Happy New Year to all. Due to some childcare issues over the course of the holidays posts have been a little slower than usual, but they should be picking up some speed this month. Continuing my series of posts assessing the best films of the decade, today I spotlight my favorite films of 2003. This year was a particularly weak year for cinema in my opinion, so you might see some unusual entries. Some reminders: I cannot judge movies I haven't seen, so if you feel a film you like was unjustly left out, it might be that I never saw it; also, if I already wrote a review for it, I'll simply refer back to the original review. At the end of the month, I'll post my ten best for 2009. I will then follow up with my 10 best films of the past decade.
And now, in alphabetical order, the best films of 2003...
Dogville, director Lars von Trier - Nicole Kidman carries this movie in a performance I feel safe in calling brave. Here, she is put through the wringer by von Trier (Europa), who stages the story like a black box theater production, its set sparingly delineated with chalk and the bare minimum of props. The staging serves the dual purpose of detaching you emotionally from the harrowing treatment of Kidman's Grace and focuses your attention on the spectacular acting by the stellar ensemble cast: Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Blair Brown, James Caan, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Davies, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, Željko Ivanek, Chloe Sevigny, and Stellan Skarsgård. An indictment of America's small-town libertarians, it offended many at the time of its release but has only grown more relevant with the advent of Beck, Palin, the Tea-Partiers, and other populist movements that encourage ignorance and close-mindedness.
The Dreamers, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci - Review here.
Elephant, dir. Gus Van Sant - A disquieting look at a fictional school shooting inspired by the tragic events at Columbine in 1999. Van Sant (Milk) seems to stop time by keying in on several moments leading up to the shooting, playing and replaying them from different perspectives. What emerges is an empathetic look at the victims and the killers even while Van Sant manages to never excuse the murderers for their crime. While he implies that the teen killers' alienation from their schoolmates may have been a contributing cause, he also takes pains to emphasize that all the other teenagers suffer some form of alienation from one another, and they don't resort to the same act.
Hulk, dir. Ang Lee - This is the closest a movie gets to a superhero art film. Lee (Brokeback Mountain) focuses on the psychological underpinnings of the rage that fuels the green giant (daddy issues, which also plague his girlfriend Betty). Eric Bana is solid as Bruce Banner, as are the rest of the cast (Jennifer Connelly, Sam Elliot, Josh Lucas, and Nick Nolte) in their respective roles. Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) supplies the dark but nuanced cinematography. Lee reserves any comic-book flourishes for the inspired split-screen editing—simulating the layouts of Marvel's graphic novels—until... he nearly demolishes any critical good will with the third act and its cartoon histrionics. Flawed, with moments of greatness.
Kill Bill: Vol.1, dir. Quentin Tarantino - So there's this cinematic enfant terrible whose talent is fairly obvious despite what his detractors would have you believe. But while he's been out enjoying all of his accolades his output has been pretty thin. Six years after his last film, he comes with an exciting—if super-longish—samurai-western pastiche, and you think, I don't know when he'll do another one... Let's split this film into two and really get more bang for the buck. What could have been one lean, mean, epic film, is now two slightly bloated half-films. That's my problem with this Tarantino movie, but alas, 2003... not a great year. So this still rather entertaining film makes it on here for its clever genre-bending. And you'll definitely see Vol.2 on the next year's list because it is vastly superior to this first part.
Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola - Does it really matter what Bill Murray whispers into Scarlett Johansson's ear at the end of Sofia Coppola's love letter to Tokyo? Only in that it preserves the thin sliver of intimacy these two platonic soulmates share during the fleeting moments in which their travels intersect. Coppola (Marie Antoinette) perfectly captures the feeling of dislocation one feels as a stranger in a strange land, especially one as quirky as Tokyo, which—as portrayed here, at least—feels like a refracted Bizarro-version of the US at its most indulgent.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, dir. Peter Weir - Weir (The Truman Show) gives us a humanistic take on war that, paradoxically, staunchly defends the concept of honor in battle. Russell Crowe is at his most charismatic as "Lucky Jack" Aubrey, captain of the HMS Surprise during the Napoleonic Wars. Just as in Patrick O'Brian's original novels, Weir gives plenty of time to the unique and insightful relationship between Aubrey and the ship's physician, Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), unlikely friends that bond over their shared love of music. The soundtrack is thus a prominent character in the film, and deservedly so. If ever a film demanded a sequel, it is this one.
Open Range, dir. Kevin Costner - Another genre offering that captures the subtle nuances of male relationships, Open Range is an elegiac western that takes its time to unfold and a surprising return to form for the actor/director of Dances with Wolves. Costner's chemistry with costar Robert Duvall is one of the pleasures of watching this film. In fact, the introspective quality of their friendship permeates throughout the rest of the character interactions, aided greatly by the atypical cast of Annette Benning, Michael Gambon, Diego Luna, and Kim Coates (as the most menacing but shortest-lived gunslinger in Western cinema).
Swimming Pool, dir. François Ozon - Where did all the erotic thrillers go? Once a staple of nineties cinema, it has virtually disappeared outside of the softcore direct-to-video realm. But Ozon capitalizes on the history of the former sex symbol, Charlotte Rampling (here appearing quite matronly), pitting her against French kitten Ludivine Sagnier in a sexual power struggle of a sort. Questions of identity are raised as Rampling is by turns repulsed, attracted, and fascinated by the nubile Sagnier. And most refreshingly, age and experience seem to trump youth and potency in the end.
X2, dir. Bryan Singer - What? Two superhero movies in the same year? Well, as I said, it was that kind of year. But Singer gets points here for achieving what many comics fans long thought impossible—fashioning a tight action adventure starring a team of super-powered beings that is coherent, exciting, and thoughtful. Singer delivers on the potential of the earlier, flawed X-Men, by playing up his own strengths with ensemble casts (The Usual Suspects) while spotlighting the mysterious background of the team's loner, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and bringing the allegorical allusions to homophobia to the foreground. One can only hope the upcoming Avengers film is anywhere near as good as this one, possibly the apex of its genre.
For more of this ongoing series, click here.