inspired themes of military lunacy and a pitched psychological battle between two headstrong characters. It's smart, darkly funny, and daring in a way that "Black Hawk Down" or "We Were Soldiers" could never be.
4. Rana's Wedding (Palestinian)
Rarely preachy and always personal, Hany Abu-Assad's movie about a young Palestinian woman desperately criss-crossing Jerusalem's checkpoints in the effort to get married by 4 p.m. is laced with political viewpoints that hardly need to be spoken. A stunning final scene breathes even more life into a story that already has a strong sense of urgency.
5. Love, Liza
A brief description is enough to drive nine out of ten viewers away from "Love, Liza": a man, depressed by the suicide of his wife, mopes around and sniffs gas to get high. That's about it. Still, the film has a subtle sense of humor to go with its earnest sense of compassion. Plus, it puts two of our best actors in leading roles who are usually thought of as supporting-actor types Philip Seymour Hoffman and Kathy Bates with very moving results.
6. All the Real Girls
David Gordon Green's pastiche of Southern-accented conversation patiently tells the story of a romance made difficult by the complexity of the main characters and the attentions of the small-town community around them. It may be too slow for some viewers, but for those willing to give it their attention, it's a thing of beauty.
7. Tycoon: A New Russian (Russian)
In what amounts to a capsule history of post-communist Russia, this film tells the quasi-factual story of the country's "oligarchs," powerful corporate barons who have gobbled up industry, media and government and are battling President Vladimir Putin for power now. Through a character who simply sets out as an entrepreneur but gets mixed up in all kinds of shady intrigue, this film shows how little distinction there can be between business, government and crime in a chaotically revolutionized country.
8. Mondays in the Sun (Spanish)
Five laid-off shipyard workers pass their days drinking, talking, scheming and railing at the economic reality that made them redundant men. Slow and steady, this Spanish film is a compassionate but never propagandistic portrait that could be set anywhere in the economically dislocated world and it's not only blue-collar workers who are in this boat now. It's as good a film as you'll see about economics in real people's lives.
9. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Korean, unreleased)
This grim Korean nightmare makes unexpected visions of tragedy and cruelty feel all too real. If you could take the year's most violent movies (e.g. "Kill Bill," "The Matrix"), slow them down, instill them with the strange logic of dream life and give them a heart, perhaps this is what you would have. It doesn't try to impress you with fast-paced special effects; it tries to connect with the dark parts of your mind, and succeeds. (Asian Films Are Go! festival.)
10. 21 Grams
Alejandro Gonz‡lez I–‡rritu follows up "Amores Perros" with a film of even greater cinematic inventiveness with the additional benefit of not being about dog fights. Benicio del Toro's character stands out, and Sean Penn gets to play the same character he played in "Mystic River" only a lot better.
Honorary member: The Slaughter Rule
(Opened in January 2003 in selected cities and now available on video. This was at the top of my 2002 list.)
Letters from the Dead,
Life Kills Me,
The Magdalene Sisters,
The Triplets of Belleville.
Followed by Assassination Tango, Raja, The Matrix: Reloaded, The Matrix: Revolutions.
(Does anybody remember that Newsweek's first cover of 2003 declared this "The Year of The Matrix"? How embarrassing for them.)
The Dancer Upstairs,
Raising Victor Vargas,
1. S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Cambodian, unreleased)
If you had gotten a dozen Nazi concentration-camp officers together, put them in Auschwitz and made them explain themselves on film, this might be that film, except it's in Cambodia, not Germany. This one-of-a-kind documentary details the inner workings of a Khmer Rouge death prison in the words of the people who ran it, from lowly cell guards to high-ranking officers. The stories are told calmly, and the perpetrators themselves rarely seem to recognize the true monstrousness of their deeds, but it's a jaw-dropping experience for us to listen to their stories. (New York Film Festival.)
2. Bus 174 (Brazilian)
This documentary about a bus hijacking gone wrong looks like an American "reality" TV show for about a minute. Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilho used this true-crime case as a launching point for a film that burrows deep into Brazilian society and the culture of Rio street kids to find out more about the social problems and personal histories that exploded on one day.
3. The Fog of War
Errol Morris turns his camera on Robert McNamara, the former defense secretary who was an architect of the Vietnam War. McNamara is both a candid and an unreliable narrator of his own story, adding to the complexity of his reminiscences. Of course, this series of interviews which began before September 2001 has special relevance to current events, so it is not for Vietnam buffs only.
4. The Backyard
NYU film grad Paul Hough's low-budget documentary crosses the country in pursuit of backyard wrestling kids who imitate pro wrestlers for the amusement of their friends and neighbors. A lot of the wrestlers are surprisingly sympathetic, but this record of gleeful brutality keeps you on the edge of your seat and includes a few genuinely frightening revelations. It's as fun as it is appalling. (Brooklyn Film Festival, brief theater run.)
5. Hidden in Plain Sight
This documentary tells the not-very-secret story of the School of the Americas in Georgia, where the hemisphere's worst torturers and murderers allegedly were taught their craft. If Americans knew their own country's often-sinister role in Latin America, it would shake their conception of the U.S. as an unblemished beacon of freedom around the world, but we are willfully ignorant about ourselves. This is not the most skillful documentary, but it does represent essential knowledge for citizenship in America knowledge that's long been "hidden in plain sight."
Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War,
Capturing the Friedmans.