Connect with us

Features

The 10 Best Films of 2003

As usual, the biggest surprises came in small packages.

The 10 Best Films of 2003

As usual, the biggest surprises came in small packages: One year after the soulless razzle dazzle of Chicago wowed Oscar voters, Robert Altman shows us how it’s really done with his elegant The Company; and two fables, Jim Sheridan’s In America and Tim Burton’s Big Fish, put to shame the hip 21 Grams and nasty Barbarian Invasions, respectively. It wasn’t a bad year for movies exactly. The indie circuit saw its fair share of dogs (Pieces of April, House of Sand and Fog and, umm, Dog Days) but it was a great year for Gus Van Sant (Gerry and Elephant) and documentaries: Spellbound made all the money but it’s Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have that’s the real testament to the innocence of childhood; Errol Morris’s terrifying The Fog of War reminds us how close our political leaders have repeatedly brought us to death; Bus 174 ponders the complex relationship between real life and reality television; and Jennifer Dworkin’s compassionate Love and Diane celebrates one family’s determination to forgive each other and the system that repeatedly gets in their way. As for the holiday war films (Cold Mountain, Master and Commander and The Last Samurai), none can hold a candle to Balseros, Carlos Bosch and David Trueba’s humanist ode to Cuban perseverance. Well, one almost does. New Line’s The Return of the King is a flawed but ravishing work of mythic restoration. Take that, Andy and Larry Wachowski!

Honorable Mention

Unknown Pleasures, To Be and To Have, Friday Night, Waiting for Happiness, Love and Diane, Raising Victor Vargas, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, The Fog of War, Bus 174, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Worst of 2003

Bad Boys II, House of Sand and Fog, Gothika, The Barbarian Invasions, Darkness Falls, Dumb and Dumberer, The Order, Pieces of April, Identity, and Cradle 2 the Grave.


1. The Company (Robert Altman)

Robert Altman’s The Company observes life inside the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, where dancers and their instructors prepare to mount an elaborate super-production called the “Blue Snake” (essentially a self-devouring version of Julie Taymor’s The Lion King). It’s unlikely that the film will appeal to the same crowds that swooned for the director’s equally fascinating but more “plot-driven” Gosford Park, or those bamboozled by the soulless razzle-dazzle of last year’s Chicago—which is a shame considering how this elegant movement in still life unravels as a profound metaphor for both the filmmaking process and life itself. Altman reveres dance in the same way Chicago uses it as a bludgeoning device. And like Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, The Company also allows Altman to vicariously discuss the way he makes movie.


2. Gerry (Gus Van Sant)

Gus Van Sant’s Gerry is a ravishing mix of mystic fairy tale, modern-day alienation and gay allegory. By film’s end, the two Gerrys played by Casey Affleck and Matt Damon humorously reference the film’s existential quest before it quickly turns into crisis. As the young men move slowly across the desert, a ravishing hallucination seemingly ushers them into a cosmic netherworld. It’s here that they must negotiate an icy and expansive rift between themselves and civilization. One man facilitates the other’s spiritual journey and, as he stares into the heavenly horizon, there’s a notion that he has freed himself from the burdens of a cloying and weaker version of himself. Not since his first film, Mala Noche, has Van Sant produced something so pure, uncompromising and ravishing to watch.


3. Balseros (Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech)

Carlos Bosch and José María Doménech’s Balseros gives a very human face to the horror of two separate Cuban refugee debacles. In 1994, an especially disgusted Fidel Castro would open Cuba’s doors for a second time in less than 15 years. The filmmakers, though, are less concerned with the politics of the situation than they are with how a group of oppressed Cubans used this window of opportunity to escape their island prison. Bosch and Doménech were reporters for Spain’s TV3, the first station to arrive in Cuba after the “balseros crisis” broke out. What could have been a simple five-minute segment on the crisis has become a two-hour celebration of Cuban perseverance. Balseros is a humanist work that puts even the best Hollywood epic to shame.


4. Big Fish (Tim Burton)

Critics have already been comparing Tim Burton’s new film Big Fish to Forrest Gump, which is somewhat of a mis-association. American history happens to a passive Tom Hanks in Robert Zemeckis’s endearing but naïve Oscar-winner. In Big Fish, Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) happens to the American pastoral. In many ways, comparisons to Denys Arcand’s heinous The Barbarian Invasions are more appropriate. Both films center around a father-son disconnect, but only one truly attempts to understand the rocky relationship between parents and children. More positively, the film also plays out as a magical realist companion to Emir Kusturica’s towering parable Underground, which similarly challenged the way we watch movies. This is love and death, Burton style.


5. The Son (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is not without allegorical implications. Cannes Best Actor winner and Dardenne mascot Olivier Gourmet stars as a bereft carpenter who develops a sudden fascination for his young apprentice. As mirror reflection of Gourmet’s inner turmoil, the Dardennes’ camerawork isn’t as assaultive as it was in Rosetta, but it’s equally demanding. Their camera contributes to the film’s near cosmic state of grace. The Son or, more accurately, How Joseph Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Judas Iscariot, is a testament to Christian forgiveness, and our willingness to submit to the film’s grueling element of fear becomes a measure of our spiritual skepticism. Despite the film’s overwhelming bleakness, its Bressonian human spirit is unmistakable.


6. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon)

Behold Millennium Actress, Satoshi Kon’s anime answer to Mulholland Drive. This radical work by the director of Perfect Blue mainlines into a cosmic crawlspace between reality and fantasy from which it never leaves. Kon’s love for his animated diva is supreme and he plays her romantic saga for delirious world-weary sorrow. The genius of the film is infinite: the practically monochrome palette that slowly saturates color as the film moves forward in time; the meta-cinematic conceits Kon employs in order to have the film’s male documentary filmmaker penetrate what is supposedly an older Japanese actress’s recollection of her own past; and the countless rhetorical shifts that evoke the woman’s projection of her romantic melodrama onto her art. Millennium Actress is a love poem to the movies.


7. Mystic River (Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a somber evocation of a poor, close-knit section of Boston on the brink of moral collapse. Not only is the film the director’s best work since his undervalued A Perfect World, it’s also one of the most spiritually profound works to ever come out of Hollywood. Mystic River shares more than a passing resemblance to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. Both take place in god-forsaken milieus and feature Sean Penn playing the vigilante cowboy when the judicial system fails its characters or doesn’t do its job quick enough. But where Iñárritu’s frenetic style repeatedly betrays the gravitas of his film, Eastwood sorts through the rubble of his characters’ lives with a coolness and patience that’s reminiscent of his better works.


8. Cabin Fever (Eli Roth)

A hit at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever has been dismissed by some as a mere Evil Dead knock-off. Though indebted to the Sam Raimi whackathon and Wes Craven’s skanky cautionary tale The Last House on the Left, Cabin Fever is far more clever than anything Raimi and Craven have ever produced. As an AIDS parable, the film appears to arrive a good ten years too late, but Roth has fun encoding his clear-eyed political polemic in Southern-fried slapstick. The much maligned horror genre is often seen as a conservative one, but this is a misnomer of sorts. Some of the best films in the genre target rather than coddle conservative hang-ups. Cabin Fever is no exception. If the film’s generous bloodletting doesn’t shock you, then its razor-sharp wit will.


9. In America (Jim Sheridan)

In America evokes a collective New York City suffering from a spiritual crisis. No mention is ever made of the AIDS virus directly because there’s still no name for this mystery disease claiming the lives of the city’s outsiders (or aliens, as Jim Sheridan would lovingly like us to believe). The film is simple and unpretentious, but its humanity and message of inclusiveness is evoked with heart-warming profundity. (It helps that Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine are so good at what they do that they can summon a legacy of hurt with as little as a broken smile.) In one scene, the older Christy (Sarah Bolger) humorously makes a reference to America’s aggression of foreign countries, followed in the end by a neighbor chanting “Cuando Sali De Cuba” at a party. Once again, Sheridan impacts the notion that we’re all in this together.


10. Elephant (Gus Van Sant)

There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s elegiac and controversial Palm d’Or winner Elephant where two teenagers stay home from school in anticipation of the weapons they’ll eventually use to wipe out their teachers and classmates. On the television: a propaganda film that addresses the Nazi party’s uncanny ability to feed its captive audience predetermined and biased information. In the end, Elephant has about as much to say about the media’s manipulation of high school shootings than it does about the motivations of teenage killers like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine, Colorado. But Van Sant’s Gerry is to Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies as Elephant is to Almanac of Fall: a tender, ethereal evocation of life under siege by the enigma of high school violence.


Honorable Mention

Unknown Pleasures, To Be and To Have, Friday Night, Waiting for Happiness, Love and Diane, Raising Victor Vargas, Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, The Fog of War, Bus 174, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.


Worst of 2003

Bad Boys II, House of Sand and Fog, Gothika, The Barbarian Invasions, Darkness Falls, Dumb and Dumberer, The Order, Pieces of April, Identity, and Cradle 2 the Grave.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Sign up to receive Slant’s latest reviews, interviews, lists, and more, delivered once a week into your inbox.
Invalid email address
Advertisement
Comments
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Don't miss out!
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Invalid email address

Preview

Patreon

Trending