Del’s Best and Worst of 2003
by Del Harvey
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What a year. Some of the worst films I’ve ever seen, and most of them had impossibly huge budgets. And to punctuate that premise just look at a bunch of Oscar nominations. I love some of these people, but they did NOT turn in Oscar worthy performances, at least not in the films they have been nominated for. Many of the films nominated aren’t Oscar-worthy, either, but inertia has its own way of operating, and we often aren’t aware of its action until it’s too late.
With that happiest of attitudes in mind, I offer up my best and worst films for the year. You probably won’t agree with them, as I’m sure they don’t match most other critic’s lists. If you don’t agree, then write me a letter and tell me what I missed. I really would like to know.
Best Films of 2003
This year, all of the films that made my Top Ten list are there for one very good reason: they work. As films, each one of these succeeds in impressing the audience as intended. Few films were successful in that endeavor this year.
10) Irreversible—Very hard to watch, but that’s what it’s all about. It churns your stomach, as intended. The violence and abuse shown here works because it is so painfully real.
9) 28 Days Later—At long last, a horror film that intrigues, scares, and keeps you guessing.
8) Laurel Canyon—Outstanding performances from an excellent cast (Christian Bale, Francis McDormand, Kate Beckinsale) make this story of dysfunctional family a winner.
7) Inner Senses—HK star Leslie Cheung’s final film is an effective take off on The Sixth Sense’s ghost story, with dynamic results.
6) Identity—Yeah, it’s a gimmick, but when Joe Steiff explained that the stuff happening in the criminal’s mind was textbook multi-personality psychology, I realized that this is one gimmick that works for the right reasons.
5) Monster—Director Patty Jenkins has crafted a mesmerizing look inside that rarity among serial killers, the female monster, so ably portrayed with an equally engrossing star turn from Charlize Theron.
4) 21 Grams—Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro, and Naomi Watts make this convoluted tale of missed chances ring so very true.
3) The Cooler—From lovable loser William H. Macy to soft-hearted Mara Bello to old-school-criminal Alec Baldwin, this is one “small” film that’s bigger than almost any of the bigs, thanks to synchronicity among cast and crew. To top it off, they pull off a “trick” that filmmakers should never, ever use!
2) In America—Jim Sheridan’s spellbinding tale of an Irish family’s introduction to life in the promised land is visual poetry from first to last reel.
1) Seabiscuit—It’s very old-fashioned, but it’s what a film should do: excite, involve, and elicit emotion from the audience. A particularly hard time in American history, a group of individuals who don’t necessarily fit in, and the race for an impossible goal. The effort at work here is monumental and it’s done so well as to seem almost an underachievement, when it is in fact the quintessential “little guy” tale told perfectly.
The Eye—Another HK treat about a young blind girl who gets a cornea transplant that returns her sight but with an odd side effect: she starts seeing ghosts. Eerie and effective, it’s better than many of the US horror films of 2003.
Wrong Turn—One of the better horror films of the year, precisely because it offers some genuine scares and jolts and counts on the basic tenets of the horror film: surprise.
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—I’ve had problems with this series, but the final act in this trilogy ties together an epic tale that was a colossal undertaking.
Sylvia—Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig get high marks for a rather one-sided view of Sylvia Plath’s life, but because the film convinces so well, it made the list.
Alien: Director’s Cut—Still one of the best shocker/monster films of all time.
The Missing—The stars of Lonesome Dove both made Western films this year, but Tommy Lee Jones’ was the better, thanks to Cate Blanchett and a story with some accurate political undertones.
Secondhand Lions—Robert Duvall and Michael Caine are aged adventurers (a la The Man Who Would Be King’s Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan) who take great-nephew Haley Joel Osment under their capable wings for one memorable summer.
The Princess Blade—Watch this one and then watch Kill Bill, and you’ll see more than just a similarity. Succeeds on all counts.
Dark Blue—Kurt Russell’s best performance almost rescues a mediocre film.
X2: X-Men United—It’s a comic book and it’s done very well, as comic book films go.
The Hunted—This ode to machismo is all about doing things we don’t want to do, and living with the consequences.
Kill Bill, Vol 1—I’ll wait for Volume 2 to cast my final vote on Tarrantino’s much-awaited film. But for now, it was one of the better U.S. action films of 2003.
Lost in Translation—Murray’s a lovable lout and Johanssen’s quirky cute in a fish-out-of-water bit of fluff. But there’s no Oscar-worthy material here.
Love Actually—Great ensemble work and good story, full of romance and human comedy.
Matrix Reloaded—For a few short hours, there, the Wachowski Brothers had us believing they really thought about their story and were actually going to give us a trilogy. Shame on them.
Old School—Will Ferrel is truly funny in this absurd little comedy worthy of several viewings.
Swimmimg Pool—Charlotte Rampling’s still the same bad girl she was in the 70’s, but she’s encased it in a British mystery writer for this film. Her vacation to the French countryside is complicated by the beautiful young inhabitant of the house who accidentally commits a murder.
Best Films Seen This Year, But Released In Previous Years
The Way Home—Incredible film about a young Korean boy sent to live with his physically bent and ancient grandmother in a mountain village, at the same time a sociological commentary on our contemporary world and technology’s affect on our sensibilities.
Secretary—Maggie Gyllenhaal is beautifully innocent as a young woman who learns about her own desires under the firmly swatting hand of a comically frustrated James Spader.
My First Mister—Leelee Sobieski’s goth girl falls in infatuation with pleasingly plump, middle-aged Albert Brooks in a sweet tale of true friends and finding yourself.
Victim—Superb Hong Kong actor Lau-Ching Wan stars in Ringo Lam’s mystery/supernatural thriller that is a suspenseful, well-acted melodrama that involves and entertains.
Nowhere to Hide—A gang murder on Inchon’s 40 Steps leads a rough detective force of seven men, led by Detective Woo (Joong-Woon Park) to hunt down a ruthless killer and leader of a massive drug cartel in this amazingly photographed film whose final fight scene was copied by the Wachowski Brothers for the epic final battle between Agent Smith and Neo.
Ambition—Takashi Miike has made some very “out there” films, with Ambition being one of the more accessible. It’s a twisted tale of psychopathic love that leaves a lasting impression.
Musa The Warrior—Incredible historical epic/epic love story based on a true story of Korean emissaries double-crossed while on a mission to China.
Unseen But Much Anticipated
The Rundown—Big adrenaline action fun with Christopher Walken and, of all people, The Rock.
Die Mommie Die!—Cross-dressing comedy spoof of actors, a la Mommie Dearest.
Bend It Like Beckham—British film about a young East Indian woman who rebels against her parent’s wishes to follow her dreams.
American Splendor—Stellar performances from Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis in this indie pic.
Bubba Ho-Tep—Bruce Campbell is an aged Elvis and Ossie Davis is a reincarnated JFK who unite to do battle with an ancient terror.
Shattered Glass—Based on true characters and situations, inside look at mischief in the publishing biz.
Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns—The documentary about the two-man band They Might Be Giants.
Zaitoichi—Takeshi Kitano’s much-lauded remake about the legendary blind swordsman whose adherence to a dated code of honor is constantly getting him into trouble.
Worst Films of 2003
Bringing Down The House—Steve Martin, you should be ashamed. Disgusting, offensive, and not funny.
Bulletproof Monk—Chow-Yun Fat made some great films in his Hong Kong prime. It’s time he returned to those.
The Core—The kind of 50’s sci-fi hokum that should remain unmade.
Cradle 2 The Grave—DMX is no actor and Jet Li is on the same downward spiral that Chow-Yun Fat has discovered in American films. He’s collected his money, now he should go home and make some good films.
The Last Samurai—Tom Cruise is self-indulgent (that’s fresh, innit?) in Ed Zwick’s off-the-mark pseudo-epic homage to self-destruction.
Matrix Revolutions—They blew it big time. Missed the mark entirely. But, hey, they made a fortune.
The Medallion—Jackie Chan sells out in a lame superspy comedy caper that exists for one purpose: to collect the paycheck.
People I Know—Al Pacino cannot do a Southern accent. It’s so painfully obvious.
The Real Cancun—Reality TV should stay on the small screen…or disappear altogether.
S.W.A.T.—Another prime example of why most TV shows do not make good films.
2 Fast 2 Furious/Biker Boyz—This is one trend I think we can all do without.
Daddy Day Care/Cheaper By The Dozen—Could this be the bell tolling 20th Century Fox’s demise?
Final Destination 2—Should never have gotten this far.
The Hard Word—Really wanted to like this neo-noir but they twisted the end into a bad English parlour mystery.
Hollywood Homicide—Ford flops with Hartnet in what should have been dream team stuff.
House of 1000 Corpses—Which is the street address where all prints of this “film” should be shipped.
Jeepers Creepers 2—The first one at least hinted at something more…too bad they ignored that when drafting this weak exercise in boredom.
Lara Croft 2: Cradle of Life—Jolie’s not actress enough to save this floppy muck.
Mystic River—Clint Eastwood’s direction leaves a group of talented actors stranded (Penn’s nomination is more for lifetime plus 21 Grams) and disappoints readers of the book.
Once Upon A Time In Mexico—Roberto Rodriguez made El Mariachi and it brought him fame and fortune. He’s now remade that flick twice and try as he might, he can’t make it any better. Time to give it up and move on, Bob.
Paycheck/Daredevil/Gigli—Let’s just call these the “Affleck Trifecta.”
Pirates of the Caribbean/Haunted Mansion—Don’t make films based on theme park rides, even if you are Disney!
The Recruit—Colin Farrell’s big error in judgment.
The Returner—So many wonderful films from Asia, too bad this one got distribution. Must have been the fact they combined the effects and costumes of Matrix with an alien who looks like E.T. No, I’m not kidding.
Underworld—Vampires and werewolves with guns and costumes from Matrix? What were they thinking? VAMPIRES AND WEREWOLVES DON’T NEED GUNS!!!
Veronica Guerin—Once again, Disney puts the kiss of death on what might have been a good film.
Del Harvey did not see enough good films this year. Are you listening, Hollywood?
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