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Lords of the Cinema: The Best, Worst and Everything Else of 2003

If you haven't rented May yet - go do so NOW!
by Collin Souter

I hated making this list. I absolutely hated it, and not because it reminded me of a lackluster year in movies. Quite the contrary. The year 2003, to me, will be remembered as a truly significant year in cinema. Many movies this year expanded the envelope of certain genres and film types. They added new voices or dimensions we never knew existed. I saw some of the best movies I will ever see in my life this past year, ones that belong on several different Top 10 lists, not just year-end. This can make the ranking process a daunting one and I often wish fellow critics would not put so much stock into the number 10. But, hey, we live for the list anyway. We should really just be glad we had a year so plentiful with greatness.

1. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King There exists a perfectly good reason why critics, audiences and Academy members are in unison over their praise of this film. In fact, there are too many reasons to mention. I am of the opinion that it has helped spawn and influence a new generation of filmmakers that are probably sitting next to you as you watch it. And they may not be much taller than a Hobbit. Just as many of today’s most prominent filmmakers point to “Citizen Kane,” “The Seven Samurai” or “Star Wars” as the movies that made them want to make movies, so will tomorrow’s great cinematic artists who got swept away in the majesty of Peter Jackson’s triumphant trilogy. “I was there,” they’ll say. “And it changed my life.” It’s that exciting, that breathtaking, that inspiring…and that important.

2. All the Real Girls… The best, most vivid and accurate film about falling in love and breaking up that I have ever seen and one of the most profoundly moving experiences I’ve ever had at a movie. Writer/director David Gordon Green is clearly influenced by the works of Terrance Mallick, but I think he does it even better. Why? Aside from using cinema as a means to compose poetry, Green also gets us emotionally involved with the characters. Credit should also go to the performances from co-writer Paul Schneider as a doomed Lothario and Zooey Deschenel as his first real love. The cinematography, the editing, the performances and the soundtrack are all woven together in ways that most directors would never even attempt. The dialogue sounds refreshingly poetic, strange, frequently funny and is spoken with great eloquence. (Available on video)

3. May The best horror movie I’ve seen in the last 10 years (maybe more). The debut from writer/director Lucky McGee failed to find much of an audience during its brief theatrical run and seems to be having just as hard a time finding its audience on video. This creepy character study gets inside the head of a troubled loner named May (Angela Bettis, my vote for Best Actress of the year) and it’s not an easy place to leave once the credits roll. The final moments of the movie define “blood curdling.” Like Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures,” it has the power to scare the hell out of you while simultaneously moving you to tears. (Available on video)

4. Finding Nemo Pixar’s new masterpiece, therefore one of the best animated films ever made. The team has proven that they would still rather push the boundaries of computer animation rather than rest on their laurels. They have created a big, beautiful world of colorful seascapes and hilarious supporting characters. Not too many films this year felt as joyous, vibrant and alive as this one. (Available on video…as if you didn’t know)

5. Stevie In a banner year for documentaries, Steve James’ personal odyssey through his past, his present and the ethical and moral questions that confront him as a filmmaker and friend seemed to be the most important and most challenging. Upon first viewing, “Stevie” can be a somewhat frustrating experience as it poses many questions about the boundaries between the filmmaker and its subject, while providing few answers. Upon second viewing, one realizes that there can be no easy solutions to these matters. It makes for a perfect start-off point for discussion about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, thus adding a whole new dimension to participatory documentaries that should be studied in film schools everywhere. (Available on video)

6. City of God A lot of critics use the shorthand description “A Brazilian ‘GoodFellas’” to describe “City of God,” but I don’t think they do it to exemplify a lack of imagination on the part of the filmmakers. The fact is that “City of God” is just as great and, although it does tell a story of crime in the streets of Rio where one man’s miracle is another man’s death sentence, and even though it spans generations, it also does it with just as much, if not more, style, wit and cinematic bravura as Scorsese’s masterpiece. 2003 did not deliver a strong batch of foreign language films, but this movie has such an immense impact on the viewer that it’s no wonder most critics have it on their lists, even after not having seen it in 10 months. (Available on video February 17)

7. Lost In Translation A perfect soul-searching movie. Sofia Coppola effortlessly engages the viewer with two lost, lonely characters who are meant for one another, not for a lifetime, but for one moment in time. Bill Murray gives his best performance to date and Scarlet Johansson is achingly good. The perfect movie to watch when in a great mood, a foul mood or if you just feel lost and unfound. How the movie ends will probably depend greatly on the kind of day you’re having. (Available on video February 3rd)

8. Whale Rider In a summer that purported to advance the ideals of feminism (with “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde”), only one movie empowered women without the use of hotties or spandex. “Whale Rider” tells the story of a young girl who possesses a spirit not unlike Joan of Arc, if only one would notice. Niki Caro’s flawless direction combined with an astounding debut performance from Kiesha Castle-Hughes make this a classic for the ages, one that parents will hopefully want to share with their children for generations to come. (Available on video)

9. American Splendor The funniest, most original bio-pic since Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” The debut from Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini plays like a movie that has the DVD extras built in. Mixing the real-life Harvey Pekar with Paul Giamatti’s insightful interpretation blurred the line between documentary and fiction, yet it becomes even more sublime when we get inside Pekar’s subconscious to find the roots of his identity crisis. The first scenes between Giamatti and Hope Davis are pure, comedic bliss. (Available on video February 3rd)

10. Looney Tunes: Back In Action Once again, I have reserved the 10 spot for my own fan-boy tendencies, but the fact is that I didn’t see a funnier film all year. My main bias in this case: I’m a big fan of director Joe Dante and I consider this his third masterpiece, a loving and insane tribute to the Looney Tunes characters who in the past 10 years have become nothing more than fast-food caricatures used to sell tennis shoes. Dante brings them back to their element and it results in a potent blend of blissful nostalgia and joyous mayhem. Shame on the parents who opted to take their kids to see “The Cat In the Hat” instead of this. (Available on video March 2nd)

11. Mystic River Okay, I know Clint Eastwood’s ensemble masterpiece should really be in the Top 10, since it features probably the best male performance of the year (Sean Penn) in a movie that has one of the most unexpected endings ever…but something had to go. Did I mention how much I HATED making this list?

12. Big Fish Wow, has it really been almost 10 years since Tim Burton made a movie that was actually emotional and moving? Since hearing his sleep-inducing commentary tracks on several DVDs, you’d swear he had lost the knack for telling beautiful stories and engaging his audience. Not so. Clearly, his best film since “Ed Wood.”

13. To Be and To Have Nicholas Philibert’s profound, yet simple slice-of-life documentary about a year in the life of a French elementary school run by a gentle and caring teacher, Georges Lopez. This might be the smoothest, most unobtrusive documentary I’ve ever seen.

14. In America Jim Sheridan’s flawed, yet undeniably moving account of his family migrating from Ireland to New York. A director shouldn’t be able to get away with an emotional montage using a child’s rendition of “Desperado,” but Sheridan somehow does. That’s how special this movie is.

15. Pieces of April Some have complained about the digital video shooting style of Peter Hedges’ debut film, but I don’t think it could have been done as well any other way. With a small budget and small crew, Hedges gets deep inside those tiny New York apartment kitchens and gives an intimate and realistic creation of a Thanksgiving dinner, one that could have easily turned into an over-produced sitcom. (Available on video February 24)

16. Bubba Ho-tep Certainly one of the goofiest films ever, but one that delivers its oddities with more sincerity and emotional depth than one could possibly expect. Bruce Campbell’s hilarious and heartfelt performance as an aging Elvis should go down as legendary, as should Ossie Davis’ equally straight-faced turn as John F. Kennedy.

17. 21 Grams A second viewing might have put this higher, but I haven’t exactly been “in the mood,” if you know what I mean. As it plays with the narrative structure, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s somber, despairing second feature keeps the viewer guessing and pondering the “weight” of it all right up to the closing credits.

18. Kill Bill: Volume 1 Okay, I have always been and always will be sick and tired of the Tarantino hype machine, even though I like his films. I find the way in which he celebrates himself unbearably annoying (“The Fourth Film By…” Is it a race? Are we supposed to be keeping score?). The way in which he celebrates B-movie genres, on the other hand, is anything but, not to mention the ferociously great performance by Uma Thurman.

19. Spellbound Down here only because I didn’t want to have too many documentaries too close to one another (seriously, a great Top 10 list could be made just using documentaries alone). A wonderful exploration of eight different kids in the National Spelling Bee and how it teaches them to lose gracefully. (Available on video January 20)

20. Hulk Hey, I liked it. In fact, I haven’t seen a better comic book movie since the first two “Superman” films. Sure, it may have taken itself too seriously, but I’ll take a psychological exploration of deeply rooted anger over an empty, glitzy “Spider-Man” wanna be (like “Daredevil”) any day. And I love those moving comic book panels and Nick Nolte’s great A-level B-movie performance. (Available on video)

HONORABLE MENTION:Irreversible. No other movie got under my skin the way “Irreversible” did and I doubt any movie ever will. It’s a flawed movie, but one that you can’t shake off easily. Art or trash? The debate rages on and probably always will. Personally, I never want to see the movie again, but I am glad I saw it.

]b]The Rest of the Best (In no particular order): Winged Migration, Lost in La Mancha, Spider, The Good Thief, Raising Victor Vargas, Blue Car, Down With Love, Bend It Like Beckham, Man on the Train, Capturing the Friedmans, 28 Days Later, Dopamine, Dirty Pretty Things, The Magdalene Sisters, Dummy, Cabin Fever, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Balseros, Monster, The Cooler, Together, The Triplets of Belleville, The Barbarian Invasions, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Definitely worth a rental: Dark Blue, Willard, Nowhere in Africa, Anger Management, Holes, X2: X-Men United, The Shape of Things, Matrix: Reloaded, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Seabisquit, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Freaky Friday, Old School, Phone Booth, Final Destination 2, Jeepers Creepers 2, The Rundown, The Singing Detective, Owning Mahoney, The Station Agent, Love Actually, Elf, It Runs in the Family, Thirteen, A Decade Under the Influence, The House of Sand and Fog, The Son, L’Auberge Espagnole, The Fog of War, Peter Pan, My Architect

Maybe worth a 99-cent rental, but make sure you have back-up: Daredevil, Dreamcatcher, Laurel Canyon, Better Luck Tomorrow, A Mighty Wind, Identity, Bruce Almighty, Just Married, XX/XY, Freddy vs. Jason, Swimming Pool, The Battle of Shaker Heights, Once Upon A Time in Mexico, Once Upon A Time in the Midlands, Intolerable Cruelty, School of Rock, In The Cut, Elephant, The Missing, The Last Samurai, Something’s Gotta Give, Japanese Story, Cold Mountain, The Company, Anything Else

Even though I got in for free, I still want my money back: Basic, The Core, Head of State, The Italian Job, How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days, Party Monsters, Matchstick Men, Matrix: Revolutions, Gothika, Die Mommy Die!, Cheaper By the Dozen, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, Mona Lisa Smile


The Worst (or 10 Films Worse than ‘Gigli’):

1. Bad Boys II Another obvious choice for a #1 pick, but for good reasons (again, too many to mention). This detestable, misogynistic, homo-phobic and hateful gob from Michael Bay actually prompted me to make a cell phone call right in the middle of the movie, at which time I begged a friend of mine to come over to the theater and kill me.

2. Spun A festering, unwatchable wet snot of a movie about annoying drug-addled kids and the stupid things they do. Note to director Jonas Ackerlund: Stick to directing U2 videos, please.

3. Boat Trip Okay, now it’s really time to take Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Oscar away. The words “This might actually be the worst comedy I’ve ever seen” popped up in my head frequently…until I remembered that last year’s “Scooby-Doo” almost killed me. This one just leaves indelible scars. Horrible, ugly scars.

4. Bringing Down the House The most embarrassing film of the year from a group of talented people. A poorly conceived “comedy” that ends up setting the Civil Rights movement back a few years. Steve Martin, Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy should really know better, and so should the rest of America (the box office numbers suggest that they don’t).

5.Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle This opened at #1 the same week Katherine Hepburn died. It represents the exact opposite of what Hepburn fought for in the first place. Just because these dimwits can kick butt, doesn’t make it progressive or significant of any feminist movement (see “Whale Rider” or “Return of the King” for that). See what you get for flocking to the first? And “Scooby-Doo 2” isn’t far behind either.

6.Grind What, you don’t remember “Grind”? The one about the skateboarder kids traveling cross-country to…um, skateboard? Good, then you won’t remember that horrific dance sequence, or Randy Quaid turning up in a clown outfit or those pointless cameos from Bam Margera and Wee-Man. An insult to fans of “jackass,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Fandango,” as well as an insult to the youth of America, who thankfully stayed far away.

7.From Justin To Kelly Speaking of insulting… I had to do a coin toss between this and the equally crass “The Real Cancun” so I wouldn’t have to repeat myself. This one also gets the upper hand simply because writers got paid to actually come up with a script. One of the worst films of the year whose main offense was that it wasn’t “bad” enough. Just painfully dull.

8.The Life of David Gale The second most embarrassing movie from talented people. A poorly conceived “drama” that ends up setting the Death Penalty Abolitionist Movement back a few years. Kevin Spacey, Kate Winslet and director Alan Parker should really know better, as should the idiot who green-lit this farce (the box office numbers suggest he/she is unemployed right now).

9.The Cat In the Hat It’s not even a real movie. At 70 minutes (once you subtract the credits), this creepshow just barely qualifies as a long-form commercial (an insult to ad writers everywhere, really). My favorite image: Mike Myers’ Cat character hanging from a tree about to get pummeled by kids with baseball bats.

10.Alex & Emma Call it “Bad-aptation.” A movie about a novelist (Luke Wilson) trying to write a stupid novel in 30 days while he falls in love with his stenographer (Kate Hudson). So, we’re meant to care about two people who care too much about characters we couldn’t care less about? It would have been a much better movie if it had been called “Alex and His Anemic Helper Monkey.”

The rest of the worst, getting Fed-Exed to screening rooms in Hell as we speak: Darkness Falls, Wrong Turn, 2 Fast 2 Furious, How To Deal, House of the Dead, Radio, The Human Stain, Bad Santa, A View From the Top, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gigli, Marci X, One Bad Deed, House of 1,000 Corpses, The Real Cancun, The Order.

“Just for fun” sub-categories:
Best/Funniest Gag: Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck through the art museum in Looney Tunes: Back In Action
Best Use of Music: Beethoven’s Allegretto at the end of Irreversible (Haunted me for weeks!)
Best Line of Dialogue / Favorite Line of Dialogue or Dialogue Exchange: “I had a dream that you grew a garden on a trampoline and I was so happy…I invented peanut butter.” Zooey Deschanel from All the Real Girls…
Best Dramatic Pause: Angela Bettis picking up the scissors in May. (Runner-up: “For Frodo,” from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King)
Best Fight: Sean Astin vs. The Spider in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Best Newcomer: Keisha Castle-Hughes from Whale Rider
The “You Must Stop Making Movies” Award: Michael Bay for Bad Boys II
Worst Decision by an Actor: Steve Martin, Bringing Down the House
Worst Decision by an Actress: Kate Winslet, The Life of David Gale
Best Ensemble: Mystic River
Best Brainless Movie: Cabin Fever
Worst "Smart" Film: Spun (Runner-up: The Human Stain)
Movie That Made You The Hungriest: Bend It Like Beckham, because I love Indian food (last year’s was Monsoon Wedding)
Most Underrated (Critically): Bubba Ho-tep
Guiltiest Pleasure (Film you like/love that was ravaged by critics & audiences): Old School
Best Action Scene: Anything involving the elephants in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The best in the history of cinema, I’d say.
Most Romantic Scene: The opening scene from All the Real Girls…
The "F. U." Award (Given to someone - director, actor, anyone - you'd like to get out of the movies permanently - based on a film released in 2003): Jonas Ackerlund for Spun
Best Cameo(s): Elijah Wood in Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over!
Sexiest shot, moment or scene: Neve Campbell playing pool by herself in The Company
Best Actor: Sean Penn for Mystic River (and 21 Grams)
Best Actress: Angela Bettis for May
Best Supporting Actor: Andy Serkis for Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Still the best)
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Clarkson for Pieces of April (and All the Real Girls… and The Station Agent)
Best Director: Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Best Cinematography: All the Real Girls…
Favorite Song: “Time Enough For Tears,” from In America, by Bono, Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer (Sung by Andrea Coor)
Favorite Score: Kill Bill: Volume 1, by RZA
Favorite soundtrack (score or otherwise, best CD, let’s say): All the Real Girls…
Favorite moment that made you break down and cry: The hawks in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King... and basically all 107 minutes of All The Real Girls...
Best Movie That Never Received A Proper Release: A Japanese movie I saw at the 2003 Chicago International Film Festival called Jossee, The Tiger and The Fish.
Favorite Bad movie: House of the Dead
Worst actor: Steve Martin Bringing Down the House
Worst actress: Queen Latifah Bringing Down the House
Most overrated whatever (Picture, actor, director, etc.): The Human Stain (Runners up: School of Rock, A Mighty Wind, Elephant, The Last Samurai, Matchstick Men, The Girl With A Pearl Earring, Bad Santa)
Best Monologue: Zooey Deschenel explaining her scars in All the Real Girls…
Favorite Character: Elvis, Bubba Ho-tep
Most nail-biting moment: The two kids with the gun pointed at them in City of God
Most stomach-turning climax: The first ½-hour of Irreversible


Comeback of the year: The Horror/Horror-comedy genre.
The Good: May, 28 Days Later, Cabin Fever, Final Destination 2, Jeepers Creepers 2, Bubba Ho-tep, Willard.
Some even liked: Dreamcatcher, Freddy vs. Jason, Wrong Turn, Gothika, House of 1,000 Corpses (though I’m not sure why).
On the other hand…: Darkness Falls, House of the Dead, The Order.

Comeback That Never Happened: Macaulay Culkin in Party Monster
Best Peter Weir Imitation: Whale Rider
Worst Peter Weir Imitation: Japanese Story
Most Inconsequential Movie of the Year: A View From the Top
Worst movie to feature a zombie: The Order, starring Heath Ledger.
Worst movie to be pulled off the shelf and dusted off: Marci X

Finally, to end things on a good note…

10 Best Documentaries of the year:

1.Stevie
2.To Be and To Have
3.Spellbound
4.Winged Migration
5.Capturing the Friedmans
6.The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
7.Lost In La Mancha
8.Bolseros
9.A Decade Under the Influence
10.The Fog of War

Well, that’s that, then. As Bill Murray says in “Lost In Translation”…………


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=894
originally posted: 01/06/04 12:44:42
last updated: 09/23/05 17:39:15
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