Top Ten 2003 Films
Submitted by lbangs on Mon, 06/02/2003 - 09:42
- 1) Mystic River - I admit I never really expected Clint Eastwood to develop into the incredible director he is. Unforgiven was a slow, measured tour de force, a masterpiece that cleared any doubt about Eastwood’s skill behind the camera. Even as the decade progressed and weaker films arrived bearing Eastwood’s name, his skill was still evident. Some of the films were under-rated (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and many more were done in by weak scripts, but Clint always directed with a sure hand and managed incredible performances for his casts. Mystic River, however, is the first Eastwood film since Unforgiven with a fantastic screenplay, and the resulting film is a masterpiece. It helps that the script is good, but Brian Helgeland has not just delivered excellent work. Mystic River is Helgeland’s best work yet, even surpassing L.A. Confidential, and it could go head to head with almost any screenplay from this decade. Every character is a living creation, complete with interesting back-story and realistic motivations, and the symbolism and depth of the writing is both subtle and strong. Embodying these characters is what might well be the best ensemble cast of the decade so far. These are complex creatures, but there simply is not a weak link among the actors giving them life. Tim Robbins is especially impressive, losing himself in a lost character with no strings showing. Sean Penn is excellent as usual, and I love watching Marcia Gay Harden, who first knocked my socks off in Miller’s Crossing, continue her excellent career in an increasingly bright spotlight. Every actor, not just the ones I mentioned, delivers, and Clint continues to show incredible control and restraint, understanding his material and working to maximize its impact. He never underestimates his audience’s ability to follow the story or understand the people inside it, and he never shows off his own cinematic ability. The film is the goal, and every element selflessly contributes to it without grandstanding. In the end, Mystic River unfolds in the mind days after the lights come up, heavy, emotional, and thought provoking. It is not just a worthy descendent of Unforgiven. It is a masterpiece in its own right.
- 2) Lost in Translation - Somehow managing to convey a sense of ennui while remaining consistently engrossing, Lost in Translation may seem as Sofia Coppola's , but it doesn't play as a copy of any film. This is a fresh, beautiful vision, one that is wide and perceptive enough to linger on details and catch the uniqueness in the mundane, the precious in the ordinary. The story is a quiet one that is hardly spectacular, but the characters are very real, desperate and lonely, and their interactions delight even as they refuse to drift into the fantastical. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson deserve the kudos they are receiving. They bring to round life characters that might seem flat on the page, delivering natural nuances that never seem showy. Coppola's vision is all her own and dead-on, highlighting what others might miss and bringing beauty to boredom. Even the look of the film dazzles with bland pastels and muted neons. A fascinating film, Lost in Translation exerts a subtle but adamantine grip on one's memory days after the credits roll. It refuses to be a fantasy, but it is fantastic in a way few films are.Spoiler: Highlight to viewBrief La Dolce Vita Encounter During Tokyo Holiday
- 3) The Barbarian Invasions - I watched Denys Arcand’s excellent The Decline of the American Empire while I was still in high school, so one can understand my mixed emotions and expectations at hearing of a sequel of sorts rolling out seventeen years later. Luckily, this film is a complete delight. One does not have to have seen the first film to understand and to enjoy The Barbarian Invasions, but since I had, the reunion of the cast of freewheelin’, intellectual friends emits special warmth towards me. One of the group is dying, and as he muses on his deathbed on what he is convinced is the collapse of American civilization, a new, younger acquaintance notes that he may very well not be experiencing the crumbling decay of the world so much as the loss of his own fond youth. Arcand, bless his heart, is wise enough to know that this film really does not need to judge between its various hypotheses. Several characters chime in on what is going wrong with the world, and the director seldom seems to side definitively with any of the opinions. More telling, however, in the discussion I recalled above is the film’s refusal not only to decide between various political views, but also to choose whether it is a film focused on politics or relationships. Perhaps it knows enough to see the lack of any ultimate sure line between the two. In the end, the film sparkles with the sort of sharp intelligence and vivid drama between ordinary people Hollywood just can’t seem to give a rip about lately. This makes it unique. The incredible script, great acting, and delicate directing make it wonderful.
- 4) Kill Bill Vol. 1 - Kill Bill Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino's worst film and, no doubt, one of the best of 2003. The anticipated film proves to be loads of fun, presenting an action film while sporting all the stylish personality everybody said Spider-Man displayed. Who can resist a delicious, jazzed-up jumble of Bruce Lee, Kurosawa, John Woo (the opening scene has a segment largely lifted from The Killer), and my man Sergio Leone? Alright, so it, like most revenge films, lacks emotional depth or subtlety, and, less forgivable, at times the humor is a bit forced. And I'll grant you that the opening scene is not entirely successful, but really, if this didn't have Tarantino's name on it, half the world would be wetting themselves over this film. Any fears that the film split would be harmful are completely unfounded, especially since the film really get rolling towards the end and then bows with a twist that guarantees the audience will be back for the second installment. Uma fits QT's vision like a leather glove, and hardly anybody can match music to vision like Quentin. Let's see, four for four, then, I reckon...
- 5) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...And Spring - Comments coming soon...
- 6) Intolerable Cruelty - I'm not sure really how this works; I'm still working on the math. Somehow, two beloved film figures in (IMHO) an artistic nosedive, an actress I usually cannot stand, and a great actor bounding with charisma tumble together and leave me giddy. Sure, the Coen didn't write this one, but the results are so hilarious, so laugh out loud funny, I am thinking that borrowed screenplay is a very good thing. Quite possibly this is the funniest, best comedy from a decade that desperately needs a great cinematic laugh.
- 7) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The final chapter of this incredible epic, one where a great art-house director wonderfully merges his own vision while staying true to the original work of perhaps the best fantasy author we've yet seen, arrives, and the story ends in grand fashion. Jackson has taken great pains to keep the sweeping action centered on characters, and that effort pays off in spades here, as while the war scenes are vast, it is the drama here that really elevates this work. They could have called this one Return of Samwise, so thoroughly does Sean Astin rivet our attention. Truthfully, every actor does very well, holding to Jackson's decision to play the epic as the serious story it is. I admit that for the first time, I found some of the build-up early on to be a bit extraneous, and I also didn't find the battle scenes quite as rapturous as some reviewers. In fact, I'll break with the critical mainstream and confess I still find the first film to be the best in the series. This is still great, though, and Jackson can rest assured that he has created the most consistent film trilogy I'm aware of. It is rather thrilling and rare to see such a great work win the public over. We most likely shan't see the likes of that again any time soon.
- 8) Finding Nemo - If John Lasseter and Pixar are remembered primarly for destroying hand-drawn animation, it will be an incredible distortion of history. This delightful, inventive, funny film proves that this studio has proved a goldmine due to warm, thrilling, fun scripts populated by creative characters well-drawn (in all senses of the word) and mated with excellent voice work as much as to excellent computer animation. Finding Nemo is a delight, with an inventive plot that packs a few real chills with its thrills and some very warm comedy. I suspect small, independent studios will sieze upon hand animation, transforming it into an edgy, more inventive medium than the last few clunker Disney features were, but with a studio like Pixar dedicating to releasing such incredibly delightful family entertainment as Finding Nemo, that may be a very nice arrangement for all.
- 9) Open Range - The theatrical Western is dead. Long live the Western! Since the genre has dived into the current underground B-movie studios (AKA cable networks), it has struggled to find breath. Often, it has emerged from the low budget wash alive and squirming. Kevin Costner, seemingly unphased by several big-budget bombs, puts the oater back on the large screen, and if it is a return home of sorts for the director, let us hope he rarely feels the need to wonder so far afield again. His cast is that wonderful and rare contemporary crew that seems realistic moving about the time-worn settings of the frontier, with Duvall even managing to lift his flesh and blood cowboy into that blurry realm between dirty of the world and the rarified Fordian air of the mythic. The opening might bore a few away, and the ending dwells on a romance the rest of the film too often ignores, but when that gun fight blows its way through your chest, you'll know those character blazing guns down the dusty main street are more than simple cardboard cutouts, and you'll also remember why the idea of Costner behind camera once set the world of filmgoers aquiver. Kudos for blowing up a towering genre to silver screen size once more, and even more cheers for doing it so well.
- 10) X2: X-Men United - The first stab at filming the heroic team only got it half right; this one nails it. Combining enough in-jokes for fans with explanations for newbies, Singer has blown past his previous effort to pile on superior suspense, characterizations, effects (though Pyro's flames are oddly horrible), and plain ol' storytelling. This is easily the best in the X-series thus far, the best Marvel adaptation yet to see the light of day, and, frankly, the best damn super-hero film I've ever seen (and I'm pretty sure I've seen all the decent ones). I expected to be disappointed. Man, some times I love it when I'm wrong.
- Honorable Mention
- Touching the Void - Taking his cue and fearlessness in the face of recreations from Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, Kevin MacDonald creates a documentary harrowing enough to cream most of this decade's adventure films with its heart-pounding suspense. For most of the film, the craft is virtually invisible, but scooting an audience to the edge of its seat takes quite a bit of skill, and the fact that this transparency of manipulation is incredibly impressive. Luckily, the story is up to the task of doing the heavy lifting here, and the narratives are intercut seamlessly. In an age when the over-rated documentary is the rule rather than the exception, this one earns its praise.
- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - This film puts the viewer on a British ship deep in the heart of the Napoleanic War. The perfect special effects, the subtle, dead-on art direction, and the incredible sound design all work miracles to pull this neat effect off. The cast, from Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany to the minor actors, also impress with honest performances that never betray the stranded, confined settings, and Peter Weir does a admirable job balancing pace and dramatic thrust. While the feel of this film is impressively effective, the story is a bit less so, hinging a bit too much on coincidence and, despite some great acting, losing a bit of the human element needed for an adventure epic of this magnitude and type to soar. When the excellent action scenes arrive, the viewer is most likely just not quite as invested in the main movers as needed to make this a truly classic film. Still, it is a very impressive one, one that probably deserved more technical recognition at the Academy Awards than it earned, especially for its stellar effects that never once take the viewers out of its very isolated world (showing what true masters can do blending traditional models and CGI instead of using CGI alone as a weak panacea).