I’d been thinking it wasn’t a great year in film, but looking back on it I was dead wrong. It was, in fact, a superb year in film. The disappointments of the Matrix sequels and The Hulk (which I liked, but it should have been so much more) kind of cast a pall on the summer for me, I think. And I wanted Demonlover and Bubba Ho-Tep to be excellent, and neither of them really made me get up and dance. Metaphorically speaking.
So I started putting together my favorite movies of 2003 list. I wound up this kind of decent list, but I wasn’t all that excited about it, and then I went back to look at my reviews from the blog. That reminded me of what I said in February and what I said in August and I got a lot more cheerful.
This is the list of my ten favorite movies of 2003. I didn’t see every movie I wanted to see, so I can’t claim it’s the ten best movies of 2003. I’m also being a little liberal about foreign flicks; if it was made in 2002 but was released in the US in 2003, or if it hasn’t been released in the US yet but I saw it in 2003, I’ll count it as a 2003 movie. Foreign movies from 2001 and earlier don’t make the cut, though. (Apologies, thus, to Vidocq, Battle Royale and Audition.)
Enough preamble; on to the lists. It’s my personal favorite ten movies, plus other movies I thought were really worthwhile but not quite good enough to crack the top ten, plus some movies I wish I’d seen but missed.
The Top Ten
- City of God was drop dead incredible; I’m sure this was partially because I’m unfamiliar with Brazilian cinema and thus everything was new to me, but it was partially because it was a superbly affecting movie. Grueling and intelligent and complex. I talked about it here.
- Dirty Pretty Things was quiet but very very good. I guess in a way it was a message movie, which I usually don’t so much like, but it was also marvelously evocative of a London most people never see. I said nice things about it here, albeit I’d temporarily mislaid my memory of City of God.
- Kill Bill Part I rocked. I am giving Tarantino a little advance credit here, because I have to assume that Part II will round off the movie and make a coherent whole. Even without that, though, I enjoyed it a lot, as you can see here.
- The Last Samurai would be #10, if I were rating these from best to worst. I kind of struggled about putting this on the list, because the last twenty minutes were so very flawed, but in the end I decided that the majority of the movie was good enough to love. Previously lamented here.
- Lost in Translation would be #1, except that Return of the King would be #1 — well, and this is why I’m not rating ‘em. Seriously. They are movies of an entirely different nature; RotK is an unparalleled epic, and Peter Jackson deserves Best Director. But, but — Bill Murray is better than any actor in RotK, and Scarlett Johannson is not far behind, and the pair of them have more chemistry than Elijah Wood and Sean Astin. It’s impossible for me to pick one of these movies. Lost in Translation is melancholy and uplifting and perfectly captures the feel of being alone in a strange city. It’ll be a classic fifty years from now.
- Masked and Anonymous was tangled and ambiguous and messy, but also very vital and alive. I’m not sure what Dylan was going for here, but I know I liked what he came up with. The movie envisions an America that will never exist, but that will always be looming at the corners of our vision. More on this here.
- Master and Commander suited me just fine. As historical epics go, it was top-notch, without a wasted moment or a misplaced step. Peter Weir is not doing the indie stuff he once did, which is kind of a shame, but he’s immensely skilled and in command of his craft, no pun intended. You’re just getting sailors on a boat here, without as much depth as you get in the novels, but there are hints of the Aubrey/Maturin relationship and it was very good sailors on a boat.
- Mystic River represents the best Hollywood has to offer. This is why the classic Hollywood has something to offer, and this is why you can’t just dismiss Hollywood out of hand. Once or twice a year, someone like Clint Eastwood uses the mechanisms of a Hollywood studio to make a big movie that holds unexpected rewards. This is that movie; Sean Penn and Tim Robbins and, yeah, Kevin Bacon build something superb between the three of them.
- Once Upon A Time In Mexico didn’t get great reviews. Enh, screw the critics. I think it was about the relationship between the US and Mexico more than it was about El Mariachi, with Johnny Depp holding down the fort as a depraved, angry CIA agent redeemed by the beauty of Mexico. I wanted to see more movies about his character after I left the theater, but now I’m not sure I wasn’t missing the point.
- Return of the King. Yeah, that was a pretty good flick.
Wish I’d Seen These
I feel lame for missing these movies. I almost saw 21 Grams this weekend but I stalled out after watching Lost in Translation and The Cooler (of which more anon). I will almost certainly catch up on a couple of these before they leave theaters. Well, one or two, anyhow.
- 21 Grams, cause it’s gotten such good reviews.
- 28 Days Later…, cause I like zombies and I like Danny Boyle.
- American Splendor, cause I read Harvey Pekar before the movie came out, damn it.
- Big Fish, cause Tim Burton, duh.
- Elephant, cause Gus Van Sant… well, and because the premise interests me, which is more than I can say for his previous three movies.
- Matchstick Men, cause I’m a sucker for Ridley Scott.
- Owning Mahowny, cause I think Phillip Seymour Hoffman is one of the best actors around.
- The Station Agent, cause it looks — dare I say it? — charming. My token charming movie. Or it would have been.
Best of the Rest
These are movies I liked and would recommend as among the better movies of the year, but which didn’t make the top ten for one reason or another. No doubt if I hadn’t seen ten superb movies, some of these would have crept onto the list.
- Bend It Like Beckham was nice and refreshing and I’m not really a big fan of the big fat foreign movie template. (See how Whale Rider doesn’t show up anywhere in this post?) Genuinely funny and heart-warming without being treacle. Previously discussed here.
- The Cooler showcased William H. Macy darned good. It also captured the gritty cinematic Las Vegas, which may or may not exist but I like to think it does. It was like a peek into this alternate universe where Macy doesn’t always get stuck playing weird losers. Alec Baldwin was pretty fine too.
- Nid De Guêpes was possibly the best unambitious action flick I saw last year. All the action movies on the top ten list reached to be more than just action; this didn’t, but was a gem in its own context. Previously discussed here.
- Ong Bak was just like the great 80s Hong Kong action flicks except that the martial arts was better. No kidding. Better than Jet Li.
- Pirates of the Caribbean was goofy fun of the highest order, but it wasn’t really great, despite Johnny Depp — who, as I noted earlier, made a better movie this year. Better for me, at least. I still look forward to the sequel. Previously discussed here.
- Switchblade Romance could have been great, but like The Last Samurai, it was betrayed by its ending. I might have put it on the top ten list if I hadn’t slept through pieces. Previously discussed here.
- X2 was big and pretty and dramatic and benefitted greatly from not having to introduce a million or so characters. It had no depth, and was not terribly ambitious in any sense, but it was a good solid action flick with spandex.