The year’s cinematic output had everything to do with the complex cultural climate. The fear of mortality, the yearning for connection, and the lust for vengeance appeared again and again in movies, whether comedies, action flicks, or serious year-end sagas. Following is a list of the year’s films that most notably resist or scrutinise these notions, in alphabetical order:
21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003)
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
City of God (Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, 2002)
The Dancer Upstairs (John Malkovich, 2003)
Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2003)
Elephant (Gus van Sant, 2003)
The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)
Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003)
Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002)
Cynthia Fuchs is associate professor of Film & Media Studies at George Mason University, film-TV-DVD editor for PopMatters.com, and editor of Spike Lee: Interviews (University of Mississippi Press, 2002).
Ten best films released in the US in 2003:
Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhang-ke, 2002)
The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki, 2002)
To Be and to Have (Nicolas Philibert, 2002)
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Owning Mahowny (Richard Kwietniowski, 2003)
demonlover (Olivier Assayas, 2002)
Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2001)
Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2002)
Five best recent films undistributed in the US as of the end of 2003:
Goodbye Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003)
Kohi Jikou (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)
Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, 2002)
The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003)
Ana y los otros (Celina Murga, 2003)
Worst films of 2003: The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand, 2003), Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003), Pieces of April (Peter Hedges, 2003). Worst scenes of 2003: the classroom scenes in Shattered Glass (Billy Ray, 2003).
I find mysterious the all but unanimous critical praise (in the US) for Lost In Translation, a mediocre light comedy that owes almost all its effect, apart from that ensured by the contrivances with which the scenario locks up its central situation, to the charm of the stars. The sublimity of one affecting moment – Bill Murray’s karaoke rendition of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” – can scarcely make a masterpiece of the whole film.
For all its hypnotic excellence, Elephant, another much praised film, has little to say about the causes of the calamity that it takes as its subject and left me feeling that if it had turned out to be a highly aestheticised teen comedy instead of a film about the Columbine massacre, it would have been just as good (and therefore better). A defense on the lines of “that’s exactly the film’s point: impossibility of understanding, rejection of catharsis” is plausible, but of Van Sant’s two 2003 releases I prefer Gerry (2002) which stands in no need of such arguments.
Two other American films I appreciate less than many people seem to are American Splendor (Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman, 2003) and Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003). The former is an agreeable and clever portrait that domesticates and sweetens its subject’s subversiveness. In the latter, the superficiality of the treatment of a complex and unpleasant subject is even more disappointing, and more open to the charge of opportunism, than in Elephant.
These four films – Lost In Translation, Elephant, American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans – exemplify the main weaknesses of current American cinema, at any rate American cinema that has any claim to importance: its diffidence with large themes and its caginess with disturbing material, which it is nonetheless willing to exploit for shock value; its heavy reliance on the charisma of actors; its cultivation of what entertainment journalists call the “quirky”, in preference to either a personal style or anything that might pass as classicism in a non-trivial sense.
One American film released in 2003 avoided, as if systematically, each of these problems: Mystic River, a masterpiece equal to its big themes that, far from being a meteorological showcase for its leading actor, dismantles the alibis and the mystique of violent emotion.
Chris Fujiwara, the author of Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (Johns Hopkins University Press), writes on film for The Boston Phoenix and other publications. He is based in Boston, Massachusetts.
Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
The Secret Lives of Dentists (Alan Rudolph, 2002)
My Architect (Nathanial Kahn, 2003)
Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002)
Laurel Canyon (Lisa Cholodenko, 2003)
Pieces of April
The Fog of War
Great year for documentaries and a terrible year for fiction films, except for the ones with Hope Davis. Most overrated film by far: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003). Doesn’t anyone notice how profoundly gynophobic this series of films has been? The ring is just what it looks like – a wedding ring. If you wear it, you go crazy. Or you have a vision of what is supposed to be the eye of Sarin but what looks to me like a flaming vulva. At the climax of the series, when Frodo tries on the ring, he quickly experiences an upward displacement of castration by having his finger bit off. The boys and men are constantly gazing at each other longingly and holding each other in their arms, while the occasional female character gets a peck on the mouth and is then hustled offscreen. Is this what our popular entertainment has come to?
Krin Gabbard is Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of the Department of Comparative Studies at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. He is the author of Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (University of Chicago Press, 1996) and the editor of Jazz Among the Discourses and Representing Jazz (both Duke University Press, 1995).
Some personal viewing pleasures of 2003 in no particular order (a year spent more in the street than in the theatre):
Masked and Anonymous (Larry Charles, 2003). Nearly as maligned as Renaldo and Clara (Bob Dylan, 1978), and just as worth seeing and grappling with.
Friday Night (Claire Denis, 2002). Quite simply, a film that made me feel good to be alive. A difficult feat on some days.
Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2001)
Letter from a Yellow Cherry Blossom (Naomi Kawase, 2002)
Discovering in greater depth the documentaries of Noriaki Tsuchimoto including On the Road: The Document (1964), Minamata: The Victims and their World (1971), Shiranui Sea (1975), and Afghan Spring (1990); and the documentaries of Tran Van Thuy: The Story of Kindness (1987), The Sound of the Violin in My Lai (1998) and A Story from the Corner of the Park (1996).
Dans le noir du temps (Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 2003)
Discovering in greater depth the films of Phil Solomon including Nocturne (1980/1989), The Exquisite Hour (1989/1994), The Snowman (1995), Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance (1999), Seasons (1998-99, co-director: Stan Brakhage).
From The Other Side (Chantal Akerman, 2002)
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, 2003)
Warming by the Devil’s Fire (Charles Burnett, 2003)
John Gianvito is a filmmaker, curator, and teacher presently residing in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.
Anthony I. Ginnane
Eligibility: theatrical or premiere DVD releases or festivals in US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, calendar year 2003.
Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003)
Gothika (Mathieu Kassovitz, 2003)
In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003)
Kill Bill: Volume 1
Last Life In The Universe (Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003)
Once Upon A Time In Mexico (Robert Rodriguez, 2003)
Ripley’s Game (Liliana Cavani, 2002)
Zatôichi (Takeshi Kitano, 2003)
Most welcome retrospectives:
Yasujiro Ozu (touring North America, 2003)
Boris Barnet (Brooklyn Academy of Music)
Antony I. Ginnane is a producer, distributor and commentator based in Los Angeles, USA and Melbourne, Australia. He is also President of IFM World Releasing Inc.
Ten best cinematic things of 2003:
Stan Brakhage screenings at Splodge – to finally see and “hear” this stuff actually projected in a truly “underground” environment was truly a revelation, not only for its technicolor abstractions, but for the inherent “groove” Brakhage’s work has with 24fps.
25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2003). Spike gets off the mike and slam dunks the punks.
Greendale (Neil Young, 2003). Totally indulgent hippy shit, but… While sitting eight rows from the front to watch this movie/play/electrified experience may not count as “cinema” per se, I’d debate that.
The Public Enemy (William Wellman, 1931). Original Gangsta started and ended here. Cagney is all killer.
Pixote (Hector Babenco, 1982) and Los Olvidados (Luis Buñuel, 1950). Innocence lost but not in translation.
Seven Men from Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973). Two ballads, one acoustic, the other electrified. Wait for the Nick Cave cover version.
Bone (Larry Cohen, 1972) (Blue Underground DVD). Beg, borrow or steal this mind-blaster from America’s most undervalued cinema maverick. The great filmmakers of tomorrow should be borrowing from here, if anywhere.
Alucarda (Juan Lopez Moctezuma, 1975) (Mondo Macarbo DVD). SATAN! LESBIANS! THE CHURCH! THE STATE! No, it’s not the latest Kokkinos/Tsiolkas agit-prop fest, it’s a “crummy” horror film from Mexico! And it’s great!
Lovesick (Bill Mousoulis, 2003). Mousoulis satisfied my curiosity with this one, as this was better than the last ten Goverment/SBS funded “million dollar movies” made in Aussieland. How does the saying go, “teach the man to fish…”?
The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002). The most politically incorrect politically correct movie of the year. Problem was, most people seemed to forget.
ZZZZzzzzzz : Spider, Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002), demonlover, House of 1000 Corpses (Rob Zombie, 2002), Cabin Fever (Eli Roth, 2003), Undead (Michael & Peter Spierig, 2003), Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002).
Aaron Goldberg studies screenwriting at RMIT in Melbourne and writes for R4 magazine, JJJ websites and anywhere else that will have him.
Dolls (Takeshi Kitano, 2002). Kitano’s neglected meditation on love and loss might be his masterpiece, despite the dearth of blood and guns that played such a large part in its lack of American distribution.
Turning Gate. Hong Sang-Soo is poised to take his place among the great contemporary masters of Asian cinema.
Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary (Guy Maddin, 2002). Guy Maddin’s most visually astounding film, and that’s saying something.
Friday Night. If we can’t find substance in small stretches of passion and fantasy, then what are we doing watching movies?
Elephant. Formally dazzling, but also a devastating emotional experience.
Divine Intervention (Elia Sulieman, 2002). A cinematic embodiment of frustration and loss that becomes lighter than air.
Spellbound. In a year that produced a dozen or so non-fiction masterpieces, this is the most surprising, and the most enjoyable.
Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich, 2003). Who knew children’s entertainment could be so clever? Well, anyone who’s seen A Bug’s Life (John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton, 1998), Monster’s Inc (Peter Doctor & David Silverman, 2001), and Toy Story 2 (Ash Brannon, John Lasseter & Lee Unkrich, 1999).
The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki, 2002). Melodrama taken to absurd heights even though the actors hardly ever break into an actual expression. Watch it twice on two different days, you’re just as likely to laugh as you are to cry.
Ichi the Killer (Takeshi Miike, 2002). Pure, sick, disgusting, unadulterated genius.
I’ve been less enthusiastic about most of the big-name releases, but this has been a fantastic year for little movies. All those critics who grumble about the overall quality of films this year just aren’t looking hard enough. So, other films I loved (and managed to extract from the above list with an excruciating amount of effort) include, in no order: 21 Grams, Spider, Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2002), To Be and to Have (Nicolas Philbert, 2002) How To Draw A Bunny (John Walter, 2002), Cremaster 3 (Matthew Barney, 2002) Hukkle (Györgi Pálfi, 2002), demonlover, Mystic River (though overrated), Lost In Translation (though not as thrilled as most), The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King, American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans, Power Trip (Paul Devlin, 2003), Gerry, PTU (Johnnie To, 2003) and a little Hungarian movie called Vagabond (György Szomjas, 2002).
The best performance of the year was the most fun, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean (Gore Verbinski, 2003).
Many films from both lists above could serve as most underrated, but the most overrated movie of the year is Nathanael Kahn’s My Architect, an ego-trip adventure in self-advertising. There are plenty of real worst movies of the year, but the worst film that anyone took seriously was the wretched after-school-special-with-music Camp (Todd Graff, 2003).
I also have to salute the Criterion Collection and Palm Distribution for the best DVDs of the year: By Brakhage: An Anthology and the Director’s Series featuring the work of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham. Both ventures took commercially released videos into territories they’ve never been before, and the results are wonderful.
For me, the Arafat balloon and the flying Ninja in Divine Intervention were the best scenes of the year.
Several films listed above still haven’t had American distribution, but the most baffling MIA movie is My Mother’s Smile (Marco Bellocchio, 2002) my favourite film from Cannes 2002 – one of the best years in recent memory.
Adam Hart is a critic and filmmaker based in Seattle, WA (USA). He has written for indieWire, Res, Really Good Films and others.
As I moved to a smaller city this year, the issue of distribution has been more on my mind than ever…many of my favourite films this year were thus viewed on DVD, or while travelling.
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003)
Bright Future (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2003)
Swimming Pool (François Ozon, 2003)
Lost In Translation
The Shape of Things (Neil LaBute, 2003)
A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest, 2003)
Anything Else (Woody Allen, 2003)
Kill Bill: Volume 1
My least favourite film-viewing experiences were Mystic River and Irreversible, two films that were trying so hard to convince me of their importance that I just wanted to walk away, like you’d do to an obnoxious child who desparately wants attention.
A few DVDs I loved: By Brakhage, The Work of Director Michel Gondry, Style Wars.
Dave Heaton is the editor of the online magaine Erasing Clouds. He currently lives in Lansing, Michigan, USA.
Infernal Affairs 2 (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak, 2003). Deepening the story of part one in ways that The Godfather Part 2 (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) only paid lip service to, this sequel to Hong Kong’s runaway hit of 2002 accomplishes what sequels only rarely do: you can no longer watch part one without also watching part two. Infernal Affairs 1 and 2 now stand as the deepest and most satisfying crime saga of them all.
Men Suddenly in Black (Edmond Pang, 2003). The ultimate expression of the Porky’s (Bob Clark, 1981) aesthetic. A lowdown sex farce runs through once on normal, then passes through the fire and becomes a meditation on marriage and fidelity. A little too long, but when else has sexual slapstick left you feeling clean and pure and privy to the secrets of the universe? Fueled by brutal parodies of everything from Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak, 2002) to Se7en (David Fincher, 1995), the director plays it straight-faced from start to finish – all too rare in the current “wink, nudge, learn a lesson” school of Hollywood comedy.
Running on Karma (Johnnie To & Wai Ka Fai, 2003). “What genre is this?” madness ends with a plea for an end to all violence. Martial arts, comedy, romance, and grotty blood-letting swirl psychedelically as this Johnnie To wonder wagon transforms itself into a truly Buddhist movie. Totally unique.
Twins Effect (Dante Lam, 2003). Hong Kong’s number two movie of the year (beaten out by Finding Nemo – d’oh!) is a wet raspberry blown at Hollywood by an overconfident film industry that was left for dead, but now emerges stronger than ever. Not so much a movie as a series of disconnected setpieces strung together, it stars pop sensations, the Twins, as the cutest li’l vampire hunters of them all. They’re more infectious than SARS, but a lot more fun. The movie also throws old schoolers a bone with Jackie Chan turning in his best performance in a while. A throwback to the Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung, 1985) / Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang, 1982) brand of early ’80s Hong Kong masala.
Memories of Murder (Bong Jun-Ho, 2003). From the true story of a serial killer in 1980s Korea, Bong Jun-Ho crafts a mix of police procedural, thriller, political drama, and angry comedy that leaves you breathless and burnt. Going into this movie you know that this crime went unsolved, but it doesn’t stop the ending from leaving you squatting on the floor, gripping your head in your hands and howling in frustration and anger.
Save the Green Planet (Jan Jung-Hwan, 2003). Another freaky, genre-busting flick in the vein of Running on Karma. Only this one doesn’t beg us to give peace a chance, but holds a gun to our heads and demands it. Billed as a kooky black comedy, it’s instead a heart-shredding plea for humanity completely devoid of laughs. Only the most sadistic audience could find this funny.
Ong-Bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003). Made by a cast of unknowns from a mostly-unknown-in-the-West film industry, this is the most liberating collection of brutally beautiful violence, hard falls, and high kicks to grace the screen since Jackie Chan’s 1994 Drunkenmaster 2. A truly joyous experience, the likes of which are all too rare these days.
From Justin to Kelly (Robert Iscove, 2003). A mishmash of everything from Fosse to West Side Story (Robert Wise, 1961) to Beach Blanket Bingo (William Asher, 1965) and Elvis flicks, this motion picture toilet-clogger is the most daring American movie of the year. Eschewing middlebrow, middle-class conventions in a bold attempt at refashioning the musical for today’s teen, no other Hollywood picture reaches so far and falls so short. Inspiring!
Grady Hendrix is one of the founders of Subway Cinema, a film programming collective in New York City dedicated to increasing exposure for popular Asian movies neglected by Western critics and audiences.
Listed alphabetically – all are features unless stated:
Captive, Waiting… (Mohammad Ahmadi, 2002) (short documentary)
Close-up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)
Come Drink with Me (King Hu,1966) (remastered)
Home (Kobayashi Takahiro, 2001) (60-minute documentary)
In My Skin [Dans ma peau] (Marina de Van, 2002)
La Vie Nouvelle (Philippe Grandrieux, 2003)
Save the Green Planet
The Saddest Music In The World (Guy Maddin, 2003)
James Hewison is Executive Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
For reasons that would take a small novel to explain (and probably not a very interesting one at that) I missed out on several 2002/2003 releases somewhere in mid-Atlantic transit over the course of that period. However, as we all grow to embrace the wonders of the digital, multichannel universe, instead of getting all anal-retentive about release dates, I have decided to include films that I caught up with on DVD, and television fare as good if not better than many hyped cinema releases I did love or simply enjoy. And no, I did not see the latest Lord of The Rings installment, but enough of you have, so I think we can all sleep a little better with that knowledge.
Confessions of A Dangerous Mind (George Clooney, 2002)
About Schmidt (Alexander Payne, 2002)
Lilya 4–ever (Lukas Moodysson, 2002)
George Orwell: A Life In Pictures (Chris Durlacher, 2003) (TV film for BBC2)
Young Adam (David Mackenzie, 2003)
Open Hearts (Denmark, Susanne Bier, 2002)
Trilogy One: On The Run (Lucas Belvaux, 2003)
Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002)
Best war movie: In The Line of Fire (produced by Tom Giles for BBC’s Panorama program, broadcast, Nov. 9, 2003). In April 2003, BBC news veteran, John Simpson, found himself caught up in one of the more absurd “friendly fire” situations of the Iraq war. This documentary deserves as wide an audience as possible as one of the most compassionate and lucid attempts to make sense of last spring.
I Laughed, I Cried: The sublime comic genius of Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant’s The Office (BBC) and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO). To paraphrase Faulkner, great comedy is worth any number of former Saturday Night Live regulars.
Entertainments/Diversions/Guilty Pleasures: About A Boy (Chris and Paul Weitz, 2002), Changing Lanes (Roger Michel, 2001), Solaris (Steven Soderbergh, 2002) Intacto (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2002), Ripley’s Game, Le Divorce (James Ivory, 2003), The Good Thief (Neil Jordan, 2003), Summer Things (Michel Blance, 2002), Small Cuts (Pascal Bonitzer, 2003) Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen, 2003), and Mystic River.
“What the – !”: The Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003) and In the Cut
Best Alan Pakula Film: State of Play (David Yates, 2003) (BBC1, written by Paul Abbot)
Worst: Kill Bill: Volume 1. Volume two will have to be some amazing mix of the best of Bresson, Welles, Peckinpah, Wong Kar-Wai, etc. etc. to atone for the laziness, cynicism, and decadence of Harvey and Quentin’s version of the Emperor’s New Clothes.
Favourite screen nasty/off-screen nice guy: Sydney Pollack
Best Film Book: Making Pictures: One Hundred Years of European Cinematography (published by Harry N. Abrams).
Grand Guy: Steven Soderbergh for helping to arrange the donation of the Terry Southern papers to the New York Public Library and his generosity and vision as producer and director.
Lee Hill is the author of A Grand Guy: The Art and Life of Terry Southern (available in paperback from Bloomsbury UK).
In no particular order:
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
Far From Heaven
Talk To Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
Perfect Strangers (Gaylene Preston, 2003)
Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2002)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
On another day any one of Divine Intervention, Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg, 2002), Alexandra’s Project (Rolf de Heer, 2003) or Adaptation might have made it into the ten.
Most of the above get points for the way they tested the parameters of genre and/or narrative while Far From Heaven and Springtime were affectingly neo-classical.
Special thanks to Nigel Buesst for reminding us that, for an all too brief few years in the late ’60s, Carlton + Godard = Cinema (2003).
Bruce Hodsdon has curated film and video collections and screenings in the National Library, Canberra, and currently in the State Library of Queensland.
Favourite films seen in the San Francisco Bay area in 2003:
Elephant/Gerry. Two deconstructions of American mainstream visual culture by the year’s most surprising comeback director. A denunciation of the American news media’s inclination to melodrama after Columbine, Elephant is clearly the superior film, but Gerry is equally intellectual and nearly as emotionally gripping, thrusting two dim-witted hipsters into a West devoid of signification and myth.
Somewhere over the Dreamland (Cheng Wen-tang, 2002). Perhaps the strongest case for admitting another director into the trio of festival-approved Taiwanese masters, this romantic first feature is the clearest indication that the island’s future in film must learn from, then move beyond, the impressive shadows cast by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang. I can’t wait to see it again.
Unknown Pleasures. So much praise has already befallen Jia’s treatise on globalisation and culture that I can only add this: the karaoke performance of the title song which closes the film is by far the scene of the year.
Japón (Carlos Reygadas, 2002). This quirky, remarkable debut should make 16mm Scope hip again.
Kill Bill: Volume 1. The ultimate culmination of the martial arts cinematic tradition, at least in the psyche of a video store-working American white-boy, Kill Bill: Volume 1, in its inspired sense of fun and film history, collapses otherwise opposite forces such as samurai/wuxia, Bruce Lee/David Carradine, and Chang Cheh/Green Hornet. Martial arts purists will say he’s got it all wrong, but to American audiences, it’s impossible to conceive of the genre’s geneology without its influence on yakuza, blaxploitation, and spaghetti westerns, and Kill Bill boldly folds them onto each other in a flurry of movie love.
From the Other Side. My only reservation over this terrific documentary is that it’s edited in such a way that it could only be shown in museums and festivals and never in the towns just north of the Rio Grande where it’d actually be of use. But as a statement on the frustrations and perseverance of Mexican immigrants, it’s essential viewing.
Friday Night. Those who champion Sofia Coppola’s pretty but childish and ignorant Lost In Translation probably haven’t seen Denis’ much better film on ephemeral love in extraordinary circumstances. Here’s a woman that can only find herself when the city is at a literal standstill, and the results are passionate and whimsical.
Infernal Affairs. This fireball of a film is a John Woo picture where cops and gangsters fight with cell phones and surveillance equipment instead of guns. Single-handedly resurrecting Hong Kong action cinema, Infernal Affairs recalls the pre-1997 genre of good villains and corrupt policeman but kickstarts it with a healthy dose of modern pizzazz, providing us with a signature performance by Tony Leung and the year’s most radiant melodrama.
Blissfully Yours. No movie moment made my heart skip a beat quite like that startling point 45 minutes into Blissfully Yours when the opening credits come onscreen. Accompanied by some refreshing twee-pop, the credits playfully defy both mainstream and art-house conventions, which seems to capture the mood of the rest of the film as it flirts with documentary, pornography, and social commentary with masterful ease.
The School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003). As I round out this top ten list, I’m reminded of Jack Black’s list-obsessed character in High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000) which ultimately reminds me of School of Rock. Either because I’m shamelessly nerdy or I secretly wish to shred solos with the best of them, Jack Black’s music guru is my hero. Although I question how effective Linklater’s film would be toa crowd that hates rock and roll (hell, you can argue that every entry on my list is a case of preaching to the converted), the film’s didactic power tapped into my superstar desires and I’m totally down with that.
Brian Hu is a film studies student at the University of California, Berkeley. His interests include Taiwanese cinemas and popular music in film.
That a film like Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Joe Dante, 2003) a heart-rending literal, if slightly compromised, tribute to the greatest cinematic achievement of the 20th century failed to resonate with audiences and (most) critics alike may have been the biggest blow of 2003, but then the general preference for Sofia Coppola’s likable Bill Murray vehicle over Stuck on You (Peter & Bobby Farrelly, 2003), the true Hollywood masterpiece of the year, indicates that we still like it better to imagine ourselves superior, alienated and in possession of great cynical wit than to humbly embrace our basic flaws. The Farrellys’ magnificently written parable about the interconnectedness of alarming ignorance and moving innocence certainly proves that it is still possible – in Hollywood of all places – to make great humanist cinema, even if irony is the preferred mode nowadays.
Irony Killed Bill: Volume 1 (specifically the line “Buck wants to fuck” did, and not even Chiaki Kuriyama could bring it back to life, though she tried amazingly hard), but that may be part of its design which suggests the biggest irony is making White Elephant Art out of innocently gnawing exploitation movies. Still it was the 6th best Hollywood entertainment of the year, in case there’s any meaning left in the word entertainment: the huge amount of space wasted on even the second turgid Matrix sequel when a film like Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (Jang Sun-Woo, 2002) – which was everything the interminable trilogy should have been: smart, risky, funny and positively utopian – gets virtually ignored, seems to indicate otherwise. Then again, the ridiculous, but thankfully short ending of Revolutions (Larry & Andy Wachowski, 2003) was more merciful than the most self-indulgent encore ever in Peter Jackson’s Christmas-slot filler. It made you wish he hadn’t stuffed his then-anarchic brain back into his head in Bad Taste (Peter Jackson, 1988), so he could exchange it at the box office later.
Box office receipts visibly were not the driving force behind the most personal and interesting films of the year: Batang West Side (2001), Lav Diaz’s towering epic about the Filipino diaspora, probably wasn’t screened in more than a handful of venues (I saw it on video), but it’s the most startling film I’ve seen in years, not just because of its aesthetic rigour; its sheer scope and ambition are awe-inspiring, in a very modest way. (Only the Pynchonesque conception of Barbara Albert’s Free Radicals [Böse Zellen]  came close in the latter category, even if it’s sometimes too audacious for its own good, and for all its ambiguity it does seem a bit too much in love with suffering.) The sheer insouciance of making something for himself rather than them seems to be what infuriated the critics in Cannes at the embarrassing screening of Vincent Gallo’s excellent road movie The Brown Bunny; actually I preferred the original cut (though it was probably wise to remove the ending), but for all it lost on Warhol/Benning/Frank-frontline, the new edit moves closer towards Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) not just because of the haunted, ragged landscapes and melancholia, but because of its overwhelming sense of futility and the sparse musicality. Actually, The Brown Bunny is best approached like a singer-songwriter album – the music gives all the c(l)ues – it’s quite explicitly a film about all great themes from the dark side of country music: anger, jealousy, vanity, the devils lust, booze, drugs and suffocating on your own vomit.
I wish Gus van Sant had cut the vomiting girls from Elephant, but it was a remarkable film for the self-reflexive pangs of guilt on display alone: Few shots this year carried the same desperate weight as the last shot of the photographer who instinctively cannot resist taking a last picture of his killers; Marcia Gay Harden waving at her child in vain, maybe. Which reminds me: for all the ample display of Eastwood’s usual mastery in Mystic River, he doesn’t try to conceal the (eminently forgiveable) usual weaknesses of Helgeland’s script. So I’m flabbergasted at the sudden masterpiece-touting after unwarranted dismissals; like with the sudden embrace of Elephant after many Gerry-pans, it seems looming gravitas of theme is still a necessary factor. That would also explain why a simple, classical, unassuming and near-perfect film like School Trip (Henner Winckler, 2002) has no chance. (It’s not that it’s near unintelligible outside of its country of origin, like Stossek 1968-86, a feature-length cultural artefact by Alexander Binder condensed from 18 hours of home movies by Werner Stoschek covering 18 years and a mesmerising collage of unconsciously captured signifiers of the Austrian mindset of the era; its unexpected finale is probably more powerful than Elephant and Mystic River combined.) What’s funny about Mystic River though, is that the best performance in the film – Kevin Bacon’s unfussy turn, his effortlessness in putting the amusing star-gazing of his two male co-stars in perspective – will go mostly unheralded, a replay of Eastwood’s own fate as an actor. Speaking of great acting, I’m still of the opinion that if Willard (Glen Morgan, 2003) had been titled Crispion Hellion Glover – The Movie, the film, and especially its star (which is most of the film) would have gotten the recognition they deserved.
Enough rambling; since it’s time to confess that I probably couldn’t even make a convincing argument that Thome’s somehow magical Red and Blue is actually a good film (whatever that means) – I only can say that I wish one Rohmer movie in the last decade intoxicated me as much with comparably subtle sleight-of-hand-manoeuvres and evocative mise en scène, what could I add? Maybe that – even though Murray’s rendition of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” was magical – the true sound sensation of 2003 was that Takeshi Kitano finally made his musical, which was – not quite surprising, but still – the only great genre film of the year. God bless him.
Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty (Rafi Pitts, 2003)
Batang West Side
The Brown Bunny
Choses secrètes (Secret Things) (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002)
The Decay of Fiction (Pat O’Neill, 2002)
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)
Distant Lights (Lichter) (Hans-Christian Schmid, 2003)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)
Psalm III: Night of the Meek (Phil Solomon, 2002)
Stossek 1968-86 (Alexander Binder/Werner Stoschek, 2003)
Stuck on You
Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (Sungnyangpari sonyue jaerim) (Jang Sun-woo, 2002)
196 BPM (Romuald Kamarkar, 2003)
Playing “In the Company of Men” (En jouant ‘Dans la compagnie du hommes”) (Arnaud Desplechin, 2003)
L’imbalsamatore (The Embalmer, Matteo Garrone, 2002)
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
Masked and Anonymous
No Rest for the Brave (Pas des repos pour les braves) (Alain Guiraudie, 2003)
Red and Blue (Rot und Blau) (Rudolf Thome, 2003)
Shara (Naomi Kawase, 2003)
Time of the Wolf (Michael Haneke, 2003)
Tokyo Sky (Tokyo.sora) (Ishikawa Hiroshi, 2003)
Verschwende deine Jugend (Benjamin Quabeck, 2003)
Christoph Huber is the main film critic for Die Presse (Vienna). He has published on cinema and pop music for various film magazines, newspapers and websites and writes the program notes for Vienna’s Cinémathèque.
Christopher J. Jarmick
In This World (Michael Winterbottom, 2003). Enyat (Enayatullah) who lives in an Afghanistan refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan decides to travel to England. Jamal (Jamal Udin Torabi) his 13-year-old cousin, gets to accompany him because he speaks some English. The journey will be an overland trek that will take the two refugees into several hostile territories – Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, and so on – and expose them to dangerous situations and much hardship. The film was shot documentary-style; hand held and sometimes hidden camera techniques were used out of necessity. It’s easy to forget you are watching a fiction film and not a documentary. The actors, director and film crew involved took the journey we are watching in the film, with the producers arranging permits and bribes a couple of days ahead of the film company. The film’s authenticity comes from the superb location work, but it’s the editing and all of the subtle touches and details that create what I’m confident I’ll be calling a masterpiece within a few years. Then again, I guess I’m calling it that now. At times a subtle cleverness reminds us this is not an actual documentary but never does the film preach (after the brief set-up in the beginning). You can’t help but be moved and feel a deep compassion for the characters as we observe and reflect on what so many refugees have risked and gone through to get a chance for a better life.The film states that there are 14 million political and economic refugees worldwide with over 1 million living in Peshawar. After the film was completed, Jamal Udin Torabi, who plays the character of Jamal, actually made a journey from Pakistan to England very similar to what we saw in the film. He was caught and detained for two months in a refugee camp in England before he told the filmmakers what he had done and they were able to help him.
The Company (Robert Altman, 2003). Robert Altman’s latest film is a backstage look at the life of a season in a dance company. It stars mainly members of Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet and we watch them interact with each other, rehearse and perform. That’s it. That’s more than enough. The main characters are Ry (Neve Campbell) the promising young dancer, Harriet (Barbara E. Robertson) the veteran dancer, Josh (James Franco) Ry’s lover, and Alberto A. (Malcom McDowell) the artistic director. Altman has been choreographing large interesting casts of actors in his movies for several years so it should come as no surprise that he has made one of the most beautiful and graceful movies about dance yet. It’s also very much about Altman himself. If you’re on the same wavelength as the movie and Altman (and that’s a pretty big if) you’ll be enchanted from beginning to end.
Shattered Glass. The first minutes tried too hard to create a framing device that the film didn’t need, but then the film gets going and just about everything else works. It is based on the true story of Stephen Glass, and is more than a good film about journalism; it’s also about ethics, morals and opportunism. The heart of the movie is in the performances and as layers of complexity are added you shift your appreciation for the fine job Hayden Christiansen is doing as Glass to the even better job Peter Sarsgaard is doing as new editor Chuck Lane. Hank Azaria is also perfect in the smaller role of editor Michael Kelly. First-time filmmaker Billy Ray tells the story pretty straight without any chasers or additional comments intruding. It’s a smart move, and a smart movie about a very smart con. Bravo.
My Architect. This is a too personal documentary about a son trying to discover who his famous architect father was. He wants to understand his father’s life work and he hopes to discover who his father was in the process. He travels the world to see his father’s buildings and uncovers family secrets, exposing himself and others in his quest for closure and understanding. It’s a film about the son’s journey as much as an unflattering biography of Louis I. Kahn the famous architect. You won’t believe how compelling and interesting nearly every moment of this film is. It’s flawed, because our narrator and filmmaker is Nathaniel Kahn, the illegitimate son who is completely involved in the story, and that’s exactly as it should be in this case.
Marooned in Iraq (Bahman Ghobadi, 2003). Kurds helping each other on a quest to find a man’s wife in one of the most desolate parts of the world during the Iran/Iraq war. It captures characters, places, and a culture most know little about. The U.S. is in Iraq and one reason given is to pay back Saddam’s reprehensible treatment of the Kurds (with weapons, material and money the U.S. supplied him with). Here’s a film written, directed and about Kurds. Seen it?
Raising Victor Vargas. A modest, charming ethnic love story. Imagine a movie like Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987) written, acted, edited and directed without big stars and without consultations and re-shoots dictated by studio marketers with demographic charts and test screening results and you might end up with something like this: a delightful tale of adolescent lust and love. Just the right amounts of naturalness, inventiveness, charm, sentimentality and sweetness served up without a lot of extra b.s.
Finding Nemo. You wouldn’t think the folks at Pixar could top themselves, but they have with more than a little help from DeGeneres, Brooks and a dentist office fish tank.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Everyone can find something less than perfect in the film but it’s an absolutely stunning achievement for Peter Jackson and fantasy film lovers. He’s converted the world’s most over-praised trilogy of fantasy novels (that were at least two generations’ obsession in junior high school) and turned them into a wonderful epic fantasy. Return of the King is the best of the three films and I expect it will win lots of Oscars.
Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003). The dark joke is stretched mighty thin but an utterly fearless politically incorrect holiday-themed film featuring memorable performances by people like Billy Bob Thornton and the late John Ritter should get some props and recognition. It’s rude, crude, vulgar and funny. It’s the movie Shakes the Clown (Bobcat Goldthwaite, 1992) wished it could have been.
Finally, a stuffed stocking full of documentaries very much worth seeing. Afghan Stories (Taran Davies, 2003), Spellbound, Capturing the Friedmans, Amandla! A Revolution in 4-Part Harmony (Lee Hirsch, 2002), Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator (Helen Stickler, 2003), Cinemania (Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak, 2003), To Be and to Have, Winged Migration (Jacques Cluzaud, Michel Debats & Jacques Perrin, 2001), River and Tides (Thomas Riedelsheimer, 2003), Stevie (Steve James, 2002) The Stone Reader (Mark Moscowitz, 2003), Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton & Louis Pepe, 2002) and Bukowski: Born Into This (John Dullaghan, 2003).
Honourable mentions: Owning Mahowney, Holes (Andrew Davis, 2003), Mystic River, City of God, Intolerable Cruelty, Kill Bill Volume 1, A Mighty Wind, Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002), Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003) American Splendor, Down with Love (Peyton Reed, 2003), The Spanish Apartment (Cédric Klapisch, 2003) Elephant, X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer, 2003), The Man Without a Past, The Good Thief, The Girl with the Sneakers (Rassul Sadr-Ameli, 1999), My Dinner with Jimi (Bill Fishman, 2003), Miss Entebbe (Omri Levy, 2002), Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chada, 2002), Spider, Casa de los Babys (John Sayles, 2003), and Infernal Affairs.
Guilty pleasures: Shanghai Knights (David Dobkin, 2003), Pirates of the Caribbean, King of the Ants (Stuart Gordon, 2003), Identity (James Mangold, 2003), The In-Laws (Andrew Fleming, 2003) (bless you Albert Brooks), Bulletproof Monk (Paul Hunter, 2002), Old School (Todd Phillips, 2003), Buffalo Soldiers (Gregor Jordan, 2001), Spy Kids 3D (Robert Rodriguez, 2003), Freaky Friday (Mark Waters, 2003), Wrong Turn (Rob Schmidt, 2003) and nominally Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Jonathan Mostow, 2003), Hollywood Homicide (Ron Shelton, 2003), 28 Days Later, and Bruce Almighty (Tom Shadyac, 2003).
Christopher J. Jarmick is a writer, journalist, and poet. He’s the President of PEN-Washington, a board member of the Washington Poets Association and the author of a critically acclaimed thriller, The Glass Cocoon (co-written with Serena F. Holder). His 30-part narrative prose poem, The Red House Tavern Tales is being published serial style (3 or 4 poems at a time) by Brutarian Magazine out of Washington D.C.
Top Films of the Year (in the order I saw them):
The Good Thief
The Isle (Kim Ki-Duk, 2000)
The Fog of War
Last Life in the Universe
Twentynine Palms (Bruno Dumont, 2003)
Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2003)
August Sun (Prasanna Vithanage, 2003)
Special note: 15 minutes in the latter half of Zatôichi: during a rainy afternoon, as the narrative builds to its climax, the film grinds to a halt so that each character may slip into a reverie – pure cinema.
Crimes against Cinema:
Lost In Translation
The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)
In the Cut
Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002)
Where’s the Party Yaar? (Benny Matthews, 2003)
Special note: The all-singing, all-tap-dancing ending of Zatôichi – deeply offensive.
Narain Jashanmal is an author and filmmaker who splits his time between New York, Europe and the Middle East.
In America (Jim Sheridan, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The Secret Lives of Dentists
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary
Lost In Translation
The Good Thief
The Fog of War
Best re-release: Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983)
Honourable mentions: 28 Days Later, Friday Night, The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2002), Elephant, In This World, and Johnny Depp’s performance in the otherwise wretched Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
Interesting failures: All the Real Girls, demonlover, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003), The Singing Detective (Keith Gordon, 2003), In the Cut, and Gigli (Martin Brest, 2003).
Biggest waste of time for all involved: the MPAA screeners ban.
Jeremiah Kipp is a frequent contributor to Filmmaker Magazine, Fangoria, Shock Cinema, Film Festival Today, Slant Magazine, Culturedose.net and other publications.
I paid to see 60 films on the big screen in 2003, and my lists are drawn from those. I’m troubled by the dominance of American films on my list, and regret missing out on a lot of films that might have made the cut, including Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s The Son, which never played in my city of residence, Austin, Texas. However, I had an exciting year at the movies, and though few films completely bowled me over, leaving me gasping for breath and reevaluating my path in life, I enjoyed most of what I saw. Here goes.
In no particular order:
Elephant and Gerry. He’s back. After three hugely disappointing features (the sentimental Good Will Hunting , the inexplicable Psycho , and the execrable Finding Forrester ) Van Sant redeems himself and those still in his corner with a pair of challenging, uncompromising films. Elephant, especially, was a “film” in the best sense of the word, showing how our understanding of images can be deepened, skewed, expanded, changed, or confused based on how much or how little visual information we receive. It’s a beautiful and harrowing film that succeeds despite a major flaw (the scene in which three girls vomit their lunches in adjacent bathroom stalls at the same time).
About Schmidt. Jack Nicholson ditches his famous persona and becomes a real human being again in this flawed but wonderful road movie set in the criminally ignored locale of my home state, Nebraska.
Morvern Callar. A mysterious film, visually and narratively, that used music better than any other this year. I felt great warmth for Samantha Morton’s character, even when her actions mystified or worried me.
All the Real Girls. A deceptively simple story of first love with wonderfully weird, real human characters that manages to avoid the self-consciously poetic dialogue that marred Green’s otherwise fine first film, George Washington (2000).
Spider. What seemed at first a good but slight film from the Canadian master has creeped back into my head repeatedly since seeing it, and Ralph Fiennes’ performance is a subtle piece of genius.
The Man Without a Past. Finland’s finest returns with another slice of deadpan, absurdist comedy that breaks your heart.
Cinemania. What could have been an exploitative, mean-spirited freakshow – a documentary about a handful of New Yorkers whose obsession with seeing as many films as possible has completely usurped any semblance of a personal life – is instead transformed into a funny, engaging, and warm treatise on the nature of obsession. Christlieb and Kijak have so much affection for their subjects that even the cringe-inducing moments aren’t patronising.
American Splendor. I loathe bio-pics, but this one blew me away. It helped that I was a big fan of Harvey Pekar’s comics, but even if I wasn’t, I think this mixture of documentary, animation, and dramatisation of the life of Pekar would have excited me anyway. It’s a cynical, hard-edged film with a sweet heart, and an inspiration to anyone stuck in a dull job who longs to create art.
Lost In Translation. I wanted to hate this movie. A rich girl with a famous director father makes a film about a famous movie star and the wife of a famous photographer going through life crises in a swanky hotel. In the end, I was overpowered by a wonderful, honest film about people, Bill Murray was great, and Coppola didn’t sabotage her film by forcing Murray and Scarlet Johansson to have sex.
Kill Bill: Volume 1. What did this film teach me about life? Nothing. What emotions did I feel for the characters? None. Is the film in my thoughts every day? No. However, I can’t deny that I had more fun watching this film than I did any other all year. Tarantino’s latest is the uber-guilty pleasure, a bag of Halloween candy plopped next to the fine cuisine of the rest of my list, and it is one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen.
Bad Santa. Though it may seem slight compared to Zwigoff’s three previous features, Bad Santa continues the director’s battle against the ghost world of strip malls, convenience stores, junk pop culture, and the commercialisation, drudgery, and soullessness battering down on average American lives. It’s also the funniest and most vulgar comedy of the year.
Pistol Opera (Seijun Suzuki, 2003). I don’t know what it all means, but this hyperkinetic mishmash of action and avant-garde left me reeling.
My favourite revivals of the year:
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. A haunting elegy to the mythic Old West, and in Slim Pickens’ final scene in the film, one of the most moving death scenes in cinema history.
Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1987). A beautiful, mysterious, difficult, and inviting film, rich in detail and vision.
Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936) and Human Desire (Fritz Lang, 1954). Lang’s dark and pessimistic view of human behaviour is tempered by his beautifully simple way of stripping everything from the films but passion, intensity, and the ever-lurking threat of violence. These are two of his best.
A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, 1948). This woefully underrated postwar comedy was a surprise and a delight, especially in Jean Arthur’s hilarious performance.
Outer and Inner Space (Andy Warhol, 1965) and The Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol & Paul Morrissey, 1968). These two films (the former 33 minutes long, the latter nearly four hours) stood far above the others in a Warhol retrospective in Austin. Warhol makes it possible, by projecting two reels simultaneously on one screen, for the audience to make up its own mind about what to look at. It’s a freedom that feels unnatural at first, but once the viewer begins to feel orientated, it presents a whole new way of looking at film while challenging us at the same time. Chance plays an important role, too, for the film is changed by how long it takes the projectionist(s) to get both reels going, ensuring that both films, especially the latter, play differently every time they are shown.
Return to the 36th Chamber (Lau Kar-Leung, 1980). A Shaw Brothers martial arts comedy that is exciting and graceful in both the action scenes and the almost Keaton-esque physical humour.
Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964). Possibly Godard’s most playful film and a huge influence on two generations of independent cinema. It still plays better and fresher than its imitators.
Worst film of the year: I’m sure there were a whole slew of Hollywood blockbusters that were even worse, but the worst film I paid money to see this year was Karen Moncrieff’s directorial debut, Blue Car (2003) a boring, pretentious film with a hackneyed, forced script that, combined with its flat direction, made it feel more like a TV movie of the week. What little worth the film had was due to the fine performances from its principal actors.
Josh Krauter is a writer who loves film. He lives in Austin, Texas.
I didn’t see a lot of current films because of my schedule and didn’t attend any festivals this year for the same reason, but I loved Elephant, Lost In Translation and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and I was very impressed with Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s new film, Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (2003) which is so far visible only in Philadelphia (like “Etant donnee…”), and Dan Sallitt’s All the Ships at Sea (2003) which hasn’t had a festival screening yet, but is a 2003 film on a very important contemporary topic. You can add The Hulk to my list, too, and Identity, the latter for both script and direction.
Stuck on You
Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003)
Basic (John McTiernan, 2003)
In the Cut
The Hunted (William Friedkin, 2003)
Bill Krohn is the author of Hitchcock au travail (1999), available in English as Hitchcock at Work (Phaidon Press, 2000). He has also been the Hollywood correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 1978.
As usual, many of the best films are rarely distributed in cinemas, thanks to laziness and apathy. The distributors blame the public’s taste, the public hates reading subtitles, and cinephiles suffer. But thank God for film festivals, art-house cinemas (dwindling every day), cable (World Movies), SBS television, and of course, the advent of DVD.
Russian Ark. Alexander Sokurov formally transforms cinema with digital technology. This journey through St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum enters History as no film before.
La Commune (Paris 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000). Thirty years after Godard’s Dziga Vertov group, Peter Watkins (and his collective) re-enacts a forgotten socialist revolution. Cinema itself as revolutionary euphoria – all six hours.
The Son. Practicing another type of socialism, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne raise the ghost of Bresson with their implacable view of Christian charity.
Unknown Pleasures. In another DV-shot feature, Jia Zhangke’s follow-up to his remarkable Platform (2001) coolly studies alienated youth in modern day China, combining deadpan pessimism with a pop insouciance.
Dogville. Would Lars von Trier’s take on Thornton Wilder have been distributed without the presence of Nicole Kidman? Every bit as Brechtian – and as political – as La Commune, and as allegorically Christian as The Son, this spellbinding theatrical piece ends in a suitably nihilist fashion.
Mystic River. Another sort of revenge tragedy, this fatalistic melodrama is suited to a filmmaker whose style leaves so little to chance.
Spider. Continuing his cycle of transgressive literary adaptations, David Cronenberg transforms Ralph Fiennes’ tortured psychological state into a whirligig of Oedipal obsession and Freudian nightmare.
Ten. Documentary via fiction? Or vice-versa?
Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary. Guy Maddin’s obsession with the silent cinema aesthetic continues apace, using Mark Godden’s ballet to create the most eccentric version of Bram Stoker’s novel.
Divine Intervention. Elia Suleiman’s comedy on the Israeli/Palestinian border is essentially a series of blackout sketches, and the best imitation of Tati in cinema history.
Second Ten (alphabetical): About Schmidt, American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans, Far From Heaven, Gerry, Kill Bill: Volume 1, The Man Without a Past, The Pianist, Punch-Drunk Love, Solaris.
Marc Lauria is a F.C. (Freelance Cinephile) whose other obsession is writing. He has two scripts in development, with producers having options on both. Hopefully one will get made. He has two cats.
My most moving cinematic moment of the year came when Walter Murch showed his reconstruction of the Dickson Experimental Sound Film (W.K.L. Dickson, shot sometime between September 1894 and April 1895) (USA) at the 2003 School of Sound in the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank in April. Many students of film are likely to have seen the images early in their studies, as part of a programme of Early Edison Shorts. These show Dickson playing a violin whilst two men dance. Now the images have been matched with a “soundtrack which had lain in a bin of broken Edison cylinders until it was finally put together recently”. Somebody made a connection to the Edison images, and the two components (sound cylinder and film strip) were brought to Walter Murch. Thanks to the power of the Avid, he was able to generate what is effectively the earliest synchronous sound film in existence. “Before the film begins you hear someone say ‘The rest of you fellows ready? Go ahead!’ (the first ‘speed’ and ‘action’ captured on wax.” (Quotations from Walter Murch’s account , which can be found at www.filmsound.org).
Faat Kiné (Sembène Ousmane, 2000) (Senegal). This at last reached London during the autumn, as the opening film of the “Africa at the Pictures” season. It is the first part of a new trilogy from possibly the greatest director still active.
The Clay Bird (Tareque Masud, 2002) (Bangladesh) produced and co-scripted by Catherine Masud. Nice to be able to include a film by two friends. Tareque first told me of his wish to make a film telling the story of his childhood over a decade ago. It won the FIPRESCI prize for a film by a new director at Cannes in 2002, and opened here in summer 2003, in art houses and in London’s main Bangladeshi neighbourhood.
Ukigusa (Floating Weeds) (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959) (Japan). This was a revelation. I thought I knew all the best of Ozu’s work, but this re-release from Artificial Eye, one of the U.K.’s most important art house distributors and exhibitors, in a beautiful new print, stands with The Only Son and Tokyo Story. Surely I would have remembered this beautiful colour film if I’d seen it before? I guess, then, that I’d previously only seen Ozu’s 1934 silent version of the same story, Ukigusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds).
Saikaku ichiddai onna (The Life of Oharu) (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952) (Japan). Another masterpiece re-released by Artificial Eye in a new print.
Les Vacances de M. Hulot (M. Hulot’s Holiday) (Jacques Tati, 1953) (France). This re-release in a new print came from BFI. Distribution, as did…
Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) (USA), in a new print, and…
Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957) (France), in the most complete version ever shown here. This is my favourite amongst my friend Nick’s films, and Maurice Le Roux’s score is perhaps the finest I know. Shostakovitch, Nick’s choice as composer, could not have done better even if a Soviet composer had been allowed to work on a film which so undermined the notion of the hero.
Artificial Eye also re-released two further Japanese classics, Musashino Fujin (The Lady of Musashino, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1951) and Kobayakawa no aki (End of Summer, Yasujiro Ozu, 1961).
Of the rest of the new films I enjoyed Far from Heaven (France/US), Good Bye, Lenin! (Wolfgang Becker, 2002) (Germany); Intolerable Cruelty (USA) (a return to form after the abysmally pretentious tedium of The Man Who Wasn’t There [Joel Coen, 2001]), which confirms that the brothers, though effective entertainers, make movies which lack those extra dimensions that made the films of, say, Cukor, Preston Sturges, or the Hawks of the comedies, richer on repeated viewings, more than just entertainments); and Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003) (USA). It was distressing to learn of the latter that African American soldiers fighting for the Union were prominent participants in the battle with which the film opens, which makes their absence from the screen seem wilful.
James Leahy is a film historian and screenwriter, and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, Vertigo and PIX.
The Matrix Reloaded (Larry & Andy Wachowski, 2003)
Tie Xi Qui: West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
Charles Leary is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University, writing a dissertation on John Cassavetes.
Maximilian Le Cain
This year my overall view of cinematic developments was more limited than previously. Circumstances dictated that I was able to go to the cinema much less frequently than in recent years with the result that I missed out on practically all the big studio multiplex releases and, unfortunately, a few other potentially exciting films such as Dolls and Time of the Wolf. Hopefully video or DVD will redeem this situation before too long. The same for some other films that didn’t get a screening in Cork such as The Son, demonlover and La Vie Nouvelle. But these omissions bring up with renewed urgency the question of what constitutes a film of 2003? By the time I get to see the aforementioned films, will it be too late to include them on a future list? And do some truly wonderful films of the immediate past that didn’t get a theatrical screening around here but I caught up with on TV – Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, 2000), What Time is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang, 2001), Platform (2000) – or at belated film club showings – The Pornographer (Bertrand Bonello, 2001) – count on such a list? On the other hand, maybe worrying about such limitations to this list is an error. Maybe it would be better to throw it open to the many sometimes surprising discoveries encountered among the treasures of older cinema. Some of them, such as Sergio Corbucci’s spirited and imaginative swashbuckler The Man Who Laughs (1966) or John Brahm’s haunting period noir Hangover Square (1945) or Ivan Zulueta’s disconcertingly intimate A mal gam a (1976), are, after all, not nearly as well known as they deserve to be. Or maybe the most fruitful course would be to discuss the true cinematic highlight of 2003, the sublime season of Laurel and Hardy shorts that played on television. Or my belated discovery of Miike Takeshi, whose Dead or Alive (1999) and Dead or Alive 2 (2000) felt more thrillingly fresh than any films properly of 2003. Or the outstanding big screen experience of the year – not a new film, but Melville’s astonishing The Red Circle (1970) which transforms robbery into a sort of surrealist occult ritual.
However, the year wasn’t exactly devoid of cinematic delights. Here’s a magnificent seven for ’03:
Far From Heaven
Kill Bill: Volume 1
(There must be significance in the fact that the two truly great American films of the year are both overtly mannerist recreations of filmmaking styles from the past… Perhaps proof of Spielberg era Hollywood’s artistic dead end: the only way left to go is backwards)
Alumbramiento (Víctor Erice, 2002)
And two flawed works with outstanding virtues:
Gangs of New York
Documentary of the year:
Abel Ferrara: Not Guilty. Rafi Pitt’s exhilarating portrait of Abel Ferrara (on the subject of which, does Ferrara’s never been released in this part of the world R Xmas  – or, for that matter, New Rose Hotel  – count for ’03? If so, they’d both go in pretty near the top of the list.)
Big dislike of the year: Irreversible, a bad joke at the expense of audience gullibility. If viewers are actually willing to take this laughably adolescent exercise in pseudo-philosophical bad faith as seriously as many people seem to have, then Noé deserves every success with it.
And a special mention for a very special film, Fergus Daly and Pat Collins’ Abbas Kiarostami: The Art of Living (2003). Not only is it an admirable and intelligent account of the rich achievements of Kiarostami’s filmmaking but it is particularly gratifying for me to see Irish filmmakers for once participating so substantially in a dialogue that encompasses international film culture at its most vital. This is definitely a step in the right direction for Irish cinema.
Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinephile living in Cork City, Ireland.
It’s puzzling to think how most of my daily discussions about my life’s true passion occur with people I’ve never met in person. It’s created a secondary (heaven help me if it’s primary!) existence that I often have trouble reconciling with my “real” life (though I live in the cine-Mecca known as New York City I have few film fanatics as offline friends). Perhaps my uncertainty about what this vast, anonymous network means to me as a film lover (as well as a human being who wouldn’t mind having more face-to-face relationships in life) is why many of my favourite films of 2003 were those I found most attentive to the idea of community. By this I don’t mean the shallow, cliquish, self-congratulatory sense of community implicit in mainstream alternative fare like Lost In Translation or Kill Bill, but films that give rigorous critical attention to how people connect, or fail to connect. In a world where the administration of the most powerful nation threatens to rip the world apart with its divisive policies and its failure to empathise with those beyond its borders, what could be more critical?
So, with tremendous gratitude for all the people whose opinions and ideas throughout the past year challenged and inspired me, I offer the following:
Special mention goes to Abbas Kiarostami’s groundbreaking Ten, which would be on this list had I not seen it in 2002.
Dogville. Too much has been written on this film already, some of it quite pointed, a good deal of it coming off as supercilious reaction to Lars von Trier’s own hype. But I found it immensely attentive to its own ostensibly manipulative design, so that every interaction was imbued with a meditative quality unprecedented in von Trier’s films, operating on different levels: contending political and cultural ideologies (personal, community and national), numerous not-so-superficial Biblical references, the persona of each actor as well as that of the director subjected to scrutiny, and a surpreme awareness of its own powers of storytelling, as well as the moral implications of such power. This is the one movie above all others in 2003 that made movies a dangerous world to inhabit. I absolutely cherished it.
Capturing the Friedmans. No other new film last year got me talking with my friends as much as this one. A Long Island family is torn apart when its father is arrested for child pornography and allegedly molesting children – accusations which may or may not be the product of neighborhood hysteria with children being goaded to provide dubious testimony. While home videos made at the time of the trial provide the viewer with ample visual evidence of the “truth” behind this family in crisis, that conscious act of videotaping itself complicates one’s ability to perceive what is real and what is being consciously presented. It’s a film whose topic – the representation of truth – is so fathomless, it threatens to overrun first-time director Andrew Jarecki, and yet he does an astounding job weaving this unruly crisis into a streamlined narrative. Watching this movie was a chastening experience for this film lover, showing how damaging and nightmarish the obsession with capturing life on film can be.
3 – 4.
A tie between Blissfully Yours and Elephant. Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s gorgeously gentle feature about three people who manage a temporary reprieve from their daily cares to go on a mountainside picnic generously allowed me to spend time with these characters without pushing a story. In its own unassuming way, the film pushes headlong against several boundaries in contemporary cinema: documentary vs. fiction (Kiarostami), pornography vs. art (Breillat), mundane vs. sublime (Tsai). Few films have been more willing to let the beauty of the everyday speak for itself. Critics of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant regarded it as an evasive stylistic exercise; for me, it stands as the one teen movie in the history of teen movies that gets how so much of the high school experience is defined by what it feels like to walk down a hallway during recess. Here is a film that understands that both movie storytelling and the experience of life itself are matters of perspective, framing a seemingly inconsequential moment of high school life in long, winding Steadicam shots that are beautiful to behold, until this moment explodes into inconceivable horror. I loved this film because it makes the audience ask questions about what they are seeing and how it is being presented – even scenes that at first appear to give rhetorical explanations of motives upon reflection become open-ended provocations.
The Fog of War. The falsity inherent in perception is one of numerous lessons taught by Errol Morris’ masterfully manipulated interview with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Ever since A Brief History of Time (Errol Morris, 1992) (or perhaps even earlier with The Thin Blue Line [Errol Morris, 1988]), Morris’ stylised “documentaries” have explored how men attempt to impose a sense of order on their worlds; Morris uses a self-designed camera that lets him make eye contact with his subject during filming, yet films McNamara from a variety of angles and repeatedly uses jump cuts to disrupt the flow of his charismatic delivery. Although McNamara conveys great experience and attendant wisdom, the film doesn’t exonerate him for what he has done, putting the audience in the uncomfortable but necessary position of having to make their own assessment of this man and his view of history.
6 – 7.
A tie between Divine Intervention and Waiting for Happiness. Elia Suleiman’s aloof yet deeply personal comic meditation on Palestinian life under Israeli surveillance has a fragmented, episodic structure which may baffle many viewers but which I found quite suitable to the state of living it reflects: half-concealed, unresolved, with moments of inexplicable violence and unexpected beauty. There are plenty of laughs in this movie, but they are born of a world faced with terror and absurdity on a daily basis. Abderramme Sissako’s ravishing feature about the denizens of a Mauritanian port city was one of the most beautiful portrayals of a multicultural city I’ve seen. This film puts a lot of confidence in the innate specialness of its characters, and it’s a risk that pays off. Both movies offer an “environmental” experience of cinema, focusing less on narrative than lived-in rhythms and sense of community.
8 – 9.
A tie between Raja (Jacques Doillon, 2003) and Seafood (Zhu Wen, 2001). The battle between the sexes took on fascinating cultural and political shades in two films set in Morocco and China. Jacques Doillon’s intelligently nutty post-Colonial farce involves a rich Frenchman who invites local girls to work on his yard only to be smitten by one of them. Numerous questions are raised as to how the Frenchman and the Moroccan girl may be using each other and whether genuine emotions have any part in their relationship, as well as how their affair affects various parties. A comedy that turns into a tragedy borne of collective intentions: good, bad and ugly. Zhu Wen, novelist-turned-director, offered perhaps the most transgressive Chinese film I’ve ever seen, about a prostitute who goes to a seaside hotel to kill herself but is noticed by an affable police officer who tries to save her from her own morbid thoughts, with rape being part of the rehabilitation. I suppose one could read this scenario allegorically as the relationship between underprivileged Chinese people and their government; I was more taken by how the story and the characters seemed to reinvent themselves from scene to scene. Both of these films had a rare live-wire spark with their intuitive performances and refusal to rest on narrative convention.
10 – 11.
Down with Love and Finding Nemo struck me as the most inventive, witty and visually ravishing Hollywood efforts of the year. While the lukewarm re-enactment of familiar gender and race grievances in Far From Heaven left me underwhelmed, Peyton Reed’s film, for all its nostalgia, manages to hit squarely upon a conundrum that still preoccupies working women roaming in a world of seemingly conflicting desires. (After all, if this movie’s worldview is as outmoded as some critics claim, then why is Sex and the City such a hit?) The eye-popping production design and the hilarious script by Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake are worthy of the period and films being paid tribute, but most impressive are Reed’s inventive use of montage and split-screens (which contribute to one of the most hilarious phone sex scenes ever filmed). While certain purists may regard CGI animation with a wary fisheye, the visual design of Finding Nemo succeeds brilliantly in submerging the viewer in a simulated underwater world alive with a seemingly limitless palette of color and texture. There’s a laugh to be had at least every 30 seconds, thanks to a witty script and a diverse cast of sea creatures each with their own unique charms. What struck me while watching the credit reel is how much more unified and homogenized the Pixar community, located in San Francisco, appears to be than other studios (the credits listed numerous “Production Babies” birthed during the making of the movie – how many credit reels do this?). Arguably the many talented people involved in this enterprise tend to share an insular suburban worldview propelled by techno-geek interests, but their products are vastly more enlivening than others issued by the hedonism factories of Hollywood.
Special mentions: Marion Bridge (Weiber von Carolsford, 2002), Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002), Cold Mountain, The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002), Oasis (Lee Chang-Dong, 2003), Angels in America (Mike Nichols, 2003), To Be and To Have, Spellbound, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Rithy Pran, 2002), PTU, Pistol Opera, Mystic River, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Sweet Sixteen, Crimson Gold, The Station Agent (Tom McCarthy, 2003), Raising Victor Vargas, Hukkle, The Triplets of Belleville.
Favourite performances: Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean; Robert McNamara, The Fog of War; Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider; Oksana Akinshina, Lilya 4-ever; Sol Kyung-gu, Oasis; Tim Robbins, Mystic River; Miranda Richardson, Spider; Kati Outinen, The Man Without a Past; the Friedman Family, Capturing the Friedmans; the ensembles of Dogville and Raja.
Memorable moments from the New York Film Festival:
Hearing a packed audience of Americans cheer the bloody massacre at the end of Dogville.
Seeing a security guard push aside Naomi Watts to make way for Susan Sarandon at the screening of Mystic River.
Tsai Ming-liang’s awkward post-screening exhortation for people to buy shares or sell tickets for Goodbye Dragon Inn. With his shaved head and characteristically charismatic, tranquil demeanor, was he parodying a Buddhist sage stumping for temple donations? I sure hope it was just that…
Kevin Lee is a filmmaker based in New York City. He willattend the 2004 Berlin Film Festival Talent Campus for young filmmakers. His website is www.alsolikelife.com.
Commercial releases only:
Lost In Translation
To Be and to Have
Open Range (Kevin Costner, 2003)
In the Cut
The Station Agent
The Last Samurai (Edward Zwick, 2003)
Die Mommie Die (Charles Busch, 2003)
This year was very strange for movies. Let’s hope 2004 is better.
Tim Lightell has a BFA in Film Production from NYU and an MFA in Screenwriting from Chapman University. His first experimental digital feature, The Lauren Epic, is currently playing in festivals around the country. He will write & direct for food.
I am a bit frustrated on this matter, since a number of the films I have most wanted to see this year – from Mystic River to The Barbarian Invasions to City of God – have not made it to Singapore yet. I would like to put in for three small films that I enjoyed very much: Whale Rider (which overcame my aversion to uplift), Swimming Pool, (for the subtlest and funniest tease of the year as well as two smashing lead performances), and the delightful German film Mostly Martha (Sandra Nettlebeck, 2001) (because the Germans’ natural gift for romantic comedy is often underrated). OK, the last one was made in 2001 and released in 2002, but it only got here in December 2003.
Arthur Lindley teaches literature and film studies at the National University of Singapore, where he founded the film program. He is on the Editorial Board of Screening the Past.