Top 10 films of 2003
By DAVID N. BUTTERWORTH
Whether MPAA President Jack "Boom Boom" Valenti's year-end critics
screener ban precipitated a reverse backlash or not, 2003 was nevertheless the
year in which the independents won big over the majors. With the exception of
Pixar's delightful "Finding Nemo", virtually every movie on my Ten Best
list was one that eschewed big budgets, major stars, and/or predictable
storylines ("Nemo" was a familiar fantasy but beautifully told). Four of
the ten films were documentaries and that, in and of itself, is telling (and who
knows how my list might have looked had I also seen "Spellbound", "My
Architect", and Errol Morris's excellently received "The Fog of War").
Here, therefore, in alphabetical order are those films I considered to be the Best of the Year,
along with a few you should definitely cross the street to avoid.
Best: 21 Grams
Proving that 2000's blistering "Amores Perros" was no fluke, "21
Grams" continues Mexican director Alejandro Gonz‡lez I–‡rritu's
obsession with fate and intricately woven storylines told via a forever shifting
chronology. Sean Penn is a critically ill mathematics professor awaiting a heart
transplant, Benicio Del Toro is a born-again ex-con who's involved in a freak
accident, and Naomi Watts is a drug-addicted housewife whose family life is
suddenly and violently shattered (all three are Oscar-worthy). At once
powerful, challenging, and tragic, "21 Grams" is, like its formidable
director, a force to be reckoned with.
"Bus 174", JosŽ Padilha and Felipe Lacerda's critically captivating
documentary, expertly melds live news footage with interviews with family
members, social workers, former street kids, and officials involved in a June
12, 2000 incident in Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Bot‰nico. And it brilliantly
explains why junked-up street kid Sandro do Nascimento's illicit bus stop
turned into a tragic four-hour standoff broadcast live in all its ingloriousness
on primetime Brazilian television.
Capturing the Friedmans
Great Neck, New York, 1987. Arnold "Arnie" Friedman, a respected high
school science teacher along with his 18-year-old son Jesse are accused of and
subsequently plead guilty to more than 40 counts of child molestation. Andrew
Jarecki's engrossing yet disturbing documentary "Capturing the Friedmans"
exposes that elusive divide between truth and lies and does so harrowingly,
balancing the damaging "facts" with the Friedman's initial proclamation of
innocence. This is a film that's as difficult to watch as it is to dismiss, or
Dirty Pretty Things
Stephen Frears's gripping, gruesome "Dirty Pretty Things" features
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou ("AmŽlie") as a couple of illegal
immigrants caught up in London's sleazy underworld of black market organ
donations. The principals, who also include Sophie Okonedo as a hooker,
Benedict Wong as a morgue attendant, and Sergi L—pez as a particularly nasty
hotel manager, are all excellent, as is the director's ability to craft a
clandestine environment populated by genuinely compassionate people.
Pixar's latest computer animated entry pits a worrywart clownfish (voice of
Albert Brooks) against a forgetful regal blue tang (voice of Ellen DeGeneres)
searching for the former's son Nemo, who's wound up in some dentist's
aquarium a Great Barrier Reef away. Continuing the studio's tradition of hip
irreverence this one's as much fun for adults as it is for kids, primarily due
to the Brooks/DeGeneres undersea chemistry. But it's also lovely to look at in
that demanding-of-multiple-viewings way.
The Heart of Me
Cinematographer turned director Thaddeus O'Sullivan's elegant,
beautifully turned melodrama unfolds slowly, perceptively, lingering on the
details and delaying gratification of its secrets. Starring Olivia Williams ("Peter
Pan"), Helena Bonham Carter ("Big Fish"), and Paul Bettany ("Master
and Commander: The Far Side of the World"), "The Heart of Me "based on
Rosamond Lehmann's 1953 novel "The Echoing Grove "is a powerful,
authentic, and deeply emotional period piece that effectively communicates that
very special affinity between sisters.
In anyone else's hands "Laurel Canyon" could so easily have been a
disaster, a cringe-worthy amalgam of familial dysfunction, sexual exploits, and
big, predictable moments that hang around like three-day-old helium balloons.
Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko ("High Art"), on the other hand, infuses
her L.A. story with insight, freshness, and a certain peculiarity, smartly
casting actors who get deep inside their characters and walk around them for
days. None the least of these is the wonderful Frances McDormand ("Something's
Gotta Give"), who offers up a superlative performance as a carefree,
career-minded record producer who, at 40-something, hasn't quite figured out
what it means to be a mother.
Lost in La Mancha
Terry Gilliam, the Monty Python animator turned rogue director ("Brazil",
"Twelve Monkeys", "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") tried for two
years to get Hollywood backing for a vision that had percolated for ten. Not
known for doing anything the easy way he wound up with three quarters of the $40
million budget needed from European backers, so from the very beginning he was
already stretched. And then the problems started. Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's
riveting documentary "Lost in La Mancha" chronicles Gilliam's disastrous
attempts to make "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote", a 2000 shoot on which
everything that could go wrong went wrong. As fascinating as it is
heartbreaking, "Lost in La Mancha" remains a must-see for anyone the
slightest bit interested in the process of making films.
Lost in Translation
When culture shock looms large, two unlikely Americans in Tokyo find mutual
comfort and companionship in Sofia Coppola's sensational follow-up to "The
Virgin Suicides." Deftly turning the generation gap on its head, "Lost
in Translation" is a funny, intelligent, achingly poignant, and beautifully
rendered film that provides no easy answers, either for its characters or the
viewer. Featuring the lovely and talented Scarlett Johansson ("Girl with a
Pearl Earring") and Bill Murray in what is undoubtedly his finest-ever screen
Four years in the making, this majestic film (written and directed by Jacques
Cluzaud and Michel Debats with narration by Jacques Perrin) documents the flight
patterns of migratory birds as they fly south (or, for some species, north!) for
the winter. That's pretty much it but the film is never less than spellbinding
because of the startling cinematography and the filmmakers up close and personal
approach to their subjects. "Winged Migration" is an intimate, uplifting
tribute to our fine-feathered friends who weather incredible odds in their quest
for survival. I, for one, will never look skyward at a big honking V in quite
the same way again.
City of God,
The Station Agent.
28 Days Later,
Kill Bill Vol. 1,
Bend It Like Beckham.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003).
|DECEMBER 29, 2003|
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