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  •  TOP10: TOP 10 FILMS OF 2003

    Top 10 films of 2003


    Well, I've already failed the prime directive for my first OOO.Com Top Ten List, with a baker's dozen plus one (including three ties) plus 5 docs. Several of my choices can also be designated Instant Cult Classics (ICC) - those odd little gems like Todd Browning's "Freaks" that will still play 50 years from now. So, maybe next year I'll get my list down to the magic 10! (Yeah, and maybe winged monkeys will fly out my butt!!!!!) Festivals indicated: S=Sundance; ND/NF=New Directors and NYFF=New York Film Fest.


    1. (tie) Northfork

    In a quasi-homage to several other sets of brothers (especially the Coens and the Quays), the idiosyncratic Polish boys both fulfill and surpass the early promise shown in "Twin Falls Idaho" (pre-dating the Farrelly Brothers' new conjoined opus). This gorgeous visual tone poem introduces a different kind of 'Angels in America' (circa 1950's mid-West), created by the fevered imagination of a sick child (the astonishing Duel Farnes). And playing against type, veteran actors James Woods and Nick Nolte give stellar performances as antithetical father figures, while Daryl Hannah plays an angelic version of her demonic "Blade Runner'' replicant. (S) (ICC)

    1. (tie) American Splendor

    Real-life husband and wife, filmmakers Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman succeed in bringing real-life husband and wife cartoon-makers, Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, to reel-life by any means necessary — sometimes live actors, sometimes animation and sometimes even the real thing. Thanks to the talented Paul Giamatti and Hope Clarke (who manage to make the awkward and neurotic Harvey and Joyce likable, if not exactly lovable), this original, sharp and true story, also charts new bio-pic turf. Kudos also to Judah Friedlander's side-by-side re-incarnation of uber-nerd, Toby Radloff. (S) (ICC)

    2. The Magdalene Sisters

    Peter Mullan's scathing attack on the Irish Catholic Church's systematic abuse of generations of young women put into their care, is often difficult to watch, but always compelling in its honesty. Heaven didn't help the so-called "wayward" Irish girls thrown into the Magdalene laundries (named for the Bible's most famous prostitute) for life sentences with no hope of parole. Mullan's angry film captures the girls' sense of hope- and help-lessness, while serving as a permanent celluloid witness to decades of the church's organized brutality masquerading as religion.

    3. Bad Santa

    Finally, an antidote to the yearly deluge of feel-good holiday flicks (see "Elf"), in this brilliant bit of "Bah Humbug" from director Terry ("Ghost World") Zwigoff. Billy Bob Thorton's foul mouth and weak bladder add up to the perfect Anti-Santa. Involved in an annual Christmas scam with a dwarf/elf-partner (Tony Cox), Thornton's alcoholic safe cracker doesn't have a "Wonderful Life," until he meets "the Kid" (Brett Kelly), an adoring lump of blubber with snot-covered nostrils. (ICC)

    4. The Station Agent

    A buddy film with brilliant performances from Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannevale, linking the loners in actor Tom McCarthy's writer/directorial debut film. Moving into the abandoned train station, Dinklage exhibits a deep reclusive desire for solitude. But once there, he becomes a magnet for the other two, and offbeat camaraderie ensues. (S) (ICC)

    5. Man on the Train (French)

    A bank robber wants to retire from his life of crime and wear comfortable slippers, while an aging tutor wants a taste of excitement before it's too late. Director Patrice ("Ridicule") LeConte's gentle Gallic comedy of manners mixes one French pop idol from the '60s (Johnny Hallyday) with one of France's greatest living character actors (Jean Rochefort), for a truly moving male-bonding experience. Hallyday's performance is electric.

    6. Mondays in the Sun (Spanish)

    Spain's non-Almodovar entry in the 2003 Oscar race was this serio-comic look at that country's very real problem of unemployment, from director Fernando Len de Aranoa. Forsaking his sleek good looks to play a bearish, Anthony Quinn-like character of great heart and appetite, Javier Bardem leads an ensemble of former dockyard workers. Now they spend Mondays sunning themselves on the ferry or drinking in the bar one of them owns. Each would kill for a job and each dies a little more every day he can't find one. (S)(ND/NF)

    7. (tie) Monster

    The Hollywood adage "take off your makeup and/or play crazy and you'll get an Oscar," now extends to the indie world as well — witness Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball." Or maybe it's just the word "Monster," in the title. Either way, Charlize Theron benefits in her stunning portrayal of serial murderess Aileen Wuoronos in Patty Jenkins' grimly defiant debut film, "Monster." Added weight, mottled skin, bad teeth and the best acting this side of Patricia Clarkson, combine to give Theron a real shot at the gold statue. Attention must also be paid to Christina Ricci in the less showy but equally complex role of her snarky little lesbian girlfriend.

    7. (tie) 21 Grams

    No sophomore slump for the second film (and English language debut) from Alejandro Gonzlez Irritu ("Amores Perros"). A tour de force for its three leads — Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro) — it's a mosaic of split-second time shifts, edits and hand-held camera work. This religious and philosophical treatise on life, death, guilt and redemption, is a wild and dizzying ride that leaves the viewer drained and possibly even changed. Now will someone please write Del Toro a leading role that's as good as his born-again convict, Jack! (NYFF)

    8. Barbarian Invasions

    Before you blame Canada for anything else, pay attention to Qubecois director Denys Arcand's witty, yet moving sequel to his "Decline and Fall of the American Empire." Rmy, a romantic reprobate and unreconstructed socialist, is dying of cancer surrounded in his final hours by friends, lovers, his ex-wife and capitalist son. Rmy's impending death serves as the catalyst for each to find rapprochement and closure. (S)(NYFF)

    9. Monsieur Ibrahim (French)

    Francois Dupeyron deconstructs the Jewish-Muslim conflict into a bawdy 1960s French fairy tale. The return of Omar Sharif may be cause for celebration, but his performance as an aging Muslim shopkeeper and philosopher is an occasion for rejoicing. Acknowledging his New Wave precursors, the director even recreates a scene from Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 "Le Mpris," with la belle Isabel Adjani as Brigitte Bardot.

    10 (tie). The Triplets of Belleville (French)

    After decades of artful hand-painted animation cels, came PIXAR! But not to worry, French-Canadian artist/writer/director Sylvain Chomet to the rescue! He brings back those beloved days of two-dimensional cartoons, with skillfully evocative animation in such a clearly defined adult story of good-versus-evil, that dialogue is almost unnecessary "Triplets" is the polar opposite of "Finding Nemo" — fresh, funny and (thank God!) never cutesy!

    10 (tie). Camp

    "We have a sports counselor?" asks an incredulous camper at Todd Graff's theater camp, where 12-year-olds sing sophisticated Sondheim songs and misfit kids of every sexual persuasion get to be stars for the summer. The great Stephen himself makes an appearance in this campy romp, alongside a passel of talented teens. For anyone who ever hummed a showtune or wanted to wear sequins. (S) (ND/NF) (ICC)

    10 (tie). Friday Night (French)

    At last, a sexual fantasy of the zipless variety — anonymous sex with an attractive partner — for the women in the audience. French (naturellement) director Claire Denis' strands her heroine in a major Friday night Parisian traffic jam, but unlike Jean-Luc Godard's "Weekend," she ends up in bed with a handsome stranger, not dead on the highway. We've come along way, bb!

    Too late to be included: Peter Pan

    (Believe it or not!) Best children's film of the year (and maybe the decade). There's nothing of the condescending Disney habit of talking animals and trees in this live action film from P.J. Hogan ("Muriel's Wedding"), with its subversive adolescent subtext and great special effects — perhaps the most daring of which is an actual boy playing Peter!

    Honorable mention
    Secret Lives of Dentists, Elephant, Dirty Pretty Things, 28 Days Later, Swimming Pool, A Mighty Wind.

    Dishonorable mention
    The Singing Detective, Sylvia, The Cooler, Kill Bill vol. 1, Wonderland, The Company.


    1. The Fog of War

    Errol Morris' intensive interview reveals 85 year old Viet Nam War architect Robert McNamara to be a glorified efficiency expert, against a backdrop of imaginatively manipulated archival footage. (S) (NYFF)

    2. Sister Helen

    A saint she ain't. No Mother Teresa, the foul-mouthed tough-love South Bronx nun who spent her final years caring for male drug abusers in her own Mott Haven rehab facility, was a contemporary Mother Courage. (S)

    3. Nazi Officer's Wife

    Edith Hahn, titular survivor of documentarian Liz Garbus' ("Execution of Wanda Jean," "Girlhood") powerful film, tries to justify having married a Nazi during World War II. But the filmmaker's insightful interview techniques reveal the specious convolutions of Hahn's logic without placing blame.

    4. Journeys with George

    Shot two years before Iraq, journalist Alexandra Pelosi used video-taped material from the back of the planes and buses she shared with the Shrub, to create a subversively candid portrait of the canny politician who now leads the country.

    5. Lost in La Mancha

    Don Quixote has bested such diverse but brilliant filmmakers as Orson Welles and now Terry Gilliam. It's heartbreaking to watch as Gilliam's projected film disintegrates in the face of his grandiose plans and some really bad weather.

    Honorable mention:
    Capturing the Friedmans, A Decade Under the Influence.

    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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