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The year’s best movies came from some unconventional places in 2003. No musicals (unless you count the crap that is From Justin to Kelly or the hypnotic fantasia that is The Triplets of Belleville), no stories about lovable mongoloids (unless you count Ashton Kutcher), and no Miramax—at least not on my list. Instead, the past year was owned by riveting documentaries, exciting foreign films, and moving ruminations on youth gone mad, youth gone “bad”, and youth gone…elsewhere. Without further ado, here’s my top 10 list, with a few liberties taken, and a bottom 3.
Top 10 Films of 2003
City of God
I saw this movie last January, and last March it was nominated for Best Foreign Film. But it opened in the U.S. this year, and therefore it counts, both for me and for the Academy (witness it’s several nominations, including one for Fernando Mereilles as Best Director). Over the past 12 months, there hasn’t been one movie that came close to this one’s sheer kineticism, raw violence, and exuberant no-holds-barred storytelling. It’s an alarming narrative that traces the birth of gang crime in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and it is all seen through the eyes of Rocket, a young man who grows up chronicling the degeneracy of his neighborhood with the camera he invariably has strapped around his neck. As he grows up, the city of God (the name for the section of Rio in which the film takes place) goes under. His friends grow up and become criminals, or corpses, and legions of young get recruited into the life. The style is reminiscent of Tarantino in its breakneck pace, but there’s none of QT’s glib irony; this story is all too serious. Laced with brutality and desperation, City of God is a powerful, and powerfully entertaining, look at life on the mean streets of Brazil.
Gus van Sant uses a far different style than Fernando Mereilles to lay bare the unfathomable nothingness behind the Columbine Massacre. A poetic, existential dread fills this day-in-the-death depiction of the Colorado tragedy. Full of a cast of mostly unknowns, the film is both illuminating in its refusal to lay blame, whether on videogames or school bullies or repressed sexuality, and devastating in its arbitrary portrayal of banality interrupted by tragedy. Elephant is like a waking dream that yields as much awe and wonder in its execution as it does helplessness and despair at the lack of explanation it offers.
A documentary about the National Spelling Bee wouldn’t seem to promise much in the way of drama or excitement, but it delivers more of both than most of the fictional offerings Hollywood put out this year. It traces a handful of junior high school kids as they struggle, study, and spell their way to the ultimate spelling competition in Washington D.C. Each child is profiled, yielding a bounty of unique personalities and unlikely circumstances that are too real to be faked as they prepare for their day in the sun. When the filmmakers get around to showing the competition itself, it’s clear they saved the best for last. The contest is teeming with upsets, dark horses and sentimental favorites, and by the time the final word is spelled, you’ll be spent from gasping and laughing and rooting them all on. You might go in as a skeptic, but you’ll come out of the theater a true believer.
Capturing the Friedmans
From a first-time filmmaker (and the founder of MovieFone), comes this harrowing, examination of a family torn asunder after the patriarch and youngest son are accused of sexually molesting students in their at-home computer class. The documentary is composed primarily of wrenching footage from home videos taken of family dinners, emotional discussions and strategy meetings, filmed both before, during, and after the allegations surfaced. You’ll feel uncomfortably like a voyeur caught witnessing a family’s most private moments, and that intimacy, and the ambiguous nature of the truth, are what give the film its raw power. The film casts doubt on every angle of the case, brutally swinging your perception of the truth with every new revelation. When it ends, all you can be sure about is that a family has been destroyed, whether it deserved to be or not.
School of Rock
Jack Black finally got a role that expands on his talent rather than confines it. School of Rock isn’t just a one-joke movie held together by the slovenly shenanigans of JB in his underwear. The best studio comedy of the year, Richard Linklater’s endearing film is about kids and appeals to kids, but is so knowing and even subversive that it harkens back to films like the Bad News Bears, where kids acted like kids really act and adults were let in on all the jokes, and even given a few of their own. The role of a music-obsessed slacker who scams his way into a teaching gig and quickly uses it to fashion a group of gifted children into a lean, mean rocking machine meant to back him in an upcoming battle of the bands competition was written expressly for Jack Black, and it shows. All his best moves are on display here, and without pandering to children or going the sentimental route, School of Rock emerges as a rousing, hilarious ode to rock and roll and the people that love it, young and old.
Lost in Translation
Here Sofia Coppola continued Wes Anderson’s work: channeling Bill Murray’s inner pain away from the devastatingly snarky comedy he is known for and towards a melancholy, more internalized place, where Murray’s sad clown features and lethargic gait can be used to profound dramatic effect. He is the picture of subtlety in Lost in Translation, as a middle-aged actor starring in Japanese liquor commercials to pay the bills. He is adrift in a foreign land, both physically and emotionally, until he meets Scarlett Johanssen, a similarly disillusioned and out-of-place American looking for something to hang onto. Together they form a bond that transcends the physical and serves to spiritually regenerate them both. Coppola has become a master at conveying mood through little more than note-perfect composition and editing. No scene lingers too long, nothing happens too abruptly; the pace is slow and somber, and every moment is imbued with meaning Lost in Translation is a delicate tone poem about two people, adrift and alone, who find themselves in each other.
No film has ever toyed with its medium, or its subject, in quite the same way as American Splendor. Adapted from Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical comic book, this documentary-slash-biopic features Paul Giamatti, finally, in a starring role, as the author. It also features other artists’ depictions of Harvey as an animated character, and a few walk-ons by Harvey Pekar himself, as, of course, himself. As the film tells his story, Giamatti’s Harvey comments on the events as they unfold, while the actual Harvey steps in and comments on the comments. It’s all so meta it sounds like a headache, but when you watch the film it all comes together to offer an illuminating look at the life and work of one of “literature’s” most singular voices. Giamatti captures the crotchety, cynical, entirely unconventional Pekar perfectly, and you need look no further than Pekar’s own appearances in the film to make the comparison. Hope Davis offers stellar support as his neurotic girlfriend, and the tableau of characters that populate Harvey’s strange world make this a quirky, funny and intelligent film.
Two sequels. Two summer blockbusters. One built and improved on the success of a burgeoning franchise, the other reinvigorated a seemingly dead one. X2 grabbed the baton from the first X-Men, one on of the movies that launched the current wave of comic-book adaptation fever, and sprinted its way to even more success. Bigger in every way, from cast to run time to budget, and even more exciting (only the film’s cluttered third act fell victim to the choppy, stilted narrative of the first one), X2 capitalized on its predecessor’s strengths (unique and interesting mutants, Hugh Jackman’s note-perfect performance as Wolverine, metaphorical representations of salient and topical issues) and raised hopes even higher for the next installment. T3 started over with a new director (Jonathan Mostow—with some chops of his own), an aging star, and no Linda Hamilton. Nick Stahl stepped in admirably for the woeful Edward Furlong, and the new female terminatrix managed to not suck. By warping the previous two installments “the future is what you make it” credo into a dooming inevitability, and including a couple of pulse-racing action pieces and a fantastic, unexpected ending, T3 stepped up and smashed what were somewhat low expectations. James Cameron’s thematic cohesion may have been missing, along with the series’ signature score, but the excitement and innovation were not.
Return of the King/Kill Bill, Pt. 1
What am I doing, you ask, putting these two movies together? Well, they are both incomplete portions of larger works, one of which served as the conclusion to a spectacularly conceived and executed trilogy, the other as the first half to an operatic orgy of escapism and violence. I’m not gonna lie to you, I was not emotionally invested in the LOTR movies the way the films’ champions are. Perhaps it was due to my lack of empathy with the hobbits, perhaps it was the anticlimactic resolution of the ring’s fate, perhaps it was the lack of punch in Aragorn’s ascension to the throne. It doesn’t matter; the trilogy still stands as one of film’s most incredible achievements. It just didn’t manage to work its way into my heart like some of my favorite movies have. Kill Bill doesn’t make my heart swoon either, but that’s because it’s been hacked to pieces. I enjoyed QT’s pop explosion and thought Uma Thurman had her best role since Pulp Fiction, but I was left feeling a little flat, and assaulted, by the end. The cinematography and direction were fantastic, and since I had read the script beforehand I knew not to expect one of Tarantino’s most substantive efforts. But, despite all the flash and sizzle, I got a bit bored. I’m still gonna be there for part 2, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t already pumped for it.
The year’s most praised movie is also one of its best. Clint Eastwood took Dennis Lehane’s tale of three men scarred by a tragic event from their youth and fashioned a powerful, if straightforward, story about the generational residue and lingering repercussions of violence and vengeance. Hyperbole aside, the cast is superb. Sean Penn delivers one of the year’s best performances and Kevin Bacon finally checks in with an acting job that doesn’t annoy the hell out of me. The greater Boston locations add a lot of flavor and the weight of the film is carried ably by the entire cast, despite a few moments at the end that seem to hint at larger themes from the book that didn’t quite carry over onto film. Mystic River is a very well-crafted ensemble piece that stays true to its subject matter and emerges as a somber and meaningful piece of work.
Shattered Glass—fantastic performances from Peter Saarsgard and, inexplicably, Hayden Christensen as the editor who uncovers the truth and the reporting prodigy who invented stories.
Thirteen—Evan Rachel Wood astonishes as a young girl who spirals into rebellion as her helpless mother (holly Hunter) looks on. The best argument for abstinence the church could ever use.
21 Grams—slightly melodramatic and overdone, and not as good as Innaritu’s first film, Amores Perros, but still affecting thanks to stellar work from Benicio del Toro.
Triplets of Belleville—bizarre, decidedly non-Disney/non-Pixaresque animated feature with virtually no dialogue but a fascinating and hypnotic tapestry of visuals buoyed by a charming, if odd, story and catchy soundtrack.
Spun—total garbage about the world of crystal methheads. Shock cinema at its worst.
Matrix Revolutions—a gigantic let down, the finale answers none of the right questions and reduces the main characters to footnotes in the interminable fight for Zion. The “visionary” Wachowski brothers should’ve stopped at one.
Gigli/From Justin to Kelly/The Real World Movie: didn’t see them. Never will.
Movies I Missed:
Master and Commander, Seabiscuit, Cold Mountain, Fog of War, The Last Samurai, Girl With a Pearl Earring, The Station Agent, Monster, House of Sand and Fog, and many more…
Michael S. Julianelle is a freelance writer living in New England.
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