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    (Andrea, David, Joshua, Leslie)
  • Top 10 films of 2003
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  •  TOP10: TOP 10 FILMS OF 2003

    Top 10 films of 2003


    Honestly, I'm a little resistant to the practice of Top Ten lists. Stoked by everyone from Oscar voters to critics' groups, year-end awards frenzy has risen to such a pitch that the actual experience of screening some films is hurt by all the hype. Titles wide apart in aims and financing compete for a place at the table, and those with the most muscle often wind up consuming everything in their path. It's so damn Darwinian, going to the movies has almost become a blood sport — one has to fight an impulse to penalize big-budget productions. Still, there is value in taking stock of 2003's films; to celebrate the rush of discovery and to reawaken passion are goals worthy in and of themselves.

     Theatrical releases

    1. The Fog of War

    The passing of a year is a time for soul-searching, as are the twilight years of a man's life. Errol Morris' feature-length interview with Robert S. McNamara gives the elderly former U.S. Secretary of Defense full rein to reassess the history of war in the 20th century and his place in it. Structured in the form of eleven lessons, the documentary follows American military engagement from World War I (when McNamara was just a tot), through World War II (when he helped plan the fire-bombing of Japan), to the Bay of Pigs and his role in the escalation of the Vietnam War. Here and there McNamara hedges a little, but mostly he is remarkably candid, and his message about human folly and the futility of rationality in war time couldn't be more urgent.

    2. Swimming Pool

    Francois Ozon's disturbing psychothriller is also a rumination on the creative process. Mid-career ennui and repressed longings beset a bestselling murder mystery novelist (Charlotte Rampling), who at the urging of her London publisher (Charles Dance) travels to his house in the south of France for a working vacation. The bucolic atmosphere turns lethal with the arrival of his seductive daughter (Ludivine Sagnier), whose effect on the older woman is both irritating and galvanizing. Following the writer's stream of consciousness by flowing back and forth between her reality and her imagination, the film illuminates the dynamics of a literary life so effortlessly, it makes "Adaptation" look like a stunt.

    3. School of Rock

    Contradicting reports of the demise of rock 'n' roll, Richard Linklater's paean to extended adolescence could have just as accurately been titled "Joy to the World." Jack Black plays Dewey, a rocker big on talent but short on discipline. Fired from his band and facing eviction by his roommate (Mike White, who also scripted), Dewey impersonates a substitute teacher at a tony prep school. You know that by helping youngsters find their musician within he'll recover his humanity, but that's part of the charm. The inspired hilarity gets an assist from the always welcome Joan Cusack. I loved every frame of this movie and every note, down to the last end credit.

    4. My Architect: A Son's Journey

    A most personal agenda guides Nathaniel Kahn's stirring documentary: the desire to connect with a long-dead father, a world-famous architect who died almost in obscurity when the filmmaker was just a boy. Louis I. Kahn's bold and monumental buildings were the public manifestation of a genius whose private life housed many secrets. The only constant in Kahn's late-blooming career was his wife Esther, with whom he had a daughter — but he also fathered two other children with two mistresses. In his need to fathom this complexity, the director undertakes a global tour of his father's significant commissions; at journey's end he achieves closure, and we get catharsis.

    5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

    Sorry, never been a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien's books. Although years ago I did enjoy reading "The Hobbit," I couldn't slog past halfway through the intricate genealogies and archaic language of "The Fellowship of the Ring." But viewing Peter Jackson's final chapter in his adaptation of Tolkien's trilogy may send me back to the library. Jackson's first two installments were but prelude to this magnificent modern epic that dares to view medieval literature and fairy tales as reverentially as Tolkien. Primal darkness covers Middle Earth as its inhabitants engage in a Manichean struggle that will see the passing of countless lives and the profound altering of many others. Transcending the fantasy genre by tapping into the spiritual, this is a rousing saga that explores the duality of good and evil.

    6. 28 Days Later

    Much of science fiction, although occupied with the futuristic and the visionary, is fundamentally conservative. The underlying lesson frequently is that it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature. In Danny Boyle's apocalyptic thriller/zombie exploitation flick, mankind's hubris, exemplified in genetic engineering, unleashes a deadly virus that triggers an insatiable bloodlust in its carriers. Raging bestial humans quickly depopulate London, prompting a hardy band of mismatched survivors to navigate the hazardous countryside in search of a fortified haven. The grainy resolution of the digital cinematography suits the raw energy and emotions of the slam-bang narrative.

    7. Japanese Story (Australian)

    The peerless Toni Collette stars in Sue Brooks' drama about a man and woman stranded in the Australian outback, separated from civilization by hundreds of miles and from each other by even greater cultural distances. Collette plays a geologist assigned to drive a visiting Japanese businessman (Gotaro Tsunashima) on a private tour of mining sites and the wilderness. Extreme stubborness puts them at the mercy of the elements, and in their quest to escape their predicament they find common ground. A profoundly moving love story.

    8. Peter Pan

    What is it about buccaneers, those bad boys of the high seas? The two best entrances for actors this year belonged to Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Jason Isaacs in P. J. Hogan's lavish "Peter Pan." From our first sight of the barechested Captain Hook sprawled across his cabin table, his long mane of tousled hair cloaking his silver claw, we're promised a darker, more overtly sexual story than previous retellings of J.M. Barrie's classic. There's just the right amount of slapstick to leaven the terrifying adventures the eponymous hero (Jeremy Sumpter) shares with Wendy, her brothers and the Lost Boys — and how fitting that love should be as frightening as death. The two were linked in an era when many women didn't survive childbirth, and orphans were left to fend for themselves. A creepy sense of menace behind the whimsy is what makes this version tick(tock).

    9. Lawless Heart (British)

    A poignant and slyly comic drama about love and bereavement, Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter's three-part narrative loops around and back, "Rashomon"-style, to examine the lives of some coastal Brits shaken by the drowning of a beloved friend. Hardest hit is the dead man's lover (Tom Hollander); also adrift is the deceased's brother-in-law (Bill Nighy) undergoing a mid-life crisis, and a feckless, long-absent crony (Douglas Henshall). Romantic complications result for all as a by-product of the funeral gathering. The cast is first-rate, the screenplay is gentle, wise and compassionate, and the filmmakers exhibit a sure hand in delineating the nuances of delicate feeling in conflict with deepest need.

    10. Stevie

    Another intensely personal documentary about how a filmmaker's life intersects with his subject's. Long before he made "Hoop Dreams," director Steve James was a university student in southern Illinois, where as a Big Brother he mentored a troubled boy, Stevie Fielding. Years later, in sort of Michael Apted-fashion, James went back for a reunion, but what he found was more heart-wrenching than anything Apted captured in his landmark "7 Up" series. Fielding, his mentally challenged girlfriend, his family and the foster care system are held up to James' dogged scrutiny — as is James himself, a reluctant subject uncomfortably aware of his own human failings.

     Honorable mention

    Honorable mentions include four outstanding films not in theatrical release, but which I saw elsewhere:

    Angels in America

    Mike Nichols helms Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, an ambitious, poetic fable about New York in 1985, haunted by the spectre of AIDS. Like the Biblical Jacob wrestling with the angel, the characters struggle with powerful forces: the state, religion, devastating illness, and, not the least, the evil of living a lie. Until the mainstream movie industry develops the guts and marketing savvy of HBO, reserve your hosannas for this fearless cable programmer. (HBO)

    Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... And Spring (Korean)

    Kim Ki-duk's ("The Isle") parable follows a Buddhist monk from childhood to maturity. The storytelling is spare and graceful; the visuals, lush; the mood, contemplative; and the overall effect, expansive and life-affirming. The best film I saw in Toronto this year. (Toronto International Film Festival)

    Memories of Murder (Korean)

    South Korea's Bong Joon-ho outdoes Hollywood in the police procedural genre. Based on real-life crimes as yet unsolved, the screenplay follows a team of detectives racing against time to track a serial rapist and murderer. Highly suspenseful, insightful and darkly funny, the film's abundant energy is fed by a strong cast, buoyant camera work and fast-paced editing. An entry at the Toronto International Film Festival, this gem has yet to find American distribution. (Toronto International Film Festival)

    A Taste for Murder (French)

    So little known in the U.S. you won't even find it listed on, Raoul Ruiz's latest is a sophisticated and tricky noir thriller set in Paris in the 1950s. Like Ripley in Patricia Highsmith's novels, the psychopathic villain (Thierry Gibault) projects a facade of bourgeois gentility, making him all the more dangerous to his target, a novelist he wishes to enlist in a macabre vanity project. Clever and surreal, the film marks the emergence of Christian Vadim as a movie actor of note. Kudos to the Chicago International Film Festival for bringing it to these shores. (Chicago International Film Festival)

    DECEMBER 24, 2003

    Reader comments on Top 10 films of 2003:

  • Camp   from PAIGE ALEXANDER, Feb 28, 2005
  • Re: Camp   from Charnese McPherson, Nov 12, 2005

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