TOP TEN FILMS SEEN IN THE YEAR 2003

 

1.)  25th HOUR                                                                    97

USA                                                                            Spike Lee

 

A personal and poetic response to the lives of those 9/11 victims, whose lives will be forever entangled in that one event, where everything changed after that day, where the future was no longer the future, where hope disappeared, where all the things that could have happened would, for certain, no longer happen.  In an instant, it was taken away.  Watch the last 5 to 10 minutes of the film, certainly one of the most extraordinarily powerful sequences I've seen in years.

 

A bold, beautifully filmed, raw and poignant look at the underbelly of America, as seen through some of the soiled and seamy lives of a few individuals in NYC, all searching for redemption, for another chance to do it right, with some terrific performances all around, but easily what is most powerful are the poetic references to 09-11, and how the strength of the characters is so indelibly rooted to NYC. 

 

This film accentuates neither black nor white, but focuses on human beings, as if the collective sum of the consequences of their individual choices represents a vision of a newly developing morality...

 

“...this life came so close to never happening”

 

In a brilliant and unparalleled ending, what a searing sequence of images, so exquisitely haunted by the chilling reminder of the unspoken, unseen ghosts of those missing lives, and the lives that will never be, filled with such an appreciation for life, that continually promises a world that might have been, before reminding us, instead, with a kind of effortless sock-in-the face, of how frail and vulnerable we really are, particularly in the aftermath of 09-11, despite our swaggering bravado. 

 

This is a farewell to freedom, from the world we once thought we knew, revealing instead such a powerful portrait of people struggling to overcome their own personal traumas, both internally and externally.  This is a shining testament to the resiliency of the human soul, as what we have, finally, is a work of art, a film that achieves a moving and enduring spirit of humanity.

 

 

2.)  ALL THE REAL GIRLS                                               96

USA                                                                            David Gordon Green

 

This played at Sundance and was released very quickly afterwards.  I found the script refreshingly original and more accessible, not so oblique as GEORGE WASHINGTON, as it's about heartbreak, something we've all experienced, and somehow, it’s “our” lives that magically reappear onscreen. This film has a wonderful intensity level that grows stronger as the film progresses, as we become more personally involved with the outcome.  Much of the opening ensemble sequences were damn near incomprehensible, multiple Southern drawls all talking at once, like David Gordon Green was using one of Altman's sound men.  And as brilliant and powerful as this film is, my only disappointment was it was missing an ending that knocks your socks off, like the rest of the film does.  Instead, it just moves quietly into another day. To be a film for the ages, which I felt it came so close to being, I felt it needed more.

       

David Gordon Green on Zooey Deschanel:  "That was all her.  That was rehearsal.  That's her heart and her soul.  Those little whispers and little moments; it's not a witty screenwriter behind there, it's a genuine girl that feels things and has a sensitivity you fall in love with.  At least I do.  It's those little moments that make relationships I've had memorable.  It's the weird little quirks in girls' mannerisms and behavior.  Going on a structured date and going through the routines of relationships is inconsequential and ultimately forgettable.  But it's those little things that just stab you when they're gone, when you know you're not going to get that whisper in your ear anymore."   

 

One could easily mistake this for a Terence Malick film, which is an exceptional compliment, co-written by the director and leading man, Paul Schneider, as it thrives in a world filled with tenderness and an understated, poetic elegance.  The power of this film evolves slowly with the exposure of tiny revelations from each carefully nuanced character, all so beautifully etched into this small-town Southern environment of Marshall, a North Carolina mill town, perfectly captured by the extraordinary ‘Scope work of cinematographer Tim Orr.  But this is some of the best ensemble acting on screen today, particularly poignant is the performance of Zooey Deschanel, who is nothing short of brilliant, and the supporting performances of Patricia Clarkson (Schneider’s mother) and Shea Wingham (Deschanel’s brother and Schneider’s best friend).  I loved this story of two would-be lovers who can’t make a move without the whole town knowing about it, so they act in ways they never intend, and then hardly recognize themselves afterwards.

 

I did read one of Dostoevski’s short stories this year, WHITE NIGHTS, which was the source material for Bresson’s 4 NIGHTS OF A DREAMER, also an earlier Visconti film with Marcello Mastroianni under the book title, and I’ve heard there is another 1959 Russian film by the same name which I’ve never seen, but this story did bring the film ALL THE REAL GIRLS a little closer into focus.  In the same way ALL THE REAL GIRLS is about “him,” yes, it shows “her” in all her glory, and Zooey Deschanel dominates the screen time, but ultimately, it’s about a guy who loves and doesn’t get the girl. 

 

This film has a familiar feel with THE SLAUGHTER RULE, another film exquisitely acted that beautifully captures small-town Montana, but Green broadens his vision in this film by creating long, extended sequences of wonderfully small moments, working on cars, hanging out in a playground, sitting by a riverside, talking on a porch, in an industrial wasteland, in a café, in a bedroom, some moments seem lost and disconnected, but others are achingly real, and in combination with the luminous imagery, there are moments of brilliance in this film, the power of which is that they are just so damned believable.  This is one gorgeous film experience with a terrific musical score, where the emotional authenticity from the characters perfectly matches the visually rich power of the images.

 

 

3.)  IRREVERSIBLE                                                           96

France                                                                       Gaspar Noé

 

A film whose reputation precedes the first viewing, knowing in advance that something terribly ugly was going to happen right away, I was positively dumfounded at the superb use of sound in the opening sequence.  Mind you, I, and probably others, was in a state of heightened alert from the beginning, from advance hype, but far and away, this exceeded any expectations.  Now I have to admit to being of the squeamish sort, I could not watch the delight of the woman in AUDITION, the fucked up, hateful beatings and the profanity-laced misogyny in DOG DAYS, hell, I turned away from the last 15 minutes of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, all nightmares, nightmares...

 

...but I was transfixed here, as that truly ominous use of sound, those oscillating waves of mental mayhem which "preceded" the entry into the Hell of the Rectum, adding those dizzying camera movements and a continuous stream of profanity, shouting, and terror as they move through one blurring act of perversity to the next, those waves of sound never stopped until a man was actually beaten to death.  I can't speak for anyone else, but that's as gripping a scene as I've ever seen.  It is that SOUND that is sticking in my head, and the unbelievable energy associated with it.  The intensity level created in this scene was simply indescribable.  I've never experienced anything like it.  It was intoxicating, almost like a film within a film, a scene that could easily stand alone as a work of an avant-garde or experimental film artist.  The "thrill" from that opening never went away, even as the film moves from horrifying violence to intimacy, as those sound waves kept pounding in my head and kept driving underneath every subsequent sequence.  That was unforgettable.  I've still not gotten over that awesome power, that synergy of visuals and sound.  As writer Jason Shawhan stated:  “You find, in the sequence at the Rectum, a soundscape that meshes with the nervous system in a way that hasn't been done since Argento's work with the Goblins in SUSPIRIA. Sound and vision are so perfectly fused that it becomes impossible to separate them...here is a case of extreme sonic frequencies and visual disorientation as a necessary means to experiencing the film...the kind of experience that changes a viewer forever.”

 

 

4.)  LILYA 4-EVER                                                              96

Sweden                                                                     Lukas Moodysson

 

I'm one who believes that in a film like this, so intelligent, well-written, well-acted, all points of view are valid, some may be more intensely personal than others, as I believe that's what this film is - intensely personal; it spares no one, we are all in this same predicament, together.  Many sing the praises of TOGETHER, no less than Ingmar Bergman has called SHOW ME LOVE a masterpiece, I believe this is Moodysson's best work, largely due to the way in which he brings to the forefront such socially relevant issues.  I didn't believe he was laying it on thick, but even if you believe he was, isn't the film successful in inspiring a personal sense of urgency that contrasts the alleged safety and protection of our relatively smug lives and the largely unseen horrors - - the unstoppable, unspeakable acts - - that continue to take place *against* children here in this country, or around the world, every second, minute by minute, more horrors?  No neighborhood is spared.  I appreciate the immediacy this director brings to a subject that is too filled with heartbreak when it happens to you.

 

This film bears a resemblance with the nearly unwatchable 9 minute rape sequence in IRREVERSIBLE, but here, the child sexual victimization continues for an uncountable number of days, leading ultimately to the same end.  The violence is portrayed with a montage of assault after assault of male bodies.  In IRREVERSIBLE, we hear the unforgettable sound of the woman’s anguish; here, the girl is silent while the sounds and noises of the assembly line of men is a violent, continuous punishment to the senses, one of the most despairing sequences anyone could endure.

    

Put yourself in her position, the filmmaker may ask.  Multiply that by the thousands or millions of teens around the world in similar situations, then one begins to imagine the magnitude of what's being examined here in this film.  Who's even talking about this subject?  It's rarely a film subject.  Who portrays it with the same degree of thoroughness?  What's unbearable here is that anyone would choose to do this to themselves.  And there are so many ramifications.  When I was a kid in high school, one of my neighbor's father committed suicide, so of course, she was ostracized at school, turned into an outcast, kids simply stopped talking to her.  And "she" didn't do anything.  Another kid on my block overdosed from sniffing glue.  Not a word was ever spoken about either event.  I'm not sure much has changed in this arena, much as we would love to claim otherwise.  

 

I was impressed with Moodysson’s determination to resolutely *refuse* to shy away from this material:  “This film is dedicated to the millions of children around the world exploited by the sex trade.”  Well it's more than that.  The severity of the subject matter, which includes an extremely naturalistic portrait of two teen suicides, is in fact relentless, and is justifiably serious throughout.  This is one of the best films I’ve ever seen on the subject of teen suicide, actually laying down an argument in favor of taking one’s life, which, I think, separates it from other films on the subject, including ROSETTA, not to suggest one should, but respecting the indisputable fact that so many children do decide to take their own lives, asking how can that be, and in that vein, it bears a very strong resemblance, at least in the seriousness of tone and subject matter, with Fassbinder’s IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS.  In that film, which deals with an adult suicide, the story follows the final 5 days in a man’s life, laying a groundwork so that no further days will follow, a decision that is (in a quote from Fassbinder himself):  "somehow understandable, or perhaps is even acceptable.”

  

“Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light...”     (D. Thomas)

 

We, the living, need to carry a good deal of that rage, or is it outrage?

Like the toxic smoke billowing from the rancid smokestacks at the beginning

and end of this film, supposedly from Moodysson's hometown of Malmo,

the noise of German metal band Rämmstein rages against an endless and empty sky, 

"My Heart Burns!!!”       …...to whoever's listening

 

 

5.)  DEMONLOVER                                                             95

France                                                                       Olivier Assayas

                                                           

A remarkable film with awesome power, truly creepy, but brilliantly conceived, the film has a spectacular look to it.  And I'll give the guy credit for trying to pinpoint just who's running the world here, just a bunch of loner, behind the scenes creeps who would just as soon kill someone as lose money.  Obviously it's all about power, power, POWER, and those that have it, don't keep it forever.  Eventually, thru a series of betrayals and murders, à la Richard III, he who was once top cock on the block becomes yesterday’s news in this corporate chessboard game where multiple pieces are ruthlessly sacrificed so that ONE body, only one business, can stay ahead of the game.  I was intrigued from start to finish, despite the inherent creepiness of the characters, all of them had personalities that reminded me of BLADE RUNNER replicants, I kept thinking at any time they were going to pull their masks off and underneath would be mutant, flesh-eating reptiles.  Assayas melds personal greed and ambition with an oppressive murk of suppressed paranoia that can't stop itself from feeding on new blood, new dollars, with rampant consumerism effectively portrayed here as ever new indulgences of the flesh, particularly the sado-masochistic variety, with the Russian Mafia dominating the field of international corporate terrorizers, nothing stands in their way, certainly not the age-old laws of supply and demand, where only the most brutally ruthless survive, and survive they do, like chameleons, like THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, blending right into the best neighborhoods…an outrageous vision 

 

 

6.)  COLD MOUNTAIN                                                       95

USA                                                                            Anthony Minghella

 

Sort of a cross between THE COLOR PURPLE, with it's personal, interconnecting narrative strands woven together through letters, and the epic, romantic sweep of DR ZHIVAGO, as this is basically, at heart, a love story set amidst the most cruel moments in American history, the Civil War.  As epics go, this is one of the better ones, a film of intricate power that remains honest and true to the characters, all the while maintaining a wonderful intimacy.  The cast is star-studded, and Jude Law, for certain, carries this film on his shoulders with a wonderful, truly appealing performance, Renée Zellweger is at home and in her element, she really never "sounded" better, but Nicole Kidman has to balance the poetic beauty of her letters with the evil that is surrounding her, survive her near mental unbalance, and finally be the woman of this soldier's dreams, the one worth risking his life for.  War is an ominous backdrop, only briefly getting center screen, but it surrounds the acts and deeds of all the characters who are enveloped by the stench of the human landscape.  The film captures the devastation of the times without excess or fanfare, but in small intimate interludes between people, where the souls of men and women are put on display in such arduous times, where human worth is taken for granted, where people are treated as human slaughter, where acts of kindness can cost you your life, and where human value seems like such an elusive dream of the all-too-distant past.  The power of this film is in the language, both cinematic and literate, as the poetic beauty and scope visually captured onscreen is balanced by equally hauntingly imagery from the inner monologues, both expressed simultaneously.  This film has some of the most beautifully integrated music, which set the mood and pace of this film, represented truly by the lilting despair in Alison Krauss's voice singing "My One True Love." I found this to be one of the most brilliantly edited films of the year, as the pace feels perfect, never lingering too long, always moving ahead with a purpose in mind, mindfully balancing the thoughts of this young man's journey, who may as well stand for the heart and soul of a nation lost under distress, wobbling under weary legs, but never forgetting what true love is worth.  It's worth the price of a nation.    

 

 

7.)  CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS                               95

USA                                                                            Andrew Jarecki

 

This film is a continuous surprise, as events keep evolving that contradict what the viewer believes is the premise, and by the end, it is as hellish an experience as IRREVERSIBLE.  What appears, at first, to be a closely-knit, middle class family with a penchant for home movies, capturing every waking moment on film, including the typically happy horseplay of children, turns instead into a cinematic revelation of each and every embarrassing family moment.  The power of this film is the subject matter, pedophilia, in the manicured affluence of Great Neck, Long Island.  Charged are the father and his teen-age son, who may himself have been abused by his father at an early age, but the individuals involved, the alleged perpetrators, the alleged victims, the neighbors, the police, an investigative reporter, the Sexual Crimes Unit, the defense attorneys, the District Attorneys, and even the presiding judge, all are scrutinized by the filmmaker when a host of contradictory information is revealed.  The editing is extremely effective, as little by little, bits and pieces of information are carefully revealed, each continuously changing the complexion of the issues being examined.  This myriad of “evidence” doesn’t come close to revealing the truth, not as you and I would like to believe, not to a degree of certainty, but is instead a bizarre RASHOMON-experience of mixed-up, partial truths, with plenty of never-ending denials.  These denials, on the part of the father, the son, and the loving family that simply can’t bear to believe these allegations, are perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the film, as such intimate, personal awkwardness repeatedly captured on film, simply makes the viewer cringe with discomfort.

 

However, the film is beautifully composed, mixing family photographs and videos with documentary footage, the subject is thoroughly examined.  There was a little of the secrecy of AUTO FOCUS to this film, only unlike the outlandish sexual activism and nonchalance shown there, the repression here is so severe it’s emotionally suffocating, and we are left with the devastating after-effects, literally, of chaos and turmoil. These broken parts will never be put back in place again, and the sick feeling in our stomach is likely to be our own unease with our failed attempts to come to terms with so gripping a subject.  This is a shattering film experience.   

 

 

8.)  DRACULA:  PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY                95

Canada  France                                                      Guy Maddin

 

What an absolute thrill, from start to finish, just experiencing the “artistic conception” of this reverent homage to silent film, featuring Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, a stunning performance by Zhang Wei-Qiang as Dracula, and the brilliant production design of Deanne Rohde.  Once again, Guy Maddin has created a unique, conceptualized universe all his own; there’s nothing else in cinema quite like his eerie, dreamlike imagery.  This film is immersed in the thundering power of Mahler’s “Resurrection” 2nd Symphony, a work which itself features an ascension from all things human and earthly, and rises into the glorious heavens, a transcendent experience which, musically, grounds this film.  From this theme, we add vampires, whose lust for blood promises life everlasting.  The performance of Zhang Wei-Qiang dominates throughout, as he is easily the most fascinating stage personality, filled with a mesmerizing ability to seduce and ultimately possess his willing screen sirens, and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I always root for him against his puritanesque nemesis, Dr Van Helsing, the leader of the repressed gang of vampire slayers.  Ballet director Mark Godden choreographed the ballet adapted by Maddin for this film, so there is constant motion on screen.  All this is done in image and in dance, with exaggerated gestures and with an extreme grace in movements, magnificently sensuous and macabre, shrouded in fog and black and white shadows, with only the tiniest color tints.  Each frame, by itself, is a still masterpiece; the imagery is that overpowering.  But when put in motion by such gifted hands as Maddin’s, the film experience is indescribable, but unforgettable.

 

 

9.)  ALEXANDRA’S PROJECT                                        95                                                                           

Australia                                                                   Rolf de Heer

 

Read nothing about this film ahead of time!  In my view, the less you know, the greater the impact.  A Film Festival is an ideal place to see a film like this, as the word about what to expect hasn’t spread yet.  So I’ll simply say this is flawlessly executed, with an amazing screenplay that is hands down the best of the year in my view, written by the director himself, perfectly paced, brilliantly acted, with Helen Buday pulling off one of the best performances of the year in the role of a lifetime.  A film that’s not afraid to take risks, from start to finish, this is a cold, austere, raw yet hilariously uncompromising glimpse into the dissolution of a marriage, as staged in what resembles an impregnable “Panic Room.”  Watch a woman turn a man into a mouse, something right out of NO EXIT, the kind of film Neil LaBute wishes he had written, but hasn’t…very, very creepy.  Not for everyone’s pleasure, but precise and powerful.  It’s hard to imagine anyone else could have made it any better.  “Is Mistress Alexandra home?”  Unforgettable.

 

I'm not sure what the beef is here.  One guy claimed the film showed only "her" side of the story, while another claimed Alexandra was "insane."  I found her sexual analysis to be right on the money, including her demonstration of the gifts he had given her, gifts for his own pleasure and amusement, not hers. I found the hairy hand of the gardener next door to be simply classic, "Wait, it's not time for that yet."  And the kid’s comments at the end, "Is Mistress Alexandra home?" to be hilarious, particularly when contrasted against this control freak kind of guy.  Even the final bit with the neighbor next door worked, as it again demonstrated his wife's intelligence, and his complete inability to deal with her well-thought-out thoroughness. Even leaving in the film blurb with the kids at the end worked perfectly. "Cheers, dad!"   

 

Really, how could you make a better film?

 

 

10.)  21 GRAMS                                                                   95

USA                                                                            Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu

 

Some critics are quick to point out that this film is not as good as his breakout work, AMORES PERROS, again written by Guillermo Arriaga, but unlike the earlier, which has a phenomenal first and third section, this film sustains an intensity level throughout using a brilliantly conceived narrative line.  Extremely intense, despairing, yet wonderfully well-written, this story criss-crosses back and forth in time with brief glimpses into the intersecting lives of three individuals, all brilliantly played by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio del Toro, with my nod to Watts as the most explosive.  All three are wracked by guilt about the loss of lives in a random car accident, even though one does get a second chance at life from one of the deceased's organ donation.  The look of the film is fabulous, with Jorge Prieto's washed-out colors, as it's in-your-face, bordering on the extreme, with some haunting use of music, especially an extended musical sequence where Naomi Watts silently returns to the scene of the accident, and sits down on the curb coming to grips with the event, juxtaposed against Benicio del Toro alone in a hotel room, getting drunk, and melting a burning knife into his tattooed flesh, wiping out any thoughts of God, and his Christian cross, as a benevolent spirit.  I loved the style of the film and the expert story-telling that lured you into each successive frame, beginning and ending with Sean Penn, a dying man in a hospital room ruminating about his impending death, interspersed with vibrant, yet anguishing personal vignettes.  It is not until the very end of the film that these stories actually merge and you finally come to understand the depths of each of these three people.  Every human being loses precisely 21 grams, the supposed weight of the human soul, which leaves the body at death, the weight of a stack of five nickels, a chocolate bar, or a hummingbird.  "How much is lost?" he asks himself.  "How much is gained?"   

 

                            

     

 

 

BEST ACTOR

*David Morse – The Slaughter Rule

David Gulpilil – The Tracker

Chiwetel Ejiofor – Dirty Pretty Things

Bill Murray – Lost in Translation

Hiroyuki Sanada – The Twilight Samurai

 

BEST ACTRESS

*Zooey Deschanel – All the Real Girls

Scarlett Johansson – Girl with a Pearl Earring (1) Lost in Translation (2)

Helen Buday – Alexander’s Project

Gwyneth Paltrow – Sylvia

Jeanne Moreau – Cet Amour-

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Brian Cox – 25th Hour

*Barry Pepper – 25th Hour

Djimon Hounsou – In America

Kevin Bacon – Mystic River

Peter Sarsgaard – Shattered Glass

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Anna Paquin – 25th Hour        

*Ludivine Sagnier – Swimming Pool

Holly Hunter – Thirteen

Sarah and Emma Bolger – In America

Renée Zellweger – Cold Mountain

 

BEST ENSEMBLE ACTING

The Slaughter Rule

All the Real Girls         

*In America

My Life Without Me

21 Grams

 

BEST ART DIRECTION

Irreversible

Tosca

*Dracula:  Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Demonlover

Girl with a Pearl Earring

 

BEST EDITING

*Irreversible    

Capturing the Friedmans

In America

21 Grams

Cold Mountain

 

BEST DIRECTOR

*Spike Lee                                USA                 25th Hour

Gaspar Noé                              France              Irreversible

Aki Kaurismäki                         Finland            The Man Without a Past

Guy Maddin                             Canada             Dracula:  Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Rolf de Heer                             Australia          The Tracker + Alexander’s Project

Tsai Ming-liang                        Taiwan             Goodbye, Dragon Inn

 

BEST SCREENPLAY

*David Benioff – 25th Hour

Aki Kaurismäki – The Man Without a Past

Rolf de Heer – Alexander’s Project

Denys Arcand – The Barbarian Invasions

Jim, Naomi, and Kirsten Sheridan – In America

Zabou and Jean-Claude Deret – Beautiful Memories

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

*Rodrigo Prieto – 25th Hour + 21 Grams

Tim Orr – All the Real Girls + Raising Victor Vargas

Gaspar Noé and Benoît Debie – Irreversible

Harris Savides – Gerry

Agnes Godard – Friday Night (Vendredi Soir)

Denis LenoisDemonlover

 

BEST ORIGINAL MUSIC

*Jay Farrar – The Slaughter Rule

Thomas Bangalter – Irreversible

Los Kjarkas – Bolivia

Dickon Henchliffe – Friday Night (Vendredi Soir)

Sonic Youth – Demonlover

Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Laurie Parker – In the Cut