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Best Movies of 2003

By Michael Scrutchin

I guess it's inevitable. People always groan that it's been the weakest year for movies in ages -- never mind that they made the same observation about the previous year. While I wouldn't say that 2003 was an especially great year for movies (how many great films is necessary to qualify?), I don't have too much to complain about (although that may have something to with the fact that I managed to avoid most of the surefire stinkers, Pieces of April and Dreamcatcher aside). It was a year like any other. These are the films that spoke to me the most.

1. All the Real Girls. The second film by David Gordon Green confirms the promise of George Washington and secures his position as one of modern cinema's greatest poets. The story of a slacker lothario in a North Carolina mill town falling for his best friend's virginal sister is familiar territory, but the way All the Real Girls captures the dreamy, exciting, awkward feeling of falling in love is stunning. "She makes me decent," Paul (Paul Schneider) says of Noel (Zooey Deschanel). He regrets his dubious past, but the film realizes that our mistakes often shape us as people in significant ways -- sometimes for the better. There's inevitable heartbreak, but the film is refreshingly optimistic -- an outlook reflected in Tim Orr's gorgeous cinematography, which captures the beauty of nature and life in ways that are breathtaking. At once realistic and lyrical, All the Real Girls is an honest and deeply poignant ode to the wonders of love and heartbreak.

2. Lost in Translation. At one point in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray sit outside a karaoke booth. She gently rests her head on his shoulder and, after a second, he carefully places his hands on his knees. That's it. What might be a throwaway moment in another film is acutely touching because Coppola understands how such small gestures can be so intimate. Murray's washed-up movie star and Johansson's aimless Yale grad meet in a hotel bar late at night in Tokyo -- both of them lonely and emotionally lost. Though they're both married, whether or not they'll have sex never really becomes an issue; the film is about emotional connections, not physical ones. Atmospheric, hilarious, and profoundly moving, Lost in Translation is gentle reassurance that all hope isn't lost for those of us who feel dislocated from our lives and dreams.

3. Friday Night. Kinda the flip side of Lost in Translation: a woman and a man meet during a Paris traffic jam, exchange few words, but soon wind up in bed together in a hotel room. Some viewers might be frustrated by the slow pace or the lack of a more substantial plot beyond the film's brief encounter, but I was mesmerized. Brilliantly directed by Claire Denis and exquisitely photographed Agnes Godard, Friday Night is a warm, sensual daydream of a film.

4. Bubba Ho-tep. One of the best films I saw in 2002 was finally picked up for distribution and released in 2003. Bruce Campbell gives a wonderful performance as an elderly Elvis Presley, wallowing in self-pity and regret in an East Texas rest home. Elvis and an old black man who thinks he's JFK (Ossie Davis) take a stand against the mummy who's been stealing the souls of fellow residents. Based on Joe Lansdale's story and written and directed by Don Coscarelli, Bubba Ho-tep is a funny, spooky, and surprisingly touching film about dealing with regret and finding redemption. It's also about kicking mummy ass I suppose. Yeah, that too.

5. American Splendor. Smudging the lines between documentary filmmaking and fictional storytelling, co-directors Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini haved crafted a wonderful portrait of the grouchy Cleveland file clerk who achieved cult fame through comics based on his miserable wage-slave existence. Paul Giamatti's performance as Harvey Pekar has received plenty of much-deserved praise, but Hope Davis' excellent turn as his wife, Joyce Brabner, is also kudos-worthy stuff. American Splendor is one of the funniest films of the year, certainly, but what resonates is its portrayal of the healing power of art.

6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Now that the initial disappointment has worn off (it never could have lived up to my expectations), I can more clearly see The Return of the King for the passionate and thrilling triumph that it is. And yet I wish it were something more. Taken as a whole, I think The Lord of the Rings will be looked back upon as one of the finest cinematic achievements in history, but I guess time will be the judge. Now, I just hope that -- after directing that King Kong thing -- Peter Jackson will finally get around to doing that sequel we've all been waiting for: Meet the Feebles: Reloaded.

7. The Shape of Things. Neil LaBute is back, baby. The Shape of Things is an exploration of misogyny along the lines of In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, but it's surprisingly fresh, vibrant, and devastating.

8. Down with Love. Many critics panned this colorful pastiche of Rock Hudson/Doris Day sex comedies, but I had a stupid grin plastered across my face throughout Down with Love's breezy 100-minute running time. Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger have impeccable comic timing and a lighthearted, wink-wink rapport that's refreshing rather than annoying. It's pure fun.

9. In America. Jim Sheridan's semiautobiographical In America chronicles a poor Irish family's trials and tribulations as they start a new life in New York City shortly after the death of a child. Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton are dynamite as the parents, but also impressive are the natural performances from real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger as their young daughters. Some have criticized the film as too sugary and sentimental, but I can't say that the emotion ever felt forced or contrived, even when the plot did. It's genuinely moving and inspiring. And for what it's worth, there wasn't a dry eye in the theater when the lights went up.

10. Owning Mahowny. When asked by a psychiatrist to rate, on a scale of zero to 100, the greatest thrill he's ever gotten from gambling, Dan Mahowny replies, "One-hundred." What about all other areas of his life? "Twenty," he says. Richard Kwietniowski's mesmerizing film about the destructive and spellbinding power of addiction is based on the true story of a Toronto bank VP who stole millions from his employer to fuel his gambling obsession in the early 1980s. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a powerhouse performance, Mahowny is a good, smart guy rendered weak, helpless, and emotionally inert by his crushing addiction.

Honorable Mentions: Blue Car; Cabin Fever; Charlotte Sometimes; Dirty Pretty Things; Kill Bill: Vol. 1; May; A Mighty Wind; Millennium Actress; Raising Victor Vargas; Shattered Glass; Sweet Sixteen; 28 Days Later; Whale Rider.

* * *

Special Mentions

Gaspar Noe's Irreversible might be empty shock-art posturing, but I can't deny that its visceral impact far surpassed anything else I saw this past year -- or any year. A rape and revenge story told with the scenes ordered in reverse, the film begins with skull-crushing violence and ends with tender bliss. It's technically dazzling and features strong, brave performances from Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, but does the movie have any substance? Its supporters insist that it does, but I'm unconvinced. If Irreversible has anything more insightful to say than, Hey, shit happens, maybe I was just too shell-shocked to notice.

Three Columbine-inspired films were released in 2003. The most forgettable, Home Room, turns the aftermath of a high school shooting into a dopey, melodramatic After School Special. Zero Day fares better, presenting itself as home video footage recorded by two teenage outcasts (convincingly played by Andre Keuck and Calvin Robertson) leading up to a carefully planned assault on their school. It's flawed but riveting, even if it doesn't offer much insight into such a situation or the minds of the perpetrators. In the end, what's the point?

Finally, there's Elephant, probably the only one of the three that will be remembered five years from now. Directed by Gus Van Sant in the same languid, lyrical style of his film Gerry from earlier this year, Elephant simply observes a cross-section of teenagers on a high school campus before and during a tragic shooting. Time Out New York film critic Mike D'Angelo called it "the year's most reprehensible film" and concluded his review by saying that it's "a film wholly dedicated to the creation of blissful innocents, whose impending slaughter we await with mounting dread." Like D'Angelo, I recognize the film's formal beauty and elegance, but, as with Zero Day, I have to ask: What's the point? I'm not asking these films to explain why terrible things like Columbine happen (any explanation would be far more insulting than a lack of one), but what's the point of documenting such an event when you don't have much to say about it?

"Dude, that goalie was pissed about something."
--Freeburg (Kyle Labine), Freddy vs. Jason

Article published 01.14.2004.

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