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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003

Rewinding 2003's top films

Usually, I face the problem of deciding which 10 films to include; this year I wondered if I could find 10 worth listing. As the Hollywood fare becomes ever more juvenile, simplistic and reliant on extended special-effects sequences, art cinema's auteurs have reacted by becoming ever more slow-moving, oblique and unwatchable. These days we're increasingly faced with a choice between the nonstop roller-coaster ride or the tortoise's crawling pace, between films that assume you have no attention span ("Kill Bill"), or those that would try the patience of a Zen monk ("Russian Ark"). We're trapped between no-brainers and no-hearters -- quick, somebody find those ruby slippers and get us out of here!

1) "Solaris"

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Steven Soderbergh does the most implausible Hollywood remake of all time (re-imagining Andrei Tarkovsky's demanding 1973 Soviet-era work), and for once, improves on the original. This sci-fi flick took the whole question of choosing dreams over reality and slid it smoothly down our throats, while the two "Matrix" sequels only initiated the gag reflex. I found this one of the most hypnotic pieces of cinema since "2001: A Space Oddyssey"; others called it slow, but they probably didn't have to sit through films like "Millennium Mambo" or "Le Fils."

2) "City of God"

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"City of God"

A brilliant piece of intricately woven storytelling that hints at how wonderful the world would be if more young directors wanted to be Martin Scorsese instead of Quentin Tarantino. Director Fernando Meirelles crams two decades' worth of gangland drama in the slums of Rio de Janeiro into just over two hours, touching on class conflict and the intersection of gang and drug sub-cultures with the "cool" of pop culture.

3) "Bowling For Columbine"

Michael Moore equates America's obsession with gun ownership with an overall culture of fear and violence, which extends from high-school hallways to the country's foreign policy. While certain critics whined about Moore's own agenda, the rest of the world made this the best-selling documentary in years. Moore wields the left's best weapon: informed ridicule.

4) "Secretary"

Office romance as S&M power games? Typos as foreplay? This so easily could have become the stuff of pornographic male fantasy; that it didn't is tribute to how well James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhall got under the skin of their slightly disturbed characters. Director Steven Shainberg is clearly aiming to be the next David Lynch, but for now, that's not a bad thing to aspire to.

5) "Frida"

Nicole Kidman got the Oscar for her Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," but Salma Hayek's portrayal of artist Frida Kahlo is no less impressive. The film holds up a whole lot better to second viewings, largely thanks to Julie Taymor's impressionistic approach to externalizing Kahlo's internal world. Largely overlooked by critics who refuse to take Hayek seriously -- this explains why it took her years to get this labor of love made in the first place.

6) "Chaos"

A sharp and cynical French comedy that seeks to prove that all men suck and succeeds massively. Catherine Frot and Rachida Brakni play an ignored housewife and an abused prostitute who team up to show that sisters got the power, giving both husbands and pimps their comeuppance. There's also a surprisingly harsh look at the realities of human trafficking tucked away here.

7) "Rabbit-Proof Fence"

While the true story (three mixed-race girls fleeing a government re-education camp) is an amazing example of sheer will, it's the stirring soundtrack by Peter Gabriel and perfectly executed visual storytelling of director of photography Christopher Doyle that bring a lump to your throat.

8) "Dancing at the Blue Iguana"

2003's most overlooked film, and certainly not without its flaws, but when this improv-based study of strippers and strip bars hits its stride, there's no stopping it. Sandra Oh -- a largely unknown Canadian actress -- has a heartbreaking final scene shot in one long take that was simply the best performance of the year. Period.

9) "Adaptation"

Spike Jonze's followup to "Being John Malkovich" doesn't hit the same mad heights, but allowing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to purge his demons on-screen made for an amusingly self-reflective work. Kaufman is played by a sweaty, flabby Nick Cage, who discovers that when torn between commercial formula and artistic integrity, go for both!

10) "The Pianist"

Not Roman Polanski's best film, probably not even the best Holocaust film, but a horrific, wrenching look at what it means to be an average, middle-class, apolitical person who gets caught up in a city engulfed by war. (In this case, Warsaw 1939-1945). If that wasn't worth pondering this year, I don't know what was.


For me, the best stories of 2003 were defined by the absence of extraordinary people. The most memorable characters were undistinguished and unglamorous, entrenched in the details of ordinariness. They may long for change, but even when change explodes right in their faces they remain strangely unfettered, finding their way back from chaos to routine. The sweet surprise was that routine turned out to have its own poetry. This isn't about a pursuit of "happiness" (the biggest cinema cliche of all). The directors concentrated on drawing certain moments in the characters' lives and alerted us to the preciousness of those moments.

With reverence, I present the list (in no particular order):

"About Schmidt" makes art out of the unexamined life. In this, director Alexander Payne downsizes the giant, maniacal grin of Jack Nicholson into the grim, resigned smile of retired insurance executive Jack Schmidt. In his first role as an aging nobody, Nicholson mutes his brand-name charisma to play Schmidt, whose life is a dusty, cluttered collection of the unremarkable: an empty retirement, an overweight and dowdy wife, an estranged daughter who, on the brink of middle age, marries a water-bed salesman with a mullet. Schmidt's great line comes when, a week after retirement, he looks around the landscape of his Midwestern suburban home, his wife and their friends, and shouts "Who are these people?"

"Kissing Jessica Stein" traces the story of a nice, prissy N.Y. Jewish girl who's so frustrated by the pickings in the city's hetero dating scene she decides to take the plunge and go on a blind date with a woman. Fortunately for her, her catch turns out to be what countless men hadn't been: attractive, seductive and very smart. Still, it takes a long time before Jessica is ready to surrender herself completely and once she does, it's even harder to get her to relax and enjoy it. In the end, both girls reach the conclusion that Jessica will never be "gay enough" to suit them as a couple and hit on a compromise: ditch the sex and just be friends.

Morvern (Samantha Morton) of "Morvern Caller" is a rather unspecial person made special by her steadfast desire to remain who she is, no matter what happens. When she wakes up on Christmas morning to find that her boyfriend has committed suicide, Morvern doesn't collapse or call the police. She simply tears open presents he has left and later gets rid of the body -- by using an electric saw. For all that, Morvern is neither calculating nor cold-hearted; she just doesn't let her inner grief shatter the veneer of her personality. In the end, we find her exactly as she was in the beginning: looking for something, but content with not quite knowing what it is she's looking for.

"Baran" (meaning "rain" in Farsi) is the title of this, the first love story to come out of Iran, and the name of an Afghan refugee girl who masquerades as a boy in order to work on a Tehran construction site. No one discovers Baran's secret except for 17-year-old Lateef, the lazy and uncouth errand boy at the site. He falls immediately into adoring love and resolves to protect and watch over Baran, who it should be noted, doesn't speak once during the entire movie. Boy and girl never become a couple, but it's clear that their lives had touched and were made infinitely richer by the contact.

The exception in this list of films about ordinary folks is "The Hours." Delicately stepping through three different time periods, this story follows a day in the lives of three women: Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she embarks on her landmark novel "Mrs. Dalloway"; 1950s suburban housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore); and present-day N.Y. editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep). Intricately crafting an examination of what it is to be a woman, director Stephen Daldry seems intent on framing every fleeting emotion, every stray tear. Kidman won an Oscar for this role, which required that she sink her voice into a low whisper, wear a prosthetic nose and encase her body in a frumpy housedress.

The rest of the best:

"Rabbit-Proof Fence": Based on a true story, this follows the footsteps of three Aboriginal girls who were forcibly taken from their mothers and put in a government home, as part of Australia's infamous Aboriginal Act. With no map, no supplies and the police on their trail, the girls escaped the institution and traversed 2,500 km through the Outback on foot.

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"Rabbit-Proof Fence"

"28 Days Later": Danny Boyle's latest comes off like an H.G. Wells epic made on a shoestring. Shot for the most part on a hand-held digital camera with a small, virtually unknown cast (with the exception of Christopher Eccelston), "28 Days Later" is an end-of-the-world story that puts works like "Armageddon" to shame.

"Talk to Her": Pedro Almodovar's tribute to sacrificial love begins when male nurse Benigno falls in love with ballet dancer Alicia. Before an accident puts her in a coma, he learns that she loves dancing and silent films. Benigno devotes his life to her care, and to watching dance shows and silent movies. He also teaches Marco -- whose matador girlfriend also fell into a coma after being gored by a bull -- how "a woman remains a woman even when she sleeps."

"Sweet Sixteen": Since this is a Ken Loach movie, there is precious little that's sweet in this bleak tale of violence and disappointment. Soon to be 16, Liam has only one wish: to procure a house for his mother (currently in prison) and his sister (an 18-year-old single mom) so they can all live together, away from mum's abusive drug-dealer boyfriend and her human wreck of a father. More personal in tone than usual Loach films, "Sweet Sixteen" is an indictment against hapless adults who, in the process of destroying themselves, take their children down with them.

"Blue Crush": Sand! Surf! Girls in bikinis! This movie spawned an army of wannabe surferettes. Shot in the renowned surfer mecca of Hawaii's North Shore, it features amazing underwater cinematography by Don King and a cast that looks kick-ass great in an endless array of skimpy bikinis. It is, above all, a triumph of watery visuals over plot and surfing over ho-hum landlocked living. By the last half-hour, you're drenched in envy and ready to head out for Shonan Beach.


This was a better-than-average year for the Japanese film industry, with "Odoru Daisosasen The Movie 2" shattering box-office records and Japanese producers closing several deals for Hollywood remakes. In the indie sector, new releases flooded the theaters, but major new directors were slower to emerge. The leaders of the '90s New Wave released strong new films, however, with Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi" scoring the biggest success. For this reviewer, the biggest discovery of 2003 was Shinobu Terajima, who came out of nowhere to deliver two of the year's best performances, in "Vibrator" and "Akame Shijuha-taki Shinju Misui."

1) "Vibrator"

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In Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator," a bulimic, alcoholic writer finds good sex, personal renewal and even a measure of hope in an event-filled two days with a spiky-haired trucker. Shinobu Terajima's performance as the writer is the key to the film's success -- it is totally committed and superb. It is not a diva turn, however. Fujiyama plays with, not off, costar Nao Omori's self-promoting but ultimately understanding, truck driver. Also, for all its realism of imagery and emotion, "Vibrator" is not another solemn indie downer. Instead, it throbs with an infectious energy and erupts with a raw emotional force. It is an ode to the open road, leaps of faith and the transforming power of love.

2) "Zatoichi"

Takeshi Kitano tried to make "Zatoichi" as unlike as the 1962 Kenji Misumi original as possible. Instead of the earthy swagger of Shintaro Katsu's blind masseur and swordsman-for-hire, Kitano opted for a drier, chillier approach as the title hero, while using his own instantly identifiable style, with its combination of quirky humor and explosive violence. But instead of his usual high art, Kitano served up entertainment -- and succeeded spectacularly. While expertly choreographing the falling bodies for genre fans, he freely violates genre rules -- particularly in the climactic tap dancing sequence, with its infectious energy and driving score. How many samurai movies leave you humming as you walk out the door?

3) "Showa Kayo Daizenshu"

Tetsuo Shinohara's "Showa Kayo Daizenshu (Big Collection of Showa Era Songs)" might be described as "Clockwork Orange" redux, albeit with a more manga-esque take. His story of amoral punks battling spoiled middle-aged women to the death has a sharp satiric bite -- not to mention a terrific '60s Japanese pop soundtrack. Its exaggerations may veer toward the silly, but illuminate certain truths with a clarity that conventional realism often obscures. It's simply the best comedy of the year.

4) "G@me"

Satoshi Isaka's "G@me" is a clever caper movie with "Hollywood remake" written all over it. Starring Yukie Nakama as a pouty heiress and Naohito Fujiki as a young advertising executive who plots with her to hoodwink her terror of a father, the film may be too twisty by half, but it is also the rare Japanese entertainment film that respects the intelligence of its audience. It also has interesting things to say about the way Japanese companies often work -- as very human institutions in which strong egos clash and jealousy, envy and, yes, revenge run rife.

5) "Doppelganger"

The premise of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Doppelganger" -- an over-stressed engineer (Koji Yakusho) starts seeing his own double -- has fictional antecedents going back to Edgar Allen Poe. The film also has Kurosawa's characteristic atmosphere, in which the barrier between the human and nonhuman becomes terrifyingly permeable. The coming together of man and his double generates not just arty metaphor, but existential dread. Playing both engineer and his double, Koji Yakusho brings the latter to life with little more than an impish gleam in his eye -- that happens to be far creepier than the usual villainish leer. What is more horrifying, the film asks: to see your doppelganger, emerged from some inner hell, or to realize that you and it are becoming, forever, one?

6) "Gozu"

"Gozu" is more in director Takashi Miike's comic vein -- though he seems to get his gag ideas from the work of Hieronymous Bosch. In telling its story of a young gangster who loses an important corpse and searches for it in the dreary outskirts of Nagoya, "Gozu" draws us and its flummoxed hero ever deeper into a creepy, sex-charged dreamscape. Then Miike springs his climax like a razor-toothed trap. Don't play the video to the end just before nodding off -- unless you want to wake up screaming.

7) "Shara Soju"

Naomi Kawase's "Shara Soju" unfolds in an idyllic, summery Nara neighborhood. The story, of a boy who loses his twin brother and, years later, is still dealing with the pain, is anything but an exercise in nostalgia, however. In filming it Kawase may overindulge in handheld-camera shots of scenery, but makes up for it with moments that powerfully deliver her message of rebirth and hope. "Shara Soju" is less a feel-good movie, though, than a documentary-like witnessing, with an impact all the greater for its simplicity.

8) "Juon"

Takashi Shimizu's "Juon (The Grudge)" single-handedly revived the fading Japanese horror genre by filling theaters -- and attracting a Hollywood remake deal. It feels more like a reel through a house -- or rather a world -- of horror than a formula entertainment, however. Like many films that aspire to edge, it scrambles its chronology, but once you are in its grip the plot puzzles matter less than the atmosphere of impeding doom. It's like being caught in a bad dream with no way out -- save a death too horrible to endure.

9) "Hachigatsu no Hebi"

"Hachigatsu no Hebi (A Snake of June)" has elements familiar to Shinya Tsukamoto's earlier work -- including a mechanical-serpent-cum-torture-device -- but its examination of modern sexual dynamics represents a departure for Tsukamoto, at once comic and disturbing, revealing and enigmatic. The two leads, the slinky Asuka Kurosawa and pudgy middle-aged Yuji Kotari, may be a physical mismatch as a couple but connect as codependents. Kurosawa, with her air of imploding from fear and desire when a mysterious stranger enters her life, brings immediacy and drama to what could have been a sterile exercise in style.

10) "Nine Souls"

In Toshiaki Yoshida's "Nine Souls, the nine heroes -- all cons on the lam -- are determined to make the most of their newly found freedom. At the same time, they can't easily change the bad behavior that got them into trouble in the first place. They are less men with free wills than shogi pieces in the hands of director Yoshida. But he also has an interesting visual imagination and an unhinged comic mind: On the road to their various destinies, his cons encounter scenery that is consistently engaging, if at times outright strange.

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