Compared to the wonders of recent years, 2003 could well be remembered as the year of no great films. But while there were no easy chart-toppers on a par with Mulholland Drive, Y Tu Mamá También, Ghost World, In the Mood for Love, or Topsy-Turvy, there was plenty of good stuff to go around.
Oddly, in a year that seemed a bit lacking in cinematic marvels, there were perhaps more audacious local screenings than ever before. Topping the list would have to be the week-long Indie Memphis-sponsored Muvico screening of The Cremaster Cycle, artist Matthew Barney's epic art-world allegory. But there was also the highly unlikely appearance of Jean-Luc Godard's defiantly anti-American In Praise of Love, which also screened at Muvico before appearing at the MeDiA Co-op's First Congo screening space. And Malco got into the act with French director Gaspar Noë's controversial, misanthropic shock-porn feature Irreversible, which lingered for 10 minutes on a brutal rape scene on its backward journey to confirming the axiom "Everything falls apart."
And it was also a year of great performances in unexpected films, highlighted by a couple of over-the-top men and chameleonic women. Never mind Sean Penn's overhyped turns in Mystic River and the Memphis-filmed 21 Grams, Johnny Depp was the actor of the year for performances in two films that weren't even very good -- the overrated Pirates of the Caribbean and the borderline unwatchable Once Upon a Time in Mexico. In both cases, Depp seemed to have wandered onto the set from a different film, his flamboyantly indulgent performances so entrancing that viewers could safely ignore the movie happening around him. And he was joined by Will Ferrell, whose gonzo commitment to whatever scenario he found himself in brought huge laughs to the otherwise underachieving Old School and the surprising Elf. (And let's not forget George Clooney's glorious scenery-chewing in Intolerable Cruelty.)
On the flip side, indie-identified actresses Patricia Clarkson and Hope Davis held coming-out parties with a variety of roles. With sharp turns in The Station Agent, Pieces of April, and the unscreened-in-Memphis All the Real Girls, Clarkson established herself as the spiritual den mother of indie film. And Davis was simply a wonder --in American Splendor, The Secret Lives of Dentists, and the January-screened About Schmidt (where she stole the film right out from under Jack Nicholson). Davis created unforgettable performances based on three dramatically different characters. She was the actress of the year.
And though 2003 didn't peak as high as years past, it didn't sink as low either. Sure, there was the usual assortment of dully pointless sequels -- Terminator 3, Legally Blonde: Red, White, and Blonde, and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle --but X-Men 2 rocked! And this year's Oscar bait was surprisingly decent. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (enough with the cumbersome titles, already) were fine examples of large-scale cinematic craftsmanship with little to offend. Mystic River and Cold Mountain were movingly personal films that reverberated with real-world concerns and didn't strain too hard for effect. And the worst of the bunch, Seabiscuit, was merely stodgy, not at all an outrage.
But what about the good stuff? Well, here's one critic's opinion:
1. The 25th Hour: Spike Lee's finest feature since 1989's Do the Right Thing got lost amid a flurry of late-2002 releases that showed up on Memphis screens last January. But a year later it's the one that feels most alive. Starring Edward Norton as a convicted drug dealer confronting his last day of freedom, The 25th Hour forces its audience to confront, like perhaps no film ever has, just what it means to send someone --anyone --to prison. That considerable achievement is but a small part of what makes this underdog of a film so powerful. Shot in Lee's beloved New York City in the days after 9/11, it also feels like the definitive cinematic document of a terrible time in American life. And when -- in a final, grandiose flourish -- Lee's camera takes off for a continent-spanning travelogue and hymn to "all the lives that almost never happened," it simply overwhelms.
2. Spider: This intensely controlled minimasterpiece didn't last long in Memphis (or anywhere else, for that matter), but it stands as one of director David Cronenberg's greatest films --an unintentional answer to Ron Howard's overblown Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind, featuring a daringly understated (nearly wordless) performance from Ralph Fiennes. Unlike Howard's more celebrated glimpse at schizophrenia, Cronenberg doesn't provide any dubious platitudes to put his audience at ease. What he offers instead is an intensely poetic, fairy-tale film suffused with existential dread and dream logic -- like Kafka as told by the Brothers Grimm.
3. Adaptation: Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's selfish, anxiety-ridden attempt to adapt Susan Orlean's nonfiction bestseller The Orchid Thief for the big screen becomes, in the hands of director Spike Jonze and lead Nicolas Cage, perhaps the most chaotically entertaining cinematic tribute to failure ever made. A film that unfurls as it's written (until it starts to devour itself), this comic, postmodern puzzler also provides far more insight into the writing process than any literary biopic I've ever seen.
4. Lost in Translation: Sofia Coppola's second feature is short on plot but rich with incident; nothing much happens, yet every frame is crammed with activity and nuance and emotion. Following two generationally divided Americans who strike up a brief friendship in Tokyo (including Bill Murray:a walking sight gag as alienation effect), Lost in Translation tracks the ineffable, finding its poetry in the city's peculiar clash of the solemnly ancient and breathlessly modern and subsuming its sexual tension in late nights of sake and television and conversation and karaoke. (Murray's "More Than This" is a heart-stopping moment.) The result is an ode to human connection that is bigger than (or perhaps just apart from) sex and romance.
5. Finding Nemo: This Pixar animation blockbuster was simply the smartest, funniest, and most elegant mainstream entertainment of the year, with an epic-journey narrative more consistently inventive and exciting than those provided by The Return of the King, Kill Bill Vol. 1, or Cold Mountain.
6. American Splendor: One might legitimately wonder whether file clerk, comic-book author, and professional misanthrope Harvey Pekar is worthy of a biopic in his own time, much less whether he's a likable figure. But what makes American Splendor special is that it isn't merely a biopic; nor is it merely an adaptation of the comic-book series that provides the film's title. Rather, the heretofore unknown directing team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini triumph through their virtuoso juggling of different levels of representation and different types of visual content. And as deliriously acted by Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, the film they end up with may well be the liveliest and most purely entertaining of the year.
7. The Pianist: One of the great disappointments in movies this year was the way the Oscars got our hopes up with a Best Director award for Roman Polanski and Best Actor award for Adrien Brody and then ended up giving Chicago the Best Picture anyway (with that smarmy presentation by Michael and Kirk Douglas). Oh well, here's betting that Polanski's knowing remembrance of life in Warsaw during the Holocaust -- where Brody's title character is less a protagonist than a witness -- holds up better over time.
8. Capturing the Friedmans: The best of a year full of fine documentaries (see also Spellbound, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, and Winged Migration), Capturing the Friedmans begins with a certainty --Arnold Friedman and his teen-age son Jesse having pled guilty to several counts of child molestation in the '80s -- but, by the end, very little of its subjects seem established or even knowable. It's a Rashomon scenario, with different voices giving achingly different accounts of the very same acts. The awful reality may be that everyone in the film is telling the truth.
9. City of God: This sensationalistic tale of Brazilian street violence was, in some ways, disconcertingly amoral, but as an act of pure film style it's impossible to deny. The mise-en-scène is neorealist, but the cinematography, editing, and effects are hyperstylized, as if The Bicycle Thief had been reimagined through the post-CGI lens of Fight Club or The Matrix.
10. Mystic River: Clint Eastwood's measured adaptation of Dennis Lehane's literary thriller is a reminder of old-style Hollywood values --patient storytelling, elegant direction, tight plotting. A mournful meditation on revenge and guilt, violence and scapegoating, Mystic River deserves to be screened in a double-feature with the movie at the top of this list. Both films examine personal losses (and reactions to them) that echo national ones. And juxtaposing The 25th Hour's empathetic finale with Mystic River's bravely cold one -- in which an Independence Day parade is portrayed as a cauldron of menace and isolation -- is as damning a consideration as one can imagine of what's happened in (and to) this country over the past year.
Honorable Mention: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Raising Victor Vargas, The Man Without a Past, Spellbound, Kill Bill Vol. 1, The Quiet American, Cold Mountain, The Magdalene Sisters, School of Rock, In America, The Secret Lives of Dentists. n