Best Films of 2003


Best Films of 2003

As I put this end-of-the-year list together I noticed that it was a year without comedies. Only one film made me laugh all the way through, and although it's not on my Best-of list I've put it at the bottom here as the Funniest Film, and pretty nearly the Only Funny Film Of The Year at that.

For the most part feature films were a disappointment, but documentaries came through with great power and/or wit, and more of them made my list than had ever done so before. I'm not sure why that is; partly it's that documentaries are beginning to get funding for production, with many cable networks now buying them or commissioning them from filmmakers. Partly it's that video technology is so advanced that perfectly professional, theatrically projectible work is possible from inexpensive equipment that can be bought for a few thousand dollars and edited, either at a production facility or on a good home computer, for a few thousand dollars more.

The list this year is longer than usual, but it includes two theatrical revivals, one of them never before seen here in its original form and one not seen in more than thirty years. One unexpected note of interest: this seemed to be the year of adolescent angst, with five films on the list concerned with life and trouble at twelve and thirteen. The films are listed in alphabetical order.

American Splendor - Filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini have made a half-documentary/half fiction film and made it work with delicious skill. Their double portrait of the cranky and eccentric comic book artist Harvey Pekar and his wife is enhanced by having Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis play them as well, reenacting scenes from their life and comparing them with Pekar's own memories. A delightful success.

Angels in America - Mike Nichols' HBO production of Tony Kushner's epic play was easily the supreme film achievement of the year, and is included here even though it did not have a theatrical release. Working with a cast that included Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Al Pacino, plus lesser-known actors giving great performances in key roles, Nichols held this sprawling work together without diminishing the magic or dissipating its power. Like Kieslowski's "Decalogue," also made for television, this six-hour film is composed of separate chapters, but the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts.

The Barbarian Invasions - Were it not for "Angels in America," this would be my selection as best film of the year. French-Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand has brought his picaresque protagonist Rémy, the priapic professor, to the door of death; and given him friends and family with whom he must reach some kind of final resolution. The way in which Arcand makes it all happen, the novelistic texture he infuses into every moment, giving life and depth to each character so that we see ourselves in everyone on screen, are miraculous. This is an achievement that would stand out in any year.

Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki's documentary about a suburban family caught in the maw of a crime (child pornography), a scandal, a bizarre prosecution against a 17-year-old, and the confusing, hurtful exposure of all that had been hidden by the father, makes this perhaps the most tragic film in years. Jarecki uses his own interview footage of family members, police and others, and mixes it with the almost compulsive home videos taken by the family over the years, including their responses to the crime and prosecution. A brave and powerful work.

Le Cercle Rouge - Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 crime film, never before seen in the United States except in a dubbed and chopped-up version, owes its reappearance to the generosity of director John Woo, who is an admirer of Melville's and paid to have new prints struck. He also arranged a few theatrical bookings for it this year. So tight in its structure and so compelling in its view of a corrupted world, the film makes us gasp for breath as we follow its jewel thieves in their work. A masterpiece of the genre.

City of God - The Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, working from a novel about the child gangs of a Rio de Janeiro favela, has told the story of three generations of these young boys - each generation lasting only a few years, because hardly anyone survives to adulthood. "I smoke, I snort, I've killed and robbed," says a ten-year-old. "I'm a man." Though fiction, every frame has the ring of truth. One little boy is told to choose between being shot in the hand or the foot. "And no crying!" A film like this is a good corrective to American complacency about the world.

Dirty Pretty Things - Stephen Frears has gone back to his roots ("My Beautiful Laundrette") with this new film about immigrants in London. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a Nigerian refugee doctor in fear of his life, now works days as an unlicensed cab driver and nights as desk clerk at a hotel. In a great performance he makes us comprehend all the pressures and frustrations he feels; and then when he uncovers a weird criminal plot in the hotel he and his friend Senay (Audrey Tautou) find a way to extricate themselves from a hopeless situation. Fascinating and touching.

Man on the Train - Two men - the elegant old teacher Jean Rochefort and the scruffy, aging criminal Johnny Hallyday - meet unexpectedly near the end of their very disparate lives: Rochefort's character facing a major operation and Hallyday's meeting his bank-robber friends to do a job in the small provincial city. But in the few days between the meeting and the acts, the two men find ways to teach each other something that neither had known before. A beautiful double portrait by director Patrice Leconte.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World - Peter Weir shows us that he can make a great old-fashioned, Errol Flynn-style swashbuckler, with this marvelous film crafted from two Patrick O'Brian novels about the British naval captain Jack Aubrey during the Napoleonic Wars. And Russell Crowe is the perfect latter-day Flynn: pudgier, not so agile, more like you and me, perhaps; but every bit the master of his ship and the movie, with his great voice and impregnable confidence. The film slights his partner in the novels, the ship's surgeon and British spy Steven Maturin (Paul Bettany), but we don't really miss him. Perhaps in the sequel.

Pirates of the Caribbean - Not all that much of a film, but watching Johnny Depp at his most flamboyant was one of the great pleasures of the year. Is there any other actor so willing to perform, in the classic sense, as Depp? Totally unafraid of his roles (see his work in "Before Night Falls"), he makes this otherwise unobjectionable film into something special.

Seabiscuit - Films released in the spring generally don't get much attention at award time, but "Seabiscuit," written and directed by Gary Ross from the Laura Hillenbrand book, deserves consideration for best film, best screenplay, and best supporting actor - Chris Cooper as Seabiscuit's trainer. In fact Cooper, who can remake himself totally from film to film (think of his work as the orchid thief in "Adaptation"), has given everyone in the business a lesson in how to be, not just play at, one's film character. The film is moving, exciting, and presented with wit and understanding.

Spellbound - Not the Hitchcock, though there are moments equally as nail-biting as anything the master ever did, Jeffrey Blitz's documentary follows eight national Spelling Bee finalists, all eighth-graders, from their homes around the country to the finals in the 1999 Nationals in Washington. Blitz has let them be themselves as they study, sweat, worry and practice. Then he takes them to Washington and lets us fidget and squirm along with their parents. The film is funny, touching and completely unpretentious. I loved it.

Stevie - This little-known documentary by Steve James (who made the very fine "Hoop Dreams" a few years ago) is about a piece of low-rent trailer trash named Stephen Fielding, or Stevie, who is a kind of mirror image of you and me; he is all that we repress in ourselves in order to be proper and get along in the world, and the film makes sure we don't get complacent about our lives. James narrates the film (he met Stevie as a Big Brother to him while at college) and lets us in on his own thoughts, including his sense of failure. At once very sad and very enlightening.

Thirteen - Some films are so painful to watch we wonder how we'll survive that two hours in the dark without being scarred for life. This is one of those films. Written by then-13-year-old Nikki Reed and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, "Thirteen" takes us through a frightening yet believable time in the life of Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), insecure enough to do anything to be friends with Evie (played by Reed herself in a bravura performance that leaves nothing hidden), and lets us watch them go downhill through life as sex toys, thieves and druggies. A brave and thoroughly successful portrait of what Roger Ebert called the two worst years in a woman's life: the year she turns thirteen and the year her daughter does.

Trouble in Paradise - Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 masterpiece was revived last spring at New York's Film Forum, and probably should be revived every springtime just to remind us of how little is really needed to make a wonderful film. Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis step daintily through a delicious roundelay of attraction, deception and love in a kind of Venice of the mind. The Lubitsch touch is that light, almost unnoticeable hand that guides us through his film from scene to scene. This is the master at his best.

Whale Rider - Niki Caro's film of a young Maori girl coming to the moment of her calling as the chief of her clan has all the best of two genres: the young-adult story and the adult perspective that understands motivations at a deeper level. Keisha Castle-Hughes is everything we want her to be: brave, sensitive, frightened, even bratty as she confronts her grandfather, the old clan chief. We see both the child and the chief-to-be in her. A beautiful film.

And now for the one, the only Funniest Film of the Year. It's "Scary Movie 3," and it marks the return to form of director David Zucker and his writing partner Pat Proft, whose roots lie in the "Police Squad," "Naked Gun," and "Top Secret" years, when they and their partners made the wittiest films since the coming of sound. What's generally forgotten about those films is that they never relied on simple slapstick; every gag was set up through the dialogue, so that we knew the characters who were involved. They weren't just anonymous figures on the screen, but carefully created caricatures who were predictably fleshed out. Here Zucker and Proft skewer everything from "The Ring" to "The Sixth Sense" to "8 Mile" to "The Matrix," and emerge almost unscathed.