If sequels were the name of the game in 2002, things didn't change much in '03, as franchises began to curdle over with disappointing new installments like "The Matrix Reloaded," "The Matrix Revolutions," and "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines," proving to many that the allure and mystique of a series could easily be destroyed with unnecessary installments. Other warmed-over chum-like sequel continuations in that vein were "2 Fast 2 Furious," "Freddy vs. Jason, "Bad Boys" II," and the positively godawful "Scary Movie 3" and "Final Destination 2."
The exception to that rule would of course be Peter Jackson's "Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King" which would win Best Picture and sweep the Oscars that year (winning 11 of 11 nominations), perhaps as an overall-achievement award from the Academy that had mostly snubbed the admirably conceived and executed series thus far. At Cannes, Gus Van Sant's elliptical and ambiguous Columbine reflection, "Elephant" would win the Palme d'Or and Vincent Gallo's "Brown Bunny" would be ripped to shreds by critics and audiences alike (and would not be released in the U.S. until the following year with a major edit). The original cut of the film would also be famously condemned by Roger Ebert as the "worst film in the history of Cannes" and in retaliation, Gallo would put a hex on the critic, cursing his colon with cancer and leading many to believe Gallo possessed mystic powers when Ebert would get sick years later, even if the disease was off target. Or something like that... On to our top 10:
10. "28 Days Later"
After two back-to-back films were considered critical and financial failures ("A Life Less Ordinary" and "The Beach") a frustrated Danny Boyle dropped the star power, went for broke, stripped everything down to the basics, and came up with some fabulous results in the digi-shot "28 Days Later" which re-galvanized the perennially growing-stale zombie movie, by transforming it into a frightening (and prescient) tale of a wide-spreading global infection that produced bizarre and terrifying results in humans. Outbreak movies have been done before, but none quite grabbed the zeitgeist, and actually terrified people with its seemingly plausible results (and anticipation of things like the swine-flu and other global epidemics). Newcomer Cillian Murphy quickly flew onto Hollywood's radar with his breathlessly rattled performance as a man who wakes up from a 28-day coma to find himself and a few scrappy survivors clinging to life in a zombie-filled London wasteland. While the film spawned a renaissance of steroid-fueled pics featuring the undead, none of the copycats were blessed with the apocalyptic score by John Murphy looming over like the angel of death descending upon on the remains of humanity.
9. "The Son"
One of Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes' twin peaks this decade, "The Son" is the most symbolically and allegorically loaded film the brothers' have made. It's a hair's width better than 2005's "L'Enfant," and it bears greater lineage to the practiced minimalism of Robert Bresson, who's emphasis on "automatism" and the omnipresence of God factor heavily into this allegory of forgiveness and redemption. At the center of the film's vortex of emotional turmoil is Dardenne regular Olivier Gourmet, who won Cannes' Best Actor prize for his portrayal of a morally tested carpentry teacher, tasked with mentoring a pupil with whom has a dark relationship to his past. Channeling Bresson's economic storytelling, the Dardennes' keep their plot tantalizingly ambiguous and suspenseful, furthering that tension with breathtaking use of location, turning a shed and a maze of wooden planks into both a striking threat and a projection of the film's religious overtones.
8. "Millennium Mambo"
Hou Hsiao-Hsien's "Millennium Mambo" begins with the radiant Vicky (Shu Qui) gliding through a brightly lit corridor in slow motion, set to the film's pillowy techno theme. She glances behind her occasionally, flashing a smile, and it's unclear whether she's heading toward something or moving away from it. The scene establishes an atmosphere of modernity new to the Taiwanese master; and the film itself serves as a rebuttal to those who've criticized him for being a stuffy formalist and out of touch with the younger generation. The narrative is appropriately elliptical, relating to a life that passes by too fast, lost in a haze of drugs, alcohol and countless nights forgotten. Vicky flits from one seedy Hong Kong bar to the next, from one abusive boyfriend to another. But Hou is less interested in stern critique than he is with finding empathy for his directionless heroine.
7. "Lost in Translation"
Set literally and expressively during the hazy hours before dawn, Sofia Coppola's wistful, low-lit contemplation of cultural and emotional dislocation is a dreamy evocation of longing. Featuring lost, somnambulant characters (Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray) suffering from insomnia, crumbling relationships and foreign alienation, the beautiful ambiguousness of their softly-charged connection simmers with forbidden sexual potential, yet is artfully offset by the romantic backdrop of Tokyo and the protective fuzziness of a father-daughter give and take. The lonely and forlorn atmosphere is gorgeously realized by Lance Acord’s dimly-lensed cinematography, plus the coup de maître — a reflective and drone-blurry score from the long dormant Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine. Swaying with a slow-motion cadence, even the ending of the movie, where the audience is kept at bay from an unheard secret whisper, reaffirms the idea that connections in life, even the most briefly incandescent ones, can be sadly fleeting.
6."The Station Agent"
The directorial debut by longtime character actor Thomas McCarthy is a genuinely sweet and charming sleeper indie without the quirks and knowing hipness that generally pervade the genre. The film, also written by McCarthy, is a quietly unassuming story about the friendship that grows between a lonely little person (Peter Dinklage), an overly-chatty food vendor (a hilarious Bobby Cannavale) and a mysterious woman in rural New Jersey (Patricia Clarkson). McCarthy's patient script doesn't force its hand, allowing these characters to organically grow closer, and in time, learn the secrets that have brought them to this place, and the fragile strands that hold them together.
Tilted just south of madness, French provocateur Gaspar Noé keeps you on the edge in “Irreversible,” sparsely rolling out details of the beginning as we watch the horrible aftereffects in a narrative told backwards. Chronologically, we come face to face with the emotional and personal devastation of a trio of friends and lovers before we learn the depths of their own humanity. Dismissed as a sardonic, sick joke by Noe’s detractors, “Irreversible”’s reputation ignores the human warmth and devastating romantic power of its final breathtaking moments, particularly a closing half hour of swooning, intoxicating seduction between Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, both rarely as good as they are here.
Just as Gus Van Sant's "Last Days" skews facts surrounding Kurt Cobain's demise, favoring a more impressionistic portrait of its suicidal rock star, "Elephant" is less a recreation of the Columbine shootings than an echo of the tragedy, a symbol of the ripple effect in which one act of violence leads to another. Teens roam the halls of their pristine high school as if lost in a maze as Van Sant's camera unearths the eeriness of traversing the school grounds, evoking Béla Tarr's trademark tracking shots, a filmmaker Van Sant also paid homage with "Gerry," which we were hoping to include here, before the 2003 Honorable Mentions started to stack up. But the hypnotic, visual poetry that makes "Gerry" such invigorating cinema can also be seen in "Elephant," as the director walks a fine line between identifying with his eventual assailants and stressing that their behavior is not only reprehensible, but ultimately unexplainable. He presents innumerable motives — bullying, saturation of media violence, depression — but grounds his commentary in a universal sense of unknowing. What could invoke such hostility? Van Sant's answer to this complex question is painfully, but appropriately, inconclusive.
3. "In America"
Jim Sheridan's "In America" is a deceptively simple family drama that infuses its hard-knocks story of a lower-class Irish family's immigration to NYC with sly magic-realism, hinting toward a fairy-tale that never undermines the film's moving drama. A raging attendant (Djimon Honsou) of the family's dilapidated apartment complex comes to represent the story's misunderstood "monster," one who requires the inherent goodness of the film's young heroines — two daughters, played by real life sisters Sarah and Emma Bulger—to cleanse him of his inner-demons. Meanwhile, the film's emotionally ravaged parents struggle to find the proper footing necessary to start a new life for their young girls; and as a couple dealing with the aftermath of grief and searching for the strength to love, Samantha Morton and Paddy Considine strike a perfect chemistry. But it's Sheridan himself, dexterously navigating between emotional weight and buoyancy, who gives "In America" its real magic.
2. "21 Grams"
A critically ill mathematician, a grieving mother and a born-again ex-con collide in the second collaboration by writer Guillermo Arriaga and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Told in the now trademark time jumping narrative style, "21 Grams" is a look at the weight of guilt, the cost of redemption and what helps us through times of immeasurable pain. Anchored by a triumvirate of raw lead performances by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benecio del Toro, "21 Grams" steadfastly refuses an easy resolution, leaving the audience with a toll on its heart far greater than the film's title.
1. "City Of God"
Just when we thought the gangster genre had been driven into the ground, "City of God" exploded like a thousand firecrackers into cinemas. Set in the forsaken favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and focusing on two boyhood friends who take divergent paths to adulthood, the crackling picture did everything you're not meant to do — span decades, with a cast of hundreds, full of child actors — but arrived with an electric vibrancy common to much of the best Latin American cinema of the decade. While one turns to a life of crime as a drug dealer and merciless gangster, the other pursues his love of photography and fate would eventually intercede. The duality that strains the childhood friendship is brilliantly captured by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund who saturate the film in deep, gorgeous colors that are jarringly juxtaposed against the often shocking and graphic violence that permeates the slums. Filmed on location in the grimy streets of Rio — rocketing back and forth in time and making room for tangents which illuminate rather than distract — and populated by amateurs, and actual gang members, "City Of God" paints a bracing portrait of the allure of a gang when life gives you so few options, and the hope that beats in the hearts of those searching for something more.
2003 was a contentious year among the staff, not everyone was in the tank for "Lost In Translation" or "28 Days Later," (and some protested their appearance) nor was everyone on board for the excessive Gus Van Sant films (initially we gave an individual spot to "Gerry" as well), but such is life. Bumped off the list, but still of value were the first installment of Quentin Tarantino's kung-fu revenge homage, "Kill Bill,"David Gordon Green's tender, yet quirky indie love story, "All The Real Girls," and Aki Kaurismäki's second installment in his serio-comic, Finland trilogy, "The Man Without A Past." Oliver Assayas' "Demonlover" didn't quite make the cut either (a muddled last act), but it's probably the lovely Connie Nielsen's strongest performance ever, outside of her work in Susanne Bier's "Broder."
Props also go to Todd Phillips' hilarious frat comedy, "Old School," Terry Zwigoff's anti-PC hand-grenade, "Bad Santa," the final installment of the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy and the immensely entertaining and engaging "X2," still a high-point in comic-book movies. Alec Baldwin gets points for his performance in "The Cooler" as does Jennifer Connelly for her turn in "The House Of Sand And Fog." Your 2003 thoughts? — Oliver Lyttelton, Beau Delmore, Kevin Jagernauth, Sam Mac, Astrud Sands, Gabe Toro & RP