Joe’s Best and Worst Films of 2003 And The World They Reflected

| February 1, 2004

2003. I’m warning you now, I’m a grumpy reviewer this year. Maybe I’m starting to lose hope that the new century is going to bring a better world. Maybe it’s because Britney Spears promised us at least a year’s break, but it sure as hell didn’t seem like it; I can’t remember a single month in 2003 that she wasn’t in the news somehow. Though I guess she did wait till 2004 to get married. And divorced. Excuse me, I mean, annulled. So I guess “she’s back.” But I ask you, was she ever really gone?
Besides Britney, a few other things irked me this year:
Though it’s been building for some time, in 2003 we officially became a culture that has replaced the phrase, “I’m sorry,” with “My Bad.” Previously confined to adolescents and TV shows, “My Bad” suddenly made its way into professional settings this past year. What’s interesting about this is that if you really listen to how people say “my bad,” you’ll find that most do not say it with the same intonation usually reserved for “I’m sorry.” Instead, “My Bad” is said as if the person is gleefully and giddily saying, “yep, I fucked up, but so what, the joke’s on you, hee hee.” Even if said in a tone somewhat close to apologetic, the phrase itself expresses no regret or remorse for making an error; even the speaker’s responsibility for making an error is negated by such a cutesy phrase.
I think this shift in how we acknowledge our own mistakes speaks volumes about the society in which we found ourselves in 2003.
During this past year, it became more and more evident that George Orwell’s 1984 was closer to the mark than we originally thought, it’s just that his prediction was 20 years too early. I’m not just talking about double-speak, though that did seem alive and well in politics in 2003. As we enter 2004, we seem to be living more and more in the kind of nightmarish reality Orwell feared. We have presidential websites rewriting his statements and speeches as soon as they prove erroneous, usually within months, apparently changing history to erase his errors–as we stand by. Weapons of mass destruction, anyone? I keep seeing George Bush smiling, his eyes gleaming as he singsongs, “My Bad.”
For most of the late 90s, I was struck (not literally thank god) by how many of the new “muscle” cars, i.e., SUVs, are driven by corporate women, at least in the Chicago area. These are women whose counterparts in the 70s would have chided men for their red sports cars, and who would have treated muscle cars as male expressions of over-compensation, but here they are in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, driving “cars” that require a ladder to get into. Ladies, muscle cars are muscle cars, no matter who’s driving them. Not to be outdone, though, the boys have struck back in 2003 with their latest version of the male muscle car, the “civilian” model of the military vehicle Humvee, commonly referred to as “Hummers,” a word that is not-so-coincidentally synonymous with “blow jobs.” Yes, we have now television and magazine ads telling us to get a hummer. Gentlemen, start your engines.
As further evidence of a society turning upside down, safety has become so uncool that people no longer wear reflective gear at night. Now that I think about it, forget reflective, you’d be hard pressed to find people wearing light colored clothing as they walk or bike along dark streets and roads. Instead, you’ll find people dressed in black at night and then wonder why they are nearly hit by cars, SUVs and Hummers whose drivers can’t see them. But these “cool” pedestrians aren’t concerned, ’cause if they get hit, they’ll just sue.
And speaking of safety being uncool, a group of men who say it’s impossible to “eroticize” a piece of latex that could save their lives have managed to eroticize the virus that’s killing them.
I don’t think these things are unrelated.
Which brings us to the movies this past year, a number of which are trying to address these issues, some more successfully than others. Normally, I do not rank my top films of the year, feeling they are fairly equivalent in quality. But this year, I’m going to take a more conventional route and rank the films, because despite what some critics would have you believe, it wasn’t a great year for movies. While there were a number of relatively good films, there were few great films. Several promising films fell apart in their third acts (Elephant) and many experimented with feature film narrative structure (Cold Mountain and Lost In Translation quietly, 21 Grams loudly). There were some awful films that didn’t even try to make sense (Gothika). And there were lots of sequels.
The Sequels
Either the Brothers lost their nerve or had too much time to rethink The Matrix or simply never had a satisfying three-part story to begin with, but The Matrix Revolutions defied logic by virtually ignoring the set up of the first film and ending some other trilogy we never saw. By this third film, the series had devolved from a fascinating rumination on “reality” to being a Terminator series wannabe. For all of that, Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines is a much more consistent, and therefore, daring and satisfying film. Other sequels that beat the odds and were actually as interesting if not more so than their predecessors were Laura Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle Of Life, Jeepers Creepers 2 and especially X2, though none were perfect.
Some films were over-hyped this year, and here is where I’m going to lose some friends, I just know. First and foremost, my award for most over-hyped film of 2003 goes to Mystic River. If not for the performances in this film, no one would have paid attention. Sean Penn, who is always good, is far better in 21 Grams. Tim Robbins, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden are just as instrumental in making Mystic River a performance powerhouse. But if you step back from the performances and treat the film as a whole, it is ultimately a non-cinematic, average film with aspirations to be more, throwing in baseball imagery, town parades and crucifixes as if to reach for some comment on early 21st century America. But it doesn’t quite gel. This film may prove thematically interesting ten years from now as a cultural relic, a reflection of Bush and the Iraq War–having a central character who, in retaliation for unthinkable tragedy, mis-identifies the culprit and exacts his revenge and ultimately is supported and gets away with it. But it’s hard to tell whether Eastwood is even aware of the moral ambiguities of the story he presents, and ideas (or subtext) alone do not make for a great film.
Following closely is Lost In Translation. There are some great moments and Coppola is a writer/director to watch out for. Her films operate at some other frequency, which may explain why as many people found Lost In Translation tedious as there were people who raved about it. Truthfully, I fell somewhere in between. But it’s a film that teeters very close to the precipice of self-indulgence.
Peter Weir is one of my all-time favorite directors, and the sea-faring images of Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World are striking in the same magnitude as the horseracing scenes in Seabiscuit. But Master And Commander seems somewhat inconsequential when compared to many of the other films released in the flurry near the end of the year, perhaps riding partly on Russell Crowe’s presence when in fact, Paul Bettany gives a crucial performance that gives the story heart.
21 Grams heaps misery upon misery onto its characters (and the audience), but what keeps it from being overwhelming (or laughably melodramatic) is its structure, which ultimately seems arbitrary, diluting some of the film’s power. 21 Grams does boast excellent performances from all three principals (Penn, Watts, del Toro), and that’s probably the main reason to watch. But if you can only see one depressing film this year, bypass this and go straight to House Of Sand And Fog.
Neil LaBute’s The Shape Of Things is another film that may serve as a cultural reflection when we look back on it years from now. Though I didn’t find it ultimately surprising or shocking (having gone to an art school with a woman very much like Evelyn), the film touches on a number of ideas that provoke contemplation if not outright discussion. In that sense, it’s more successful than Mystic River but falls victim to some of the same shortcomings. Neil LaBute consistently writes some of the best theater (BASH) and film concepts around, but his films have yet to break loose into full-fledged cinematic expressions of that material.
Horror films (and variations on the genre) splashed across our screens with a fair degree of regularity in 2003. Identity was the most interesting, but with the kind of trick ending we’ve come to expect since The Sixth Sense. The Eye created a wonderful atmosphere. Darkness Falls was decent. But many of the others were dismal. Only one was truly creepy and provocative, and thus made my “best of” list below.
The other trend that continued with dubious results was the adaptation of comic books and graphic novels into films. Name one that was decent that wasn’t a film sequel.
Honorable Mentions
There were several films that were among the best I saw this year but did not make it onto my top 10. Here they are …
Whale Rider is definitely one of the best films I saw in 2003, but it has a release date of 2002, so I did not include it in my final list. It is probably the best family film I saw in the last year, not because it anesthetizes but because it questions tradition while recognizing (and validating) its necessity in (young) people’s lives.
The Missing was probably one of the most suspenseful films I saw this past year, because I cared about the characters. Like a number of other films this year, The Missing may ultimately be more interesting for its reflection of socio-political issues in the late 20th/early 21st Century. The Missing’s villains have been armed and trained by the US military before turning on the very country that has armed and trained them. Sound familiar?
Seabiscuit has a structure that keeps going long after you’d expect, yet the overall arc of the story seems complete and cohesive once finished. The racing scenes are tense and shot with a “you are there” authenticity that could easily be taken for granted but is quite a remarkable achievement. And you can never go wrong with an “underdog” story.
Cold Mountain has a structure that throws some people off, borrowing as it does from “The Odyssey,” and like The Last Samurai, it seems many critics and viewers have held its romantic conventions to modern standards. I’m sorry to report, folks, that life (and sex) hasn’t always been the way it is in 2003. The 19th century was a different century, a different time, with different expectations of romance and different ideas about appropriate interactions between genders. I know films are make-believe (as In America so poetically points out), but to dismiss Cold Mountain as unbelievable because of its characters’ chaste relationship is at best uninformed and at worst, well, ethno/ego-centric.
Big Fish is the best live action Tim Burton film I’ve seen. Though the structure feels a little off-paced and the stories don’t connect as cohesively as one would hope from a life-long storyteller such as the main character, this is an exceptional adaptation by screenwriter John August, and Tim Burton brings it to magical life.
The Best
10. For the first two-thirds of Elephant, I felt I was in the presence of genius. Elegant, graceful, poetic and contemplative, the film has an enthralling power. Vacuous spaces that are transversed but never occupied become a compelling metaphor for the world we have created for our children. But once Van Sant decides to go literal, showing us the Columbine-style killings in real time, the film loses most of its impact and the final scene seems more the result of not knowing how to end than any formal decision. Still, this is one of the most impressive films of the past year, and like most, it is flawed.
9. The Station Agent is a beautiful rendering of three people’s lives as they intersect in surprising ways. This is one of those quiet films that sneaks up on you, that has no magical solutions, and documents the small ways in which people deal with loneliness and isolation.
8. Lord Of The Rings comes to a conclusion with The Return Of The King, and while the film is amazing in many respects, it doesn’t quite seem to know how to end, and is ultimately slightly less satisfying than the two previous films. The Fellowship Of The Ring remains the best of the three, with the most haunting images and moments. The Return Of The King smacks a bit of revisionism (such as the flashback to Smeagol which seems designed to show those Academy voters who refused to nominate Andy Serkis last year that there is indeed an identifiable actor and acting technique behind the digital villain). But it does have a hopeful ending and there is no doubt that the Trilogy as a whole is one of the landmark cinematic creations.
7. The Barbarian Invasions is that rare blend of the emotional and intellectual, using a dying man’s last days and his estranged son’s attempts to make those final days more comfortable as a springboard for discussion and cinematic consideration of a number of political and social issues. Never falling completing into didactic arguments (which was perhaps the inclination of its predecessor, The Fall Of The American Empire), the film paints a portrait of stiff upper lip and barely denied longing.
6. 28 Days Later threw a lot of people off in the last third, but for me, the film seemed to grow in logical steps even if it seemed to be shifting terrain a bit under our feet. Regardless, this is one of the creepiest and most memorable “day after” horror films I have seen, a rare delight among recent horror films, eschewing graphic blood letting for an atmosphere of dread and fear.
5. The Last Samurai seems to have inspired either a “love it” or “hate it” response, and I offer it here with a qualification. Tom Cruise is one of those actors who never quite looks comfortable in his own (or more importantly, in his character’s) skin, particularly when he’s playing a character who is supposed to be sincere. There’s a self-awareness that never seems to be overcome, and his best roles have not even tried, but rather have used that to effect (such as Magnolia, his best work to date, or even the Mission Impossible franchise). So, no, I never once believed I was watching anyone but Tom Cruise, but once I accepted that fact, this is a beautiful and moving film. The other performances are outstanding, and the film contains the most romantic screen kiss this year–filled with repressed desire and cultural limitations and wistfulness. In a year like 2003, I’m not sure a film like The Last Samurai really had a chance, because it is all about honor, and doing the ethical thing even at great personal sacrifice–it’s a shame we have to look to the 19th century and another culture to find subject matter that reflects those themes. But more scary is how foreign those themes seem to us.
4. Finding Nemo is not quite as good as Monsters Inc, but it’s pretty damn close. Ellen DeGeneres is hysterical, and the other voice performances are exceptional. Pixar is proving itself to be more Disneyesque in its own quirky way than Disney itself. And Finding Nemo is a slick, well crafted piece of sentimentality that is a pleasure to watch.
3. Monster at various points made me think back to Boys Don’t Cry–both are films that elicit unexpected and amazing performances from their lead actors, both are based on true stories and both are the focused passion of first time filmmakers. Monster is everything you’ve heard and more. Not for the feint of heart, but worth every moment.
2. The House Of Sand And Fog dips from the same pool of modern paranoia expressed in the awful Cold Creek Manor (repossession of a family home), filters it through cultural resonances regarding immigration and the Middle East, to become the film Mystic River wanted to be–an emotional powerhouse that made you argue with people afterwards about the moral implications. A work of art. “Opportunity” has never been such a double-edged sword.
1. In America. There are two moments when this film breaks the fourth wall or demonstrates an awareness of the audience watching. One is in the last few minutes, when the relationship of narration to dissolving image reflects what we as an audience will take with us after watching any film. And more profoundly, the other one comes with the delivery of a single line directly to the camera, mid-argument when the wife looks directly at us from her bed to deliver a statement filled with cinematic awareness and irony. Yet In America is a film that uses these devices not to play a joke on the audience or even share a joke; these devices are not to distance us but rather draw us more and more into the world of the characters’ heartbreak. The sincerity with which these techniques are used harkens back to the breathless days of 60s cinema and, in combination with In America’s relative understatement of issues, creates a film experience that is as close to sublime as any I can remember. This is a film wherein everything works, and works gracefully. The film’s power sneaks up on you and is one of the most hopeful expressions of 2003. This is the best film I saw all year.
And there you have it. My somewhat grumpy (but always humble) opinion. As you can see, many of the films in my list are quite somber, almost unbearably so. But none in this list shy away from emotion or thought. As a result, they brought the most rewards to my time in the dark.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.

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