Thursday, March 6, 2014

THE TEN GREATEST MOVIES OF 2003! (The year they put my name on the walls of my high school)

Ah, we arrive now at the year of my high school graduation, 2003! I was 12 at the time, according to accounting firm of Dewey, Cheatem and Howe, who I trust for accurate counts in these sort of affairs, and I remember much of it like it was yesterday. I didn't quite know I was destined for film, I thought I was more likely gonna become the next Sam Seaborne or Joshua Lyman, and I realize those are fictional characters, but still, my name's on the wall at Basic High School for Outstanding Achievement for Social Studies in my class, but I had started experimenting with art years earlier. Lyrics mostly; I wasn't much of a musician, but I knew secretly for years those that film was my destiny after being on television a couple times for Varsity Quiz. I had hoped that we would've been on television for the Varsity Quiz playoffs in my final year; I had been on twice before, no wins, once for Brown, and once for Valley High School, when I was in their awful magnet program for a year, and we almost did, amazingly, since I had to lie, cheat, steal, beg, bribe, and coerce just to get enough people to people to form a team that year, and we still finished 4-2, and I was proud of that. (Oh, "Varsity Quiz" was a trivia contest between Junior High and High Schools respectively in Southern Nevada; I still own a few records at it.) The other thing I remember, was that there a lot of good movies that year, and somehow the Oscars, decided to give them all to "LOTR" despite that. One of the biggest Oscar screw-ups of all-time, and it was across the board. Well, despite the disappointing end to the movie year, there were plenty of great movies that year, more than most. There were some really special films that didn't break my Top 20 this year, much less my Top Ten.

Well, for those who haven't been caught up until now, I'm going year-by-year through the naughts, revealing the Top Ten of each year, we're on to 2003, and if you want to go back and see what I selected for previous years, the links are below, for the full explanations for my choices, and also, hears the shorthand lists so far:

1. Adaptation.
2. Minority Report
3. 25th Hour
4. Spirited Away
5. Y Tu Mama Tambien
6. Bowling for Columbine
7. Frida
8. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
9. Lovely & Amazing
10. Far From Heaven

1. Mulholland Dr. 
2. Dinner Rush
3. Waking Life
4. The Royal Tenenbaums
5. Gosford Park
6. Monsters, Inc.
7. Amelie
8. Audition
9. Ghost World
10. Memento

1. Almost Famous
2. Amores Perros
3. Traffic
4. Requiem for a Dream
5. Chocolat
6. Best in Show
7. Wonder Boys
8. High Fidelity
9. 6ixtynin9
10. Cast Away

And now, to the Top Ten Films of 2003!


Neil Labute has a bit of a reputation as a talented writer/director of films like "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "In the Company of Men", as well as some memorable for-hire directing work like the remake of "Death at a Funeral", "Possession" and maybe infamously, the remake of "The Wicker Man", but that's nothing compared to his acclaim in the theater world, and nothing makes that more clear than "The Shape of Things," a direct from the stage to the screen adaptation of his play that was a big hit in both London and New York. The movie stars all four of the actors that originated the parts on both stages, and while the play is opened up a bit, the movie genuinely feels mostly like a production of the play, which is something most people complain about with film, but I actually enjoy it, especially the way it's done here. Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) comes into Adam's (Paul Rudd) life, just as she's starting a thesis project. She is a particular kind of artist that I will not go into detail describing other than to say that nobody's played this kind of artist onscreen better. Adam's a nice but lowly guy who works at a museum that Evelyn decided to graffiti in protest. Soon, they start a relationship and Adam takes her to meet Philip and Jenny (Frederick Weller and Gretchen Mol) his two best friends since high school who are also a couple themselves. Like a play, the scenes are done in acts, each at a different location showing not just the progress of the relationship between Evelyn and Adam, but also the changes that the relationship dynamics between the four friends. In the middle of this whole Woody Allen controversy recently, a quote from Hans Suyin, the Chinese novelist (I had been mis-attributing the quote as being from Theodor Dreiser previously but anyway...) which states that "Moralist have no place in an art gallery," kept coming to mind as I observe that whole cluster-you-know-what. Well, I first learned that quote from "The Shape of Things" and essentially the film is about that strange line behind what is art and what is life, and whether or not the two can or should mix and what compromises those involve. The act break scenes in the movie are separated by tracking shots and with original songs by Elvis Costello played between scenes, "The Shape of Things" really should get mentioned as one of the better play adaptations in recent years.


Some people forget that while one lousy sequel swept the Oscars in 2003, another became the first one to win the Foreign Language Oscar. That's part of the reason why I don't rank Denis Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions" a little higher on this list, 'cause as great as the film is, it's one of those films that works considerably better when you've seen the first film, "The Decline of the American Empire", which took place over a weekend among colleagues and friends, of a College History department, most of whom talk about sex and their relationships, faithful, unfaithful and otherwise. That's a movie about the great wit of intellectuals and how it masks their personal sexual debauchery. Now, it's 17 years later, and one of the members of that movie, Remy (Remy Girard) is dying. Unabashedly liberal in politics and in life, to excess, the movie is about his last days as his old friends, relatives, ex-wives, kids, etc. come together again to celebrate, mourn, remember, flirt, drink, be merry, get high if they can find some pot. Some people compared "Decline..." to "The Big Chill", but I always thought it was more like, what those parties George and Martha probably went to, twenty years before they started doing their bit in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "Decline..." was good, "The Barbarian Invasions" is better. We're more familiar with the characters, there's more at stake, there's years more experience and living behind them, and instead of just talking about the lives they were living, now they actually look back and enjoy them, while enjoying themselves now. Denys Arcand's one of the more unknown great filmmakers alive; on top of these two films, he made the masterful "Jesus of Montreal" as well, he's also a pretty good actor and writer, this film also got a Screenplay Oscar nomination, well-deserved too. If it worked as well, standing alone, I'd rank it higher, but even without the earlier context, this is fun movie, one of the best Canadian films of the last decade as well.


I'm gonna start by saying that I have a few caveats on this list, and one of them is that I'd probably rank "The Twilight Samurai" higher once I get around to a re-watch. I remember the mood and tone of the movie more than the plot. The fact that I still rank it this high though, should tell you how good the mood is. The film won 12 Japanese Oscars, which is extremely impressive when you realize there were only 13 competitive categories for those awards, and the 13th, was Foreign Language Film, so it wasn't eligible for that, and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film., and it's a transcendent and beautifully lyrical approach to the Samurai movie. Taking place at the end of the Samurai era, before the Boshin War and the end of Feudal Japan, Seibei (Hiroyuki Sanada) is a low-level bureaucrat among the Samurai, who's still grieving from his wife's death, and began working the fields to take care of his daughters. He's prepared to shun violence until his long-time lover Tomoe (Rie Miyazawa) finally divorced her cruel husband Michinojo (Mitsuri Fikikoshi).  It' seems like a classic lover's spat or duel but the movie is more about banal than that, elegiac about how it's as much about the mundane aspects of life, as much as the battle, moreso in fact, consider how realistic violence is depicting. No, long over-choreographed images, no blood splattering and body parts flying. It's skillful yet realistic, and the aged warrior's preparation for battle, and devotion to the Samurai code at the end of the era, is really the core of this strikingly-beautiful film. It was directed by Yoji Yamada, who spent most of his career in Japan  directing Toro-San films, which was a famous comedic character in Japan, for almost three decades, and Yamada directed 48 films of his, so to suddenly see this B-movie filmmaker make such a strikingly different films, especially one about an aging man who suddenly makes sudden changes late in life is truly startling, and to see him do it so well too....


Another name that never comes up when mentioning the best filmmakers alive is Stephen Frears. He's unassuming, you can't pick him out of a crowd, and he constantly changes genres. His rom-com "High Fidelity" made me Top Ten in '00, and if you didn't know he directed both of these films, you'd never guess. He's also made such varied films as "Philomena", "The Queen", "Mrs. Henderson Presents", "Lay the Favorite", "Cheri", "The Grifters", "Mary Reilly", "My Beautiful Laundrette", "Dangerous Liaisons", and "Liam" among others; it's impossible to pin him down, but almost all his films are at least good, and some are special. "Dirty Pretty Things" is a dark neo-noir thriller, that takes place in London, yet, the film revolves are it's immigrant population, legal and illegal, who work behind the scenes and below the line, often taking multiple jobs to make ends meet, hiding from Immigration Services.  Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an African immigrant, who's clearly educated, and although he's incredibly quiet about his past, apparently was a surgeon in his home country. He works as a cab driver during the day, and as a porter at a sleazy West London hotel at night, the kind where you inevitably make friends with the hookers like Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), since there's nothing else going on. The hotel is run by Sneaky Juan (Sergi Lopez) who has a side business dealing in the underground world of illegal body parts for transplant. Some of the more desperate donate kidneys and such things for passports and green cards, or money, and when a human heart is found in one of the hotel toilets, Okwe begins trying to investigate. There's also a great performance by Audrey Tautou as a Turkish chambermaid at the hotel, who has to deal with other problems at her other job as a dry cleaner. The movie isn't just about the underground transplant market, as it is about the lives of the immigrants at hand, and the sacrifices they make to survive, or even thrive in this underbelly of the Western world, yet it remains an intelligently crafted mystery and thriller, with lots of good turns. Tautou I knew from "Amelie", but this was the first time I really noticed Chiwetel Ejiofor as an actor, who has to be both the protagonist who we follow, yet a mysterious character with a dark past of his own for much of the film. He's got a lot of great subtle acting, and Sergi Lopez's performance is particularly impressive when you realize that he didn't speak English before filming the movie; he's the great Spanish actor and him and Tautou were in their first English speaking roles. It got an Oscar nomination for it's screenplay, and it's been overlooked ever since, but it holds up incredibly well. I thought the three main characters should've gotten Oscar nominations then, and I still do now. It's a really classically made thriller but in a world where we don't normally see in movies, or anywhere else for that matter.


The great documentarian Errol Morris finally won his Oscar for "The Fog of War", a profile documentary of the so-called architect of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara. He was 85 when the movie was shot, (A sharp and astute 85, the last shot is of him driving) it was originally planned as a TV interview for an hour, but that turned into two days and 20 hours of footage and a lifetime of material from one of the most interesting and important lives in the last century in America. It's subtitled "Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara," and each segment is separated into those lessons, the movie played best at the time as a rebuttal to the practices of the Bush administration's strategies, techniques and reasoning for going to war. Even in my unpublished Canon of Film entry for it, I seem to go point-by-point and lesson-by-lesson to how the two strategies differ. Looking into Morris's interrotron, his invention that allows for interview subjects to look directly into both the camera and the interviewer,  McNamara details everything from being the guy to make seatbelts mandatory in Ford, to the exploits of Gen. Curtis LeMay, to the Cuban Missile Crisis in Kennedy, and eventually to the failed Vietnam policies under Johnson, and how the shift in perception and strategy really forged their disputes. Most thought of McNamara as the one pushing for war, being Kennedy and Johnson's Secretary of Defense, but in tapes, it seems to reveal his reluctance as Johnson continued to press on over McNamara's objections. He went from Ivy League whiz kid, a mathematical genius with an astute statistical memory and calculable analysis, to eventually just being overwhelmed by the numbers and realities of war. This film should be required viewing for any Secretary of State; it's about the most instructional movie made about the conducting of war. The strategy, the backroom debating and strategizing and the real lives it cost.


Before "Monster" Charlize Theron, could've been called just another pretty face in the minds of many filmgoers and critics, but then she gave one of the greatest acting performances of all-time. That's not the only reason I rank Patty Jenkins's debut film so high, but the astonishment factor helped. I wrote on this, and many other films on this list in Canon of Film entries, and this one's link is below:

A true story on the first-known female serial killer in the world, Theron plays Aileen Wournos, a prostitute who after she was raped by one customer, started killing more and more of them, just when she falls in love for the first time, with Selby Wall (Christina Ricci) a young waif-y lesbian, both of whom are in their first real relationship. At the center of the film is the doomed love story, that is the one thing in Aileen's tortured life that gives her hope, and tries to begin bettering herself, all of which are skillsets that she simply is unequipped to handle in this world, and her downward spiral falls deeper and deeper. It's a harrowing character study, one that's really unique. You just don't see such supposedly evil and despicable characters treated with such care and compassion that they become real. This is one of those rare movies that does that, and the performances are a big part, but it's not just that. This was a passion project for Writer/Director Patty Jenkins, and she's had some TV success since, but she hasn't made a feature film since, and I don't blame her, this would be hard to top, and she worked at this one for about a decade alone to get it done, and it's amazing how touching a film can be about such a disturbed character, and how an amazing falling-in-love scene like of Aileen and Selby at the roller rink as Journey plays on the radio, can also be in the movie, and from the same character that can so senselessly and without care commit such heinous acts. She might be called a "Monster" but Jenkins makes us see her as a human being, and that is a true accomplishment. 


In a decade of really sub-par romantic-comedies, you can make a really convincing argument that "Love, Actually", isn't just the best of the decade, I can argue it as one of the best of all-time. In fact, I did recently as I also placed this film in my Canon of Film, the link to that is below:

Actually, with the Altmanesque cast and structure, it's certainly one of the biggest rom-coms and on top of that, it's a Christmas tradition now too. Richard Curtis is the true master of the genre, with "Bridget Jones's Diary", "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" under his belt, and even he took a decade before officially going straight into the genre again with "About Time". It's possible even he, ran out of ideas after throwing almost everything into this transcendent celebration of love, in all shapes and forms. It's an impressive juggling act, and he gives us enough time to really learn and like each and every one of the characters and relationships, et. al. He didn't have to do that but he really cared. (An early cut of the movie had the film at over four hours, so this wasn't something he wrote lightly.) No, it's caused a bad trend of dozens of rom-coms remakes and re-imaginings of the formula since, most of whom are not that detailed and well-written, and you miss Richard Curtis's writing, and this original film more when you see one of them. 


A winner of two Oscars, from the great Australian director Peter Weir, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is technically the tenth book in Patrick O'Brien series, but he went and took out the best parts among all 20 books, as the movie wasn't about creating a franchise, it was about getting us to feel like what it would to be on a British warship at that period of time. It's full of action and swashbuckling but it's also slow, mundane, paceful, and the episodic nature of life in the British Navy at sea. It was brutal and tough, but even among the most disheartening war, death, injury and disease, you got the sense that everyone on board was proud of their experience and accomplishments. Shot in the same tank that "Titanic" was filmed in, the movie turned a great battle between two ships across two oceans seem more realistic than it should. People don't realize how great some of the special effects in the movie are, like the way they seamlessly combined actual footage of the treacherous waves rounding Cape Horn into the movie. The movie was about the day-to-day life on a ship, and yet, they very smartly found moments of excitement in those banalities, as much as the more action-packed ones. The series reunites Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany after their work in "A Beautiful Mind", and as Capt. "Lucky" Jack Aubrey, the great military man,  and the ship's surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, they represent the two sides of human nature the more instinctual emotional side and the more analytic and scientific side. Nature, being the key word to; you gotta like a movie that knows to go to the Galapagos Islands, because that's the place to go at that point and time. Peter Weir's made some great films with a fish-out-of-water theme, like "Witness", "Dead Poets Society", "The Truman Show", "Picnic at Hanging Rock", among others, but in Bettany's character we get that description-turned-literal, the scientist who knows he must travels and explore the world to understand and explore nature's greatest evolutionary mysteries, even if that means having to do so on a warship, which may have to leave or attack at any moment, or get attacked at any moment. There's a great scene of the doctor having to perform surgery on himself after an accidental gunshot wound  that perfectly describes this. Few movies always manage to suck you in, when it's on TV, and with action movies, it's always the thought that it's more action that does it, but actually, it's the setting up of the characters and the world they live in that makes us care when the really big scenes comes in, and this is one of those great films that understood that. I am probably the last person who would ever consider a career in the military at any time point, much less one on a boat, and this film makes it seem like, that it's would not be such a bad life. 


Date-wise, this one will be the most controversial picks on my list, but while the film was eligible for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2002, in a strange incident, much of the Foreign Language Committee walked out of the screening of "City of God" in the beginning for reasons that have never been fully explained, and therefore the movie didn't get a nomination. The film then came out in America in early 2003 in theaters, and since it wasn't nominated, the movie was then eligible for other Oscars, and it received four other Oscar nominations, including Best Director for first-time feature filmmaker Fernando Mierelles. "City of God" is short for "The City that God Forgot", which is the nickname given to the slums of Rio de Janiero, some of the most notorious in the world, and through the eyes and words of a young photographer named Rocket, we experience 20+ years of the drug trade in the slums through some great handheld camerawork, incredible quick-cut editing and numerous storytelling techniques where we see the same scenes through numerous different angles at different times, as we observe the birth of a drug kingpin from his murdering youth to the treacherous bloodshot deaths he causes as he organizes and takes over the city, to his ultimate death due to the circulating nature of the criminal underworld, as a new generation of youth take over his business, the way he took over another business years earlier. The movie also shows how the drug trade really effects everyone, even those not interested in drugs, and how people get sucked into gang warfare even when they try their hardest not to. How the drug trade basically affords and powers the neighborhood which would starve without it's existence. There are tons of virtuoso directing sequences in the film, from the opening sequence of a chicken running from a runaway van, leading to a gang standoff with Rocket caught in the middle, to the famous sequence of showing how for 20 years an apartment remained a pot dispensary despite changing owners multiple times. It's amazing how Mierelles and his co-director Katia Lund managed to get all these action scenes involving many people doing everything from partying to robbing banks, to unnaturally choroegraphed gunfights, and then get them exactly right, not just for the one-shot immediate action scene, but for flashbacks later which reveal things we didn't see at first. The movie was such a big hit in Brazil, a TV series got adapted from it called "City of Men", that actually has grown into a cult following in America even, and parts of that show were edited together into it's own feature at one point. "City of God" is a movie I called, "A film that stays embedded in the mind." This has caused me to not watch sometimes when I see it on sometimes, because of how even a decade later it still remains too imprinted on my mind already.


I pretty much was already duty-bound to put "Lost in Translation" number 1 on this list after I included it on my hypothetical "Sight and Sound" ballot last year; that might've been a bit of a personal stretch, but possibly outside of "Casablanca" there aren't too many movies I return to more for personal salvation and inspiration than Sofia Coppola's beautiful tale of two strangers in a strange land. It's a transcendent meditative film, that's surprisingly funny and touching. Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is an actor who's going to Japan to make a quick couple million bucks shooting a whiskey commercial, while Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) came along on her husband's photography shoot. Both of them are basically killing time from life, whether escaping from it or delaying it on the trip, and both just walk around as observe as curious detached observers of such a modern city as they share in their separate but mutual loneliness. It's a film that hints at convention, but that's only because we've seen too many movies beforehand and come in with preconceptions and expectations. The movie doesn't circumvent as much as it doesn't consider them to begin with. It not about what happens, it's about the two characters themselves, coming together because they're stuck in the same situation at the same place at the same time. Those typical emotions exists, but others are more prevalent, and the two characters are too smart to be controlled by their nether-regions. Both are married, both having tough struggles with their marriage, and both share those truths about each other that you'd only reveal to strangers. Trying to describe "Lost in Translation" is like trying to describe an emotion, the kind that are so generic and universal, you can only discuss them with strangers. Amazingly, this film is also a sharp comedy as well, on the manners and ways of Tokyo, as shown through the eyes of our two stars, going observing with amusement, wonderment. The crossing of cultures, that seems to keep them even more trapped in that hotel room even as they may occasionally seek out the majesty of the ancient country. Charlotte may be looking for answers, Bob probably knows there really aren't any. There isn't anything in "Lost in Translation" done simply. No character is underwritten, no scene doesn't play out perfectly, and no shot is wasted. There's so many extra layers behind even the simplest of lines. Few films remain this observant, and complete, yet remain so out-of-reach that we're constantly finding new things to grasp onto in the film, each thing, giving us, and the character a new emotion or reaction. Some films reach for the moon, and the best ones can grab it, but this movie grabs for that private little moment between two people. It's easier to get the moon in film, and some don't realize just how impossible this film is. 


Ski clouds said...

Have not seen any of the top 2003 movies. Am going shoping

David Baruffi said...

Good idea.

Anonymous said...

Good list, I agree with most of them. Elephant and Oldboy seem like big omissions to me, but I sympathise with how hard it is creating lists as someone who creates many myself.

I'm interested as to what the other films on your hypothetical Sight & Sound ballad are, if you wouldn't mind sharing them.

David Baruffi said...

Well, I shared them before last year, when I filled it out, and the link to that blog is below. Looking back, I might change one or two, probably "Pulp Fiction", actually; I love the film, but that seems more in hindsight to a more pop choice than I probably should've made. It feels a little wrong to put a Tarantino film above a lot of people who probably inspired him now, but still, I thought it was a good list. I don't know what I'd replace that with today, but thankfully I have ten years to think it over.

As to "Oldboy" and "Elephant", well, with "Oldboy", and I did grow on that movie, after my initial viewing, I think it's a very good film; I don't actually rank it among the very best of the Asia Extreme films. I usually have "Audition", on the top of that movement, and that film did make one of my lists, so I didn't feel an obligation to put "Oldboy" on there. As to "Elephant", an important film, a good film watch once, it is a great film, probably ranked in my Top 30, and I did mention elsewhere that I thought there were about 20 other films that easily could've made a list like this and be legitimate this year in particular, and yeah, for a film that, I mean, it's not exactly the easily watch, or rewatch "Elephant", I would need real justification that it was better than all the more enjoyable and entertaining film choices, or that it was so essential that it has to be on there, and I just don't see. Other years, maybe but, there were too many in front of it. I do think that's Gus Van Sant's best Indy film in this, post-"Good Will Hunting" era of his, but I'd probably still only rank it fifth or sixth among his best films so....