Friday, May 7, 2010

Year in Review: 2003

2003 was a very strong year for movies – so much so that I could probably make a decent top ten list out of the films that did not make this list at all. But, after a lot of second guessing, I choose these ten films for the list. I think it’s one of the best this decade.

10. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir)
It saddens me somewhat that Peter Weir’s Master and Commander didn’t make enough money to warrant the studio green lighting a sequel. This is grand, old fashioned entertainment of the highest order. Set in the British Navy in the early 1800s, Master and Commander is big, bold entertainment with magnificent action set pieces that are more about excitement, and yes story and character development, then they are about CGI. The film centers on two men – the ship’s Captain (Russell Crowe) and the doctor (Paul Bettany). They are good friends, but complete opposites – Crowe the man of action, Bettany the man of intelligence. The crucial difference between this film and many other action films is that director Peter Weir actually shot this on a real boat – in real water. That gives the movie a much more authentic feel to it than CGI ever could have. They do not make movies like Master and Commander much anymore – and that’s a shame, because Weir is a master at them. I would have loved to see more of these adventures brought to the screen.

9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
In the final installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson has finished the biggest cinematic epic of our lifetimes. Yes, the film “ends” too many times, but that’s a minor complaint. After three years, and over 10 hours of movie, Jackson gave us a grand cinematic send off for the characters that he brought to life. Once again the special effects and marvelous and groundbreaking. Once again, the battle sequence are on a massive scale, and yet somehow seem intimate. Once again, the characters and the story take precedence over those special effects and action sequences. The Return of the King maybe my least favorite individual installment of the series, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a great movie. Taken by itself, it is wonderful. Taken as part of the trilogy – one of the most ambitious projects in cinema history – it is masterful.

8. 21 Grams (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
Out of the three films of his career so far, 21 Grams is easily the best of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s work. It is about three seemingly unconnected people who are forced together by a car accident. Sean Penn plays a man in need of a heart transplant and gets one when a man is killed in the accident. Naomi Watts is the former junkie who has remade her life with the help of her husband – the man killed – who starts spiraling out of control again. Benicio Del Toro is the ex-con who has embraced religion and who caused the accident. But the film is not nearly that simple. Told in a complex structure which only allows us to see the story a piece at a time, 21 Grams unfolds with a breathless intensity. The three leads are all amazing, and the supporting cast is just as good as well. Written by Guillermo Arriaga, 21 Grams in the most ambitious of the three films that he and Gonzalez Inarritu made together – and also easily the best.

7.The Triplets of Belleville (Sylvain Chomet)
How does one describe the delightful animated film The Triplets of Belleville to someone who has not seen the film? Surely a plot description wouldn’t work, but let’s try that anyway. Madame Souza is raising her grandson Champion, who goes onto to become Tour de France racer. But then the French Mafia kidnaps him, and two other riders, drags him to North America and forces him and the others to compete against each other in a virtual Tour de France for the purposes of gambling. Souza, and her obese dog Bruno make their way to America to track him down, but lose him, and then meet the title trio – a group of female singers from the 1930s, now old women, but still playing music. With their help, she will track down her grandson. I’m sure that all sounds rather silly – but it doesn’t for a second describe what it is like to actually watch the film, which is a visual delight with its more classical, yet strange animated look. The story is told almost entirely through the images, as there is little dialogue of importance, but it does use music and sound effects as well – brining to mind the films of the great Jacques Tati. The animated characters do not appear realistic in anyway, and all have exaggerated features (the most obvious being the decidedly square mobsters). This was, amazingly, Chomet’s first feature film – although her newest film, The Illusionist debuted at a film festival earlier this year and is said to be amazing. I for one, cannot wait.

6. American Splendor (Robert Pulcini & Shari Springer Berman)
American Splendor is the truly inventive and hilarious adaptation of the comics of Harvey Pekar. Pekar, like Robert Crumb – who did many of the illustrations for Pekar’s books - doesn’t draw comics about superheroes but instead about his own. Paul Giamatti plays him in one of his very best performances to date. The movie details Harvey’s life with his wife Joyce (Hope Davis). The film is visually inventive throughout – mixing in the comics, the actors and the real people into the film to tells its story. Pekar is miserable in his life as file clerk in Cleveland – prone to fits of rage at his daily existence. But somehow, for Harvey anyway, he needs to miserable to be happy. He has a good life even if he doesn’t quite see it that way. Directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Spring Berman do a wonderful job bringing the comics to life, mixing together all sorts of visual strategies in perhaps the only way to tell this story. I just wish they would follow this up with something equally daring – not a film like The Nanny Diaries.

5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
This was a critical favorite back in 2003, but for some reason it has lost some its praise over the years. This mystifies me, as I still find Sofia Coppola’s drama of isolation and alienation to be both touching and funny. Bill Murray gives a great performance as an aging movie star who goes to Japan to make a lot of money shooting a whiskey commercial, and while there he meets Scarlett Johansson’s bored wife or a famed photographer. The two of them bond, and spend more and more time together, yet the relationship never becomes sexual like we think it’s going to. Instead, the movie just observes these characters in a foreign land with no one else to hang onto. I know that Johansson really has not delivered on her early promise, but she is fantastic in this movie, and Murray’s performance is still one of the best of the decade. Go back and watch the film again, and I think you’ll fall in love with it all over again.

4. Elephant (Gus Van Sant)
Gus Van Sant’s Elephant does something incredibly daring for a movie about a school shooting – it doesn’t even attempt to answer why it happened. The entire movie is shot pretty much is long, flat tracking shots through the school. It starts by simply observing the students as they go about their day. Then it flashes to the killers – where Van Sant dutifully checks off all the reasons “why” that the experts have given for school shootings – violent video games, sexual confusion, fascinating with Nazis – but finds no hidden meaning in any of them. When the shooting begins, Van Sant doesn’t even change his shooting style – he observes it with the same sort of detachment as the rest of the scenes. A film like Elephant challenges the audience because it doesn’t provide us with the typical narrative payoffs we expect to see – it doesn’t even have the normal film grammar we are accustomed to seeing. Instead it just asks us to watch as both the monogamy and horror unfold. Van Sant simply shows us death without a purpose, a reason, a cause or a cure. And that is truly daring.

3. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood even more firmly established himself as more than a movie star, but a legitimately great filmmaker this decade, and for me Mystic River is the best film of his career aside from his masterpiece Unforgiven. Set in Boston, the movie tells the story of three childhood friends who have gone off in wildly different directions. Sean Penn has become a husband and father, but still has crime connections that can get dirty work done when he needs it. Kevin Bacon has become a cop, and is determined to solve the crime in front of him, no matter where it leaves. And most tragically, Tim Robbins has also grown up to become a father, but because of an incident in his childhood, has become damaged goods – there is something not quite right about him. When Penn’s daughter is murdered, Bacon is assigned the case, and Robbins becomes the chief suspect. But not everything is as it appears. Like Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven, Mystic River is a film about the causes and effects of violence – how one act can irrevocably affect someone’s life forever. This is Eastwood at the height of his filmmaking powers.

2. Kill Bill: Volume 1 (Quentin Tarantino)
With the first part of his epic Kill Bill, Quentin Tarantino has created an action movie masterpiece. This film starts out with a bang, and is pretty much non-stop kinetic energy for its entire running time. Uma Thurman grounds the movie with her intense, believable performance as The Bride, out for vengeance. The fight scene with Vivica A. Fox is excellent, but it is the final sequence – which is pretty much the entire last act of the movie – where The Bride takes on dozens of masked men, a dangerous school girl and finally Lucy Liu that truly makes this film special. The film also has other great moments – the anime sequence, the escape for the hospital, etc. and finds a little time for Tarantino’s trademark dialogue – but if that’s what you want, see Volume II. This volume is a masterpiece of action filmmaking.

1. City of God (Fernardo Meirelles)
Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is the type of film Scorsese would have made had he been from Brazil, not New York. The film is epic in scope, as it details the rise of organized crime in the City of God slum of Rio de Janerio over the course of the a decade – from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. The criminals here are not your typical American style gangster, but really little more than children who have been abandoned and left to fight for themselves. The two main characters are Rocket, a kid from the slum who wants out, and sees his interest in photography as perhaps his ticket. He wants to capture life in his slum the way it really is, and get the word out about it. The other character is Lil’Ze, who we see early in the film as a boy no more than 10 who commits a massacre at a hotel gunning down countless people. Through the year, Lil’ Ze only becomes more ruthless and violent. The film ends, as we know it must, in a huge gang war between two warring factions, neither of whom will make it clean. The end of the film ensures us that the cycle of violence will continue – a younger generation has taken over the reins. City of God is electrifying filmmaking at its best, and put Meirelles on the map as a world class filmmaker (his two films since this one, The Constant Gardener and Blindness were both quite good, but he has yet to rise to these heights again). Let’s hope he makes another film this great again soon.

Just Missed The Top 10: All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green), Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff), The Barbarian Invasions (Denys Arcand), Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin), Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki), The Dancer Upstairs (John Malkovich), Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears), Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton), The Fog of War (Errol Morris), House of Sand and Fog (Vadim Perelman), A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest), Open Range (Kevin Costner), Owning Mahowny, School of Rock (Richard Linklater),The Son (Jean-Luc & Pierre Dardenne), Thirteen (Catherine Harwicke).

Oscar Winner – Best Picture & Director: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson)
As individual films, all three The Lord of the Rings movies made my top ten list in their respective years, but none were in the top five. Having said that, when taken as one complete work, The Lord of the Rings represents one of the best, most ambitious epic blockbusters of the modern era, so I’m not going to say that the film, or Jackson, didn’t deserve the win here. Personally, The Return of the King is probably my least favorite of the three films – with its seemingly never ending finale being a weak spot, but the Academy was rewarding the series as a whole with these wins. Personally, I would have preferred them giving it to The Fellowship of the Ring instead, if for no other reason than to spare us from A Beautiful Mind being a Best Picture winner, but hell, that’s just me.

Oscar Winner – Best Actor: Sean Penn, Mystic River
By this point in his career, the Academy pretty much had to give Sean Penn an Oscar. He had been one of the best American actors for two decades at this point, and was on his fourth nomination (the other three being for Dead Man Walking, Sweet and Lowdown and god only knows why for the horrid I Am Sam). But unlike many times when the Academy seemingly gives out a “lifetime achievement award” in a competitive category, this time they actually gave it to a worthy performance – in fact Mystic River may just be Penn’s finest work. His grandiose performance helps to elevate Eastwood’s movie about child abuse and murder into an almost Shakespearian like tragedy (a fact underlined by Laura Linney’s Lady MacBeth-esque speech near the end of the film). Penn is magnetic in the lead role. At the time I was torn between Penn and Murray – and I still am, perhaps even leading a little towards Murray if for no other reason than Penn would win for another great performance, in Gus Van Sant’s Milk, just five years later – but for once, I have no complaints with this win.

Oscar Winner – Best Actress: Charlize Theron, Monster
The Academy absolutely loves giving Oscars to gorgeous women, but seemingly only when they are not gorgeous in the film itself. Following Halle Berry’s dirty waitress in Monster’s Ball and Nicole Kidman’s huge nose in The Hours (and arguably Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, who was portrayed as sexy, but trailer trash sexy, not Hollywood sexy in that film), Theron won an Oscar by being “brave” enough to look horrible in her movie. That’s not to say that her performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos was not deserving of an Oscar win – she is magnetic in the film, and turns what could have been a one dimensional monster, into a flawed, violent, at times oddly sympathetic human being. She is the only reason to really watch the movie – which is a little simplistic, but she makes it near great almost single handedly. Personally, I would have given the award to another gorgeous woman looking bad – Naomi Watts’ drug addict in 21 Grams – but in this case, I won’t complain too much.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins, Mystic River
If you can believe it, even though Robbins had had a solid career for almost two decades to this point, this was his first nomination for acting (he had been nominated for Writing and Directing Dead Man Walking, but lost both awards). But, like Penn, I am happy to report that they gave a worthy actor an Oscar for a great performance – perhaps not Robbins best, but damn close to it. Robbins is wonderful as the man who was abused as a child, and seems to have shut himself down emotionally – which of course draws the suspicion of the police, his friends and even his wife. This is actually the only performance to win this year that I can whole heartedly say I would have voted for – yes Benicio Del Toro is good in 21 Grams, but Robbins is better here.

Oscar Winner – Best Supporting Actress: Renee Zellweger, Cold Mountain
All the major awards from 2003 went to worthy people, except for this one. The Academy obviously gave Zellweger this award because it was her third nomination in a row – following Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chicago – and they felt bad. How else can you explain her downright awful performance as a hillbilly winning this award? I actually like Cold Mountain – in particular, I find the Jude Law segments to be near brilliant – but every time Zellweger opened her mouth, and let the horrid mountain twang accent she donned for this movie out, I hated it. This is quite possibly the worst acting Oscar win of the entire decade, especially when you consider how great fellow nominees Shoreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog, Holly Hunter in Thirteen and Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River were.

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