Still in the mire of bad global bad tidings, with the exception of “Bad Santa,” “A Mighty Wind,” and “Old School,” comedy had not made any sort of a comeback in 2003. This is when we started to get a lot of deeply disturbing movies that were beyond the spectrum of depressing. But they were really good too. The list of runners up for the list is staggering; “Dogville,” “Movern Callar,” “28 Days Later,” “The Hours,” “Big Fish,” “Irreversible,” and it goes on.
10 BEST FILMS OF 2003
1. DIRTY PRETTY THINGS – DIR: Stephen Frears Frears makes solid movies. “The Hi-Low Country,” “The Grifters,” and “High Fidelity” are all just well made pictures, and this falls into that category. Audrey Tautou gives a performance that proves her charm in “Amelie” wasn’t just a fluke. She has an air like 1950’s and 60’s Audrey Hepburn, and though her character here is significantly more victimized than most of Hepburn’s roles at that time, she still has that same type of screen presence. This was also the first picture America really got to see Chiwetel Ejiofor, an unlikely candidate for stardom in this country, he has risen in the Hollywood ranks because of his own skill as a performer. All in all a good way to start the year off.
2. ELEPHANT – DIR: Gus Van Sant Okay, this could be the most oppressively depressing movie in history. It is also one of the best done. 2003 saw the start of Van Sant’s trilogy of amazingly down films, starting with the ingenious “Gerry,” and ending with 2005’s “Last Days.” While both of the others were good, “Elephant” is beyond that. It conjures up a tone of impossible power, and even though I take exception to the one scene of explanation where the two killers take a shower together, this is almost a perfect movie. Walking out of the film I literally did not speak for a half an hour. It just seemed like there weren’t any words that could suffice.
3. THE FOG OF WAR – DIR: Errol Morris This is one of the most convincing anti-war films ever made, and it is little more than a talking head. But that head happens to be Robert McNamara, and his talking is that of a maker of war. Morris’ documentaries are always the most interesting around, not in small part due to his “Interratron” technique of filming his interviews, but also because he is just so damn good at getting his subjects to talk about the most intimate issues. I will never forget the chills it gave me to hear McNamara admit that if the U.S. had lost World War II he would have been charged with war crimes.
4. THE GOOD THIEF – DIR: Neil Jordan This remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob Le Flambeur” is an example of a remake done right. It is a film wholly separate from the original, and has no tie in what so ever besides the plot, and some references to the Melville. Director Emir Kustirika is hilarious as the security expert that helps Nick Nolte break into the museum in a ridiculously loud way, a hinted reference to the opposing silence in Melville’s other heist movie, “Le Circ Rouge.” Thematically, tonally, and stylishly different this picture almost measures up to the original masterpiece, and it might have if the final line of the “Good Thief” was as perfect as that of “Bob Le Flambeur.”
5. KILL BILL – DIR: Quentin Tarantino No one else can make this movie besides Tarantino. No one would have even been able to conceive of such a farcical, over the top, reference laden, thrill ride. Tarantino has never made a bad feature (his part of “4 Rooms” doesn’t count). Blood, severed limbs, blaring music, cool costumes, this movie has it all, but it also has a strange and interesting structure that keeps even the most seasoned filmgoer guessing how it will pan out. Tarantino doesn’t make movies about anything but movies, though they are commenting on both the past events and the past techniques, and while his films always seem like they are built entirely of nostalgia Tarantino has a hand in creating the future as well.
6. LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING – DIR: Peter Jackson This was my favorite out of all three of the films, but since they really work as one whole, soul crushingly long picture it is kind of impossible to separate them. This one, however, did have the most action, and the greatest individual visuals (though the best one, the “Mouth of Sauron” scene, was left out of the theatrical cut for some reason). The final battle scenes are so epic that it will be impossible for Jackson to ever out do, though it will be fun seeing him try.
7. MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD – DIR: Peter Weir This movie is nothing but fun. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany make a perfect swashbuckling duo. Peter Weir captures such an amazing tone in this movie of adventure, tension, and discovery. Through the film until the final scene it becomes blaringly apparent why Crowe is such a huge star. His charm, wit, and devilish grin take this movie from just an A&E special presentation to, quite possibly, the most enjoyable movie experience of 2003.
8. MYSTIC RIVER – DIR: Clint Eastwood Dating back to his “Bronco Billy” days I have always loved the movies that Clint Eastwood has directed. This subtle drama about one man’s fall back from redemption is a powerful look into the dynamics of tragedy. Eastwood pretty much always has a steady directorial hand, always tight and without much fat, his films play like movies from the 1970’s. Laura Linney is actually kind of scary in this movie as Sean Penn’s Lady Macbeth-esque wife. The final scene where she uses the death of her daughter to spur her husband back into a life of brutality is nothing short of chilling.
9. OPEN RANGE – DIR: Kevin Costner Though he has fallen off somewhat of late the Costner is one of my favorite guys in Hollywood. “Revenge,” “No Way Out,” “The Postman” are all great films. Here he takes on the Western to seriously badass results. It is a simple picture about two men and their cows, and those who would like to separate the happy family. And it’s about killing. The actual gunfight scene is one of the most brutal Western gunfights ever put to celluloid, but the tension leading up to it is equally as good. This film captures a slowness, a quiet of the plains like the Westerns of old, like “Red River” or “Winchester ’73.” Robert Duvall and the Costner are a perfect duo, and the way their friendship is shown in this picture makes one yearn for the days when all you needed was a side arm and a bushy goatee to make it in this crazy world.
10. TIME OF THE WOLF – DIR: Michael Haneke This is the second most depressing movie of the year after “Elephant,” and once again it is almost indescribable as to why. This is a film that just has to be taken in, digested, felt; no words can capture the power or oppression I felt watching this film. From the opening gun shot to the final bonfire Haneke is a brutal torturer of Khmer Rouge quality. The ringer he constructs to drag the audience through is calibrated so tight as to leave only slivers of their souls to remain when the final credits roll.
10 WORST FILMS OF 2003
1. ALL THE REAL GIRLS – DIR: David Gordon Green I hate this movie. From the opening shot to the end credits I hate this movie. Such a pretentious meditation on first loves it made me cringe every time Zooey Deschanal opened her mouth. This movie has more whine than all of Napa Valley. The only good things to come out of this movie are Paul Schneider, who has done some good work other than this picture, and Danny McBride, who can be just goddamned hilarious. He actually has some funny moments here, but they are overshadowed by the utter childishness and annoyance of the actual story.
2. BAD BOYS 2 – DIR: Michael Bay Mark this as the point where Michael Bay “Jumps the Shark.” This overblown, stupid movie is fit for only the most moronic. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, who actually worked well together in the first “Bad Boys,” do nothing but pair their giant egos on screen, always trying to out tough each other, the audience being the loser in that contest. The worst scene in the film is one in which Lawrence accidently gets high on Ecstasy, and Will Smith has to cover for him. Had I been high on that myself I think I still would have hated this movie. It is that powerfully bad.
3. DAREDEVIL – DIR: Mark Steven Johnson I think Mark Steven Johnson is actually “The Man Without Fear” for actually leaking this drivel out into the viewing public. Ben Affleck isn’t a hero, let alone a super one. He is so wooden in this movie I actually prefer Rex Smiths’s attempt to play the character in the made-for-TV “The Trial of the Incredible Hulk.” At least in that movie Kevin Smith wasn’t trying to act.
4. FREDDY VS. JASON – DIR: Ronny Yu A bad idea from the start. Despite the overall low quality of the conception the movie is so badly edited that often times it is hard to understand what is going on in any one space. During simple dialogue scenes I kept forgetting if characters where in the scene, where people were, what was going on, and that doesn’t even touch the action scenes. Film school, folks, isn’t just a waste of time for some people.
5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO – DIR: Robert Rodriguez So “El Mariachi” and “Desperado” were fun. This, not so much. Robert Rodriguez was always known for his “amazing” editing style, but this movie looks like it was cut with a chainsaw. The digital video adds to the cheap feel of the picture, and the writing is just stupid. For some reason R. Rod has been trying to channel Quentin Tarantino for years, and just can’t find that place in his heart. It seems like Tarantino loves movies, and Rodriguez loves Tarantino. I would hope that he could get back to his “From Dusk Till Dawn” or “4 Rooms” quality, but judging from his “Shark Boy and Lava Girl” outing those days might have gone the way of the dodo.
6. PHONE BOOTH – DIR: Joel Schumacher Not a fan of Colin Farrell. Not a fan of the Schu. Never in a million years did this movie have a chance. The worst part about this film is Colin Farrell’s New York accent. Strangely enough when he uses his own Irish brogue I don’t mind the fella, but his forays into other dialects makes me cringe. Guest spot on “Scrubs?” Good. “Alexander?” Why even ask the question?
7. THE SAFTEY OF OBJECTS – DIR: Rose Troche This was one of those that I didn’t know anything about before I saw it, and I wish I had kept it that way. The knowledge of this movie hurt my head for days afterward. The woes of upper-middle class suburbia just don’t stir the pot inside me, especially when their problems are so banal. If I need my dose of self-involved Caucasian narcissism I’ll just watch the first couple seasons of “Weeds,” thank you very much.
8. TEARS OF THE SUN – DIR: Antoine Fuqua This movie is a mess. There is little more to say about it. I can’t go into the details because I don’t have enough time. The only way to understand what I’m saying is to watch the film, which I don’t recommend. Just take my word for it, the tears the sun was crying were for the lost two hours it wasted watching this movie.
9. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE – DIR: Marcus Nispel The horror genre is ripe for the raping when it comes to remakes. Most films like this or “Friday the 13th” or any of the other many Platinum Dunes remakes falter because they are just retreading ground that has been paved over by multitudes of repetitious sequels of the original franchises. No one needs another Leatherface movie because there have been too many already. Sure you can update it and make a couple bucks, but at the end of the day movies are all about quality… right?
10. TIMELINE – DIR: Richard Donner I love Richard Donner. “Superman,” “The Goonies,” and the “Lethal Weapons (1 and 2)” are great, but this one just isn’t that. It seemed like he need a paycheck, and thoroughly didn’t care. The studio thought “Michael Crichton, that guy does no wrong,” so they didn’t pay much attention, and at the end of the day I wanted my $10 back. What a jip.
MOST OVER RATED MOVIE OF 2003
LOST IN TRANSLATION – DIR: Sofia Coppola I don’t get her movies, this one in particular. Scarlett Johansson’s character just seems too smart and snarky and perfect, so why do I care? Her bratty ennui is hard to pull sympathy from me, and the same goes for Bill Murray here, who since “Rushmore” has pretty much been strip mining this character in every single movie. Sure the film is lush to look at, and wow is that Scarlett’s ass crack in the first shot? How brave! But overall not only does Johansson’s character think she’s smarter than the rest of us, but I get the feeling Sofia Coppola thinks the same thing.
MOST UNDER RATED MOVIE OF 2003
HULK – DIR: Ang Lee No one liked this movie. I get that it is taking a lot of chances, but I think most of them pay off. It veers into some weird territory especially the experimental theater piece that is the bizarre confrontation between Banner and his father between two giant nuclear reactors, but that’s what I love about it. This isn’t the same boring thing that all superhero movies have devolved into, it is something much stranger, and for that a much better movie. I think most people didn’t like it because Lee is less interested in what Hulk smashes than why he does it, where the rage comes from, and how Banner will deal with it. The editing is challenging, and pays off in a very cool way, also not like any other superhero movie. In the end it goes in different directions that most other pictures of its genre, and is light years better than the eventual 2008 reboot. Also to Lee’s credit he wanted to show the Hulk without pants the entire movie and the studio said no. That takes balls, big green ones.
Look for the 2004 review, which finally brings some laughs back into the landscape of American cinema.
By Paul S. Myers